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Section: Research Program

Proof theory and the Curry-Howard correspondence

Proofs as programs

Proof theory is the branch of logic devoted to the study of the structure of proofs. An essential contributor to this field is Gentzen  [83] who developed in 1935 two logical formalisms that are now central to the study of proofs. These are the so-called “natural deduction”, a syntax that is particularly well-suited to simulate the intuitive notion of reasoning, and the so-called “sequent calculus”, a syntax with deep geometric properties that is particularly well-suited for proof automation.

Proof theory gained a remarkable importance in computer science when it became clear, after genuine observations first by Curry in 1958  [77], then by Howard and de Bruijn at the end of the 60's  [95], [114], that proofs had the very same structure as programs: for instance, natural deduction proofs can be identified as typed programs of the ideal programming language known as λ-calculus.

This proofs-as-programs correspondence has been the starting point to a large spectrum of researches and results contributing to deeply connect logic and computer science. In particular, it is from this line of work that Coquand and Huet's Calculus of Constructions  [74], [75] stemmed out – a formalism that is both a logic and a programming language and that is at the source of the Coq system  [113].

Towards the calculus of constructions

The λ-calculus, defined by Church  [72], is a remarkably succinct model of computation that is defined via only three constructions (abstraction of a program with respect to one of its parameters, reference to such a parameter, application of a program to an argument) and one reduction rule (substitution of the formal parameter of a program by its effective argument). The λ-calculus, which is Turing-complete, i.e. which has the same expressiveness as a Turing machine (there is for instance an encoding of numbers as functions in λ-calculus), comes with two possible semantics referred to as call-by-name and call-by-value evaluations. Of these two semantics, the first one, which is the simplest to characterise, has been deeply studied in the last decades  [62].

To explain the Curry-Howard correspondence, it is important to distinguish between intuitionistic and classical logic: following Brouwer at the beginning of the 20th century, classical logic is a logic that accepts the use of reasoning by contradiction while intuitionistic logic proscribes it. Then, Howard's observation is that the proofs of the intuitionistic natural deduction formalism exactly coincide with programs in the (simply typed) λ-calculus.

A major achievement has been accomplished by Martin-Löf who designed in 1971 a formalism, referred to as modern type theory, that was both a logical system and a (typed) programming language  [104].

In 1985, Coquand and Huet  [74], [75] in the Formel team of Inria-Rocquencourt explored an alternative approach based on Girard-Reynolds' system F  [84], [108]. This formalism, called the Calculus of Constructions, served as logical foundation of the first implementation of Coq in 1984. Coq was called CoC at this time.

The Calculus of Inductive Constructions

The first public release of CoC dates back to 1989. The same project-team developed the programming language Caml (nowadays called OCaml and coordinated by the Gallium team) that provided the expressive and powerful concept of algebraic data types (a paragon of it being the type of lists). In CoC, it was possible to simulate algebraic data types, but only through a not-so-natural not-so-convenient encoding.

In 1989, Coquand and Paulin  [76] designed an extension of the Calculus of Constructions with a generalisation of algebraic types called inductive types, leading to the Calculus of Inductive Constructions (CIC) that started to serve as a new foundation for the Coq system. This new system, which got its current definitive name Coq, was released in 1991.

In practice, the Calculus of Inductive Constructions derives its strength from being both a logic powerful enough to formalise all common mathematics (as set theory is) and an expressive richly-typed functional programming language (like ML but with a richer type system, no effects and no non-terminating functions).