Programming, A Cognitive Systems Perspective

Computer science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra published a set of  aphorisms that reflected his solid belief that one’s choice of programming language affects the cognitive capabilities of the programmer. The more colorful phrases included, “The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offense” and “The tools we use have a profound (and devious!) influence on our thinking habits, and, therefore, on our thinking abilities” (Dijkstra 1982). Although never directly referenced by Dijkstra, the comments imply a belief in a “language is thought” hypothesis such as those championed by Benjamin Whorf  (Carroll 1997) .

The degree to which spoken language influences thought is intensely debated, with Steven Pinker amongst the most outspoken of Whorfian hypothesis critics. Daniel Casasanto (2008) refutes the popular anti-Whorfian stance proclaimed by Pinker on the grounds that Pinker’s claims are too broad in scope. Casasanto argues that one must distinguish between an Orwellian flavor of the hypothesis, where language and thought are formal equivalences, and linguistic relativism where language and thought simply influence one another. Although Pinker’s assertions may successfully challenge an Orwellian interpretation of Whorf, extending the argument to ‘weaker’ forms of the hypothesis, such as linguistic relativism, is logically fallacious (Casasanto 2008).

The degree to which programming languages in particular influence cognition has received little attention. An informal survey conducted by Richard Wexelblat (1980) revealed that  some programmers believe certain languages can interfere with abstract forms of reasoning such as data-structure design and high level engineering activities. Wexelblat expressed his personal concern over the popularity of “do it quick and dirty” languages, such as BASIC, and the generation of students indoctrinated to them. Although interesting, the usefulness of such self-reports is extremely limited. Accordingly, Wexelblat concludes with a call for controlled studies on the subject. Unfortunately, to my knowledge no such study has ever been conducted. Indeed, it’s likely that an experimental approach to such research is not yet sufficiently developed.

A strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis is likely an inappropriate foundation for considering the interaction between the mind of a programmer and a programming language. The language is not the programmer’s thought. Minimally, the language is the cumulative thoughts of many contributors under many transformations. However, a weaker version of the hypothesis may provide a starting point for the study of how programming languages influence the cognition of the programmer. However, significant definition needs to occur prior to applying a Whorfian-like hypothesis to programming languages. Here are some points I’ve identified.

1. Definition and scope of the term ‘language’. Certainly, programming languages are simpler than natural languages. There are closed definitions for the syntax and semantics for programming languages. One may assert that the set of all closed language definitions is the definition of language in the context of programmer-machine interactions. However, this definition is far too narrow as the programmer rarely interacts with the language specification itself. Rather, the interactive elements include emergent properties of the language, such as graphical and syntactical abstractions. Therefore, a useful definition of language in this domain must include all abstractions that carry meaning for the programmer including atomic elements such as keywords up to highly composite elements like user interface components. Developing a clear and agreeable definition will be challenging.

2. Capturing differences in state or state changes. This involves some method of objectively measuring changes in the programmer’s behavior due to changes in the ‘language’; using the broader form of definition above. These could be changes in the structure of the language that influences adaptive behavior on the part of the programmer or changes in the ‘behavior of the language’. Therefore, operationalized metrics must be established that represent an abstract measure of machine/language state and human state.

One could begin with high level programming language qualities such as type system, syntactical style, binding style, etc. and measure how a programmer’s approach to problem solving changes after continued exposure and use of a language that sits at a particular point on this qualitative coordinate system. One method that may be used to examine changes in the programmer’s state, in order to infer changes in problem solving strategy, is examination of their semantic network via lexical decision tasks at different intervals of language exposure time. Such tasks are used to measure word or concept availability in the domain of natural language (McNamara 2005).

If such experiments demonstrated a link between semantic network changes in the programmer that appeared programming language specific then Dijkstra’s intuition that a programming language influences a programmer’s thought processes gains validity. It follows that such influences would form a loop between the programmer and the machine/language forming a cognitive system where the behavior of the programmer influences the language behavior which influences the programmers behavior and so forth. The practical applications of such findings would include renewed appreciation of programming language diversity and help elucidate the relative strengths and weaknesses of language properties with respect to how they combine with the programmer to solve problems.

Carroll J.B. (Ed.). (1997). Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Casasanto D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslingual Differences in Temporal Language and Thought. Language Learning. 58(Suppl. 1), 63-79.

Dijkstra E.W. (1982). Selected Writings on Computing: A Personal Perspective. (pp. 129-131). New York, NY.: Springer-Verlag.

McNamara T.P. (2005). Semantic Priming, perspectives from memory and word recognition. New York, NY.: Taylor & Francis Group.

Wexelblat R.L. (1980). The consequences of one’s first programming language. Proceedings of the 3rd ACM SIGSMALL symposium and the first SIGPC symposium on Small systems. 52-55.

2 thoughts on “Programming, A Cognitive Systems Perspective

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