Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Most Influential Person On Computer Science

Who was the most influential person on computer science (or computing if you prefer)? A web search is not particularly helpful. Most of the times, the pages I got were confusing CS with programming. However, to quote Edsger Dijkstra, "Computer Science is no more about computers, than astronomy is about telescopes". Some names may come quickly to
mind: Alan Turing, Church, Kleene etc, were all pivotal to the development of the computing science. But a deeper search can reveal the person who had the most critical impact: David Hilbert.

Hilbert was a German mathematician who worked on an incredible range of subjects: number theory, logic, geometry and over to special relativity theory. Yet, it was not his direct contribution that matters, but the influence he had to others on working on the fundamentals of computation. And it all started by his zealous stance towards a deep philosophical debate of the "ignoramus et ignorabimus".

And now the story begins.

Back in 1872 Emil du-Bois Reymond was a well-respected physiologist with considerable work on electro-physiology, studying the electric "properties" of human and animal tissues. At this year, he publishes a paper in which he claims his philosophical belief of "ignoramus et ignorabimus" (=we don't know and we won't know). This was a slightly more pessimistic version of the well known Socratic view "I know one thing; that I know nothing" but it was gaining acceptance through the philosophical circles at the time. The main point was that there are some stuff that humans do not know and they will never know (e.g. the origin of life or the universe) One might agree that it seems like a yet-another harmless philosophical idea. Some people were supporting it, others would be skeptical, but all in all, life would go on. But science was meant to take a dramatic turn because a man would take this debate to the extreme.

At that time David Hilbert was 10 years old. In subsequent years, through his work, he would confront deep philosophical problems, even within mathematics. However, the "ignorabimus" movement had really hit his nerve. In 1900, in the International Mathematics Conference in Paris, he addresses a call to arms to mathematicians by claiming: "in mathematics there is no ignrorabimus!". He uses mathematics to exterminate once and for all the pessimistic view, and claims that there should be a finite process of inference rules, that when applied, they would infer any correct statement. He then asks from mathematicians to help him in this direction (the 2nd problem in the problem list he announces at this speech was related)

Almost 28 years later, in 1928, Hilbert poses yet another challenge: The Entscheidungsproblem asks specifically for an algorithm that will be able to decide if a specific statement (e.g. 1+1=2) is true or not. During the 30's great things just start happening. In 1931, Kurt Godel breaks the first problem with his ground-breaking theorem of incompleteness. In short, most interesting systems, can either infer contradictory statements or they cannot infer some correct statements. Later, in 1936 and 1937 Church and Turing independently solve the last puzzle by proving that there are statements that cannot be proved or disproved. Hilbert's dream was shuttered but a new scientific field was born out of the proofs of these very problems! It is important to note here that, 5 years before his proof, Alonzo Church was in the famous Gottingen University during the years 1929-1931, visiting...David Hilbert.

But wait, there is more! It was not only theoretical computer science that was catalyzed by the influence of David Hilbert. The creation of the first general-purpose electronic computers would be pioneered by his assistant. Even in 1942, one year before the ENIAC project, Hilbert's former assistant in the University of Gottingen, would start an ambitious project of creating a general-purpose computer in the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, that ended in 1952. His work all these years marked the beginning of this era and his architecture is preserved more or less even in today's computers. His name was ...John Von Neumann!

Other than Hilbert, who else can claim of having a bigger impact on computer science?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If Philosophers Were Programmers

Although not obvious, philosophy actually has a strong relation with programming, at least for me. If you think about it, software code reflects much of how the developer perceives the problem and its solution. Before starting to program, developers spend some time thinking over the problem, identifying important properties and their underlying connections, a process that reveals their philosophy as the way they perceive real-word situations. Likewise, philosophers are constantly trying to identify the most important properties of the issues they reflect on, like life, conscience or God.

