Metaphysics of the Semantics of HoTT. Thought of the Day 73.0


Types and tokens are interpreted as concepts (rather than spaces, as in the homotopy interpretation). In particular, a type is interpreted as a general mathematical concept, while a token of a given type is interpreted as a more specific mathematical concept qua instance of the general concept. This accords with the fact that each token belongs to exactly one type. Since ‘concept’ is a pre-mathematical notion, this interpretation is admissible as part of an autonomous foundation for mathematics.

Expressions in the language are the names of types and tokens. Those naming types correspond to propositions. A proposition is ‘true’ just if the corresponding type is inhabited (i.e. there is a token of that type, which we call a ‘certificate’ to the proposition). There is no way in the language of HoTT to express the absence or non-existence of a token. The negation of a proposition P is represented by the type P → 0, where P is the type corresponding to proposition P and 0 is a type that by definition has no token constructors (corresponding to a contradiction). The logic of HoTT is not bivalent, since the inability to construct a token of P does not guarantee that a token of P → 0 can be constructed, and vice versa.

The rules governing the formation of types are understood as ways of composing concepts to form more complex concepts, or as ways of combining propositions to form more complex propositions. They follow from the Curry-Howard correspondence between logical operations and operations on types. However, we depart slightly from the standard presentation of the Curry-Howard correspondence, in that the tokens of types are not to be thought of as ‘proofs’ of the corresponding propositions but rather as certificates to their truth. A proof of a proposition is the construction of a certificate to that proposition by a sequence of applications of the token construction rules. Two different such processes can result in construction of the same token, and so proofs and tokens are not in one-to-one correspondence.

When we work formally in HoTT we construct expressions in the language according to the formal rules. These expressions are taken to be the names of tokens and types of the theory. The rules are chosen such that if a construction process begins with non-contradictory expressions that all name tokens (i.e. none of the expressions are ‘empty names’) then the result will also name a token (i.e. the rules preserve non-emptiness of names).

Since we interpret tokens and types as concepts, the only metaphysical commitment required is to the existence of concepts. That human thought involves concepts is an uncontroversial position, and our interpretation does not require that concepts have any greater metaphysical status than is commonly attributed to them. Just as the existence of a concept such as ‘unicorn’ does not require the existence of actual unicorns, likewise our interpretation of tokens and types as mathematical concepts does not require the existence of mathematical objects. However, it is compatible with such beliefs. Thus a Platonist can take the concept, say, ‘equilateral triangle’ to be the concept corresponding to the abstract equilateral triangle (after filling in some account of how we come to know about these abstract objects in a way that lets us form the corresponding concepts). Even without invoking mathematical objects to be the ‘targets’ of mathematical concepts, one could still maintain that concepts have a mind-independent status, i.e. that the concept ‘triangle’ continues to exist even while no-one is thinking about triangles, and that the concept ‘elliptic curve’ did not come into existence at the moment someone first gave the definition. However, this is not a necessary part of the interpretation, and we could instead take concepts to be mind-dependent, with corresponding implications for the status of mathematics itself.

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