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A Talk on the Philosophy of Computer Science

Bryn Mawr College Department of Philosophy, Department of Computer Science, The Center for Science in Society, and the Delaware Valley Distinguished Lecture Series in Computer Science presents:

William J. Rapaport
University at Buffalo

Title: Philosophy of Computer Science

William J. Rapaport is an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, an affiliated faculty member in the Departments of Philosophy and of Linguistics, and a member of the Center for Cognitive Science, all at State University of New York at Buffalo. His research interests are in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics, knowledge representation and reasoning, contextual vocabulary acquisition, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, critical thinking, and cognitive development. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Thomas Hall 224, Bryn Mawr College
7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Free and open to the public

The Delaware Valley Distinguished Lecture Series in Computer Science is jointly sponsored by the Computer Science Departments at Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College. Our next speaker will be Doron Swade from the London Science Museum. He will speak at Swarthmore College on October 23 on Reconstructing the Babbage Difference Engine#2. More details to follow. For information please write to

William Rapaport's Lecture

Wed, 2007-09-19 20:49
Emily Maciolek (not verified)

I had never really considered the idea that philosophy could branch out into a field so modern and technological as Computer Science. Yet, after Rapaport presented his class/syllabus it seems to make perfect sense. His definition of philosophy was: "the search for truth in any filed by rational means," and his definition of computers was: "to make computations easier/mechanical and to provide a foundation for mathematics." Since mathematics is largely grounded in philosophy, it's clear that the two should go hand in hand.
Honestly, I didn't fully grasp a lot of what he said (but how could I in an hour presentation?). Still, he was a very interesting speaker with very enlightening views about the philosophy of computer science.

Definition of Computer Science

Mon, 2007-09-24 18:23
Bill Rapaport (not verified)

Thanks for your comments, Emily! Actually, "to make computations easier/mechanical and to provide a foundation for mathematics" isn't my definition of computer science; rather, those 2 goals were the motivating forces behind the development of computers over the past 350 years or so. I didn't offer a definition of CS; that's something that I hope each student in my course will come up with on her or his own. But I must say that I'm fond of the "magic paper" definition of Pat Hayes and its slightly more mechanical version by Richmond Thomason: Hayes said that computers are (like) magic paper on which you write patterns that can change patterns (including themselves), and then the changes "magically" occur; Thomason said that computers are devices for changing the values of variables. For references, take a look at:

Rapaport's Lecture

Thu, 2007-09-20 10:02
Stephanie Viggiano (not verified)

It was refreshing to see a different viewpoint on both intensive and highly engaging subjects. The various definitions given for what computer science is, what philosophy is, etc etc, showed me many other ways of how to look at these two subjects that I love.
I'm looking forward to reading Dr. Rapaport's suggested materials which are used in his classes as future readings such as Okasha's "Philosophy of Science" and Searle's "Is the Brian a Digital Computer?".
I'm also looking forward to his other lecture tonight about computational linguistics!

Thank you, Dr. Rapaport, for your fantastic lecture!

References for my lectures

Mon, 2007-09-24 18:27
Bill Rapaport (not verified)

Thanks for the kind words, Stephanie! If you want to read more about the philosophy of computer science, take a look at my course website's "directory of documents":

A link to Searle's article and my reply to him is on the webpage:

Our research group on contextual vocabulary acquisition has a website at:
which has links to our papers.

If you have trouble accessing anything, please let me know.

The Quest for Truth

Sun, 2007-09-23 19:45
Rebecca Farber (not verified)

Bill Rapaport discussed the relationship between philosophy and computer science, delving into the threads that weave both the fields together. Before it began, I wondered what any philosopher major could really gain from the lecture, but as soon as Rapaport began to discuss the links it became evident that computer science's philosophy is rooted in many of the issues that concern an average philosophy major - such as ethics, truth, and theory-processing.
The many different definitions for technical words that I always thought were concrete began to prove the fluidity of the field of computer science, much like that of philosophy. For instance, Rapaport gave notable thinkers' different definitions of software, ranging from software being a program that can be changed by humans to software being synatcic, to it being a concrete abstraction. The use of algorithms in computer science relates to recipes used in everyday life - algorithms constitute as methods of instruction for a program. This leads to the question of what exactly a program is and what issues it encompasses, such as what types of decisions certain programs should make, and the morality of computer-based recommendations. Programs are like any testable model, testing theories via itself. On the greater scope, Rapaport discussed the ethical issues of what specifically can be patented, copywritten, or exported. The lecture on Wednesday night brought forth issues concerning computer science as a whole and how it relates to the search for truth.

More on questing

Mon, 2007-09-24 18:32
Bill Rapaport (not verified)

Thanks for your comments, Rebecca! If you (or anyone else) wants to read more on these topics, take a look at:
on what a computer program is, and
on issues in computer ethics

If you have trouble accessing any of these, please let me know.
I can be reached at:
Please put "BRYN MAWR" (in caps) in the subject line, so that my spam filter lets your messages through :-)

Philosophy of Computer Science

Sun, 2007-09-23 20:02
Kalyn Schofield (not verified)

The entire lecture was interesting and raised many more questions then it answered. The fact that philosophy and computers can be combined into a class is a different thing all together. As a person whose is taking a computer class and a philosophy class, I feel the concepts often discussed within philosophy can be brought up in any field. However, the way the questions are answered may differ depending on that particular field.

Philosophy is a class that focuses on the big questions of life and the love of learning itself. For a computer science/ philosophy class to work, students would have to get out of the mindset that there is always a "right" answer regarding anything, even computers. Computer students as well, will have to consider their part in the influence of developing future computers. A.I. will become more and more important with each passing year, resulting in smarter and faster computers.

