A category of types and functions


  • mathematics
  • scala
  • functional-programming

In 2018, I hosted a weekly meetup on functional programming with a focus on category theory. In this blog post series I revisit the notes I wrote back then, aiming to simplify where possible, and to extend and fix where needed. I also implement some of the examples in Scala rather than Haskell.

  1. Categories, functors, and natural transformations
  2. A category of types and functions
  3. Products, coproducts, and algebraic data types
  4. The Yoneda Lemma

Sets and types

To apply ideas from category theory to functional programming, we first need to figure out what the relevant category is. One observation is that a type in a programming language, is much like a set in mathematics. For example, the type int in C based languages, corresponds to some finite set of numbers. The type char to a set of letters 'a', 'z' and '$'. And the type bool is a set of two elements: true and false. This category, the category of types, allows us to look at programming through the lens of category theory.

In this post we will give an idea of how category theory applies to programming. In upcoming posts, we will dig deeper into the introduced concepts (and beyond).

We can take as our model for the category of types the category Set. Recall that the elements of Set are sets, and the arrows correspond to maps. We will glance over a lot of technicalities. Mathematical maps and functions in a computer program are not identical, for example we are missing the bottom value \( \perp \), for example, which indicates a program that did not terminate with a value.

To be able to fully apply the ideas from category theory, we will need a language with higher-kinded types later on. This includes languages like Scala and Haskell. Here, we will use the Scala programming language for the examples given, but the focus will be on the mathematics and general theory.

We can express that an object has a certain type:

a: Int

To define a function \( f: A \to B \) from type \( A \) to type \( B \) in Scala:

f: A => B

To compose two functions:

g: B => C
h = g compose f

This means that h is a function h: A => C. Note how easy it is to compose functions in Scala.

We need some additional operations to truly turn it into a category. Scala has identity built in:

identity: Any -> Any

We can also define it ourselves as a generic lambda expression

val id = [A] => (x: A) => x
assert(id(3) == 3)
assert(id("foo") == "foo")

In mathematics all functions are pure: they will always give the same output for the same input. This is not always the case for computer programs. Operations such as performing I/O, returning the current date, or using a global variable are all examples of impure operations that are common in programming. We will focus on "pure" functions here, and try to avoid any side effects.

As our model category is Set, there should be a type that corresponds to the empty set \( \emptyset \). In C / C++, the obvious candidate would be void for this set, but consider a function definition:

void f() { ... };

This can be seen as a function from void -> void. We can call this function using f(), but what does it mean to call a function? We always invoke a function for an argument, so void actually corresponds to the set with a single element! Note that C functions that return void either do nothing useful (i.e. discard their arguments), or are impure. Indeed, even using a pointer argument to return a value indirectly modifies a 'global state'.

In Scala, the type corresponding to the singleton set is ()and its single value is also denoted with (). Meaning that if we have a function:

val f = () => 3

we can invoke it as f().

Instead, the type Nothing corresponds to the empty set, and there can never be a value of this type. We can imagine the (unique) polymorphic (in the return type!) function that takes Nothing.

val absurd: [A] => Nothing => A = null

Note that you can never call this function, as Nothing is uninhibited: there are no values that have that type.

You may be tempted to discard the type Nothing as something that is only used by academics to make the type system 'complete', but there are a number of legitimate uses for Nothing. An example is continuation passing style, or CPS, where functions do not return a value, but pass control over to another function:

type Continuation[A] => A => Nothing

In other words, a continuation is a function that never returns, which can be used to manipulate control flows (in a type-safe manner).

Recall that an initial object has exactly one arrow to each other object, and a terminal object has exactly one arrow coming from each other object. These objects are unique up to isomorphism. In a previous blog post we introduced the concepts of initial and terminal objects. In the category of types Nothing is initial and () is terminal.

To summarize this introduction, in the category of types, types are objects, and pure functions between these types are arrows. Next, we consider how we can apply some of the concepts we have seen, such as functors and natural transformations, to this (admittedly informally defined) category that we will call Type.

