-- These types aren't actually imported to improve CI performance :(
-- It doesn't matter what they are, just that they exist
data Int : Set where
    String : Set
{-# BUILTIN STRING String #-}

data _≡_ {l} {A : Set l} : (a b : A)  Set l where
  instance refl : {x : A}  x  x


This content is a writeup from a weekend discussion session for the fall 2023 special-topics course CSCI 8980 at the University of Minnesota taught by Favonia, who provided the examples. This post is primarily a summary of the concepts discussed.

An important concept in Martin-Löf Type Theory is the internal equality1 type Id\mathrm{Id}. Like all inductive types, it comes with the typical rules used to introduce types:

  • Formation rule
  • Term introduction rule
  • Term elimination rule
  • Computation rule

There’s something quite peculiar about the elimination rule for Id\mathrm{Id} in particular (commonly known as “path induction”, or just JJ). Let’s take a look at its definition, in Agda syntax:

J : {A : Set}
   (C : (x y : A)  x  y  Set)
   (c : (x : A)  C x x refl)
   (x y : A)  (p : x  y)  C x y p
J C c x x refl = c x
What does this mean?

An eliminator rule defines how a type is used. It’s the primitive that often powers programming language features like pattern matching. We can break this function down into each of the parameters it takes:

  • CC is short for “motive”. Think of JJ as producing an IdC\mathrm{Id} \rightarrow C function, but we have to include the other components or else it’s not complete.
  • cc tells you how to handle the only constructor to Id\mathrm{Id}, which is refl\mathrm{refl}. Think of this as a kind of pattern match on the refl\mathrm{refl} case, since Id\mathrm{Id} is just a regular inductive type.
  • x,y,px, y, p these are just a part of the final IdC\mathrm{Id} \rightarrow C function.

How JJ is computed depends on your type theory’s primitives; in HoTT you would define it in terms of something like transport.

There’s something odd about this: the cc case only defines what happens in the case of C(x,x,refl)C(x, x, \mathrm{refl}), but the final JJ definition extends to arbitrary C(x,y,p)C(x, y, p). How can this be the case?

A good way to think about this is using generalized algebraic data types, or GADTs. A GADT is similar to a normal inductive data type, but it can be indexed by a type. This is similar to polymorphism on data types, but much more powerful. Consider the following non-generalized data type:

data List (A : Set) : Set where
  Nil : List A
  Cons : A  List A  List A

I could write functions with this, but either polymorphically (accepts A : Set as a parameter, with no knowledge of what the type is) or monomorphically (as a specific List Int or List Bool or something). What I couldn’t do would be something like this:

sum : (A : Set) → List A → A
sum Int Nil = 0
sum Int (Cons hd tl) = hd + (sum tl)
sum A Nil = {!   !}
sum A (Cons hd tl) = {!   !}

Once I’ve chosen to go polymorphic, there’s no option to know anything about the type, and I can only operate generally on it2.

With GADTs, this changes. The key here is that different constructors of the data type can return different types of the same type family.

data Message : Set  Set₁ where
  S : String  Message String
  I : Int  Message Int
  F : {T : Set}  (f : String  T)  Message T

Note that in the definition, I’ve moved the parameter from the left side to an index on the right of the colon. This means I’m no longer committing to a fully polymorphic A, which is now allowed to be assigned anything freely. In particular, it’s able to take different values for different constructors.

This allows me to write functions that are polymorphic over all types, while still having the ability to refer to specific types.

extract : {A : Set}  Message A  A
extract (S s) = s
extract (I i) = i
extract (F f) = f "hello"

Note that the type signature of extract remains fully polymorphic, while each of the cases has full type information. This is sound because we know exactly what indexes Message could take, and the fact that there are no other ways to construct a Message means we won’t ever run into a case where we would be stuck on a case we don’t know how to handle.

In a sense, each of the pattern match “arms” is giving more information about the polymorphic return type. In the S case, it can only return Message String, and in the I case, it can only return Message Int. We can even have a polymorphic constructor case, as seen in the F constructor.

The same thing applies to the Id\mathrm{Id} type, since Id\mathrm{Id} is pretty much just a generalized and dependent data type. The singular constructor refl is only defined on the index Id A x x, but the type has a more general Id A x y. So the eliminator only needs to handle the case of an element of AA equal to itself, because that’s the “only” constructor for Id\mathrm{Id} in the first place3.

Hopefully now the path induction type doesn’t seem as “magical” to you anymore!


  1. “Internal” here is used to mean something expressed within the type theory itself, rather than in the surrounding meta-theory, which is considered “external.” For more info, see this page.

  2. As another example, if you have a polymorphic function with the type signature A.AA\forall A . A \rightarrow A, there’s no implementation other than the id\mathrm{id} function, because there’s no other knowledge about the type. For more info, see Theorems for Free

  3. Not true in homotopy type theory, where the titular univalence axiom creates terms in the identity type using equivalences.