A semigroup is a set S equipped with a binary operation + which is associative; that is, for any a, b, c in S, a + (b + c) = (a + b) + c. The natural numbers 0, 1, 2, … form a semigroup under both addition and multiplication, but not under subtraction, since 3 - (2 - 1) is 2, but (3 - 2) - 1 is 0.

Here is the definition (truncated) of the semigroup class in Haskell:

The semigroup operation is a binary operation, and that is reflected by the signature `(<>) :: a -> a -> a`. But what about associativity? The docstring says that the operation “should” be associative, and there is a comment in the code itself: `-- | An associative operation.` Who is that comment trying to convince? Perhaps the comment is a symptom of anxiety about the fact that associativity is not enforced in the class definition.

A monoid is a semigroup with a neutral element; that is, an element e such that for every x in S, e + x = x = x + e. Here is the source (truncated):

Again, the docstring and the overinsistent comment make some claims about the properties of the neutral element, but those claims are not enforced by the typechecker.

But wait, what exactly is the claim being made? “Instances should satisfy the following laws…”. What kind of claim is this? What does it mean to say of code that it “should” have some property? Is such a “should”-claim true? Is it false? Is it true or false at all, or is it something else?

This kind of talk comes up a lot when these classes are discussed. Let’s see what Learn You a Haskell has to say about monoids (emphases mine):

We mentioned that there has to be a value that acts as the identity with respect to the binary function and that the binary function has to be associative. It’s possible to make instances of Monoid that don’t follow these rules, but such instances are of no use to anyone because when using the Monoid type class, we rely on its instances acting like monoids. Otherwise, what’s the point? That’s why when making instances, we have to make sure they follow these laws

[The identity] must have the property that…

[W]e also require monoids to obey these two rules

[The associative operator and the identity element] are subject to laws

The only rule for this Semigroup interface is that the operator we implement must obey the following associativity law

And so on. Two sets of vocabulary show up over and over. On the one hand, the authoritarian language of law and order – laws, rules, obedience, subjection; on the other hand, the deontic language of ethics and morality: “should”, “must”, “has to”, “ought to”, and so on.

This is not the transparent language of code, it is the murky language of humans. It suggests that there are requirements that cannot be built into the code. The language (Haskell) does not support formal specifications like this, so verification is left to humans. How exactly this gets worked out might differ in various circumstances, but for the most part it seems to require trust. The user of an instance assumes that the expected properties hold, while the implementor, by virtue of having implemented the class, implicitly assures that this is the case.

This state of affairs is the result of a shortcoming of Haskell and languages like it, namely that they don’t support proofs and therefore cannot verify claims like associativity and neutrality. In a dependently-typed language like Idris, requirements and “laws” can be built right into the code, with no need for squishy “shoulds” and “musts”. Here are Idris definitions for semigroup and monoid:

And that’s that. No “shoulds”, no “musts”, just straightforward descriptions. If I have an instance of `Semigroup`, I don’t need to worry about whether or not that it “obeys the laws”; the fact that it compiled in the first place assures me that properties were proved (with some caveats; see below). The operator of a semigroup just is associative.

Sometimes proving these properties is hard, and sometimes it’s easy. Here’s an easy one:

Here’s a harder one:

BUT WAIT

Those definitions are possible Idris definitions of those structures, but they are not the official ones. Officially, they are defined like this:

These are just like the squishy Haskell definitions, “musts” and all. In order to take advantage of language-level support for proofs, there are corresponding “verified” definitions:

The “verification” is available basically as a mix-in. It is optional, and the “plain” version can be implemented without the “verification”.

This seems to me like bad idea, so I proposed to change it. Of course, it’s much easier to talk shit than it is to implement a change of that scope, so I also opened a PR to implement it too. There was some spirited discussion, but I don’t think the proposal will get accepted. There are two reasons, one technical and one social.

The technical reason is that Idris (along with most things related to type theory) does not have extensional equality. This means that functions cannot be proved to be equal even when they have exactly the same outputs. Several common cases of Semigroup and Monoid need proofs of function equality for “verification”, and since that is impossible, it is argued, verification shouldn’t be required.

Personally, I am suspicious of non-extensionality1, but even setting that aside, I am not convinced by this argument. For Idris provides the `postulate` mechanism to enable the use of unproved statements, and postulates can be used to fill in unprovable holes. Here is an example:

From a correctness perspective, there is nothing wrong with this. If Morphisms really are associative, then no false consquences can arise out of it. In other words, the postulate is consistent with the rest of the language. True postulates can be added on a case-by-case basis with impunity.

I used postulates in several places in that PR2, and somebody accused me of wanting to have it both ways, demanding that proofs be provided while falling back on postulates when I couldn’t prove something. But even this is an improvement on the existing arrangement. Currently, the implementor implicitly assures that their implementation “obeys the laws” of the interface. With the postulate approach, the same assurance is made, but it is made explicitly. And as the Zen of Python says,

Explicit is better than implicit.

Before moving on to the social reason for rejecting verification by default, let’s stop and consider: why aren’t Haskell interfaces verified? Haskellers are well-known for bragging about the safety from errors their language affords them, and “theorems for free” and all that. Why would such fastidious people leave it up to implementors to ensure on their own that their semigroups and monoids really do have the properties that they “should” have, that they “obey the laws”? I take it that it’s because Haskell the language does not provide a mechanism for verification. It can’t be done in the language, so they have to rely on side-channel human verification instead. It wasn’t a choice that was made, it was just a circumstance.

So now here we are with Idris, where it is possible to verify. Non-verification is not a circumstance to be dealt with, it is choice that has been made. Why? I think the answer is basically tradition and a kind of quasi-backwards-compatibility. The reasoning might go something like this:

Yes, it is not ideal to have two interfaces for each structure, and if we were designing these interfaces from scratch, then perhaps we would verify by default, since that would mean that an implemented structure really is what the docstring says it is. But we aren’t designing these interfaces from scratch: they are inherited from Haskell, and they are the way they are because verification is not possible there. Idris is intended to hew pretty close to Haskell, and in particular, Haskell code ought to “just work” in Idris (modulo minor syntactic differences). Thus the current system of opt-in verification is a means of preserving a kind of backwards compatibility with Haskell.

Is that a good reason? Maybe. I guess it depends on your priorities. I don’t come from Haskell, so I don’t care about compatibility with Haskell interfaces, but maybe I’m an outlier among Idris users in that respect.

# Footnotes

1 Non-extensionality is also known as intentionality. See this and this for details.

2 I also used a mechanism called `believe_me`, which is apparently not the right thing to use in this case. `really_believe_me` is also not the right thing to use. I don’t understand the difference between them, or what exactly either of them do.