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Nontrivial Elements of Trivial Types

We know that types can be used to encode how to make useful data structures.

For example, a vehicle can be encoded as:

data Vehicle = Car { vin :: Integer, licensePlate :: String }
        | Bike

In this case, valid values include cars with VINs and LPNs, or Bikes, which have neither of these data points.

However, some data types can seem far less useful.

Elements of the Void type

The void type is defined as

data Void

This type is defined by being non-constructible. However, we can try to construct a value such that

void :: Void
void =

So, how do we fill that in? We can construct a value of type Void by using void.

void :: Void
void = void

In Haskell, we can define this in two ways:

void2, void3 :: Void
void2 = undefined
void3 = error "any string here"

In fact, Haskell defines in the standard prelude,

undefined = undefined
error _ = undefined

Which makes the definitions for void and void2 equivalent.

What is undefined?

The definition of undefined is kind of the functional equivalent of x = x + 1: it has a mathematical meaning that is inconsistent with its programming meaning. However, mathematical meaning:

\(x = x\)

actually does apply to the Hindley Milner process, which will end up with this equation. What this means is that undefined can be of any type:

undefined :: forall a. a

Interestingly, such a definition is impossible to make illegal in a Turing-Complete language like Haskell. It corresponds to any function that runs infinitely. In fact, predicting whether a function can return the value undefined is equivalent to the impossible Halting Problem.

The properties of undefined

undefined has a few interesting properties. For example, any time undefined is evaluated or pattern-matched against, it makes the entire expression undefined. However, because Haskell is lazy, it can still be used. For example, these evaluate to undefined:

un0 = undefined + 2
un1 = sin undefined
un2 = let f x = x * 2 in f undefined
un3 = head [undefined, 2, 3, 4]
un4 = undefined == 2 -- (==) is just a function

Note that the last statement is particularly important: we can’t actually define undefined within Haskell, since any test on undefined produces undefined.

The following evaluate to a value that is undefined-less.

const_ignores_arguments = const 2 undefined
head_only_requires_head = head [2, undefined, undefined]
len_of_value = length [undefined, undefined]
variable_binding_doesn't_discriminate = let f x = 2 in f undefined

The following examples contain undefined (e.g., if you try to print them, they will error out), but are not undefined in and of themselves – there is a possible function that discriminates between the value and undefined. (A tuple of such functions is given to the right.)

undefined_can_be_in_a_list = [undefined] -- (length, tail, \[x] -> 2)
a_tuple_of_undefined = (,) undefined undefined -- (\(x,x) -> 2)
list_containing_undefined = tail [2, undefined, 2, 4] -- (length, !! 1)
wrapper_type = return undefined :: Maybe a -- (\(Just x) -> 2)
evaluation_to_undefined_is_local = map (*2) [undefined, undefined] -- (length, tail . tail)

The self-wrapping data type

data Wrap = W Wrap

We have the potential values of

  1. undefined (of course)
  2. W undefined
  3. W (W undefined)
  4. W (W (W undefined))
  5. let x = W x in x

These are all distinct because we can define functions as so:

data Nat = Z | S Nat
f :: Nat -> Wrap -> ()
f Z _ = ()
f (S n) (W x) = f n x

f Z u will return () for any u (because it doesn’t actually examine it’s argument). Any other second argument will lead to the evaluation of the inner undefined and will result in undefined.

f (S Z) u will return () for W undefined, W (W undefined), etc.

f (S (S Z)) u will return () for W (W undefined), W (W (undefined)), etc.

So in general, all of these are wrappers around undefined with a given number of wrappers, except for the last. However, if we unwrap this value, we get the same value. In other words,

--last_value = W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W (W ...))))))))))))
last_value :: Wrap
last_value = W last_value

It would at first seem as if f n last_value is () for any non-undefined-containing n. However, Nat is itself a fairly interesting type.

The Natural Numbers (to a bad approximation)

From the Peano axioms, we know that a set of natural numbers can be represented as (zero, successor) :: (Nat, Nat -> Nat)

class Peano a where
    zero :: a
    succ :: a -> a

peano_struct :: (Peano a) => (a, a -> a)
peano_struct = (zero, succ)

The remaining Peano axioms are properties which are difficult to express in Haskell’s type system.

In any case, the upshot is that the values of (Peano a) => a should be of the form:

one, two, three, four, five :: (Peano a) => a
one = succ zero
two = succ one -- = succ (succ zero)
three = succ two -- = succ (succ (succ zero))
four = succ three -- = succ (succ (succ succ (zero)))
five = succ four -- = succ (succ (succ (succ succ (zero))))

And, for any arbitrary implementation of the Peano class, we should only have these values. However, Haskell can’t actually enforce this restriction, leaving us with the values:

alt_zero, alt_one, alt_two, alt_three :: (Peano a) => a
alt_zero = undefined
alt_one = succ alt_zero -- = succ undefined
alt_two = succ alt_one -- = succ (succ undefined)
alt_three = succ alt_two -- = succ (succ (succ undefined))

Which correspond more or less to our wrapper values. However, these don’t solve our puzzle of the f n last_value which evaluates to undefined while n is undefined-free.

However, we have one more value

omega :: (Peano a) => a
omega = succ omega

This corresponds to the equation \(x = x + 1\), which in the theory of ordinals has the solution \(\omega\), or the first trans-infinite ordinal.

This value structurally resembles last_value :: Wrap, which means that when f is called, it will step through the two of them in sync, never returning, and thus it is equivalent to undefined.

The trivial connection between Peano and Nat is given below.

instance (Peano Nat) where
    zero = Z
    succ = S

The values of the Peano Integers.

In Haskell, Nat is a very inefficient type, using unary. A more efficient type is Integer, which uses binary.

instance (Peano Integer) where
    zero = 0
    succ = (+1)

Of course, the primary issue with using the Integer type to represent a natural number is that it can have negative values.

More relevantly, because (+1) maps undefineds to undefineds, we don’t have any of our alt_ values.

Finally, the definition of omega specified to Integer values implies the following declaration:

omega_int :: Integer
omega_int = omega_int + 1

Which ends up being equivalent to undefined as well, since again (+1) is not a constructor that can allow for the creation of a structure.


I hope that introduction to nonstandard elements was interesting. In case you want to test out these code samples (all of which are runnable), you can find the source code here.

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