The Philosophy of Computing

September 10, 2021
graphic with brain and schematic diagram

The new Association for Philosophy and Computing was incorporated in Wyoming with the help of two UW professors. 

By Micaela Myers 

Philosophy and computer science form an unlikely pair.

But thanks to two University of Wyoming faculty members, the new international Association for Philosophy and Computing recently incorporated in the state.

The association formed as an offshoot of an American Philosophical Association subcommittee.

What exactly do these philosophers and computer scientists examine as part of this work? Research in this area includes interesting questions such as the metaphysics of digital objects, the ethical implications of artificial intelligence, the philosophical issues of digital currency,

and the vote as a data structure.

“The association is a way to bring together people who want to apply these traditional philosophical tools to questions that are distinctive of computing,” says philosophy Assistant Professor Bradley Rettler.

Rettler is one of the incorporating members of the new association along with Robin Hill, board retiree and adjunct professor in computer science. The association’s mission is to work to provide forums for the critical and creative examination of information, computation, computers and other computationally enabled technologies (such as robots). It endeavors not only to enrich philosophical research and pedagogy but also to reach beyond philosophy to enrich other discourses, both academic and non-academic ( Other charter members include faculty members from the University of Illinois Springfield, Canterbury University (New Zealand), Wichita State University, Stony Brook University, Hibbing Community College, Penn State University and IULM University of Milan.

“This is the only American-based group that we know of that is the interdisciplinary reflection of the intersection of these two studies,” Hill says. One of the association’s first activities was presenting at the Philosophy and Computing Conference at the 2021 summit of the International Society for the Study of Information, held virtually in September.

Both Hill and Rettler pursue their own research interests in this realm. Hill’s interest in philosophy and computing goes all the way back to her undergraduate studies in the 1970s, when she studied both subjects. Her work is cited in the philosophy of computer science entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

“One of my aims is to broaden the questions that are asked in this field,” says Hill, who writes a regular online blog for the monthly journal Communications of the ACM, from the Association for Computing Machinery, the premier professional organization in computing. “One of the first pieces I wrote when I started doing this research was on whether nature uses data. Is data completely made up by people? The answer is, no, nature does not use data. I also did some work on the ontology of algorithms in which I claim that an algorithm is an imperative object. Another topic I’ve addressed recently is the ontology of the vote.” Ontology is a branch of metaphysics that addresses the nature of being.

When it’s something people take for granted, like a vote, philosophy wants to know what kind of a thing we’re talking about, Hill explains. What is the vote as a data structure, and what is the vote as a subject of processing by algorithms? Those are both computer science subjects.

Rettler has a book proposal under review on the philosophical issues of digital currency such as Bitcoin—a subject he recently published a paper on.

“Digital currencies involve so many disciplines: computer science, economics, law, politics, game theory and ethical and metaphysical questions,” he says.

One co-author of his book, Craig Warmke, has written a paper on the metaphysics of digital currency—in other words, what are digital currencies, and just how different are they from physical currencies?

“Then we have moral questions,” Rettler says. “Bitcoin is a relatively private money, and it’s a censorship-resistant money. You might want a currency (like Bitcoin) that’s not controlled by intermediaries. But there are tradeoffs. A censorship-resistant money lets you buy things that maybe we shouldn’t let people buy, like assassins. There are also issues of financial justice. We want to disentangle the cost and benefits.”

Blockchain—the distributed digital record of transactions that makes digital currency possible—also has implications for voting and for carbon credits, Rettler says. Blockchains are useful when nobody can be trusted, and everyone is incentivized to cheat. “If your vote is recorded in a blockchain, it’s embedded and hard to change. If you have a token for a carbon credit, you can prove that it’s yours and prove when you spent it. After currency, these are perhaps the most promising application for blockchain.”

Philosophical research in this area is imperative to make sure the application is appropriate.

In addition to his digital currency research, Rettler looked at the ethics of algorithms. People may think algorithms aren’t biased, but that’s not true. Say a photo recognition software was created using photos of white people—that program may not recognize photos of people of color, which makes it biased. 

Both professors are excited for the expanding questions the Association for Philosophy and Computing can help answer by bringing experts from both disciplines together.



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