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Recursion (adjective: recursive) occurs when a thing is defined in terms of itself or of its type. Recursion is used in a variety of disciplines ranging from linguistics to logic. The most common application of recursion is in mathematics and computer science, where a function being defined is applied within its own definition. While this apparently defines an infinite number of instances (function values), it is often done in such a way that no infinite loop or infinite chain of references can occur.
In mathematics and computer science, a class of objects or methods exhibits recursive behavior when it can be defined by two properties:
For example, the following is a recursive definition of a person's ancestor. One's ancestor is either:
The Fibonacci sequence is another classic example of recursion:
Many mathematical axioms are based upon recursive rules. For example, the formal definition of the natural numbers by the Peano axioms can be described as: "Zero is a natural number, and each natural number has a successor, which is also a natural number."By this base case and recursive rule, one can generate the set of all natural numbers.
Other recursively defined mathematical objects include factorials, functions (e.g., recurrence relations), sets (e.g., Cantor ternary set), and fractals.
There are various more tongue-in-cheek definitions of recursion; see recursive humor.
Recursion is the process a procedure goes through when one of the steps of the procedure involves invoking the procedure itself. A procedure that goes through recursion is said to be 'recursive'.
To understand recursion, one must recognize the distinction between a procedure and the running of a procedure. A procedure is a set of steps based on a set of rules, while the running of a procedure involves actually following the rules and performing the steps.
Recursion is related to, but not the same as, a reference within the specification of a procedure to the execution of some other procedure.
When a procedure is defined as such, this immediately creates the possibility of an endless loop; recursion can only be properly used in a definition if the step in question is skipped in certain cases so that the procedure can complete.
But even if it is properly defined, a recursive procedure is not easy for humans to perform, as it requires distinguishing the new from the old, partially executed invocation of the procedure; this requires some administration as to how far various simultaneous instances of the procedures have progressed. For this reason, recursive definitions are very rare in everyday situations.
Linguist Noam Chomsky, among many others, has argued that the lack of an upper bound on the number of grammatical sentences in a language, and the lack of an upper bound on grammatical sentence length (beyond practical constraints such as the time available to utter one), can be explained as the consequence of recursion in natural language.
This can be understood in terms of a recursive definition of a syntactic category, such as a sentence. A sentence can have a structure in which what follows the verb is another sentence: Dorothy thinks witches are dangerous, in which the sentence witches are dangerous occurs in the larger one. So a sentence can be defined recursively (very roughly) as something with a structure that includes a noun phrase, a verb, and optionally another sentence. This is really just a special case of the mathematical definition of recursion.
This provides a way of understanding the creativity of language—the unbounded number of grammatical sentences—because it immediately predicts that sentences can be of arbitrary length: Dorothy thinks that Toto suspects that Tin Man said that.... There are many structures apart from sentences that can be defined recursively, and therefore many ways in which a sentence can embed instances of one category inside another.Over the years, languages in general have proved amenable to this kind of analysis.
Recently, however, the generally accepted idea that recursion is an essential property of human language has been challenged by Daniel Everett on the basis of his claims about the Pirahã language. Andrew Nevins, David Pesetsky and Cilene Rodrigues are among many who have argued against this.Literary self-reference can in any case be argued to be different in kind from mathematical or logical recursion.
Recursion plays a crucial role not only in syntax, but also in natural language semantics. The word and, for example, can be construed as a function that can apply to sentence meanings to create new sentences, and likewise for noun phrase meanings, verb phrase meanings, and others. It can also apply to intransitive verbs, transitive verbs, or ditransitive verbs. In order to provide a single denotation for it that is suitably flexible, and is typically defined so that it can take any of these different types of meanings as arguments. This can be done by defining it for a simple case in which it combines sentences, and then defining the other cases recursively in terms of the simple one.
A recursive grammar is a formal grammar that contains recursive production rules.
