RE: computationalism and supervenience

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 2006 20:17:53 +1000

Peter Jones writes:

> Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> > Peter Jones writes:
> >
> > > Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> > > > Peter Jones writes:
> > > >
> > > > > The requirement that computations require counterfactuals isn't
> > > > > ad hoc, it comes from the observation that computer programmes
> > > > > include if-then statements.
> > > > >
> > > > > The idea that everyting is conscious unless there is a good
> > > > > reason it isn't -- *that* is ad hoc!
> > > >
> > > > 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.
> > >
> > > 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.
> >
> > 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?
> If the "intention" criterion is correct it doesn't.
> What is your point ?
> > 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?
> If it was created intentionally, it had a menaing. The fact that the
> meaning
> can become lost does not affect that.
> > 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.
> Why should computations have meaning at all ?
> Maybe the criteria for something being a computation
> are different fromt he criteria for something being a written message.
> > Any string of characters or any physical process can be seen as implementing a language or
> > a computation, if you have the right "dictionary".
> Not by the intentionallity criterion.

I think the meaning can lie with the reader as well as the writer. If you find a piece of paper with something
written on it in English, then later discover that it was written by someone illiterate in that language who was
just stringing random letters together, we could say that the message does not contain the meaning intended by
the writer, but that is not the same as saying that it has no meaning at all.
> > 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.
> Assuming that computation requires interpretation. Maybe it doesn't.

Computation is like the message on the paper in that it has potential meaning only until someone interprets it. I'm
not that fussed if you say "potential meaning" is a type of "meaning", but in any case the potential meaning of a
message or a computation is not very interesting until it is observed and understood. In this scheme, the computations
that can observe themselves are marked as special in having actual (as opposed to potential) meaning without an
external observer.

> > > For another, your translations would have to be complex
> > > and arbitrary, which goes against the ususal modus operandi
> > > of seeking simple and consistent explanations.
> >
> > It may be inefficient, but that does not mean it is invalid.
> It *is* invalid by the standards of physical science.

There is a difference between validity and efficiency. Cutting a tunnel through a mountain with a teaspoon
might be foolish, but it is not in the slightest degree less theoretically possible because of that.
> > > > This is analogous to finding an alien computer which, when power is applied,
> > > > is set into motion like an inscrutable Rube Goldberg machine. If you get your hands on the
> > > > computer manual, you might be able to decipher the machine's activity as calculating pi.
> > >
> > > You might not need the manual. Numbers don't
> > > have arbitrary semantics in the same way words do.
> > > That's why SETI uses mathematical transmissions.
> >
> > Mathematical truths are eternal and observer-independent, but mathematical notation certainly is not.
> > SETI assumes that there will likely be greater similarities in how different species express mathematical
> > statements than in their non-mathematical communication.
> Something that would only be possible if maths did not have
> the same arbitrary semantics as natural language.

I think the advantage of mathematics is that there would be more universal agreement on mathematical
theorems, and the notation and syntax is inherently simpler than natural language.
> > There is nothing to stop the aliens using a
> > mathematical notation that varies according to the moods of their emperor or something, making their
> > broadcasts of mathematical theorems seem completely random to us.
> If they understood the nature of mathematics, they would
> realise that their approach *is* arbitrary.

But it could be done. They might broadcast the decimal expansion of pi by multiplying the nth digit by the least
significant digit of the emperor's mass on the nth hour of his life, because everyone knows that is what you
have to do if you want to send a message to God. It's pretty stupid, but then there are apparently educated
people today who are convinced the world was created in six days, and most of them probably live in America.
> > Maybe that's why we haven't
> > recognised them yet.
> > > It is also something Everythingist arguments rely on.
> > > You can't exist as a computation in a numbers-only universe
> > > if computations require external interpretation.
> >
> > The computation is a mathematical object that exists in Platonia. The implementation of a computation on
> > a physical computer so that we can observe it is something else. It is like the difference between the
> > number 3 and a collection of 3 oranges.
> Do computations require intpretation or don't they ? You seem to
> have come down on both sides of the question.

They require interpretation to be useful, meaningful or non-trivial. They don't require interpretation to simply be.
> > > > Moreover,
> > > > you might be able to reach inside and shift a few gears or discharge a few capacitors and make it
> > > > calculate e instead, utilising the fact that the laws of physics determine that if the inputs change,
> > > > the outputs will change (which, I trust you will agree, is the actual physical basis of the if-then
> > > > statements).
> > >
> > >
> > >
> > > > Now, in human languages as in machine design, there are certain regularities to make things
> > > > easier for user. It might be possible, albeit difficult, to decipher a foreign language or figure out
> > > > what an alien computer is computing by looking for these regularities. However, it is not necessary
> > > > that there be any pattern at all: the characters in the unknown language may change in meaning
> > > > every time they appear in the string in accordance with a random number generator, a cryptographic
> > > > method called a "one-time pad". Similarly, the meaning of the physical states of the alien computer
> > > > could change with each clock cycle according to some random number sequence, so that if you had
> > > > the key you could figure out that the computer was calculating pi, but if you did not its activity would
> > > > seem random.
> > >
> > > Assuming that computational states have an external semantics like
> > > words.
> >
> > Of course they do. Does Intel or Microsoft follow some universal rule of computer design?
> What has that got to do with anything ? If computation
> has no external semantics then there are not Intel
> semantics or microsoft semantics.

If computation on a computer has no arbitrary semantics then every computer built in the universe should be
basically the same.

> > Any computer
> > can be emulated on a UTM, but that doesn't mean the computer can't be based on otrageously bizarre
> > and unpredictable rules, inscrutable to anyone not in the know.
> *That* doesn't mean that implementing a computation
> in an uneccearily complicated way turns it inot
> a different computation.
> 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 is just a complicated
> way of writing 17, not some completely different number.

Sure, the computation is the same (although I find it much harder to imagine the computation as a pure Platonic
object than I do numbers), but its expression and implementation are infinitely variable.

Stathis Papaioannou
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Received on Sun Sep 03 2006 - 06:19:45 PDT

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