In this day and age, sophisticated critique of technology and science is much needed. What we don’t need is critiques like this long piece in the Baffler by Corey Pein which, I think, is trying to mount a critique of the lack of ethics education in computer science curricula but seems most concerned with asserting that computer science is not a science. By, I think, relying on the premise that “Silicon Valley activity and propaganda” = “computer science.” I fail to understand how a humanistic point is made by asserting the ‘unscientific’ nature of a purported science, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, on to Pein.
For the past few days, an essay titled “How Aristotle Created The Computer” (The Atlantic, March 20, 2017, by Chris Dixon) has been making the rounds. It begins with the following claim:
The history of computers is often told as a history of objects, from the abacus to the Babbage engine up through the code-breaking machines of World War II. In fact, it is better understood as a history of ideas, mainly ideas that emerged from mathematical logic, an obscure and cult-like discipline that first developed in the 19th century. Mathematical logic was pioneered by philosopher-mathematicians, most notably George Boole and Gottlob Frege, who were themselves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a universal “concept language,” and the ancient logical system of Aristotle.
Dixon then goes on to trace this ‘history of ideas,’ showing how the development–and increasing formalization and rigor–of logic contributed to the development of computer science and the first computing devices. Along the way, Dixon makes note of the contributions-direct and indirect–of: Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, George Boole, Euclid, Rene Descartes, Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Gottfried Leibniz, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead, Alonzo Church, and John Von Neumann. This potted history is exceedingly familiar to students of the foundations of computer science–a demographic that includes computer scientists, philosophers, and mathematical logicians–but presumably that is not the audience that Dixon is writing for; those students might wonder why Augustus De Morgan and Charles Peirce do not feature in it. Given this temporally extended history, with its many contributors and their diverse contributions, why does the article carry the headline “How Aristotle Created the Computer”? Aristotle did not create the computer or anything like it; he did make important contributions to a fledgling field, which took several more centuries to develop into maturity. (The contributions to this field by logicians and systems of logic of alternative philosophical traditions like the Indian one are, as per usual, studiously ignored in Dixon’s history.) And as a philosopher, I cannot resist asking, “what do you mean by ‘created'”? What counts as ‘creating’?
The easy answer is that it is clickbait. Fair enough. We are by now used to the idiocy of the misleading clickbait headline, one designed to ‘attract’ more readers by making it more ‘interesting;’ authors very often have little choice in this matter, and very often have to watch helplessly as hit-hungry editors mangle the impact of the actual content of their work. (As in this case?) But it is worth noting this headline’s contribution to the pernicious notion of the ‘creation’ of the computer and to the idea that it is possible to isolate a singular figure as its creator–a clear hangover of a religious sentiment that things that exist must have creation points, ‘beginnings,’ and creators. It is yet another contribution to the continued mistaken recounting of the history of science as a story of ‘towering figures.’ (Incidentally, I do not agree with Dixon that the history of computers is “better understood as a history of ideas”; that history is instead, an integral component of the history of computing in general, which also includes a social history and an economic one; telling a history of computing as a history of objects is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when we remember that actual, functioning computers are physical instantiations of abstract notions of computation.)
To end on a positive note, here are some alternative headlines: “Philosophy and Mathematics’ Contributions To The Development of Computing”; “How Philosophers and Mathematicians Helped Bring Us Computers”; or “How Philosophical Thinking Makes The Computer Possible.” None of these are as ‘sexy’ as the original headline, but they are far more informative and accurate.
Note: What do you think of my clickbaity headline for this post?
A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:
[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.
I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.
But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’
For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]
Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species. (Some might think, of course, that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light, the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.