How category theory is applied

Instead of asking whether an area of mathematics can be applied, it’s more useful to as how it can be applied.

Differential equations are directly and commonly applied. Ask yourself what laws govern the motion of some system, write down these laws as differential equations, then solve them. Statistical models are similarly direct: propose a model and feed it data.

Linear algebra is extremely useful in application, but it’s not often applied so directly. Rarely would you look at a system and immediately see a linear system. Instead you might describe a system in terms of differential equations or statistical models, then use linear algebra as a key part of the solution process.

Numerical analysis is useful because, for example, it helps you practically solve large linear systems (which help you solve differential equations, which model physical systems).

Many areas of math are useful in application, but some are applied more directly than others. It’s a mistake to say something is not applied just because it is not applied directly.

The following quote from Colin McLarty describes how some of the most abstract math, including cohomology and category theory, is applied.

Cohomology does not itself solve hard problems in topology or algebra. It clears away tangled multitudes of individually trivial problems. It puts the hard problems in clear relief and makes their solution possible. The same holds for category theory in general.

While McLarty speaks of applications to other areas of math, the same applies to applications to other areas such as software engineering.

I suspect many supposed applications of category theory are post hoc glosses, dressing up ideas in categorical language that were discovered in a more tangible setting. At the same time, the applications of category theory may be understated because the theory works behind the scenes. As I discuss here, category theory may lead to insights that are best communicated in the language of the original problem, not in the language of categories.

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