David Wyde

A Slightly Different Halting Problem



The halting problem asks whether it’s possible to design a function halts(f) that returns True if a function f halts or False if f runs forever.

A Proof That the Halting Problem Is Undecidable

The most common proof that the halting problem is undecidable defines a program that halts if and only if halts says it does not halt:

def liar():
    if halts(liar):

The idea is that liar enters infinite recursion if halts(liar) returns True, and liar halts if halts(liar) returns False. It isn’t clear whether halts(liar) should return True or False, so the standard conclusion is that halts cannot exist and thus the halting problem is undecidable.

An Analogous Proof

Consider the following proof:

  1. Define positive_or_negative(x) as a function that takes an integer parameter x and returns True if x is positive or False if x is negative.
  2. Zero is not positive or negative, so positive_or_negative(0) can’t return either True or False.
  3. The problem of determining whether a number is positive or negative is undecidable.

There are several ways to design a function that determines whether a number is positive or negative, including:

  1. Raise an error on an input of 0.
  2. Return three values instead of a Boolean (possibly -1 for negative, 0 for zero, and 1 for positive).
  3. Use an if-else construct instead of if-elif: define is_positive or is_negative instead of positive_or_negative.

The standard proof that the halting problem is undecidable chooses an approach similar to option 1. I wonder if option 2 or 3 would make more sense.

Tweaking the Definition of halts

The original specification for halts looks something like this:

def halts(f):
    if f halts:
        return True
    elif f does not halt:
        return False
        raise an error

The analog of option 2 from positive_or_negative is to return a different value for each type of halting behavior, rather than just True or False. There are at least five cases to handle: halting programs, infinite loops, f halts if halts(f) returns False, f halts if halts(f) returns True, and invalid functions (for example, f is a string).

One solution based on option 3 from positive_or_negative looks like this:

def halts(f):
    if f halts:
        return True
        return False

Here the else clause covers all cases other than simple halting, including liar.

The question I’d like to raise is whether the standard proof that the halting problem is undecidable applies to these latter two versions of halts.


Eric Hehner and Bill Stoddart have raised similar questions in the past. I wrote a longer paper on the halting problem that looked at Turing’s work on the topic, including an incomplete proof of the if-else case in the last paper that he published.