Philosophical Equivariance – Sewing Holonomies Towards Equal Trace Endomorphisms.

In d-dimensional topological field theory one begins with a category S whose objects are oriented (d − 1)-manifolds and whose morphisms are oriented cobordisms. Physicists say that a theory admits a group G as a global symmetry group if G acts on the vector space associated to each (d−1)-manifold, and the linear operator associated to each cobordism is a G-equivariant map. When we have such a “global” symmetry group G we can ask whether the symmetry can be “gauged”, i.e., whether elements of G can be applied “independently” – in some sense – at each point of space-time. Mathematically the process of “gauging” has a very elegant description: it amounts to extending the field theory functor from the category S to the category SG whose objects are (d − 1)-manifolds equipped with a principal G-bundle, and whose morphisms are cobordisms with a G-bundle. We regard S as a subcategory of SG by equipping each (d − 1)-manifold S with the trivial G-bundle S × G. In SG the group of automorphisms of the trivial bundle S × G contains G, and so in a gauged theory G acts on the state space H(S): this should be the original “global” action of G. But the gauged theory has a state space H(S,P) for each G-bundle P on S: if P is non-trivial one calls H(S,P) a “twisted sector” of the theory. In the case d = 2, when S = S1 we have the bundle Pg → S1 obtained by attaching the ends of [0,2π] × G via multiplication by g. Any bundle is isomorphic to one of these, and Pg is isomorphic to Pg iff g′ is conjugate to g. But note that the state space depends on the bundle and not just its isomorphism class, so we have a twisted sector state space Cg = H(S,Pg) labelled by a group element g rather than by a conjugacy class.

We shall call a theory defined on the category SG a G-equivariant Topological Field Theory (TFT). It is important to distinguish the equivariant theory from the corresponding “gauged theory”. In physics, the equivariant theory is obtained by coupling to nondynamical background gauge fields, while the gauged theory is obtained by “summing” over those gauge fields in the path integral.

An alternative and equivalent viewpoint which is especially useful in the two-dimensional case is that SG is the category whose objects are oriented (d − 1)-manifolds S equipped with a map p : S → BG, where BG is the classifying space of G. In this viewpoint we have a bundle over the space Map(S,BG) whose fibre at p is Hp. To say that Hp depends only on the G-bundle pEG on S pulled back from the universal G-bundle EG on BG by p is the same as to say that the bundle on Map(S,BG) is equipped with a flat connection allowing us to identify the fibres at points in the same connected component by parallel transport; for the set of bundle isomorphisms p0EG → p1EG is the same as the set of homotopy classes of paths from p0 to p1. When S = S1 the connected components of the space of maps correspond to the conjugacy classes in G: each bundle Pg corresponds to a specific point pg in the mapping space, and a group element h defines a specific path from pg to phgh−1 .

G-equivariant topological field theories are examples of “homotopy topological field theories”. Using Vladimir Turaev‘s two main results: first, an attractive generalization of the theorem that a two-dimensional TFT “is” a commutative Frobenius algebra, and, secondly, a classification of the ways of gauging a given global G-symmetry of a semisimple TFT.


Definition of the product in the G-equivariant closed theory. The heavy dot is the basepoint on S1. To specify the morphism unambiguously we must indicate consistent holonomies along a set of curves whose complement consists of simply connected pieces. These holonomies are always along paths between points where by definition the fibre is G. This means that the product is not commutative. We need to fix a convention for holonomies of a composition of curves, i.e., whether we are using left or right path-ordering. We will take h(γ1 ◦ γ2) = h(γ1) · h(γ2).

A G-equivariant TFT gives us for each element g ∈ G a vector space Cg, associated to the circle equipped with the bundle pg whose holonomy is g. The usual pair-of-pants cobordism, equipped with the evident G-bundle which restricts to pg1 and pg2 on the two incoming circles, and to pg1g2 on the outgoing circle, induces a product

Cg1 ⊗ Cg2 → Cg1g2 —– (1)


making C := ⊕g∈GCg into a G-graded algebra. Also there is a trace θ: C1  → C defined by the disk diagram with one ingoing circle. The holonomy around the boundary of the disk must be 1. Making the standard assumption that the cylinder corresponds to the unit operator we obtain a non-degenerate pairing

Cg ⊗ Cg−1 → C

A new element in the equivariant theory is that G acts as an automorphism group on C. That is, there is a homomorphism α : G → Aut(C) such that

αh : Cg → Chgh−1 —– (2)

Diagramatically, αh is defined by the surface in the immediately above figure. Now let us note some properties of α. First, if φ ∈ Ch then αh(φ) = φ. The reason for this is diagrammatically in the below figure.


If the holonomy along path P2 is h then the holonomy along path P1 is 1. However, a Dehn twist around the inner circle maps P1 into P2. Therefore, αh(φ) = α1(φ) = φ, if φ ∈ Ch.

Next, while C is not commutative, it is “twisted-commutative” in the following sense. If φ1 ∈ Cg1 and φ2 ∈ Cg2 then

αg212 = φ2φ1 —– (3)

The necessity of this condition is illustrated in the figure below.


The trace of the identity map of Cg is the partition function of the theory on a torus with the bundle with holonomy (g,1). Cutting the torus the other way, we see that this is the trace of αg on C1. Similarly, by considering the torus with a bundle with holonomy (g,h), where g and h are two commuting elements of G, we see that the trace of αg on Ch is the trace of αh on Cg−1. But we need a strengthening of this property. Even when g and h do not commute we can form a bundle with holonomy (g,h) on a torus with one hole, around which the holonomy will be c = hgh−1g−1. We can cut this torus along either of its generating circles to get a cobordism operator from Cc ⊗ Ch to Ch or from Cg−1 ⊗ Cc to Cg−1. If ψ ∈ Chgh−1g−1. Let us introduce two linear transformations Lψ, Rψ associated to left- and right-multiplication by ψ. On the one hand, Lψαg : φ􏰀 ↦ ψαg(φ) is a map Ch → Ch. On the other hand Rψαh : φ ↦ αh(φ)ψ is a map Cg−1 → Cg−1. The last sewing condition states that these two endomorphisms must have equal traces:

TrCh 􏰌Lψαg􏰍 = TrCg−1 􏰌Rψαh􏰍 —– (4)



(4) was taken by Turaev as one of his axioms. It can, however, be reexpressed in a way that we shall find more convenient. Let ∆g ∈ Cg ⊗ Cg−1 be the “duality” element corresponding to the identity cobordism of (S1,Pg) with both ends regarded as outgoing. We have ∆g = ∑ξi ⊗ ξi, where ξi and ξi ru􏰟n through dual bases of Cg and Cg−1. Let us also write

h = ∑ηi ⊗ ηi ∈ Ch ⊗ Ch−1. Then (4) is easily seen to be equivalent to

∑αhii = 􏰟 ∑ηiαgi) —– (5)

in which both sides are elements of Chgh−1g−1.

Canonical Actions on Bundles – Philosophizing Identity Over Gauge Transformations.


In physical applications, fiber bundles often come with a preferred group of transformations (usually the symmetry group of the system). The modem attitude of physicists is to regard this group as a fundamental structure which should be implemented from the very beginning enriching bundles with a further structure and defining a new category.

