Native Type Theory

guest post by Christian Williams

Native Type Theory is a new paper by myself and Mike Stay. We propose a unifying method of reasoning for programming languages: model a language as a theory, form the category of presheaves, and use the internal language of the topos.

\mathtt{language} \xrightarrow{\;\Lambda\;} \mathtt{category} \xrightarrow{\;\mathscr{P}\;} \mathtt{topos} \xrightarrow{\;\Phi\;} \mathtt{type\; system}

Though these steps are known, the original aspect is simply the composite and its application to software. If implemented properly, we believe that native types can be very useful to the virtual world. Here, I want to share some of what we’ve learned so far.

The Free Lunch

The biggest lesson of this paper was to have faith in what John Baez calls the dao of mathematics. For two years, Mike and I and Greg Meredith looked for ways to generate logics for programming languages; we tried many approaches, but ultimately the solution was the simplest.

Two facts of category theory provide an abundance of structure, for free:

  1. Every category embeds into its presheaf topos.
  2. Every topos has a rich internal language.

The embedding preserves limits and exponents, hence we can apply this to “higher-order theories”.

For now we explore the language of a topos. There are multiple views, and often its full power is not used. Toposes support geometric logic, predicate logic, and moreover dependent type theory. We emphasize the latter: dependent types are expressive and pervasive, yet underutilized in mathematics.

The Language of a Topos

My thinking has been shaped by the idea that even foundations are categorical. Virtually any language can be modelled as a structured category: the most comprehensive reference I’ve found is Categorical Logic and Type Theory by Bart Jacobs.

Probably the most studied categorical structure of logic is the topos. Toposes of sheaves, functors which coherently assign data to a space, were first applied to algebraic geometry. A continuous map f\colon X\to Y induces an inverse image f\colon  Sh(Y)\to Sh(X) which is a left adjoint that preserves finite limits. This gives geometric morphisms of toposes, and geometric logic (\wedge and \exists) as the language of classifying toposes.

Though geometric logic is an important level of generality, the language of toposes is more powerful. In La Jolla, California 1965, the budding category theory community recognized Grothendieck’s categories of sheaves as being fundamentally logical structures, which generalize set theory. An elementary topos is a cartesian closed category with finite limits and a subobject classifier, an object which represents the correspondence of predicates and subobjects.

The language of an elementary topos T is encapsulated in a pair of structures.

• The predicate fibration \Omega\text{T}\to \text{T} reasons about predicates, like subsets.

• The codomain fibration \Delta\text{T}\to \text{T} reasons about dependent types, like indexed sets.

Predicate Logic

Throughout mathematics, we use the internal predicate logic of Set. It is the canonical example of a topos: a predicate such as \varphi(x)= (x+3\geq 5) is a function \varphi:X\to 2=\{t,f\}, which corresponds to its comprehension, the subobject of true terms \{x\in X \;|\; \varphi(x)=t\}\subseteq X.

Predicates on any set X form a Boolean algebra P(X)=[X,2], ordered by implication. Every function f:X\to Y gives an inverse image P(f):P(Y)\to P(X). This defines a functor P:\text{Set}^{\text{op}} \to \text{Bool} which is a first-order hyperdoctrine: each P(f) has adjoints \exists_f\dashv P(f)\dashv \forall_f representing quantification, which satisfy the Beck–Chevalley condition.

Altogether, this structure formalizes classical higher-order predicate logic. Most formulae, such as

\forall x,y:\mathbb{Q}.\; \exists z:\mathbb{Q}.\; x< z \wedge z< y

\forall f:Y^X.\; \forall y:Y.\; \exists x:X.\; f(x)=y \Rightarrow
\exists g:X^Y.\; \forall y:Y.\; f(g(y))=y

can be modelled in this logical structure of \text{Set}.

This idea is fairly well-known; people often talk about the “Mitchell-Benabou language” of a topos. However, this language is predicate logic over a simple type theory, meaning that the only type formation rules are products and functions. Many constructions in mathematics do not fit into this language, because types often depend on terms:

\text{Nat}(n) := \{m:\mathbb{N} \;|\; m\leq n\}

\mathbb{Z}_p := \mathbb{Z}/\langle x\sim y \equiv \exists z:\mathbb{Z}.\; (x-y)=z\cdot p\rangle

This is provided by extending predicate logic with dependent types, described in the next section.

So, we have briefly discussed how the structure of Set allows for the the explicit construction of predicates used in everyday mathematics. The significance is that these can be constructed in any topos: we thereby generalize the historical conception of logic.

