Confluence in number-theoretic rewriting systems

José Manuel Rodríguez Caballero josephcmac at
Mon Oct 4 20:50:17 EDT 2021

Dear FOM members,
  The study of whether a string rewriting system is confluent is a problem
relevant to the fundamentals of mathematics and computer science. There are
many famous results in this direction, eg the Church-Rosser theorem [1] for
lambda calculus, Matsumoto theorem [2] for Coxeter groups. I would like to
ask if there is a known method of deciding confluence in the following
class of rewriting systems.

  Consider the substitution rules:

Rule 0: replace x by a*x + b

Rule 1: replace x by c*x + d

where (a, b, c, d) are positive integers. For simplicity, I will write x
--> {a x + b, c x + d}. Assume that the domain of x is the set of positive
integers. The properties of this rewriting system are tightly dependent on
the arithmetical properties of the parameters. For example, it is easy to
prove that

x --> { 4 x + 3, 2 x + 1 }

is confluent and its graph is grid-like (code in Mathematica to obtain this

NestGraph[{4*#+3, 2*#+1} &, 1, 7]//LayeredGraphPlot

Also, it is easy to prove that

x --> {4 x + 1, 2 x + 1}

is not confluent, and its graph is tree-like:

NestGraph[{4*#+1, 2*#+1} &, 1, 7]//LayeredGraphPlot

The problem arises when we consider the system

x --> {3 x + 1, 2 x + 1}

which has a resolution of some critical pairs, e.g.,

3 --> 7 --> 15 --> 31


3 --> 10 --> 31

but other critical pairs like

4 --> 9


4 --> 13

seems to be impossible to resolve according to the computational evidence.

I wonder if there is a general method to decide the confluence in the class
of rewriting systems x --> {a x + b, c x + d} as a function of the
coefficients (a, b, c, d). If this problem turns out undecidable, I guess
that the proof should be similar to Conway's proof of the undecidability of
the generalized 3x+1 problem [3], i.e., transforming this problem into a
universal Turing machine and applying the undecidability of the Halting

Kind regards,
José M.

[1] Church, Alonzo; Rosser, J. Barkley (May 1936), "Some properties of
conversion", Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, 39 (3):
472–482, doi:10.2307/1989762, JSTOR 1989762.

[2] Matsumoto, Hideya (1964), "Générateurs et relations des groupes de Weyl
généralisés", C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris, 258: 3419–3422, MR 0183818

[3] Conway, John H. (1987). "FRACTRAN: A simple universal programming
language for arithmetic". Open Problems in Communication and Computation.
Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.: 4–26. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-4808-8_2. ISBN
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