Monday, November 15, 2004

Category Theory

I have had a few people ask me to explain the utility and signifigance of category theory. This proves rather difficult given I am a complete novice in this area myself; desprately trying to keep my head above water in the simplest of papers. Still I found this paragraph useful, and I decided to post it here so I can find it again.

Category theory unifies mathematical structures in a second, perhaps even more important, manner. Once a type of structure has been defined, it quickly becomes imperative to determine how new structures can be constructed out of the given one and how given structures can be decomposed into more elementary substructures. For instance, given two sets A and B, set theory allows us to construct their cartesian product A X B. For an example of the second sort, given a finite abelian group, it can be decomposed into a product of some of its subgroups. In both cases, it is necessary to know how structures of a certain kind combine. The nature of these combinations might appear to be considerably different when looked at from too close. Category theory reveals that many of these constructions are in fact special cases of objects in a category with what is called a "universal property". Indeed, from a categorical point of view, a set-theoretical cartesian product, a direct product of groups, a direct product of abelian groups, a product of topological spaces and a conjunction of propositions in a deductive system are all instances of a categorical concept: the categorical product. What characterizes the latter is a universal property. Formally, a product for two objects a and b in a category C is an object c of C together with two morphisms, called the projections, p: c → a and q: c → b such that, and this is the universal property, for all object d with morphisms f: d → a and g: d → b, there is a unique morphism h: d → c such that p o h = f and q o h = g. Notice that we have defined a product for a and b and not the product for a and b. Indeed, products and, in fact, every object with a universal property, are defined up to (a unique) isomorphism. Thus, in category theory, the nature of the elements constituting a certain construction is irrelevant. What matters is the way an object is related to the other objects of the category, that is, the morphisms going in and the morphisms going out, or, put differently, how certain structures can be mapped into it and how it can map its structure into other structures of the same kind.
Jean-Pierre Marquis, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Category Theory

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