October 14, 2022

Computability Part 8: Lambda Calculus

In the previous posts, we dug deeper into one particular model of computation, starting with Turing Machines in part 2, to the von Neumann computer architecture in part 6, to some of the implementation practicalities of machines - physical or virtual - in part 7.

We'll switch gears and cover another computational model this time around: lambda calculus. Lambda calculus was developed by Alonzo Church around the same time Alan Turing was proposing the Turing machine as a universal model for computation. The Church-Turing thesis1 proves the equivalence between the two models - anything a Turing machine can compute can also be computed by lambda calculus.


Lambda calculus consists of lambda terms and reductions applied to lambda terms.

The lambda terms are built with the following rules, where \(\Lambda\) is the set of all possible lambda terms:

If a term \(y\) appears in \(M\) but is not bound, then \(y\) is free in \(M\), e.g. for \(\lambda x.y \space x\), \(x\) is bound and \(y\) is free. The reductions are:

Let's look at a few simple examples in Python:

lambda x: x

This is the identity function expressed as a lambda abstraction. In this case, x (the lambda parameter), becomes bound in the body of the lambda.


lambda y: y

This is the same identity function, we're just using y instead of x to name the parameter.

For function application, we can apply the identity function to any other lambda term and get back that lambda term:

(lambda x: x)(lambda y: y)

This applied the identify function lambda x: x to the argument lambda y: y, which will give us back lambda y: y.

Church encoding

Based on the above definition, lambda calculus consists exclusively of lambda terms - while (lambda x: x)(10) is valid Python code, applying an identity lambda to the number 10, lambda calculus does not have a number 10. Enter Church encoding: Alonzo Church came up with a way to encode logic values and numbers as lambda terms.


Let's start with Boolean logic: TRUE is defined as \(T := (\lambda x.\lambda y.x)\), FALSE is defined as \(F := (\lambda x.\lambda y.y)\).

TRUE = lambda x: lambda y: x
FALSE = lambda x: lambda y: y

Note with this definition, if we apply a first argument to TRUE, and a second argument to the returned lambda, we always get back the first argument. For FALSE, we always get back the second argument.

We can defined IF as \(IF := (\lambda x.x)\). This is the same as the identity function.

IF = lambda x: x

This works since we defined TRUE to always return the first argument and FALSE to always return the second argument. So when we call IF(c)(x)(y), if c is TRUE, we get back x (the if-branch), otherwise we get back y (the else-branch).

We can try this out (though again this is outside of lambda calculus, we are introducing numbers for clarity):

IF(TRUE)(1)(2)  # This returns 1
IF(FALSE)(1)(2) # This returns 2

Now that we can express if-then-else, we can easily express other logic operators. Negation is \(\lambda x.(x \space F \space T)\).

NOT = lambda x: x(FALSE)(TRUE)

If x is TRUE, we get back the first argument, FALSE; if x is FALSE, we get back the second argument, TRUE.

x AND y can be expressed as if x then y else FALSE, or: \(\lambda x.\lambda y.(x \space y \space F)\). x OR y can be expressed as if x then TRUE else y, or \(\lambda x.\lambda y.(x \space T \space y)\).

AND = lambda x: lambda y: x(y)(FALSE)
OR = lambda x: lambda y: x(TRUE)(y)

Here are a few examples:

print(AND(TRUE)(TRUE) == TRUE)  # prints True
print(AND(TRUE)(FALSE) == TRUE) # prints False
print(OR(TRUE)(FALSE) == TRUE)  # prints True
print(NOT(FALSE) == TRUE)       # prints True

Using only lambda terms, we were able to implement Boolean logic! But Church encoding goes further - we can also represent natural numbers and arithmetic as lambda terms.


Alonzo Church encoded numbers as applications of a function \(f\) to a term \(x\).

In general, the number n is represented by n applications of f: \(n := \lambda f.\lambda x.f (f (... (f x)) ... ))\) or \(n := \lambda f.\lambda x. f^n(x)\).

In Python:

ZERO = lambda f: lambda x: x
ONE = lambda f: lambda x: f(x)
TWO = lambda f: lambda x: f(f(x))

Note ZERO is the same as FALSE. With this definition of numbers, we can define the successor function SUCC as a function that takes a number n (represented with our Church encoding), the function f, the term x, and applies f one more time. \(SUCC := \lambda n.\lambda f.\lambda x.f (n f x)\).

SUCC = lambda n: lambda f: lambda x: f(n(f)(x))

We can define addition as \(PLUS := \lambda m.\lambda n.m \space SUCC \space n\). Since we define a number as repeatedly applying a function, we express m + n as applying m times the successor function SUCC to n.

