Can a proof compel us?

In C. Cellucci D. Gillies (ed.), Mathematical Reasoning and Heuristics. King's College Publications. pp. 191-212 (2005)
Authors
Cesare Cozzo
Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza
Abstract
The compulsion of proofs is an ancient idea, which plays an important role in Plato’s dialogues. The reader perhaps recalls Socrates’ question to the slave boy in the Meno: “If the side of a square A is 2 feet, and the corresponding area is 4, how long is the side of a square whose area is double, i.e. 8?”. The slave answers: “Obviously, Socrates, it will be twice the length” (cf. Me 82-85). A straightforward analogy: if the area is double, the side is double. Nevertheless, the answer is wrong. Socrates wants to lead the slave to the right conclusion. The boy should reach the truth through steps that are all “his own”, performed with full conviction. To this aim, Socrates addresses a series of short pressing questions to the slave boy. Simple questions provoke equally simple replies, though the boy is sometimes puzzled and surprised by the answers he feels compelled to give. In the first part of the exchange the boy is gradually forced to admit that a square B with double side (i.e. side of length 4) has an area which is not double, but four times as big, i. e. 16. In the second part the boy hazards the guess that the square with double area has a side of length 3, since 3 is between 2 and 4. But Socrates easily drives him to acknowledging that if the side is 3, the area of the resulting square C is 9, not 8. The boy can only exclaim: “By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know!”. In the third part, at Socrates’ prompting, the diagonal of the original square A is drawn within the second fourfold square B. Responding to Socrates’ questions, the boy is led to conclude that the square D whose side is the diagonal of A is precisely the required square: its area is 8.
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