A similar feature appears on manifolds as well: for example, on ℜ2 one can restrict to Cartesian coordinates when we regard it just as a vector space endowed with a differentiable structure, but one can allow also translations if the “bigger” affine structure is considered. Moreover, coordinates can be chosen in much bigger sets: for instance one can fix the symplectic form w = dx ∧ dy on ℜ2 so that ℜ2 is covered by an atlas of canonical coordinates (which include all Cartesian ones). But ℜ2 also happens to be identifiable with the cotangent bundle T*ℜ so that we can restrict the previous symplectic atlas to allow only natural fibered coordinates. Finally, ℜ2 can be considered as a bare manifold so that general curvilinear coordinates should be allowed accordingly; only if the full (i.e., unrestricted) manifold structure is considered one can use a full maximal atlas. Other choices define instead maximal atlases in suitably restricted sub-classes of allowed charts. As any manifold structure is associated with a maximal atlas, geometric bundles are associated to “maximal trivializations”. However, it may happen that one can restrict (or enlarge) the allowed local trivializations, so that the same geometrical bundle can be trivialized just using the appropriate smaller class of local trivializations. In geometrical terms this corresponds, of course, to impose a further structure on the bare bundle. Of course, this newly structured bundle is defined by the same basic ingredients, i.e. the same base manifold M, the same total space B, the same projection π and the same standard fiber F, but it is characterized by a new maximal trivialization where, however, maximal refers now to a smaller set of local trivializations.

Examples are: vector bundles are characterized by linear local trivializations, affine bundles are characterized by affine local trivializations, principal bundles are characterized by left translations on the fiber group. Further examples come from Physics: gauge transformations are used as transition functions for the configuration bundles of any gauge theory. For these reasons we give the following definition of a fiber bundle with structure group.

A fiber bundle with structure group G is given by a sextuple B = (E, M, π; F ;>.., G) such that:

  • (E, M, π; F) is a fiber bundle. The structure group G is a Lie group (possibly a discrete one) and λ : G —–> Diff(F) defines a left action of G on the standard fiber F .
  • There is a family of preferred trivializations {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I of B such that the following holds: let the transition functions be gˆ(αβ) : Uαβ —–> Diff(F) and let eG be the neutral element of G. ∃ a family of maps g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G such

    that, for each x ∈ Uαβγ = Uα ∩ Uβ ∩ Uγ

    g(αα)(x) = eG

    g(αβ)(x) = [g(βα)(x)]-1

    g(αβ)(x) . g(βγ)(x) . g(γα)(x) = eG


    (αβ)(x) = λ(g(αβ)(x)) ∈ Diff(F)

The maps g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G, which depend on the trivialization, are said to form a cocycle with values in G. They are called the transition functions with values in G (or also shortly the transition functions). The preferred trivializations will be said to be compatible with the structure. Whenever dealing with fiber bundles with structure group the choice of a compatible trivialization will be implicitly assumed.

Fiber bundles with structure group provide the suitable framework to deal with bundles with a preferred group of transformations. To see this, let us begin by introducing the notion of structure bundle of a fiber bundle with structure group B = (B, M, π; F; x, G).

Let B = (B, M, π; F; x, G) be a bundle with a structure group; let us fix a trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I and denote by g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G its transition functions. By using the canonical left action L : G —–> Diff(G) of G onto itself, let us define gˆ(αβ) : Uαβ —–> Diff(G) given by gˆ(αβ)(x) = L (g(αβ)(x)); they obviously satisfy the cocycle properties. Now by constructing a (unique modulo isomorphisms) principal bundle PB = P(B) having G as structure group and g(αβ) as transition functions acting on G by left translation Lg : G —> G.

The principal bundle P(B) = (P, M, p; G) constructed above is called the structure bundle of B = (B, M, π; F; λ, G).

Notice that there is no similar canonical way of associating a structure bundle to a geometric bundle B = (B, M, π; F), since in that case the structure group G is at least partially undetermined.

Each automorphism of P(B) naturally acts over B.

Let, in fact, {σ(α)}α∈I be a trivialization of PB together with its transition functions g(αβ) : Uαβ —–> G defined by σ(β) = σ(α) . g(αβ). Then any principal morphism Φ = (Φ, φ) over PB is locally represented by local maps ψ(α) : Uα —> G such that

Φ : [x, h]α ↦ [φ(α)(x), ψ(α)(x).h](α)

Since Φ is a global automorphism of PB for the above local expression, the following property holds true in Uαβ.

φ(α)(x) = φ(β)(x) ≡ x’

ψ(α)(x) = g(αβ)(x’) . ψ(β)(x) . g(βα)(x)

By using the family of maps {(φ(α), ψ(α))} one can thence define a family of global automorphisms of B. In fact, using the trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I, one can define local automorphisms of B given by

Φ(α)B : (x, y) ↦ (φ(α)(x), [λ(ψ(α)(x))](y))

These local maps glue together to give a global automorphism ΦB of the bundle B, due to the fact that g(αβ) are also transition functions of B with respect to its trivialization {(Uα, t(α)}α∈I.

In this way B is endowed with a preferred group of transformations, namely the group Aut(PB) of automorphisms of the structure bundle PB, represented on B by means of the canonical action. These transformations are called (generalized) gauge transformations. Vertical gauge transformations, i.e. gauge transformations projecting over the identity, are also called pure gauge transformations.

Weyl and Automorphism of Nature. Drunken Risibility.


In classical geometry and physics, physical automorphisms could be based on the material operations used for defining the elementary equivalence concept of congruence (“equality and similitude”). But Weyl started even more generally, with Leibniz’ explanation of the similarity of two objects, two things are similar if they are indiscernible when each is considered by itself. Here, like at other places, Weyl endorsed this Leibnzian argument from the point of view of “modern physics”, while adding that for Leibniz this spoke in favour of the unsubstantiality and phenomenality of space and time. On the other hand, for “real substances” the Leibnizian monads, indiscernability implied identity. In this way Weyl indicated, prior to any more technical consideration, that similarity in the Leibnizian sense was the same as objective equality. He did not enter deeper into the metaphysical discussion but insisted that the issue “is of philosophical significance far beyond its purely geometric aspect”.

Weyl did not claim that this idea solves the epistemological problem of objectivity once and for all, but at least it offers an adequate mathematical instrument for the formulation of it. He illustrated the idea in a first step by explaining the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry as the structure preserving bijective mappings of the point set underlying a structure satisfying the axioms of “Hilbert’s classical book on the Foundations of Geometry”. He concluded that for Euclidean geometry these are the similarities, not the congruences as one might expect at a first glance. In the mathematical sense, we then “come to interpret objectivity as the invariance under the group of automorphisms”. But Weyl warned to identify mathematical objectivity with that of natural science, because once we deal with real space “neither the axioms nor the basic relations are given”. As the latter are extremely difficult to discern, Weyl proposed to turn the tables and to take the group Γ of automorphisms, rather than the ‘basic relations’ and the corresponding relata, as the epistemic starting point.

Hence we come much nearer to the actual state of affairs if we start with the group Γ of automorphisms and refrain from making the artificial logical distinction between basic and derived relations. Once the group is known, we know what it means to say of a relation that it is objective, namely invariant with respect to Γ.

By such a well chosen constitutive stipulation it becomes clear what objective statements are, although this can be achieved only at the price that “…we start, as Dante starts in his Divina Comedia, in mezzo del camin”. A phrase characteristic for Weyl’s later view follows:

It is the common fate of man and his science that we do not begin at the beginning; we find ourselves somewhere on a road the origin and end of which are shrouded in fog.

