Learning to program in a given language requires a non-trivial amount of time. This seems to be agreed upon as a good use of LessWrongers' time.
Each language may be more useful than others for particular purposes. However, like e.g. the choice of donation to a particular charity, we shouldn't expect the trade-offs of focusing on one versus another not to exist.
Suppose I know nothing about programming... And I want to make a choice about what language to pick up beyond merely what sounds cool at the time. In short I would want to spend my five minutes on the problem before jumping to a solution.
As an example of the dilemma, if I spend my time learning Scheme or Lisp, I will gain a particular kind of skill. It won't be a very directly marketable one, but it could (in theory) make me a better programmer. "Code as lists" is a powerful perspective -- and Eric S. Raymond recommends learning Lisp for this reason.
Forth (or any similar concatenative language) presents a different yet similarly powerful perspective, one which encourages extreme factorization and use of small well-considered definitions of words for frequently reused concepts.
Python encourages object oriented thinking and explicit declaration. Ruby is object oriented and complexity-hiding to the point of being almost magical.
If a newbie programmer focuses on any of these they will come out of it a different kind of programmer. If a competent programmer avoids one of these things they will avoid different kinds of costs as well as different kinds of benefits.
Is it better to focus on one path, avoiding contamination from others?
Is it better to explore several simultaneously, to make sure you don't miss the best parts?
Which one results in converting time to dollars the most quickly?
Which one most reliably converts you to a higher value programmer over a longer period of time?
What other caveats are there?
As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a good programmer who knows only one programming language.
There just isn't. The nature of the field is that raw computation is quite alien to ordinary human thought; and that the best way to get anything even remotely resembling a reasonable grasp on it is to come at it from multiple angles.
You should know about functional abstraction, which you're not going to get very much of out of C or Perl, but you might get out of Lisp or Haskell.
You should know something about how the machine operates, which you're not going to get out of Java, Python, or Haskell, but you might get out of C, Forth, or assembly. And reading about the actual architecture you're working on. (It's easier to do this on a dinky architecture. I recommend 8-bit AVR microcontrollers.)
You should be eager to reuse other people's code to solve your problems, which you'll learn from an open-source, big-library language like Python, Perl, or Ruby, but probably not from a small, standardized language like C or Scheme.
You should learn about data structures, which you'll only get deeply if you have to implement them yourself, which is really only something you do in a CS class ... (read more)
I eagerly await the most rational toothpaste thread.
I think it has been mentioned before, but it bears repeating, please don't use "most rational" in titles. Just ask for the best programming language and describe your needs.
Snark isn't the same as rationality.
Let's break it down, shall we? The comment contains the following three things:
And you think this is more rational than the detailed, respectful, intelligent comments made by people who actually thought about the questions for five minutes and shared their expertise?
Maybe it's obvious to you that having "most rational X" in the title is stupid. And to be honest in hindsight it seems a bit silly to me as well, now that I have explicitly thought about the reasons for it. But it wasn't obvious when I wrote it, and it surely isn't self-evident to everybody.
I'm not against setting up norms and rules, and yes they are gonna change on people, and yes people need to be humiliated from time to time for breaking them flagrantly, but it's simply unfair to make humiliating jokes in retaliation for breaking ... (read more)
It turns out to be fart jokes. I have an elegant proof of this, but it is too long to fit in a comment.
I'm pretty sure the short answer is: Become really good at Python. Learn additional languages if you want to solve a problem Python isn't good for, you want to learn programming concepts Python doesn't facilitate, you want to work on a project that isn't in Python, etc.
Everyone says you should start with Python. Everyone's right. It's a beautiful language in which you can write good, concise, elegant code. Lots and lots of shops use it.
If you want to learn a second language, to give yourself some sense of the diversity available, I'd recommend Haskell. I think Haskell conplements Python nicely because a) it's nicely designed and b) it's almost nothing at all like python. It's fantastically strict where Python is fantastically permissive. It's functional where Python's object-oriented, etc.
I honestly don't know what the best Python tutorial is -- I learned from a handful. The best Haskell tutorial in the world is Learn You a Haskell for Great Good
Learning multiple programming languages will broaden your perspective and will make you a better and more flexible programmer over time.
If you are new and learning on your own, you should focus on one language at a time. Pick a project to work on and then pick the language you are going to use. I like to code a Mandelbrot set image generator in each language I learn.
If you make your dollars only from the finished product, then pick the language with the highest productivity for your target platform and problem domain. This will probably be a garbage collecting language with a clean syntax, with a good integrated development environment, and with a large available set of libraries.
Right now this will probably be Python, Java or C#.
