There Is Such A Thing As A Declarative Language, and It’s The World’s Best DSL

July 22, 2013

In a recent post I asked whether there is any such thing as a declarative language. The main point was to argue that the standard “definitions” are, at best, not very precise, and to see whether anyone might offer a better definition. What I’m after is an explanation of why people seem to think that the phrase has meaning, even though they can’t say very clearly what they mean by it.  (One commenter analogized with “love” and “happiness”, but I would counter by saying that we’re trying to do science here, and we ought to be able to define our terms with some precision.)

As I mentioned, perhaps the best “definition” that is usually offered is to say that “declarative” is synonymous with “functional-and-logic-programming”.  This is pretty unsatisfactory, since it is not so easy to define these terms either, and because, contrary to conventional classifications, the two concepts have pretty much nothing in common with each other (but for one thing to be mentioned shortly). The propositions-as-types principle helps set them clearly apart: whereas functional programming is about executing proofs, logic programming is about the search for proofs. Functional programming is based on the dynamics of proof given by Gentzen’s inversion principle. Logic programming is based on the dynamics of provability given by cut elimination and focusing.  The two concepts of computation could not be further apart.

Yet they do have one thing in common that is usefully isolated as fundamental to what we mean by “declarative”, namely the concept of a variable.  Introduced by the ancient Hindu and Muslim mathematicians, Brahmagupta and al Kwharizmi, the variable is one of the most remarkable achievements of the human intellect.  In my previous post I had secretly hoped that someone would propose variables as being central to what we mean by “declarative”, but no one did, at least not in the comments section.  My unstated motive for writing that post was not so much to argue that the term “declarative” is empty, but to test the hypothesis that few seem to have grasp the importance of  this concept for designing a civilized, and broadly applicable, programming language.

My contention is that variables, properly so-called, are what distinguish “declarative” languages from “imperative” languages. Although the imperative languages, including all popular object-oriented languages, are based on a concept that is called a variable, they lack anything that actually is a variable.   And this is where the trouble begins, and the need for the problematic distinction arises.  The declarative concept of a variable is the mathematical concept of an unknown that is given meaning by substitution. The imperative concept of a variable, arising from low-level machine models, is instead given meaning by assignment (mutation), and, by a kind of a notational pun, allowed to appear in expressions in a way that resembles that of a proper variable.  But the concepts are so fundamentally different, that I argue in PFPL that the imperative concept be called an “assignable”, which is more descriptive, rather than “variable”, whose privileged status should be emphasized, not obscured.

The problem with purely imperative programming languages is that they have only the concept of an assignable, and attempt to make it serve also as a concept of variable. The results are a miserable mess of semantic and practical complications. Decades of work has gone into rescuing us from the colossal mistake of identifying variables with assignables. And what is the outcome? If you want to reason about assignables, what you do is (a) write a mathematical formulation of your algorithm (using variables, of course) and (b) show that the imperative code simulates the functional behavior so specified.   Under this methodology the mathematical formulation is taken as self-evidently correct, the standard against which the imperative program is judged, and is not itself in need of further verification, whereas the imperative formulation is, invariably, in need of verification.

What an odd state of affairs!  The functional “specification” is itself a perfectly good, and apparently self-evidently correct, program.  So why not just write the functional (i.e., mathematical) formulation, and call it a day?  Why indeed!  Declarative languages, being grounded in the language of mathematics, allow for the identification of the “desired behavior” with the “executable code”.  Indeed, the propositions-as-types principle elevates this identification to a fundamental organizing principle: propositions are types, and proofs are programs.  Who needs verification?  Once you have a mathematical specification of the behavior of a queue, say, you already have a running program; there is no need to relegate it to a stepping stone towards writing an awkward, and invariably intricate, imperative formulation that then requires verification to ensure that it works properly.

Functional programming languages are written in the universally applicable language of mathematics as expressed by the theory of types.  Such languages are therefore an integral part of science itself, inseparable from our efforts to understand and master the workings of the world.  Imperative programming has no role to play in this effort, and is, in my view, doomed in the long run to obsolescence, an artifact of engineering, rather than a fundamental discovery on a par with those of mathematics and science.

