The Mythology of Programming Language Ideas

Tomas Patricek offers a stimulating analysis of program language design in the framework of science as a practice. As tools advance, later generations often deride their predecessors as “unscientific,” seeing their theories as myth. This is a point that I have advanced in defense of ancient philosophers and theologians: they were thinking rigorously within the limitations of the evidence that they could perceive. More, their thinking encompassed types of experience (what we call “spiritual”) that modern scientists, trapped in materialism, fail to honor.

Patricek is particularly interested in the evolution of programming languages, which are subject to rigorous scientific analysis both as regards expressiveness and efficiency. My comment to him:

I greatly enjoyed your article. I do have one specific vision regarding the future: programming language design is about bridging the mismatch between the digital and organic perceptions of reality. For much of the history of programming languages, the burden was on the organic participants to conform to the limitations of digital devices. That boundary is shifting rapidly to allow digital devices to interpret utterances of non-programmers.

Within any one paradigm for adaption between the two domains of perception, “developers” (which may include the general public) are not really involved in science as  a search for first principles that constrain possibilities. Rather, they are exploring and evolving an ecosystem. An analogy is the human genome which can be understood – but probably not justified in scientific terms (missing initial conditions), nor optimized in engineering terms (due to complex functional dependencies).

On Intellect

In Reductio ad Consterno (reduction to the point of alarm), I threw out the idea that philosophy, considered properly, is the exploration of the operation of intellect. The thought wasn’t deeply considered – it was rather a convenient bridge in the essay, a way of linking what preceded with what followed.

But as I continue my reading of The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (TPB below, by Buckingham, et al. with DK Books) I am realizing that it’s actually central to the project of my life. In Ma, my celebration of the feminine virtues, I illustrate various expressions of intellect (as defined below) through the main characters. This has the unfortunate effect that the narrative is rendered disjoint by the shifts in perspective. As I thought about this post yesterday morning, I considered the subtitle “The Philosophy of Ma and Golem” with the hope that readers might gain some insight into those works. But, given that after my father’s passing I am the only extant reader of that collection, I must now conclude (with some chagrin) that the earlier works were a type of “narrative study” for the thoughts that are crystallized below.

To set the table again: TPB contrasts the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle as the central issue in philosophy, which the authors characterize as the search for a firm foundation for knowledge. Plato held that all events are ephemeral and rendered indistinct by our senses, and so that all knowledge is in the realm of ideas. Aristotle countered that ideas that do not arise from experience are not knowledge, but fantasy. As the history of philosophy is traced, the Aristotelian perspective is bolstered by scientific study, and in fact the proponents of Plato’s view appear less and less coherent.

Of course, the Aristotelian empiricists materialists have a huge advantage in this quest. Science, in the large, is the study of things without personality. That means that the subjects of scientific research don’t evolve new behaviors when we study them. An insulator will not start to conduct electricity, and an electron won’t shed its mass. Conversely, Plato and all of his followers insist that knowledge emanates from some form of “The Good,” which was understood to be “God” in Islamic and Christian cultures. The Good does not reveal itself, but must be courted with disciplined moral intent. So while empiricists materialists can describe things that anyone can experience, the mystic must grope for terms to describe perceptions that often are completely foreign to the reader. The empiricist materialist is popular; the mystic is obscure.

This insight sets us on a path to reconcile the two primary views of philosophy. Indeed, while much of modern philosophy tends toward  a social focus, often that is driven by reaction to cultural dysfunction that arises from trying to force people to behave as if only one view was valid. But I do not believe that our reconciliation is sufficient. There are unexamined deficiencies in Philosophy as a whole, manifested most obviously in the fact that almost all of its luminaries are men.

So I am going to conclude this post with a definition of intellect that may serve only to make it clear just how complex the problem is.

Intellect manifests in the capacity to synthesize mental states.

Our mental states are not only thoughts. They are a complex amalgamation of sensory perceptions, physiological response (or emotions), thoughts and spiritual interactions. Synthesis is accomplished through either stimulation or combination of those states.

The job of philosophy, as I asserted before, is to understand the virtues and pathologies of intellect, and to establish means to strengthen the first and heal the second. The complexity of the problem is seen in that most of the history of philosophy was spent in a fruitless search for some solid ground to stand on – some truth beyond Descartes’ “I exist.” Fortunately for humanity, most of us continued to carry on with our exploration of what is possible.

In that search, we must recognize that the intellect also has variable expressions. Just as species adopt different forms in the struggle to secure an ecological niche, so does the intellect vary. There are those dominated by sensory perception, those immersed in emotion, those lost in the whirlpool of their thoughts, and those with their eyes locked on the heavens. Each of them brings a piece of the puzzle to our attention. No perspective can be denigrated or ignored without threatening the integrity of the whole.