The year 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the introduction of IBM’s first Personal Computer (PC), the IBM 5150. Since then, computers have risen from a novelty to a ubiquitous fixture of modern life, with a transformative impact on nearly all aspects of work and leisure alike.
It is perhaps this ubiquity that prevents us from stopping to ponder the essentially mysterious powers of the computer, the same way a fish might not ponder the nature of the water it is immersed in.
By ‘mysterious powers’, I don’t mean the impressive capabilities modern computers offer, in terms of, say, data storage and manipulation—while it is no doubt remarkable that even consumer grade devices today are able to beat the best human players at chess, and the engineering behind such feats is miraculous, there is nothing mysterious about this ability.
No, what is mysterious is instead the feat of computation itself: a computer is, after all, a physical object; while a computation, say something straightforward like calculating the sum of two numbers, operates on abstract objects. Therefore, the question arises: how does the computer qua physical system connect to abstract objects, like numbers? Does it reach, somehow, into the Platonic realm itself? To the extend that computers can use the result of computations to drive machinery, they seem to present a bridge by which the abstract can have concrete physical effects. Read more »
Meet Hubert. For going on ten years now, Hubert has shared a living space with my wife and me. He’s a generally cheerful fellow, optimistic to a fault, occasionally prone to a little mischief; in fact, my wife, upon seeing the picture, remarked that he looked inordinately well-behaved. He’s fond of chocolate and watching TV, which may be the reason why his chief dwelling place is our couch, where most of the TV-watching and chocolate-eating transpires. He also likes to dance, is curious, but sometimes gets overwhelmed by his own enthusiasm.
Of course, you might want to object: Hubert is neither of these things. He doesn’t genuinely like anything, he doesn’t have any desire for chocolate, he can’t dance, much less enjoy doing so. Hubert, indeed, is afflicted by a grave handicap: he isn’t real. He can only like what I claim he likes; he only dances if I (or my wife) animate him; he can’t really eat chocolate, or watch TV. But Hubert is an intrepid, indomitable spirit: he won’t let such a minor setback as his own non-existence stop him from having a good time.
And indeed, the matter, once considered, is not necessarily that simple. Hubert’s beliefs and desires are not my beliefs and desires: I don’t always like the same shows, and I’m not much for dancing (although I confess we’re well-aligned in our fondness of chocolate). The question is, then, whom these beliefs and desires belong to. Are they pretend-beliefs, beliefs falsely attributed? Are they beliefs without a believer? Or, for a more radical option, does the existence of these beliefs imply the existence of some entity holding them? Read more »