Computer Science & Philosophy

Charles Babbage, sometimes referred to as the “father of computing”.


Logic has the most straightforward application to computer science. Logic has been called “the calculus of computer science,” meaning that it plays a role in computer science similar to that played by calculus in the physical sciences and the engineering disciplines. In fact, logic plays a role in areas of computer science as disparate as: computer architecture (logic gates), software engineering (specification and verification), programming languages (semantics, logic programming), databases (relational algebra and SQL), artificial intelligence (theorem proving), algorithms (complexity and expressiveness), and theory of computation (notions of computability). Thus, no one can gainsay the obvious connection between the two disciplines. One simply cannot be a good philosopher or computer science without a grounding in logic.


Computer science and philosophy are also linked by ethics. Applied issues in computer science that may be illuminated by theoretical ethics include: privacy; intellectual property; civil liberties; computer crime; wiretapping; encryption; professional responsibilities; and codes of conduct. Broader issues include: access to the computer and internet; the divide between the computer literate and non-literate; political freedom; free or offensive speech in cyberspace; constitutional issues; information usage; monopolies; and price strategy. Ethical issues may also be raised about the implications, nature, general trends, evolution, meaning and purpose of technology itself.

In addition, some of the most vexing issues in ethics relate to two future computer science technologies: artificial intelligence and robotics. The host of philosophical questions that will be raised, clarified, and answered by developments in these fields is astonishing. Surely, the continual incorporation of technology into our bodies is philosophically significant.1 And the increase of our intelligence—a miracle to be supplied by science—will have the greatest effect on resolving philosophical conundrums. While philosophers traditionally have had to lower their expectations for answering philosophical problems, the intelligence augmentation provided by science will allow those expectations to be raised.


A third major area of philosophical investigation is epistemology, which studies the nature and limits of knowledge. Perhaps the most important question in epistemology is the question of how and if we know. Philosophers have long speculated about whether knowledge was primarily innate or acquired, whether it comes primarily from the senses or reason, and, most generally, how the mind works. Now, it seems that the beginnings of real answers are in sight. Cognitive science brings together researchers from many fields in order to answer to these questions. The contributions of computer science—the distinction between hardware and software; models of learning and knowing—are invaluable for shedding light on the workings of human cognition. Along with biology, neurophysiology and the rest, computer science is poised to contribute better answers to these questions. As they do, philosophers will become increasingly irrelevant.


Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about the nature of ultimate reality including: the mind-body relationship; free will; the ultimate destiny of the human species; the purpose, if any, of cosmic evolution; and the meaning of life. Currently, computer science plays a role in understanding human cognition and the relationship between mind and its physical substrata. For example, the computational theory of mind has great influence in both fields. Furthermore, Artificial intelligence and robotics may be our destiny, and evolution may be moving to a post-human state of development. If this is the case, then the meaning of cosmic evolution and the purpose of the human species as part of that evolution will have been altered more by the computer revolution than by all the sages, seers, saviors, and saints. Ultimate reality may be both revealed and transformed by the power of mind in the universe.

  1. For the most recent account on this trend by a world-class philosopher see: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. (New York: Oxford, 2003).
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One thought on “Computer Science & Philosophy

  1. This post is actually kind of funny to me because I actually switched my major from computer science to philosophy when I was in college. I definitely had a nice head start in the logic classes we had to take thanks to my history in computer science 😛

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