In this very sense these "stronger, better, faster," computers need guidelines and structures surrounding their creation. A computer science/ philosophy class could help future computer designers take into account such questions. Questions like what decisons should they handle?, what human jobs can they replace?, and should they be made in the first place? Are ony some of the many questions such a class could and should address.

New questions for Phil of CS

Mon, 2007-09-24 18:36
Bill Rapaport (not verified)

I like Kalyn's questions at the end. One of the questions on the final exam for my course is: "What do you think is the most important question in the philosophy of computer science? Why is it important? What is your answer to it?" :-)

One thing that Moor and others who discuss whether there are decisions that computers shouldn't make don't focus on is whether certain decisions might be OK for them to make, while others aren't. For more on these ethical issues, take a look at:

Exploring the Philosophy of Computer Science: Why it Matters

Sun, 2007-09-30 10:10
Teyvonia T. Thomas (not verified)

The Philosophy of Computer Science is a very intriguing subject. In fact, I had never thought of such a field before attending Professor Rapaport’s Lecture. It was clear from the presentation, that in order to better understand this subject, one had to consider and analyze fundamental questions like ‘What is philosophy?’ or ‘What is computer science?’ and that these two questions generate even more questions and issues to explore. As an individual who ‘questions everything’ I found this part of the lecture very stimulating since I too was forced to ask myself these very questions. The fact that most of these questions were not answered during the lecture prompted me even more to do some research on some of the topics that were mentioned.

Professor Rapaport raised some interesting points that I hadn’t considered much before. One important matter was the ethical question of whether or not we should build intelligent robots. One practical point that was raised was that funding for such projects could become limited and could subsequently lead to the decision to destroy such robots. This seems to be a very controversial topic. It made me think, ‘What if we did build intelligent robots – robots that could be taught to learn, for instance, and what would happen if these robots became more intelligent than human beings?’

Another important issue was the gender dynamics in computer science. Being at an all women’s college, I had somehow ‘forgotten’ that computer science is a male dominated field and that most of the literature on CS have been written by our male counterparts. This has made me eager to investigate how the role of women in CS has evolved over time and how the involvement of females have and will shape the development of Computer Science.

After listening to Professor Rapaport’s lecture, I began to realize that this area, ‘the philosophy of computer science,’ could be very beneficial to students of Philosophy as well as those interested in Computer Science. I think it is important to explore on a deeper level the subject one studies; it puts into perspective why we study the subjects we do, how the outcomes of these studies affect society as well as how our investigations can be applied to improve the subject areas themselves. I look forward to the day when Bryn Mawr will offer its own “Philosophy of Computer Science.”

Although I did not fully

Sun, 2007-09-30 20:07
Alessandra Grace (not verified)

Although I did not fully grasp everything explained, I was fascinated with the idea of comptuer science and philosophy combined into a seperate field of study. I was not aware such a field existed nor that such classes were being taught at any undergraduate universities. The two subjects combine together well since they both examine areas in similar ways. Thank you for the wonderful and insightful lecture!

Dr. Rapaport's Lecture

Wed, 2007-10-03 01:42
Val Kirilova (not verified)

Dr. Rapaport's lecture on the Philosophy of Computer Science was especially enlightening concerning the relationship between various studies and their corresponding "study of a study," namely, the philosophies thereof. I had never before considered the benefits of studying the philosophy of a science as an independent subject, but the lecture and the class discussion it prompted made me think about the study of methods, ethics, and overall change of a particular science. It seems that these, and other variables, would be helpful in keeping a broader perspective especially when researching a topic on the micro level. Thank you for a different perspective!

Computer Science Philosophy of modern era

Mon, 2008-08-25 23:26
Go-Gulf (not verified)

My Computer Science Philosophy is about to days world. It bring people closer, make large world into a small tiny village. information is just away from your finger tips. By pressing few keys on keyboard you get what ever you want. you are sitting on your bedroom or in ur office doing online shopping, pay your bills online without standing outside etc...
Computer Science bring revolution in business and people life. if we go few years back, the work that took several hours to do by the introduction of computer science technology we can do it in a minutes and millions of information store in a small device that we used to call heard disk, CD or DVD.

Philosophy and Computer Science

Thu, 2008-09-11 22:31
Jsajm Marie Quiño (not verified)

I am working on this term paper for my philosophical analysis class, where we have to relate philosophical analysis to our chosen degree, BS Computer Science that is, in our university. I've been doing a lot of researches already, and I'm still rather having difficulty presenting a topic or argument that would be interesting enough for my paper. Well, I know there's a big relation to philosophy and computer science, like logic and stuff. But I am still a freshman, thus I still am not learning that much. I was hoping that there would be something that isn't too hard to comprehend for a freshman like me, and something I would be able to relate to. Can you please suggest anything? Thank you very much.

Philosophy and Computer Science

Sun, 2008-10-19 10:20
Bill Rapaport (not verified)

One place to start might be my article on "Philosophy of Computer Science" that appeared in the journal Teaching Philosophy, on which my talk last year was based:

Rapaport, William J. (2005), "Philosophy of Computer Science: An Introductory Course", Teaching Philosophy 28(4): 319-341.

as well as some of the papers that I cite in my bibliography.

Professor Rapaport raised

Mon, 2009-04-27 13:41
Professor Rapaport raised some interesting points that I hadn’t considered much before. One important matter was the ethical question of whether or not we should build intelligent robots. One practical point that was raised was that funding for such projects could become limited and could subsequently lead to the decision to destroy such robots. zulvera

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