A few days ago Martin Escardo asked me “Do idempotents split in HoTT”? This post is an answer to that question.

### Coherent idempotents

To start with, what is an idempotent? The standard meaning of *idempotent* is a map such that , which in HoTT would mean a homotopy . A *splitting* of an idempotent is a pair of maps and such that and . (Note that the existence of such actually implies is idempotent, since then .)

Given an idempotent in HoTT, the obvious way to try to split it would be to take , with and . However, with this definition we cannot in general prove . Indeed, as Martin pointed out, when with the obvious proof of idempotency, for this definition to satisfy is the same as to say that is a set.

This suggests that if is not a set, then we might need some sort of coherence for the witness of idempotency. For instance, we might ask whether . And if we had a witness of that, then we could ask for that witness to satisfy some further condition, and so on off to infinity.

To see that such extra conditions are necessary, we can observe that they hold for any split idempotent. That is, suppose we have and and a homotopy , yielding as above a witness that is idempotent. Then the naturality of *H* implies that the coherence condition also holds, and we can continue on as far as we like.

It’s important not to read more into this observation than it says. What it says is that if a function *f* can be written as for functions *s* and *r* such that , then *f* admits a “coherent system of idempotence data”. It *doesn’t* say that if *f* is idempotent with a specified homotopy and *f* splits, then *I* must *itself* be coherent. Therefore:

- Even though a split idempotent automatically gives rise to an infinite system of coherence data, it doesn’t follow that in order to
*construct*a splitting we would necessarily need to*give*an infinite system of coherence. - It’s not too hard to give examples of homotopies that are not coherent, but it’s rather less obvious how to give an example of an incoherent idempotent for which there doesn’t exist some
*other*homotopy that is coherent.

Fortunately, Jacob Lurie has already studied the analogous questions in -category theory. In *Higher Algebra* he showed that if a witness to idempotence satisfies the *one additional coherence condition* , then the idempotent *f* can be split, and hence admits some coherent system of idempotence data (which, apparently, may not be the same as the original one). He also gave an example of an incoherent idempotent that does not split, and hence does not admit *any* coherent system of idempotence data.

In the rest of this post I will describe proofs of the analogous facts in HoTT, inspired by Lurie’s categorical ones (but not quite identical to them, even under the categorical semantics of HoTT). I have verified it all in using the HoTT/Coq library; pull request is here.

### Splitting coherent idempotents

Firstly, suppose we have an idempotent , with witness and single coherence . Lurie constructs a splitting as the colimit of the sequence

We could probably do the same in HoTT, using a HIT for the colimit. However, idempotents are self-dual, so we could just as well consider the limit of the sequence

and this is rather easier to work with in HoTT; it’s just

If we call this type , then we have an obvious defined by , and a slightly less obvious defined by , such that . The tricky part is proving . (Of course we need function extensionality at this point.) By definition, , so we need to show first of all that for all . We induct on . The base case is

where the middle equality is and the other two are the specified equality (part of the second component of ). The induction step is similarly

using the induction hypothesis at the end. It remains to check a naturality condition, than the composite is equal to the composite , and we can similarly do this by induction. The details are left to the reader (or you can find them in the formalization). Of course, we have to use the coherence in there somewhere. One might say that we only need one level of coherence “because” of the induction: we can apply once at each induction step and build up more and more coherence as increases.

I have not fully digested the rest of Lurie’s proof; once I got the idea of the sequential limit, I put down his book and constructed the rest of the above proof myself in “HoTT-style”. It could be that when compiled out categorically, it will yield the dual of Lurie’s proof; or it could be that they are honestly different.

### An incoherent idempotent that does not split

Lurie’s example of an “irreedeemably incoherent idempotent” lives on , where is the *topological* unit interval (not to be confused with the HIT interval) and “Aut” denotes its group of self-homemorphisms. However, after digesting the example, I think it’s even more natural to replace the unit interval with Cantor space . In particular, the topology plays no role in the counterexample (although in constructive models does of course behave “topologically”).

By definition, in HoTT by we mean . Topologically, this is the “classifying space for fibrations with fiber “. It is connected and pointed (with basepoint ), and its loop space is the type of self-equivalences of . Thus, if is a set (such as Cantor space ), then is a , where is the (set-)group .

