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Notes on Parametricity

Posted on December 22, 2014
Tags: types, notes

I like types. If you haven’t figured this out from my blog I really don’t know where you’ve been looking :) If you’ve ever talked to me in real life about why I like types, chances are I mentioned ease of reasoning and correctness.

Instead of showing how to prove parametricity I’d like to show how to rigorously apply parametricity. So we’ll be a step above handwaving and a step below actually proving everything correct.

What is Parametricity

At a high level parametricity is about the behavior of well typed terms. It basically says that when we have more polymorphic types, there are fewer programs that type check. For example, the type

    const :: a -> b -> a

Tells us everything we need to know about const. It returns it’s first argument. In fact, if it returns anything (non-bottom) at all, it simply must be its first argument!

Parametricity isn’t limited to simple cases like this however, it can be used to prove that the type

    forall c. c -> (a -> c -> c) -> c

Is completely isomorphic to [a]!

We can use parametricity to prove free theorems, like if map id = id then map f . map g = map (f . g).

These are non-obvious properties and yet parametricity gives us the power to prove all of them without even looking at the implementation of these functions. That’s pretty cool!

Handwavy Parametricity

In order to get an idea of how to use parametricity, let’s do some handwavy proofs to get some intuition for how parametricity works.

Start with id.

    id :: a -> a

We know right away that id takes some value of type a and returns another value a. Most people would safely guess that the returned value is the one we fed it.

In fact, we can kinda see that this is the only thing it could do. If it didn’t, then somehow it’d have to create a value of type a, but we know that that’s impossible! (Yeah, yeah, I know, bottom. Look the other way for now)

Similarly, if map id is just id, then we know that map isn’t randomly dropping some elements of our list. Since map isn’t removing elements, in order to take an a to a b, map has to be applying f to each element! Since that’s true, we can clearly see that

    map f . map g = map (f . g)

because we know that applying f and then applying g is the same as apply f and g at the same time!

Now these handwavy statements are all based on one critical point. No matter how we instantiate a type variable, the behaviour we get is related. Instantiating something to Bool or Int doesn’t change the fundamental behaviour about what we’re instantiated.


Before we can formally define parametricity we need to flesh out a few things. First things first, we need to actually specify the language we’re working in. For our purposes, we’ll just deal with pure System F.

ty ::= v                [Type Variables]
     | ty -> ty         [Function Types]
     | forall v. ty     [Universal Quantification]
     | Bool             [Booleans]

exp ::= v               [Variables]
      | exp exp         [Application]
      | λv : ty -> exp  [Abstraction]
      | Λv -> exp       [Type Abstraction]
      | exp[ty]         [Type Application]
      | true            [Boolean]
      | false           [Boolean]

The only real notable feature of our language is that all polymorphism is explicit. In order to have a full polymorphic type we have to use a “big lambda” Λ. This acts just like a normal lambda except instead of abstracting over a term this abstracts over a type.

For example the full term for the identity function is

id = Λ A -> \x : A -> x

From here we can explicitly specialize a polymorphic type with type application.

id[Bool] true

Aside from this, the typing rules for this language are pretty much identical to Haskell’s. In the interest of brevity I’ll elide them.

Actual Parametricity

Now that we have our language, let’s talk about what we’re interested in proving. Our basic goal is to show that two expressions e1 and e2 are equal. However, we don’t want to use a == sort of equality. We really mean that they can’t be distinguished by our programs. That for all programs with a “hole”, filling that hole with e1 or e2 will produce identical results. This is called “observational equivalence” usually and notated with .

This is a bit more general than just ==, for example it let’s us say that flip const () ≅ id. Now let’s define another notion of equality, logical equivalence.

This logical equivalence is an attempt to define equality without just saying “running everything produces the same result”. It turns out it’s really really hard to prove things that aren’t syntactically equivalent will always produce the same result!

Our logical equivalence ~ is defined in a context η : δ ↔ δ'. The reason for this is that our terms may have free type variables and we need to know how to deal with them. Each δ maps the free types in the types of our terms to a concrete types and η is a relationship for comparing δ(v) with δ'(v).

Put less scarily, η is a set of rules that say how to compare two terms when the have both are of type v. This is an important part of our logical relation: it deals with open terms, terms with free variables.

Now η isn’t composed of just any relationship between terms, it has to be “admissible”. Admissibility means that for some relation R, two conditions hold

  1. If e R e' and d ⇒ e and d' ⇒ e', then d R d'
  2. If e R e' and d ≅ e and d' ≅ e', then d R d'

The first rule means that R is closed under evaluation and the second says that R respects observational equivalence.

