This is an heavily updated version of a previous article with a somehow similar name. From the comments to this article I learned where the original article was misleading and partly even wrong. So I try to correct that with this updated version.
What is functional programming? Many people tend to think that having closures in a language makes that language a functional one. But by this definition almost every modern language would qualify as 'functional'. Even Java (because of Javas anonymous inner classes which are closures too). So if this can't be the qualifying property of a language, what else is it?
Of course it's "referential transparency": A 'function' is an special kind of relation which assigns values of a domain-set to values of a result-('codomain') set. To qualify as a function this mapping has to be unambiguous: For every element of the domain-set the function always gives the single, same result.
If a 'function' isn't referential transparent, this property isn't fulfilled and it's simply not a function anymore. It's something which is often called 'procedure'. We can argue if this property really has to be fulfilled rigorously by a language to qualify as 'functional', but I would say 'Yes, it has!'. The reason is that we can use procedures to create functions in every language (just by making sure that there are no side-effects), but to really call a language 'functional' it has to be assured by the compiler that every function is really a function. BTW: we can make every procedure a function by simply including the whole 'environment' as input to the procedure. With this little trick every procedure would now be a function and every programming language would be functional. Yes, this is nonsense - remember that for later.
But with this rigorous definition of the notion 'functional', there aren't many functional languages lest. Ocaml for example is clearly non-functional now. But even Haskell isn't. The reason is the IO-monad.
Do to I/O, Haskell uses something which is called 'I/O-monad'. If we write
main = do
x <- getStr
putStr ("you entered " ++ x)
the following happens: First the 'do' statement transforms the code by using a function called '>>=' (pronounced as 'bind').
getStr >>= (\x -> putStr ("you entered " ++ x))
(If we use the name 'bind' instead of '>>=' and the prefix form of function calls this would look like this:
bind(getStr, (\x -> putStr ("you entered " ++ x)))
The getStr function (which is in fact a constant and not even a function because it don't takes any parameters) is just a parameter for the 'bind'-function. It returns an 'action', a value of type 'IO String'. 'IO' is a special type here which simply encapsulates something and is parametrized with the type 'String' (in Java/C++ we would write this as IO
The answer is that 'getStr' doesn't do this. Its only a command to do it. And this command goes as first input into the 'bind'-function which executes it. The second paramter of the call is the 'to-do'-function. Its the code which is associated with the action and has to be called with the result of the action. The bind-function returns a value itself which is also a action. This allows us to use the result of a bind-function as first parameter in another bind-function. So those functions can be chained arbitrarily - and this is what the 'do'-syntax does (just in a more convenient way).
Back to our example: The bind-operator received the 'getStr'-action as input. This action instructs it to fetch a String from the console and call the to-do-function with it. Now this function again returns an action, this time it's a 'putStr' action. This 'putStr' action is again a constant, but it was created 'on the fly' from the putStr function which takes one parameter: The String to write out. The next bind operation is invisible, because it happens outside the main function in the REPL or compiler. But it's executed like the first bind and it uses the 'putStr' action to write the data out.
So it's the bind-function which isn't really referential transparent: If you apply it to the same action twice, it can call it's 'to-do' function with a different value. Now Haskell clever hides that because it don't allows anybody to examine the content of the actions: Because 'bind' always returns such an opaque action, its (theoretically) impossible for a program to see that two results are in fact different. And because Haskell allows no mutation, the to-do-function can't write this result somewhere outside the I/O-monad. But isn't that enough to ensure referential transparency? I would say no.
The reason is the same that I don't consider ordinary procedures as referential transparent: It's just a trick. The operational semantics of the whole mechanism are simply non-referential transparent, if Haskell hides it well or not. We can in principle write the whole program in the I/O monad and there is no difference to an ordinary imperative language anymore. So we should go with the 'duck-paradigmization': If it mutates like the imperative paradigm, is non-referential transparent like the imperative paradigm and has a fixed execution order like the imperative paradigm, I would call the it the imperative paradigm.
Lets look at an alternative approach to the functional I/O problem: We create a 'world'-value which contains the relevant data from the 'outside' (likes files, console input etc) and feed this value into a function. This function can now create some output by processing informations from this 'world'. By evaluating the 'world'-value lazily we can even create interactive programs, because the function simply stops the evaluation in the moment there are no new input values and continues evaluation in the moment we provide them (for example by typing something on the keyboard). With this concept a main function would look like this:
main :: world -> output
In a simple console application both 'world' and 'output' would simply be lists of characters. But for a more complex applications the 'world' could contain all kinds of mouse/keyboard/etc-events while the 'output' would contain for example drawing-commands.
Whats the difference to the monadic-I/O concept of Haskell? Couldn't we simply use this approach to use it to implement our I/O-monad? The interpreter of the I/O-actions would simply use such 'world'- and 'output'-values and use them by the actions the program provides. Aren't both concepts now simply identically, but easier to use in Haskell because the difficult stuff is well hidden inside the I/O-monad?
