Type classes: confluence, coherence and global uniqueness
Today, I'd like to talk about some of the core design principles behind type classes, a wildly successful feature in Haskell. The discussion here is closely motivated by the work we are doing at MSRC to support type classes in Backpack. While I was doing background reading, I was flummoxed to discover widespread misuse of the terms "confluence" and "coherence" with respect to type classes. So in this blog post, I want to settle the distinction, and propose a new term, "global uniqueness of instances" for the property which people have been colloquially referred to as confluence and coherence.
Let's start with the definitions of the two terms. Confluence is a property that comes from term-rewriting: a set of instances is confluent if, no matter what order constraint solving is performed, GHC will terminate with a canonical set of constraints that must be satisfied for any given use of a type class. In other words, confluence says that we won't conclude that a program doesn't type check just because we swapped in a different constraint solving algorithm.
Confluence's closely related twin is coherence (defined in the paper "Type classes: exploring the design space"). This property states that every different valid typing derivation of a program leads to a resulting program that has the same dynamic semantics. Why could differing typing derivations result in different dynamic semantics? The answer is that context reduction, which picks out type class instances, elaborates into concrete choices of dictionaries in the generated code. Confluence is a prerequisite for coherence, since one can hardly talk about the dynamic semantics of a program that doesn't type check.
So, what is it that people often refer to when they compa