Turning bottom-up into top-down with Reverse State

13 June, 2018

I love bound - it makes De Bruijn indices mindlessly easy. I also love Plated for all sorts of whole-program transformations. I think they’re two indispensible tools for working with programming languages. Unfortunately, they’re not compatible.

The Scope datatype in bound is very safe. The type prevents you from creating invalid De Bruijn terms, like λ. 3. This means that you can’t write useful instances of Plated for types which contain a Scope. When it comes to choosing between bound and Plated, I choose Plated - because we can use it to build functionality similar to bound.

Write some code!

Warning: the code in this post is subtly broken. See the reddit thread

Let’s get some boilerplate out of the road. Here is a datatype for lambda calculus, with De Bruijn indices (B), as well as free variables (F). Notice that lambda abstraction (Abs) doesn’t give a name to the function argument, which means that only Bs can reference them. This is called the “locally nameless” approach.

Literate Haskell source

{-# language DeriveGeneric #-}

import Control.Lens.Plated (Plated(..), gplate, transformM)
import GHC.Generics (Generic)

import qualified Control.Monad.RevState as Reverse
import qualified Control.Monad.State as State

data Expr
  = F String
  | B Int
  | App Expr Expr
  | Abs Expr
  deriving (Eq, Show, Generic)

instance Plated Expr where
  plate = gplate

The core of the bound-like API will be two functions:

Let’s do abstract first.

abstract name expr finds all the F name nodes in an expr and replaces them with the appropriate De Bruijn index, then wraps the final result in an Abs. The “appropriate index” is the number of Abs constructors that we passed on the way.

For example, abstract "x" (F "x") evaluates to Abs (B 0), because we passed zero Abs constructors to get to the "x", then wrapped the final result in an Abs. abstract "y" (Abs (App (B 0) (F "y"))) evaluates to Abs (Abs (App (B 0) (B 1))) because we passed one Abs to get to the "y", then wrapped the final result in an Abs.

“Do this everywhere” usually means transform :: Plated a => (a -> a) -> a -> a is appropriate. Though in this case, it doesn’t give us any way to count the number of Abs it passes. Instead we will use transformM :: (Monad m, Plated a) => (a -> m a) -> a -> m a with State.

Here’s how that looks:

abstract_attempt_1 :: String -> Expr -> Expr
abstract_attempt_1 name = Abs . flip State.evalState 0 . transformM fun
    fun :: Expr -> State.State Int Expr
    fun (F name')
      | name == name' = B <$> State.get
      | otherwise = pure $ F name'
    fun (Abs expr) = Abs expr <$ State.modify (+1)
    fun expr = pure expr

If you see a free variable with the name we’re abstracting over, replace it with a De Bruijn index corresponding to the number of binders we’ve seen. If you see an Abs, increment the counter. If you see something else, don’t do anything special.

This is the right idea, but it doesn’t work because the transform family of functions act from the bottom up. When it sees a free variable it can abstract over, it will replace it with B 0, then go upwards through the tree, incrementing the counter. This is the reverse of what we want.


Enter Reverse State. In reverse state, get accesses the state of the computation after it, not before it. Using regular state, execState (modify (+1) *> modify (*2)) 0 will evaluate to 2, because you set the state to zero, add one, then multiply by two. Using reverse state, the output is 1, because you set the state to zero, multiply by two, then add one.

This means that if we swap regular state for reverse state in abstract, get refers to a state which is only calculated after bubbling all the way to the top, and counting all the Abs constructors.

So the correct code looks like this:

abstract :: String -> Expr -> Expr
abstract name = Abs . flip Reverse.evalState 0 . transformM fun
    fun :: Expr -> Reverse.State Int Expr
    fun (F name')
      | name == name' = B <$> Reverse.get
      | otherwise = pure $ F name'
    fun (Abs expr) = Abs expr <$ Reverse.modify (+1)
    fun expr = pure expr

The logic remains the same, except now the state transformations run backwards.

Now for instantiate.

instantiate (Abs body) x substitutes x into the appropriate positions in body, and wraps the final result in a Just. If the first argument to instantiate is not an Abs, then the result is Nothing. We substitute x everywhere we find a B that contains the number of binders we have passed.

For example, instantiate (Abs (B 0)) (F "x") evaluates to Just (F "x"), because we found a B 0 when we had passed zero binders (the outer Abs doesn’t count). instantiate (Abs (Abs (App (B 0) (B 1)))) (F "y") evaluates to Just (Abs (App (B 0) (F "y"))), because we found a B 1 when we had passed one binder. The B 0 is not replaced because at that point, we had passed one binder, and zero is not one.

We have the same problem as with abstract: counting binders proceeds from the top down, but transformM works from the bottom up. We can use reverse state again to solve this. Here’s the code:

instantiate :: Expr -> Expr -> Maybe Expr
instantiate (Abs body) x = Just $ Reverse.evalState (transformM fun body) 0
    fun :: Expr -> Reverse.State Int Expr
    fun (B n) = do
      n' <- Reverse.get
      pure $
        if n == n'
        then x
        else B n
    fun (Abs expr) = Abs expr <$ Reverse.modify (+1)
    fun expr = pure expr
instantiate _ _ = Nothing

And there we have it: a bound-like API for a datatype using Plated.

I think there are two pressing issues when comparing this code to bound: correctness and generalisation. This approach allows you to write bogus terms, like Abs (B 3), whereas bound does not. I’m okay with this, because I highly value the tools Plated provides. Additionally, the bound combinators work over any term as long as it is a Monad, so abstract and instantiate only have to be written once, whereas we haven’t presented any means for generalisation of the Plated approach.

This is easily fixed: in a follow-up post, I’ll write about how we can use Backpacky Prisms to provide abstract and instantiate as library functions.