Weyl’s juxtaposition of the mathematical and the physical concept of objectivity is worthwhile to reflect upon. The mathematical objectivity considered by him is relatively easy to obtain by combining the axiomatic characterization of a mathematical theory with the epistemic postulate of invariance under a group of automorphisms. Both are constituted in a series of acts characterized by Weyl as symbolic construction, which is free in several regards. For example, the group of automorphisms of Euclidean geometry may be expanded by “the mathematician” in rather wide ways (affine, projective, or even “any group of transformations”). In each case a specific realm of mathematical objectivity is constituted. With the example of the automorphism group Γ of (plane) Euclidean geometry in mind Weyl explained how, through the use of Cartesian coordinates, the automorphisms of Euclidean geometry can be represented by linear transformations “in terms of reproducible numerical symbols”.

For natural science the situation is quite different; here the freedom of the constitutive act is severely restricted. Weyl described the constraint for the choice of Γ at the outset in very general terms: The physicist will question Nature to reveal him her true group of automorphisms. Different to what a philosopher might expect, Weyl did not mention, the subtle influences induced by theoretical evaluations of empirical insights on the constitutive choice of the group of automorphisms for a physical theory. He even did not restrict the consideration to the range of a physical theory but aimed at Nature as a whole. Still basing on his his own views and radical changes in the fundamental views of theoretical physics, Weyl hoped for an insight into the true group of automorphisms of Nature without any further specifications.

Philosophical Isomorphism of Category Theory. Note Quote.

One philosophical reason for categorification is that it refines our concept of ‘sameness’ by allowing us to distinguish between isomorphism and equality. In a set, two elements are either the same or different. In a category, two objects can be ‘the same in a way’ while still being different. In other words, they can be isomorphic but not equal. Even more importantly, two objects can be the same in more than one way, since there can be different isomorphisms between them. This gives rise to the notion of the ‘symmetry group’ of an object: its group of automorphisms.

Consider, for example, the fundamental groupoid Π1(X) of a topological space X: the category with points of X as objects and homotopy classes of paths with fixed endpoints as morphisms. This category captures all the homotopy-theoretic information about X in dimensions ≤ 1. The group of automorphisms of an object x in this category is just the fundamental group π1(X,x). If we decategorify the fundamental groupoid of X, we forget how points in X are connected by paths, remembering only whether they are, and we obtain the set of components of X. This captures only the homotopy 0-type of X.

This example shows how decategorification eliminates ‘higher-dimensional information’ about a situation. Categorification is an attempt to recover this information. This example also suggests that we can keep track of the homotopy 2-type of X if we categorify further and distinguish between paths that are equal and paths that are merely isomorphic (i.e., homotopic). For this we should work with a ‘2-category’ having points of X as objects, paths as morphisms, and certain equivalence classes of homotopies between paths as 2-morphisms. In a marvelous self-referential twist, the definition of ‘2-category’ is simply the categorification of the definition of ‘category’. Like a category, a 2-category has a class of objects, but now for any pair x,y of objects there is no longer a set hom(x,y); instead, there is a category hom(x,y). Objects of hom(x,y) are called morphisms of C, and morphisms between them are called 2-morphisms of C. Composition is no longer a function, but rather a functor:

◦: hom(x, y) × hom(y, z) → hom(x, z)

For any object x there is an identity 1x ∈ hom(x,x). And now we have a choice. On the one hand, we can impose associativity and the left and right unit laws strictly, as equational laws. If we do this, we obtain the definition of ‘strict 2-category’. On the other hand, we can impose them only up to natural isomorphism, with these natural isomorphisms satisfying the coherence. This is clearly more compatible with the spirit of categorification. If we do this, we obtain the definition of ‘weak 2-category’. (Strict 2-categories are traditionally known as ‘2-categories’, while weak 2-categories are known as ‘bicategories’.)

The classic example of a 2-category is Cat, which has categories as objects, functors as morphisms, and natural transformations as 2-morphisms. The presence of 2-morphisms gives Cat much of its distinctive flavor, which we would miss if we treated it as a mere category. Indeed, Mac Lane has said that categories were originally invented, not to study functors, but to study natural transformations! A good example of two functors that are not equal, but only naturally isomorphic, are the identity functor and the ‘double dual’ functor on the category of finite-dimensional vector spaces. Given a topological space X, we can form a 2-category Π>sub>2(X) called the ‘fundamental 2-groupoid’ of X. The objects of this 2-category are the points of X. Given x, y ∈ X, the morphisms from x to y are the paths f: [0,1] → X starting at x and ending at y. Finally, given f, g ∈ hom(x, y), the 2-morphisms from f to g are the homotopy classes of paths in hom(x, y) starting at f and ending at g. Since the associative law for composition of paths holds only up to homotopy, this 2-category is a weak 2-category. If we decategorify the fundamental 2-groupoid of X, we obtain its fundamental groupoid.

From 2-categories it is a short step to dreaming of n-categories and even ω-categories — but it is not so easy to make these dreams into smoothly functioning mathematical tools. Roughly speaking, an n-category should be some sort of algebraic structure having objects, 1-morphisms between objects, 2-morphisms between 1-morphisms, and so on up to n-morphisms. There should be various ways of composing j-morphisms for 1 ≤ j ≤ n, and these should satisfy various laws. As with 2-categories, we can try to impose these laws either strictly or weakly.


Other approaches to n-categories use j-morphisms with other shapes, such as simplices, or opetopes. We believe that there is basically a single notion of weak n-category lurking behind these different approaches. If this is true, they will eventually be shown to be equivalent, and choosing among them will be merely a matter of convenience. However, the precise meaning of ‘equivalence’ here is itself rather subtle and n-categorical in flavor.

The first challenge to any theory of n-categories is to give an adequate treatment of coherence laws. Composition in an n-category should satisfy equational laws only at the top level, between n-morphisms. Any law concerning j-morphisms for j < n should hold only ‘up to equivalence’. Here a n-morphism is defined to be an ‘equivalence’ if it is invertible, while for j < n a j-morphism is recursively defined to be an equivalence if it is invertible up to equivalence. Equivalence is generally the correct substitute for the notion of equality in n-categorical mathematics. When laws are formulated as equivalences, these equivalences should in turn satisfy coherence laws of their own, but again only up to equivalence, and so on. This becomes ever more complicated and unmanageable with increasing n unless one takes a systematic approach to coherence laws.

The second challenge to any theory of n-categories is to handle certain key examples. First, for any n, there should be an (n + 1)-category nCat, whose objects are (small) n-categories, whose morphisms are suitably weakened functors between these, whose 2-morphisms are suitably weakened natural transformations, and so on. Here by ‘suitably weakened’ we refer to the fact that all laws should hold only up to equivalence. Second, for any topological space X, there should be an n-category Πn(X) whose objects are points of X, whose morphisms are paths, whose 2-morphisms are paths of paths, and so on, where we take homotopy classes only at the top level. Πn(X) should be an ‘n-groupoid’, meaning that all its j-morphisms are equivalences for 0 ≤ j ≤ n. We call Πn(X) the ‘fundamental n-groupoid of X’. Conversely, any n-groupoid should determine a topological space, its ‘geometric realization’.

