Ghost Functions

Uninterpreted Sorts

CVL specifications support normal solidity primitives (uint256address etc.) in addition to some of it’s own (for example mathint). These types are interpreted meaning that their values are ascribed some sort of semantics (for example a bit vector of width 256 can be used inside arithmetic operations or comparison operations and has specific semantics associated i.e. 2 + 2 = 4 or x = y => z + x = z + y etc.).

While it can be useful to use interpreted sorts within uninterpreted functions, for reasons we won’t get into here, sometimes it is easier to use an uninterpreted sort that doesn’t carry around all the “baggage,” so to speak, associated with its interpretation. This is where uninterpreted sorts come in. In CVL an uninterpreted sort is simply declared at the top level of a specification. For example

sort MyUninterpSort;
sort Foo;

rule myRule {    ...

‌There are then 3 things we can do with these sorts:

  1. Declare variables of said sort: Foo x.

  2. Test equality between two elements of this sort: Foo x; Foo y; assert x == y;;

  3. Use these sorts in the signatures of uninterpreted functions: ghost myGhost(uint256 x, Foo f) returns Foo.

Putting these pieces together we might write the following useless, but demonstrative example:

sort Foo;
ghost bar(Foo, Foo) returns Foo;

rule myRule {
  Foo x;
  Foo y;
  Foo z = bar(x, y);
  assert x == y && y == z;

This will generate an assertion violation. Behind the scenes the solver gets to generate any number of members of the sort Foo. So it can easily generate a counterexample by assigning x to one member and y to the other.

Uninterpreted Functions

Uninterpreted functions are called uninterpreted because they have no interpretation associated with them. In the example above, it is impossible to say what bar(x, y) means. Uninterpreted functions really only give us a single guarantee:


Any two applications of the same uninterpreted function with the same arguments will return the same value.

So for example:

ghost bar(Foo) returns Foo;

rule shouldSucceed(Foo x, Foo y, Foo z) {
  require bar(x) == y;
  require x == z;    // the solver must choose y for bar(z)
  assert bar(z) == y;

rule shouldFail(Foo x, Foo y, Foo z) {
  require bar(x) == y;    // the solver can choose whatever it wants for bar(z)
  assert bar(z) == y;

Axioms for Uninterpreted Functions‌

Sometimes we might want to constrain the behavior of an uninterpreted function in some particular way. In CVL this is achieved by writing axioms. Axioms are simply CVL expressions that the tool will then assume are true about the uninterpreted functions. For example:

ghost bar(uint256) returns uint256 {
    axiom forall uint256 x. bar(x) > 10;

In any rule that uses bar, no application of bar could ever evaluate to a number less than or equal to 10. While this is not a very interesting axiom, we could imagine expressing more complicated functions, such as a reachability relation.


Axioms are dangerous and should be used carefully as they are a potential source of vacuity bugs. This can happen in two situations:

  1. The axiom implies false

  2. Somewhere in the program, we assume something about a ghost function that, when conjoined with a ghost axiom, implies false

Initial Axioms for Uninterpreted Functions

Initial axioms look a lot like axioms but are used for a completely different reason. When writing invariants initial axioms are a way to express the “initial state” of a ghost function. For example:

ghost sum() returns uint256 {
  init_state axiom sum() == 0;

This simply states that our sum should start out at zero.