Why do we not have to prove definitions?

I am a beginning level math student and I read recently (in a book written by a Ph. D in Mathematical Education) that mathematical definitions do not get “proven.” As in they can’t be proven. Why not? It seems like some definitions should have a foundation based on proof. How simple (or intuitive) does something have to be to become a definition? I mean to ask this and get a clear answer. Hopefully this is not an opinion-based question, and if it is will someone please provide the answer: “opinion based question.”


I’d like to take a somewhat broader view, because I suspect your question is based on a very common problem among people who are starting to do “rigorous” or “theorem-proof” mathematics. The problem is that they often fail to fully recognize that, when a mathematical term is defined, its meaning is given exclusively by the definition. Any meaning the word has in ordinary English is totally irrelevant. For example, if I were to define “A number is called teensy if and only if it is greater than a million”, this would conflict what English-speakers and dictionaries think “teensy” means, but, as long as I’m doing mathematics on the basis of my definition, the opinions of all English-speakers and dictionaries are irrelevant. “Teensy” means exactly what the definition says.

If the word “teensy” already had a mathematical meaning (for example, if you had already given a different definition), then there would be a question whether my definition agrees with yours. That would be something susceptible to proof or disproof. (And, while the question is being discussed, we should use different words instead of using “teensy” with two possibly different meanings; mathematicians would often use “Zduff-teensy” and “Blass-teensy” in such a situation.)

But if, as is usually the case, a word has only one mathematical definition, then, there is nothing that could be mathematically proved or disproved about the definition. If my definition of “teensy” is the only mathematical one (which I suspect is the case), and if someone asked “Does ‘teensy’ really mean ‘greater than a million’?” then the only possible answer would be “Yes, by definition.” A long discussion of the essence of teensiness would add no mathematically relevant information. (It might show that the discussants harbor some meaning of “teensy” other than the definition. If so, they should get rid of that idea.)

(I should add that mathematicians don’t usually give definitions that conflict so violently with the ordinary meanings of words. I used a particularly bad-looking example to emphasize the complete irrelevance of the ordinary meanings.)

Source : Link , Question Author : Zduff , Answer Author : Andreas Blass

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