Unevaluated Expressions

Aaron Meurer edited this page Apr 10, 2018 · 2 revisions

Unevaluated Expressions

These are some thoughts on unevaluated expressions in SymPy. See also my thoughts at https://github.com/sympy/sympy/issues/14560 and https://github.com/sympy/sympy/issues/13999.

  • Aaron


An unevaluated expression is any mathematical expression that is represented as closely to the way it was input as possible. For example, 3*4 is unevaluated if it remains as an expression tree Mul(3, 4). It is evaluated if it becomes 12. This is closely related to the notion of [[automatic simplification]].

At its core, an unevaluated expression is simply an expression tree. By remaining unevaluated, in some sense it loses its mathematical meaning and is more structural, but in some sense it still does not (I will make this more clear below).

Current state: evaluate=False

The classic way to create an unevaluated expression in SymPy is to call the class constructor with evaluate=False.

>>> Mul(3, 4, evaluate=False)

The main problem with this is that it is extremely verbose. Imagine creating the expression (1 + 2*3)/2 like this (remember that /2 is really *2**-1). Some simpler methods have been proposed. One is the evaluate context manager. This sets a global flag in the core that makes evaluate=False become the default.

>>> with evaluate(False):
...     print(Mul(3, 4))

The advantage here is that this works even with operators (assuming the arguments are sympified, of course):

>>> with evaluate(False):
...     print(Integer(3)*4)

The disadvantage here is that every object that supports evaluate=False must adhere to this global flag. This gets at a core problem with evaluate=False which I will expand upon below, that it isn't subclassable.

A second method is sympify(evaluate=False). This works at the parser level to parse a string with the specific classes, using evaluate=False. For instance, sympify('3*4', evaluate=False) is converted (using an AST transformer) to Mul(Integer(3), Integer(4), evaluate=False).

The advantage here is that arguments are sympified automatically. The disadvantage is that it only works for those classes that are known by the AST transformer.

Which brings us to the chief disadvantage of evaluate=False: not all classes support it. The real problem here is that the flag is not required by the Basic superclass (or the metaclass). And it isn't part of the [[args invariant]]. So classes are free to not support it, and indeed, quite a few don't. Quite a few do, including the common classes in the core, and anything that subclasses from Function.

Idea 1: Require evaluate=False support everywhere

This is the simplest solution architecturally. It would be somewhat annoying to implement, and it would be a rather large change in the sense that it would add something to the args invariant.

The main downside here is that evaluate=False isn't really the best possible design in the first place, as noted above. It is verbose. To work well it should respect the global flag.

Idea 2: Bypassing the constructor completely.

It is possible to create any Basic subclass in a truly unevaluated way simply by doing Basic.__new__(cls, *args). The key issue here is invariants, which I want to discuss now.

An invariant is any statement that is true of every possible instance of a particular class. For example, every Basic subclass should satisfy the basic args invariants. Even more simply, every Basic subclass is hashable. In order for invariants to hold, generally, it should be maintained in the constructor. This is not true of all invariants (for instance, some invariants are held simply by virtue of a method being defined on a class), but for the purposes of this discussion, I will only consider those invariants that are maintained by the constructor, since that is what we wish to bypass.

Invariants in SymPy can range from the very simple to the mathematically complex. The basic thesis of the automatic simplification article is that invariants from automatic simplifications shouldn't be too complicated.

Example of a very simple invariant: sin only has exactly one argument:

>>> sin(x) # allowed
>>> sin(x, y) # not allowed

Example of a more complicated invariant: the argument of sin is not an integer multiple of pi:

>>> sin(2*pi) # The resulting object is not `sin`

The reason why I am talking about these things as invariants rather than automatic simplifications and type checking, is that any code that receives a sin object can assume, whether explicitly or implicitly, that these facts will be true about it. For instance, a function may process a sin object simply by looking at its .args[0], knowing that .args is a tuple of length exactly 1. Another function might assume that a sin object is fully simplified. In general, the simple assumptions tend to be more explicit, whereas the more complicated, mathematical assumptions are subtler. They tend to only reveal themselves if you try to reverse the invariant, either by removing the automatic simplification or by creating an unevaluated object.

Finally, the most basic invariant of all, obj.func(*obj.args) == obj, is broken by unevaluated expressions.

An unevaluated object, by definition, breaks the invariants of the underlying class (except in the trivial cases).

