RE: computationalism and supervenience

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Sun, 3 Sep 2006 21:53:38 +1000

Brent meeker writes:

> Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> >
> >
> >
> > 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...
> I don't see how assuming consciousness is non-computational solves any of these
> conundrums about every object implementing every possible computation. ISTM that
> it's acceptable to say an object implements a computation - a rock "computes" what a
> rock does in repsonse to "input", i.e. it's interaction with the environment. The
> problem arises when we suppose there are "meanings" tha can be associated with this
> (thru dictionaries or manuals) so that it is computing something with a "meaning".
> If we say that "meaning" is something we make up, and it is never in the objects
> outside our heads, not in computers and not in manuals; then the problem disappears.

I mostly agree with what you say. Every physical object implements every computation in a trivial sense, like
every dictionary contains every novel in a trivial sense. The interesting thing is when meaning is attached to
words or computations by an observer, which involves picking a subset of all the words or all the computations,
for example by extracting pure silicon from the rock, doping it with other elements, attaching conductors, etc.
None of this is problematic - until we consider consciousness. Suppose you find a machine of alien manufacture
which goes chugalug, chugalug when you plug it in. You find the manual, and realise by observing the details
of its internal states that when it makes this noise, it's calculating pi. However, you realise that there is another
possible manual, which may or may not actually exist, under the interpretation of which the device is calculating
e. So what is it doing, calculating pi or calculating e? Perhaps the answer is both, but it isn't meanigful or
interesting unless you have the relevant manual (most likely the manual according to which it is calculating pi
will be simpler, but that's just a contingent fact about how engineers work). Now, what if the machine is
implementing a self-aware computation? Again you would need the manual to observe it (and perhaps to
communicate with it), and again you can see that if you had a different manual you might be able to observe
a different self-aware computation. From you point of view which computation the machine implements is the
same as the pi/e situation, meaningless unless you have the relevant manual. But from the computation's point
of view, which manual you have or whether there is a manual at all is irrelevant: it is still *self-aware* by definition.
So *if* there is some interpretation under which a physical system implements a conscious computation, *then*
that conscious computation is implemented, even though it might be cut off from interacting with the world in
which the substrate of its implementation exists. Moreover, the computation may be nested many layers up from
the physical substrate, emulation upon emulation upon emulation, and we who believe ourselves to be grounded
in physical reality cannot be sure that we are not actually one of these emulations, selected out because its
isomorphism with physical reality provides the moment to moment stability required for a sane mind enduring in time.

Stathis Papaioannou
Be one of the first to try Windows Live Mail.
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "Everything List" group.
To post to this group, send email to
To unsubscribe from this group, send email to
For more options, visit this group at
Received on Sun Sep 03 2006 - 07:55:29 PDT

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Fri Feb 16 2018 - 13:20:12 PST