In particular, a map is determined essentially by a group homomorphism . This is how Lurie talks about it: in the case he defines the action of on an automorphism by if and otherwise. For , we could define an analogous by if and if . In other words, we use the fact that our space decomposes into two copies of itself, and we have our automorphism act on the first copy only.

Now, actually defining like this in HoTT would require knowing that endomaps of correspond to group endomorphisms of . The only way I can think of to do this is to construct as a HIT, show that it’s equivalent to , and then use the recursion principle of that HIT. (Is there’s another way?)

However, our definition of suggests an alternative approach. An element of is a type that is merely isomorphic to ; let’s just define (where from now on will be the Cantor space). Note that the action of this on automorphisms is, roughly, what we described explicitly above: it takes an automorphism and restricts it to act on the “first copy”. The fact that decomposes as two copies of itself, , implies that is in fact an endomorphism of , since we have (merely) . And the same fact implies that is idempotent, since . I think this is a nice example of the benefits of the univalent approach to classifying spaces!

It remains to show that is not coherently idempotent. Lurie says that if it were, then the colimit would be its splitting, and hence the map from to that colimit would be surjective on , whereas itself is certainly not surjective on and so this is impossible. In HoTT, this would requite a HIT colimit, and probably an encode-decode argument to characterize the of the colimit.

However, here again we can give a more direct argument. Suppose were coherently idempotent, so that we have and . The coherence is an equality in the type , thus it is equivalently a homotopy between two equivalences . Essentially by definition, the first equivalence (corresponding to ) decomposes the domain and codomain as and , mapping the first summand to by and the second summand to by the identity.

As for the other, *if* were the idempotency proof that we gave above, then the equivalence corresponding to would bracket the domain instead as and map it to by the identity on and the “fold” equivalence . Thus, the two could not possibly be homotopic, since they would send the third summand of to different summands of the codomain.

This argument doesn’t quite work as stated since might not be the same proof of idempotency that we gave above. However, whatever is, it’s defined “for all “, which by the HoTT meaning of “for all” implies that the induced equivalences must be *natural* with respect to automorphisms of . In particular, the equivalence induced by must be natural with respect to the “flip” automorphism . By looking at which summands are fixed by the automorphisms induced by this flip, we can conclude that must map the last two summands in the domain to the last one summand in the codomain, just as our original proof of idempotency did. Thus, our previous argument to a contradiction kicks in. Again, the details can be found in the formalization.

### Open questions

There are a number of further questions to ask. For instance, if we have and we use them to split , do the new witnesses induced from the splitting agree with the given ones? How many different ways can a given map “be idempotent” — can you give an example of a map that is idempotent in two genuinely different ways, perhaps with non-equivalent splittings?

Here’s one I’d especially like to know the answer to. There is an arguably more obvious way to try to split a coherent idempotent: instead of the naive definition , we can try to add an extra level of coherence corresponding to and ask for . I tried this first, but the path algebra involved in showing was just too much for me. I was able to show that it works when is the identity function, though, which is promising. Can anyone either show that it works for general , or exhibit an for which it doesn’t work?

Very nice! Thanks for such a complete answer.

I would like to record a special case of interest that has a more direct proof. Suppose you instead ask

Which functions split with a section-retraction pair and such that is an embedding in the sense of the HoTT book?

This means that the application map is an equivalence, or, equivalently, which is what I am going to use, the fibers of are propositions. Then the answer to the above question is

Precisely those idempotents such that the type has split support for every .

The proof is easy. In one direction, consider Then the obvious section and retraction work. For the other direction, we have to show that if does split in the above manner, then the type has split support. Because , it is enough to show that the type is logically equivalent to a proposition. But it is easy to see that it is logically equivalent to the fiber , which is a proposition, by assumption.

Thanks for adding this! It emphasizes in another way the different behavior of idempotents in homotopy theory, since in set theory, the splitting of an idempotent is

alwaysa subset of the original carrier.Are there any non-sets that have the property “ has split support for every x” in an interesting way? As an example of a boring way this could happen for a non-set, we could consider , where B is a set and f maps A into B.

If f is the identity, then this property just says that we have . Of course that’s true trivially for all X (as it must be, since the identity splits by a pair of identity maps), and can also be true non-trivially, such as when or .

