Monthly Archives: December 2011

New Languages

It has been some time since I learned a new programming language. Perhaps Haskell has me so firmly entrenched in “desirable properties” that any new language I look at either looks like another Javascript (a decent language sullied by terrible syntax) or Smalltalk (a decent language sullied by terrible engineering). I completely admit that I have had opportunities to learn new languages that I have turned down because I didn’t find the language’s ideas aesthetically pleasing after reading about them for ten minutes. But all in all I have been unimpressed by new languages and haven’t felt inspired to learn them to the degree I would need to use them.

It has also been some time since I have been excited about programming. My readers are surely aware of this as the topics of this blog meander this way and that away from my expertise. I used to love seeking the elegant design, simmering 200 lines down into 40, hypothesizing about language features and module systems, imagining worlds in which all modern software was built upon my paradigm.

I think these two things are related. I am not sure which way the causation goes, or even if there is a causal relationship. But thinking back on my time as a programmer, the times when I was most productive I was learning: working in a new language or working in a new domain. I still think CodeCatalog is a great idea, in total a few hard weeks’ work, and I can’t convince myself to write another line of the damned thing. That’s because I know how it’s gonna go; I know what I have to do; there is no mystery to it.

What if, instead of twisting my arm and trying to force myself into “good behavior”, I embraced this aspect of myself? There has to be some beautiful experimental kernel to that project; there has to be some beautiful way to express it. And it is certainly possible, even likely, that the result won’t end up looking and feeling like StackOverflow or Google Whatever (beta).

So what?

Have I been so brainwashed by the business of software that I will abandon a project because I cannot inspire myself to bring it to business standards? I think it’s because we wanted to make money. It would be nice not to have to worry about paying rent, I admit, but not worth exchanging for the beauty of an inspired work of code.

Someone invent a beautiful web/database language. I mean beautiful and unique — not practical or productive or real-world or familiar or interoperable or scalable. I don’t care about those adjectives, those are for engineers.

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The Culture of Reason

I have heard the term “The Church of Reason” to refer to our modern disposition toward rationality and science. Some thinkers are upset by this analogy, claiming that rationality is fundamentally distinct from a religion. In some ways this is true: for instance, rationality does not entrust a single institution or treatise with control of its truth (though some sects — I mean branches — come very close to a blind trust of scientific consensus). However, I sometimes get the distinct impression of a further belief, however never explicitly stated, that logic and science are not just the latest way, but the way to discover truth.

A succinct criticism from within the logical discipline describes my thoughts well. I quote:

If I see a coin come up heads twenty times in a row, I’m going to use the power of induction to predict that the coin is biased towards heads. Induction tells me that, the more something has happened in the past, it’s more likely to continue to do so in the future. I trust induction because induction has worked for me before.

Somewhere out there in mind-space is someone who believes in anti-induction: each coin flip of heads convinces him that the coin is biased toward tails. Anti-induction tells him that, the more something has happened in the past, the less likely it is to do so in the future. If asked why he trusts anti-induction, he exclaims: “Because it’s never worked before!”

(Concept by Eliezer Yudkowsky, phrasing by Chronos) (EDIT: It appears that this concept is not Yudkowsky’s creation, but a ‘well-known’ joke in some circles, however I cannot locate its origin)

This delightful morsel is so much more than an idle curiosity to me. Please do not mistake me for taking the surface interpretation: I do not claim that induction and anti-induction are equally valuable. But the anti-induction hypothetical illuminates, in an entertaining way, that belief in induction is circular. Observe that our unwavering trust in logic rests upon induction.

In this modern age it is sometimes easy to forget that there was a time when most of humanity was deeply religious. Humans of every intellectual prowess saw “God did it” as a sound explanation (allow me to assume omnipotent monotheism for the sake of argument). Some theorized about how God thought, what he looked like (whether that was a legitimate question), what would appease him, what actions would cause him to create rain or not. Instead of conjuring thoughts of mockery, I would like the reader to put him or herself into one of those minds. You are not stupid; you are deeply immersed in a cultural belief system. It rains — you think back upon the actions of your town recently to try to determine why it must have done so; determining this is of the utmost importance. You may even engage in scientific practices, coming up with hypotheses and testing them: if I sing to one, but not both, of my children at night, the probability that God will be pleased is increased. But this science is based upon a faulty foundation: a whole host of different phenomena could be attributed to “God will be pleased”, and the method is not scientific by modern standards. It is still superstition. What I am putting forth is that the very process of modern science and reasoning may be considered superstition — or perhaps some yet-uninvented term to describe our primitive thinking — to the cultures of the future. Maybe, like the character above, what we are doing is analogous to the search for truth, but we’re missing the point.

But we can make predictions! I will grant that we can make better predictions than traditional religious belief systems used to. I am no scholar of religion, but I can at least imagine a tribe understanding that the fire spirit, who loves the taste of dry wood, will duplicate himself to any nearby dry wood. This makes a prediction as well (at the time of this understanding, it had not yet been observed that he would duplicate himself from Honto’s wood to Jumara’s wood). Nowadays we have only a more accurate idea of the spirits, and we call them by silly names like Boson and Gluon. (I would like to stress that we cannot yet predict anything perfectly. E. T. Jaynes argues that the stunningly accurate probabilistic results of quantum electrodynamics do not count as perfection; i.e. that interpreting the quantifiable uncertainty of its predictions as fundamental to nature rather than to the theory is a boneheaded arrogance.)

Speaking of quantum theory, in the last century we have come across physical laws with an unsettling interpretation problem. Quantum systems are defined in terms of measurement amplitudes, and measurement occurs when a quantum system interacts with a classical system. Of course, if quantum theory wishes to be foundational, the term “classical system” must refer to a mathematical interpretation of a system, not a specific, real system, for every system ought to be a quantum system. So now we are talking about the point of measurement being one interpretation interacting with another — we are speaking on the mathematical and the physical level at the same time. Philosophically, this is utter nonsense. A dominant viewpoint among physicists is that of instrumentalism, summarized by Feynman as “shut up and calculate”. In other words: our logical and intuitive explanations fail us, but the mathematics work out. We have stumbled upon a stunningly accurate mathematical theory with fuzzy, unintelligible edges; could this not indicate an impedance mismatch between our logic and reality? Electrons do not obey classical physics, though large ensembles of them converge on classical physics. Why should we assume nature obeys classical logic; perhaps only large ensembles of truths converge on classical logic? Indeed, the calculation structure of quantum amplitudes seems to be logic-esque, with rules at least for conjunction and disjunction. Maybe the barrier lies not in the transition to a classical system, but the transition to classical logic. Perhaps, if we could only think differently, there would be no barrier.

In order to be heard, I am arguing from a position that we just have the laws of logic slightly wrong, and that a successor would take the same form merely with different laws. I do not necessarily believe this — my inner mathematician wishes it, for it would be comfortable and familiar — but it is simply the most concrete way, the smallest step I can take, to cast doubt upon the logical absolute.

You and I are immersed in a culture of reason, just as many generations of humans before us were immersed in a culture of theism. I cannot simply show you an alternative way to see the world; I am as clouded by these conceptions as anyone of our time. I do not wish to replace your foundation, just erode it. I wish to illuminate the possibility that we may, still, be looking at clouds, and not at the stars.

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