In fact, these constructions should render the study of n-groupoids equivalent to that of homotopy n-types. A bit of the richness inherent in the concept of n-category becomes apparent when we make the following observation: an (n + 1)-category with only one object can be regarded as special sort of n-category. Suppose that C is an (n+1)-category with one object x. Then we can form the n-category C ̃ by re-indexing: the objects of C ̃ are the morphisms of C, the morphisms of C ̃ are the 2-morphisms of C, and so on. The n-categories we obtain this way have extra structure. In particular, since the objects of C ̃ are really morphisms in C from x to itself, we can ‘multiply’ (that is, compose) them.

The simplest example is this: if C is a category with a single object x, C ̃ is the set of endomorphisms of x. This set is actually a monoid. Conversely, any monoid can be regarded as the monoid of endomorphisms of x for some category with one object x. We summarize this situation by saying that ‘a one-object category is a monoid’. Similarly, a one-object 2-category is a monoidal category. It is natural to expect this pattern to continue in all higher dimensions; in fact, it is probably easiest to cheat and define a monoidal n-category to be an (n + 1)-category with one object.

Things get even more interesting when we iterate this process. Given an (n + k)-category C with only one object, one morphism, and so on up to one (k − 1)-morphism, we can form an n-category whose j-morphisms are the (j + k)-morphisms of C. In doing so we obtain a particular sort of n-category with extra structure and properties, which we call a ‘k-tuply monoidal’ n-category. Table below shows what we expect these to be like for low values of n and k. For example, the Eckmann-Hilton argument shows that a 2-category with one object and one morphism is a commutative monoid. Categorifying this argument, one can show that a 3-category with one object and one morphism is a braided monoidal category. Similarly, we expect that a 4-category with one object, one morphism and one 2-morphism is a symmetric monoidal category, though this has not been worked out in full detail, because of our poor understanding of 4-categories. The fact that both braided and symmetric monoidal categories appear in this table seems to explain why both are natural concepts.


In any reasonable approach to n-categories there should be an n-category nCatk whose objects are k-tuply monoidal weak n-categories. One should also be able to treat nCatk as a full sub-(n + k)-category of (n + k)Cat, though even for low n, k this is perhaps not as well known as it should be. Consider for example n = 0, k = 1. The objects of 0Cat1 are one-object categories, or monoids. The morphisms of 0Cat1 are functors between one-object categories, or monoid homomorphisms. But 0Cat1 also has 2-morphisms corresponding to natural transformations.

• Decategorification: (n, k) → (n − 1, k). Let C be a k-tuply monoidal n-category C. Then there should be a k-tuply monoidal (n − 1)-category DecatC whose j-morphisms are the same as those of C for j < n − 1, but whose (n − 1)-morphisms are isomorphism classes of (n − 1)-morphisms of C.

• Discrete categorification: (n, k) → (n + 1, k). There should be a ‘discrete’ k-tuply monoidal (n + 1)-category DiscC having the j-morphisms of C as its j-morphisms for j ≤ n, and only identity (n + 1)-morphisms. The decategorification of DiscC should be C.

• Delooping: (n, k) → (n + 1, k − 1). There should be a (k − 1)-tuply monoidal (n + 1)-category BC with one object obtained by reindexing, the j-morphisms of BC being the (j + 1)-morphisms of C. We use the notation ‘B’ and call BC the ‘delooping’ of C because of its relation to the classifying space construction in topology.

• Looping: (n, k) → (n − 1, k + 1). Given objects x, y in an n-category, there should be an (n − 1)-category hom(x, y). If x = y this should be a monoidal (n−1)-category, and we denote it as end(x). For k > 0, if 1 denotes the unit object of the k-tuply monoidal n-category C, end(1) should be a (k + 1)-tuply monoidal (n − 1)-category. We call this process ‘looping’, and denote the result as ΩC, because of its relation to loop space construction in topology. For k > 0, looping should extend to an (n + k)-functor Ω: nCatk → (n − 1)Catk+1. The case k = 0 is a bit different: we should be able to loop a ‘pointed’ n-category, one having a distinguished object x, by letting ΩC = end(x). In either case, the j-morphisms of ΩC correspond to certain (j − 1)-morphisms of C.

• Forgetting monoidal structure: (n, k) → (n, k−1). By forgetting the kth level of monoidal structure, we should be able to think of C as a (k−1)-tuply monoidal n-category FC. This should extend to an n-functor F: nCatk → nCatk−1.

• Stabilization: (n, k) → (n, k + 1). Though adjoint n-functors are still poorly understood, there should be a left adjoint to forgetting monoidal structure, which is called ‘stabilization’ and denoted by S: nCatk → nCatk+1.

• Forming the generalized center: (n,k) → (n,k+1). Thinking of C as an object of the (n+k)-category nCatk, there should be a (k+1)-tuply monoidal n-category ZC, the ‘generalized center’ of C, given by Ωk(end(C)). In other words, ZC is the largest sub-(n + k + 1)-category of (n + k)Cat having C as its only object, 1C as its only morphism, 11C as its only 2-morphism, and so on up to dimension k. This construction gets its name from the case n = 0, k = 1, where ZC is the usual center of the monoid C. Categorifying leads to the case n = 1, k = 1, which gives a very important construction of braided monoidal categories from monoidal categories. In particular, when C is the monoidal category of representations of a Hopf algebra H, ZC is the braided monoidal category of representations of the quantum double D(H).

Conjuncted: Unitary Representation of the Poincaré Group is a Fock Representation


The Fock space story is not completely abandoned within the algebraic approach to Quantum Field Theory. In fact, when conditions are good, Fock space emerges as the GNS Hilbert space for some privileged vacuum state of the algebra of observables. We briefly describe how this emergence occurs before proceeding to raise some problems for the naive Fock space story.

The algebraic reconstruction of Fock space arises from the algebraic version of canonical quantization. Suppose that S is a real vector space (equipped with some suitable topology), and that σ is a symplectic form on S. So, S represents a classical phase space . The Weyl algebra U[S,σ] is a specific C∗-algebra generated by elements of the form W(f), with f ∈ S and satisfying the canonical commutation relations in the Weyl-Segal form:

W(f)W(g) = e−iσ(f,g)/2W(f + g)

Suppose that there is also some notion of spacetime localization for elements of S, i.e. a mapping O → S(O) from double cones in Minkowski spacetime to subspaces of S. Then, if certain constraints are satisfied, the pair of mappings

O → S(O) → U(O) ≡ C{W(f) : f ∈ S(O)},

can be composed to give a net of C∗-algebras over Minkowski spacetime. (Here C∗X is the C∗-algebra generated by the set X.)

Now if we are given some dynamics on S, then we can — again, if certain criteria are satisfied — define a corresponding dynamical automorphism group αt on U[S,σ]. There is then a unique dynamically stable pure state ω0 of U[S,σ], and we consider the GNS representation (H,π) of U[S,σ] induced by ω0. To our delight, we find that the infinitesimal generators Φ(f) of the one-parameter groups {π(W(f))}t∈R behave just like the field operators in the old-fashioned Fock space approach. Furthermore, if we define operators

a(f) = 2−1/2(Φ(f) + iΦ(Jf)),
a∗(f) = 2−1/2(Φ(f)−iΦ(Jf)),

we find that they behave like creation and annihilation operators of particles. (Here J is the unique “complex structure” on S that is compatible with the dynamics.) In particular, by applying them to the vacuum state Ω, we get the entire GNS Hilbert space H. Finally, if we take an orthonormal basis {fi} of S, then the sum

i=1 a∗(fi)a(fi),

is the number operator N. Thus, the traditional Fock space formalism emerges as one special case of the GNS representation of a state of the Weyl algebra.

