The Universe of Discourse
Fri, 18 Jul 2014

On uninhabited types and inconsistent logics

Earlier this week I gave a talk about the Curry-Howard isomorphism. Talks never go quite the way you expect. The biggest sticking point was my assertion that there is no function with the type a → b. I mentioned this as a throwaway remark on slide 7, assuming that everyone would agree instantly, and then we got totally hung up on it for about twenty minutes.

Part of this was my surprise at discovering that most of the audience (members of the Philly Lambda functional programming group) was not familiar with the Haskell type system. I had assumed that most of the members of a functional programming interest group would be familiar with one of Haskell, ML, or Scala, all of which have the same basic type system. But this was not the case. (Many people are primarily interested in Scheme, for example.)

I think the main problem was that I did not make clear to the audience what Haskell means when it says that a function has type a → b. At the talk, and then later on Reddit people asked

what about a function that takes an integer and returns a string: doesn't it have type a → b?

If you know one of the HM languages, you know that of course it doesn't; it has type Int → String, which is not the same at all. But I wasn't prepared for this confusion and it took me a while to formulate the answer. I think I underestimated the degree to which I have internalized the behavior of Hindley-Milner type systems after twenty years. Next time, I will be better prepared, and will say something like the following:

A function which takes an integer and returns a string does not have the type a → b; it has the type Int → String. You must pass it an integer, and you may only use its return value in a place that makes sense for a string. If f has this type, then 3 + f 4 is a compile-time type error because Haskell knows that f returns a string, and strings do not work with +.

But if f had the type a → b, then 3 + f 4 would be legal, because context requires that f return a number, and the type a → b says that it can return a number, because a number is an instance of the completely general type b. The type a → b, in contrast to Int → String, means that b and a are completely unconstrained.

Say function f had type a → b. Then you would be able to use the expression f x in any context that was expecting any sort of return value; you could write any or all of:

   3 + f x
   head(f x)
   "foo" ++ f x
   True && f x

and they would all type check correctly, regardless of the type of x. In the first line, f x would return a number; in the second line f would return a list; in the third line it would return a string, and in the fourth line it would return a boolean. And in each case f could be able to do what was required regardless of the type of x, so without even looking at x. But how could you possibly write such a function f? You can't; it's impossible.

Contrast this with the identity function id, which has type a → a. This says that id always returns a value whose type is the same as that if its argument. So you can write

 3 + id x

as long as x has the right type for +, and you can write

 head(id x)

as long as x has the right type for head, and so on. But for f to have the type a → b, all those would have to work regardless of the type of the argument to f. And there is no way to write such an f.

Actually I wonder now if part of the problem is that we like to write a → b when what we really mean is the type ∀a.∀b.a → b. Perhaps making the quantifiers explicit would clear things up? I suppose it probably wouldn't have, at least in this case.

The issue is a bit complicated by the fact that the function

      loop :: a -> b
      loop x = loop x

does have the type a → b, and, in a language with exceptions, throw has that type also; or consider Haskell

      foo :: a -> b
      foo x = undefined

Unfortunately, just as I thought I was getting across the explanation of why there can be no function with type a → b, someone brought up exceptions and I had to mutter and look at my shoes. (You can also take the view that these functions have type a → ⊥, but the logical principle ⊥ → b is unexceptionable.)

In fact, experienced practitioners will realize, the instant the type a → b appears, that they have written a function that never returns. Such an example was directly responsible for my own initial interest in functional programming and type systems; I read a 1992 paper (“An anecdote about ML type inference”) by Andrew R. Koenig in which he described writing a merge sort function, whose type was reported (by the SML type inferencer) as [a] -> [b], and the reason was that it had a bug that would cause it to loop forever on any nonempty list. I came back from that conference convinced that I must learn ML, and Higher-Order Perl was a direct (although distant) outcome of that conviction.

Any discussion of the Curry-Howard isomorphism, using Haskell as an example, is somewhat fraught with trouble, because Haskell's type logic is utterly inconsistent. In addition to the examples above, in Haskell one can write

    fix :: (a -> a) -> a
    fix f = let x = fix f 
             in f x

and as a statement of logic, !!(a\to a)\to a!! is patently false. This might be an argument in favor of the Total Functional Programming suggested by D.A. Turner and others.

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