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Definition of function

Note: This is a revision of the article on specification and definition of functions from abstractmath.org. Many of the links in this article take you to other articles in abstractmath.org.

A function is a mathematical object.

To deal with functions as a math object, you need a precise definition of “function”. That is what this article gives you.

  • The article starts by giving a specification of “function”.
  • After that, we get into the technicalities of the
    definitions of the general concept of function.
  • Things get complicated because there are several inequivalent definitions of “function” in common use.

Specification of “function”

A function $f$ is a mathematical object which determines and is completely determined by the following data:

  • (DOM) $f$ has a domain, which is a set. The domain may be denoted by $\text{dom} f$.
  • (COD) $f$ has a codomain, which is also a set and may be denoted by $\text{cod} f$.
  • (VAL) For each element $a$ of the domain of $f$, $f$ has a value at $a$.
  • (FP) The value of $f$ at $a$ is
    completely determined by $a$ and $f$.
  • (VIC) The value of $f$ at $a$ must be an element of the codomain of $f$.

  • The value of $f$ at $a$ is most cohttp://www.abstractmath.org/MM/MMonly written $f(a)$, but see Functions: Notation and Terminology.
  • To evaluate $f$ at $a$ means to determine $f(a)$. The two examples of functions below show that different functions may have different strategies for evaluating them.
  • In the expression “$f(a)$”, $a$ is called the input or (old-fashioned) argument of $f$.
  • “FP” means functional property.
  • “VIC” means “value in codomain”.


I give two examples here. The examples of functions chapter contains many other examples.

A finite function

Let $F$ be the function defined on the set $\left\{\text{a},\text{b},\text{c},\text{d}\right\}$ as follows: \[F(\text{a})=\text{a},\,\,\,F(\text{b})=\text{c},\,\,\,F(\text{c})=\text{c},\,\,\,F(\text{d})=\text{b}\]In this definition, $\text{a},\text{b},\text{c},\text{d}$ are letters of the alphabet, not variables. This is the function called “Finite” in the chapter on examples of functions.

  • The definition of $F$ says “$F$ is defined on the set $\left\{\text{a},\,\text{b},\,\text{c},\,\text{d} \right\}$”. The phrase “is defined on”
    means that the domain is that set. That is standard terminology.
  • The value of $F$ at each element of the domain is given explicitly. The value at
    $\text{b}$, for example, is $\text{c}$, because the definition says that $F(\text{b}) = \text{c}$. No other reason needs to be given. Mathematical definitions can be arbitrary.
  • The codomain of $F$ is not specified, but must include the set $\{\text{a},\text{b},\text{c}\}$. The codomain of a function is often not specified when it is not important, which is most of the time in freshman calculus (for example).
  • The diagram below shows how $F$ obeys the rule that the value of an element $x$ in the domain is completely determined by $x$ and $F$.
  • If two arrows had started from the same element of the domain, then $F$ would not be a function. (It would be a multivalued function).
  • If there were an element of the domain that no arrow started from, it $F$ would not be a function. (It would be a partial function.)
  • In this example, to evaluate $F$ at $b$ (to determine the value of $F$ at $b$) means to look at the definition of $F$, which says among other things that the value is $c$ (or alternatively, look at the diagram above and see what letter the arrow starting at $b$ points to). In this case, “evaluation” does not imply calculating a formula.

A real-valued function

Let $G$ be the real-valued function defined by the formula $G(x)={{x}^{2}}+2x+5$.

  • The definition of $G$ gives the value at each element of the domain by a formula. The value at $3$, for example, is obtained by calculating \[G(3)=3^2+2\cdot3+5=20\]
  • The definition of $G$
    does not specify the domain. The convention in the case of functions defined on the real numbers by a formula is to take the domain to be all real numbers at which the formula is defined. In this case, that is every real number, so the domain is $\mathbb{R}$.
  • The definition of $G$ does not specify the codomain, either. However, the codomain must include all real numbers greater than or equal to $4$. (Why?)
  • So if an author wrote, “Let $H(x)=\frac{1}{x}$”, the domain would be the set of all real numbers except $0$. But a careful author would write, “Let $H(x)=\frac{1}{x}$ ($x\neq0$).”

What the specification means

  • The specification guarantees that a function satisfies all five of the properties listed.
  • The specification does not define a mathematical structure in the way mathematical structures have been defined in the past: In particular, it does not require a function to be one or more sets with structure.
  • Even so, it is useful to have the specification, because:

    Many mathematical definitions
    introduce extraneous technical elements
    which clutter up your thinking
    about the object they define.


