Prolog LanguageMonotonicity

Reasoning about monotonic predicates

Monotonic predicates can be debugged by applying declarative reasoning.

In pure Prolog, a programming mistake can lead to one or all of the following phenomena:

  1. the predicate incorrectly succeeds in a case where it should fail
  2. the predicate incorrectly fails in a case where it should succeed
  3. the predicate unexpectedly loops where it should only produce a finite set of answers.

As an example, consider how we can debug case (2) by declarative reasoning: We can systematically remove goals of the predicate's clauses and see if the query still fails. In monotonic code, removing goals can at most make the resulting program more general. Hence, we can pinpoint errors by seeing which of the goals leads to the unexpected failure.

Examples of monotonic predicates

Examples of monotonic predicates are:

  • unification with (=)/2 or unify_with_occurs_check/2
  • dif/2, expressing disequality of terms
  • CLP(FD) constraints like (#=)/2 and (#>)/2, using a monotonic execution mode.

Prolog predicates that only use monotonic goals are themselves monotonic.

Monotonic predicates allow for declarative reasoning:

  1. Adding a constraint (i.e., a goal) to a query can at most reduce, never extend, the set of solutions.
  2. Removing a goal of such predicates can at most extend, never reduce, the set of solutions.

Non-monotonic predicates

Here are examples of predicates that are not monotonic:

  • meta-logical predicates like var/1, integer/1 etc.
  • term comparison predicates like (@<)/2 and (@>=)/2
  • predicates that use !/0, (\+)/1 and other constructs that break monotonicity
  • all-solutions predicates like findall/3 and setof/3.

If these predicates are used, then adding goals can lead to more solutions, which runs counter to the important declarative property known from logic that adding constraints can at most reduce, never extend, the set of solutions.

As a consequence, other properties that we rely for declarative debugging and other reasoning are also broken. For example, non-monotonic predicates break the fundamental notion of commutativity of conjunction known from first-order logic. The following example illustrates this:

?- var(X), X = a.
X = a.

?- X = a, var(X).

All-solutions predicates like findall/3 also break monotonicity: Adding clauses can lead to the failure of goals that previously had held. This also runs counter to montonicity as known from first-order logic, where adding facts can at most increase, never reduce the set of consequences.

Monotonic alternatives for non-monotonic constructs

Here are examples of how to use monotonic predicates instead of impure, non-monotonic constructs in your programs:

  • dif/2 is meant to be used instead of non-monotonic constructs like (\=)/2
  • arithmetic constraints (CLP(FD), CLP(Q) and others) are meant to be used instead of moded arithmetic predicates
  • !/0 almost always leads to non-monotonic programs and should be avoided entirely.
  • instantiation errors can be raised in situations where you cannot make a sound decision at this point in time.

Combining monotonicity with efficiency

It is sometimes argued that, for the sake of efficiency, we must accept the use of non-monotonic constructs in real-world Prolog programs.

There is no evidence for this. Recent research indicates that the pure monotonic subset of Prolog may not only be sufficient to express most real-world programs, but also acceptably efficient in practice. A construct that has recently been discovered and encourages this view is if_/3: It combines monotonicity with a reduction of choice points. See Indexing dif/2.

For example, code of the form:

pred(L, Ls) :-
pred(L, Ls) :-
    \+ condition(L),

Can be written with if_/3 as:

pred(L, Ls) :-

and combines monotonicity with determinism.