Dijkstra versus Perlis (updated)

Bertrand Russell.

Bertrand Russell.

Dijkstra wrote:

He [Perlis] published a very obnoxious paper arguing against a mathematical approach to programming cite

The paper  by De Millo, Lipton and Perlis  starts as follows:

Many people have argued that computer programming should strive to become more like mathematics. Maybe so, but not in the way they seem to think. The aim of program verification, an attempt to make programming more mathematics-like, is to increase dramatically one’s confidence in the correct functioning of a piece of software, and the device that verifiers use to achieve this goal is a long chain of formal, deductive logic. In mathematics, the aim is to increase one’s confidence in the correctness of a theorem, and it’s true that one of the devices mathematicians could in theory use to achieve this goal is a long chain of formal logic. But in fact they don’t. What they use is a proof, a very different animal. Nor does the proof settle the matter; contrary to what its name suggests, a proof is only one step in the direction of confidence. We believe that, in the end, it is a social process that determines whether mathematicians feel confident about a theorem–and we believe that, because no comparable social process can take place among program verifiers, program verification is bound to fail.

To me, the problem with Dijkstra is that he was so sharp and such a good writer that he was able to make persuasive cases out of obviously wrong ideas. Dijkstra wanted to be a scientist in the model of theoretical physics, not an engineer. I’m pretty confident that Dijkstra was wrong: programming is engineering – in fact, physics is not as far from engineering as some people would like to believe. I’m not a huge fan of the engineering discipline as it exists in the USA. It has all sorts of negative aspects – including those Dijkstra railed against. But the vision of a programmer as, not a mathematician, but a formal logician flying far above the grubby compromises and trade-offs of mere engineering in a platonic bubble of pure reasoning is wrongheaded.

Dijkstra published some criticism of the Demillo paper at the time and in their response the authors stated something that, as far as I know, remains true

We must begin by refusing to concede that our confidence in a piece of real software has ever been increased by a proof of its correctness

When I was in graduate school (a long time ago), a famous formal methods sctandem_mugholar came for a talk and explained to us that formal methods were needed if we were ever going to develop fault tolerant software. I pointed out that, for example, the Tandem Software worked pretty well in practice. “It cannot”, retorted the famous scholar.

So there.

Here’s Edsger Dijkstra discussing the birth of the use of axiomatics in computer science – the start of “formal methods” research.  What’s striking is the assumed choice between “axiomatic” and “mechanistic” as if there was no other way. In a later note he writes:

And now we are back at our old dilemma. Either we take by definition all properties of the model as relevant, or we specify in one way or another which of its properties are the relevant ones. In the first case we have failed to introduce in the name of “divide et impera” an interface that would allow us to divide and rule and the study of how we could build upon the (only implicitly defined) interface seems bound to deteriorate into a study of the model itself; in the second case we are again close to the axiomatic method….


Or, to put it in another way: if the traditional automata theory tends to make us insensitive to the role interfaces could and should play in coping with complex designs, should it then (continue to) occupy a central position in computing science curricula?

And I’m struck by the idea  that seems utterly wrong to me, that one either uses the methods of formal logic OR one is stuck without any ability to abstract or underspecify,  And it’s also interesting to see this impoverished view of automata theory that underpins so much of the formal methods literature.

The reason mathematics has advanced so much was not because of the Euclidean axioms-lemma-theorem straitjacket, but in spite of it. Luckily, when we actually discover mathematics, we do it the Babylonian way, empirically and algorithmically. It is only when it is time to present it, that we put on the stifling Greek formal attire.

so says Doron Zeilberger


Updated:  with minor format improvements 2/16/2016 and merged with an earlier article 10.2.2016 Erev RH.

2 Comments on Dijkstra versus Perlis (updated)

  1. “We must begin by refusing to concede that our confidence in a piece of real software has ever been increased by a proof of its correctness” – sounds very defensive, childish almost

  2. to me it’s “the emperor has no clothes”, which is, I guess, childish.

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