The discussion below is an over­simpli­fication of the history of mathe­matics, which many people have written thick books about. A book relevant to these ideas is Plato’s Ghost, by Jeremy Gray.

Until late in the nineteenth century, functions were usually thought of as defined by formulas (including infinite series). Problems arose in the theory of harmonic analysis which made mathematicians require a more general notion of function. They came up with the concept of function as a set of ordered pairs with the functional property (discussed below), and that understanding revolutionized our understanding of math.

In particular, this definition, along with the use of set theory, enabled abstract math (ahem) to become a cohttp://www.abstractmath.org/MM/MMon tool for understanding math and proving theorems. It is conceivable that some readers may wish it hadn’t. Well, tough.

The modern definition of function given here (which builds on the ordered pairs with functional property definition) came into use beginning in the 1950’s. The modern definition became necessary in algebraic topology and is widely used in many fields today.

The concept of function as a formula never disappeared entirely, but was studied mostly by logicians who generalized it to the study of function-as-algorithm. Of course, the study of algorithms is one of the central topics of modern computing science, so the notion of function-as-formula (updated to function-as-algorithm) has achieved a new importance in recent years.

To state both the definition, we need a preliminary idea.

The functional property

A set $P$ of ordered pairs has the functional property if two pairs in $P$ with the same first coordinate have to have the same second coordinate (which means they are the same pair). In other words, if $(x,a)$ and $(x,b)$ are both in $P$, then $a=b$.

How to think about the functional property

The point of the functional property is that for any pair in the set of ordered pairs, the first coordinate determines what the second one is (which is just what requirement FP says in the specification). That’s why you can write “$G(x)$” for any $x$ in the domain of $G$ and not be ambiguous.


  • The set $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (5,8)\}$ has the functional property, since no two different pairs have the same first coordinate. Note that there are two different pairs with the same second coordinate. This is irrelevant to the functional property.
  • The set $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (2,8)\}$ does not have the functional property. There are two different pairs with first coordinate 2.
  • The empty set $\emptyset$ has the function property vacuously.

Example: graph of a function defined by a formula

In calculus books, a picture like this one (of part of $y=x^2+2x+5$) is called a graph. Here I use the word “graph” to denote the set of ordered pairs
\[\left\{ (x,{{x}^{2}}+2x+5)\,\mathsf{|}\,x\in \mathbb{R } \right\}\]
which is a mathematical object rather than some ink on a page or pixels on a screen.

The graph of any function studied in beginning calculus has the functional property. For example, the set of ordered pairs above has the functional property because if $x$ is any real number, the formula ${{x}^{2}}+2x+5$ defines a specific real number.

  • if $x = 0$, then ${{x}^{2}}+2x+5=5$, so the pair $(0, 5)$ is an element of the graph of $G$. Each time you plug in $0$ in the formula you get 5.
  • if $x = 1$, then ${{x}^{2}}+2x+5=8$.
  • if $x = -2$, then ${{x}^{2}}+2x+5=5$.

You can measure where the point $\{-2,5\}$ is on the (picture of) the graph and see that it is on the blue curve as it should be. No other pair whose first coordinate is $-2$ is in the graph of $G$, only $(-2, 5)$. That is because when you plug $-2$ into the formula ${{x}^{2}}+2x+5$, you get $5$ and nothing else. Of course, $(0, 5)$ is in the graph, but that does not contradict the functional property. $(0, 5)$ and $(-2, 5)$ have the same second coordinate, but that is OK.

Mathematical definition of function

A function $f$ is a
mathematical structure consisting of the following objects:

  • A set called the domain of $f$, denoted by $\text{dom} f$.
  • A set called the codomain of $f$, denoted by $\text{cod} f$.
  • A set of ordered pairs called the graph of $ f$, with the following properties:
  • $\text{dom} f$ \text{dom} fis the set of all first coordinates of pairs in the graph of $f$.
  • Every second coordinate of a pair in the graph of $f$ is in $\text{cod} f$ (but $\text{cod} f$ may contain other elements).
  • The graph of $f$ has the functional property.

Using arrow notation, this implies that $f:\text{dom}f\to\text{cod} f$.


The main difference between the specification of function given previously and this definition is that the definition replaces the statement “$f$ has a value at $a$” by introducing a set of ordered pairs (the graph) with the functional property.

