What is Functional Programming?

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Functional Programming (FP) is programming with functions. Mathematical functions.

There’s no other definition that’s correct, unless it’s equivalent to this one. There’s no other definition that matters.

Background #

I first read the rigorous definition of a mathematical function in my first year of high-school, the 9-th grade. A function represents a unique association between elements of a domain (the input set) to the elements of a codomain (the output set). This means that applying the function to some input, you always get the same output.

My 9-th grade self actually read this in a high-school math manual:

Given f: A → B, ∀ x,y ∈ A
If f(x) ≠ f(y) then x ≠ y

And in my young mind this condition seemed obvious and redundant, but that’s what you get with mathematical rigorosity, which in our profession is sorely needed.

Given that I’m from Romania, being exposed to an education centered on rote learning, influenced by the French and the Russian / Soviet educational systems, I’m now pretty sure that I have an atypical background, compared to my U.S. peers.

For example we learned some category theory in our 12-th grade, of which I’m grateful, being really intriguing to me how some 6-figures Ivy League graduates can complain about never hearing of the word Monoid, or having to learn the math material of normal teenagers. And don’t get me wrong, our educational system isn’t great, being in a continued decline.

If you want to get even more technical, functional programming has at its foundation the Lambda Calculus, a system for expressing computations that is equivalent to Turing machines, a universal model of computation built on function abstraction and application.

Some languages like Haskell are actually compiled / reduced to an intermediate language that’s very close to Lambda Calculus, which is cool to have as a theoretical foundation, because then you can prove things about your language and have the ability to add new features safely, e.g. without risking type unsoundness. As an aside, Scala doesn’t have that luxury because it’s also an OOP language, so they are developing DOT calculus as an alternative. Interesting stuff.

Why Functional Programming? #

Many people are enamored with Functional Programming because it gives us:

  1. Referential Transparency
  2. Equational Reasoning

Software has essential complexity in it and it doesn’t help that our tools also contribute a decent amount of accidental complexity. If for example you think about asynchrony and concurrency, which often lead to non-determinism, the challenges involved have had tremendous cost for this industry.

Functional Programming keeps complexity at a manageable level because FP components can be divorced from their surrounding context and analysed independently. FP components can also be freely composed, an insanely useful property in an industry where software projects are seemingly built like houses of cards.

Memory locks for example don’t compose. Two functions yielding asynchronous results might or might not compose, depending on what shared mutable state they access, or what condition they are waiting on for completion.

There are a few alternatives to FP, like Rust’s draconic borrow checker, which essentially bans uncontrolled sharing. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, however if you ever found it weird or frustrating to deal with pure functions, then fighting Rust’s borrow checker should be even more weird or frustrating (mind you, I think Rust is awesome, but that’s beside the point).

If you no longer require purity, if you change the definition of what kind of “functions” we can accept, then we are no longer talking of Functional Programming, but about …

Procedural Programming #

We wouldn’t need the “pure” qualification if we, as programmers, wouldn’t overload terms.

Back in the day of assembly language and Turbo Pascal, we had perfectly good terms for impure functions, such as: procedure, routine, subroutine, these being blocks of code on which you jumped with the code pointer, executed some side-effects, pushed some results on the stack, then jumped back to where you were, with the contract being that such subroutines had a single entry point and a single exit point.

We have had a perfectly good term for describing programming made of procedures / subroutines: Procedural Programming 😉

Impure is Uninteresting #

Lately the trend is to classify code making use of “lambda expressions” as functional programming and to classify programming languages that have “first-class functions” as being functional programming languages.

“Lambda expressions” are anonymous functions that can capture the variables in the scope they’ve been defined (implemented using closures).

Well, the problem is that:

  1. The venerable C language has had the ability to pass function pointers around since forever, I know of no mainstream language that doesn’t allow you to pass function references, which makes functions “first class”;
  2. You don’t actually need anonymous functions for doing functional programming, if you have an equivalent — for example Java had “anonymous classes” before Java 8, with the newer lambda expressions actually creating anonymous classes; take a look at this Functional Java library, which was built before Java 8;
  3. It’s 2017 and most languages in use have usable lambda expressions, except for Python which has inherent limitations due to it being statement oriented and the developers refusing to introduce multi-line anonymous functions, which has led to a dozen or so non-orthogonal features to replace the need for it, under the mantra “only one way of doing things”, which by now is surely some kind of joke.