Containers as functors

When we consider functors in the category of types, the first question is 'to what category?'. Here, we will almost exclusively talk about functors from Type to itself. Functors from a category to itself are called endofunctors.

Endofunctors in Type map types to types, and functions to functions. There are many examples of functors in programming. Let us first consider the concept of lists of objects, i.e. arrays or vectors. In C++ a list would be written as:

std::vector<T> xs;

or in Python we would have;

>>> import numpy as np
>>> a = np.array([1,2,3], dtype='int')
>>> type(a)
<class 'numpy.ndarray'>
>>> a.dtype

Note that the true type of the np.array is hidden inside the object, meaning it's the responsiblity of the program to make sure that the types of operations match! (The reason that we consider NumPy arrays is that normal 'lists' in Python are actually tuples, which we will discuss when we talk about products and coproducts.)

Let us consider the mathematical way of expressing arrays of a certain type.

Kleen closures

Lists of some fixed type are more generally called words over some alphabet (an alphabet here is a set of letters) \( X \), and we denote the set of all finite words of elements in \( X \) as \( X^* \). This is also called the Kleene closure of \( X \).

Elements in \( X^* \) look like: $$(x_1, x_2, x_3)$$ $$(x_1)$$ $$()$$ These are all examples of words in \( X \) (where the last example corresponds to the empty word). If we want to construct a word functor \( T \), then \( T \) would then have the signature:

\begin{align*} T&: X \to X^* \\ &: (f: X \to Y) \mapsto (Tf: X^* \to Y^*) \end{align*}

For this second option, we have an obvious candidate for the precise function. Let \( f: X \to Y \) be some map, then \( Tf \) maps a word in \( X \) to a word in \( Y \) in the following way: $$Tf(x_1, x_2, x_3, ... x_n) = (f(x_1), f(x_2), f(x_3), \ldots, f(x_n)).$$

Type classes and type constructors

We will express this idea in Scala, but before we can do this we first have to consider type classes and type constructors. A type constructor is a 'function' that given a type, creates another type. A type constructor can have multiple value constructors, and these constructors can be differentiated between using something called pattern matching which we will see later.

Let us defined our own Boolean type.

enum Bool:
    case False
    case True

Here, we define the type constructor Bool as the resulting type corresponding to the value given by the value constructors True and False, which both are nullary constructors (that take no argument as types!). However, type constructors can take one or multiple types for their value constructors:

enum Either[A, B]:
  case Left(a: A)
  case Right(b: B)

Here, the type constructor either hold either a value of type A or of type B, corresponding to the value constructors Left and Right. We will revisit this idea (and Either) when talk about products and coproducts.

A type class (implemented in Scala as a trait) is a common interface for types. It defines a family of types that support the same operations. For example, a trait for objects that support equality could be defined as:

trait Eq[T] {
  def isEqual(x: T, y: T): Boolean

If we want to express the concept of a functor using a type class, we have to state that it can send types to types, and that it sends functions between two types to functions with the appropriate signature, i.e.:

trait Functor[F[_]]:
  def map[A, B](x: F[A], f: A => B): F[B]

This says that F is a functor, if there is a function map that takes a value of type F[A], a function f: A => B and returns a value of type F[B].

The Word functor

Let us build the 'Word' functor from the ground up. We use a concept called a 'cons-list', with which we define a word over an alphabet recursively as being either

  1. a letter followed by a word
  2. empty
enum Word[+A]:
    case Cons(x: A, xs: Word[A])
    case Nil

(The syntax +A indicates a 'contravariant type', which we will not discuss here yet)

We have two possible ways of constructing a word (partitioning the possible values of the type): a word of As is either empty (corresponding to the constructor Nil), or that it is the concatenation (corresponding to the constructor Cons) of an object of type A with another word of As. Note the recursive definition.

