I'm studying $\lambda$-calculus and came across a problem that I'm not sure how to understand. More specifically, it's about evaluating $\lambda$-calculus expressions using $\beta$-reduction.

I was taught that the basic steps for performing $\beta$-reduction are to

  1. Find reducible expressions in the form of ($\lambda x.$$e_1$) $e_2$.

  2. Rewrite the expression by substituting every free occurrence of $x$ in $e_1$ with $e_2$.

I've solved some exercise problems which seemed fairly simple to understand, but came across one that I couldn't understand the answer.

The expression in question is ($\lambda x.$($\lambda y.x$)) $y$, and after following the rules above I ended up with the result of $\lambda y.y$ after replacing the free occurrence of $x$ with $y$ in $\lambda y.x$. However, the correct answer seems to be $\lambda y.x$.

The rationale that I've been able to find is that before applying $\beta$-reduction, we have to change variables to be "unique."

Could someone explain the reasoning behind this for me please?


1 Answer 1


When performing a $\beta$-reduction, there are cases in which an $\alpha$-conversion is needed first; otherwise, the $\beta$-reduction fails to preserve semantics. This is here the case: you are replacing the free variable $x$ with $e_2$ and $e_2$ contains free variables which are bound within $e_1$.

You can easily see why the semantics are not preserved: $(\lambda y.y)$ and $(\lambda y.x)$ are not equivalent expressions because $(\lambda y.y)z = z$ but $(\lambda y.x)z = x$. In order to preserve the semantics, you first need to perform an $\alpha$-conversion on $(\lambda y.x)$ so as to replace $y$ with something else which is not free in $e_2$ (thus achieving "uniqueness"—though IMO such a term should be frowned upon here).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! I wasn't familiar with $\alpha$-conversion and didn't know it was needed in this sense. I'm also not in favor of the term "uniqueness" as well, but the resource I referred to seemed to use that term. $\endgroup$
    – Sean
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 9:06
  • $\begingroup$ I just had one additional question. How do we choose which variables to perform $\alpha$-conversion on? If we take the equation I originally gave as an example - ($\lambda x.$($\lambda y.x$)) $y$ - then is it also equivalent to convert the first $x$ rather than the $y$, yielding $\lambda z.$($\lambda y.x$) $y$? $\endgroup$
    – Sean
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 9:24
  • $\begingroup$ As I wrote in the answer, you need to replace every free variable $v$ in $e_2$ for which there is an occurence of $x$ in $e_1$ where the variable $v$ is bound. If you are allowed to use as much variables as you want to, then you can simply rename all free variables in $e_2$ which are bound somewhere in $e_1$ (although, of course, you do not have to do so). Also, in your expression (BTW it is not an equation!), if you replace $x$ with $z$, then you obtain $\lambda z. (\lambda y.z)y$, not $\lambda z. (\lambda y.x)y$. $\endgroup$
    – dkaeae
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Additionally, in $\lambda z.(\lambda y.z) y$ you have the same problem in the reduction. Replacing $x$ with something else does not help; you must rename the bound $y$ so as to obtain, for instance, $(\lambda x.(\lambda z.x))y$ $\endgroup$
    – dkaeae
    Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 13:44

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