Recursion is sometimes used humorously in computer science, programming, philosophy, or mathematics textbooks, generally by giving a circular definition or self-reference, in which the putative recursive step does not get closer to a base case, but instead leads to an infinite regress. It is not unusual for such books to include a joke entry in their glossary along the lines of:
A variation is found on page 269 in the index of some editions of Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie's book The C Programming Language ; the index entry recursively references itself ("recursion 86, 139, 141, 182, 202, 269"). Early versions of this joke can be found in Let's talk Lisp by Laurent Siklóssy (published by Prentice Hall PTR on December 1, 1975, with a copyright date of 1976) and in Software Tools by Kernighan and Plauger (published by Addison-Wesley Professional on January 11, 1976). The joke also appears in The UNIX Programming Environment by Kernighan and Pike. It did not appear in the first edition of The C Programming Language. The joke is part of the Functional programming folklore and was already widespread in the functional programming community before the publication of the aforementioned books.
Another joke is that "To understand recursion, you must understand recursion."In the English-language version of the Google web search engine, when a search for "recursion" is made, the site suggests "Did you mean: recursion." An alternative form is the following, from Andrew Plotkin: "If you already know what recursion is, just remember the answer. Otherwise, find someone who is standing closer to Douglas Hofstadter than you are; then ask him or her what recursion is."
Recursive acronyms are other examples of recursive humor. PHP, for example, stands for "PHP Hypertext Preprocessor", WINE stands for "WINE Is Not an Emulator" GNU stands for "GNU's not Unix", and SPARQL denotes the "SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language".
The canonical example of a recursively defined set is given by the natural numbers:
In mathematical logic, the Peano axioms (or Peano postulates or Dedekind–Peano axioms), are axioms for the natural numbers presented in the 19th century by the German mathematician Richard Dedekind and by the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano. The Peano Axioms define the natural numbers referring to a recursive successor function and addition and multiplication as recursive functions.
Another interesting example is the set of all "provable" propositions in an axiomatic system that are defined in terms of a proof procedure which is inductively (or recursively) defined as follows:
Finite subdivision rules are a geometric form of recursion, which can be used to create fractal-like images. A subdivision rule starts with a collection of polygons labelled by finitely many labels, and then each polygon is subdivided into smaller labelled polygons in a way that depends only on the labels of the original polygon. This process can be iterated. The standard `middle thirds' technique for creating the Cantor set is a subdivision rule, as is barycentric subdivision.
A function may be recursively defined in terms of itself. A familiar example is the Fibonacci number sequence: F(n) = F(n − 1) + F(n − 2). For such a definition to be useful, it must be reducible to non-recursively defined values: in this case F(0) = 0 and F(1) = 1.
A famous recursive function is the Ackermann function, which, unlike the Fibonacci sequence, cannot be expressed without recursion.[ citation needed ]
Applying the standard technique of proof by cases to recursively defined sets or functions, as in the preceding sections, yields structural induction — a powerful generalization of mathematical induction widely used to derive proofs in mathematical logic and computer science.
Dynamic programming is an approach to optimization that restates a multiperiod or multistep optimization problem in recursive form. The key result in dynamic programming is the Bellman equation, which writes the value of the optimization problem at an earlier time (or earlier step) in terms of its value at a later time (or later step).
In set theory, this is a theorem guaranteeing that recursively defined functions exist. Given a set X, an element a of X and a function f: X → X, the theorem states that there is a unique function (where denotes the set of natural numbers including zero) such that
for any natural number n.
Take two functions and such that:
where a is an element of X.
It can be proved by mathematical induction that F(n) = G(n) for all natural numbers n:
By induction, F(n) = G(n) for all .
A common method of simplification is to divide a problem into subproblems of the same type. As a computer programming technique, this is called divide and conquer and is key to the design of many important algorithms. Divide and conquer serves as a top-down approach to problem solving, where problems are solved by solving smaller and smaller instances. A contrary approach is dynamic programming. This approach serves as a bottom-up approach, where problems are solved by solving larger and larger instances, until the desired size is reached.
A classic example of recursion is the definition of the factorial function, given here in C code:
The function calls itself recursively on a smaller version of the input
(n - 1) and multiplies the result of the recursive call by
n, until reaching the base case, analogously to the mathematical definition of factorial.