The Minkowski vacuum representation (H00) of A is Poincaré covariant, i.e. the action α(a,Λ) of the Poincaré group by automorphisms on A is implemented by unitary operators U(a,Λ) on H. When we say that H is isomorphic to Fock space F(H), we do not mean the trivial fact that H and F(H) have the same dimension. Rather, we mean that the unitary representation (H,U) of the Poincaré group is a Fock representation.


Time-Evolution in Quantum Mechanics is a “Flow” in the (Abstract) Space of Automorphisms of the Algebra of Observables

Spiral of life

In quantum mechanics, time is not a geometrical flow. Time-evolution is characterized as a transformation that preserves the algebraic relations between physical observables. If at a time t = 0 an observable – say the angular momentum L(0) – is defined as a certain combination (product and sum) of some other observables – for instance positions X(0), Y (0) and momenta PX (0), PY (0), that is to say

L(0) = X (0)PY (0) − Y (0)PX (0) —– (1)

then one asks that the same relation be satisfied at any other instant t (preceding or following t = 0),

L(t) = X (t)PY (t) − Y (t)PX (t) —– (2)

The quantum time-evolution is thus a map from an observable at time 0 to an observable at time t that preserves the algebraic form of the relation between observables. Technically speaking, one talks of an automorphism of the algebra of observables.

At first sight, this time-evolution has nothing to do with a flow. However there is still “something flowing”, although in an abstract mathematical space. Indeed, to any value of t (here time is an absolute parameter, as in Newton mechanics) is associated an automorphism αt that allows to deduce the observables at time t from the knowledge of the observables at time 0. Mathematically, one writes

L(t) = αt(L(0)), X(t) = αt(X(0)) —– (3)

and so on for the other observables. The term “group” is important for it precisely explains why it still makes sense to talk about a flow. Group refers to the property of additivity of the evolution: going from t to t′ is equivalent to going from t to t1, then from t1 to t′. Considering small variations of time (t′−t)/n where n is an integer, in the limit of large n one finds that going from t to t′ consists in flowing through n small variations, exactly as the geometric flow consists in going from a point x to a point y through a great number of infinitesimal variations (x−y)/n. That is why the time-evolution in quantum mechanics can be seen as a “flow” in the (abstract) space of automorphisms of the algebra of observables. To summarize, in quantum mechanics time is still “something that flows”, although in a less intuitive manner than in relativity. The idea of “flow of time” makes sense, as a flow in an abstract space rather than a geometrical flow.

Automorphisms. Note Quote.


A group automorphism is an isomorphism from a group to itself. If G is a finite multiplicative group, an automorphism of G can be described as a way of rewriting its multiplication table without altering its pattern of repeated elements. For example, the multiplication table of the group of 4th roots of unity G={1,-1,i,-i} can be written as shown above, which means that the map defined by

 1|->1,    -1|->-1,    i|->-i,    -i|->i

is an automorphism of G.

Looking at classical geometry and mechanics, Weyl followed Newton and Helmholtz in considering congruence as the basic relation which lay at the heart of the “art of measuring” by the handling of that “sort of bodies we call rigid”. He explained how the local congruence relations established by the comparison of rigid bodies can be generalized and abstracted to congruences of the whole space. In this respect Weyl followed an empiricist approach to classical physical geometry, based on a theoretical extension of the material practice with rigid bodies and their motions. Even the mathematical abstraction to mappings of the whole space carried the mark of their empirical origin and was restricted to the group of proper congruences (orientation preserving isometries of Euclidean space, generated by the translations and rotations) denoted by him as ∆+. This group seems to express “an intrinsic structure of space itself; a structure stamped by space upon all the inhabitants of space”.

But already on the earlier level of physical knowledge, so Weyl argued, the mathematical automorphisms of space were larger than ∆. Even if one sees “with Newton, in congruence the one and only basic concept of geometry from which all others derive”, the group Γ of automorphisms in the mathematical sense turns out to be constituted by the similarities.

The structural condition for an automorphism C ∈ Γ of classical congruence geometry is that any pair (v1,v2) of congruent geometric configurations is transformed into another pair (v1*,v2*) of congruent configurations (vj* = C(vj), j = 1,2). For evaluating this property Weyl introduced the following diagram:


Because of the condition for automorphisms just mentioned the maps C T C-1 and C-1TC belong to ∆+ whenever T does. By this argument he showed that the mathematical automorphism group Γ is the normalizer of the congruences ∆+ in the group of bijective mappings of Euclidean space.

More generally, it also explains the reason for his characterization of generalized similarities in his analysis of the problem of space in the early 1920s. In 1918 he translated the relationship between physical equivalences as congruences to the mathematical automorphisms as the similarities/normalizer of the congruences from classical geometry to special relativity (Minkowski space) and “localized” them (in the sense of physics), i.e., he transferred the structural relationship to the infinitesimal neighbourhoods of the differentiable manifold characterizing spacetime (in more recent language, to the tangent spaces) and developed what later would be called Weylian manifolds, a generalization of Riemannian geometry. In his discussion of the problem of space he generalized the same relationship even further by allowing any (closed) sub-group of the general linear group as a candidate for characterizing generalized congruences at every point.

Moreover, Weyl argued that the enlargement of the physico-geometrical automorphisms of classical geometry (proper congruences) by the mathematical automorphisms (similarities) sheds light on Kant’s riddle of the “incongruous counterparts”. Weyl presented it as the question: Why are “incongruous counterparts” like the left and right hands intrinsically indiscernible, although they cannot be transformed into another by a proper motion? From his point of view the intrinsic indiscernibility could be characterized by the mathematical automorphisms Γ. Of course, the congruences ∆ including the reflections are part of the latter, ∆ ⊂ Γ; this implies indiscernibility between “left and right” as a special case. In this way Kant’s riddle was solved by a Leibnizian type of argument. Weyl very cautiously indicated a philosophical implication of this observation:

And he (Kant) is inclined to think that only transcendental idealism is able to solve this riddle. No doubt, the meaning of congruence and similarity is founded in spatial intuition. Kant seems to aim at some subtler point. But just this point is one which can be completely clarified by general concepts, namely by subsuming it under the general and typical group-theoretic situation explained before . . . .

Weyl stopped here without discussing the relationship between group theoretical methods and the “subtler point” Kant aimed at more explicitly. But we may read this remark as an indication that he considered his reflections on automorphism groups as a contribution to the transcendental analysis of the conceptual constitution of modern science. In his book on Symmetry, he went a tiny step further. Still with the Weylian restraint regarding the discussion of philosophical principles he stated: “As far as I see all a priori statements in physics have their origin in symmetry” (126).

To prepare for the following, Weyl specified the subgroup ∆o ⊂ ∆ with all those transformations that fix one point (∆o = O(3, R), the orthogonal group in 3 dimensions, R the field of real numbers). In passing he remarked:

In the four-dimensional world the Lorentz group takes the place of the orthogonal group. But here I shall restrict myself to the three-dimensional space, only occasionally pointing to the modifications, the inclusion of time into the four-dimensional world brings about.

