So far, we’ve looked at the minimal basics of categories: what they are, and how to categorize the kinds of arrows that exist in categories in terms of how they compose with other arrows. Just that much is already enlightening about the nature of category theory: the focus is always on composition.
But to get to really interesting stuff, we need to build up a bit more, so that we can look at more interesting constructs. So now, we’re going to look at functors. Functors are one of the most fundamental constructions in category theory: they give us the ability to create multi-level constructions.
What’s a functor? Well, it’s basically a structure-preserving mapping between categories. So what does that actually mean? Let’s be a bit formal:
A functor from a category to a category is a mapping from to that:
- Maps each member to an object .
- Maps each arrow to an arrow , where:
- . (Identity is preserved by the functor mapping of morphisms.)
- . (Commutativity is preserved by the Functor mapping of morphisms.)
Note: The original version of this post contained a major typo. In the second condition on functors, the “n” and the “o” were reversed. With them in this direction, the definition is actually the definition of something called a covariant functor. Alas, I can’t even pretend that I mixed up covariant and contravariant functors; the error wasn’t nearly so intelligent. I just accidentally reversed the symbols, and the result happened to make sense in the wrong way.
That’s the standard textbook gunk for defining a functor. But if you look back at the original definition of a category, you should notice that this looks familiar. In fact, it’s almost identical to the definition of the necessary properties of arrows!
We can make functors much easier to understand by talking about them in the language of categories themselves. Functors are really nothing but morphisms – they’re morphisms in a category of categories.
There’s a kind of category, called a small category. (I happen to dislike the term “small” category, but I don’t get a say!) A small category is a category whose collections of objects and arrows are sets, not proper classes.
(As a quick reminder: in set theory, a class is a collection of sets that can be defined by a non-paradoxical property that all of its members share. Some classes are sets of sets; some classes are not sets; they lack some of the required properties of sets – but still, the class is a collection with a well-defined, non-paradoxical, unambiguous property. If a class isn’t a set of sets, but just a collection that isn’t a set, then it’s called a proper class.)
Any category whose collections of objects and arrows are sets, not proper classes, are called small categories. Small categories are, basically, categories that are well-behaved – meaning that their collections of objects and arrows don’t have any of the obnoxious properties that would prevent them from being sets.
The small categories are, quite beautifully, the objects of a category called Cat. (For some reason, category theorists like three-letter labels.) The arrows of Cat are all functors – functors really just morphisms between categories. Once you wrap you head around that, then the meaning of a functor, and the meaning of a structure-preserving transformation become extremely easy to understand.
Functors come up over and over again, all over mathematics. They’re an amazingly useful notion. I was looking for a list of examples of things that you can describe using functors, and found a really wonderful list on wikipedia.. I highly recommend following that link and taking a look at the list. I’ll just mention one particularly interesting example: groups and group actions.
If you’ve been reading GM/BM for a very long time, you’ll remember my posts on group theory. In a very important sense, the entire point of group theory is to study symmetry. But working from a set theoretic base, it takes a lot of work to get to the point where you can actually define symmetry. It took many posts to build up the structure – not to present set theory, but just to present the set theoretic constructs that you need to define what symmetry means, and how a symmetric transformation was nothing but a group action. Category theory makes that so much easier that it’s downright dazzling. Ready?
Every group can be represented as a category with a single object. A functor from the category of a group to the category of Sets is a group action on the set that is the target of the functor. Poof! Symmetry.
Since symmetry means structure-preserving transformation; and a functor is a structure preserving transformation – well, they’re almost the same thing. The functor is an even more general abstraction of that concept: group symmetry is just one particular case of a functor transformation. Once you get functors, understanding symmetry is easy. And so are lots of other things.
And of course, you can always carry these things further. There is a category of functors themselves; and notions which can be most easily understood in terms of functors operating on the category of functors!
This last bit should make it clear why category theory is affectionately known as abstract nonsense. Category theory operates at a level of abstraction where almost anything can be wrapped up in it; and once you’ve wrapped something up in a category, almost anything you can do with it can itself be wrapped up as a category – levels upon levels, categories of categories, categories of functors on categories of functors on categories, ad infinitum. And yet, it makes sense. It captures a useful, comprehensible notion. All that abstraction, to the point where it seems like nothing could possibly come out of it. And then out pops a piece of beautiful crystal. It’s really remarkable.