Self-aware Computing

How can we compose two Turing machines? It seems reasonable answers boil down to running one after the other.

How about composing two lambda calculus terms? This time, the answers boil down to applying one to the other.

These observations sound similar, but there is a difference. A Turing machine can only learn about another Turing machine via symbols on the tape. There is no way for the second machine to learn any internal details of the first machine.

In contrast, to apply a lambda term to another is to supply an entire program as the input to another. This raises a question we cannot ask about Turing machines: can a cleverly designed lambda term tell us anything interesting about another lambda term?

Yes! Böhm’s Theorem involves an algorithm that, given any two distinct closed normal lambda terms \(A\) and \(B\), builds a term \(X\) such that \(XA\) is true and \(XB\) is false.

By true and false we mean lambda terms representing booleans. Which representation? It doesn’t matter! We may choose any two lambda terms to represent true and false.

Our demo uses Church booleans:



Perhaps "self-aware" is overselling it, but it’s striking that in the primitive world of lambda calculus, one program can examine another. A sliver of the meta-theory has found its way into the theory.

Separate but equal

We should clarify when lambda terms count as distinct.

We use De Bruijn indices to avoid games with variable names. (Originally, variable names were part of the theory and renaming was dealt formally via alpha-conversion.)

▶ Toggle boilerplate

data LC = Va Int | La LC | Ap LC LC
instance Show LC where
  showsPrec prec = \case
    Va n -> shows n
    Ap x y -> showParen (prec > 0) $ showsPrec 0 x . (' ':) . showsPrec 1 y
    La t -> showParen (prec > 0) $ ("λ"++) . shows t

data Expr = Expr :@ Expr | V String | L String Expr

debruijn bnd = \case
  V v -> maybe (Left $ "free: " ++ v) Right $ lookup v $ zip bnd $ Va <$> [0..]
  x :@ y -> Ap <$> debruijn bnd x <*> debruijn bnd y
  L s t -> La <$> debruijn (s:bnd) t

▶ Toggle parser and evaluator

Consider the terms \((λ0)λ0\) and \(λ0\), or id id and id in Haskell. Suppose we only have "black-box access" to them, that is, the only non-trivial operation is applying one of them to some lambda term. Afterwards, we only have black-box access to the result.

Then the terms are indistinguishable. In real life, we might be able tell that we’re evaluating id id instead of id because it takes more time or memory, but then we’re stepping outside the system. Thus for Böhm’s Theorem, we consider these terms to be the same. More generally, any beta-conversion is invisible, that is, \((λX)Y\) and \(X[Y/0]\) are beta-equivalent, where the latter is crude notation for substituting \(Y\) for every free 0 in \(X\) and decrementing all other free variables.

Now consider the terms \(λ0\) and \(λλ10\). In Haskell, these are id and ($), and id f x and ($) f x both evaluate to f x for any suitably typed f and x. Thus in untyped lambda calculus the two terms act the same. (In Haskell, we can detect a difference thanks to types: for example ($) () is illegal while id () is fine. But in untyped lambda calculus, anything goes.)

Accordingly, for Böhm’s Theorem we must view \(λ0\) and \(λλ10\) as equal, and more generally, there’s no way to tell apart \(λx.Fx\) and \(F\) from their external properties. Replacing one with the other is called a eta-conversion, so treating such terms as equals is known as eta-equivalence. Replacing the the smaller one with the bigger one is more specifically called eta-expansion or eta-abstraction, while the reverse is eta-reduction.

While we’re throwing around buzzwords, if two terms are indistiguishable from their external properties, then we say they are extensionally equal.

Do we need to beware of other strange equivalences? No! It turns out beta- and eta-equivalence is all we need for the theorem to work.

A consequence is that in lambda calculus, there is nothing beyond beta- and eta-equivalence. For suppose the normal terms \(A\) and \(B\) are distinct up to beta- and eta-conversion, and we add a new law implying \(A = B\). Then \(XA = XB\) for any \(X\) and via Böhm’s theorem, we can construct \(X\) to equate any two terms under the new law, forcing the equivalence of all normal terms.

A/B Testing

A normal term must have the form:

\[\lambda ... \lambda v T_1 ... T_n\]

where we have zero or more lambda abstractions and a head variable \(v\) that is applied to zero or more normal terms. If \(n > 0\) and \(v\) is instead a lambda abstraction, we could beta-reduce further: a contradiction for normal terms.