Keeping this caveat in mind (restriction to three-dimensional space) Weyl characterized the “group of automorphisms of the physical world”, in the sense of classical physics (including quantum mechanics) by the combination (more technically, the semidirect product ̧) of translations and rotations, while the mathematical automorphisms arise from a normal extension:

– physical automorphisms ∆ ≅ R3 X| ∆o with ∆o ≅ O(3), respectively ∆ ≅ R4 X| ∆o for the Lorentz group ∆o ≅ O(1, 3),

– mathematical automorphisms Γ = R+ X ∆
(R+ the positive real numbers with multiplication).

In Weyl’s view the difference between mathematical and physical automorphisms established a fundamental distinction between mathematical geometry and physics.

Congruence, or physical equivalence, is a geometric concept, the meaning of which refers to the laws of physical phenomena; the congruence group ∆ is essentially the group of physical automorphisms. If we interpret geometry as an abstract science dealing with such relations and such relations only as can be logically defined in terms of the one concept of congruence, then the group of geometric automorphisms is the normalizer of ∆ and hence wider than ∆.

He considered this as a striking argument against what he considered to be the Cartesian program of a reductionist geometrization of physics (physics as the science of res extensa):

According to this conception, Descartes’s program of reducing physics to geometry would involve a vicious circle, and the fact that the group of geometric automorphisms is wider than that of physical automorphisms would show that such a reduction is actually impossible.” 

In this Weyl alluded to an illusion he himself had shared for a short time as a young scientist. After the creation of his gauge geometry in 1918 and the proposal of a geometrically unified field theory of electromagnetism and gravity he believed, for a short while, to have achieved a complete geometrization of physics.

He gave up this illusion in the middle of the 1920s under the impression of the rising quantum mechanics. In his own contribution to the new quantum mechanics groups and their linear representations played a crucial role. In this respect the mathematical automorphisms of geometry and the physical automorphisms “of Nature”, or more precisely the automorphisms of physical systems, moved even further apart, because now the physical automorphism started to take non-geometrical material degrees of freedom into account (phase symmetry of wave functions and, already earlier, the permutation symmetries of n-particle systems).

But already during the 19th century the physical automorphism group had acquired a far deeper aspect than that of the mobility of rigid bodies:

In physics we have to consider not only points but many types of physical quantities such as velocity, force, electromagnetic field strength, etc. . . .

All these quantities can be represented, relative to a Cartesian frame, by sets of numbers such that any orthogonal transformation T performed on the coordinates keeps the basic physical relations, the physical laws, invariant. Weyl accordingly stated:

All the laws of nature are invariant under the transformations thus induced by the group ∆. Thus physical relativity can be completely described by means of a group of transformations of space-points.

By this argumentation Weyl described a deep shift which ocurred in the late 19th century for the understanding of physics. He described it as an extension of the group of physical automorphisms. The laws of physics (“basic relations” in his more abstract terminology above) could no longer be directly characterized by the motion of rigid bodies because the physics of fields, in particular of electric and magnetic fields, had become central. In this context, the motions of material bodies lost their epistemological primary status and the physical automorphisms acquired a more abstract character, although they were still completely characterizable in geometric terms, by the full group of Euclidean isometries. The indistinguishability of left and right, observed already in clear terms by Kant, acquired the status of a physical symmetry in electromagnetism and in crystallography.

Weyl thus insisted that in classical physics the physical automorphisms could be characterized by the group ∆ of Euclidean isometries, larger than the physical congruences (proper motions) ∆+ but smaller than the mathe- matical automorphisms (similarities) Γ.

This view fitted well to insights which Weyl drew from recent developments in quantum physics. He insisted – differently to what he had thought in 1918 – on the consequence that “length is not relative but absolute” (Hs, p. 15). He argued that physical length measurements were no longer dependent on an arbitrary chosen unit, like in Euclidean geometry. An “absolute standard of length” could be fixed by the quantum mechanical laws of the atomic shell:

The atomic constants of charge and mass of the electron atomic constants and Planck’s quantum of action h, which enter the universal field laws of nature, fix an absolute standard of length, that through the wave lengths of spectral lines is made available for practical measurements.

Relationist and Substantivalist meet by the Isometric Cut in the Hole Argument


To begin, the models of relativity theory are relativistic spacetimes, which are pairs (M,gab) consisting of a 4-manifold M and a smooth, Lorentz-signature metric gab. The metric represents geometrical facts about spacetime, such as the spatiotemporal distance along a curve, the volume of regions of spacetime, and the angles between vectors at a point. It also characterizes the motion of matter: the metric gab determines a unique torsion-free derivative operator ∇, which provides the standard of constancy in the equations of motion for matter. Meanwhile, geodesics of this derivative operator whose tangent vectors ξa satisfy gabξaξb > 0 are the possible trajectories for free massive test particles, in the absence of external forces. The distribution of matter in space and time determines the geometry of spacetime via Einstein’s equation, Rab − 1/2Rgab = 8πTab, where Tab is the energy-momentum tensor associated with any matter present, Rab is the Ricci tensor, and R = Raa. Thus, as in Yang-Mills theory, matter propagates through a curved space, the curvature of which depends on the distribution of matter in spacetime.

The most widely discussed topic in the philosophy of general relativity over the last thirty years has been the hole argument, which goes as follows. Fix some spacetime (M,gab), and consider some open set O ⊆ M with compact closure. For convenience, assume Tab = 0 everywhere. Now pick some diffeomorphism ψ : M → M such that ψ|M−O acts as the identity, but ψ|O is not the identity. This is sufficient to guarantee that ψ is a non-trivial automorphism of M. In general, ψ will not be an isometry, but one can always define a new spacetime (M, ψ(gab)) that is guaranteed to be isometric to (M,gab), with the isometry realized by ψ. This yields two relativistic spacetimes, both representing possible physical configurations, that agree on the value of the metric at every point outside of O, but in general disagree at points within O. This means that the metric outside of O, including at all points in the past of O, cannot determine the metric at a point p ∈ O. General relativity, as standardly presented, faces a pernicious form of indeterminism. To avoid this indeterminism, one must become a relationist and accept that “Leibniz equivalent”, i.e., isometric, spacetimes represent the same physical situations. The person who denies this latter view – and thus faces the indeterminism – is dubbed a manifold substantivalist.

One way of understanding the dialectical context of the hole argument is as a dispute concerning the correct notion of equivalence between relativistic spacetimes. The manifold substantivalist claims that isometric spacetimes are not equivalent, whereas the relationist claims that they are. In the present context, these views correspond to different choices of arrows for the categories of models of general relativity. The relationist would say that general relativity should be associated with the category GR1, whose objects are relativistic spacetimes and whose arrows are isometries. The manifold substantivalist, meanwhile, would claim that the right category is GR2, whose objects are again relativistic spacetimes, but which has only identity arrows. Clearly there is a functor F : GR2 → GR1 that acts as the identity on both objects and arrows and forgets only structure. Thus the manifold substantivalist posits more structure than the relationist.