  • This set of ordered pairs is extra structure introduced by the definition mainly in order to make the definition a classical sets-with-structure.
  • This makes the graph, which should be a concept derived from the concept of function, appear to be a necessary part of the function.
  • That suggests incorrectly that the graph is more of a primary intuition that other intuitions such as function as map, function as transformer, and other points of view discussed in the article Images and meta­phors for functions.
  • The concept of graph of a function is indeed an important intuition, and is discussed with examples in the articles Graphs of continuous functions and Graphs of finite functions.
  • Nevertheless, the fact that the concept of graph appears in the definition of function does not make it the most important intuition.


  • Let $F$ have graph $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (5,8)\}$ and define $A = \{1, 2, 3, 5\}$ and $B = \{2, 4, 8\}$. Then $F:A\to B$ is a function. In speaking, we would usually say, “$F$ is a function from $A$ to $B$.”
  • Let $G$ have graph $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (5,8)\}$ (same as above), and define $A = \{1, 2, 3, 5\}$ and $C = \{2, 4, 8, 9, 11, \pi, 3/2\}$. Then $G:A\to C$ is a (admittedly ridiculous) function. Note that all the second coordinates of the graph are in the codomain $C$, along with a bunch of miscellaneous suspicious characters that are not second coordinates of pairs in the graph.
  • Let $H$ have graph $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (5,8)\}$. Then $H:A\to \mathbb{R}$ is a function, since $2$, $4$ and $8$ are all real numbers.
  • Let $D = \{1, 2, 5\}$ and $E = \{1, 2, 3, 4, 5\}$. Then there is no function $D\to A$ and no function $E\to A$ with graph $\{(1,2), (2,4), (3,2), (5,8)\}$. Neither $D$ nor $E$ has exactly the same elements as the first coordinates of the graph.

Identity and inclusion

Suppose we have two sets  A and  B with $A\subseteq B$.

  • The identity function on A is the function ${{\operatorname{id}}_{A}}:A\to A$ defined by ${{\operatorname{id}}_{A}}(x)=x$ for all $x\in A$. (Many authors call it ${{1}_{A}}$).
  • When $A\subseteq B$, the inclusion function from $A$ to $B$ is the function $i:A\to B$ defined by $i(x)=x$ for all $x\in A$. Note that there is a different function for each pair of sets $A$ and $B$ for which $A\subseteq B$. Some authors call it ${{i}_{A,\,B}}$ or $\text{in}{{\text{c}}_{A,\,B}}$.

The identity function and an inclusion function for the same set $A$ have exactly the same graph, namely $\left\{ (a,a)|a\in A \right\}$. More about this below.

Other definitions of function

Original abstract definition of function


  • A function $f$ is a set of ordered pairs with the functional property.
  • If $f$ is a function according to this definition, the domain of $f$ is the set of first coordinates of all the pairs in $f$.
  • If $x\in \text{dom} f$, then we define the value of $f$ at $x$, denoted by $f(x)$, to be the second coordinate of the only ordered pair in $f$ whose first coordinate is $x$.


  • This definition is still widely used in mathematical writing.
  • Many authors do not tell you which definition they are using.
  • For many purposes (including freshman calculus for the most part) it does not matter which definition is used.
  • In some branches of math, the modern definition adds great clarity to many complicated situations; using the older definition can even make it difficult to describe some important constructions. There is more about this in New Approaches below.

Possible confusion

Some confusion can result because of the presence of these two different definitions.

  • For example, since the identity function ${{\operatorname{id}}_{A}}:A\to A$ and the inclusion function ${{i}_{A,\,B}}:A\to B$ have the same graph, users of the older definition are required in theory to say they are the same function.
  • Also it requires you to say that the graph of a function is the same thing as the function.
  • In my observation, this does not make a problem in practice, unless there is a very picky person in the room.
  • It also appears to me that the modern definition is (quite rightly) winning and the original abstract definition is disappearing.

Multivalued function

The phrase multivalued function refers to an object that is like a function $f:S\to T$ except that for $s\in S$, $f(s)$ may denote more than one value.