Now we define our logical equivalence in some context δ to be

  1. When e, e' : τ, e ~ e' [η] if e δ(t) e'
  2. When e, e' : Bool, e ~₂ e' [η] if e ⇓ v and e' ⇓ v
  3. When f, g : a → b, f ~ g [η] if when a ~ b [η], f a ~ g b [η]
  4. When e e' : ∀ v. t, e ~ e' [η]
    if R : p ↔ p', e[p] ~ e'[p'] [η[v ↦ R]]

Now this rule has 4 cases, one for each type. That’s the first critical bit of this relation, we’re talking about things by the structure of the type, not the value itself.

Now with this in mind we can state the full parametricity theorem.

For all expressions e and mappings η, e ~ e [η]

That’s it! Now this is only really useful when we’re talking about polymorphic type, then parametricity states that for any admissible relation R, two different instantiations are related.

While I won’t go into how to prove it, another important results we’ll use for proofs with parametricity is that (∀η. e ~ e' [η]) ⇔ e ≅ e'.

Applying Parametricity

Now that I’ve said exactly what parametricity is, I’d like to step through a few proofs. The goal here is to illustrate how we can use this to prove some interesting properties.

First we just have to prove the classic result that any f : forall a. a -> a is equivalent to id = Λa. λx : a. x.

To prove this we need to show f ~ id [η]. For this we need to show that for any admissible relation R between τ and τ', then f[τ] ~ λx : τ'. x [η[a ↦ R]. Stepping this one more time we end up with the goal that e R e' then f[τ] e ~ e' ⇔ f[τ] e R e'

Now this is where things get tricky and where we can apply parametricity. We know by definition that f ~ f [η]. We then choose a new relation S : τ' ↔ τ' where d S d' if and only d ≅ e' and d' ≅ e'. Exercise to the reader: show admissibility.

From here we know that f[τ] ~ f[τ] [η[a ↦ R]] and since e S e then f[τ] e ~ f[τ] e which implies f[τ] e S f[τ] e. This means that f[τ] e ≅ e. From our note above, f[τ] e ~ e and by transitivity we have f[τ] e R e'.

Now we can prove something similar, that (f : a → b → a) ≅ const. The proof is very similar,

 f ~ const [η]
 f[τ][ν] ~ const[τ'][ν'] [η[a ↦ R][b ↦ S]]
 f[τ][ν] a b ~ a' [η[a ↦ R][b ↦ S]] where a R a'

Now we need to show that f a b ≅ a. For this we define T to be an admissible relationship where d T d' if and only if d ≅ a ≅ d'. From here we also define U to be an admissible relation where a U b if and only if a ~ b.

Now we know that f ~ f [η] and so

f[τ][ν] ~ f[τ'][ν'] [η[a ↦ T][b ↦ U]]`

And since a T a and b U b, we know that

f[τ][ν] a b ~ f[τ'][ν'] a b [η[a ↦ T][b ↦ U]]

this means that f a b ≅ a and completes our proofs. Hopefully this reinforces the idea of using parametricity and admissible relationships to produces our properties.

Now for something a bit trickier. Church numerals are a classic idea from lambda calculus where

 0 ≡ λs. λz. z
 1 ≡ λs. λz. s z
 2 ≡ λs. λz. s (s z)

And so on. In terms of types,

    type Nat = forall c. (c  c)  c  c

Now intuitively from this type it seems obvious that this only allows us to apply the first argument n types to the second, like a church numeral. Because of this we want to claim that we can compose the first argument with itself n times before applying it to the second or for all c : Nat, there exists an n so that compose n ≡ c.

To prove this we proceed as before and we end up with

 compose[τ] s z ~ c[τ'] s' z' [η[c ↦ R]]

Now we define a new relation S where

  1. a S b if a ≅ z' ≅ b
  2. a S b if n S n' and a ≅ s' n and b ≅ s' n'

Now we know that c[τ'] s' z' S c[τ'] s' z' so by inversion on this we can determine that n applications of s' followed by z'.

Set the n for compose to this new n. From here our result follows by induction on n.

This proof means there’s a mapping from c to n. The curious reader is encouraged to show this is an invertible mapping and complete the proof of isomorphism.

A Note on Free Theorems

Now most people in the Haskell community have heard the term “free theorem”, what they may not realize is that free theorems are a direct result of parametricity.

In fact, if you read Wadler’s original paper sections 5 and onwards establish parametricity. What’s interesting here is that Wadler opts to establish it in a similar way to how Reynolds did. He first defines a mathematical structure called a “type frame”.

This structure lets us map a program in something like System F or Haskell into pure math functions. From there it defines relationships in a similar way to our logical relation and shows it’s reflexive.

I didn’t opt for this route because

  1. Denotational semantics scare me a bit
  2. Type frames need more math to make sense

It’s still definitely worth reading for the curious though.

Wrap Up

Now that we’ve defined parametricity and established a few theorems for it, I hope you can start to see the advantage of types to guide our programs. General enough types can give us assurances without every even looking at the code in question.

Aren’t types cool?

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