If you make your dollars by producing lines of code for a company, then you will want to learn a language that is heavily used. There is generally a large demand for C++, C#, Java, Python, and PHP programmers. Companies in ... (read more)
Languages are for completing tasks, and each has varying strengths and weaknesses for different tasks. What specifically do you want to be able to do?
If you are a scientist or engineer who needs to quickly and accurately answer questions from quantitative data or perform statistical inference, R is the way to go. It also has a great interactive command line with powerful data visualization tools and plotting functions. The experience of "playing with" and manipulating data to quickly ask questions, and consider the data in different ways directly... (read more)
Just today, there was a post at Coding Horror, which was itself a follow up to another excellent post, about whether or not learning a programming language is a good use of your time. I think you should read those before you get too invested in the idea of teaching yourself how to program.
Learn assembly, C, and Scheme, in that order.
Start by learning assembly for some small, manageable microcontroller, like PIC16 (if they still sell those) or a low-end Atmel, preferably one that you could wire up yourself. Prove to yourself that you can make LEDs light up by writing bits to ports. This will give you a good understanding of what computers actually do behind the scenes.
Follow that up with C, for your desktop machine. Implement some common data structures like linked lists and binary trees (you could do it in assembly as well, but it'd be too ... (read more)
I recommend outright reversal of the above process. If you absolutely must learn assembly language, do it once you can already program. The same applies to other excessively low level languages with a lot of emphasis on memory management rather than semantic expression.
Time to dollars: Python. Ubiquitous, powerful enough, useful for everything, has a friendly learning curve but also a wide variety of concepts in the language.
Highest-value programmer: Probably C, but it's sort of a moot point because I don't think there's a way to become a programmer of above-average value without becoming pretty competent in two or three languages along the way.
Caveats: I'm pretty sure that it varies a great deal based on your inclination and logical ability going in.
If a programming language has nothing new to teach you, it is not worth learning. For this reason, it is probably a good idea to learn multiple ones that are "conceptually orthogonal" to each other. Examples:
lisp (code-as-data, syntax vs semantics, metaprogramming)
prolog (declarative programming)
a simple RISC assembly language (machine details, stack vs heap)
haskell (functional programming, type inference, lazy evaluation, monadic theory, type classes)
ruby (message passing, object oriented programming, regular expressions)
APL (concise syntax, vector programming, non-ascii programs)
A question regarding your title: are you looking for the programming language that best teaches rationalist thinking (if there is one in particular)? Or are you asking for a more general analysis of what the various languages are best at?
Regardless, as a novice programmer (I'm taking my first Java class right now), I would be interested in hearing what LW's opinions are. I chose Java because I wanted to develop Android apps, and because of the large number of jobs calling for Java programmers in my area.
I'm fond of Perl as a first language, for a couple of reasons. Foremost among them is that Perl is fun and easy, so it serves as a gentle introduction to programming (and modules) that's easy to stick with long enough to catch the bug, and it's versatile in that it can be used for webapps or for automating system tasks or just for playing around. But I wouldn't recommend making it anybody's only language, because it IS a scripting language and consequently encourages a sort of sloppy wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am approach to coding. Start with it, learn the bas... (read more)
I have no interest in evaluating languages based on how quickly they lead to money; only how they affect your ability to program. Additionally, I am not particularly experienced. I've only been programming for three or four years. Take my words with a grain of salt.
I remember one semester in college where I was using three separate programming languages at the same time. VB, Java, and Assembly (16-bit x86). Sometimes it lead to a small amount of confusion, but it was still a good experience. I would suggest beginning a second language soon after achieving ... (read more)
There's a dilemma here which is present in teaching a lot of skills: do you want your hypothetical students to be building useful things quickly, or do you want them to be internalising concepts that will last them a lifetime?
If it's the former, just give people a solvable problem and let them pick their own tools. If it's the latter, start them off with some verbose compiled unforgiving strongly-typed beast like C or Java. They're best learnt in a training environment rather than on the fly, so if you have a training environment, it makes sense to learn them there. It's easier to go from, say, Java to Python than it is to go in the other direction.
My personal recommendation is Visual Basic, assuming you use Excel for anything beyond recording what you ate for breakfast. VB extends the functionality of it ten fold, if you know a few basic things. It has the added bonus of being a very easy language to learn, the syntax is pretty much English. That being said, no company is ever going to use VB as a real programming language, but it sounds like employment is not your goal.
Edit: Also, it's important to note that (at least I don't think) any language is going to teach rationality any better than any other. It's not like programming changes very much, for most purposes, it's just different syntax.
Relevant xkcd. It is important to realize that a good programming language doesn't help if the thoughts are confused. This often matters much more than the language choice.