While this is true 'in principle' it's only true on the same level that all Turing-complete languages are identically 'in principle':
What the I/O monads does is creating a new sub-language with imperative semantics. Every code which runs 'in' the I/O-monad is in fact evaluated imperatively. This transformation is done by the 'bind' functions and hidden from view by the 'do'-construct. The 'do'-construct slices all the statements in the body into small pieces and feeds them into those bind-functions. Now their execution order isn't anymore in the statement-order but is the bind functions which choose to evaluate them (in any order, multiple times, or not at all). And the values those statements give and take is also controlled by those bind-functions because they provide them (as long as they are assigned with the '<-' operation).
So every code we have inside such a do-block can have nearly arbitrary semantics. It's a bit similar to Lisp macros but the transformation happens at runtime. And because of the chaining of bind-functions, semantics of such a block only depends on the type of the first statement in the do-block.
Think about this: By writing the right 'bind' functions we can create in principle every semantics we want. For example we can create a language with all the semantics of the Java language right into Haskell - we 'only' have to create the right monad. Sure, the syntax would be different from Java because the code is still parsed by the Haskell parser and needs to follow certain rules, but the semantics of this code could be identically to Java. With this 'Java-monad' we're now able to program in Haskell like we're using Java. But Java is an imperative, object-oriented language so nobody would say that we're still writing code in a functional programming language.
Using the I/O-monad is similar: It provides a new language with new semantics by doing runtime code-rewriting. It's not a functional language anymore, even if it's implemented inside a functional language. We simply have left 'functional land' if we use the I/O monad - and we can never return from it because the I/O-monad is grounded in the compiler, the outermost layer of every program. We can only call functional code from this imperative layer but this functional code can't do any I/O anymore.
But whats the difference to the explicit way of doing I/O? It's that we still have full control about what we're doing: We're working on the level of functions instead of creating actions which are somehow evaluated by an invisible interpreter. We have to supply the input values manually and we call real functions instead of building some action-values which are evaluated somehow. If we want we can slice the 'world' into pieces, supply only parts of it to functions and the result of those functions can be something arbitrary. And we can use all the normal functions instead of creating new 'monadized' ones.
Sure, we have to think more about certain things - but this is part of doing work in a certain paradigm. If we want to have the advantages of the paradigm we can't simply create a new sub-language in a different paradigm and expect to still have the advantages which are the reason why we used this paradigm in the first hand. If we want do do I/O with the I/O-monad we have to switch programming languages. We stop using to program in a shiny new functional way and are back in the boring old land of the imperative. Even worse: Because Haskell don't provides a different way of doing I/O, it's like a confession that functional programming can't do I/O. And all this only because of the 'evil' I/O-monad.
And there are other problems which apply to monads in general:
- The performance seem to lack because of the runtime-code-translation: The translation costs time and memory and can sometimes even kill important properties like tail recursion (because the program we thought we wrote is not the program which is executed because of the monadic translation). If you compare Haskell with the Clean-language (which the direct state-chaining approach instead of monads based code-translation to do I/O), Clean wins hands down in many benchmarks.
- Code reuse gets more difficult: This is a common problems with domain specific languages: Because we create parts of code with different language semantics, it's hard to fit those parts of code together later. We've not only to worry about different interfaces - we have to consider even different semantics! In Haskell we can put monads into other monads (and create some kind of translation-chaining) but this won't works always and so sometimes code reuse gets impossible. And after we left 'plain functional land' and entered the land of some arbitrary new semantics we need special versions of our well known functional tools and need specialized ones.
- The real semantics are much more difficult to understand: The sheer number of 'how do monads work'-articles speak volumes. And many are still missing the real point: Monads are code transformers. Because this they can do nearly 'everything' - and to understand them you have to understand every concrete monad on each own, because each of them creates a new language! This is it what makes monads so hard to grasp.
- It can hurt readability: A concrete monad is choosen by the return type of a function. For example a simple 'x <- get' can switch the rest of the do-block into 'state-monad'-land. This is quite easy to overlook because the type of a function isn't always obvious. In Lisp macros often have at least lengthy, descriptive names, in Haskell it's far less obvious. Explicit type annotations are a must here to see whats really happening.
As more I understand the concept of monads the more I'm becoming skeptical about them. Like Lisps macros they simply are to powerful. Instead of creating tools to build new language inside a language, why not directly create a powerful language?
I know that many people will see this differently because they like to use languages as 'construction kits' for new languages. Yes, this this is a valid reason, but only in a very limited domain. In most areas we don't need a language to create another language but to solve a certain, concrete problem: Create a web-application, a word processor, a computer-game or something else. I prefer to have a language with fixed semantics, which I only need to learn once and which don't change (at least until the next language revision). This makes code much more easy to understand and to reuse and this enhances productivity.
As Haskell being some kind of 'research language' originally, monads are surly helpful in this domain. But for a language directed to build applications we need different properties.