According to Church’s thesis, we can identify the intuitive concept of effective computability with such well-defined mathematical concepts as Turing computability and partial recursiveness. The almost universal acceptance of Church’s thesis among logicians and computer scientists is puzzling from some epistemological perspectives, since no formal proof is possible of a thesis that involves an informal concept such as effectiveness. Elliott Mendelson has recently argued, however, that equivalencies between intuitive notions and precise notions need not always be considered unprovable theses, and that Church’s thesis should be accepted as true.
I want to discuss a thesis that is nearly as important in current research in computer science as Church’s thesis. I call the newer thesis the tractability thesis, since it identifies the intuitive class of computationally tractable problems with a precise class of problems whose solutions can be computed in polynomial time. After briefly reviewing the theory of intractability, I compare the grounds for accepting the tractability thesis with the grounds for accepting Church's thesis. Intimately connected with the tractability thesis is the mathematical conjecture, whose meaning I shall shortly explain, that P≠NP. Unlike Church's thesis, this conjecture is precise enough to be capable of mathematical proof, but most computer scientists believe it even though no proof has been found. As we shall see below, understanding the grounds for acceptance of the conjecture that P≠NP has implications for general questions in the philosophy of mathematics and science, especially concerning the epistemological importance of explanatory and conceptual coherence.