  • Multivalued functions arose in considering complex functions. In cohttp://www.abstractmath.org/MM/MMon practice, the symbol $\sqrt{4}$ denoted $2$, although $-2$ is also a square root of $4$. But in complex function theory, the square root function takes on both the values $2$ and $-2$. This is discussed in detail in Wikipedia.
  • The antiderivative is an example of a multivalued operator. For any constant $C$, $\frac{x^3}{3}+C$ is an antiderivative of $x^2$, so that $\frac{x^3}{3}$, $\frac{x^3}{3}+42$, $\frac{x^3}{3}-1$ and $\frac{x^3}{3}+2\pi$ are among the infinitely many antiderivatives of $x^2$.

A multivalued function $f:S\to T$ can be modeled as a function with domain $S$ and codomain the set of all subsets of $T$. The two meanings are equivalent in a strong sense (naturally equivalent). Even so, it seems to me that they represent two differ­ent ways of thinking about
multivalued functions. (“The value may be any of these things…” as opposed to “The value is this whole set of things.”)

Some older mathematical papers in com­plex func­tion theory do not tell you that their functions are multi­valued. There was a time when com­plex func­tion theory was such a Big Deal in research mathe­matics that the phrase “func­tion theory” meant complex func­tion theory and every mathe­ma­tician with a Ph. D. knew that complex functions were multi­valued.

Partial function

A partial function $f:S\to T$ is just like a function except that its input may be defined on only a subset of $S$. For example, the function $f(x):=\frac{1}{x}$ is a partial function from the real numbers to the real numbers.

This models the behavior of computer programs (algorithms): if you consider a program with one input and one output as a function, it may not be defined on some inputs because for them it runs forever (or gives an error message).

In some texts in computing science and mathematical logic, a function is by
convention a partial function, and this fact may not be mentioned explicitly, especially in research papers.

The phrases “multivalued function” and “partial function” upset some picky types who say things like, “But a multi­valued func­tion is not a func­tion!”. A hot dog is not a dog, either. I once had a Russian teacher who was Polish and a German teacher who was Hungarian. So what? See the Hand­book (click on
radial category).

New approaches to functions

All the definitions of function given here produce mathematical structures, using the traditional way to define mathematical objects in terms of sets. Such definitions have disadvantages.

Mathematicians have many ways to think about functions. That a function is a set of ordered pairs with a certain property (functional) and possibly some ancillary ideas (domain, codomain, and others) is not the way we usually think about them$\ldots$Except when we need to reduce the thing we are studying to its absolutely most abstract form to make sure our proofs are correct.
That most abstract form is what I have called the rigorous view or the dry bones and it is when that reasoning is needed that the sets-with-structure approach has succeeded.

Our practice of abstraction has led us to new approaches to talking about functions. The most important one currently is category theory. Roughly, a category is a bunch of objects together with some arrows going between them that can be composed head to tail. Functions between sets are examples of this: the sets are the objects and the functions the arrows. But arrows in a category do not have to be functions; in that way category theory is an abstraction of functions.

This abstracts the idea of function in a way that brings out common ideas in various branches of math. Research papers in many branches of mathematics now routinely use the language of category theory. Categories now appear in some undergraduate math courses, meaning that Someone needs to write a chapter on category theory for abstractmath.org.

Besides category theory, computing scientists have come up with other abstract ways of dealing with functions, for example type theory. It has not come as far along as category theory, but has shown recent signs of major progress.

Both category theory and type theory define math objects in terms of their effect on and relationship with other math objects. This makes it possible to do abstract math entirely without using sets-with-structure as a means of defining concepts.


  • Functions in Wikipedia. This is an extensive and mostly well-done description of the use of functions in mathematics.

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I have been working my way through abstractmath.org, revising the articles and turning them into pure HTML so they will be easier to update. In some cases I am making substantial revisions. In particular, many of the articles need a more modern point of view.


The math community’s understanding of sets and structures has changed because of category theory and will change
because of homotopy type theory.


This post considers some issues and possibilities concerning the chapter on sets.

The references listed at the end of the article include several about homotopy type theory. They provide different viewpoints and require different levels of sophistication.

A specification of the concept of set

The abmath article Specification of sets specifies what a set is in this way:

A set is a single math object distinct from but completely determined by what its elements are.

I have used this specification for sets since the eighties, first in my Discrete Math lecture notes and then in abstractmath.org. It has proved useful because it is quite simple and the statement implies lots of immediate consequences. Each of the first four consequences in this list below exposes a confusion that some students have.