This brings me to my main point, the popular concept of a domain-specific language. Very much in vogue, DSL’s are offered as the solution to many of our programming woes. And yet, to borrow a phrase from my colleague Guy Blelloch, the elephant in the room is the question “what is a domain?”. I’ve yet to hear anyone explain how you decide what are the boundaries of a “domain-specific” language. Isn’t the “domain” mathematics and science itself? And does it not follow that the right language must be the language of mathematics and science? How can one rule out anything as being irrelevant to a “domain”?  I think it is impossible, or at any rate inadvisable, to make such restrictions a priori.  Indeed, full-spectrum functional languages are already the world’s best DSL’s, precisely because they are (or come closest to being) the very language of science, the ultimate “domain”.


What, If Anything, Is A Declarative Language?

July 18, 2013

Back in the 1980’s it was very fashionable to talk about “declarative” programming languages.  But to my mind there was never a clear definition of a “declarative language”, and hence no way to tell what is declarative and what is not.  Lacking any clear meaning, the term came to refer to the arbitrary conflation of functional with logic programming to such an extent that “functional-and-logic-programming” almost became a Germanic thing-in-itself (ding an sich).  Later, as the logic programming wave subsided, the term “declarative”,  like “object-oriented”, came to be an expression of approval, and then, mercifully, died out.

Or so I had thought.  Earlier this week I attended a thriller of an NSF-sponsored workshop on high-level programming models for parallelism, where I was surprised by the declarative zombie once again coming to eat our brains.  This got me to thinking, again, about whether the term has any useful meaning.  For what it’s worth, and perhaps to generate useful debate, here’re some things that I think people mean, and why I don’t think they mean very much.

  1. “Declarative” means “high-level”.  This just seems to replace one vague term by another.
  2. “Declarative” means “not imperative”.  But this flies in the face of reality.  Functional languages embrace and encompass imperative programming as a special case, and even Prolog has imperative features, such as assert and retract, that have imperative meaning.
  3. “Declarative” means “functional”.  OK, but then we don’t really need another word.
  4. “Declarative” means “what, not how”.  But every language has an operational semantics that defines how to execute its programs, and you must be aware of that semantics to understand programs written in it.  Haskell has a definite evaluation order, just as much as ML has a different one, and even Prolog execution is defined by a clear operational semantics that determines the clause order and that can be influenced by “cut”.
  5. “Declarative” means “equational”.  This does not distinguish anything, because there is a well-defined notion of equivalence for any programming language, namely observational equivalence.  Different languages induce different equivalences, of course, but how does one say that one equivalence is “better” than another?  At any rate, I know of no stress on equational properties of logic programs, so either logic programs are not “declarative” or “equational reasoning” is not their defining characteristic.
  6. “Declarative” means “referentially transparent”.  The misappropriation of Quine’s terminology only confuses matters.  All I’ve been able to make of this is that “referentially transparent” means that beta-equivalence is valid.  But beta equivalence is not a property of an arbitrary programming language, nor in any case is it clear why this equivalence is first among equals.  In any case why you would decide a priori on what equivalences you want before you even know what it means to run a program?
  7. “Declarative” means “has a denotation”.  This gets closer to the point, I think, because we might well say that a declarative semantics is one that gives meaning to programs as some kind of mapping between some sort of spaces.  In other words, it would be a synonym for “denotational semantics”.  But every language has a denotational semantics (perhaps by interpretation into a Kripke structure to impose sequencing), so having one does not seem to distinguish a useful class of languages.  Moreover, even in the case of purely functional programs, the usual denotational semantics (as continuous maps) is not fully abstract, and the fully abstract semantics (as games) is highly operational.  Perhaps a language is declarative in proportion to being able to give it semantics in some “familiar” mathematical setting?
  8. “Declarative” means “implicitly parallelizable“.  This was certainly the sense intended at the NSF meeting, but no two “declarative” languages seemed to have much in common.  Charlie Garrod proposes just “implicit”, which is pretty much synonymous with “high level”, and may be the most precise sense there is to the term.

No doubt this list is not exhaustive, but I think it covers many of the most common interpretations.  It seems to me that none of them have a clear meaning or distinguish a well-defined class of languages.  Which leads me to ask, is there any such thing as a declarative programming language?

[Thanks to the late Steve Gould for inspiring the title of this post.]

[Update: wordsmithing.]

[Update: add a remark about semantics, add another candidate meaning.]

[Update: added link to previous post.]