Next we define the map for our Word functor. The corresponding definition to the map described for the word functor is:

given Functor[Word] with
  def map[A, B](xs: Word[A], f: A => B): Word[B] =
    xs match 
      case Word.Cons(y, ys) => Word.Cons(f(y), map(ys, f))
      case Word.Nil => Word.Nil

If a word is empty, then we get an empty word back. Otherwise, we map the individual letters in the list recursively using the given f.

In C++ this map functor roughly corresponds to std::transform, while for Python the closest thing would be the map function.

With these two definitions, we have turned Word into a functor.

Word is implemented as List in the standard library of Scala, and a :: b is the syntactic sugar replacing Word.Cons(a, b).

val x = 1 :: 2 :: Nil // List(1, 2)

The Maybe functor

As a simpler example, consider a type that either has no value or it has a value corresponding to some type A. In Haskell, this is called Maybe, while in C++ this is called std::optional, in Python the same idea could be achieved using:

def fn(a):
    if (a >= 0)
        return sqrt(a)
    return None

This function returns None (corresponding to 'no value') if we provide 'invalid input'.

In Scala, this type can be implemented as:

enum Maybe[+A]:
    case Some(x: A)
    case None

And to turn it into a functor, we define map:

given Functor[Maybe] with
  def map[A, B](xs: Maybe[A], f: A => B): Maybe[B] =
    xs match 
      case Maybe.Some(y) => Maybe.Some(f(y))
      case Maybe.None => Maybe.None

Maybe is implemented in the Scala standard library as Option.

Polymorphic functions as natural transformations

In a previous blog post we introduced natural transformations as a family of functions between two functors \( F \) and \( G \).

Now that we view type constructors as functors, we can consider natural transformations between type constructors. If we let A be a type, then a natural transformation alpha would be something that maps between F[A] and G[A], where F and G are type constructors:

alpha: F[A] => G[A]

Note that implicitly we talk about the component of alpha at A. This function is polymorphic the right component gets picked by the compiler. For example, say we have a word Word[A], and we want to obtain the first element of this list. If the list is empty, then there is no such element, otherwise we obtain an A; i.e. the result is a Maybe[A]:

def head[A](xs: Word[A]): Maybe[A] =
  xs match
    case Word.Nil => Maybe.None
    case Word.Cons(x, _) => Maybe.Some(x)

Here, we have a natural transformation between the Word and the Maybe functor!

Parametric polymorphism and ad-hoc polymorphism

In C++, a template does not have to be defined for all types, i.e. we can write:

template <typename T>
T f(T a);

template <>
int f(int a) { return 2 * a; }

template <>
double f(double a) { return 2.0 * a; }

Here, e.g. f<int>(1) would yield 2, while f<char>('a') would result in a compilation error.

What we are talking about here is parametric polymorphism: polymorphic functions must work for all types. Specializing function definitions is done using traits. This has an important consequence (or perhaps, it is the underlying reason): a parametric polymorphic function satisfies automatically the naturality conditions.

The corresponding naturality square in this context is:

         F[A]────► G[A]
          │          │
map(_, f) │          │ map(_, f)
          │          │
          ▼          ▼
         F[B]────► G[B]

Here, the left map corresponds to F, while the right map corresponds to G, and the top alpha is implicitely the component at A, while the bottom one is the component at B. What we would have to show, is that:

map(_, f) compose alpha = alpha compose map(_, f)

It turns out that this can be shown in a very general context, and it has to do with the fact that the 'bodies' for f, map and alpha are the same for all types. This is related to free theorems, which we will not go into in this series.

Let us revisit our head example, and consider the naturality condition here. It says that:

map(_, f) compose head = head compose map(_, f)

Here, the map on the left-hand side corresonds to the Maybe functor, while on the right-hand side it corresponds to the Word functor.

  • The left-hand side can be read as: "take the first element of the list, then apply f to it".
  • The right-hand side can be read as: "apply the function f to the entire list, then take the first element".

The result is the same, but obviously the left-hand side is more efficient in that it only has to apply f once. Because of the constraint on polymorphic functions, the compiler knows that the result is equal and can choose to use the most efficient one!