Another remark: Notice that the type constructed in my proof is (equivalent to) the image of the idempotent , and that the section-retraction pair is simply the canonical factorization of through its image. Conversely, if the canonical factorization of a function through its image is a section-retraction pair, then the type has split support for every (either by direct calculation, or using the fact that the image is always embedded). For a constant map, to use Nicolai’s example below, the image is not in general contractible, but the splitting is through a contractible type.

Nice, I have enjoyed this! I have not fully digested some parts of your post, but I think I can answer your last question:

First, I have a simple positive statement:

If has the property that the map is an equivalence for all (and also comes with and , of course!), then what you said works.

We can see this as follows: for any given , the type will be contractible (it is essentially a coconut – it would be a “pure” coconut if the was removed and the replaced by some other fixed term to make it type check; but because of our assumption, does not make a difference). So, and are equivalent and the equivalence is the first projection. Thus, to convince ourselves of , we only need to check that the first component of equals , but this component will be , and the required witness is .

Of course, this means that what you suggested works for all embeddings , and in particular for the identity.

Now one should probably wonder whether might be always an equivalence. After all, if we have some , then the types and

areequivalent. Unfortunately, is not necessarily an equivalence anyway.If I have not made a mistake, I can give an example in which the suggested does not work. Suppose is some type with a point . Define to be constantly . Then, is idempotent with the witness being constantly , and the coherence proof can be taken to be constantly as well. Now the type simplifies to the coconut . Set as in your question. We know that will be . We further know now that the two pairs and live in a contractible type. The equality can therefore be simplified: we can assume that is actually judgmentally , and then the equality of the triples is equivalent to the equality . This is the case if is a 1-type, but of course not in general.

Nice; thanks! I should have thought to look at constant maps (being the “polar opposite” of the identity map). So I guess the sequential limit construction is it. On one hand, this makes sense to me, because just as a “coherent idempotent” ought to involve infinitely many data, I feel that an element of its splitting ought also to involve not just a path but infinitely many coherence data on it. And an element of the sequential limit does involve infinitely many data. But on the other hand, it

doesn’tmake sense, because the data in a point of the sequential limit are all points and 1-paths; there are nohighercoherence paths visible. Are they hidden somewhere?I’m making a bit of progress on the other questions I asked. In particular, I can now prove that the idempotence datum is recoverable from the splitting, and I have a guess for a counterexample to show that is not generally recoverable. Once I’ve sorted it all out, I may make another post.

It is probably somewhat obvious, but I cannot see what the canonical next coherence condition (after ) is, or how should be extended. Can you give me a hint?

(Side note: In my first comment I said that the splitting works under the condition “ is an equivalence”, but together with “ is idempotent”, this already implies that is the identity. Martin and I noticed this.)

It’s actually a bit of an accident that can be given such a short type. Really, should be a homotopy between the two induced homotopies , one of which is and the other of which is . But since whiskering with is an equivalence, it’s equivalent for to relate and .

As we go up in dimensions we can formulate the conditions as cubes or as simplices. With cubes, we would regard in the form as a square, draw a cube whose faces are all instances of this (except that one of them is a naturality square), and ask for the next coherence datum that fills in this cube.

With simplices, the dimensions are shifted by one: we regard as a 2-simplex with boundary 1-simplices , then is a 3-simplex whose boundary 2-simplices are , and then the next datum is a 4-simplex whose five boundary 3-simplices are instances of (in this case the naturality is invisible).

Thanks! I managed to draw these (up to the three dimensional case). But why did you say that there are no visible higher coherence paths? gives paths, gives paths between paths, and so on. Which sort of paths would you have expected?

I mean that in the construction of a splitting of an idempotent as a sequential limit, which I described in the post, there are no visible higher coherence paths. I would naively have expected an element of the splitting to consist of a point and a path and a homotopy , a higher homotopy involving , and so on, including paths of all dimensions. Instead, an element of the splitting consists of a function and a family of paths , all of which are just 1-dimensional paths.

Oh, I see. Thanks.

I’ve now posted a preprint based on the results of this blog post and its sequel; it’s available at arXiv:1507.03634. In addition to the contents of the blog posts, the paper contains