c# – Why usage of assignment operator or loops discouraged in functional programming?

What is it in functional programming that makes a difference?

Functional programming is by principle declarative. You say what your result is instead of how to compute it.

Let’s take a look at really functional implementation of your snippet. In Haskell it would be:

predsum pred numbers = sum (filter pred numbers)

Is it clear what the result is? Quite so, it is sum of the numbers meeting the predicate. How is it computed? I don’t care, ask the compiler.

You could possibly say that using sum and filter is a trick and it doesn’t count. Let implement it without these helpers then (though the best way would be to implement them first).

The “Functional Programming 101” solution that doesn’t use sum is with recursion:

sum pred list = 
    case list of
        () -> 0
        h:t -> if pred h then h + sum pred t
                         else sum pred t

It is still pretty clear what is the result in terms of single function call. It is either 0, or recursive call + h or 0, depending on pred h. Still pretty straighforward, even if the end result is not immediately obvious (though with a little bit of practice this really reads just like a for loop).

Compare that to your version:

public int Sum(Func<int,bool> predicate, IEnumerable<int> numbers){
    int result = 0;
    foreach(var item in numbers)
        if (predicate(item)) result += item;
    return result;
}

What is the result? Oh, I see: single return statement, no surprises here: return result.

But what is result? int result = 0? Doesn’t seem right. You do something later with that 0. Ok, you add items to it. And so on.

Of course, for most programmers this is pretty obvious what happens in a simple funciton like this, but add some extra return statement or so and it suddenly gets harder to track. All the code is about how, and what is left for the reader to figure out – this is clearly a very imperative style.

So, are variables and loops wrong?

No.

There are many things that are much easier explained by them, and many algorithms that require mutable state to be fast. But variables are inherently imperative, explaining how instead of what, and giving little prediction of what their value may be a few lines later or after a few loop iterations. Loops generally require state to make sense, and so they are inherently imperative as well.

Variables and loops are simply not functional programming.

Summary

Contemporarily funcitonal programming is a bit more of style and a useful way of thinking than a paradigm. Strong preference for the pure functions is in this mindset, but it’s just a small part actually.

Most widespread languages allow you to use some functional constructs. For example in Python you can choose between:

result = 0
for num in numbers:
    if pred(num):
        result += num
return result

or

return sum(filter(pred, numbers))

or

return sum(n for n in numbers if pred(n))

These functional expressions fit nicely for that kind problems and simply makes code shorter (and shorter is good). You shouldn’t thoughtlessly replace imperative code with them, but when they fit, they are almost always a better choice.