There are exactly 255 possible 3-sat expressions with exactly 3 variables (more meticulously defined below). Of those, exactly 254 are satisfiable. There are exactly 4,294,967,295 possible 3-sat expressions with exactly 4 variables. Of those, how many are satisfiable? How did you get that number?

Problem Statement

Assume you have a 3-SAT equation where all the clauses have exactly 3 distinct variables (i.e. $X$ and $\neg X$ will never appear in the same clause), and no clause appears more than once (i.e. some expression won't have both $(X \lor Y \lor \neg Z)$ and $(X \lor \neg Z \lor Y)$). With this construction, there are a finite amount of expressions with only N variables.

For the class of expressions with up to N variables, is there an equation to compute how many are satisfiable?

Example of N=3

For example, with N=3, there are 254 solutions.

We know this because for N=K, there are exactly $8 *\binom{K}{3}$ distinct clauses, as you must select three distinct variables for each clause, and 1 of 8 possible sign values for those variables (+/+/+, +/+/-, +/-/+, +/-/-, ...). If there are $8 *\binom{K}{3}$ possible clauses, then there must be $2^{(8 *\binom{K}{3})} - 1$ possible boolean expressions, because each clause may appear or not (so $2^{(8 *\binom{K}{3})}$) and we have to subtract one for the case with no clauses.

For N=3, there are 255 possible expressions (using the lemma above), and only one is unsatisfiable. So there must be 254 distinct satisfiable expressions.

How about for N=4?

  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure the term solution in "how many solutions" is very clear. Can you clarify the question? $\endgroup$ – Omar Dec 25 '17 at 10:09
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, for example, there are exactly 255 possible 3-sat expressions with exactly 3 variables. Of those, exactly 254 are satisfiable. There are exactly 4,294,967,295 possible 3-sat expressions with exactly 4 variables. Of those, how many are satisfiable? How did you get that number? $\endgroup$ – Tomas Jan 8 '18 at 17:01

There is almost certainly no non-trivial formula that will tell you the number of solutions. By non-trivial, I mean something not of the form $$ \sum_{x_1, \dots, x_n\in\{0,1\}} f(x_1, \dots, x_n)\,, $$ where $$f(x_1, \dots, x_n)=\begin{cases}1 &\text{if $x_1, \dots, x_n$ satisfies the formula}\\ 0&\text{otherwise.}\end{cases} $$

Note that if we have a formula $F$ (trivial or otherwise) that tells us how many satisfying assignments there are, we can decide 3-SAT just by computing $F$ and checking whether $F=0$ (unsatisfiable) or $F>0$ (satisfiable). This means that computing $F$ is NP-hard so, assuming that P$\,\neq\,$NP, $F$ is difficult to compute, which suggests that $F$ can't have any nice form.

In fact, $F$ is complete for the complexity class #P, which is essentially at least as hard as all of the polynomial hierarchy. This means that it seems to be quite a lot harder than "just NP-hard". Furthermore, we can't even approximately compute $F$ in any efficient way unless P=NP. Even being able to approximate $F$ with exponential additive error would allow us to distinguish between $F=0$ and $F>0$ and thus allow us to solve 3-SAT. For example, given a formula with $N$ variables and $F$ solutions, we can create a formula with $2N$ variables and exactly the same clauses (so variables $N+1, \dots, 2N$ aren't mentioned in the formula and can take any value). This formula has $2^NF$ satisfying assignments and being able to approximate that number strictly better than $\pm 2^{N-1}$ would allow us to tell the difference between $F=0$ and $F>0$.

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    $\begingroup$ sorry I think I must not be good at explaining the question. My question is NOT "for a specific boolean expression, how many solutions exist"; it is "for the class of expressions which only use N variables (e.g. "X and Y" and "X and Y and not Y" are in the same class) how many are satisfiable? $\endgroup$ – Tomas Jan 8 '18 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Oh. Sorry about that. But I have to say, your phrasing was exceptionally unclear. Since this question has been misunderstood by pretty much everyone, I suggest that you don't edit it (which would make the existing answers make no sense) but, rather, post a new question. If you phrase it as something like, "Is there a closed-form expression (as a function of $n$) for the number of satisfiable $3$-CNF formulas in $n$ variables?", it would be much more understandable. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jan 8 '18 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ The answer, by the way, is almost certainly still "no". If there were some easy combinatorial property of (un)satisfiable formulas that allowed you to count them, that property would be very likely to make it easy to decide which were satisfiable and which weren't. I don't, at the moment, have an actual answer beyond this very vague intuition. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jan 8 '18 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ I totally agree with you, but I wouldn't be surprised if I were wrong. $\endgroup$ – Tomas Jan 8 '18 at 20:46

I agree with other people here in that there is probably no nice closed formula to compute this number, and if there is one we don't know it yet

However, a lot of research has looked at random 3-SAT problems. It is well known that they experience a "phase transition". With $N$ variables and $M$ clauses, $N$ and $M$ big, there's a number $\alpha \approx 4.267$ such that most problems with $\frac{M}{N} > \alpha$ are unsat, and most others are sat

That's no proof, but it's a hint that the number of satisfiable problems may be close to the number of problems with less that $\alpha N$ clauses for some constant $\alpha$. That is about $\dbinom{N}{3}^{\alpha N} \equiv N^{3\alpha N}$ when $N$ is big - very small compared to the total number of SAT problems $2^{N^3}$

Edit: Link about random 3-SAT with an estimation of $\alpha$


Well this is a way to find all solutions (and hence the number of solutions) and that is simply to try all solution. But this is terribly inefficient and there are exponentially many solutions. The reason it is very unlikely that there is an efficient algorithm for your question is because it is NP-hard, as we can reduce the satisfiability of a 3-SAT equation to computing the number of solutions. In particular, if we can solve your question in polynomial time, then we can solve 3-SAT in polynomial time by checking whether the number of solutions is greater than 0.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't believe that is correct. If I know that the class of 3-SAT expressions with exactly 4 variables have 1427 solvable expressions, that doesn't get me any closer to solving any individual such expression... $\endgroup$ – Tomas Jan 8 '18 at 16:58

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