When the word “computer science” is uttered, few people think of philosophy or poetry. Similarly, few people know that the “father of computer science”, Alan Turing, was also a philosopher, or that the “mother of computer science”, Ada Lovelace, was also a poet. Amongst the glamour and wads of cash at nearby Silicon Valley, the history of computer science is rarely discussed, and the motivations of major thinkers frequently forgotten. This is a shame, because what motivated these thinkers were in fact not money nor glamour but some of the most universal, basic, visceral questions such as
I propose to consider the question, can machines think?
[I will have] the most harmoniously disciplined troops; – consisting of vast numbers, and marching in irresistible power to the sound of Music. Is not this very mysterious?…But then, what are these Numbers? There is a riddle –
(Ada Lovelace, at her deathbed)
The neglect of philosophical motivations is doubly a shame because, decades since its founders’ deaths, computer science has steadily advanced its light, and we are now in a much better position to start answering these questions! Some ideas from theoretical computer science, such as uncomputability, P vs. NP, and quantum computing, have slowly seeped into such diverse areas of thought as child development, strange loops, language, evolution, culture, epistemology, metaphysics, morality, and on and on. But the idea that computer science has philosophical roots and implications has been slow to be snuggled into the cultural zeitgeist.
We lament not so much the lack of discussion on the philosophy of computation, but the lack of awareness that such discussions are even possible. Because of the lack of awareness, computer science is instead frequently viewed as materialistic, elitist, and a means to an end. We want to foster an academic culture where a sizable portion of students are actively talking about the philosophy of computation, so that computer science becomes more of an end in itself. We believe such a culture will not only provide a major motivation to study computer science for many more people, but also make the department more welcoming to people of diverse backgrounds, diverse viewpoints, and diverse areas of focus and competence.
But what’s so special about the philsophy of computation, and why should anyone care? After all, philosophy is abstruse and elitist, and has nothing to do with our lives anyway.
We believe computation as a lens for asking philosophical questions is unique in that it is quantitative, formal, and exact. Because the lens is mathematical and thus universal, diverse cultural viewpoints can be respected and understood – a major problem in philosophy, currently plagued by a glaring diversity problem.
Another compelling reason is that, probably sometime soon, everybody will have to deal with the philosophical implications of computation: some seventy years since Turing posed his question, Can machines think?, an answer is now approaching us at a seemingly relentless pace. And then there’s the exciting part, of course, that the computational lens leads to completely unexpected answers to our philosophical questions, answers that threaten to turn our intuitions about the world completely upside down.
We are a student organization and nonprofit based at the University of California, Berkeley, dedicated to furthering the philosophy of computation. We are not armchair philosophers. On the contrary: in this moment of political crisis, we seek to lead the direction of contemporary political discourse with fresh new interdisciplinary ideas.