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Recursion theory, also called computability theory, is a branch of mathematical logic that originated in the 1930s with the study of computable functions and Turing degrees. The field has grown to include the study of generalized computability and definability. In these areas, recursion theory overlaps with proof theory and effective descriptive set theory.

The basic questions addressed by recursion theory are "What does it mean for a function from the natural numbers to themselves to be computable?" and "Can noncomputable functions be classified into a hierarchy based on their level of noncomputability?". The answers to these questions have led to a rich theory that is still being actively researched.

Recursion theorists in mathematical logic often study the theory of relative computability, reducibility notions and degree structures described in this article. This contrasts with the theory of subrecursive hierarchies, formal methods and formal languages that is common in the study of computability theory in computer science. There is considerable overlap in knowledge and methods between these two research communities, however, and no firm line can be drawn between them.

The fundamental results the researchers obtained established Turing computability as the correct formalization of the informal idea of effective calculation. These results led Stephen Kleene (1952) to coin the two names "Church's thesis" (Kleene 1952:300) and "Turing's Thesis" (p. 376). Nowadays these are often considered as a single hypothesis, the Church-Turing thesis, which states that any function that is computable by an algorithm is a computable function. Although initially skeptical, by 1946 Gödel argued in favor of this thesis.

- "Tarski has stressed in his lecture (and I think justly) the great importance of the concept of general recursiveness (or Turing's computability). It seems to me that this importance is largely due to the fact that with this concept one has for the first time succeeded in giving an absolute notion to an interesting epistomological notion, i.e., one not depending on the formalism chosen."(Gödel 1946 in Davis 1965: 84)

With a definition of effective calculation came the first proofs that there are problems in mathematics that cannot be effectively decided. Church (1936a, 1936b) and Turing (1936), inspired by techniques used in by Gödel (1931) to prove his incompleteness theorems, independently demonstrated that the Entscheidungsproblem is not effectively decidable. This result showed that there is no algorithmic procedure that can correctly decide whether arbitrary mathematical propositions are true or false.

Many problems of mathematics have been shown to be undecidable after these initial examples were established. In 1947, Markov and Post published independent papers showing that the word problem for semigroups cannot be effectively decided. Extending this result, Pyotr Sergeyevich Novikov and William Boone showed independently in the 1950s that the word problem for groups is not effectively solvable: there is no effective procedure that, given a word in a finitely presented group, will decide whether the element represented by the word is the identity element of the group. In 1970, Yuri Matiyasevich proved Matiyasevich's theorem, which implies that Hilbert's tenth problem has no effective solution; this problem asked whether there is an effective procedure to decide whether a Diophantine equation over the integers has a solution in the integers. The list of undecidable problems gives additional examples of problems with no computable solution.

The study of which mathematical constructions can be effectively performed is sometimes called recursive mathematics; the Handbook of Recursive Mathematics (Ershov et al. 1998) covers many of the known results in this field.

The terminology for recursive functions and sets is not completely standardized. The definition in terms of μ-recursive functions as well as a different definition of rekursiv functions by Gödel led to the traditional name recursive for sets and functions computable by a Turing machine. The word decidable stems from the German word Entscheidungsproblem which was used in the original papers of Turing and others. In contemporary use, the term "computable function" has various definitions: according to Cutland (1980), it is a partial recursive function (which can be undefined for some inputs), while according to Soare (1987) it is a total recursive (equivalently, general recursive) function. This article follows the second of these conventions. Soare (1996) gives additional comments about the terminology.

Not every set of natural numbers is computable. The halting problem, which is the set of (descriptions of) Turing machines that halt on input 0, is a well known example of a noncomputable set. The existence of many noncomputable sets follows from the facts that there are only countably many Turing machines, and thus only countably many computable sets, but there are uncountably many sets of natural numbers.

Although the Halting problem is not computable, it is possible to simulate program execution and produce an infinite list of the programs that do halt. Thus the halting problem is an example of a recursively enumerable set, which is a set that can be enumerated by a Turing machine (other terms for recursively enumerable include computably enumerable and semidecidable). Equivalently, a set is recursively enumerable if and only if it is the range of some computable function. The recursively enumerable sets, although not decidable in general, have been studied in detail in recursion theory.

Recursion theory in mathematical logic has traditionally focused on relative computability, a generalization of Turing computability defined using oracle Turing machines, introduced by Turing (1939). An oracle Turing machine is a hypothetical device which, in addition to performing the actions of a regular Turing machine, is able to ask questions of an oracle, which is a particular set of natural numbers. The oracle machine may only ask questions of the form "Is n in the oracle set?". Each question will be immediately answered correctly, even if the oracle set is not computable. Thus an oracle machine with a noncomputable oracle will be able to compute sets that are not computable without an oracle.

Informally, a set of natural numbers A is Turing reducible to a set B if there is an oracle machine that correctly tells whether numbers are in A when run with B as the oracle set (in this case, the set A is also said to be (relatively) computable from B and recursive in B). If a set A is Turing reducible to a set B and B is Turing reducible to A then the sets are said to have the same Turing degree (also called degree of unsolvability). The Turing degree of a set gives a precise measure of how uncomputable the set is.

The natural examples of sets that are not computable, including many different sets that encode variants of the halting problem, have two properties in common:

- They are recursively enumerable, and
- Each can be translated into any other via a many-one reduction. That is, given such sets A and B, there is a total computable function f such that A = {x : f(x) ∈ B}. These sets are said to be many-one equivalent (or m-equivalent).

Many-one reductions are weaker than Turing reductions; although the natural examples of noncomputable sets are all many-one equivalent, it is possible to construct recursively enumerable sets A and B such that A is Turing reducible to B but not many-one reducible to B. It can be shown that every recursively enumerable set is many-one reducible to the halting problem, and thus the halting problem is the most complicated recursively enumerable set with respect to many-one reducibility and with respect to Turing reducibility. Post (1944) asked whether every recursively enumerable set is either computable or Turing equivalent to the halting problem, that is, whether there is no recursively enumerable set with a Turing degree intermediate between those two.

As intermediate results, Post defined natural types of recursively enumerable sets like the simple, hypersimple and hyperhypersimple sets. Post showed that these sets are strictly between the computable sets and the halting problem with respect to many-one reducibility. Post also showed that some of them are strictly intermediate under other reducibility notions stronger than Turing reducibility. But Post left open the main problem of the existence of recursively enumerable sets of intermediate Turing degree; this problem became known as Post's problem. After ten years, Kleene and Post showed in 1954 that there are intermediate Turing degrees between those of the computable sets and the halting problem, but they failed to show that any of these degrees contains a recursively enumerable set. Very soon after this, Friedberg and Muchnik independently solved Post's problem by establishing the existence of recursively enumerable sets of intermediate degree. This groundbreaking result opened a wide study of the Turing degrees of the recursively enumerable sets which turned out to possess a very complicated and non-trivial structure.

There are uncountably many sets that are not recursively enumerable, and the investigation of the Turing degrees of all sets is as central in recursion theory as the investigation of the recursively enumerable Turing degrees. Many degrees with special properties were constructed: hyperimmune-free degrees where every function computable relative to that degree is majorized by a (unrelativized) computable function; high degrees relative to which one can compute a function f which dominates every computable function g in the sense that there is a constant c depending on g such that g(x) < f(x) for all x > c; random degrees containing algorithmically random sets; 1-generic degrees of 1-generic sets; and the degrees below the halting problem of limit-recursive sets.

The study of arbitrary (not necessarily recursively enumerable) Turing degrees involves the study of the Turing jump. Given a set A, the Turing jump of A is a set of natural numbers encoding a solution to the halting problem for oracle Turing machines running with oracle A. The Turing jump of any set is always of higher Turing degree than the original set, and a theorem of Friedburg shows that any set that computes the Halting problem can be obtained as the Turing jump of another set. Post's theorem establishes a close relationship between the Turing jump operation and the arithmetical hierarchy, which is a classification of certain subsets of the natural numbers based on their definability in arithmetic.

Much recent research on Turing degrees has focused on the overall structure of the set of Turing degrees and the set of Turing degrees containing recursively enumerable sets. A deep theorem of Shore and Slaman (1999) states that the function mapping a degree x to the degree of its Turing jump is definable in the partial order of the Turing degrees. A recent survey by Ambos-Spies and Fejer (2006) gives an overview of this research and its historical progression.

An ongoing area of research in recursion theory studies reducibility relations other than Turing reducibility. Post (1944) introduced several strong reducibilities, so named because they imply truth-table reducibility. A Turing machine implementing a strong reducibility will compute a total function regardless of which oracle it is presented with. Weak reducibilities are those where a reduction process may not terminate for all oracles; Turing reducibility is one example.

The strong reducibilities include:

- One-one reducibility: A is one-one reducible (or 1-reducible) to B if there is a total computable injective function f such that each n is in A if and only if f(n) is in B.
- Many-one reducibility: This is essentially one-one reducibility without the constraint that f be injective. A is many-one reducible (or m-reducible) to B if there is a total computable function f such that each n is in A if and only if f(n) is in B.
- Truth-table reducibility: A is truth-table reducible to B if A is Turing reducible to B via an oracle Turing machine that computes a total function regardless of the oracle it is given. Because of compactness of Cantor space, this is equivalent to saying that the reduction presents a single list of questions (depending only on the input) to the oracle simultaneously, and then having seen their answers is able to produce an output without asking additional questions regardless of the oracle's answer to the initial queries. Many variants of truth-table reducibility have also been studied.

Further reducibilities (positive, disjunctive, conjunctive, linear and their weak and bounded versions) are discussed in the article Reduction (recursion theory).

The major research on strong reducibilities has been to compare their theories, both for the class of all recursively enumerable sets as well as for the class of all subsets of the natural numbers. Furthermore, the relations between the reducibilities has been studied. For example, it is known that every Turing degree is either a truth-table degree or is the union of infinitely many truth-table degrees.

Reducibilities weaker than Turing reducibility (that is, reducibilities that imply Turing reducibility) have also been studied. The most well known are arithmetical reducibility and hyperarithmetical reducibility. These reducibilities are closely connected to definability over the standard model of arithmetic.

Rice showed that for every nontrivial class C (which contains some but not all r.e. sets) the index set E = {e: the eth r.e. set W_{e} is in C} has the property that either the halting problem or its complement is many-one reducible to E, that is, can be mapped using a many-one reduction to E (see Rice's theorem for more detail). But, many of these index sets are even more complicated than the halting problem. These type of sets can be classified using the arithmetical hierarchy. For example, the index set FIN of class of all finite sets is on the level Σ_{2}, the index set REC of the class of all recursive sets is on the level Σ_{3}, the index set COFIN of all cofinite sets is also on the level Σ_{3} and the index set COMP of the class of all Turing-complete sets Σ_{4}. These hierarchy levels are defined inductively, Σ_{n+1} contains just all sets which are recursively enumerable relative to Σ_{n}; Σ_{1} contains the recursively enumerable sets. The index sets given here are even complete for their levels, that is, all the sets in these levels can be many-one reduced to the given index sets.

- For further explanation, see the section Post's problem and the priority method in the article Turing degree.

Post's problem was solved with a method called the priority method; a proof using this method is called a priority argument. This method is primarily used to construct recursively enumerable sets with particular properties. To use this method, the desired properties of the set to be constructed are broken up into an infinite list of goals, known as requirements, so that satisfying all the requirements will cause the set constructed to have the desired properties. Each requirement is assigned to a natural number representing the priority of the requirement; so 0 is assigned to the most important priority, 1 to the second most important, and so on. The set is then constructed in stages, each stage attempting to satisfy one of more of the requirements by either adding numbers to the set or banning numbers from the set so that the final set will satisfy the requirement. It may happen that satisfying one requirement will cause another to become unsatisfied; the priority order is used to decide what to do in such an event.

Priority arguments have been employed to solve many problems in recursion theory, and have been classified into a hierarchy based on their complexity (Soare 1987). Because complex priority arguments can be technical and difficult to follow, it has traditionally been considered desirable to prove results without priority arguments, or to see if results proved with priority arguments can also be proved without them. For example, Kummer published a paper on a proof for the existence of Friedberg numberings without using the priority method.

Besides the lattice of recursively enumerable sets, automorphisms are also studied for the structure of the Turing degrees of all sets as well as for the structure of the Turing degrees of r.e. sets. In both cases, Cooper claims to have constructed nontrivial automorphisms which map some degrees to other degrees; this construction has, however, not been verified and some colleagues believe that the construction contains errors and that the question of whether there is a nontrivial automorphism of the Turing degrees is still one of the main unsolved questions in this area (Slaman and Woodin 1986, Ambos-Spies and Fejer 2006).

The field of Kolmogorov complexity and algorithmic randomness was developed during the 1960s and 1970s by Chaitin, Kolmogorov, Levin, Martin-Löf and Solomonoff (the names are given here in alphabetical order; much of the research was independent, and the unity of the concept of randomness was not understood at the time). The main idea is to consider a universal Turing machine U and to measure the complexity of a number (or string) x as the length of the shortest input p such that U(p) outputs x. This approach revolutionized earlier ways to determine when an infinite sequence (equivalently, characteristic function of a subset of the natural numbers) is random or not by invoking a notion of randomness for finite objects. Kolmogorov complexity became not only a subject of independent study but is also applied to other subjects as a tool for obtaining proofs. There are still many open problems in this area. For that reason, a recent research conference in this area was held in January 2007 and a list of open problems is maintained by Joseph Miller and Andre Nies.

Recursion theory is also linked to second order arithmetic, a formal theory of natural numbers and sets of natural numbers. The fact that certain sets are computable or relatively computable often implies that these sets can be defined in weak subsystems of second order arithmetic. The program of reverse mathematics uses these subsystems to measure the noncomputability inherent in well known mathematical theorems. Simpson (1999) discusses many aspects of second-order arithmetic and reverse mathematics.

The field of proof theory includes the study of second-order arithmetic and Peano arithmetic, as well as formal theories of the natural numbers weaker than Peano arithmetic. One method of classifying the strength of these weak systems is by characterizing which computable functions the system can prove to be total (see Fairtlough and Wainer (1998)). For example, in primitive recursive arithmetic any computable function that is provably total is actually primitive recursive, while Peano arithmetic proves that functions like the Ackerman function, which are not primitive recursive, are total. Not every total computable function is provably total in Peano arithmetic, however; an example of such a function is provided by Goodstein's theorem.

Rogers (1967) has suggested that a key property of recursion theory is that its results and structures should be invariant under computable bijections on the natural numbers (this suggestion draws on the ideas of the Erlangen program in geometry). The idea is that a computable bijection merely renames numbers in a set, rather than indicating any structure in the set, much as a rotation of the Euclidean plane does not change any geometric aspect of lines drawn on it. Since any two infinite computable sets are linked by a computable bijection, this proposal identifies all the infinite computable sets (the finite computable sets are viewed as trivial). According to Rogers, the sets of interest in recursion theory are the noncomputable sets, partitioned into equivalence classes by computable bijections of the natural numbers.

- Association for Symbolic Logic homepage
- Computability in Europe homepage
- Webpage on Recursion Theory Course at Graduate Level with approximately 100 pages of lecture notes
- German language lecture notes on inductive inference

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