This causes a lot of problems in practice. In the most simple case, an unevaluated object cannot be rebuilt. Many functions assume this, and the result is that passing an unevaluated object to these functions "evaluates" the object. Historically, this has been seen most often in the printers, since they are the most common function called on any given object, especially in an interactive session, where unevaluated expressions are most likely to be used.

Now to the idea of using Basic.__new__(cls, *args). This is a complete nuclear option. Unlike cls(*args, evaluate=False), there is no way for cls's constructor to do anything at all with args. For example:

>>> sin(x, y, evaluate=False)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "./sympy/core/function.py", line 438, in __new__
    'given': n})
TypeError: sin takes exactly 1 argument (2 given)
>>> Basic.__new__(sin, x, y)
sin(x, y)

Now, I am not very worried about the type checking side of things, such as the implications of an expression like sin(x, y). The general rule in SymPy is garbage in, garbage out, meaning if someone creates an expression that is mathematically nonsensical, one should expect to get nothing better than nonsensical results out (or an exception). But this shows that Basic.__new__ really skips everything. This is a problem, as quite a few objects with evaluate=False do maintain some very basic invariants, generally ones that don't really affect the unevaluated-ness of the resulting expression (like the setting of assumptions).

The suggestion to make sympify do this with all classes is issue 13999. This is somewhat worrisome as it means that expressions cannot be trusted in any functions, unless they are first "rebuilt" (e.g., using sympy.strategies.rebuild).

A potential midway solution here would if there were a separate constructor for unevaluated expressions. For example, cls._unevaluated(*args). This would be the same as cls(*args, evaluate=False). This would perform the most basic invariants that don't related to unevaluated-ness, but which prevent simple bugs from occurring. The advantage of a separate constructor is that a default method could be implemented on Basic, and hence it would be enforceable to some degree from the superclass. It would also make it much more explicit as to what is a true object invariant and what is only constructor (evaluated) invariant.

Idea 3: Separate classes for unevaluated expressions

The other idea is to not try to pretend that a Mul(3, 4) object can exist. Sure, it can exist by using Mul(3, 4, evaluate=False) or Basic.__new__(Mul, S(3), S(4)), but who knows where it will work and where it will break. After all, a normal Mul always has all Numbers (integers, rationals, and floats) combined in the first argument. So who knows what functions would make this invalid assumption on such an object, and what kinds of bugs or even wrong results would ensue.

The main problem with the current strategy of reusing the existing classes for unevaluated objects is that some things might still work (if they happen to not care about the broken invariants), and some things won't. But there's no way to really tell without either testing them or auditing the code.

Instead of reusing the classes, another option would be to use separate classes entirely for unevaluated expressions. These classes would be very basic expression trees, which do not know anything about their mathematical representation.

Here, any function that wants to operate on unevaluated expressions would need to know about these classes. The printers obviously would need to, but likely some other functions would as well. Most users of unevaluated expressions want to perform some mathematics on those expressions. This is the key tension, as on the one hand they want to be able to represent something like 1 + 2*3 as unevaluated, but on the other they want SymPy to be able to do mathematics on it.

Which functions should support such unevaluated classes directly is unclear to me. In general, you could always convert an unevaluated expression to an equivalent evaluated one and operate on that.

The advantage here is that a function that doesn't know about unevaluated expressions would simply treat the unevaluated classes as an unknown function (UnevaluatedAdd(1, 2) would be treated the same as Function('f')(1, 2)). This would avoid wrong results (except for "wrong" results in the sense of functions not doing what they are "supposed" to do on unevaluated expressions).

The basic tradeoff here is

  • Reuse existing classes: many things "just work", but wrong results and accidental evaluation are possible

  • Separate classes: Wrong results and accidental evaluation are impossible, but nothing works unless explicitly designed to.

A proof-of-concept implementation of this idea is UnevaluatedExpr in sympy.core.expr. This works by wrapping the expression (so there isn't a separate class for every possible expression class), and defining doit. Currently only the printers know about it. This design allows unevaluated expressions to be used only partially. For instance, you could have 1 + UnevaluatedExpr(2) + x and it will behave functionally the same as Add(1, 2, x, evaluate=False).

The downside of this is that it works "inwords" only. UnevaluatedExpr(1) + 0 is still UnevaluatedExpr(1). You have to wrap the objects that might be evaluated. In general, creating a larger expression from an UnevaluatedExpr could result in evaluation. Only those parts that are wrapped are "masked" away.

This method is very similar to the existing workaround of creating Symbols for numbers, like Symbol('1') + Symbol('2'), except it is easier to later evaluate the expression.

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