[FOM] Monsieur, x^p = x (mod p), donc Dieu existe. Repondez !

Daniel Mehkeri dmehkeri at gmail.com
Thu Mar 10 21:55:37 EST 2011

In _Constructivism in Mathematics_, Troelstra and van Dalen
famously write,

    ...we do accept that "in principle" we can view 10^10^10 as a
    sequence of units (i.e. we reject the ultrafinitist objection),
    and the authors are not sure that this is really less serious
    than the platonist extrapolation. At least it needs arguments.

I would like to make such an argument. I think it is new: at least,
a shallow search fails to turn anything up where it ought to have
been mentioned. Ultrafinitism certainly gets discussed a fair bit
on FOM for instance, but I saw nothing in the archives about this,
other than my own vague statement last May to the effect that
modular exponentiation will be problematic for the ultrafinitist,
which is what I would like to expand on.

  THEOREM (Fermat). If p is prime, x^p = x (mod p). PROOF:

    Consider the set of all sequences of length p of symbols from an
    alphabet of size x. Its size is x^p. The number of distinct
    cyclic permutations of a given sequence divides p. But p is
    prime, so either there are p of them, or just one. In the latter
    case the sequence will consist of p repetitions of the same
    letter. There are x distinct cases of this. So the remaining
    x^p - x sequences are partitioned into orbits of size p. So p
    divides x^p - x, so x^p = x (mod p). QED

This is a very nice proof. But can it really be valid, except
for small p? Consider the case of p=1031,x=2: we have to consider
the set of _all_ binary sequences of length 1031. There would be
far more sequences than Planck-time-by-Planck-volumes in the
entire history of the observable universe from the big bang to the
estimated death of the last star. Some would call that mysticism.

Now, it might be thought there could be an alternate ultrafinitary
proof. Here is a reason to think otherwise: suppose for example
Bounded Arithmetic could prove it. Then we could extract a
polynomial-time algorithm which, given x and p such that x^p =/= x
(mod p), finds a non-trivial divisor of p. But no such algorithm
is known. This isn't definitive (if I could _prove_ there was no
such algorithm, I'd be rich) but it is doubtful that any exist.

This doesn't just apply to BA and to the idea that feasibility
means PTIME. It is enough to know that there is no known algorithm
for factoring large numbers which is feasible in any sense, while
modular exponentiation is well within current technology. We can
easily code up a computer program to check that indeed x^1031 = x
(mod 1031) for all 0<=x<1031. Or even that 2^p =/= 2 (mod p) when

  p = 25195908475657893494027183240048398571429282126204032027777137

so that, by theology, we know p is composite. But nobody knows a
factor [see Wikipedia, "RSA Factoring Challenge"]. "p is composite"
is a Delta_0 sentence (Sigma^b_1 in bounded quantifiers), for which
we have a constructive proof, but no known ultrafinitary proof.

Notice what happens. Or rather, what doesn't.

For p < 32, everything is just fine.

For p on the order of 2^10, the proof is problematic because "the
set of all sequences of length p" is too big. But we can check all
cases by direct computation.

For p on the order of 2^64, the idea of even a single "sequence of
length p" is now doubtful, being at the edge of current storage
techonology. And we can't hope to check all cases. But it is still
feasible to directly check whether any given p is prime, and to
check the equation for any given x,p pair in this range.

For p on the order of 2^2^10, "the set of all sequences of length p"
ought to be empty. There are no such sequences in reality! Yet we
can still check any given x,p pair. It is tricky to check whether a
given p really is prime without circularly resorting to theological
number theory. But there are still ways to go about it. In fact,
there is already lots of evidence at this level, in that much of
modern cryptography depends on Fermat's little theorem for numbers
of this size, and it works!

Of course none of the above is statistically significant with respect
to the Pi_1 theorem, but that's not the point. The problem for
ultrafinitism is, as I say, already Delta_0: why should it be right
even in most of these cases, never mind be infallible? (There is no
probabilistic feasible algorithm to factor large numbers, either.)
Also, why is there no sign of the difference between feasible and

Because from an ultrafinitist perspective, the numbers in these
levels are qualitatively different. Certainly our ability to check
the statement changes drastically. And yet, there is no hint of any
ontological change. Nothing at all happens to Fermat's little
theorem, even up to x^p = 2^2^2^10.

The constructivist simply affirms that Elementary Recursive
Arithmetic is TRUE; God made the integers, as Kronecker said. The
ultrafinitist has some explaining to do. If these are just our
collective delusions and meditations about entities that can't
exist in reality, then how to explain the very real computations?

Daniel Mehkeri

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