Constructive Mathematics Is Not Metamathematics

July 10, 2013

The publication of the Homotopy Type Theory book has renewed interest in type theory as a foundation for mathematics, and spurred computer scientists to investigate the computational meaning of higher-dimensional types. As I mentioned in a previous post, what makes HoTT work so well for homotopy theory is that it is constructive, which means, at the very least, that it does not postulate that all types are decidable. By Hedberg’s Theorem any type with decidable equality is a set (homotopy 0-type), so a blanket adoption of the classical law of the excluded middle would immediately rule out any higher-dimensional structure.

To my way of thinking, the denial of the universal validity of the excluded middle is not the defining feature of constructivity, but rather a characteristic feature of constructivity—it is the smoke, not the locomotive. But what, then, is the deeper meaning of constructivity that gives rise to the denial of many classical patterns of reasoning, such as proof by contradiction or reasoning by cases on whether a proposition is true or not? Although the full story is not yet completely clear, a necessary condition is that a constructive theory be proof relevant, meaning that proofs are mathematical objects like any other, and that they play a role in the development of constructive mathematics unlike their role in classical mathematics.

The most obvious manifestation of proof relevance is the defining characteristic of HoTT, that proofs of equality correspond to paths in a space. Paths may be thought of as evidence for the equality of their endpoints. That this is a good notion of equality follows from the homotopy invariance of the constructs of type theory: everything in sight respects paths (that is, respect the groupoid structure of types). More generally, theorems in HoTT tend to characterize the space of proofs of a proposition, rather than simply state that the corresponding type is inhabited. For example, the univalence axiom itself states an equivalence between proofs of equivalence of types in a universe and equivalences between these types. This sort of reasoning may take some getting used to, but its beauty is, to my way of thinking, undeniable. Classical modes of thought may be recovered by explicitly obliterating the structure of proofs using truncation. Sometimes this is the best or only available way to state a theorem, but usually one tends to say more than just that a type is inhabited, or that two types are mutually inhabited. In this respect the constructive viewpoint enriches, rather than diminishes, classical mathematics, a point that even the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, David Hilbert, seems to have missed.

The concept of proof relevance in HoTT seems to have revived a very common misunderstanding about the nature of proofs. Many people have been trained to think that a proof is a derivation in an axiomatic theory, such as set theory, a viewpoint often promoted in textbooks and bolstered by the argument that an informal proof can always be written out in full in this form, even if we don’t do that as a matter of course. It is a short step from there to the conclusion that proofs are therefore mathematical objects, even in classical set theory, because we can treat the derivations as elements of an inductively defined set (famously, the set of natural numbers, but more realistically using more natural representations of abstract syntax such as the s-expression formalism introduced by McCarthy in 1960 for exactly this purpose). From this point of view many people are left confused about the stress on “proofs as mathematical objects” as a defining characteristic of HoTT, and wonder what could be original about that.

The key to recognize that a proof is not a formal proof. To avoid further confusion, I hasten to add that by “formal” I do not mean “rigorous”, but rather “represented in a formal system” such as the axiomatic theory of sets. A formal proof is an element of a computably enumerable set generated by the axioms and rules of the formal theory. A proof is an argument that demonstrates the truth of a proposition. While formal proofs are always proofs (at least, under the assumption of consistency of the underlying formal theory), a proof need not be, or even have a representation as, a formal proof. The principal example of this distinction is Goedel’s Theorem, which proves that the computably enumerable set of formal provable propositions in axiomatic arithmetic is not decidable. The key step is to devise a self-referential proposition that (a) is not formally provable, but (b) has a proof that shows that it is true. The crux of the argument is that once you fix the rules of proof, you automatically miss out true things that are not provable in that fixed system.

Now comes the confusing part. HoTT is defined as a formal system, so why doesn’t the same argument apply? It does, pretty much verbatim! But this has no bearing on “proof relevance” in HoTT, because the proofs that are relevant are not the formal proofs (derivations) defining HoTT as a formal system. Rather proofs are formulated internally as objects of the type theory, and there is no commitment a priori to being the only forms of proof there are. Thus, for example, we may easily see that there are only countably many functions definable in HoTT from the outside (because it is defined by a formal system), but within the theory any function space on an infinite type has uncountably many elements. There is no contradiction, because the proofs of implications, being internal functions, are not identified with codes of formal derivations, and hence are not denumerable.

