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The Philosophy of Computer Science (2013) (stanford.edu)
116 points by primelens on Dec 2, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 34 comments

"Who is the most original and the most versatile intellect that the Americas have so far produced? The answer "Charles S. Peirce" is uncontested, because any second would be so far behind as not to be worth nominating. Mathematician, astronomer, chemist, geodesist, surveyor, cartographer, metrologist, spectroscopist, engineer, inventor; psychologist, philologist, lexicographer, historian of science, mathematical economist, lifelong student of medicine; book reviewer, dramatist, actor, short story writer; phenomenologist, semiotician, logician, rhetorician and metaphysician.

He was, for a few examples, the first modern experimental psychologist in the Americas, the first metrologist to use a wave-length of light as a unit of measure, the inventor of the quincuncial projection of the sphere, the first known conceiver of the design and theory of an electric switching-circuit computer, and the founder of "the economy of research." He is the only system-building philosopher in the Americas who has been both competent and productive in logic, in mathematics, and in a wide range of sciences. If he has had any equals in that respect in the entire history of philosophy, they do not number more than two."

--Max H. Fisch in Sebeok, The Play of Musement


Reading through the background materials, some of the claims they make seem a bit suspect. Many of the "discoveries" are that he suggested something might be possible without actually giving any evidence or construction besides his own philosophical musings. This is in re: cardinals, information theory, and computers. And then because someone did it later he is cited as a genius before his time.

But if he wrote over 10,000 pages of publications and articles, how many of his claims and ideas were false, misleading, or inaccurate? Is genius measured by the number of ideas that don't come to fruition, or by lasting successes? We don't cite Darwin as a politician despite his writings about the politics of his time. Nor do we particularly praise Turing as an athlete despite his running hobby.

> how many of his claims and ideas were false, misleading, or inaccurate?

A century has passed and his work has been analyzed by a variety of academics. Pointers to capable critiques would be welcome.

Apologies, if I am ignorant here. But what is this quote and how it is pertinent to the OP ?

He was a philosopher, whose work in the late 1800s was a precursor to computer science. Practical applications have been found in modern research.


"Peirce considered himself, first and foremost, a logician. He made major contributions to logic, but logic for him encompassed much of that which is now called epistemology and philosophy of science. He saw logic as the formal branch of semiotics, of which he is a founder. As early as 1886 he saw that logical operations could be carried out by electrical switching circuits; the same idea was used decades later to produce digital computers."


"Currently, considerable interest is being taken in Peirce's ideas by researchers wholly outside the arena of academic philosophy. The interest comes from industry, business, technology, intelligence organizations, and the military; and it has resulted in the existence of a substantial number of agencies, institutes, businesses, and laboratories in which ongoing research into and development of Peircean concepts are being vigorously undertaken."

I definitely think Peirce should be more famous - particularly for identifying abductive reasoning:

"Deduction proves that something must be; Induction shows that something actually is operative; Abduction merely suggests that something may be."


I'm considering several undergrad degree programs in computer science through university philosophy departments. Has anyone had a similar experience who could share their feedback? I've really enjoyed reading the basic philosophy I've covered so far and things like decision and game theory also fascinate me. I think it could also be a good track to AI research, though probably not the modern machine learning style?

Also considering combining one of these majors with a more traditional CS or EECS degree.

Philosophy PhD here. Get a degree in a STEM field and do philosophy on the side, possibly as a minor. Philosophy is badly in need of people who possess serious expertise in other fields and who can bring their expertise to bear on philosophical issues. We've had enough of people who only ever studied philosophy.

On the other hand, if your university has some sort of interdisciplinary program that combines philosophy with computer science, cognitive science, or some other STEM field, then go for it. Just make sure that it's a stable, well-funded, populous program (not something that only exists for the sake of placating a particular professor), and that your degree looks sciencey enough, e.g. it says B.Sc. instead of B.A.

Of course, YMMV depending on your university and the availability (or lack thereof) of certain faculty members during your stay.

Speaking as someone who wasted time and money on an interdiciplinary philosophy programme that existed only for the sake of placating a particular professor (like, they didn't even bother making sure that the timetables were compatible), this is really great advice.

A lot of said programmes exist for exactly that reason.

There is nothing I hate more than a philosopher who doesn't know physics and information science. (Actually... there are a lot of things that are worse, but they do still annoy me quite a bit.)

I have an undergraduate degree in engineering, a PhD in physics and some post-graduate education in philosophy, and have worked closely with philosophers on real problems in epistemology and metaphysics, mostly around identity theory.

On the basis of that experience, I would recommend focusing on a traditional CS or EECS degree, and take philosophy on the side.

By taking a traditional degree you will provide yourself with a deep, broad foundation from which to evaluate various philosophical mutterings, and will be well-positioned to realize just how imbecilic most of them are.

There is a mathematician's joke that be successful in math you need a pencil, a paper, and a garbage can, while to be successful in philosophy you only need a pencil and paper (philosophers publish their mistakes, and sometimes build careers on them.)

Philosophy does have uses. It encourages a certain kind of rigour in thinking, but the content of the subject is mostly philosopher's imaginations, and three hundred years of science has taught us that the human imagination is almost completely useless for understanding reality. What we can or cannot imagine is utterly unrelated to what actually is.

