Propositions as types: explained (and debunked)

23 Aug 2023

[ logic  intuitionism  constructive logic  Martin-Löf type theory  NG de Bruijn  ]

The principle of propositions as types (a.k.a. Curry-Howard isomorphism), is much discussed, but there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation. For example, it is widely believed that propositions as types is the basis of most modern proof assistants; even, that it is necessary for any computer implementation of logic. In fact, propositions as types was found to be unworkable as the basis for conducting actual proofs the first time it was tried, in the earliest days of the AUTOMATH system. All of the main proof assistants in use today maintain a clear distinction between propositions and types. The principle is nevertheless elegant, beautiful and theoretically fruitful.

Material implication versus intuitionistic truth

The most natural route to propositions as types runs through material implication. “If it rained then the path will be muddy” sounds like a reasonable instance of logical implication. “If Caesar was a chain-smoker then mice kill cats” does not sound reasonable, and yet it is deemed to be true, at least in classical logic, where $A\to B$ is simply an abbreviation for $\neg A\lor B$.

Many people have thought that $A\to B$ should hold only if there is some sort of connection between $A$ and $B$, and many different interpretations of $\to$ have been tried. The most convincing interpretation comes from the intuitionists, specifically, from Heyting’s conception of mathematical truth itself:

Here, then, is the Brouwerian assertion of $p$: It is known how to prove $p$. We will denote this by $\vdash p$. The words “to prove” must be taken in the sense of “to prove by construction”. … $\vdash \neg p$ will mean: “It is known how to reduce $p$ to a contradiction”.

Propositions as types is already contained in this principle: we identify each proposition with the set of the mathematical constructions that make it true. The word proof is often used in place of construction, but these constructions are not proofs in some formal calculus.

In the case of implication, we now have

This function surely is the sought-for connection between $A$ and $B$.

Prositions as types in action

We can codify the principle above by asserting a rule of inference that derives \(\lambda x. b(x) : A\to B\) provided $b(x):B$ for arbitrary $x:A$. If we regard $A\to B$ as a type, then this is one of the typing rules for the λ-calculus. And if we regard $A\to B$ as a formula, then (ignoring the constructions) this is the introduction rule for implication in a standard system of natural deduction, proving $A\to B$ provided that $B$ can be proved assuming $A$.

Setting aside natural deduction for the moment, we can codify the intuitionistic idea of implication rather differently. A simple proof system for intuitionistic propositional logic has just two axioms:

And it has one inference rule, modus ponens, which from $A\to B$ and $A$ infers $B$. Here is a proof of $A\to A$:

\[\begin{align} (A\to((D\to A)\to A))\to{} & \\ ((A\to (D\to A))\to(A\to A)) & \quad\text{by S}\notag \\[1ex] A\to((D\to A)\to A) & \quad\text{by K} \\ (A\to (D\to A))\to(A\to A) & \quad\text{by MP, (1), (2)} \\ A\to (D\to A) & \quad\text{by K} \\ A\to A & \quad\text{by MP, (3), (4)} \end{align}\]

As a proof system, it sucks. But the propositions as types principle holds: this is essentially the same as the S-K system of combinators. Function application corresponds to modus ponens, The combinators correspond to the axioms (which give their types), and the derivation of the identity combinator as SKK corresponds to the proof above (with $A\to A$ as the type of I). The system of combinators also sucks: it can be used to translate any λ-calculus term into combinators, but the blowup is exponential (exactly as with the proof system). These observations are Curry’s—except he thought combinators were rather good—and Howard would not come along for a couple of decades.

Note by the way that we have not used dependent types. They are only needed if we want to have quantifiers. In a prior post I have described how other logical symbols are rendered as types, in the context of Martin-Löf type theory. In particular, the type $(\Pi x:A) B(x)$ consists of functions $\lambda x. b(x)$ where $b(x):B(x)$ for all $x:A$. The function space $A\to B$ is the special case where $B$ does not depend on $x$.

