consider the example below :

our set of premises are $\{ a , b , a \to c , b \to a \}$ and we want to prove $c$ is true .

someone has used proof by contradiction to prove this .

the proof :

  1. assume $\lnot c $ is true

  2. we also know $ \lnot c \to \lnot a $ is true so

  3. $\lnot a$ is true. since we know $a$ is also true

  4. then $\lnot a \land a $ is also true

  5. but we also know that $\lnot a \land a$ ia false

  6. so we know $(\lnot a \land a) \to \lnot b$ is true

  7. so from 4 and 6 $\lnot b$ is true

  8. so from 7 we know $\lnot b$ is true and we know $b$ is true

  9. so $\lnot b \land b$ is true so we get to a contradiction .

since my argument was a valid one then one or more of my assumptions must be false since my only assumption (excluding axioms and definitions included in the premises ) is $\lnot c$ then $c$ is true .

the question is :

is the above proof a valid mathematical proof .

can a proof by contradiction continue and get to a second contradiction (line 9) based on it's first contradiction (line 5) ?

my teacher says even in the case of a proof by contradiction non of the steps should be a contradiction (except the last one when the proof ends ) !?


assume we use the proof by contradiction technique . it means we add the negation of the proposition we want to prove ($\lnot p$) to our assumptions ($A$) (the set of axioms and definitions we use in the specific field we want to use the proof) and we add all theses to our logical system $\Gamma$ (I'm mainly considering propositional and predicate logic) so we have

$$ \Gamma' = \lnot p \cup A \cup \Gamma $$

now if $p$ was provable from $A \cup \Gamma$ this makes $\Gamma'$ an inconsistent logical system in which we have no model for it meaning there is no interpretation which gives value True to all the sentences in $\Gamma'$ (in the semantic sense)

BUT we can assign each proposition a true or false value with our semantic rules (for example truth tables) but since we are in an inconsistent system and every proposition is provable in this system we shouldn't expect all the proven propositions to have value true with respect to our semantic valuation (or any other since there is no model for this system) . in other words an inconsistent system is not sound (the meaning of the soundness of a system is different from the soundness of an argument that we will discuss later)!

validating the above proof by means of syntax

one way of talking about a proof by contradiction is to use a system of proof based logical system (by which i mean something like a Proof calculus ) like what Taroccoesbrocco did below .

in this way we can define a valid mathematical (even a logical) proof as a proof that uses the set of definitions and axioms and possibly some previously proven theories (in the specific area of math we are interested in) and goes from one step of the proof to the other only by using the rules of proof calculus it uses .

in this way there is no problem in continuing a proof by contradiction even if we get to a contradiction as demonstrated by Taroccoesbrocco .( in this case natural deduction is the proof calculus we use and by the use of the rule EFQ we can continue the proof )

[1] validating the above proof by means of semantics

Here I want to defend the semantic proof I gave above.

If an argument is based on a contradiction it is a valid argument, regardless of whether it follows the rules of logic we use or not!

By definition an argument is valid iff, if the premises are true the conclusion is also true (i.e. every model of premises is also a model for the conclusion) but in the case of a contradiction it is impossible for our premise(s) to be true (there is no model for the premises) so by definition this is a valid argument.

In a proof by contradiction we know our system was consistent before adding $\lnot p$. We add the negation of the proposition we want to prove to our assumptions and logical system and ask whether the system remains consistent or not (i.e. is there a model that gives value true to $ \Gamma' = \lnot p \cup A \cup \Gamma $) if the new system becomes inconsistent (there is no model) then we know that our assumption was wrong and every model for $ A \cup \Gamma $ is also a model for $p$ so p follows from them!

(Note in the semantic viewpoint $\Gamma'$ is the set that contains propositions $\lnot p \cup A$ and all the sentences that are semantically derivable from them. For example via a truth table if we know $t \to s$ and $t$ are both true then $s$ must also be true.)

So the proof above considers the logical system $ \Gamma' = \lnot c \cup A \cup \Gamma $ and assumes there is a model for it. if a model really exists then it must give value true to $\lnot c \cup A$ and all their semantic derivations. but as we continue the proof we want to give value true to both $\lnot b$ and $b$ and thus a true value to $\lnot b \land b$ but from our definition of a model (and semantic rules ) $\lnot b \land b$ is always false. So there does not exist a model for $\Gamma'$. So $p$ is proven.

In this way we can define a valid mathematical (even a logical) proof as a proof that uses the set of definitions and axioms and possibly some previously proven theories (in the specific area of math we are interested in) and gives them value true and goes from one step of the proof to the other only by using the rules of semantics (e.g. truth tables).

The apparent problem some users pointed out was that from step 5 the argument is based on the contradiction $\lnot a \land a$ being true. But there is no problem with that since we have deduced it in a semantic proof from previous steps and all the next steps are like that too. So the proof is a valid one.

Another apparent problem with proof is that it is unsound if we continue in step 5.

The definition of sound argument is one that is valid and all it's premises are true. ue to this definition the above argument is obviously and unsound one .
since some of it's premises are always false (contradictions) .

BUT this is independent of weather the proof is continued passed stage 5 or not because in the premises of our argument in step 4 we have both $\lnot a$ and $a$ so it is impossible for the premises to be true.

There is no problem when an argument becomes unsound in a proof by contradiction. Since at some stage of the proof and for some proposition $t$ we derive $\lnot t$ and in another step we derive $t$ so we always have these two contradictory propositions among our premises. Thus actually a proof by contradiction always contains this unsound argument.

