On Respecting the Intrinsic Limitations of the Human Mind

 On respecting the intrinsic limitations of the human mind and approaching the (programming) task as Very Humble Programmers – From The Humble Programmer

… the amount of intellectual effort needed to design a program depends on the program length. It has been suggested that there is some kind of law of nature telling us that the amount of intellectual effort needed grows with the square of program length. But, thank goodness, no one has been able to prove this law. And this is because it need not be true. We all know that the only mental tool by means of which a very finite piece of reasoning can cover a myriad cases is called “abstraction”; as a result the effective exploitation of his powers of abstraction must be regarded as one of the most vital activities of a competent programmer. In this connection it might be worth-while to point out that the purpose of abstracting is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.

the tools we are trying to use and the language or notation we are using to express or record our thoughts, are the major factors determining what we can think or express at all! The analysis of the influence that programming languages have on the thinking habits of its users, and the recognition that, by now, brainpower is by far our scarcest resource, they together give us a new collection of yardsticks for comparing the relative merits of various programming languages.

Programming will remain very difficult, because once we have freed ourselves from the circumstantial cumbersomeness, we will find ourselves free to tackle the problems that are now well beyond our programming capacity.

Hierarchical systems seem to have the property that something considered as an undivided entity on one level, is considered as a composite object on the next lower level of greater detail; as a result the natural grain of space or time that is applicable at each level decreases by an order of magnitude when we shift our attention from one level to the next lower one. We understand walls in terms of bricks, bricks in terms of crystals, crystals in terms of molecules etc. As a result the number of levels that can be distinguished meaningfully in a hierarchical system is kind of proportional to the logarithm of the ratio between the largest and the smallest grain, and therefore, unless this ratio is very large, we cannot expect many levels.

I do not know of any other technology covering a ratio of 1010 or more: the computer, by virtue of its fantastic speed, seems to be the first to provide us with an environment where highly hierarchical artefacts are both possible and necessary. This challenge, viz. the confrontation with the programming task, is so unique that this novel experience can teach us a lot about ourselves. It should deepen our understanding of the processes of design and creation, it should give us better control over the task of organizing our thoughts.

Once in a while you come across an essay that is timeless. A lot has changed in the world of software development, since this talk was delivered (in 1972). By a funny coincidence, my programming career started in 1972 and I was blissfully ignorant of the challenges Dijkstra was talking about. It has been both an exhilarating and humbling experience to be a developer for a while.

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