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Category theory looks set to become the dominant foundational basis for all mathematics. It could, in fact, already have achieved that status through stealth.

Beauty, even in Maths, can exist in the eye of the beholder. That might sound a little surprising, when, after all, what could be more objective than mathematics when thinking about truth, and what, therefore, could be more natural than for beauty and goodness, the twin accomplices to truth, to be co-joined ?

In the 70 odd years since Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane published their now infamous paper “A General Theory of Natural Equivalences“, the pursuit of maths by professionals (I use here the reference point definition of Michael Harris – see his recent publication “Mathematics without Apologies“) has become ever more specialised. I, for one, don’t doubt cross disciplinary excellence is alive and sometimes robustly so, but the industrially specialised silos that now create, produce and then sustain academic tenure are formidable within the community of mathematicians.

Beauty, in the purest sense, does not need to be captured in a definition but recognised through intuition. Whether we take our inspiration from Hardy or Dirac, or whether we experience a gorgeous thrill when encountering an austere proof that may have been confronted thousands of times before, the confluence of simplicity and beauty in maths may well be one of the few remaining places where the commonality of the “eye” across a spectrum of different beholders remains at its strongest.

Neither Eilenberg nor Mac Lane could have thought that Category theory, which was their attempt to link topology and algebra, would become so pervasive or so foundational in its influence when they completed and submitted their paper in those dark days of WW 2. But then neither could Cantor, have dreamt about his work on Set theory being adopted as the central pillar of “modern” mathematics so soon after his death. Under attack from establishment figures such as Kronecker during his lifetime, Cantor would not have believed that set theory would become the central edifice around which so much would be constructed.

Of course that is exactly what has happened. Set theory and the ascending magnitude of infinities that were unleashed through the crack in the door that was represented by Cantor’s diagonal conquered all before them.

Until now, that is.

In an article in Science News, Julie Rehmeyer describes Category Theory as “perhaps the most abstract area of all mathematics” and “where math is the abstraction of the real world, category theory is an abstraction of mathematics”.

Slowly, without fanfare, and with an alliance built with the emergent post transistor age discipline of computer science, Category theory looks set to become the dominant foundational basis for all mathematics. It could, in fact, already have achieved that status through stealth. After all, if sets are merely an example of a category, they become suborned without question or query. One might even use the description ‘subsumed’.

There is, in parallel, a wide ranging discussion in mathematics about the so called Univalent Foundation that is most widely associated with Voevodsky which is not the same. The text book produced for the year long univalence programme iniated at the IAS that was completed in 2013 Homotopy type theory – Univalent Foundations Programme states:

“The univalence ax-iom implies, in particular, that isomorphic structures can be identified, a principle that mathematicians have been happily using on workdays, despite its incompatibility with the “official”doctrines of conventional foundations..”

before going on to present the revelatory exposition that Univalent Foundations are the real unifying binding agent around mathematics.I prefer to think of Voevodsky’s agenda as being narrower in many crucial respects than Category Theory, although both owe a huge amount to the over-arching reach of computational advances made through the mechanical aid proffered through the development of computers, particularly if one shares Voevodsky’s view that proofs will eventually have to be subject to mechanical confirmation.

In contrast, the journey, post Russell, for type theory based clarificatory approaches to formal logic continues in various ways, but Category theory brings a unifying effort to the whole of mathematics that had to wait almost two decades after Eilenberg and Mac Lane’s paper when a then virtually unknown mathematician, William Lawvere published his now much vaunted “An Elementary Theory of the Category of Sets” in 1964. This paper, and the revolutionary work of Grothendieck (see below) brought about a depth and breadth of work which created the environment from which Category Theory emerged through the subsequent decades until the early 2000’s.

Lawvere’s work has, at times, been seen as an attempt to simply re-work set theory in Category theoretic terms. This limitation is no longer prevalent, indeed the most recent biographical reviews of Grothendieck, following his death, assume that the unificatory expedient that is the essential feature of Category theory (and I should say here not just ETCS) is taken for granted, axiomatic, even. Grothendieck eventually went much further than defining Category theory in set theoretic terms, with both Algebraic Topology and Mathematical Physics being fields that now could not be approached without a foundational setting that is Category theory. The early language and notation of Category Theory where categories ‘C’ are described essentially as sets whose members satisfy the conditions of composition, morphism and identity eventually gave way post Lawvere and then Lambek to a systematic adoption of the approach we now see where any and all deductive systems can be turned into categories. Most standard histories give due credit to Eilenberg and Mac Lane as well as Lawvere (and sometimes Cartan), but it is Grothendieck’s ‘Sur quelques points d’algebre homologique’ in 1957 that is now seen as the real ground breaker.

My own pathway to Category theory has been via my interest in Lie Groups, and more broadly, in Quantum Computing, and it was only by accident (the best things really are those that come about by accident !) that I decided I had better learn the language of Category theory when I found Lawvere’s paper misleadingly familiar but annoyingly distant when, in common with most people, I assumed that my working knowledge of notation in logic and in set theory would map smoothly across to Category theory. That, of course, is not the case, and it was only after I gained some grounding in this new language that I realised just how and why Category theory has an impact far beyond computer science. It is this journey that also brings me face to face with a growing appreciation of the natural intersection between Category theory and a Wittgensteinian approach to the Philosophy of Mathematics. Wittgenstein’s disdain for Cantor is well documented (this short note is not an attempt to justify, using Category theory, a Wittgensteinian criticism of set theory). More specifically however, it was Abramsky and Coecke’s “Categorical Quantum Mechanics” that helped me to discern more carefully the links between Category Theory and Quantum Computing. They describe Category Theory as the ‘language of modern structural mathematics’ and use it as the tool for building a mathematical representation of quantum processes, and their paper is a thought provoking nudge in the ribs for anyone who is trying to make sense of the current noise that surrounds Quantum mechanics.

Awodey and Spivak are the two most impressive contemporary mathematicians currently working on Category Theory in my view, and whilst it is asking for trouble to choose one or two selected works as exemplars of their approach, I would have to say that Spivak’s book on Category Theory for the Sciences is the standout work of recent times (incidentally the section in this book on ‘aspects’ bears close scrutiny with Wittgenstein’s well known work on ‘family resemblances’).

Awodey’s 2003 paper is as good a recent balance between a mathematical and philosophical exposition of the importance of category theory as exists whilst his textbook is often referred to as the standard entry point for working mathematicians.

Going back to beauty, which is how I started this short note. Barry Mazur wrote an article in memory of Saunders Mac Lane titled ‘When is one thing equal to another‘ which is a gem of rare beauty, and the actual catalyst for this short note. If you read only one document in the links from this article, then I hope it is Mazur’s paper.