Manifold substantivalism might seem puzzling—after all, we have said that a relativistic spacetime is a Lorentzian manifold (M,gab), and the theory of pseudo-Riemannian manifolds provides a perfectly good standard of equivalence for Lorentzian manifolds qua mathematical objects: namely, isometry. Indeed, while one may stipulate that the objects of GR2 are relativistic spacetimes, the arrows of the category do not reflect that choice. One way of charitably interpreting the manifold substantivalist is to say that in order to provide an adequate representation of all the physical facts, one actually needs more than a Lorentzian manifold. This extra structure might be something like a fixed collection of labels for the points of the manifold, encoding which point in physical spacetime is represented by a given point in the manifold. Isomorphisms would then need to preserve these labels, so spacetimes would have no non-trivial automorphisms. On this view, one might use Lorentzian manifolds, without the extra labels, for various purposes, but when one does so, one does not represent all of the facts one might (sometimes) care about.

In the context of the hole argument, isometries are sometimes described as the “gauge transformations” of relativity theory; they are then taken as evidence that general relativity has excess structure. One can expect to have excess structure in a formalism only if there are models of the theory that have the same representational capacities, but which are not isomorphic as mathematical objects. If we take models of GR to be Lorentzian manifolds, then that criterion is not met: isometries are precisely the isomorphisms of these mathematical objects, and so general relativity does not have excess structure.

This point may be made in another way. Motivated in part by the idea that the standard formalism has excess structure, a proposal to move to the alternative formalism of so-called Einstein algebras for general relativity is sought, arguing that Einstein algebras have less structure than relativistic spacetimes. In what follows, a smooth n−algebra A is an algebra isomorphic (as algebras) to the algebra C(M) of smooth real-valued functions on some smooth n−manifold, M. A derivation on A is an R-linear map ξ : A → A satisfying the Leibniz rule, ξ(ab) = aξ(b) + bξ(a). The space of derivations on A forms an A-module, Γ(A), elements of which are analogous to smooth vector fields on M. Likewise, one may define a dual module, Γ(A), of linear functionals on Γ(A). A metric, then, is a module isomorphism g : Γ(A) → Γ(A) that is symmetric in the sense that for any ξ,η ∈ Γ(A), g(ξ)(η) = g(η)(ξ). With some further work, one can capture a notion of signature of such metrics, exactly analogously to metrics on a manifold. An Einstein algebra, then, is a pair (A, g), where A is a smooth 4−algebra and g is a Lorentz signature metric.

Einstein algebras arguably provide a “relationist” formalism for general relativity, since one specifies a model by characterizing (algebraic) relations between possible states of matter, represented by scalar fields. It turns out that one may then reconstruct a unique relativistic spacetime, up to isometry, from these relations by representing an Einstein algebra as the algebra of functions on a smooth manifold. The question, though, is whether this formalism really eliminates structure. Let GR1 be as above, and define EA to be the category whose objects are Einstein algebras and whose arrows are algebra homomorphisms that preserve the metric g (in a way made precise by Rosenstock). Define a contravariant functor F : GR1 → EA that takes relativistic spacetimes (M,gab) to Einstein algebras (C(M),g), where g is determined by the action of gab on smooth vector fields on M, and takes isometries ψ : (M, gab) → (M′, g′ab) to algebra isomorphisms ψˆ : C(M′) → C(M), defined by ψˆ(a) = a ◦ ψ. Rosenstock et al. (2015) prove the following.

Proposition: F : GR1 → EA forgets nothing.

Classical Theory of Fields


Galilean spacetime consists in a quadruple (M, ta, hab, ∇), where M is the manifold R4; ta is a one form on M; hab is a smooth, symmetric tensor field of signature (0, 1, 1, 1), and ∇ is a flat covariant derivative operator. We require that ta and hab be compatible in the sense that tahab = 0 at every point, and that ∇ be compatible with both tensor fields, in the sense that ∇atb = 0 and ∇ahbc = 0.

The points of M represent events in space and time. The field ta is a “temporal metric”, assigning a “temporal length” |taξa| to vectors ξa at a point p ∈ M. Since R4 is simply connected, ∇atb = 0 implies that there exists a smooth function t : M → R such that ta = ∇at. We may thus define a foliation of M into constant – t hypersurfaces representing collections of simultaneous events – i.e., space at a time. We assume that each of these surfaces is diffeomorphic to R3 and that hab restricted these surfaces is (the inverse of) a flat, Euclidean, and complete metric. In this sense, hab may be thought of as a spatial metric, assigning lengths to spacelike vectors, all of which are tangent to some spatial hypersurface. We represent particles propagating through space over time by smooth curves whose tangent vector ξa, called the 4-velocity of the particle, satisfies ξata = 1 along the curve. The derivative operator ∇ then provides a standard of acceleration for particles, which is given by ξnnξa. Thus, in Galilean spacetime we have notions of objective duration between events; objective spatial distance between simultaneous events; and objective acceleration of particles moving through space over time.

However, Galilean spacetime does not support an objective notion of the (spatial) velocity of a particle. To get this, we move to Newtonian spacetime, which is a quintuple (M, ta, hab, ∇, ηa). The first four elements are precisely as in Galilean spacetime, with the same assumptions. The final element, ηa, is a smooth vector field satisfying ηata = 1 and ∇aηb = 0. This field represents a state of absolute rest at every point—i.e., it represents “absolute space”. This field allows one to define absolute velocity: given a particle passing through a point p with 4-velocity ξa, the (absolute, spatial) velocity of the particle at p is ξa − ηa.

There is a natural sense in which Newtonian spacetime has strictly more structure than Galilean spacetime: after all, it consists of Galilean spacetime plus an additional element. This judgment may be made precise by observing that the automorphisms of Newtonian spacetime – that is, its spacetime symmetries – form a proper subgroup of the automorphisms of Galilean spacetime. The intuition here is that if a structure has more symmetries, then there must be less structure that is preserved by the maps. In the case of Newtonian spacetime, these automorphisms are diffeomorphisms θ : M → M that preserve ta, hab, ∇, and ηa. These will consist in rigid spatial rotations, spatial translations, and temporal translations (and combinations of these). Automorphisms of Galilean spacetime, meanwhile, will be diffeomorphisms that preserve only the metrics and derivative operator. These include all of the automorphisms of Newtonian spacetime, plus Galilean boosts.

It is this notion of “more structure” that is captured by the forgetful functor approach. We define two categories, Gal and New, which have Galilean and Newtonian spacetime as their (essentially unique) objects, respectively, and have automorphisms of these spacetimes as their arrows. Then there is a functor F : New → Gal that takes arrows of New to arrows of Gal generated by the same automorphism of M. This functor is clearly essentially surjective and faithful, but it is not full, and so it forgets only structure. Thus the criterion of structural comparison may be seen as a generalization of the latter to cases where one is comparing collections of models of a theory, rather than individual spacetimes.

To see this last point more clearly, let us move to another well-trodden example. There are two approaches to classical gravitational theory: (ordinary) Newtonian gravitation (NG) and geometrized Newtonian gravitation (GNG), sometimes known as Newton-Cartan theory. Models of NG consist of Galilean spacetime as described above, plus a scalar field φ, representing a gravitational potential. This field is required to satisfy Poisson’s equation, ∇aaφ = 4πρ, where ρ is a smooth scalar field representing the mass density on spacetime. In the presence of a gravitational potential, massive test point particles will accelerate according to ξnnξa = −∇aφ, where ξa is the 4-velocity of the particle. We write models as (M, ta, hab, ∇, φ).