There is a close analogy, previously noted in this blog, with Church’s Law. Accepting Church’s Law internally amounts to fixing the programming language used to define functions in advance, permitting us to show, for example, that certain programs are not expressible in that language. But HoTT does not commit to Church’s Law, so such arguments amount to showing that, for example, there is no Turing machine to decide halting for Turing machines, but allowing that there could be constructive functions (say, equipped with oracles) that make such decisions.

The theory of formal proofs, often called proof theory, was dubbed metamathematics by Kleene. Until the development of type theory the study of proofs was confined to metamathematics. But now in the brave new world of constructive mathematics as embodied in HoTT, proofs (not just formal proofs) have pride of place in mathematics, and provide opportunities for expressing concepts clearly and cleanly that were hitherto obscured or even hidden from our view.

Update: Corrected silly wording mistake.


What’s the big deal with HoTT?

June 22, 2013

Now that the Homotopy Type Theory book is out, a lot of people are asking “What’s the big deal?”.  The full answer lies within the book itself (or, at any rate, the fullest answer to date), but I am sure that many of us who were involved in its creation will be fielding this question in our own ways to help explain why we are so excited by it.  In fact what I think is really fascinating about HoTT is precisely that there are so many different ways to think about it, according to one’s interests and backgrounds.  For example, one might say it’s a nice way to phrase arguments in homotopy theory that avoids some of the technicalities in the classical proofs by treating spaces and paths synthetically, rather than analytically.  Or one might say that it’s a good language for mechanization of mathematics that provides for the concise formulation of proofs in a form that can be verified by a computer.  Or one might say that it points the way towards a vast extension of the concept of computation that enables us to compute with abstract geometric objects such as spheres or toruses.  Or one might say that it’s a new foundation for mathematics that subsumes set theory by generalizing types from mere sets to arbitrary infinity groupoids,  sets being but particularly simple types (those with no non-trivial higher-dimensional structure).

But what is it about HoTT that makes all these interpretations and applications possible?  What is the key idea that separates HoTT from other approaches that seek to achieve similar ends?  What makes HoTT so special?

In a word the answer is constructivity.  The distinctive feature of HoTT is that it is based on Per Martin-Löf’s Intuitionistic Theory of Types, which was formulated as a foundation for intuitionistic mathematics as originally put forth by Brouwer in the 1930’s, and further developed by Bishop, Gentzen, Heyting, Kolmogorov, Kleene, Lawvere, and Scott, among many others.  Briefly put, the idea of type theory is to codify and systematize the concept of a mathematical construction by characterizing the abstract properties, rather than the concrete realizations, of the objects used in everyday mathematics.  Brouwer’s key insight, which lies at the heart of HoTT, is that proofs are a form of construction no different in kind or character from numbers, geometric figures, spaces, mappings, groups, algebras, or any other mathematical structure.  Brouwer’s dictum, which distinguished his approach from competing alternatives, is that logic is a part of mathematics, rather than mathematics is an application of logic.  Because for him the concept of a construction, including the concept of a proof, is prior to any other form of mathematical activity, including the study of proofs themselves (i.e., logic).

So under Martin-Löf’s influence HoTT starts with the notion of type as a classification of the notion of construction, and builds upwards from that foundation.  Unlike competing approaches to foundations, proofs are mathematical objects that play a central role in the theory.  This conception is central to the homotopy-theoretic interpretation of type theory, which enriches types to encompass spaces with higher-dimensional structure.  Specifically, the type \textsf{Id}_A(M,N) is the type of identifications of M and N within the space A.  Identifications may be thought of as proofs that M and N are equal as elements of $A$, or, equivalently, as paths in the space A between points M and N.  The fundamental principles of abstraction at the heart of type theory ensure that all constructs of the theory respect these identifications, so that we may treat them as proofs of equality of two elements.  There are three main sources of identifications in HoTT:

  1. Reflexivity, stating that everything is equal to itself.
  2. Higher inductive types, defining a type by giving its points, paths, paths between paths, and so on to any dimension.
  3. Univalence, which states that an equivalence between types determines a path between them.

I will not attempt here to explain each of these in any detail; everything you need to know is in the HoTT book.  But I will say a few things about their consequences, just to give a flavor of what these new principles give us.

