I have a problem with arguments passed as non-evaluated expressions

So, since I've learned about Kernel I was very excited: the idea of explicit evaluation seemed like a very cool idea, giving much more power to the programmer in comparison to the standard "pass evaluated arguments" strategy (1: this statement can be argued upon; 2: there were numerous posts here at LtU and other blogs about potential drawbacks).
Then, I've learned about Io language, which also seems to embrace the idea - when caller sends a message to a target, passed arguments are passed as expressions, not values, giving the full range of custom "control" messages, macros, etc.
This is when it hit me - although the idea sounds very cool, there is something wrong with it. Most likely my mind is stuck in an endless loop of dubious reasoning that I can't get out of, so, hopefully, someone can clarify my concerns.
Let us break down an example, where in some context we have:

a := Number(1) ;ignore how these two lines are actually executed
b := Number(3) ;whats important that the context has two number objects bound to symbols "a" and "b"
someAdderPrimitiveObject pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers(a, b) toString print

so, the caller context asks someAdderPrimitiveObject to add numbers a and b, and the arguments are just passed as "a" and "b" symbols. no problem here, as far as we concerned, because that same "someAdderPrimitive" object can ask the caller to send actual values back.
let's say we had defined the "pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers" something as

someAdderPrimitiveObject pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers := method(x, y, [body, whatever that is])

so, when the "pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers" method is invoked, the "a" and "b" symbols are bound in the environment of the "pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers" method's activation record to "x" and "y" symbols.
The method body would try and do something like this:

valx := caller pleaseEvaluateForMe(x)
valy := caller pleaseEvaluateForMe(y)
[do something with these values, whatever]

This is where it gets problematic for me. The callee (activation record of the "pleaseDoAddtheseNumbers" method) asks the caller (the original message sender) back for a value of its argument (which is bound to a locally known symbol "x") and in order to avoid infinite recursion of ping-pong of messages like "evaluate this for me", the callee *has* to pass the *value* of its own symbol "x" (bound to value, which is symbol "a") back to a caller, to ask it for a value (in this case: some boxed object-number 1).

So far as I've seen the problem is solved on an interpreter level, where this kind of thing is handled "behind the scenes".
Does that mean that the system that never evaluates passed arguments cannot implement itself, because at some point you *have* to pass values, in order for them to be operated upon?

Sorry if this is a mess, I hope someone undestands it :)

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`someAdderPrimitiveObject` is a primitive. It does get the expression it was called with and the local environment, but it just evaluates the expression in the local environment directly using the interpreter's internal machinery. It doesn't go through the usual message sending protocol the way you've presented it.

Alternatively, it might be implemented the way Kernel does it, where there's a primitive that wraps other methods and induces argument evaluation. That primitive itself also doesn't need to go through the usual machinery so there's no ping pong.

You can still have this sort of system implement itself, it just needs to have the correct primitives. Some systems require more than others, so you might have an aesthetic preference for systems that require a small number of simple primitives.

You can still have this sort

You can still have this sort of system implement itself, it just needs to have the correct primitives.
So what you're saying is that there *must* be primitives in the system that are able to "magically" evaluate their arguments without invoking the messaging protocol or there should be a primitive that can be used to induce the argument evaluation (aka kernels "wrap") for others.

Yeah, so, basically, the message sending protocol that does not evaluate arguments is not self-sufficient without "behind the scenes" evaluation magic (this is how its done in Io). And I suspected this is also the reason behind the "wrap" construct in Kernel.

This is, my problem with the whole concept of a non-evaluating message passing protocol - it doesn't work without some implicit behind-the-scenes evaluator, which, in my opinion, makes this concept non-elegant :)

You always need primitives

I don't really understand the complaint. You always need primitives that are able to magically evaluate their arguments. It has nothing to do with the non-evaluating message passing stuff. The lambda calculus is not self-sufficient without behind the scenes magic. The SK calculus is not self-sufficient without behind the scenes magic. What combinator does S call to do its thing? It doesn't call anything, it just does it. The question is how *many* primitives you need, and how complicated they are.

Kernel and Io could work in absolutely any way they wanted to and they would still have the thing you're complaining about, so I'm not sure what exactly you were expecting. To put that another way, how exactly do you think you would ever implement a language like Smalltalk without having primitive objects whose methods bypass the message passing protocol? You can't do it. There has to be a base case for the reason you pointed out in your opening post.


Fwiw, some perspective on where the idea for Kernel evaluation came from. (And I'll add a quick remark at the end about message-passing.) Sorry if this runs a bit long, but the ideas involved really are rather subtle imho, and in fact I reacted with incredulity myself when I first came up with the idea for Kernel evaluation.

