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Juan Pedro Villa

The Weak and the Strong: Functors


Let the weak say, I am strong.

Or not.

When programming in functional languages such as Agda and Haskell, we usually define functions and then show that they satisfy a given specification. To that effect, we can

  • define functions with a weak specification and then show that they satisfy it via companion tests or proofs, or

  • define functions with a strong specification which they satisfy by definition.

As an example, let's consider the Functor type class in Haskell, which is used for types that can be mapped over:1

class Functor f where
  fmap :: (a -> b) -> f a -> f b

Instances of Functor should satisfy the following laws:

fmap id      == id
fmap (g . f) == fmap g . fmap f

Declaring an instance of the Functor type class and then testing or proving these laws is how we define a functor with a weak specification in Haskell.

For example, this is the instance of Functor for lists, which satisfies the functor laws:

instance Functor [] where
  fmap _ []     = []
  fmap f (x:xs) = f x : fmap f xs

Certainly, declaring the instance of Functor for lists is not enough. We need to test or prove that it satisfies the functor laws, but we're not going to do that yet.

In order to see that thinking of the functor laws is important, let's consider an alternative instance of Functor for lists:

instance Functor [] where
  fmap _ _ = []

Even though this is a valid instance of Functor, it's not really a functor because it violates the functor laws. With a weak specification, ensuring that the laws hold is our responsibility, but we could use a strong specification in which we define a functor and, at the same time, prove that it is indeed a functor.

Now, defining functions with a strong specification usually relies on dependent types or types that depend on elements of other types, which is why we'll take a look at (weak and strong) functors in Agda:

record RawFunctor (F : Set  Set) : Set₁ where
  field
    fmap :  {A B}  (A  B)  F A  F B

Here, we use record types in place of Haskell type classes, so the RawFunctor record is equivalent to the Functor type class in Haskell.

Declaring a RawFunctor record and then proving the functor laws is how we define a functor with a weak specification in Agda. In fact, this is how functors are defined in the Agda standard library right now.

For example, this is the RawFunctor record for lists, which satisfies the functor laws:

rawFunctor : RawFunctor List
rawFunctor = record { fmap = fmap }

where

fmap :  {A B}  (A  B)  List A  List B
fmap _ []       = []
fmap f (x ∷ xs) = f x ∷ fmap f xs

Again, we have to prove that List and fmap satisfy the functor laws, but we're not going to do that yet.

However, we can include the functor laws in the definition of functors so that there's no way to define a functor which is not a functor:

record Functor (F : Set  Set) : Set₁ where
  field
    fmap    :  {A B}  (A  B)  F A  F B

    fmap-id :  {A} (fx : F A)  fmap id fx ≡ fx

    fmap-∘  :  {A B C} {f : A  B} {g : B  C}
              (fx : F A)  fmap (g ∘ f) fx ≡ fmap g (fmap f fx)

Here, fmap-id and fmap-∘ are fields just like fmap. Given an element fx of F A, fmap-id fx and fmap-∘ fx are proofs of the first and second functor laws, respectively. Additionally, is just a (dependent) type representing propositional (intensional) equality.

Thus, declaring a Functor record is how we define a functor with a strong specification in Agda.

For instance, here's the Functor record for lists:

functor : Functor List
functor = record { fmap = fmap ; fmap-id = fmap-id ; fmap-∘ = fmap-∘ }
  where
    fmap-id : {A : Set} (xs : List A)  fmap id xs ≡ xs
    fmap-id []       = refl
    fmap-id (x ∷ xs) = cong (__ x) (fmap-id xs)

    fmap-∘ :  {A B C} {f : A  B} {g : B  C}
             (xs : List A)  fmap (g ∘ f) xs ≡ fmap g (fmap f xs)
    fmap-∘             []       = refl
    fmap-∘ {f = f} {g} (x ∷ xs) = cong (__ (g (f x))) (fmap-∘ xs)

We prove both laws by induction and use the fact that propositional equality is a reflexive and congruence relation. Even if the proofs' details are not clear, what matters now is that this definition of the Functor record for lists satisfies our specification because it contains actual proofs of the functor laws. Moreover, it's the only way to define a type checking Functor record for lists.

This is but one example of weak and strong specifications. Of course, strong specifications are more complex than weak ones, but they're also more explicit about the behavior of our functions and closer to the idea of having a certificate of the correctness of our programs.

What do you think?


(Based on an assignment for Dependently Typed Functional Languages, chapter 9 of Yves Bertot and Pierre Casterán's Interactive Theorem Proving and Program Development, some of Adam Chlipala's ideas on Certified Programming with Dependent Types, section 6 of Ana Bove and Peter Dybjer's Dependent Types at Work, and section 3 of the Typeclassopedia.)

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