Recursion in computer programming is exemplified when a function is defined in terms of simpler, often smaller versions of itself. The solution to the problem is then devised by combining the solutions obtained from the simpler versions of the problem. One example application of recursion is in parsers for programming languages. The great advantage of recursion is that an infinite set of possible sentences, designs or other data can be defined, parsed or produced by a finite computer program.
Recurrence relations are equations which define one or more sequences recursively. Some specific kinds of recurrence relation can be "solved" to obtain a non-recursive definition (e.g., a closed-form expression).
Use of recursion in an algorithm has both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is usually the simplicity of instructions. The main disadvantage is that the memory usage of recursive algorithms may grow very quickly, rendering them impractical for larger instances.
Shapes that seem to have been created by recursive processes sometimes appear in plants and animals, such as in branching structures in which one large part branches out into two or more similar smaller parts. One example is Romanesco broccoli.
The Russian Doll or Matryoshka doll is a physical artistic example of the recursive concept.
Recursion has been used in paintings since Giotto's Stefaneschi Triptych , made in 1320. Its central panel contains the kneeling figure of Cardinal Stefaneschi, holding up the triptych itself as an offering. [ failed verification ]
M. C. Escher's Print Gallery (1956) is a print which depicts a distorted city containing a gallery which recursively contains the picture, and so ad infinitum .
First-order logic—also known as predicate logic, quantificational logic, and first-order predicate calculus—is a collection of formal systems used in mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science. First-order logic uses quantified variables over non-logical objects, and allows the use of sentences that contain variables, so that rather than propositions such as "Socrates is a man", one can have expressions in the form "there exists x such that x is Socrates and x is a man", where "there exists" is a quantifier, while x is a variable. This distinguishes it from propositional logic, which does not use quantifiers or relations; in this sense, propositional logic is the foundation of first-order logic.
In mathematics and computer science, mutual recursion is a form of recursion where two mathematical or computational objects, such as functions or datatypes, are defined in terms of each other. Mutual recursion is very common in functional programming and in some problem domains, such as recursive descent parsers, where the datatypes are naturally mutually recursive.
In mathematics, the natural numbers are those used for counting and ordering. In common mathematical terminology, words colloquially used for counting are "cardinal numbers", and words used for ordering are "ordinal numbers". The natural numbers can, at times, appear as a convenient set of codes, that is, as what linguists call nominal numbers, forgoing many or all of the properties of being a number in a mathematical sense. The set of natural numbers is often denoted by the symbol .
In computability theory, a primitive recursive function is roughly speaking a function that can be computed by a computer program whose loops are all "for" loops. Primitive recursive functions form a strict subset of those general recursive functions that are also total functions.
In mathematical logic, the Peano axioms, also known as the Dedekind–Peano axioms or the Peano postulates, are axioms for the natural numbers presented by the 19th century Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano. These axioms have been used nearly unchanged in a number of metamathematical investigations, including research into fundamental questions of whether number theory is consistent and complete.
In computability theory, Kleene's recursion theorems are a pair of fundamental results about the application of computable functions to their own descriptions. The theorems were first proved by Stephen Kleene in 1938 and appear in his 1952 book Introduction to Metamathematics. A related theorem, which constructs fixed points of a computable function, is known as Rogers's theorem and is due to Hartley Rogers, Jr..
Proof theory is a major branch of mathematical logic that represents proofs as formal mathematical objects, facilitating their analysis by mathematical techniques. Proofs are typically presented as inductively-defined data structures such as plain lists, boxed lists, or trees, which are constructed according to the axioms and rules of inference of the logical system. As such, proof theory is syntactic in nature, in contrast to model theory, which is semantic in nature.
In mathematical logic, the arithmetical hierarchy, arithmetic hierarchy or Kleene–Mostowski hierarchy classifies certain sets based on the complexity of formulas that define them. Any set that receives a classification is called arithmetical.