Consequences of the specification

  1. A set is a math object. It has the same status as the number “$143$” and the sine function and the real line: they are all objects of math. A set is not merely a typographically convenient way to define a certain collection of things.
  2. A set is a single object. Many beginners seem to have in their head that the set $\{3,4\}$ is two things.
  3. A set is distinct from its elements. The set $\{3,4\}$ is not $3$, it is not $4$, it is not a number at all.
  4. The spec implies that $\{3,4\}$ is the same set as $\{4,3\}$. Some students think they understand this but some of their mistakes show that they don’t really understand it.
  5. On the other hand, $\{3,5\}$ is a different set from $\{3,4\}$. I haven’t noticed this bothering students but it bothers me. See the discussion on ursets below.

Those consequences make the spec a useful teaching tool. But if a beginning abstract math student gets very far in their studies, some complications come up.

Defining “set”

In the late nineteenth century, math people started formally defining particular math structures such as groups and various
kinds of spaces. This was normally done by starting with a set and adding structure.

You may think that “starting with a set and adding structure” brushes a lot of complications under the rug. Well, don’t look under the rug, at least not right now.

The way they thought about sets was a informal version of what is now called naive set theory. In particular, they freely defined particular sets using what is essentially setbuilder notation, producing sets in a way which (I claim) satisfies my specification.

Bertrand Russell wakes everyone up

Then along came Russell’s paradox. In the context of this discussion, the paradox implied that the spec for sets is not a definition.The spec provides a set of necessary conditions for being a set. But it is not sufficient. You can say “Let $S$ be the set of all sets that…[satisfy some condition]” until you are blue in the face, but there are conditions (including the empty condition) that don’t define a set.

The Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms

The Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms were designed to provide a definition that didn’t create contradictions. The axioms accomplish this by creating a sort of hierarchy that requires that each set must be defined in terms of sets defined previously. They provide a good way (but not the only one) of providing a way of legitimizing our use of sets in math.

Observe that the “set of all sets” is certainly not “defined” in terms of previously defined sets!

Sets as a foundation

During those days there was a movement to provide a solid foundation for mathematics. After Zermelo-Fraenkel came along, the progress of thinking seemed to be:

  1. Sets are in trouble.
  2. Zermelo-Fraenkel solves our set difficulties.
  3. So let’s require that every math object be a set.

That list is oversimplified. In particular, the development of predicate logic was essential to this approach, but I can’t write about everything at once.

This leads to monsters such as the notorious definition of ordered pair:

The ordered pair $(a,b)$ is the set $\{a,\{b\}\}$.

This leads to the ludicrous statement that $a$ is an element of $(a,b)$ but that $b$ is not.

By saying every math object may be modeled as a set with structure, ZF set theory becomes a model of all of math. This approach gives a useful proof that all of math is as consistent as ZF set theory is.

But many mathematicians jumped to the conclusion that every math object must be a set with structure. This approach does not match the way mathematicians think about math objects. In particular, it makes computerized proof assistance hard to use because you have to translate your thinking into sets and first order logic.

Sets by category theory

“A mathematical object is determined by the role it plays in a category.” — A. Grothendieck

In category theory, you define math structures in terms of how they relate to other math structures. This shifts the emphasis from

What is it?


What are its properties?

For example, an ordered pair is a mathematical object $p$ determined by these properties:

  • It determines mathematical objects $p_1$ and $p_2$.
  • $p$ is completely determined by what $p_1$ is and what $p_2$ is.
  • If $p$ and $q$ are ordered pairs and $p_1=q_1$ and $p_2=q_2$ then $p=q$.

Categorical definition of set

“Categorical” here means “as understood in category theory”. It unfortunately has a very different meaning in model theory (set of axioms with only one model up to isomorphism) and in general usage, as in “My answer is categorically NO” said by someone who is red in the face. The word “categorial” has an entirely different meaning in linguistics. *Sigh*.

William Lawvere has produced an axiomatization of the category of sets.
The most accessible introduction to it that I know of is the article Rethinking set theory, by Tom Leinster. This axiomatization defines sets by their relationship with each other and other math objects in much the same way as the categorical definition of (for example) groups gives a definition of groups that works in any category.

“Set” means two different things

The word set as used informally has two different meanings.

  • According to my specification of sets, $\{3,4\}$ is a set and so is $\{3,5\}$.
  • $\{3,4\}$ and $\{3,5\}$ are not the same set because they don’t have the same elements.
  • But in the category of sets, any two $2$-element sets are isomorphic. (So are any two seven element sets.)
  • From a categorical point of view, two isomorphic objects in a category can be be thought of as the same object, with a caveat that you have better make it clear which isomorphism you are thinking of.