For example, in a presheaf topos [C^{\text{op}},\text{Set}], the law of excluded middle does not hold, and for good reason. Negation of a sieve is necessarily more subtle than negation of subsets, because we must exclude the possibility that a morphism is not in but “precomposes in” to a sieve. This will be explored more in the applications post.

Dependent Type Theory

Dependency is pervasive throughout mathematics. What is a monoid? It’s a set M, and then operations m,e on M, and then conditions on m,e. Most objects are constructed in layers, each of which depends on the ones before. Type theory is often regarded as “fancy” and only necessary in complex situations, similar to misperceptions of category theory; yet dependent types are everywhere.

The basic idea is to represent dependency using preimage. A type which depends on terms of another type, x:A\vdash B(x):\text{Type}, can be understood as an indexed set \{B(x)\}_{x:A}, and this in turn is represented as a function \coprod x:A.\; B(x)\to A. Hence the “world of types which depend on A” is the slice category \text{Set}/A.

The poset of “A-predicates” sits inside the category of “A-types”: a comprehension is an injection \{x\in A \;|\; \varphi(x)\}\to A. This is a degenerate kind of dependent type, where preimages are truth values rather than sets. So we are expanding into a larger environment, which shares all of the same structure. The slice category \text{Set}/A is a categorification of P(A): its morphisms are commuting triangles, understood as A-indexed functions.

Every function f\colon A\to B gives a functor f^\ast: \text{Set}/B\to \text{Set}/A by pullback; this generalizes preimage, and can be expressed as substitution: given p:S\to B, we can form the A-type

x:A\vdash f^\ast(S)(x) = S(f(x)):\text{Type}.

This functor has adjoints \Sigma_f\dashv f^\ast\dashv \Pi_f, called dependent sum and dependent product: these are the powerful tools for constructing dependent types. They generalize not only quantification, but also product and hom: the triple adjunction induces an adjoint co/monad on \text{Set}/B

\Sigma_f\circ f^\ast = -\times f \dashv [f,-] = \Pi_f\circ f^\ast.

These dependent generalizations of product and function types are extremely useful.

Indexed sum generalizes product type by allowing the type of the second coordinate to depend on the term in the first coordinate. For example: \Sigma n:\mathbb{N}.\text{List}(n) consists of dependent pairs \langle n, l:\text{List}(n)\rangle.

Indexed product generalizes function type by allowing the type of the codomain to depend on the term in the domain. For example: \Pi S:\text{Set}.\text{List}(S) consists of dependent functions \lambda S:\text{Set}.\varphi(S):\text{List}(S).

See how natural they are? We use them all the time, often without realizing. Simply by using preimage for indexing, we generalize product and function types to “branching” versions, allowing us to build up complex objects such as

\text{Monoid}:= \Sigma M:\text{Set}.\Sigma m:M^2\to M.\Sigma e:1\to M...
...\Pi (a,b,c):M^3. m(m(a,b),c)=m(a,m(b,c)).
\Pi a:M. m(e,a)=a=m(a,e).

This rich language is available in any topos. I think we’ve hardly begun to see its utility in mathematics, computation, and everyday life.

All Together

A topos has two systems, predicate logic and dependent type theory. Each is modelled by a fibration, a functor into the topos for which the preimage of A are the A-predicates / A-types. A morphism in the domain is a judgement of the form “in the context of variables of these (dependent) types, this term is of this (dependent) type”.

a:A,b:B(a),\dots, z:Z(y)\vdash t:T

The two fibrations are connected by comprehension which converts a predicate to a type, and image factorization which converts a type to a predicate. These give that the predicate fibration is a reflective subcategory of the type fibration.

Altogether, this forms the full higher-order dependent type theory of a topos (Jacobs Ch.11). As far as I know, this is what deserves to be called “the” language of a topos, in its full glory. This type theory is used in proof assistants such as Coq and Agda; eventually, this expressive logic + dependent types will be utilized in many programming languages.


Native Type Theory gives provides a shared framework of reasoning for a broad class of languages. We believe that this could have a significant impact on software and system design, if integrated into existing systems.

In the next post, we’ll explore why this language is so useful for the topos of presheaves on theories. Please let me know any thoughts or questions about this post and especially the paper. Thank you.