At the end it seems to me that the ideas I gave in the syntax (proof calculus based) version of the proof seem more rigorous than the ones in the semantic version. I would be glad to get some ideas (specially about the semantic argument!).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I 'am not talking about the efficiency of the proof . i just want to know if this type of proof is mathematically valid or not . $\endgroup$
    – KFkf
    Nov 25, 2015 at 8:08
  • $\begingroup$ what's the point to continue when you've already established a contradiction? $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ You can continue if you want. However, once you've derived False, in just a couple of extra steps you can derive absolutely every other mathematical statement, true or not, so any further reasoning will be useless. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ Your comments on the steps of the derivation are misleading; 3. "$¬a$ is true since we know $a$ is also true" is not correct : on the assumptions of the derivation, we can derive : $\lnot a$. But we have assumption $a$ also; thus, we have $a \land \lnot a$ which is a contradiction. Thus, due to the fact that assumption $\lnot c$ gives us a contradiction, we conclude that it is "unteneable" and we can discard it, deriving $c$. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, technically it is a valid mathematical proof. But if you wrote this in an exercise, your teacher was right in deducting points, because you clearly had no idea of what was going on and did not show proper command of the proof strategy. So stop grade-lawyering. :) $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 14:45

3 Answers 3


Differently from Mauro Allegranza and Graham Kemp, I think that your proof is formally correct, even if it is unnecessarily tricky, inelegant and non-efficient.

I formalized your argument in natural deduction (see below), so this proves that your proof is correct.

Let $\pi_0$ be the derivation of $\lnot c \to \lnot a$ from $\{a \to c\}$ (this correspond to the step 2 of your proof)

enter image description here

Let $\pi_1$ be the derivation of $\lnot b \land b$ from $\{b, a, a \to c, \lnot c\}$ (this correspond to the steps 1, 3-8 of your proof)

enter image description here

Then, the derivation of $\pi_2$ of $c$ from $\{a, b, a \to c\}$ corresponds to your whole proof. enter image description here

PS: To reply to Graham Kemp: I don't think that "once you've obtained a contradiction the proof has ended", I mean the proof is not forced to be ended. If you has proved that $\neg c, \Sigma \vdash \bot$ you can apply RAA (reductio ad absurdum) and get

$$\dfrac{\neg c, \Sigma \vdash \bot}{\Sigma \vdash c}$$

but you can also apply EFQ (ex falso quodlibet) and get $$\dfrac{\neg c, \Sigma \vdash \bot}{\lnot c, \Sigma \vdash d}$$ for any formula $d$, or you can also apply $\lnot_I$ (introduction of negation) and get $$\dfrac{\neg c, \Sigma \vdash \bot}{\Sigma \vdash \lnot\lnot c}$$

  • $\begingroup$ @MauroALLEGRANZA: I agree with you, it was just a typo. I fixed it, thank you. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ there was an answer saying we cannot deduce anything (validly) from a contradiction .or in other words we cannot use the results that come from a contradiction to construct a valid argument . but now from what you say it is clear that it's not like that . meaning we can deduce what ever we want from a contradiction (in a logical system that contains a contradiction ) and it is actually a valid derivation . $\endgroup$
    – KFkf
    Nov 25, 2015 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ i wanted more people to review the answers and my edit to the question so i removed the accept mark from your answer . i will set it back after 24 hours . $\endgroup$
    – KFkf
    Nov 25, 2015 at 17:52
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @kiyarash: "we cannot deduce anything (validly) from a contradiction or use the results that come from a contradiction to construct a valid argument". I don't agree. For instance, $d$ is derivable from $\lnot a \land a$, for any formula $d$: this derivation is a valid argument. This doesn't imply that $d$ is valid, but only that (1) $d$ is true whenever $\lnot a \land a$ is true. Now, $\lnot a \land a$ cannot be true, but (1) is still valid and starting from $d$ you can derive other formulas with a valid argument (under the hypothesis $\lnot a \land a$, or you can also discharge it) $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 18:29

Proof by contradiction aims at assuming something and then arriving at a contradiction. Once you arrive at a statement that is contradictory, you are thus done (I know you are not talking about the efficiency).

To answer your question, you could view your arguments as: Assume $\neg c$, arrive at some statement (line 5) of which you are not sure it is contradictory, and continue until you arrive at some statement (line 9) of which you are sure it is contradictory. So lines 6-9 could be seen as a prove why line 5 is contradictory, which itself is not flawed, but neither necessary. Hope that helps.


my teacher says even in the case of a proof by contradiction non of the steps should be a contradiction (except the last one when the proof ends ) !?

More precisely, once you've obtained a contradiction the proof has ended, because that's exactly what you were required to show.   Nothing more is needed.

$$\dfrac{\neg c, \Sigma \vdash \bot}{\Sigma \vdash c}$$

As to whether you can proceed passed a contradiction; well, you may, but once you've shown a set of statements is inconsistent there's no point proceeding -- you have demonstrated the conclusion you were aiming for in that context so the sub-proof is complete.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ is the proof given a mathematically valid proof or not ? $\endgroup$
    – KFkf
    Nov 25, 2015 at 9:17
  • $\begingroup$ @kiyarash Once you have shown adding an assumption to the premises entails a contradiction, you have completed a valid proof by contradiction. You are done, and there's no point (nor reason) to proceed further than the contradiction. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 9:21
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    $\begingroup$ as i said earlier I 'am not looking for a better proof I 'am just asking weather this proof is valid or not ? $\endgroup$
    – KFkf
    Nov 25, 2015 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ It's valid up to the first contradiction (line 4), where it's complete. Everything passed that is unsound -- it's an argument based on what was just proven to be an inconsistency. $\endgroup$ Nov 25, 2015 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ "nothing else you prove will be sound." I think you can omit that part; soundness is about semantics, which is a can of worms that doesn't need to be opened here. Your point, as I read it, is that you can continue, but it's generally pointless; does anything more really need to be said? $\endgroup$
    – Don Hatch
    Jul 31, 2018 at 7:42

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