PLUS = lambda m: lambda n: m(SUCC)(n)

We can similarly define multiplication as applications of the PLUS function:

MUL = lambda m: lambda n: m(PLUS)(n)

We'll stop here with arithmetic, but this should hopefully give you a sense of the expressive power of lambda calculus.


Some well-known lambda terms are called combinators:

In Python:

I = lambda x: x
K = lambda x: lambda y: x
S = lambda x: lambda y: lambda z: x(z)(y(z))

Turns out these 3 combinators can together express any lambda term. The SKI combinators are the simplest programming language since they can express anything expressable in lambda calculus, which we know is Turing-complete.

The Y combinator

Another interesting combinator is the \(Y\) combinator. In lambda calculus, there is no way for a function to reference itself: within the body of a lambda like lambda x: ... we can refer to the bound term x, but we can reference the lambda itself. The implication is that we can't define, using this syntax, self-referential functions. We can only pass functions as arguments. How can we then implement recursion? With the \(Y\) combinator, of course.

Let's take an example: we can recursively define factorial as:

def fact(n):
    return 1 if n == 0 else n * fact(n - 1)

This works, but note we reference fact() within its body. In lambda calculus we can't do that.

The \(Y\) combinator is defined as \(Y := \lambda f.(\lambda x.f (x x))(\lambda x.f (x x))\).

Y = lambda f: (lambda x: f(x(x)))(lambda x: f(lambda z: x(x)(z)))

Note the Python implementation is slightly different than the mathematical definition. This has to do with the way in which Python evaluates arguments. We won't go into the details here, but consider this a Python implementation detail irrelevant to the lambda calculus discussion2.

Here is a lambda version of factorial:

FACT = lambda f: lambda n: 1 if n == 0 else n * f(n - 1)

With this definition, we pass the function to call as an argument (f). We can fully express this in lambda calculus (using Church numerals, arithmetic and logic), but we'll keep the example simple. We can then use the \(Y\) combinator like this:

print(Y(FACT)(5))  # prints 120

This should give you an intuitive understanding of how the \(Y\) combinator works: we pass it our function and argument, and it enables the recursion mechanism.

We can similarly implement Fibonacci as:

FIB = lambda f: lambda n: 1 if n <= 2 else f(n - 1) + f(n - 2)

print(Y(FIB)(10))  # prints 55

The powerful \(Y\) combinator can be used to define recursive functions in programming languages that don't natively support recursion.


Let's also look at how we can express lists in lambda calculus. Let's start with pairs. We can define a pair as \(PAIR := \lambda x.\lambda y.\lambda f. f x y\). We can extract the first element of a pair with \(FIRST := \lambda p. p \space T\) and the second one with \(SECOND := \lambda p.p \space F\).

PAIR = lambda x: lambda y: lambda f: f(x)(y)
FIRST = lambda p: p(TRUE)
SECOND = lambda p: p(FALSE)

print(FIRST(PAIR(10)(20)))  # prints 10
print(SECOND(PAIR(10)(20))) # prints 20

We can define a NULL value as \(NULL := \lambda x.T\) and a test for NULL as \(ISNULL := \lambda p.p (\lambda x.\lambda y.FALSE)\).

NULL = lambda x: TRUE
ISNULL = lambda p: p(lambda x: lambda y: FALSE)

We can now define a linked list as either NULL (an empty list) or as a pair consisting of a pair of elements - a head element and a tail list.

We can get the head of the list using FIRST and the tail using SECOND. Given list \(L\), we can prepend an element \(x\) by forming the pair \((x, L)\).

PREPEND = lambda x: lambda xs: PAIR(x)(xs)

We can build a list by prepending elements to NULL, and traverse it using HEAD and TAIL:

# Build the list [10, 20, 30]

print(HEAD(TAIL(L))) # prints 20

Appending is more interesting: if our list is represented as a pair of head and tail, we need to traverse the list until we reach the end. This sounds a lot like a recursive function: appending x to xs entails returning the pair PAIR(x, NULL) if xs is NULL, else the pair PAIR(HEAD(xs), APPEND(TAIL(xs, x))). Fortunately, we just looked at the \(Y\) combinator which allows us to express this.