This observation inspires the definition of a Böhm tree. In our version, a Böhm tree node contains the number of preceding lambdas, the head variable \(v\) which starts its body, and \(n\) child Böhm trees representing the normal terms to which \(v\) is applied, and form the remainder of its body.

data Bohm = Bohm Int Int [Bohm] deriving Show

bohmTree :: LC -> Bohm
bohmTree = smooshLa 0 where
  smooshLa k = \case
    La t -> smooshLa (k + 1) t
    t    -> smooshAp [] t where
      smooshAp kids = \case
        Va n   -> Bohm k n $ bohmTree <$> kids
        Ap x y -> smooshAp (y:kids) x
        _      -> error "want normal form"

Let \(A\) and \(B\) be normal lambda terms. We recursively descend the Böhm trees representing \(A\) and \(B\) starting from their roots, looking for a difference.

We have no concerns about beta-equivalence because the terms are normal. However, we must be mindful of eta-equivalence. When comparing Bohm trees, if one has fewer lambdas than the other, then we compensate by performing eta-conversions to make up the difference: we add lambdas, renumber variables in the existing children, and add new children corresponding to the new lambdas.

For example, adding 3 lambdas to:

\[λλ v T_1 ... T_n\]

results in the eta-equivalent:

\[λλλλλ v T'_1 ... T'_n 2 1 0\]

where \(T'_k\) is \(T_k\) with every free variable increased by 3. Let’s write \(λ^n\) to mean \(n\) lambda abstractions in a row; above we could have written \(λ^5\).

eta n (Bohm al ah akids) = Bohm (al + n) (ah + n) $
  (boostVa 0 n <$> akids) ++ reverse (($ []) . Bohm 0 <$> [0..n-1])
boostVa minFree i t@(Bohm l h kids) =
  Bohm l ((if minFree' <= h then (i+) else id) h) $ boostVa minFree' i <$> kids
  where minFree' = minFree + l

Henceforth we may assume the Bohm trees we’re comparing have the same lambda count \(l\).

One possibility is that the head variables of our trees differ, say:

\[A = λ^l v T_1 ... T_m\]


\[B = λ^l w S_1 ... S_n\]

where \(v \ne w\). Then for any terms \(U, V\), substituting

  • \(v \mapsto λ^m U\)

  • \(w \mapsto λ^n V\)

reduces the body of \(A\) to \(U\) and the body of \(B\) to \(V\).

Otherwise the trees have the same head variable \(v\). Suppose they have a different number of children:

\[A = λ^l v T_1 ... T_m\]


\[B = λ^l v S_1 ... S_n\]

with \(m < n\). Consider the terms:

  • \(v T_1 ... T_m a_1 ... a_{n-m}\)

  • \(v S_1 ... S_n a_1 ... a_{n-m}\)

Then substituting:

  • \(v \mapsto λ^{n+1} 0\)

  • \(a_1 \mapsto λ^{n-m} V\)

  • \(a_{n-m} \mapsto U\)

reduces the body of \(A\) to \(U\) and the body of \(B\) to \(V\).

Our code calls these two kinds of differences Func deltas and Arity deltas respectively. We use lists of length 2 to record the parts that differ. In both cases, we store the variable, number of children, and a choice of \(U\) or \(V\).

data Delta = Func [(Int, (LC, Int))] | Arity Int [(Int, LC)]

The remaining case is that \(A\) and \(B\) have the same head variable \(v\) and same number of children \(n\).

If their children are identical, then \(A = B\), otherwise we recurse to find \(k\) such that the bodies of \(A\) and \(B\) are:

\[v T_1 ... T_n\]


\[v S_1 ... S_n\]

with \(T_k \ne S_k\). Substituting the \(k\)-out-of-\(n\) projection function for \(v\):

\[v \mapsto λ^n (n - k)\]

reduces the first to \(T_k\) and the second to \(S_k\).

The diff function recursively traverses 2 given Bohm trees to find a difference, eta-converting along the way to equalize the number of lambdas. It records the Path taken to reach a Delta.

Our code calls a projection a Pick, because it picks out the \(k\)th child. We shall need the Tuple alternative later.