One of the great improvements in mathematics that homotopy type theory supplies is a systematic way of keeping track of the isomorphisms, the isomorphisms between the isomorphisms, and so on ad infinitum (literally). But note: I am just beginning to understand htt, so regard this remark as something to be suspicious of.

  • But $\{3,4\}$ and $\{3,5\}$ may not be thought of as the same object according to the spec I gave, because they don’t have the same elements.
  • This means that the traditional idea of set is not the same as the strict categorical idea of set.

I suggest that we keep the word “set” for the traditional concept and call the strict categorical concept an urset.

A traditional set is a structure on an urset

The traditional set $\{3,5\}$ consists of the unique two-element urset coindexed on the integers.

A (ur)set $S$ coindexed by a math structure $A$ is a monic map from $S$ to the underlying set of $A$. In this example, the map has codomain the integers and takes one element of the two-element urset to $3$ and the other to $5$.

Note added 2014-10-05 in response to Toby Bartels’ comment: I am inclined to use the names “abstract set” for “urset” and “concrete set” for coindexed sets when I revise the articles on sets. But most of the time we can get away with just “set”.

There is clearly no isomorphism of coindexed sets from $\{3,4\}$ to $\{3,5\}$, so those two traditional sets are not equal in the category of coindexed sets.

I made up the phrase “coindexed set” to use in this sense, since it is a kind of opposite of indexed set. If terminology for this already exists, lemme know. Linguists will tell you they use the word “coindexed” in a different sense.


The concept of “element” in categorical thinking is very different from the traditional idea, where an element of a set can be any mathematical object. In categorical thinking, an element of an object $A$ of a category $\mathbf{C}$ is an arrow $1\to A$ where $1$ is the terminal object. Thus $4$ as an integer is the arrow $1\to \mathbb{Z}$ whose unique value is the number $4$.

An object is an element of only one set

In the usage of category theory, the arrow $1\to\mathbb{R}$ whose value is the real number $4$ is a different math object from the arrow $1\to\mathbb{Z}$ whose value is the integer $4$.

A category theorist will probably agree that we can identify the integer $4$ with the real number $4$ via the well known canonical embedding of the ring of integers into the field of real numbers. But in categorical thinking you have to keep all such embeddings in mind; you don’t say the integer $4$ is the same thing as the real number $4$. (Most computer languages keep them distinct, too.)

This difference is actually not hard to get used to and is in fact an improvement over traditional set theory. When you do category theory you use lots of commutative diagrams. The embeddings show up as monic arrows and are essential in keeping the different objects ($\mathbb{Z}$ and $\mathbb{R}$ in the example) separate.

The paper Relating first-order set theory and elementary toposes, by Awodey, Butz, Simpson and Streicher, introduces a concept of “structural system of inclusions” that appears to me to restore the idea of object being an element of more than one set for many purposes.

Homotopy type theory allows an object to have only one type, with much the same effect as in the categorical approach.

Variable elements

The arrow $1\to \mathbb{Z}$ that picks out the integer $4$ is a constant function. It is useful to think of any arrow $A\to B$ of any category as a variable element (or generalized element) of the object $B$. For example, the function $f:\mathbb{R}\to \mathbb{R}$ defined by $f(x)=x^2$ allows you to
think of $x^2$ as a variable number with real parameter. This is another way of thinking about the “$y$” in the equation $y=x^2$, which is commonly called a dependent variable.

One way to think about $y$ is that some statements about it are true, some are false, and many statements are neither true nor false.

  • $y\geq 0$ is true.
  • $y\lt0$ is false.
  • $y\leq1$ is neither true nor false.

This way of thinking about variable objects clears up a lot of confusion about variables and deserves to be more widely used in teaching.

The book Category theory for computing science provides some examples of the use of variable elements as a way of thinking about categorical ideas.


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Abstracting algebra

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Function as map

This is a first draft of an article to eventually appear in abstractmath.

Images and metaphors

To explain a math concept, you need to explain how mathematicians think about the concept. This is what in abstractmath I call the images and metaphors carried by the concept. Of course you have to give the precise definition of the concept and basic theorems about it. But without the images and metaphors most students, not to mention mathematicians from a different field, will find it hard to prove much more than some immediate consequences of the definition. Nor will they have much sense of the place of the concept in math and applications.

