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Equality is Hard

Posted on August 6, 2014
Tags: types

Equality seems like one of the simplest things to talk about in a theorem prover. After all, the notion of equality is something any small child can intuitively grasp. The sad bit is, while it’s quite easy to hand-wave about, how equality is formalized seems to be a rather complex topic.

In this post I’m going to attempt to cover a few of the main different means of “equality proofs” or identity types and the surrounding concepts. I’m opting for a slightly more informal approach in the hopes of covering more ground.

Definitional Equality

This is not really an equality type per say, but it’s worth stating explicitly what definitional equality is since I must refer to it several times throughout this post.

Two terms A and B are definitional equal is a judgment notated

Γ ⊢ A ≡ B

This is not a user level proof but rather a primitive, untyped judgment in the meta-theory of the language itself. The typing rules of the language will likely include a rule along the lines of

Γ ⊢ A ≡ B, Γ ⊢ x : A
     Γ ⊢ x : B

So this isn’t an identity type you would prove something with, but a much more magical notion that two things are completely the same to the typechecker.

Now in most type theories we have a slightly more powerful notion of definitional equality where not only are x ≡ y if x is y only by definition but also by computation.

So in Coq for example

(2 + 2) ≡ 4

Even though “definitionally” these are entirely separate entities. In most theories, definitionally equal means “inlining all definitions and with normalization”, but not all.

In type theories that distinguish between the two, the judgment that when normalized x is y is called judgmental equality. I won’t distinguish between the two further because most don’t, but it’s worth noting that they can be seen as separate concepts.

Propositional Equality

This is the sort of equality that we’ll spend the rest of our time discussing. Propositional equality is a particular type constructor with the type/kind

Id : (A : Set) → A → A → Type

We should be able to prove a number of definitions like

reflexivity  : (A : Set)(x     : A) → Id x x
symmetry     : (A : Set)(x y   : A) → Id x y → Id y x
transitivity : (A : Set)(x y z : A) → Id x y → Id y z → Id x z

This is an entirely separate issue from definitional equality since propositional equality is a concept that users can hypothesis about.

One very important difference is that we can make proofs like

sanity : Id 1 2 → ⊥

Since the identity proposition is a type family which can be used just like any other proposition. This is in stark contrast to definitional equality which a user can’t even normally utter!


This is arguably the simplest form of equality. Identity types are just normal inductive types with normal induction principles. The most common is equality given by Martin Lof

data Id (A : Set) : A → A → Type where
   Refl : (x : A) → Id x x

This yields a simple induction principle

id-ind : (P : (x y : A) → Id x y → Type)
       → ((x : A) → P x x (Refl x))
       → (x y : A)(p : Id x y) → P x y p

In other words, if we can prove that P holds for the reflexivity case, than P holds for any x and y where Id x y.

We can actually phrase Id in a number of ways, including

data Id (A : Set)(x : A) : A → Set where
  Refl : Id x x

This really makes a difference in the resulting induction principle

j : (A : Set)(x : A)(P : (y : A) → Id x y → Set)
  → P x Refl
  → (y : A)(p : Id x y) → P y p

This clearly turned out a bit differently! In particular now P is only parametrized over one value of A, y. This particular elimination is traditionally named j.

These alternative phrasings can have serious impacts on proofs that use them. It also has even more subtle effects on things like heterogeneous equality which we’ll discuss later.

The fact that this only relies on simple inductive principles is also a win for typechecking. Equality/substitution fall straight out of how normal inductive types are handled! This also means that we can keep decidability within reason.

The price we pay of course is that this is much more painful to work with. An intensional identity type means the burden of constructing our equality proofs falls on users. Furthermore, we lose the ability to talk about observational equality.

Observational equality is the idea that two “thingies” are indistinguishable by any test.

It’s clear that we can prove that if Id x y, then f x = f y, but it’s less clear how to go the other way and prove something like

fun_ext : (A B : Set)(f g : A → B)
         → ((x : A) → Id (f x) (g x)) → Id f g
fun_ext f g p = ??

Even though this is clearly desirable. If we know that f and g behave exactly the same way, we’d like our equality to be able to state that. However, we don’t know that f and g are constructed the same way, making this impossible to prove.

This can be introduced as an axiom but to maintain our inductively defined equality type we have to sacrifice one of the following

  1. Coherence
  2. Inductive types
  3. Extensionality
  4. Decidability

Some this has been avoided by regarding equality as an induction over the class of types as in Martin Lof’s intuitionist type theory.

In the type theory that we’ve outlined, this isn’t expressible sadly.

Definitional + Extensional

Some type theories go a different route to equality, giving us back the extensionality in the process. One of those type theories is extensional type theory.