We also record the number of children of each node along the path as well as the level of nesting within lambda abstractions.

data Path = Pick Int | Tuple deriving Show

diff nest0 a@(tru, Bohm al ah akids) b@(fal, Bohm bl bh bkids)
  | al > bl = diff nest0 a (second (eta $ al - bl) b)
  | al < bl = diff nest0 (second (eta $ bl - al) a) b
  | ah /= bh = base $ Func [(nest - ah - 1, (tru, an)), (nest - bh - 1, (fal,bn))]
  | an > bn = diff nest0 b a
  | an < bn = base $ Arity (nest - ah - 1) [(an, tru), (bn, fal)]
  | otherwise = asum $ zipWith (induct . aidx . Pick) [1..] $
    zipWith go akids bkids
  base delta = Just ((nest, delta), [])
  induct x = fmap $ second (x:)
  nest = nest0 + al
  aidx t = (nest - ah - 1, ((nest, an), t))
  bidx t = (nest - bh - 1, ((nest, bn), t))
  an = length akids
  bn = length bkids
  go ak bk = diff nest (tru, ak) (fal, bk)

We construct \(X = λ 0 X_1 ... X_n\) such that \(XA = U\) and \(XB = V\) by building the \(X_i\) so that the desired substitutions arise. For some values of \(i\), we may find any \(X_i\) will do, in which case we pick λ0. [It turns out our code relies on our choice being normalizing; if we cared, we could instead introduce a special normal node, and only after norm has been called do we replace such nodes with any terms we like, normalizing or not.]

It seems to be little more than fiddly bookkeeping:

laPow n x = iterate La x !! n

lcPath ((_, n), sub) = case sub of
  Pick k -> laPow n $ Va $ n - k
  Tuple -> laPow (n + 1) $ foldl Ap (Va 0) $ Va <$> reverse [1..n]

easy (tru, a) (fal, b) = case diff 0 (tru, bohmTree a) (fal, bohmTree b) of
  Nothing -> Left "equivalent lambda terms"
  Just ((vcount, delta), path) -> Right $ (maybe whatever id . (`lookup` subs) <$> [0..vcount-1]) ++ arityArgs
    whatever = La $ Va 0
    subs = addDelta $ second lcPath <$> path
    addDelta = case delta of
      Arity v [_, (b, _)] -> ((v, laPow (b + 1) $ Va 0):)
      Func [(av, (t, an)), (bv, (f, bn))] -> ([(av, laPow an t), (bv, laPow bn f)]++)
    arityArgs = case delta of
      Arity v [(a, t), (b, f)] -> let d = b - a in
        [laPow d f] ++ replicate (d - 1) whatever ++ [t]
      _ -> []

And indeed, it works. But sadly, not all the time.

Lambda Overload

Trouble arises when different substitutions target the same variable. For example, consider the two terms:

  • \(λxy.x (x y y (y y)) y\)

  • \(λxy.x (x y y (y y y y)) y\)

We have no problem substituting a term for \(y\) to exploit the Arity difference, but how do we simultaneously apply \(x \mapsto λ^2 1\) to pick the first child of the root node and \(x \mapsto λ^3 0\) to pick the third child of the first child?

We recall the aphorism: "We can solve any problem by introducing an extra level of indirection." We eta-convert so all nodes with head variable \(x\) have the same number of children, and also more children than they had before. Above, an \(x\) node has at most 3 children, so we can eta-convert every \(x\) node to have exactly 4 children.

  • \(λxyab.x (λc.x y y (y y) c) y a b\)

  • \(λxyab.x (λc.x y y (y y y y) c) y a b\)

Then the substitution \(x \mapsto λ^4 0 3 2 1\) results in the following bodies of the two nodes:

  • \(b (λc.c y y (y y)) y a\)

  • \(b (λc.c y y (y y y y)) y a\)

The new head variables are unique by construction, hence we can apply appropriate Pick substitutions to home in on the delta. In our example, we want:

  • \(b \mapsto λ^3 2\)

  • \(c \mapsto λ^3 0\)

More generally, suppose we have conflicting substitutions for \(x\). Consider all nodes along the path to the delta with head variable \(x\). Let \(t\) be maximum number of children of any of the nodes, or greater.

