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Published by: Vincent Colonna on Sep 26, 2013
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Category Theory: an abstract setting for analogyand comparison
R. Brown and T.Porter
Abstract
‘Comparison’ and ‘Analogy’ are fundamental aspects of knowledge ac-quisition. We argue that one of the reasons for the usefulness and impor-tance of Category Theory is that it gives an abstract mathematical settingfor analogy and comparison, allowing an analysis of the process of abstract-ing and relating new concepts. This setting is one of the most importantroutes for the application of Mathematics to scientific problems. We explorethe consequences of this through some examples and thought experiments.
Let us start with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.
The Poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling Doth glance from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven And as imagination bodies forth the form of things unknown The Poet’s pen turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.
We feel many mathematicians would liken this description of the role of the Poetto their own attitudes to Mathematics. Undoubtedly, mathematics has coinedmany names for the forms of things previously unknown. The notion of ‘name’,and its role in thought, is very subtle.In trying to address the question ‘What is Category Theory?’, we felt itnecessary to reflect on ‘What is Mathematics?’ and ‘How does Category Theoryfit into its overall structure?’ In fact, as Category Theory is being seen as havingpotential uses in other parts of Science, perhaps its position within Science as awhole might also be useful to consider.Our initial view of Category Theory, both within Mathematics and morewidely, suggested various ‘themes’, in no particular order:
mixed algebraic and geometric/combinatorial structures,
enables comparison between objects,
a formalisation and abstraction of ‘analogy, and from ‘analogy’ to ‘abstrac-tion’ itself,1
 
a structural context for structural mathematics,
combines local structure with locational information,
gives meaning to the idea of structure,
comparisons between concepts,and the list goes on. In our discussion here, we will try to address the meaningof some of these themes and the reasons they seem to us to give insights into thequestion of what Category Theory is.
Comparison and Analogy in Mathematics and Science.
Central classical themes in Science include the classification of objects withina particular context. As an example, take the classification of minerals. Variouselementary attributes can be noted: this one is green, that one is reddish brown.The crystals of the first have this shape, which is not the same as that of thesecond, and so on. We then classify the two minerals into different classes withdifferent names, initially just as a useful verbal label, later as our knowledgeevolves to include some of the
key 
attributes for the context, either in quite ordi-nary language (green, hexagonal, ...) or encoded, for instance, by letters, numbersand symbols as with a chemical formula. Of course, the question of why they lookdifferent is then central to the next depth of the study, but first the possible hier-archical class structure has to be determined by
comparison 
. We note, as anotherexample, that the Linnean hierarchical classification of plants, and their naming,was a great scientific advance.Comparison allows us to build a specification of a concept or class. It is anessential feature of developing an ontology
1
, within a subject area or amongst agroup of interacting individuals or agents.Mathematics has been defined as ‘the science of pattern’ or (on one website)as ‘the science (or group of sciences) dealing with the logic of quantity and shapeand arrangement’. ‘Pattern’ can mean a lot of different things - but it is clear thatdetermining pattern involves comparison once again. It may be that a patternis repeated, a fact observed by identifying that the given object is ‘the sameas’ a transformed version of it. ‘The same as’ may be ‘partial’ in as much asnot all the observable properties are the same, some attributes being themselvestransformed. The observation, attributable to Klein, that it was the
allowable 
transformations for a geometric context that determined the type of patternbeing studied is just one example of this. If you are comparing triangles in theplane, you may be interested in the lengths of corresponding sides or merelythe angles between the sides. Of course, the use of ‘corresponding’ again impliescomparison. The beauty of geometry is partially finding that attributes are linked:if the angles of two triangles are the same, then the corresponding sides are linked
1
We are using ‘ontology’ here in the sense often used in Artificial Intelligence, as precisely a‘specification of a conceptualisation’, [8, 9]. In [5], ‘Ontology is the theory of objects and theirties’.
2
 
by a more subtle relationship than ‘equality’, namely ‘common ratio’. (‘Equality’itself implies a use of comparison, as does ‘ratio’ and most other simple binaryrelations
2
.) In the first of the two cases the transformations must preserve theattribute of distance between points, in the second they do not, so we get more‘allowable transformations’ and a different geometry.The second ‘definition’ we gave of Mathematics talks of quantity, shape andarrangement. ‘Quantity’ clearly involves comparison; ‘shape’ is closely related to‘pattern’, whilst ‘arrangement’ again involves comparison in various ways as aglance at any book on the theory of graphs and its application to combinatorialproblems will show. We thus are left to conclude that ‘comparison’ is an importantaspect of Mathematics, of Science, and, in fact, of general knowledge acquisition.What about analogy? This is the ‘flip side’ of comparison and is essentialin the ‘inductive’ side of knowledge acquisition. Suppose we are looking at twoobjects, or concepts,
A
and
B
, say, and have some partial specifications of them.(By a
specification 
in this sense we will mean a list of attributes with, perhaps,some known linkages between the attributes as in the geometric case (angles andlengths) mentioned earlier.) Suppose further that some of the specified attributesof 
A
are the same as those of 
B
. To understand the logical relationships between(sets of) attributes, it is natural to test if others of 
A
’s attributes are also validfor
B
. (We may not yet have knowledge as to whether
B
satisfies some particularattribute or not.) This is nearly a ‘that reminds me of’ situation. The partialmatching, via a comparison, of the properties of 
A
and
B
leads to an analogy,a test, experiment or an attempt at a proof and perhaps an extension of thecomparison, or perhaps the beginning of an abstraction process.To illustrate this, we refer to a well known mathematical analogy betweenways of combining knots and ways of combining numbers. Given a knot
tied ina piece of rope, we can tie another one,
L
, say, to the right of it, to get a new knot
+
L
, (note the notation suggesting an analogy to addition). If the second knotwas the unknot, (so could be manipulated back to being completely unknotted),then
+
L
could be reduced by similar manipulations back to
itself (withoutletting go of the ends)! The unknot is behaving rather like the number 0 inaddition of numbers. This sum operation on knots is behaving like addition of numbers. It has some of the same attributes: it is a binary operation (it takestwo ‘things’ and produces a new ‘thing’). There is a zero ‘thing’ in both contexts,(the unknot and zero respectively). There seems some analogy between the twosituations. This analogy suggests further comparisons of the two situations. Forinstance with numbers
m
+
n
=
n
+
m
always; is it always true that for knots
+
L
=
L
+
? Yes, but you have to take care what = means! (As we mentionedearlier, this is a common occurrence and we will return to it later.) What aboutanother property: the existence of negatives or additive cancellation: if 
n
is anumber, there is another number
m
such that
n
+
m
=
m
+
n
= 0. Here the
2
The role of ‘equality’, which is fundamental to ‘comparison’ will be looked at later on whenhigher dimensional category theory is examined. It is often the case that ‘equalityis not quitewhat it seems to be naively.
3

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