Teachers will often explain the images and metaphors with handwaving and pictures in a fairly vague way. That is good to start with, but it’s important to get more precise about the images and metaphors. That’s because images and metaphors are often not quite a good fit for the concept — they may suggest things that are false and not suggest things that are true. For example, if a set is a container, why isn’t the element-of relation transitive? (A coin in a coinpurse in your pocket is a coin in your pocket.)

“A metaphor is a useful way to think about something, but it is not the same thing as the same thing.” (I think I stole that from the Economist.) Here, I am going to get precise with the notion that a function is a map. I am acting like a mathematician in “getting precise”, but I am getting precise about a metaphor, not about a mathematical object.

A function is a map

A map (ordinary paper map) of Minnesota has the property that each point on the paper represents a point in the state of Minnesota. This map can be represented as a mathematical function from a subset of a 2-sphere to {{\mathbb R}^2}. The function is a mathematical idealization of the relation between the state and the piece of paper, analogous to the mathematical description of the flight of a rocket ship as a function from {{\mathbb R}} to {{\mathbb R}^3}.

The Minnesota map-as-function is probably continuous and differentiable, and as is well known it can be angle preserving or area preserving but not both.

So you can say there is a point on the paper that represents the location of the statue of Paul Bunyan in Bemidji. There is a set of points that represents the part of the Mississippi River that lies in Minnesota. And so on.

A function has an image. If you think about it you will realize that the image is just a certain portion of the piece of paper. Knowing that a particular point on the paper is in the image of the function is not the information contained in what we call “this map of Minnesota”.

This yields what I consider a basic insight about function-as-map:  The map contains the information about the preimage of each point on the paper map. So:

The map in the sense of a “map of Minnesota” is represented by the whole function, not merely by the image.

I think that is the essence of the metaphor that a function is a map. And I don’t think newbies in abstractmath always understand that relationship.

A morphism is a map

The preceding discussion doesn’t really represent how we think of a paper map of Minnesota. We don’t think in terms of points at all. What we see are marks on the map showing where some particular things are. If it is a road map it has marks showing a lot of roads, a lot of towns, and maybe county boundaries. If it is a topographical map it will show level curves showing elevation. So a paper map of a state should be represented by a structure preserving map, a morphism. Road maps preserve some structure, topographical maps preserve other structure.

The things we call “maps” in math are usually morphisms. For example, you could say that every simple closed curve in the plane is an equivalence class of maps from the unit circle to the plane. Here equivalence class meaning forget the parametrization.

The very fact that I have to mention forgetting the parametrization is that the commonest mathematical way to talk about morphisms is as point-to-point maps with certain properties. But we think about a simple closed curve in the plane as just a distorted circle. The point-to-point correspondence doesn’t matter. So this example is really talking about a morphism as a shape-preserving map. Mathematicians introduced points into talking about preserving shapes in the nineteenth century and we are so used to doing that that we think we have to have points for all maps.

Not that points aren’t useful. But I am analyzing the metaphor here, not the technical side of the math.

Groups are functors

People who don’t do category theory think the idea of a mathematical structure as a functor is weird. From the point of view of the preceding discussion, a particular group is a functor from the generic group to some category. (The target category is Set if the group is discrete, Top if it is a topological group, and so on.)

The generic group is a group in a category called its theory or sketch that is just big enough to let it be a group. If the theory is the category with finite products that is just big enough then it is the Lawvere theory of the group. If it is a topos that is just big enough then it is the classifying topos of groups. The theory in this sense is equivalent to some theory in the sense of string-based logic, for example the signature-with-axioms (equational theory) or the first order theory of groups. Johnstone’s Elephant book is the best place to find the translation between these ideas.

A particular group is represented by a finite-limit-preserving functor on the algebraic theory, or by a logical functor on the classifying topos, and so on; constructions which bring with them the right concept of group homomorphisms as well (they will be any natural transformations).

The way we talk about groups mimics the way we talk about maps. We look at the symmetric group on five letters and say its multiplication is noncommutative. “Its multiplication” tells us that when we talk about this group we are talking about the functor, not just the values of the functor on objects. We use the same symbols of juxtaposition for multiplication in any group, “{1}” or “{e}” for the identity, “{a^{-1}}” for the inverse of {a}, and so on. That is because we are really talking about the multiplication, identity and inverse function in the generic group — they really are the same for all groups. That is because a group is not its underlying set, it is a functor. Just like the map of Minnesota “is” the whole function from the state to the paper, not just the image of the function.

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