The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 25 Jun 2019

Projection morphisms are (not) epic

I don't have a good catalog in my head of basic theorems of category theory. Every time I try to think about category theory, I get stuck on really basic lemmas like “can I assume that a product !!1×A!! is canonically isomorphic to !!A!!?” Or “Suppose !!f:A→B!! is both monic and epic. Must it be an isomorphism?” Then I get sidetracked trying to prove those lemmas, or else I assume they are true, go ahead, and even if I'm right I start to lose my nerve.

So for years I've wanted to make up a book of every possible basic theorem of category theory, in order from utterly simple to most difficult, and then prove every theorem. Then I'd know all the answers, or if I didn't, I could just look in the book. There would be a chapter on products with a long list of plausible-seeming statements:

  1. If !!P_1!! and !!P_2!! are both products of some !!A!! and !!B!!, then !!P_1\cong P_2!!
  2. !!A×B \cong B×A!!
  3. !!(A×B)×C \cong A×(B×C)!!
  4. !!1×A\cong A!!
  5. !!0×A\cong 0!!
  6. !!A×A\cong A!! if and only if !!A!! is initial
  7. If !!f!! and !!g!! are both monic, then so is !!f×g!!
  8. If !!f×g!! is monic, so are !!f!! and !!g!!
  9. (etc…)

and each one would either be annotated, Snopes-style, with “True”, or with a brief description of a counterexample.

On Sunday I thought I'd give it a shot, and I started with:

Suppose !!A×B!! is a product with projection morphism !!π_1:A×B→A!!. Then !!π_1!! is epic.

This seems very plausible, because how could the product possibly work if its left-hand component couldn't contain any possible element of !!A!!?

I struggled with this for rather a long time but I just got more and more stuck. To prove that !!π_1!! is an epimorphism I need to have !!g,h:A→C!! and then show that !!g ∘ π_1 = h ∘ π_1!! only when !!g=h!!. But !!π_1!! being a projection arrow doesn't help with this, because products are all about arrows into !!A!! and !!B!! and here I need to show something about arrows out of !!A!!.

And there's no hope that I could get any leverage by introducing some arrows into !!A!! and !!B!!, because there might not be any arrows into !!B!!. (Other than !!\text{id}_B!!, of course, but then you need an arrow !!B→A!! and that might not exist either.) Or what if I consider how the arrows from !!A×B!! factor through !!C×B!! — ah ah ah, not so fast! !!C×B!! might not exist!

I eventually gave up and looked it up online, and discovered that, in fact, the claim is not true in general. It's not even true in Set. The left projection !!π_1: X×\emptyset → X!! is not epic. (Which answers my rhetorical question above that asks “how could the product possibly work if…”)

So, uh, victory, I guess? I set out to prove something that is false, so failing to produce a proof is the best possible outcome.

And I can make lemonade out of the lemons. I couldn't prove the theorem, and my ideas about why not were basically right. Now I ought to be able to look carefully at what additional tools I might be able to use to make the proof go through anyway, and those then become part of the statement of the theorem, which then would become something like “If all binary products exist in a category with an initial object, then projection morphisms are epic.”

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