Then we eta-convert each such node so it has exactly \(t + 1\) children and apply:

  • \(x \mapsto λ^{t+1} 0 t (t - 1) ... 1\)

This effectively replaces each head variable \(x\) with a unique fresh variable. We repeat the procedure for every overloaded variable.

Our code calls this a Tuple because it’s the Scott encoding of a \(t\)-tuple.

The Hard Hard Case

Above, our example showed two clashing Pick substitutions, and at first glance, it seems the same trick should also work for a Pick interfering with Func or Arity. For example:

  • \(λx.x (x x) x\)

  • \(λx.x (x x x x x x) x\)

We want \(x \mapsto λ^2 1\) to Pick the first child of the root Bohm tree node, but also \(x \mapsto λ^6 0\) to act upon the Arity mismatch.

Following the steps above, we eta-convert with \(t = 6\), substitute a Tuple for \(x\), substitute a Pick for one of the fresh variables, and a suitable Arity substitution for another, and we’re done.

It would seem a Pick-Func collision could be handled similarly. This is almost right: the trick indeed works most of the time. However, there is a wrinkle when there are two Pick-Func collisions. Consider:

  • \(λxyz.x (y (x (y x)))\)

  • \(λxyz.x (y (x (y y)))\)

Both \(x\) and \(y\) have conflicting substitutions between a Pick and a Func. Each node has at most one child. If we naively set \(t_x = t_y = 1\), then we wind up with the substitutions:

  • \(x \mapsto λ^2 0 1\)

  • \(y \mapsto λ^2 0 1\)

But replacing \(x\) and \(y\) with the same thing means we can no longer distinguish between the two terms; any further efforts are doomed to failure.

The solution is to insist \(t_x \ne t_y\), say by choosing \(t_x = 1, t_y = 2\). Thus after eta-conversion:

  • \(λxyza.x (λbc.y (λd.x (λef.y (λg h.x g h) e f) d) b c) a\)

  • \(λxyza.x (λbc.y (λd.x (λef.y (λg h i.y g h i) e f) d) b c) a\)

That is, when \(x\) is the head of a node, there are 2 children, and when \(y\) is the head, there are 3 children. After substitution, these terms are distinguishable and each head variable is distinct, so we have successfully reduced the problem to the easy case.

This subtlety adds to the complexity of the already intimidating dedup function, whose duties include finding overloaded head variables, eta-converting each node in the paths to the deltas, and inserting the corresponding Tuple substitutions.

The first time we find a Func head variable \(x\) is overloaded, we choose the smallest possible \(t\) and pass it around via the avoid parameter. If we later learn the other Func head variable \(y\) is also overloaded, we ensure the second choice for \(t\) is distinct by incrementing on encountering equality.

Our straighforward approach guarantees we handle the hard hard case, though sometimes it may actually be fine to reuse the same \(t\). Similarly, we unconditionally apply the Tuple trick whenever the same variable appears more than once in the path, even though this is unnecessary if all the substitutions happen to be identical.

dedup _ delta [] = []
dedup avoid delta (h@(v, ((nest, n), _)):rest)
  | length matches == 1 = h : dedup avoid delta rest
  | otherwise           = (v, ((nest + t - n + 1, t), Tuple)) :
    dedup (avoid <|> const t <$> isFunc) delta (etaFill v t $ h:rest)
  matchDelta = case delta of
    Arity w as | v == w -> (maximum (fst <$> as):)
    Func fs -> maybe id ((:) . snd) $ lookup v fs
    _ -> id
  matches = matchDelta $ snd . fst . snd <$> (h : filter ((v ==) . fst) rest)
  tNaive = maximum matches
  isFunc = case delta of
    Func fs -> lookup v fs
    _ -> Nothing
  t = case const <$> avoid <*> isFunc of
    Just taken | tNaive == taken -> tNaive + 1
    _ -> tNaive

renumber f (w, ((nest, n), step)) = (f w, ((f nest, n), step))

etaFill v t path = go path where
  go [] = []
  go (h@(w, ((nest, n), step)):rest)
    | v == w = (nest + pad, ((nest + pad + 1, t), step)) :
      go (renumber boost <$> rest)
    | otherwise = h : go rest
    pad = t - n
    boost x
      | x >= nest = x + pad + 1
      | otherwise = x

The first time I tried implementing the algorithm, I attempted to adjust the Func and Arity deltas as I eta-converted the nodes with overloaded head variables. However, I kept tripping up over special cases, and lost confidence in this approach. [For example, if \(x\) and \(y\) are head variables of a Func delta, and \(x\) is overloaded but \(y\) is not, then it turns out we must modify the substitution for \(y\) after eta-converting to deal with \(x\).]

