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Joachim Breitner: Isabelle functions: Always total, sometimes undefined

October 12, 2017 17:54 , by Planet Debian - 0no comments yet | No one following this article yet.
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Often, when I mention how things work in the interactive theorem prover Isabelle/HOL to people with a strong background in functional programming (whether that means Haskell or Coq or something else), I cause confusion, especially around the issue of what is a function, are function total and what is the business with undefined. In this blog post, I want to explain some these issues, aimed at functional programmers or type theoreticians.

Note that this is not meant to be a tutorial; I will not explain how to do these things, and will focus on what they mean.

HOL is a logic of total functions

If I have a Isabelle function f :: a ⇒ b between two types a and b (the function arrow in Isabelle is , not ), then – by definition of what it means to be a function in HOL – whenever I have a value x :: a, then the expression f x (i.e. f applied to x) is a value of type b. Therefore, and without exception, every Isabelle function is total.

In particular, it cannot be that f x does not exist for some x :: a. This is a first difference from Haskell, which does have partial functions like

spin :: Maybe Integer -> Bool
spin (Just n) = spin (Just (n+1))

Here, neither the expression spin Nothing nor the expression spin (Just 42) produce a value of type Bool: The former raises an exception (“incomplete pattern match”), the latter does not terminate. Confusingly, though, both expressions have type Bool.

Because every function is total, this confusion cannot arise in Isabelle: If an expression e has type t, then it is a value of type t. This trait is shared with other total systems, including Coq.

Did you notice the emphasis I put on the word “is” here, and how I deliberately did not write “evaluates to” or “returns”? This is because of another big source for confusion:

Isabelle functions do not compute

We (i.e., functional programmers) stole the word “function” from mathematics and repurposed it1. But the word “function”, in the context of Isabelle/HOL, refers to the mathematical concept of a function, and it helps to keep that in mind.

What is the difference?

  • A function a → b in functional programming is an algorithm that, given a value of type a, calculates (returns, evaluates to) a value of type b.
  • A function a ⇒ b in math (or Isabelle/HOL) associates with each value of type a a value of type b.

For example, the following is a perfectly valid function definition in math (and HOL), but could not be a function in the programming sense:

definition foo :: "(nat => real) => real" where
  "foo seq = (if convergent seq then lim seq else 0)"

This assigns a real number to every sequence, but it does not compute it in any useful sense.

From this it follows that

Isabelle functions are specified, not defined

Consider this function definition:

fun plus :: "nat ⇒ nat ⇒ nat"  where
   "plus 0       m = m"
 | "plus (Suc n) m = Suc (plus n m)"

To a functional programmer, this reads

plus is a function that analyses its first argument. If that is 0, then it returns the second argument. Otherwise, it calls itself with the predecessor of the first argument and increases the result by one.

which is clearly a description of a computation.

But to Isabelle/HOL, the above reads

plus is a binary function on natural numbers, and it satisfies the following two equations: …

And in fact, it is not so much Isabelle/HOL that reads it this way, but rather the fun command, which is external to the Isabelle/HOL logic. The fun command analyses the given equations, constructs a non-recursive definition of plus under the hood, passes that to Isabelle/HOL and then proves that the given equations hold for plus.

One interesting consequence of this is that different specifications can lead to the same functions. In fact, if we would define plus' by recursing on the second argument, we’d obtain the the same function (i.e. plus = plus' is a theorem, and there would be no way of telling the two apart).

Termination is a property of specifications, not functions

Because a function does not evaluate, it does not make sense to ask if it terminates. The question of termination arises before the function is defined: The fun command can only construct plus in a way that the equations hold if it can find a termination proof – very much like Fixpoint in Coq.

But while the termination check of Fixpoint in Coq is a deep part of the basic logic, in Isabelle it is simply something that this particular command requires. Other commands may have other means of defining a function that do not require a termination proof.

For example, a function specification that is tail-recursive can be turned in to a function, even without a termination proof: The following definition describes a higher-order function that iterates its first argument f on the second argument x until it finds a fixpoint. It is completely polymorphic (the single quote in 'a indicates that this is a type variable):

partial_function (tailrec)
  fixpoint :: "('a ⇒ 'a) ⇒ 'a ⇒ 'a"
  "fixpoint f x = (if f x = x then x else fixpoint f (f x))"

We can work with this definition just fine. For example, if we instantiate f with (λx. x-1), we can prove that it will always return 0:

lemma "fixpoint (λ n . n - 1) (n::nat) = 0"
  by (induction n) (auto simp add: fixpoint.simps)

Similarly, if we have a function that works within the option monad (i.e. |Maybe| in Haskell), its specification can always be turned into a function without an explicit termination proof – here one that calculates the Collatz sequence:

partial_function (option) collatz :: "nat ⇒ nat list option"
 where "collatz n =
        (if n = 1 then Some [n]
         else if even n
           then do { ns <- collatz (n div 2);    Some (n # ns) }
           else do { ns <- collatz (3 * n + 1);  Some (n # ns)})"

Note that lists in Isabelle are finite (like in Coq, unlike in Haskell), so this function “returns” a list only if the collatz sequence eventually reaches 1.

I expect these definitions to make a Coq user very uneasy. How can fixpoint be a total function? What is fixpoint (λn. n+1)? What if we run collatz n for a n where the Collatz sequence does not reach 1?2 We will come back to that question after a little detour…

HOL is a logic of non-empty types

Another big difference between Isabelle and Coq is that in Isabelle/HOL, every types is inhabited. Just like the totality of functions, this is a very fundamental fact about what HOL defines to be a type.

Isabelle gets away with that design because in Isabelle, we do not use types for propositions (like we do in Coq), so we do not need empty types to denote false propositions.

