Objective Computation Versus Subjective Computation
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The question ‘What is computation?’ might seem a trivial one to many, but this is far from being in consensus in philosophy of mind, cognitive science and even in physics. The lack of consensus leads to some interesting, yet contentious, claims, such as that cognition or even the universe is computational. Some have argued, though, that computation is a subjective phenomenon: whether or not a physical system is computational, and if so, which computation it performs, is entirely a matter of an observer choosing to view it as such. According to one view, which we dub bold anti-realist pancomputationalism, every physical object (can be said to) computes every computer program. According to another, more modest view, some computational systems can be ascribed multiple computational descriptions. We argue that the first view is misguided, and that the second view need not entail observer-relativity of computation. At least to a large extent, computation is an objective phenomenon. Construed as a form of information processing, we argue that information-processing considerations determine what type of computation takes place in physical systems.
KeywordsPhysical Object Computational System Truth Table Memory Configuration Instructional Information
I am grateful to Marty Wolf for extremely useful remarks on a previous draft of this paper as well as many discussions on issues raised herein. I thank Graham White for his comments on an early draft of this paper. Several anonymous referees have contributed important insights into the revision process thereby significantly improving this latest version. This research was supported by a Research Fellowship from the Sidney M. Edelstein Centre for History & Philosophy of Science, Technology & Medicine. Part of this research was conducted while I was a visiting fellow at the School of Humanities & Languages, University of New South Wales, Australia. I gratefully acknowledge their support. The usual disclaimer applies: any remaining mistakes are my sole responsibility.
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