Our current strategy is simpler, at the cost of computing deltas twice and normalizing temporary terms in intermediate steps.

  1. Find a delta between two given lambda terms \(A, B\).

  2. Build a lambda term \(Y\) so that \(YA, YB\) are \(A, B\) with Tuple and Pick substitutions applied so that all head variables are unique. All other variables are kept abstracted. The mkArgs helper in hard sees to this.

  3. We have now reduced the problem to the easy case, which we solve as before to obtain a list of terms to be applied to \(YA\) or \(YB\).

  4. Build our final answer \(X\) from \(Y\) and this list of terms.

hard (tru, a) (fal, b) = case diff 0 (tru, bohmTree a) (fal, bohmTree b) of
  Nothing -> Left "equivalent lambda terms"
  Just ((_, delta), path) -> Right $ mkArgs 0 0 $ sortOn fst $ dedup Nothing delta path
    mkArgs freeCnt k [] = (freeCnt, [])
    mkArgs freeCnt k ((v, rhs):rest) = second (((Va <$> [freeCnt..freeCnt+v-k-1]) ++) . (lcPath rhs:)) $ mkArgs (freeCnt + v - k) (v + 1) rest

distinguish a b = do
  (freeCnt, uniqArgs) <- hard (churchTrue, a) (churchFalse, b)
    uniq f = norm $ laPow freeCnt $ foldl Ap f uniqArgs
  easyArgs <- easy (churchTrue, uniq a) (churchFalse, uniq b)
  pure $ norm $ La $ foldl Ap (laPow freeCnt $ foldl Ap (Va freeCnt) uniqArgs) easyArgs

churchTrue = La $ La $ Va 1
churchFalse = La $ La $ Va 0

We can generalize the above algorithm to work on any number of distinct Bohm trees. Some other time perhaps, as it entails descending several trees in parallel and keeping track of new subsets on detecting differences.

▶ Toggle UI

See Also

I first encountered Böhm’s Theorem in a talk by David Turner on the history of functional programming. On one slide, he states "three really important theorems about the lambda calculus". I had heard of the two Church-Rosser theorems he cited, so I was surprised by my ignorance of the third key result.

I was surprised again when I had trouble finding explanations online. Perhaps computer scientists in general are less aware of Böhm’s Theorem than they ought to be. I came across Guerrini, Piperno, and Dezani-Ciancaglini, Why Böhm’s Theorem matters, who make the theorem sound easy to implement. They outline its proof without mentioning lambda calculus(!) and draw pretty pictures with trees.

It inspired me to try coding Böhm’s Theorem, but I soon found they had swept some tricky problems under the rug. Luckily, their paper cited Gérard Huet’s implementation of Böhm’s Theorem in ML, and I also found other, more detailed proofs.

I eventually made it out alive and completed the above implementation. I studied Huet’s code to see how he had dealt with the corner cases that had almost defeated me. I was shocked to find they weren’t handled at all! I thought there must be a bug. With Huet’s help, I was able to clone:

(it needs the now-obsolete camlp4, so I built it with ocaml-3.12.1), and verify that it handles the "hard hard case" just fine.

I realized Huet’s code has no need to handle special cases because it deals with one variable at a time, rather than add a bunch of them in one go, as we do. His approach is simple and elegant.

Cleverer still, in each Bohm tree node, variables are numbered starting from 0 but in reverse order to De Bruijn indices. (They are also tagged with a second number indicating the level of the tree they belong.) Thus eta expansion is free, while our code must jump through some hoops to renumber variables when eta-expanding.

I also learned from Huet that Böhm himself never published his theorem, except in a techincal report; Barendregt later presented a proof in a book. Furthermore, the theorem is crucial because it means there are only two interesting models of lambda-calculus, the extensional model \(D_\infty\) and the intensional model \(P(\omega)\) ("the graph model").

By the way, Barendregt also wrote about gems of Corrado Böhm. If you liked this algorithm, then you’ll love his other ideas!

Ben Lynn 💡