Under this perspective one might be able to make a consistent mapping of the ideas behind programming languages and the ideas that philosophers have come up over the years. It is perfectly reasonable to consider the programming languages as the different philosophies of a virtual world, in which entities do exist and interact with each other. To this respect, even the fundamental philosophical questions receive an interesting transformation: For example "What is self-conscience?" can be rephrased as "What is reflection?".

To the fun part, one might ask: "What if philosophers were programmers? What programming language they would use?". Well, here are my answers!

Socrates : The Hardcore Assembly Programmer
Socrates was one of the founders of philosophy but this is not where the connection ends. Socrates had devised a clever methodology to win every debate. He kept asking questions until a contradiction was reached. So, when someone would claim "morality is important", Socrates would ask "How do you define morality?".

In a similar manner, everything in Assembly begs for a question. There is nothing pre-assumed (at least in pure Assembly, not the distros filled with pre-processed libraries and other junk) and everything has to be as succinct as possible to have a meaning. If you were to work with the programmer Socrates and shared something like "var x = null;", your partner would start by asking "What is var?" !

Aristotle : The Influential C Programmer
Aristotle had a huge impact on Western philosophy, founding many scientific areas, from physics to biology. He was the first to closely examine real entities as the real essence of everything, in contrast to Plato's abstractions. His philosophy is driven by the golden mean as the key to reaching morality or understanding life (matter and form).

The C programming language was equally influential to the design of all other "programming philosophies", most obviously in the syntactical level. In addition, by the time of its writing in the early 70's, C was supposed to be the golden mean between the so-called high-level languages and the Assembly language, combining the capability to write machine-independent code combined with the power of low-level access.

Plato : The Idealistic C++ Evangelist

Plato is a huge figure in philosophy, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. That said, I owe you an explanation about the obvious anomaly: How come that C++ is coming after C? Let me explain. Plato is famous for his Forms or Ideas, that refer to the archetypical versions of the things around us. So, the cup in your desk has is a shadow of a similar oval-shaped archetype in the world of Ideas. In programming words, it is an instance of the Cup class.

Similarly, C++ , as an extension of C, is the first language that tries to capture this idea of forms by giving the developers the capability to abstract the problem before doing anything else. This is a major step by itself, since even if no actual code solving the problem is provided, the classification and the problem modelling are evident and valuable to others. You might wonder, why Plato would not program in Java. Well he could, but there is another parameter to the story: Plato is not so confident how symbols can represent his Forms, and clearly prefers the spoken dialogue (as mentioned in Phaedrus). In a similar manner, C++, not entirely confident in its direction, remains a superset of C, being fully backwards-compatible with the more non-ideal syntax of C.

Stoics : The Happy Perl Community
Stoics and their philosophy (Stoicism) had silently, a far-reaching impact not only to Western philosophy but to the philosophy and the global culture as a whole. Interestingly enough, there is no single man behind it, but it was actually a collaborative intellectual achievement. Stoicism denies anything immaterial and tries to explain the world through propositional logic. So, Stoics reject everything Ideal and concenrate in morality, in which they call us to get free from anything we can't control, but rather appreciate the freedom to self-introspect and reach true wisdom. Stoicism rejects political systems and other formalities, and promotes Socrates' citizen of the world for everyone. People are meant to be brothers, away from distinctions, aiming to contribute happily to a society of friendship and love (jus commune gentium). You should already notice the influences to most widespread religions, like Christianism and Buddism.

Most interestingly, Perl was created in the 80's, a decade in which finally logic/functional programming had found its place in the programming languages world. However, the Perl community (and language) shares much more striking similarites with the Stoics and their philosophy. Perl as a language is to the best possible extent, free of form. Actually the most common phrase in the Perl world is "there is more than one way to do it" or TIMTOADY for short. The philosophy behind Perl rejects syntactical constraints, giving the freedom to its programmers to code in their style, but at the same time encouraging sharing and contribution to the community. Perl's power lies to a great extent to the existence of CPAN, the archive of modules and software happily shared by Perl programmers all around the globe. The language's influence to the programming world has been silent, but much more far-reaching than what is immediately observable. One could mention its strong influence to scripting, dynamic typing and functional programming, but it could be summarized to a joke which is familiar to Perl fans: The next market's crash will be triggered by a bug in someone's Perl script.