AJ Ayer, for example, could not imagine the kind of empirical test of metaphysical propositions that Bell showed we could actually perform. A willful ignorance of the poverty of imagination as a tool for understanding reality was the basis for the entire Positivist program, which was, unsurprisingly, a failure.

So stick with the core subject and extend your reach to philosophy. You'll be far better served that way, and when you do philosophize it will have a far higher chance of being insightful and useful rather than obvious nonsense to anyone actually in the field you are philosophizing about.

I won't bother dazzling everyone with a list of qualifications, but you're really misrepresenting Positivism here. Positivism is really the idea that being empirically testable is a necessary condition for being both non-trivial and meaningful. Not (except maybe when being polemical, as Ayer could sometimes) that metaphysics is necessarily unverifiable.

Most of the problems we class as "metaphysics" probably aren't empirically verifiable, but if a few turn out to be, it isn't a big problem for the positivist program. Their objection to metaphysics isn't as principled as you make it out to be. It just falls out of verificationist semantics.

So if a physicist manages to empirically verify a few things that might have seemend metaphysical, then cool, turns out they were doing physics not metaphysics.

Agreed. I find it hilarious that a position (logical positivism, I mean) that is often criticized for failing it's own test of meaningfulness - because it lacks verification conditions - can also be criticized for being empirically false...

> "three hundred years of science has taught us that the human imagination is almost completely useless for understanding reality"

Sometimes, reality is changed by the human imagination, e.g. by generating a new hypothesis to be tested by science.

Questions vs Answers: http://kiriakakis.net/comics/mused/a-day-at-the-park

upvoted, for well written, detailed and thoughtful post. as others have mentioned, i don't completely agree with your critique of positivism here. i've always seen positivism as a philosophical movement to try and ground philosophy in verifiable propositions, which is to say, to make it more like physical science.

If I could downvote you a thousand times I would. Philosophy is not 'imbecilic' as you claim. This type of thought only reflects your own shallow lack of understanding of philosophy and its crucial role.

Yes. Principles of law and media are based on philosophy. Business model and technology innovations inevitably encounter unprepared laws. At those boundaries, you are either equipped with the philosophical tools to chart new precedents, or you are left to choose from a menu of canned options, none designed for your innovation.

What is the difference between EECS vs Computer Engineering? I want to major in engineering while also gaining experience in Computer Science.

More pertinent is what the program actually does (depends on school) rather than the surface level label.

It differs between degree programs, and the way the faculty is organized. Sometimes you have seperate EE and CS faculties, and sometimes you have a EECS faculty.

Major in the most practical stuff, minor in the interesting stuff.

I'd say CS/EECS major, Philsophy and Math minors with focuses in AI for everything.

You have the option after that for doing AI in a master's or PHD program.

But be warned: Modern AI is really just glorified statistics.

This statement depends on a quite expansive interpretation of the word "statistics", to include generative models over the real numbers (statistics proper, as we all learned it in school), nongenerative but probabilistic machine learning, probabilistic programming (aka: Turing-complete generative modeling), and the probabilistic approach to cognitive science (which uses more-or-less all of the above).

Thanks for not answering the questions I asked - namely whether CS degrees administered partially by philosophy departments are any good - and for making the assumption that you know what is "practical" and what is "interesting" for me.

Not everyone wants to follow the classic SV career path.

In case you're wondering: you're being downvoted for being rude. You asked for advice, received it, then attacked someone who gave you good-faith advice.

You're right, I was overly rude, and I regret the wording of what I wrote. I feel the above commenter was misguided in the subject his advice but it was probably well-intended.

>Not everyone wants to follow the classic SV career path.

I'd argue that the previous poster's advice applies to ANY career path that isn't academia.

If you enjoy philosophy, study philosophy. If combining those studies with computing is both practical and more appealing, then by all means pursue that.

Standard degrees are great for producing hot-swappable collefe hires. After that diverse experience and background is what makes a career.

Take a look at Heinz von Foerster.

Biological Computer Lab: http://bcl.ece.illinois.edu/

Ethics: http://web.stanford.edu/group/SHR/4-2/text/foerster.html

Some universities offer programs that combine CS and philosophy with AI in mind, for example http://www.cogsys.ubc.ca/about/

If you're interested in philosophy, I'd recommend a math or CS degree with an emphasis on PL theory/logic.

If you're into game theory, consider CS and Statistics.

An economics minor could also work if you're interested in game theory but you have to check the curriculum carefully. Usually you can mix mostly statistics (or econometrics) and game theory to get the econ credits.

I'd probably pick CS, math or psychology as a good combination with philosophy. Theoretical physics is probably interesting as well but I don't know much about it. Quantum physics seems almost impossible without dipping into philosophy from my pop-QP point of view.

I'm mostly interested in science theory/epistemology/ontology though and know fairly little about other branches of philosophy. No formal education but I've talked to philosophers on campus and it's usually very interesting. I'd agree that a major benefit seems to be a sharpened thought process in general.

I'd pick pure math. Suffering through that makes everything else look sooooo trivial in comparison. Yes that includes the highfalutin' branches of Physics :)

Considering that computer science these days is almost all about complexity and not computability, this article seems to be lacking. And moreover, where are all of the great minds from the last thirty years? Certainly the Turing award winners after Knuth have said interesting things.

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