Perhaps the most important conceptual point is that mathematics in HoTT emphasizes the structure of proofs rather than their mere existence.  Rather than settle for a mere logical equivalence between two types (mappings back and forth stating that each implies the other), one instead tends to examine the entire space of proofs of a proposition and how it relates to others.  For example, the univalence axiom itself does not merely state that every equivalence between types gives rise to a path between them, but rather that there is an equivalence between the type of equivalences between two types and the type of paths between them.  Familiar patterns such as “A iff B” tend to become “A\simeq B“, stating that the proofs of A and the proofs of B are equivalent.  Of course one may choose neglect this additional information, stating only weaker forms of it using, say, truncation to suppress higher-dimensional information in a type, but the tendency is to embrace the structure and characterize the space of proofs as fully as possible.

A close second in importance is the axiomatic freedom afforded by constructive foundations.  This point has been made many times by many authors in many different settings, but has particular bite in HoTT.   The theory does not commit to (nor does it refute) the infamous Law of the Excluded Middle for arbitrary types: the type A+(A\to \textbf{0}) need not always be inhabited.  This property of HoTT is absolutely essential to its expressive power.  Not only does it admit a wider range of interpretations than are possible with the Law included, but it also allows for the selective imposition of the Law where it is needed to recover a classical argument, or where it is important to distinguish the implications of decidability in a given situation.  (Here again I defer to the book itself for full details.)  Similar considerations arise in connection with the many forms of Choice that can be expressed in HoTT, some of which are outright provable, others of which are independent as they are in axiomatic set theory.

Thus, what makes HoTT so special is that it is a constructive theory of mathematics.  Historically, this has meant that it has a computational interpretation, expressed most vividly by the propositions as types principle.  And yet, for all of its promise, what HoTT currently lacks is a computational interpretation!  What, exactly, does it mean to compute with higher-dimensional objects?  At the moment it is difficult to say for sure, though there seem to be clear intuitions in at least some cases of how to “implement” such a rich type theory.  Alternatively, one may ask whether the term “constructive”, when construed in such a general setting, must inevitably involve a notion of computation.  While it seems obvious on computational grounds that the Law of the Excluded Middle should not be considered universally valid, it becomes less clear why it is so important to omit this Law (and, essentially, no other) in order to obtain the richness of HoTT when no computational interpretation is extant.  From my point of view understanding the computational meaning of higher-dimensional type theory is of paramount importance, because, for me, type theory is and always has been a theory of computation on which the entire edifice of mathematics ought to be built.


The Homotopy Type Theory Book is out!

June 20, 2013

By now many of you have heard of the development of Homotopy Type Theory (HoTT), an extension of intuitionistic type theory that provides a natural foundation for doing synthetic homotopy theory.  Last year the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton sponsored a program on the Univalent Foundations of Mathematics, which was concerned with developing these ideas.  One important outcome of the year-long program is a full-scale book presenting the main ideas of Homotopy Type Theory itself and showing how to apply them to various branches of mathematics, including homotopy theory, category theory, set theory, and constructive analysis.  The book is the product of a joint effort by dozens of participants in the program, and is intended to document the state of the art as it is known today, and to encourage its further development by the participation of others interested in the topic (i.e., you!).  Among the many directions in which one may take these ideas, the most important (to me) is to develop a constructive (computational) interpretation of HoTT.  Some partial results in this direction have already been obtained, including fascinating work by Thierry Coquand on developing a constructive version of Kan complexes in ITT, by Mike Shulman on proving homotopy canonicity for the natural numbers in a two-dimensional version of HoTT, and by Dan Licata and me on a weak definitional canonicity theorem for a similar two-dimensional theory.  Much work remains to be done to arrive at a fully satisfactory constructive interpretation, which is essential for application of these ideas to computer science.  Meanwhile, though, great progress has been made on using HoTT to formulate and formalize significant pieces of mathematics in a new, and strikingly beautiful, style, that are well-documented in the book.

The book is freely available on the web in various formats, including a PDF version with active references, an ebook version suitable for your reading device, and may be purchased in hard- or soft-cover from Lulu.  The book itself is open source, and is available at the Hott Book Git Hub.  The book is under the Creative Commons  CC BY-SA license, and will be freely available in perpetuity.

Readers may also be interested in the posts on Homotopy Type Theory, the n-Category Cafe, and Mathematics and Computation which describe more about the book and the process of its creation.