9 Responses to Native Type Theory

  1. Toby Bartels says:

    In your example of a generic typing judgement, instead of the premise Z(y), you should have Z(a,b,\dots,y), since every type can depend on every term that's come before. (For that matter, you have t(a,b,\ldots,y,z) and $T(a,b,\ldots,y,z)$ in the conclusion, although perhaps you were suppressing those dependencies.)

    • christianbwilliams says:

      Hi Toby, yes I was suppressing those dependencies only because it gets fairly long. You’re right; we should at least have Z(a,b,\dots,y). Thanks.

  2. Toby Bartels says:

    Can you briefly explain (or get Mike to explain) the difference between Jacobs's full higher-order dependent type theory and Mike's stack semantics?

    • christianbwilliams says:

      Very interesting question. It looks like Mike is focused on foundational issues like unbounded quantification in a topos (which I guess I’m using in the monoid example) to strengthen the categorical bridge between material and set theory. It seems that he only uses dependent types when necessary.

      Since I don’t know how to mentally translate between the Kripke-Joyal-style forcing relation and type theory, it’s not totally clear. I’m sure he’ll give a good answer — I could send him a message.

    • Mike Shulman says:

      I have been summoned! First let me link to these slides that summarize my current point of view on stack semantics, which has evolved somewhat over the past decade. Briefly, the stack semantics as I presented it 10 years ago is a first-order fragment of the internal dependent type theory of the (2,1)-topos of stacks of groupoids over the topos.

      The latter DTT differs from what Jacobs calls FhoDTT mainly in its universes. FhoDTT contains a universe of propositions, which is a type, but no universes of types. (Jacobs uses the words “type” and “kind” instead of “proposition” and “type”.) In the FhoDTT of a topos, the types are the objects of the topos, and the propositions turn out to be identifiable with those types that are h-propositions in the sense of HoTT, i.e. have at most one element: the subobject fibration in the topos, with the universe of propositions being the subobject classifier. But syntactic FhoDTT as Jacobs presents it does not mandate that all the propositions are h-propositions or that all the h-propositions are propositions (although one could add these as axioms).

      By contrast, the DTT of stacks contains a universe of small types. In the stack model over a topos, the types are stacks of groupoids while the small types are objects of the topos, and the universe is the (core of the) self-indexing of the topos. One then has both the “large” h-propositions, which are closed sieves, and the subcollection of small h-propositions, which are subobjects in the topos. The latter can be classified by a universe of propositions which is a small type (the subobject classifier), although the stack semantics also works over e.g. pretoposes that don’t have a subobject classifier. The former could be classified by a large universe of large propositions, but we don’t as often need to do that.

      Neither of these constructions assume that the topos has any internal universes (other than the universe of propositions given by its subobject classifier). If it does (e.g. it is a Grothendieck topos and there exist inaccessible cardinals in the category Set), they can be added to the syntax as types of small types (in FhoDTT) or small types of smaller types (in stack DTT). But unlike the universes mentioned above, these will not generally be univalent if the original topos was only a 1-topos. The stack semantics can also add more larger “outer” universes if there are inaccessible cardinals larger than the size of the topos, although to have more than one of these that are univalent one needs to move to stacks of higher groupoids.

      I hope this answers the question!

    • Mike Shulman says:

      Note that embedding a topos in its (2,1)-topos of stacks to get stack semantics is very similar to what Christian and Mike Stay (eh, too many Mikes) are doing here, embedding the category of a higher-order algebraic theory in its 1-topos of presheaves to get native type theory. (Maybe this is closer to the question you meant to ask?) A HOAT could also be embedded in a higher topos of stacks, generalizing the native type theory to a “native stack semantics” that would also contain a univalent universe of small types, corresponding to the representable objects (the original types of the HOAT). A strictified version of that universe of representables is also visible in the ordinary native type theory, though of course it is not univalent there. Christian and I discussed this a bit, though I think eventually they decided not to include this universe of representables in the paper.

      • Toby Bartels says:

        Mike Shulman wrote in part:

        too many Mikes

        Yeah, when I saw a paper by Mike S about type theories derived from categories, I think that I just jumped to the conclusion that it was you and skipped over the rest of the name. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t have asked about this, because I wouldn’t have expected Christian to know.)

      • John Baez says:

        Mike Stay is not just some random Mike S, Toby—he’s your academic brother!

        • Toby Bartels says:

          Yes, but he also wasn't working with type theories derived from toposes when I saw him last. On the other hand, type theories derived from programming languages are right up his alley, so I should have paid more attention to that aspect. Sorry, Mike!

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