Here is a simplified, readable implementation, using Python tuples:

_append = lambda f: lambda xs: lambda x: \
    (x, None) if not xs else (xs[0], f(xs[1])(x))

append = Y(_append)


# This will print (10, (20, (30, None)))

We can express the same using the lambdas we defined above (NULL, ISNULL, PAIR, HEAD, TAIL):

_APPEND = lambda f: lambda xs: lambda x: \
    ISNULL(xs) (lambda _: PAIR(x)(NULL)) (lambda _: PAIR(HEAD(xs))(f(TAIL(xs))(x))) (TRUE)



print(HEAD(L))       # prints 10
print(HEAD(TAIL(L))) # prints 20

We covered logic, arithmetic, combinators, pairs, and lists, all expressed as lambda terms. Let's also sketch a proof of Turing completeness, like we did in previous posts.

A sketch of Turing completeness

We're calling this a sketch, as lambda notation is not easy to read. We will instead look at an implementation using more Python syntax than just lambdas, but we will only use constructs which we know can be expressed in lambda calculus.

As usual, we will emulate another system which we know to be Turing-complete. In part 3 we looked at tag systems. We talked about cyclic tag systems, which can emulate m-tag systems, which are Turing-complete. As a reminder, a cyclic tag system is implemented as a set of binary strings (strings containing only 0s and 1s) which are production rules, and we process a binary input string by popping the head of the string and, if it is equal to 1, appending the current production rule to the string. We cycle through the production rules at each step. This is the code we used in the previous post:

def cyclic_tag_system(productions, string):
    # Keeps track of current production
    i = 0

    # Repeat until the string is empty
    while string:
        string = string[1:] + (productions[i] if string[0] == '1' else '')

        # Update current production
        i = i + 1
        if i == len(productions):
            i = 0

        yield string

We used the productions 11, 01, and 00 and the input 1:

productions = ['11', '01', '00']

string = '1'

for string in cyclic_tag_system(productions, string):

Let's sketch an alternative implementation using the constructs we covered in this post.

First, we can describe our production rules as lists of Boolean values. We know how to represent Boolean values (TRUE and FALSE), and how to build a list using PAIR. Our productions can be represented as:

p1 = (True, (True, None))   # PAIR(TRUE)(PAIR(TRUE)(NULL))
p2 = (False, (True, None))  # PAIR(FALSE)(PAIR(TRUE)(NULL))
p3 = (False, (False, None)) # PAIR(FALSE)(PAIR(FALSE)(NULL))

productions = (p1, (p2, (p3, None)))

We can cycle through the list by processing the head, then appending it to the tail of the list. Here are simpler implementations of our list processing functions over Python tuples (though we know how to do these using only lambda terms):

def head(p):
    return p[0]

def tail(p):
    return p[1]

def append(xs, x):
    return (x, None) if not xs else (head(xs), append(tail(xs), x))

# If we want to cycle through our productions, we can do:
# productions = append(tail(productions), head(productions))

We'll also need a function to concatenate two lists. We can easily build this on top of append():

def concat(xs, ys):
    return xs if not ys else concat(append(xs, head(ys)), tail(ys))

While we still have ys, we append the head of ys to xs, then recurse with the tail of ys.

We process our input string as follows: if it is empty, we are done. If not, if the head is 1, we concatenate our current production to the end of the string, and recurse, cycling productions:

def cyclic_tag_system(productions, input):
    return None if not input else \
            # Cycle productions
            append(tail(productions), head(productions)),
            # If head is True, concatenate head production. Pop head input either way.
            concat(tail(input), head(productions)) if head(input) else tail(input))

Let's throw in a print() and run this on the same input as our original example:

def cyclic_tag_system(productions, input):
    return None if not input else \
            # Cycle productions
            append(tail(productions), head(productions)),
            # If head is True, concatenate head production. Pop head input either way.
            concat(tail(input), head(productions)) if head(input) else tail(input))

# The input is equivalent to the string '1'
cyclic_tag_system(productions, (True, None))

This should produce output very similar to our original cyclic_tag_system(), but using lists of Booleans instead of strings of 0s and 1s.

We emulated a cyclic tag system in lambda calculus - well, we didn't write all the code as lambda terms, but everything is expressed as one-liner functions that use only if-then-else expressions, lists (pair, head, tail), and recursion (for which we have the \(Y\) combinator).

Lambda calculus has been extremely influential in computer science - it is the root of functional programming. LISP, one of the earliest programming languages, is heavily influenced by lambda calculus. Many ideas, like anonymous functions, also known as lambdas, are now broadly available in most modern programming languages (Python even uses the keyword lambda for these, as we saw in this post).


In this post we covered lambda calculus:

  1. See this Wikipedia article

  2. This blog post goes into the details if you are curious.