One day in the late 1990s I was playing around with implementation of a Scheme, or Scheme-like, interpreter, written in C (well, Gnu C). A state of the interpreter was to be made up of a value and a continuation. The continuation would have a method to receive a value, which would return a new state. The interpreter top-level logic would step, by applying the current state's continuation to the current state's value, resulting in a new state; and, repeat, forever. So the continuations did all the real work.

I'd imagined a continuation for handling a procedure call; it would wait to receive the value of some operand evaluation previously scheduled, and would already have, stored in fields of the continuation, a list of operands not yet evaluated, list of arguments (that is, results of previous operand evaluations), pointer to the environment in which to evaluate operands, pointer to a "procedure" object to which to pass the completed argument list, and pointer to another continuation to receive the result returned by the procedure. When this continuation received a value, it would add it to the list of arguments, and either schedule another operand evaluation, setting up a suitable continuation to receive the result, or, if there were no more operands waiting to be evaluated, call the procedure with the completed argument list, scheduling the result to be sent to the stored continuation meant to receive it.

However, this would then require a whole bunch of other continuation types for the various special forms of Scheme. That seemed inelegant. So I had the idea to split the procedure-call continuation into two continuations, essentially a front-end and a back-end. The front-end would do all that same juggling to assemble an argument list by evaluating operands, but then would just send the completed argument list on to whatever continuation it had been told to send its result to — presumably, to a back-end. The back-end would wait patiently to receive a value, presumably the completed argument list, and call the procedure accordingly. With this arrangement, there would be no need for a lot of separate continuation types to handle special forms; just provide a primitive procedure to handle the operand list of that special form, and when evaluating a special form with the appropriate operator, set up a back-end continuation without a front-end, so the procedure will receive the unevaluated operands.

It then quickly occurred to me that I could set up a lambda-like device for creating new, first-class "special forms" (in those first hours, I used the name special-lambda; choosing a better name involved months of researching obscure alphabets). The internal form of an "ordinary" Scheme procedure would then be simply a struct containing a single field pointing to the "special-procedure" to which the argument list should be sent after a front-end continuation has finished building it. The primitive special-procedure that evaluates an expression — there has to be such a primitive — would handle a combination by first evaluating the operator; if the result of operator-evaluation is a special-procedure it would just set up a back-end to receive the operand list, or if the result of operator-evaluation is an ordinary-procedure it would set up a back-end and also set up a front-end.

Notice that the key innovation here is not reduction of the usual processing of an ordinary Scheme procedure call to special-procedure calls that don't evaluate their operands; not, somehow, "elimination" of operand-evaluations; but simply factorization of an ordinary Scheme procedure call into two stages: first, evaluate the operands to produce arguments, and second, apply the underlying special-procedure to the argument list. All the things done before are still done, we're just keeping track of them separately.

Although I was immediately quite excited by this idea, with first class special-procedures constructed by a special-lambda, I was also very leery about it. Even though I see it all now as very elegant, I still remember vividly what it felt like to doubt the whole thing, because my doubt at the time was quite intense. Because it seemed like the spark of evaluation would keep almost going out, only be rekindled just barely. Scheme, after all, has this ubiquitous assumption that all operands are to be evaluated, with just a few special exceptions made for special forms holding back the operand-evaluation that would otherwise occur; but with this new algorithm, it seems, the default is that no operands are evaluated, and the computation has to be constantly nudged along, blowing on that spark of evaluation to keep it from going out: when evaluating a combination, only evaluate the operator, without expecting the operands to be evaluated; and if the operator evaluates to an "ordinary-procedure" (what I'd now call an applicative), only then schedule evaluations of the operands. I just lay down and stared at nothing for hours, that afternoon, convincing myself that it really would work. But this modified evaluator algorithm, in situations where it's doing things that would also work in Scheme, isn't actually doing any less evaluation than Scheme would do — it's just leaving open opportunities where, at the programmer's discretion, the program could deviate from the usual Scheme-like evaluation behavior to do funky new kinds of things. (Those opportunities for deviation are, of course, also why the equational theory of the language is somewhat weakened, but thereon hangs another tale.)

As for message passing, note that the value-and-continuation structure I've described essentially is message-passing; the value is the message. It's all just another way of factoring the tasks that need to be performed; all those tasks have to be in there somewhere, or the system really wouldn't work.

Please, sir, I want some more?

I enjoyed reading your "bit long" comment. I am acquainted with a similar design, albeit for a different purpose (which is to never allow the evaluation "stack" to be more than one level deep, i.e. a non-blocking interpreter with opcode-level granularity for scheduling purposes.)

Thank you!

Wow, this was a very enjoyable and enlightening read, John. I was traveling an re-reading this, like, 5 times :)
Thanks for the elaboration of the "rekindling" the evaluation. This was a very nice metaphor