This design has an important consequence: It allows the existence of a polymorphic expression that inhabits any type, namely

undefined :: 'a

The naming of this term alone has caused a great deal of confusion for Isabelle beginners, or in communication with users of different systems, so I implore you to not read too much into the name. In fact, you will have a better time if you think of it as arbitrary or, even better, unknown.

Since undefined can be instantiated at any type, we can instantiate it for example at bool, and we can observe an important fact: undefined is not an extra value besides the “usual ones”. It is simply some value of that type, which is demonstrated in the following lemma:

lemma "undefined = True ∨ undefined = False" by auto

In fact, if the type has only one value (such as the unit type), then we know the value of undefined for sure:

lemma "undefined = ()" by auto

It is very handy to be able to produce an expression of any type, as we will see as follows

Partial functions are just underspecified functions

For example, it allows us to translate incomplete function specifications. Consider this definition, Isabelle’s equivalent of Haskell’s partial fromJust function:

fun fromSome :: "'a option ⇒ 'a" where
  "fromSome (Some x) = x"

This definition is accepted by fun (albeit with a warning), and the generated function fromSome behaves exactly as specified: when applied to Some x, it is x. The term fromSome None is also a value of type 'a, we just do not know which one it is, as the specification does not address that.

So fromSome None behaves just like undefined above, i.e. we can prove

lemma "fromSome None = False ∨ fromSome None = True" by auto

Here is a small exercise for you: Can you come up with an explanation for the following lemma:

fun constOrId :: "bool ⇒ bool" where
  "constOrId True = True"

lemma "constOrId = (λ_.True) ∨ constOrId = (λx. x)"
  by (metis (full_types) constOrId.simps)

Overall, this behavior makes sense if we remember that function “definitions” in Isabelle/HOL are not really definitions, but rather specifications. And a partial function “definition” is simply a underspecification. The resulting function is simply any function hat fulfills the specification, and the two lemmas above underline that observation.

Nonterminating functions are also just underspecified

Let us return to the puzzle posed by fixpoint above. Clearly, the function – seen as a functional program – is not total: When passed the argument (λn. n + 1) or (λb. ¬b) it will loop forever trying to find a fixed point.

But Isabelle functions are not functional programs, and the definitions are just specifications. What does the specification say about the case when f has no fixed-point? It states that the equation fixpoint f x = fixpoint f (f x) holds. And this equation has a solution, for example fixpoint f _ = undefined.

Or more concretely: The specification of the fixpoint function states that fixpoint (λb. ¬b) True = fixpoint (λb. ¬b) False has to hold, but it does not specify which particular value (True or False) it should denote – any is fine.

Not all function specifications are ok

At this point you might wonder: Can I just specify any equations for a function f and get a function out of that? But rest assured: That is not the case. For example, no Isabelle command allows you define a function bogus :: () ⇒ nat with the equation bogus () = S (bogus ()), because this equation does not have a solution.

We can actually prove that such a function cannot exist:

lemma no_bogus: "∄ bogus. bogus () = Suc (bogus ())" by simp

(Of course, not_bogus () = not_bogus () is just fine…)

You cannot reason about partiality in Isabelle

We have seen that there are many ways to define functions that one might consider “partial”. Given a function, can we prove that it is not “partial” in that sense?

Unfortunately, but unavoidably, no: Since undefined is not a separate, recognizable value, but rather simply an unknown one, there is no way of stating that “A function result is not undefined”.

Here is an example that demonstrates this: Two “partial” functions (one with not all cases specified, the other one with a self-referential specification) are indistinguishable from the total variant:

fun partial1 :: "bool ⇒ unit" where
  "partial1 True = ()"
partial_function (tailrec) partial2 :: "bool ⇒ unit" where
  "partial2 b = partial2 b"
fun total :: "bool ⇒ unit" where
  "total True = ()"
| "total False = ()"

lemma "partial1 = total ∧ partial2 = total" by auto

If you really do want to reason about partiality of functional programs in Isabelle, you should consider implementing them not as plain HOL functions, but rather use HOLCF, where you can give equational specifications of functional programs and obtain continuous functions between domains. In that setting, ⊥ ≠ () and partial2 = ⊥ ≠ total. We have done that to verify some of HLint’s equations.


We have seen how in Isabelle/HOL, every function is total. Function declarations have equations, but these do not define the function in an computational sense, but rather specify them. Because in HOL, there are no empty types, many specifications that appear partial (incomplete patterns, non-terminating recursion) have solutions in the space of total functions. Partiality in the specification is no longer visible in the final product.

PS: Axiom undefined in Coq

This section is speculative, and an invitation for discussion.

Coq already distinguishes between types used in programs (Set) and types used in proofs Prop.

Could Coq ensure that every t : Set is non-empty? I imagine this would require additional checks in the Inductive command, similar to the checks that the Isabelle command datatype has to perform3, and it would disallow Empty_set.

If so, then it would be sound to add the following axiom

Axiom undefined : forall (a : Set), a.

wouldn't it? This axiom does not have any computational meaning, but that seems to be ok for optional Coq axioms, like classical reasoning or function extensionality.

With this in place, how much of what I describe above about function definitions in Isabelle could now be done soundly in Coq. Certainly pattern matches would not have to be complete and could sport an implicit case _ => undefined. Would it “help” with non-obviously terminating functions? Would it allow a Coq command Tailrecursive that accepts any tailrecursive function without a termination check?

  1. At least we do not violate this term as much as the imperative programmers do.

  2. Let me know if you find such an n. Besides n = 0.

  3. Like fun, the constructions by datatype are not part of the logic, but create a type definition from more primitive notions that is isomorphic to the specified data type.

Source: http://www.joachim-breitner.de/blog/732-Isabelle_functions__Always_total%2C_sometimes_undefined

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