Philosophy in Runtime

In the past few months I have been challenged to defend computational philosophy, particularly philosophical modeling. Philosophical modeling, like scientific modeling, is a formalization process. However, instead of capturing real-world phenomena, philosophical modeling captures thought experiments.

The process of encoding a thought experiment in a formal system is, itself, beneficial in the same way as standard conceptual analysis: hidden assumptions are unburied and seemingly simple ideas yield refined notions. But, in a way, encoding is more honest–the process is not satisfied until you reach a syntactic, algorithmic level of explicitness and, once our intuitions are encoded, further light may be cast during runtime. Will your thought experiment crash, loop endlessly, or churn away at intractable problems? Do your assumptions actually lead to your conclusions? Do they yield more than expected? Less? As any programmer knows, what we program to happen and what actually happens can be quite different.

Philosophers often use formal systems to reinforce their arguments, but they are typically piecemeal and the most significant assumptions (often unintentionally) remain outside the formalism. Computers are well suited to explore certain features of complex systems like thought experiments. With a computer, philosophers may encode their thought experiments and systematically explore their features. This cannot be matched by armchair speculations. We are prone to errors in inference and unconscious biases, and simply do not have the time or energy to consider the complex interactions of philosophical presuppositions.

I should note that this methodology is not completely foreign to philosophers. Here are a few examples:

  • Daniel Dennett uses cellular automata as a toy world to test our thoughts about evolution, model making, and free will (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, ‘Real Patterns’ in Brainchildren, