Abstract is Simple

February 5th, 2018

In this post, I want to look at some straightforward examples of a seemingly-paradoxical truth:

It can be easier to prove a more abstract statement!

Since people often seem inclined to think abstract == hard, this may be a bit of a surprising claim. How could a more abstract statement be easier to prove than a concrete one?

Let's think about a few cases where abstract beats concrete. We'll start in arithmetic, then work our way over to geometry and, finally, software engineering.

Simple arithmetic

Here is a claim about numbers that I would like you to prove:

$$ 865423174 \cdot 4824239984 = 4824239984 \cdot 865423174 $$

A very concrete theorem, if there ever was one! How should we prove it? Concretely? That's easy enough: just do the long multiplications on each side, and check that the results are the same.

Is this proof really satisfactory? First of all, you had to do a bunch of nitty-gritty work to complete the proof, calculating two long products (I hope you didn't make any mistakes along the way!) Second, if I ask you the same question with two new numbers, you have to start your work all over again. And finally, your proof (while perfectly sound) really does not give much insight about what is going on.

But I bet you didn't actually compute that product. I bet you reasoned "I know that multiplication of numbers is commutative, so \(x \cdot y = y \cdot x\) for any numbers \(x\) and \(y\). This equation is just a special case!"

And in fact, the proof that multiplication of (natural) numbers is commutative is easy enough that you could work it out in less time than it would take to actually perform the multiplication by hand!

So here we have an example of two theorems, a concrete one and an abstract one, where the abstract theorem implies the concrete one and is easier to prove. Besides that, it is more informative: the abstract formulation helps explain why the equation holds, not just that it holds.

More abstract implies "fewer" proofs

So this particular abstract statement happened to be easier to prove. Is this a general phenomenon, or did I just pick a loaded example?

In some sense, we should not be surprised that more abstract statements are easier to prove. We don't have a good, quantifiable metric for "easiness" of a proof, so let's try this approximation: we could say statement \(A\) is "no harder to prove" than statement \(B\) if every proof of \(B\) can be automatically converted to a proof of \(A\).

There may be many different ways to prove the abstract statement \(\forall x, y.~ x \cdot y = y \cdot x\). And each one of those proofs can also be used to prove that \(865423174 \cdot 4824239984 = 4824239984 \cdot 865423174\). On the other hand, there may be additional ways to prove \(865423174 \cdot 4824239984 = 4824239984 \cdot 865423174\) which will not generalize to proofs for all \(x\) and \(y\). That is, the abstract theorem is "no harder to prove" than the concrete one (and is, perhaps, "easier" too)

So there is a definite sense in which proving a more abstract statement may be simpler than proving a concrete statement: there may just be fewer ways of proving the abstract statement! In the concrete case, you may have a million ways that a proof could start. But in the abstract case, you're often "on rails" to some extent, intentionally limiting the possible next steps your proof could take.

By abstracting away irrelevant details, we're left with a smaller conceptual space to go searching for a proof.

The Pythagorean Theorem for Babies (and Other People)

The arithmetic example is a bit simplistic, so let's do something more fun.

The idea for this post actually came about while I was reading The Pythagorean Theorem for Babies with my kids. The author clearly did some good thinking about how to express the concepts behind the Pythagorean theorem in a simple way; for example, I love his definition of a right triangle:

There are many ways to make a triangle, but this book is about a special kind of triangle. If you cut a rectangle in half like this [...], you get a shape called a right triangle. A right triangle has three sides, just like any other triangle, but it's special because a square fits perfectly into one of the corners.

I thought the definition of a right triangle as half a rectangle was pretty clever. Anyway, the book goes on to prove the Pythagorean theorem using a pretty standard dissection proof. I've always found these a little unsatisfactory, since they involve the squares you care about, plus some extra junk, and you have to do a bit of light accounting to show that the extra junk is balanced.

All this got me thinking about how to present my favorite proof of the Pythagorean theorem to my kids. And since that proof is an instance of "abstract is simple", here we are! So, on to the proof.


First, we'll be making use of a certain non-trivial scale-invariance property of Euclidean geometry. The property we care about is this:

Scaling lemma: Draw any two figures \(A\) and \(B\) in the plane. Now scale the entire plane by some factor; after scaling, \(A\) and \(B\) will transform into some new figures \(A'\) and \(B'\). Then we will have $$ \frac{\textsf{Area}(A)}{\textsf{Area}(A')} = \frac{\textsf{Area}(B)}{\textsf{Area}(B')}$$

Depending on your perspective, this statement may be any of

We'll gloss over these (very interesting!) details and simply assert the scaling lemma as an axiom of Euclidean geometry, at least for "nice enough" figures.

The Generalized Pythagorean Theorem

Recall the Pythagorean theorem that we all know and love (or perhaps just tolerate):

Theorem: Suppose a right triangle has side lengths \(a\), \(b\), and \(c\), where \(c\) is the length of the longest side. Then $$ c^2 = a^2 + b^2 $$

We're going to collaborate to create a simple proof of a generalized Pythagorean theorem, from which the traditional Pythagorean theorem will fall out immediately. Specifically, we'll prove this:

Theorem: Suppose a right triangle has vertices \(A,B,C\), and a figure is drawn on the edge \(\overline{AB}\). Copy the figure to the other two edges using similarity transformations that move \(\overline{AB}\) to \(\overline{AC}\) and \(\overline{BC}\). Then the area of the figure on the largest edge is equal to the sum of the areas of the two other figures.

Can you prove it?

Actually, even though I said "we're going to collaborate", you have to do the work down below here. It's a bit of a puzzle; tinker around with the diagram below until the proof is complete!

Drag triangle to move, or drag corners to rotate and resize. Click the edges to reflect the attached shape. Use the menu to experiment with different shapes.

Remember what you're trying to prove: that the area of the figure on the long side is equal to the sum of the areas of the figures on the other two sides. Once you've found the right configuration, the proof will appear out of thin air!

Canvas not supported!

Abstraction in software engineering

A similar effect appears in software engineering, where increasing the amount of polymorphism in a function's type decreases the number of possible implementations it may have. For example, there are 16 functions of type \(\texttt{Bool} \times \texttt{Bool} \to \texttt{Bool}\), but only two functions of type \(\forall T.~ T \times T \to T\).

Polymorphism and testability

In programming languages that support parametric polymorphism, you can use this effect to create lightweight unit tests that still offer guarantees about their normal, heavyweight behavior.

For example, imagine that we have a program that carries out some algorithms on certain graphs. Let's suppose these graphs are quite complex and heavyweight; they might take a lot of space on disk, or have very expensive-to-compute neighbor functions, or maybe they just are the result of a very long-running computation. Perhaps they are just difficult to construct because of unwieldy APIs.

Now suppose that you have written a depth-first search algorithm for these graphs. It might have a type something like this:

dfs :: ExpensiveGraph -> List ExpensiveVertex

To write unit tests for dfs, you'll need to construct a bunch of Graphs to use as inputs. Where will you get them? No option is really excellent; you first might build somes graphs as part of the test setup code, but they could be very expensive to compute on demand. So maybe you'll set up some kind of cache or database, but you'll need to teach your test harness about it (and hope it stays synchronized with the main code as versions change!). Building the graphs by hand might be unpleasant if the APIs are difficult to use. And if the graphs are derived from production data somehow, you'll need a test version of the database to work with.

All this to test a depth-first search algorithm? Why does this seem like overkill? Because all of the testing artifacts are only there to get us some ExpensiveGraphs to work with; none of it actually helps test the implementation of dfs at all!

Instead, let's follow the mantra of "abstract is simple", and parameterize dfs by the type of graph we are working with! We could imagine introducing a generic graph type Graph v, where v is the type of vertices in this graph. Then we would write something like

data Graph v = ...

type ExpensiveGraph = Graph ExpensiveVertex

dfs :: Graph v -> List v

Now in our testing code, we can ignore ExpensiveGraph altogether, just like we ignored squares to prove the Pythagorean theorem, and ignored numbers to prove that a certain product commuted! Instead, we can test dfs on some easily-constructed graph type. Parametric polymorphism ensures that the behavior of dfs cannot vary for different choices of v, so we are free to test dfs using whatever graph type we prefer!


Abstraction sometimes gets cast in a negative light, as an academic tool that is disengaged from concrete real-world domains like applied mathematics or software engineering. But abstraction is a powerful tool exactly because it lets us deal with concrete problems, giving us powerful tools for reasoning and understanding. Hone your powers of abstraction while keeping one eye on the real-world problems you care about, and reap the benefits!