In mathematics and logic, an axiomatic system is any set of axioms from which some or all axioms can be used in conjunction to logically derive theorems. A theory is a consistent, relatively-self-contained body of knowledge which usually contains an axiomatic system and all its derived theorems. An axiomatic system that is completely described is a special kind of formal system. A formal theory is an axiomatic system that describes a set of sentences that is closed under logical implication. A formal proof is a complete rendition of a mathematical proof within a formal system.
Reverse mathematics is a program in mathematical logic that seeks to determine which axioms are required to prove theorems of mathematics. Its defining method can briefly be described as "going backwards from the theorems to the axioms", in contrast to the ordinary mathematical practice of deriving theorems from axioms. It can be conceptualized as sculpting out necessary conditions from sufficient ones.
In computability theory, a set S of natural numbers is called computably enumerable (c.e.), recursively enumerable (r.e.), semidecidable, partially decidable, listable, provable or Turing-recognizable if:
Intuitionistic type theory is a type theory and an alternative foundation of mathematics. Intuitionistic type theory was created by Per Martin-Löf, a Swedish mathematician and philosopher, who first published it in 1972. There are multiple versions of the type theory: Martin-Löf proposed both intensional and extensional variants of the theory and early impredicative versions, shown to be inconsistent by Girard's paradox, gave way to predicative versions. However, all versions keep the core design of constructive logic using dependent types.
In category theory, a natural numbers object (NNO) is an object endowed with a recursive structure similar to natural numbers. More precisely, in a category E with a terminal object 1, an NNO N is given by:
In mathematics and computer science, a recursive definition, or inductive definition, is used to define the elements in a set in terms of other elements in the set. Some examples of recursively-definable objects include factorials, natural numbers, Fibonacci numbers, and the Cantor ternary set.
Computable functions are the basic objects of study in computability theory. Computable functions are the formalized analogue of the intuitive notion of algorithms, in the sense that a function is computable if there exists an algorithm that can do the job of the function, i.e. given an input of the function domain it can return the corresponding output. Computable functions are used to discuss computability without referring to any concrete model of computation such as Turing machines or register machines. Any definition, however, must make reference to some specific model of computation but all valid definitions yield the same class of functions. Particular models of computability that give rise to the set of computable functions are the Turing-computable functions and the general recursive functions.
In mathematical logic, second-order arithmetic is a collection of axiomatic systems that formalize the natural numbers and their subsets. It is an alternative to axiomatic set theory as a foundation for much, but not all, of mathematics.
In computer science, recursion is a method of solving a problem where the solution depends on solutions to smaller instances of the same problem. Such problems can generally be solved by iteration, but this needs to identify and index the smaller instances at programming time. Recursion solves such recursive problems by using functions that call themselves from within their own code. The approach can be applied to many types of problems, and recursion is one of the central ideas of computer science.
The power of recursion evidently lies in the possibility of defining an infinite set of objects by a finite statement. In the same manner, an infinite number of computations can be described by a finite recursive program, even if this program contains no explicit repetitions.
In mathematical logic, an ω-consistenttheory is a theory that is not only (syntactically) consistent, but also avoids proving certain infinite combinations of sentences that are intuitively contradictory. The name is due to Kurt Gödel, who introduced the concept in the course of proving the incompleteness theorem.
Constructive set theory is an approach to mathematical constructivism following the program of axiomatic set theory. The same first-order language with "" and "" of classical set theory is usually used, so this is not to be confused with a constructive types approach. On the other hand, some constructive theories are indeed motivated by their interpretability in type theories.
Primitive recursive arithmetic (PRA) is a quantifier-free formalization of the natural numbers. It was first proposed by Skolem as a formalization of his finitist conception of the foundations of arithmetic, and it is widely agreed that all reasoning of PRA is finitist. Many also believe that all of finitism is captured by PRA, but others believe finitism can be extended to forms of recursion beyond primitive recursion, up to ε0, which is the proof-theoretic ordinal of Peano arithmetic. PRA's proof theoretic ordinal is ωω, where ω is the smallest transfinite ordinal. PRA is sometimes called Skolem arithmetic.
More examples of recursion: Russian Matryoshka dolls. Each doll is made of solid wood or is hollow and contains another Matryoshka doll inside it.
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