In the simplest formulation, we have intensional type theory with a new rule, reflection

Γ ⊢ p : Id x y
  Γ ⊢ x ≡ y

This means that our normal propositional equality can be shoved back into the more magical definitional equality. This gives us a lot more power, all the typecheckers magic and support of definitional equality can be used with our equality types!

It isn’t all puppies an kittens though, arbitrary reflection can also make things undecidable in general. For example Martin Lof’s system is undecidable with extensional equality.

It’s worth noting that no extensional type theory is implemented this way. Instead they’ve taken a different approach to defining types themselves!

In this model of ETT types are regarded as a partial equivalence relation (PER) over unityped (untyped if you want to get in a flamewar) lambda calculus terms.

These PERs precisely reflect the extensional equality at that “type” and we then check membership by reflexivity. So a : T is synonymous with (a, a) ∈ T. Notice that since we are dealing with a PER, we know that ∀ a. (a, a) ∈ T need not hold. This is reassuring, otherwise we’d be able to prove that every type was inhabited by every term!

The actual NuRPL&friends theory is a little more complicated than that. It’s not entirely dependent on PERs and allows a few different ways of introducing types, but I find that PERs are a helpful idea.

Propositional Extensionality

This is another flavor of extensional type theory which is really just intensional type theory plus some axioms.

We can arrive at this type theory in a number of ways, the simplest is to add axiom K

k : (A : Set)(x : A)(P : (x : A) → Id x x → Type)
  → P x (Refl x) → (p : Id x x) → P x p

This says that if we can prove that for any property P, P x (Refl x) holds, then it holds for any proof that Id x x. This is subtly different than straightforward induction on Id because here we’re not proving that a property parameterized over two different values of A, but only one.

This is horribly inconsistent in something like homotopy type theory but lends a bit of convenience to theories where we don’t give Id as much meaning.

Using k we can prove that for any p q : Id x y, then Id p q. In Agda notation

    prop : (A : Set)(x y : A)(p q : x ≡ y)
          p ≡ q
    prop A x .x refl q = k A P  _  refl) x q
      where P : (x : A)  x ≡ x  Set
            P _ p = refl ≡ p

This can be further refined to show that that we can eliminate all proofs that Id x x are Refl x

    rec : (A : Set)(P : A  Set)(x y : A)(p : P x)  x ≡ y  P y
    rec A P x .x p refl = p

    rec-refl-is-useless : (A : Set)(P : A  Set)(x : A)
                         (p : P x)(eq : x ≡ x)  p ≡ rec A P x x p eq
    rec-refl-is-useless A P x p eq with prop A x x eq refl
    rec-refl-is-useless A P x p .refl | refl = refl

This form of extensional type theory still leaves a clear distinction between propositional equality and definitional equality by avoiding a reflection rule. However, with rec-refl-is–useless we can do much of the same things, whenever we have something that matches on an equality proof we can just remove it.

We essentially have normal propositional equality, but with the knowledge that things can only be equal in 1 way, up to propositional equality!

Heterogeneous Equality

The next form of equality we’ll talk about is slightly different than previous ones. Heterogeneous equality is designed to co-exist in some other type theory and supplement the existing form of equality.

Heterogeneous equality is most commonly defined with John Major equality

    data JMeq : (A B : Set)  A  B  Set where
      JMrefl : (A : Set)(x : A)  JMeq A A x x

This is termed after a British politician since while it promises that any two terms can be equal regardless of their class (type), only two things from the same class can ever be equal.

Now remember how earlier I’d mentioned that how we phrase these inductive equality types can have a huge impact? We’ll here we can see that because the above definition doesn’t typecheck in Agda!

That’s because Agda is predicative, meaning that a type constructor can’t quantify over the same universe it occupies. We can however, cleverly phrase JMeq so to avoid this

    data JMeq (A : Set) : (B : Set)  A  B  Set where
      JMrefl : (a : A)  JMeq A A a a

Now the constructor avoids quantifying over Set and therefore fits inside the same universe as A and B.

JMeq is usually paired with an axiom to reflect heterogeneous equality back into our normal equality proof.

reflect : (A : Set)(x y : A) → JMeq x y → Id x y

This reflection doesn’t look necessary, but arises for similar reasons that dictate that k is unprovable.

It looks like this heterogeneous equality is a lot more trouble than it’s worth at first. It really shines when we’re working with terms that we know must be the same, but require pattern matching or other jiggering to prove.

If you’re looking for a concrete example, look no further than Observational Equality Now!. This paper gives allows observational equality to be jammed into a principally intensional system!

Wrap Up

So this has been a whirlwind tour through a lot of different type theories. I partially wrote this to gather some of this information in one (free) place. If there’s something here missing that you’d like to see added, feel free to comment or email me.

Thanks to Jon Sterling for proof reading and many subtle corrections :)

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