Painfully Difficult Beautiful Ideas

From a discussion of mathematics and computer programming, the "Think in Math, Write in Code" thread of July 2019:

by dkarl:

Math has more aspects than just logical deduction via mechanical rules. Math also has an aesthetic aspect that guides people to find elegant, powerful solutions within the space defined by the mechanical rules. There may be many paths of deduction from point A to point B, which are all mechanically equally valid. But from the human point of view, they have different value. Some will be simple and easy to understand; others will rely on ideas from one or another realm of math, making them friendly to people who understand those ideas. Some will suggest, to the human brain, analogies to other problems. The mathematical validity of the argument is judged according to whether it correctly follows the mechanical rules, but all other aspects are judged by aesthetics and intuition and ultimately by how the solution is received and utilized by other mathematicians.

If the only aspect of mathematics that you bring into programming is logical deduction by mechanical rules, then I doubt it will help, except for rare cases where you prove or disprove the correctness of code. If, on the other hand, you bring over the aesthetic concern, the drive to make painfully difficult ideas more beautiful (ergonomic) for human brains, then it will help you make your code simpler, clearer, and easier for others to work with. ...


That's true to a certain extent, but math and programming share the property of being built up from logical building blocks that are combined in strict logical ways. Law and philosophy are built on language and culture; physics is closer but is empirical. Math and programs are built from logic, and this gives them more of a common aesthetic sense.

For example, in law or philosophy, repeating the same argument multiple times, adapted for different circumstances, can give it weight. In math and programming, the weight of repetition is dead weight that people strive to eliminate. In law and philosophy, arguments are built out of words and shared assumptions that change over time; in math, new definitions can be added, and terms can be confusingly overloaded, but old definitions remain accessible in a way that old cultural assumptions are not accessible to someone writing a legal argument.

In physics, the real world is a given, and we approximate it as best we can. In math and software, reality is chosen from the systems we are able to construct. ...

... and by furyofantares:

I see math as the language of thinking. Math doesn't really have a domain beyond: how do we think, how do we know, and how do we communicate our knowledge. The progression of mathematics has been the systematic removal of domain. Numbers are widely applicable because they are very abstract and devoid of domain, and they are one of the least abstract things in mathematics.
I agree with your gist, there are lots of things where studying that thing is virtuous beyond its direct application. But also, I'd contend that thought is the subject of mathematics and not just a virtuous side-effect.

... and by optimuspaul:

I've always thought of those two groups using different labels. The Code Artists and the Engineers. The Artists have a strong need to be creating to understand something, whereas the engineer has a strong need to understand before they can create. And those that believe the programming is not an art fall into the latter group.

... which leads filoleg to point to the essay "Hackers and Painters" by Paul Graham (2003), and CaioAlonso to note:

Harold Abelson creates the distinction [1] between Mathematics being the study of truth and Computing being the study of process. It seems to me that these really are different things and Mathematics isn't the "natural language" to discuss computations, but rather truth and patterns. But of course process (computing) can only happen within the boundaries of mathematical truths and patterns.

(cf [2] and Key to the Treasure (2004-04-23), Higher Level Language (2007-08-17), LISP Lover (2009-10-26), Lisp Curse (2012-11-17), Better than It Has to Be (2019-07-23), ...) - ^z - 2019-08-06