RE: computationalism and supervenience

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 2006 13:07:10 +1000

Brent Meeker writes:

[Stathis Papaioannou]
> >>> No, it follows from the idea that anything can be a computation. I think this
> >>> is trivially obvious, like saying any string of apparently random characters
> >>> is a translation of any English sentence of similar or shorter length, and if
> >>> you have the correct dictionary, you can find out what that English sentence
> >>> is.

[Peter Jones]
> >> But that is actually quite a dubious idea. For one thing there is an objective
> >> basis for claiming that one meaning is the "real" meaning, and that is the
> >> meaning intended by the writer.
[Stathis Papaioannou]
> > There might have been a particular meaning intended by the writer, but remember
> > materialism: all you have really is ink on paper, and neither the ink nor the
> > paper knows anything about where it came from or what it means. Suppose a stream
> > of gibberish is created today by the proverbial monkeys typing away randomly, and
> > just by chance it turns out that this makes sense as a novel in a language that
> > will be used one thousand years from now. Is it correct to say that the monkeys'
> > manuscript has a certain meaning today? Or is it meaningless today, but meaningful
> > in a thousand years? If the latter, does it suddenly become meaningful when the
> > new language is defined, or when someone who understands the new language actually
> > reads it? What if the manuscript never comes to light, or if it comes to light and
> > is read but after another thousand years every trace of the language has
> > disappeared?
> >
> > I don't think it makes sense to say that the manuscript has intrinsic meaning;
> > rather, it has meaning in the mind of an observer. Similarly, with a computation
> > implemented on a computer, I don't think it makes sense to say that it has meaning
> > except in its interaction with the environment or in the mind of an observer.
> But then, as you'v noted before, you can regard the environment+computer as a bigger
> computer with no external interaction.
> You've used this argument as a reductio absurdum against the idea that a manuscript
> or any arbitrary object has a meaning. Yet you seem to accept the similar argument
> that any object implements a computation - given the right
> "dictionary/interpretation/manual".

Perhaps I have been inconsistent in my use of terms. What I meant is that any object implements
a computation, but in a useless/trivial/meaningless way unless it interacts with an environment or is
understood by a conscious observer. But now that I think about it, we can arbitrarily say that the
left half of the object is the computer and the right half is the environment with which it interacts -
which is again true in a useless/trivial/meaningless way. The answer would seem to be that "meaning"
is not a concept that is basic to physics, but exists only in the mind of a conscious observer. That can
be an external observer or, if the computer is self-aware, itself. The same could be said of the terms
"trivial" and "elegant" applied to mathematical theorems: they are only meaningful to mathematicians,
not basic to mathematics.

[Stathis Papaioannou]
> >Any
> > string of characters or any physical process can be seen as implementing a
> > language or a computation, if you have the right "dictionary". There is a very
> > interesting special case of this if we allow that some computations can be
> > self-aware, in the absence of any environmental interaction or external observer:
> > by definition, they are their own observer and thus they bootstrap themselves into
> > consciousness.

> Suppose some computation, such as what's happening in your brain, implements
> consciousness. How much could it be changed and still be conscious? Could we slice
> it up into segments and rearrange them? How long a segment? Is there "something it
> is like" to be conscious and insane? I think if we can answer this and then limit
> our discussion to sane consciousness then some of these theoretical possibilities go
> away.

If every computation is implemented everywhere anyway, this is equivalent to the situation where every
computation exists as a platonic object, or every computation exists implemented on some computer or
brain in a material multiverse. This gives rise to the issues of quantum immortality and the white rabbit
problem, as discussed at great length in the past on this list.

One way to discredit all this foolishness is to abandon computationalism...

[Stathis Papaioannou]
> >>> We might say in the above cases that the burden of the computation shifts from
> >>> the physical activity of the computer to the information in the manual. The
> >>> significance of this is that the manual is static, and need not even be
> >>> instantiated if we don't care about interacting with the computer: it is a
> >>> mathematical object residing in Platonia.
> But the manual - or a look-up table - is timeless, while computation is a process. It
> depends on being presented a sequence of inputs. I see no reason give up this
> distinction between computation and mathematical object. To equate them seems to me
> to beg the question of whether computation can be a mathematical object in Platonia.

The dynamism part can be provided by a simple physical system such as the idle passage of time.
If you allow for parallel processing you don't need much time either. This leads to a situation whereby
every computation is implemented by universe with a single electron enduring for a nanosecond, for
example. I can't quite see how to get rid of the electron, but Maudlin's and Bruno's conclusion from
this seems to be that it is absurd and implies that the mental does not actually supervene on the physical.

Stathis Papaioannou
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Received on Sat Sep 02 2006 - 23:09:01 PDT

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