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Let me be more specific:

Given the context of a function as a relation between 2 sets with specific properties, what is formally happening when I define a function by induction?

EXAMPLE: (from Lang's Algebra)

Proposition 1.3. Every infinite set contains a denumerable subset.

Proof. Let $S$ be an infinite set. For every non-empty subset $T$ of $S$, we select a definite element $a_T$ in $T$. We then proceed by induction. We let $x_1$ be the chosen element $a_S$. Suppose that we have chosen $x_1, ..., x_n$ having the property that for each $k=2,...,n$ the element $x_k$ is the selected element in the subset which is the complement of $\{x_1,...,x_k\}$. We let $x_{k+1}$ be the selected element in the complement of the set $\{x_1,...,x_n\}$. By induction, we thus obtain an association $n \rightarrow x_n$ for all positive integers $n$, and since $x_n\neq x_k$ for all $k<n$ it follows that our association is injective, i.e. gives an enumeration of a subset of S.

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I'm not sure what you mean. Are you referring to definitions by recursion? – Andrés E. Caicedo Feb 24 '13 at 7:05
Induction is a way of obtaining a proof, you don't define functions by induction... – MITjanitor Feb 24 '13 at 7:07
I'll give an example in the question, just a minute. – Aloizio Macedo Feb 24 '13 at 7:12
up vote 3 down vote accepted

Formally speaking when we define something by induction, or recursion (in Hebrew, for example, the two terms are practically exchangeable in most contexts), is this.

Suppose that $f\colon A\to A$ then for $a\in A$ there exists a unique $F\colon\Bbb N\to A$ such that $F(0)=a$ and $F(n+1)=f(F(n))$.

When you define a sequence by a formula such as $a_{n+1}=2(a_n)^3+1$, you define the function $f$ and by setting $a_0=0$ you define $a$. From this point $F$ is uniquely defined and allows us to actually obtain the sequence that we want.

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Yes, that is it! I proved that statament while taking an analysis course, but for some reason I COMPLETELY FORGOT it. If nobody posts the proof to that statement tomorrow, I will put it here for the sake of completeness. (5 a.m. here, I've got to sleep) – Aloizio Macedo Feb 24 '13 at 8:15

The principle of mathematical induction is equivalent to the principle of recursion on $\mathbb N$, and each is equivalent to the claim that every non-empty set $S\subseteq N$ has a smallest element (i.e., that $\mathbb N$ is well-ordered). Each of these claims/principles appear to be very self-evident, which is perhaps the reason why it is unclear why these principles are named principle, instead of just "proof techniques" or "facts about $\mathbb N$".

Now, a function is a relation satisfying a certain property. However, a recursive description of a function requires a small leap of faith in order to be convinced that it actually defines a function. The reason is that for the function to be defined the relation needs to simply exist as an object. However, the recursive description of a function does not on its own produce such an object. Rather, it relies on a more dynamic process whereby one gives on extending the domain of the function, one element at a time, until finally the domain is the entire set $\mathbb N$. This is not a very precise notion, albeit very intuitive.

Recalling that any proof of definition in mathematics must be finite (at least in the classical logical system) the problem becomes clear. The recursive description of a function will require infinitely many lines to write in order to actually define the function. What is intuitively clear is that nothing is stopping us from writing any finite initial segment of such a definition, but we can never actually finish it off. That is where the principle of recursion comes in. It says that we accept it as a finite definition, replacing the infinite definition just because we are convinced that we can write any finite initial segment of it.

A similar situation holds true with the principle of induction. It accepts a prescription for obtaining any finite initial segment of infinitely many proofs for infinitely many claims, as a proof of all of the claims.

When going past countable sets things get more subtle. The extension of the principle of induction/recursion to sets of arbitrary cardinality is related to the axiom of choice.

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Your last sentence is very inaccurate and may be very misleading to those not familiar with enough set theory. Transfinite recursion works just fine without the axiom of choice. Given a well-founded relation we can preform transfinite recursion over it without problems. The problems come when our actual recursion depends on things which might not exist without the axiom of choice. – Asaf Karagila Feb 24 '13 at 7:33
Thanks for the answer, but you just rephrased more thoroughly the problem that I'm having, you didn't answer my question, which is: how does that formmaly happen?. – Aloizio Macedo Feb 24 '13 at 7:34
it formally happens by accepting the principle of recursion as a valid definition tool. – Ittay Weiss Feb 24 '13 at 8:00
@AsafKaragila , yes I agree with your comment. I changed it to "related to" rather than "precisely". Is it acceptable now? – Ittay Weiss Feb 24 '13 at 8:01
Well, it's better now. :-) – Asaf Karagila Feb 24 '13 at 8:04

Proposition: Given a set $X$, a $f: X \rightarrow X$, and $a \in X$

$\exists ! u: \mathbb{N} \rightarrow X$ such that:

(1) $u(1)=a$

(2) $\forall n \in \mathbb{N}~~ (~~u(s(n))=f(u(n))~~)$


UNIQUENESS - Let $u, v$ be two functions that satisfy the properties. Define $X:=\{x \in \mathbb{N}: u(n)=v(n)\}$

$u(1)=a=v(1) \implies 1 \in X$

$n \in X \implies u(n)=v(n) \implies f(u(n))=f(v(n)) \implies u(s(n))=v(s(n)) \implies s(n) \in X$

$\implies X=\mathbb{N} \implies \forall n \in \mathbb{N}: (~~ u(n)=v(n)~~ ) \implies u=v$

EXISTENCE - Define $C:=\{ A \subset \mathbb{N}\times X : (~~(1,a) \in A \wedge ( \forall (n,x) \in \mathbb{N} \times X ~~ (~~(n,x) \in A \implies (~~ s(n), f(x) ~~) \in A ~~)~~)$

And let $\displaystyle u:= \bigcap _{A \in C} A: A \subset \mathbb{N} \times X$

Let $D:=\{n \in \mathbb{N}: \exists ! x \in X (~~ (n,x) \in u~~ )\}$

We shall prove by induction.

(i) $1 \in D \rightarrow$

Existence: $(1,a) \in D$

Uniqueness: Suppose that $\exists b \neq a : (~~(1,a) \in u \wedge (1,b) \in u ~~)$

Let $A_1$ be a set of $C$, and define:

$Ã:=A_1 \backslash \{(1,b)\}$

We have that: $(n,x) \in à \implies (n,x) \in A_1 \implies (~~(s(n), f(x))~~) \in A_1$

Because $s(n) \neq 1$, $(~~(s(n),f(x))~~) \neq (1,b)$. And then:

$(~~(s(n), f(x))~~) \in A_1 \implies (~~s(n), f(x)~~) \in à \implies à \in C$

$(1,b) \notin à \implies (1,b) \notin u$


Now, we shall prove that $u \in C$:

We have trivially that $(1,a) \in u$.

$(n,x) \in u \implies \forall A (~~(n,x) \in A~~) \implies \forall A (~~(s(n), f(x)) \in A ~~) \implies ((s(n), f(x)) \in u$

Therefore, $u \in C$

(ii) $n \in D \implies s(n) \in D$

Existence: $n \in D \implies \exists x \in X (~~(n, x) \in u~~) \implies (s(n),f(x)) \in u \implies \exists y \in X (s(n), y) \in u \implies s(n) \in D$


Suppose there exists $f(x) \neq f(y)$ such that $(s(n), f(x)) \wedge (s(n),f(y)) \in u $

Define $ü:= u\backslash \{(s(n), f(y))\}$

$(m,z) \in ü \implies (m,z) \in u \implies (s(m), f(z)) \in u$

We wish to prove that $\forall (m,z) \in u~~ (~~(s(m), f(z)) \neq (s(n), f(y))~~)$.

Suppose it was not so. More specifically, suppose $\exists (m,z) \in u~~(~~(s(m), f(z)) = (s(n),f(y)~~)$

$s(m)=s(n) \implies m=n$

$\exists ! x \in X (~~(n,x) \in u~~) \implies (m,z)=(n,x) \implies (s(m), f(z))=(s(n), f(x)) \implies f(z)=f(x) \implies f(x)=f(y)$ CONTRADICTION

Therefore, $\forall (m,z) \in u~~ (~~(s(m), f(z)) \neq (s(n), f(y))~~)$.

So: $(m,z) \in ü \implies (m,z) \in u \implies (s(m), f(z)) \in u \implies (s(m), f(z)) \in ü \implies ü \in C$


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Defining a function by induction gives a way of computing the function for all the values in a discrete domain.

Example: $f(1) = 1$, $f(n) = f(n-1)+2n-1$ for integer $n > 1$ defines a function which takes values at the positive integers.

The relation here is $R(n, m) $ is true if and only if $n$ is a positive integer and $m = f(n)$ and false otherwise.

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That is cheating. You "defined" the function first, and then went to create the relation based on the function you "defined". – Aloizio Macedo Feb 24 '13 at 7:27

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