If you reduce your “functional programming” qualifier to usage of first class (impure) functions and lambda expressions, I think the top 15 languages and their use on GitHub qualifies.

Anti-intellectualism Phenomenon #

For all the learning that we are doing, software developers are a really conservative bunch, unwilling to accept new concepts easily and in this context “new” is relative to what we’ve learned either in university or at our first job. The vigor with which we defend what we already know is proportional with the time we’ve invested in our knowledge and whatever it is that we are currently doing.

Many people advise against mentioning “Monad”, because it will strike fear in the hearts of the unfaithful, the advice being apparently to either sidestep the issue, to rename it into something that can be supposedly easier to understand, or to compare it with burritos.

Such efforts are like renaming “Water” into “Drinkable” — which obviously makes no sense in certain contexts and deprives people of the correct jargon for seeking help. Although I’ll grant that “Monad” is pretty awful if you’ll look at its etymology, but it doesn’t matter, because it has evolved into a proper noun and has been used by book authors and researchers.

Anyway, want to discredit an idea, opinion, fact, or tool? Classify it as “academic”, a term that now has negative connotations, even though most interesting breakthroughs in computer science come from academia.

Can We do FP in Any Language? #

Yes, although some programming languages are better than others.

Doing FP in a programming language like Java feels like doing OOP in C with GObject. Doable, but it makes one think of switching professions in the long run.

But actually it’s not the programming language that’s the biggest problem, because technical challenges can usually be worked around, but the surrounding culture created by the community, along with the libraries available, because as a developer you won’t want to reinvent the wheel and swim against the tide.

This is why in addition to Haskell and OCaml, which are the languages that people refer to when speaking of FP, Scala also shines amongst them, because it has managed to attract and retain talent to work on awesome libraries for FP, that don’t have an equal outside of Haskell.

And for example, yes, you can do actual Functional Programming in JavaScript and there have been libraries helping with that, including really popular ones like RxJS, React, Redux, Immutable.js, Underscore.js amongst others, which were partially inspired by the community’s experience with ClojureScript and now ReasonML, PureScript and others. There are also community efforts, such as my own Funfix, plus a growing ecosystem around Fantasy Land, etc.

But bring up a problem like JavaScript’s Promise Leaks Memory in then chains and dozens of developers will jump on you to re-educate you on how promises work and to make you understand that the concerns you have are a niche, functional programming be damned.

Which does highlight that if you want functional programming, the communities of languages being bred for FP, like Haskell, PureScript, OCaml, Scala, etc. are probably richer and bigger than the FP sub-communities of the top mainstream languages, Java and JavaScript included.

Learning Resources #

Don’t believe the opinions of people on the Internet, mine included. Learn some Functional Programming instead, the real stuff, not the pop lambda-infused mumbo jumbo, then you can make up your own mind. At the very least, it’s fun, and you’ve got nothing to lose.

Thus far, I found these two books to be good as an introduction to FP:

Learning Haskell first is not a bad idea, because Haskell is currently the lingua franca of FP and most interesting research is happening in Haskell or in Haskell-derived languages (e.g. Idris, PureScript, etc). Even if you move on, you’ll still refer to concepts you learned in Haskell by name, you’ll still be inspired by ideas from Haskell’s ecosystem, etc. But if you’re into Scala already, then the “red book” is pretty awesome.

After that, you might want to read Category Theory for Programmers (PDF version), which should come only after you’ve gone through one of the above books from cover to cover.

Note you don’t need category theory for FP, but it’s better if you eventually learn the basics, since it’s a formal language for talking about composition and we want composition in our lives 😎

If you want motivation, remember that kids in Romania do it — put that on your fridge 😜

More good books might be out there, but for learning FP, I’d advise against going with anything that’s dynamically typed or LISP based. For one because dynamic languages tend to be more pragmatic, plus their limited type system don’t allow many of the useful abstractions that we’ve discovered in the last decade, so you’d be depriving yourself of many useful concepts and libraries. You should feel free to pick a dynamic language once you have the knowledge to make an informed choice.

Also, SICP (see modern PDF compilation) might have been good for its time and is still a good book, but it’s not that good for learning FP in 2017.

Now go forth and spread the true FP love 💘

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