I was wondering what role non-rigorous, heuristic type arguments play in rigorous math. Are there examples of rigorous, formal proofs in which a non-rigorous reasoning still plays a central part?

Here is an example of what I am thinking of. You want to prove that some formula $f(n)$ holds, and you want to prove this by induction. Based on heuristic arguments, you conjecture what the correct formula is. Then you prove it by induction. But, if you had just given the induction proof on its own, then you would have to pluck this mysterious formula out of thin air.

I am interested in situations in which there is a heuristic argument which is valid and can be formalized. I am more interested in cases in which there is a heuristic argument and a separate (or complementary) rigorous argument, but the heuristic argument is more enlightening and more explanatory.

notplay a role when doing research in mathematics? The whole point of doing research in math is to find new proofs and new theorems. If you restrict yourself to rigorous reasoning, how would you ever find anything new except by some kind of process of exhaustion? $\endgroup$ – Deane Yang Dec 1 '12 at 2:247more comments