Rene Descartes : The True Java Guru
Descartes was the first philosopher of the Western culture to stand up against the Classical Ancient Greek philosophy. His core philosophy as mentioned in his famous Article 7 of the "Les principles de la philosophie" is based on the concept of cogito (=intellectual ego). Descartes believes that doubt is a proof of existence, and cogito is the cause of doubt, arriving to the famous "cogito ergo sum" (=I think therefore I exist). The cogito is not just another process we do, but actually all we do. So, what we want, imagine or feel is directly accessible through it. Descartes nearly 'proves' the existence of God, by the fact that we are able to think about the necessity of his existence. In fact any Ideal or Form can be directly accessible by our cogito. Descartes also marks another landmark in the history of philosophy: Beginning from his work, philosophy is trying to avoid confusing abstractions and to establish a succinct, almost geometrical form. Descartes presents his ideas nearly in the form of theorems.

Descartes would be the perfect Java guru. Java was the first strongly-typed language, in which everything must have a type (or share a Form) before it is being used, matching perfectly the Descartes' efforts to be always exact for what he is talking about. Descarte's cogito is in fact a revisit of Plato's Forms, with a slight variation in which ideals exist because we think about them and not in another universe. To that respect, his philosophy is purely object-oriented, as the solutions in which we arrive, are direct products of our intellects.

Immanuel Kant: The First Python Programmer
Kant found the 'easy' way to the pantheon of philosophy by rejecting two prevailing and opposing methodologies, Descarte's cogito and the empiricism, by shouting 'It's both!'. Kant investigated how humans reason, claiming that experience offers the truth, but which has already been filtered by intellectual judgement (a priori). At his mature years, he examined aesthetics, and the theory trying to explaining the way we perceive beauty. Kant was an extremely concise personality, being obsessed with tideness and exactness, doing the same things, exactly at the same time every day, to the extent that his acquaintances were 'using' him to calculate time!

Similarly, Python is a programming language that tries to combine different solutions and promote it as a new one. As a language it accepts multiple programming paradigms, from object-oriented to contract-based programming. Python programmers reject the free formats of languages such as Perl, and although they borrow several features from it, they emphasize on simple and explicit code. Python becomes so 'obsessive' that imposes whitespace identation as delimiters for code blocks to its users. In the "Zen of Python", the first out of the 19 commandments, the first one is "Beatiful is better than ugly". Kant's obsession to beauty and aesthetics, makes him triumphantly the first Python programmer ever.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Natural Born Haskell Programmer
Wittgenstein reformed Western philosophy going as deep as to examine Socrates' 'recipe' for debate success. His monumental work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, can be compared to a hard graduate mathematical book in Logic. Wittgenstein identifies the semantic and symbolic forms as the root of all philosophical problems, leaving the rest that can be explicitly defined as the subject of science. Using pure logic, he deducts that language inherent ambiguity is what makes philosophy repeat itself, and closing his book with the famous 'What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence', claims to have solved,..., all philosophical problems.

Wittgenstein is a natural born Haskell programmer. Haskell was not the first functional programming language in town, but from late 80's and onwards, it has prevailed as the most important among the group. Haskell is not meant to be accesible by anyone, and just like the austere and succinct Tractatus, as Wikipedia states, it has a strict mathematical and logical form. Haskell, being purely functional, goes as deep as redefining the way we treat abstract data types, the same way Wittgenstein goes back to Socrates' dialectic to reform modern philosophy.

These all may sound weird, but for programmers, it is easy to realize these deeper connections. I am not quite sure if the same holds for philosophers. Anyway, at least by now, it should make much more sense why in every article in Wikipedia, presenting a programming language, there is special section named "Language philosophy".