The models of GNG, meanwhile, may be written as quadruples (M,ta,hab,∇ ̃), where we assume for simplicity that M, ta, and hab are all as described above, and where ∇ ̃ is a covariant derivative operator compatible with ta and hab. Now, however, we allow ∇ ̃ to be curved, with Ricci curvature satisfying the geometrized Poisson equation, Rab = 4πρtatb, again for some smooth scalar field ρ representing the mass density. In this theory, gravitation is not conceived as a force: even in the presence of matter, massive test point particles traverse geodesics of ∇ ̃ — where now these geodesics depend on the distribution of matter, via the geometrized Poisson equation.

There is a sense in which NG and GNG are empirically equivalent: a pair of results due to Trautman guarantee that (1) given a model of NG, there always exists a model of GNG with the same mass distribution and the same allowed trajectories for massive test point particles, and (2), with some further assumptions, vice versa. But in an, Clark Glymour has argued that these are nonetheless inequivalent theories, because of an asymmetry in the relationship just described. Given a model of NG, there is a unique corresponding model of GNG. But given a model of GNG, there are typically many corresponding models of NG. Thus, it appears that NG makes distinctions that GNG does not make (despite the empirical equivalence), which in turn suggests that NG has more structure than GNG.

This intuition, too, may be captured using a forget functor. Define a category NG whose objects are models of NG (for various mass densities) and whose arrows are automorphisms of M that preserve ta, hab, ∇, and φ; and a category GNG whose objects are models of GNG and whose arrows are automorphisms of M that preserve ta, hab, and ∇ ̃. Then there is a functor F : NG → GNG that takes each model of NG to the corresponding model, and takes each arrow to an arrow generated by the same diffeomorphism. This results in implying

F : NG → GNG forgets only structure.

Philosophizing Forgetful Functors: This Functor Forgets only Properties: Namely, the Property of Being Abelian + This Functor Forgets Both Structure (the generating set) and Properties (the property of being a free group).


forgetful functor is a functor which is defined by ‘forgetting’ something. For example, the forgetful functor from Grp to Set forgets the group structure of a group, remembering only the underlying set.

In common parlance, the term ‘forgetful functor’ has no precise definition, being simply used whenever a functor is obviously defined by forgetting something. Many forgetful functors of this sort have left or right adjoints (and many are actually monadic or comonadic), leading to the paradigmatic adjunction “free ⊣ forgetful.”

On the other hand, from the perspective of stuff, structure, propertyevery functor is regarded as a forgetful functor and classified by how much it forgets (namely, stuff, structure, or properties). From this perspective, the forgetful functor from GrpGrp to SetSet forgets the structure of a group and the property of admitting a group structure, as usual; but its left adjoint (the free group functor) is also forgetful: if you identify SetSet with the category of free groups with specified generators, then it forgets the structure of a set of free generators and the property of being free.

There are many cases in which we want to say that one kind of mathematical object has more structure than another kind of mathematical object. For instance, a topological space has more structure than a set. A Lie group has more structure than a smooth manifold. A ring has more structure than a group. And so on. In each of these cases, there is a sense in which the first sort of object – say, a topological space – results by taking an instance of the second sort – say, a set – and adding something more – in this case, a topology. In other cases, we want to say that two different kinds of mathematical objects have the same amount of structure. For instance, given a Boolean algebra, one can construct a special kind of topological space, known as a Stone space, from which one can uniquely reconstruct the original Boolean algebra; and vice-versa.

These sorts of relationships between mathematical objects are naturally captured in the language of category theory, via the notion of a forgetful functor. For instance, there is a functor F : Top → Set from the category Top, whose objects are topological spaces and whose arrows are continuous maps, to the category Set, whose objects are sets and whose arrows are functions. This functor takes every topological space to its underlying set, and it takes every continuous function to its underlying function. We say this functor is forgetful because, intuitively speaking, it forgets something: namely the choice of topology on a given set.

The idea of a forgetful functor is made precise by a classification of functors due to Baez et al. (2004). This requires some machinery. A functor F : C → D is said to be full if for every pair of objects A, B of C, the map F : hom(A, B) → hom(F (A), F (B)) induced by F is surjective, where hom(A, B) is the collection of arrows from A to B. Likewise, F is faithful if this induced map is injective for every such pair of objects. Finally, a functor is essentially surjective if for every object X of D, there exists some object A of C such that F(A) is isomorphic to X.

If a functor is full, faithful, and essentially surjective, we will say that it forgets nothing. A functor F : C → D is full, faithful, and essentially surjective if and only if it is essentially invertible, i.e., there exists a functor G : D → C such that G ◦ F : C → C is naturally isomorphic to 1C, the identity functor on C, and F ◦ G : D → D is naturally isomorphic to 1D. (Note, then, that G is also essentially invertible, and thus G also forgets nothing.) This means that for each object A of C, there is an isomorphism ηA : G ◦ F (A) → A such that for any arrow f : A → B in C, ηB ◦ G ◦ F(f) = f ◦ ηA, and similarly for every object of D. When two categories are related by a functor that forgets nothing, we say the categories are equivalent and that the pair F, G realizes an equivalence of categories.

Conversely, any functor that fails to be full, faithful, and essentially surjective forgets something. But functors can forget in different ways. A functor F : C → D forgets structure if it is not full; properties if it is not essentially surjective; and stuff if it is not faithful. Of course, “structure”, “property”, and “stuff” are technical terms in this context. But they are intended to capture our intuitive ideas about what it means for one kind of object to have more structure (resp., properties, stuff) than another. We can see this by considering some examples.

For instance, the functor F : Top → Set described above is faithful and essentially surjective, but not full, because not every function is continuous. So this functor forgets only structure – which is just the verdict we expected. Likewise, there is a functor G : AbGrp → Grp from the category AbGrp whose objects are Abelian groups and whose arrows are group homomorphisms to the category Grp whose objects are (arbitrary) groups and whose arrows are group homomorphisms. This functor acts as the identity on the objects and arrows of AbGrp. It is full and faithful, but not essentially surjective because not every group is Abelian. So this functor forgets only properties: namely, the property of being Abelian. Finally, consider the unique functor H : Set → 1, where 1 is the category with one object and one arrow. This functor is full and essentially surjective, but it is not faithful, so it forgets only stuff – namely all of the elements of the sets, since we may think of 1 as the category whose only object is the empty set, which has exactly one automorphism.

In what follows, we will say that one sort of object has more structure (resp. properties, stuff) than another if there is a functor from the first category to the second that forgets structure (resp. properties, stuff). It is important to note, however, that comparisons of this sort must be relativized to a choice of functor. In many cases, there is an obvious functor to choose – i.e., a functor that naturally captures the standard of comparison in question. But there may be other ways of comparing mathematical objects that yield different verdicts.

For instance, there is a natural sense in which groups have more structure than sets, since any group may be thought of as a set of elements with some additional structure. This relationship is captured by a forgetful functor F : Grp → Set that takes groups to their underlying sets and group homomorphisms to their underlying functions. But any set also uniquely determines a group, known as the free group generated by that set; likewise, functions generate group homomorphisms between free groups. This relationship is captured by a different functor, G : Set → Grp, that takes every set to the free group generated by it and every function to the corresponding group homomorphism. This functor forgets both structure (the generating set) and properties (the property of being a free group). So there is a sense in which sets may be construed to have more structure than groups.