More Is Not Always Better

January 28, 2013

In a previous post I discussed the status of Church’s Law in type theory, showing that it fails to hold internally to extensional type theory, even though one may see externally that the definable numeric functions in ETT are λ-definable, and hence Turing computable.  The distinction between internal and external is quite important in logic, mainly because a logical formalism may be unable to express precisely an externally meaningful concept.  The classical example is the Löwenheim-Skolem Theorem of first-order logic, which says that any theory with an infinite model has a countable model.  In particular the theory of sets has a countable model, which would seem to imply that the set of real numbers, for example, is countable.  But internally one can prove that the reals are uncountable (Cantor’s proof is readily expressed in the theory), which seems to be a paradox of some kind.  But no, all it says is that the function witnessing the countability of the term model cannot be expressed internally, and hence there is no contradiction at all.

A similar situation obtains with Church’s Law.  One may observe empirically, so to say, that Church’s Law holds externally of ETT, but this fact cannot be internalized.  There is a function given by Church’s Law that “decompiles” any (extensional) function of type N→N by providing the index for a Turing machine that computes it.  But this function cannot be definable internally to extensional type theory, because it may be used to obtain a decision procedure for halting of Turing machines, which is internally refutable by formalizing the standard undecidability proof.  In both of these examples it is the undefinability of a function that is important to the expressive power of a formalism, contrary to naïve analyses that would suggest that, when it comes to definability of functions, the more the merrier.  This is a general phenomenon in type theory.  The power of type theory arises from its strictures, not its affordances, in direct opposition to the ever-popular language design principle “first-class x” for all imaginable values of x.

Another perspective on the same issue is provided by Martin-Löf’s meaning explanation of type theory, which is closely related to the theory of realizability for constructive logic.  The high-level idea is that a justification for type theory may be obtained by starting with an untyped concept of computability (i.e., a programming language given by an operational semantics for closed terms), and then giving the meaning of the judgments of type theory in terms of such computations.  So, for example, the judgment A type, where A is a closed expression means that A evaluates to a canonical type, where the canonical types include, say, Nat, and all terms of the form A’→A”, where A’ and A” are types.  Similarly, if A is a type, the judgment a:A means that A evaluates to a canonical type A’ and that a evaluates to a canonical term a’ such that a’ is a canonical element of A’, where, say, any numeral for a natural number is a canonical member of Nat.  To give the canonical members of the function type A’→A” requires the further notion of equality of elements of a type, a=b:A, which all functions are required to respect.  A meaning explanation of this sort was suggested by Martin-Löf in his landmark paper Constructive Mathematics and Computer Programming, and is used as the basis for the NuPRL type theory, which extends that account in a number of interesting directions, including inductive and coinductive types, subset and quotient types, and partial types.

The relation to realizability emerges from applying the meaning explanation of types to the semantics of propositions given by the propositions-as-types principle (which, as I’ve previously argued, should not be called “the Curry-Howard isomorphism”).  According to this view a proposition P is identified with a type, the type of its proofs, and we say that P true iff evaluates to a canonical proposition that has a canonical member.  In particular, for implication we say that P→Q true if and only if P true implies Q true (and, in addition, the proof respects equality, a condition that I will suppress here for the sake of simplicity).  More explicitly, the implication is true exactly when the truth of the antecedent implies the truth of the consequent, which is to say that there is a constructive transformation of proofs of P into proofs of Q.

In recursive realizability one accepts Church’s Law and demands that the constructive transformation be given by the index of a Turing machine (i.e., by a program written in a fixed programming language).  This means, in particular, that if P expresses, say, the decidability of the halting problem, for which there is no recursive realizer, then the implication P→Q is vacuously true!  By taking Q to be falsehood, we obtain a realizer for the statement that the halting problem is undecidable.  More generally, any statement that is not realized is automatically false  in the recursive realizability interpretation, precisely because the realizers are identified with Turing machine indices.  Pressing a bit further, there are statements, such as the statement that every Turing machine either halts or diverges on its own input, that are true in classical logic, yet have no recursive realizer, and hence are false in the realizability interpretation.

In contrast in the meaning explanation for NuPRL Church’s Law is not assumed.  Although one may show that there is no Turing machine to decide halting for Turing machines, it is impossible to show that there is no constructive transformation that may do so.  For example, an oracle machine would be able to make the required decision.  This is entirely compatible with intuitionistic principles, because although intuitionism does not affirm LEM, neither does it deny it.  This point is often missed in some accounts, leading to endless confusions.  Intuitionistic logic, properly conceived, is compatible with classical logic in that classical logic may be seen as an idealization of intuitionistic logic in which we heuristically postulate that all propositions are decidable (all instances of LEM hold).

The crucial point distinguishing the meaning explanation from recursive realizability is precisely the refusal to accept Church’s Law, a kind of comprehension principle for functions as discussed earlier.  This refusal is often called computational open-endedness because it amounts to avoiding a commitment to the blasphemy of limiting God’s programming language to Turing machines (using an apt metaphor of Andrej Bauer’s).  Rather, we piously accept that richer notions of computation are possible, and avoid commitment to a “final theory” of computation in which Church’s Law is postulated outright.  By avoiding the witnessing function provided by Church’s Law we gain expressive power, rather than losing it, resulting in an elegant theory of constructive mathematics that enriches, rather than diminishes, classical mathematics.    In short, contrary to “common sense” (i.e., uninformed supposition), more is not always better.

Update: corrected minor technical error and some typographical errors.

Update: clarified point about incompatibility of recursive realizability with classical logic.


Exceptions are shared secrets

December 3, 2012

It’s quite obvious to me that the treatment of exceptions in Haskell is wrong. Setting aside the example I gave before of an outright unsoundness, exceptions in Haskell are nevertheless done improperly, even if they happen to be sound. One reason is that the current formulation is not stable under seemingly mild extensions to Haskell that one might well want to consider, notably any form of parameterized module or any form of shadowing of exception declarations. For me this is enough to declare the whole thing wrong, but as it happens Haskell is too feeble to allow full counterexamples to be formulated, so one may still claim that what is there now is ok … for now.

But I wish to argue that Haskell exceptions are nevertheless poorly designed, because it misses the crucial point that exception values are shared secrets. Let us distinguish two parties, the raiser of the exception, and the handler of it. The fundamental idea of exceptions is to transfer a value from the raiser to the handler without the possibility of interception by another party. While the language of secrecy seems appropriately evocative, I hasten to add that I am not here concerned with “attackers” or suchlike, but merely with the difficulties of ensuring modular composition of programs from components. In such a setting the “attacker” is yourself, who is not malicious, but who is fallible.

By raising an exception the raiser is “contacting” a handler with a message. The raiser wishes to limit which components of a program may intercept that message. More precisely, the raiser wishes to ensure that only certain previously agreed-upon components may handle that exception, perhaps only one. This property should remain stable under extension to the program or composition with any other component. It should not be possible for an innocent third party to accidentally intercept a message that was not intended for it.

Achieving this requires a secrecy mechanism that allows the raiser and the handler(s) to agree upon their cooperation. This is accomplished by dynamic classification, exactly as it is done properly in Standard ML (but not O’Caml). The idea is that the raiser has access to a dynamically generated constructor for exception values, and any handler has access to the corresponding dynamically generated matcher for exception values. This means that the handler, and only the handler, can decode the message sent by the raiser; no other party can do anything with it other than pass it along unexamined. It is “perfectly encrypted” and cannot be deciphered by any unintended component.

The usual exception mechanisms, as distinct from exception values, allow for “wild-card handlers”, which means that an exception can be intercepted by a third party. This means that the raiser cannot ensure that the handler actually receives the message, but it can ensure, using dynamic classification, that only a legitimate handler may decipher it. Decades of experience with Standard ML shows that this is a very useful thing indeed, and has application far beyond just the simple example considered here. For full details, see my forthcoming book, for a full discussion of dynamic classification and its role for ensuring integrity and confidentiality in a program. Dynamic classification is not just for “security”, but is rather a good tool for everyday programming.

So why does Haskell not do it this way? Well, I’m not the one to answer that question, but my guess is that doing so conflicts with the monadic separation of effects. To do exceptions properly requires dynamic allocation, and this would force code that is otherwise functional into the IO monad. Alternatively, one would have to use unsafePerformIO—as in ezyang’s implementation—to “hide” the effects of exception allocation. But this would then be further evidence that the strict monadic separation of effects is untenable.

Update: Reworked last paragraph to clarify the point I am making; the previous formulation appears to have invited misinterpretation.

Update: This account of exceptions also makes clear why the perennial suggestion to put exception-raising information into types makes no sense to me. I will write more about this in a future post, but meanwhile contemplate that a computation may raise an exception that is not even in principle nameable in the type. That is, it is not conservativity that’s at issue, it’s the very idea.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,295 other followers