RE: computationalism and supervenience

From: Stathis Papaioannou <>
Date: Mon, 11 Sep 2006 21:39:57 +1000

Peter Jones writes:

> Stathis Papaioannou wrote:
> > Like Bruno, I am not claiming that this is definitely the case, just that it is the case if
> > computationalism is true. Several philosophers (eg. Searle) have used the self-evident
> > absurdity of the idea as an argument demonstrating that computationalism is false -
> > that there is something non-computational about brains and consciousness. I have not
> > yet heard an argument that rejects this idea and saves computationalism.
> [ rolls up sleaves ]
> The idea is easilly refuted if it can be shown that computation doesn't
> require
> interpretation at all. It can also be refuted more circuitously by
> showing that
> computation is not entirely a matter of intepretation. In everythingism
> , eveything
> is equal. If some computations (the ones that don't depend on
> interpretation) are
> "more equal than others", the way is still open for the Somethinginst
> to object
> that interpretation-independent computations are really real, and the
> others are
> mere possibilities.
> The claim has been made that computation is "not much use" without an
> interpretation.
> Well, if you define a computer as somethin that is used by a human,
> that is true.
> It is also very problematic to the computationalist claim that the
> human mind is a computer.
> Is the human mind of use to a human ? Well, yes, it helps us stay alive
> in various ways.
> But that is more to do with reacting to a real-time environment, than
> performing abstract symbolic manipulations or elaborate
> re-interpretations. (Computationalists need to be careful about how
> they define "computer". Under
> some perfectly reasonable definitions -- for instance, defining a
> computer as
> a human invention -- computationalism is trivially false).

I don't mean anything controversial (I think) when I refer to interpretation of
computation. Take a mercury thermometer: it would still do its thing if all
sentient life in the universe died out, or even if there were no sentient life to
build it in the first place and by amazing luck mercury and glass had come together
in just the right configuration. But if there were someone around to observe it and
understand it, or if it were attached to a thermostat and heater, the thermometer
would have extra meaning - the same thermometer, doing the same thermometer
stuff. Now, if thermometers were conscious, then part of their "thermometer
stuff" might include "knowing" what the temperature was - all by themselves, without
benefit of external observer. Furthermore, if thermometers were conscious, they
might be dreaming of temperatures, or contemplating the meaning of consciousness,
again in the absence of external observers, and this time in the absence of interaction
with the real world.

This, then, is the difference between a computation and a conscious computation. If
a computation is unconscious, it can only have meaning/use/interpretation in the eyes
of a beholder or in its interaction with the environment. If a computation is conscious,
it may have meaning/use/interpretation in interacting with its environment, including
other conscious beings, and for obvious reasons all the conscious computations we
encounter will fall into that category; but a conscious computation can also have meaning
all by itself, to itself. You might argue, as Brent Meeker has, that a conscious being would
quickly lose consciousness if environmental interaction were cut off, but I think that is just
a contingent fact about brains, and in any case, as Bruno Marchal has pointed out, you
only need a nanosecond of consciousness to prove the point.

> It is of course true that the output of a programme intended to do one
> thing
> ("system S", say) could be re-interpeted as something else. But what
> does it *mean* ?
> If computationalism is true whoever or whatever is doing the
> interpreting is another
> computational process. SO the ultimate result is formed by system S in
> connjunction
> with another systen. System S is merely acting as a subroutine. The
> Everythingist's
> intended conclusion is that every physical system implements every
> computation.

That's what I'm saying, but I certainly don't think everyone agrees with me on the list, and
I'm not completely decided as to which of the three is more absurd: every physical system
implements every conscious computation, no physical system implements any conscious
computation (they are all implemented non-physically in Platonia), or the idea that a
computation can be conscious in the first place.

> But the evidence -- the re-interpretation scenario -- only supports the
> idea
> that any computational system could become part of a larger system that
> is
> doing something else. System S cannot be said to be simultaneously
> perforiming
> every possible computation *itself*. The multiple-computaton -- i.e
> multiple-interpretation
> -- scenario is dependent on a n intepreter. Having made computation
> dependent
> on interpretation, we cannot the regard the interpreter as redundant,
> so that it
> is all being done by the system itself. (Of course to fulfil the
> "every" in
> "every possible interpretation" you need not just interpreters but
> every possible intepreter, but that is another problem for another
> day..)

Only the unconscious thermometers require external thermometer-readers.

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 Mon Sep 11 2006 - 07:40:54 PDT

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