Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Subject Matter

The field is inchoate.  The questions are disparate.  No syllabus synthesized from long tradition is available.  We need a focus, a jumping-off point.

Many working at an intersections of philosophy and computer science would assume that the proper subject matter of a course in the Philosophy of Computer Science is thinking machines-- that is, artificial intelligence (general AI), philosophy of mind, and epistemology, enjoying the light shed on these matters in this Turing Centenary year.  Indeed, this would be an appropriate theme.

The article entitled "Philosophy of Computer Science" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, by Turner and Eden [1], starts with a nice list of questions, and discusses mostly those issues concerned with programs-- semantics, specification-implementation-verification, and behavior.  Indeed, these would also be appropriate themes.

Issues regarding standards and licensing for the professions of computer science and software engineering give rise to interesting ethical questions, including the rights and responsibilities of the programmer; these also probe the relationship of computer science to other professions.  Data collection raises issues of privacy and security. And these too would be appropriate themes.

My dissertation adviser, Bill Rapaport, of the University at Buffalo, taught an undergrad/grad course on "Philosophy of Computer Science" [2], covering classic questions, and I myself taught a sophomore cross-disciplinary course called "Qualities of Quantities," centering on discrete math topics and computability.  Oxford University offers a new degree in "Computer Science and Philosophy" for either a bachelor's or master's, rooted in the mathematical intersection.  I see others worthy of investigation, as well, in the form of individual courses, conferences, talks, and papers.  

Although some precedents do exist, none exactly fill the bill.  I seek to draw out questions that are fresh, vivid, and approachable by undergraduates.  To expand the possible subject matter before selecting a theme, let's ask how else the traditional concerns of philosophy play out in computer science.

Computer Science Adaptation of Traditional Philosophical Concern: Aesthetics

Is computer science ugly?  Sterile?  Why do mechanistic procedures, which block emotional manipulation and influence, scare people?  What does steampunk tell us about the aesthetics of computation?  Or of technology?  How about the visions of technology presented by classical science fiction?  Does the beauty of mathematics encompass the beauty of computer science?  Are there any good computer science jokes?  What makes an algorithm "elegant"?  What makes computer scientists "geeky"? 

Computer Science Adaptation of Traditional Philosophical Concern: Metaphysics

Is computation the same as technology?  What is the space, in the realms of technology, or mechanistic devices, that is occupied by computation?  Is it exhaustive; is the universe a computer?  How do we tell?  What does it mean to be a computer?  Does everything that shows cause and effect, or inputs and outputs, or changed states, like the wind, like organic growth, compute?  What sort of object is a program?  What sort of object is an algorithm? Is the ontology of algorithms (or programs) like the ontology of theorems (or proofs) in mathematics?

Computer Science Interpretation of Traditional Philosophical Concern: Ethics

Does transfer from paper to electronic forms affect our view of data and its proper treatment; to what extent is our view of the proper treatment of data influenced by the limitations of the paper medium?   Is computing a resource, like others, that should be deployed judiciously, and otherwise conserved?  In addition to the privacy questions regarding data collection, who is responsible for that data's accuracy, maintenance over time, dissemination for the public good, and archiving?  Can data be owned?  Can an idea be owned?  Can its tangible forms be owned?  What are the tangible forms?  Does computing have a universal purpose?  Should it?  What is the effect of heavy venture-capital funding directed to the entertainment and marketing applications of computer science?  When posterity looks back at this early Information Age, will they think that we did something terribly wrong, and if so, what? 

[1] Turner, Raymond and Eden, Amnon, "The Philosophy of Computer Science", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2011/entries/computer-science/>.

[2]  Rapaport, William F., "What is the Philosophy of Computer Science?", Website, URL = <http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/whatisphilcs.html>.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting questions, Robin! I suggest that you focus on one or two of them, together with other questions that would logically follow from them. That's what I did with my course, beginning with "What is CS?", then asking whether it's about computers or computing, whether it's a science or something else. Then: If it's about computers, what are they? If it's about computing, what's that? And so on. Take a look at my course website at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/ and especially the syllabus at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/S10/syl.html , the "directory of documents" at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/S10/directory.html , the reading assignments at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/S10/readings.html , and the writing assignments at http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/584/S10/pospapers.html

    My article describing the course is online at: