Fagin's theorem

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Fagin's theorem is a result in descriptive complexity theory that states that the set of all properties expressible in existential second-order logic is precisely the complexity class NP. It is remarkable since it is a characterization of the class NP that does not invoke a model of computation such as a Turing machine.

It was proven by Ronald Fagin in 1974 (strictly, in 1973 in his doctoral thesis). The arity required by the second-order formula was improved (in one direction) in Lynch's theorem, and several results of Grandjean have provided tighter bounds on nondeterministic random-access machines.


Immerman 1999 provides a detailed proof of the theorem. Essentially, we use second-order existential quantifiers to arbitrarily choose a computation tableau. For every timestep, we arbitrarily choose the finite state control's state, the contents of every tape cell, and which nondeterministic choice we must make. Verifying that each timestep follows from each previous timestep can then be done with a first-order formula.

A key idea from the proof is that we can encode a linear order of length n<sup>k</sup> as a 2k-ary relation R on a universe A of size&nbsp;n. To achieve this, we choose a linear ordering L of A and then define R to be the lexicographical ordering of k-tuples from A with respect to&nbsp;L.


  • . . Complexity of Computation, ed. R. Karp, SIAM-AMS Proceedings 7, pp. 27&ndash;41. 1974.

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