We need further types, namely $(\Sigma x:A) B(x)$ and $A+B$, to get the full intuitionistic predicate calculus. AUTOMATH provided the $\Pi$ type alone, and de Bruijn even wrote a paper cautioning against building too much into the framework itself.

AUTOMATH and irrelevance of proofs

AUTOMATH, which I have written about earlier, is the first proof checker to actually implement propositions as types. It did this in the literal sense of providing symbols TYPE and PROP, which internally were synonymous—at first. However

One of the forms of the logical double negation axiom, written by means of “prop”, turns into the axiom about Hilbert’s $\epsilon$-operator if we replace prop by type. So if we want to do classical logic and do not want to accept the axiom of choice, we need some distinction.1

It’s not surprising that a primitive DN for double-negation, mapping $\neg\neg A \to A$, would also map a proof that $A$ was nonempty into $A$ itself. This is the contrapositive of Diaconescu’s result that the axiom of choice implies the excluded middle (and therefore DN).

De Bruijn mentions another solution to this problem: to declare a type of Booleans and to set up the entire system of predicate logic for this new type BOOL, rather than at the level of propositions. It’s like how how predicate logic is formalised in Isabelle: separately from the logical framework. This solution allows PROP and TYPE to be identified, only then propositions actually have type BOOL.

A more compelling reason to distinguish PROP from TYPE is irrelevance of proofs:

If $x$ is a real number, then $P(x)$ stands for “proof of $x > 0$”. Now we define “$\log$” (the logarithm) in the context [x : real] [y : P(x)],and if we want to talk about $\log 3$ we have to write $\log(3,p)$, where $p$ is some proof for $3 > 0$. Now the $p$ is relevant, and we have some trouble in saying that $\log(3,p)$ does not depend on $p$. … Some time and some annoyance can be saved if we extend the language by proclaiming that proofs of one and the same proposition are always definitionally equal.2

As de Bruijn and others comment, irrelevance of proofs is mainly pertinent to classical reasoning. For constructivists, it utterly destroys Heyting’s conception of intuitionistic truth. But even proof assistants that are mostly used constructively, such as Agda and Coq, provide definitionally proof-irrelevant propositions.

Intuitionistic predicate logic, continued

Other logical connectives are easily represented by types. First, the intuitionistic interpretation:

The first two cases are handled by type $(\Sigma x:A) B(x)$, which consists of pairs $\langle a,b \rangle$ where $a:A$ and $b:B(a)$, generalising the binary Cartesian product. The third case is handled by type $A+B$, the binary disjoint sum. The most faithful realisation of this scheme is Martin-Löf type theory.

As soon as we impose irrelevance of proofs, this beautiful scheme falls apart. The point of the intuitionist interpretation is to capture the structure of the constructions; with irrelevance, all constructions are identical and even $A+B$ can have at most one element.

Proof assistants do not actually use propositions as types for the same reason that functional programming languages do not actually use the λ-calculus: because something that is beautiful in theory need not have any practical value whatever. It is still possible to take inspiration from the theory.


Two conclusions:

  1. You can have propositions as types without dependent types, but only for propositional logic.
  2. You can have dependent types without propositions as types.

And maybe a third: propositions as types can render type checking undecidable unless you adopt a strict system of type uniqueness, but then you can no longer infer $p(y)$ from $p(x)$ and $x=y$. A decent notion of proposition ought to respect the substitution of equals for equals.

Phil Wadler has written a hagiographic but still useful article about the principle. See in particular the appendix for its informative discussion with William Howard, whose name is attached to the principle.

  1. NG de Bruijn, A Survey of the Project Automath, in: Seldin, J.P. and Hindley, J.R.,eds., To H.B. Curry: Esaays on Combinatory Logic, Lambda Calculus and Formalism (Academic Press, 1980), 152. 

  2. Ibid, p. 159.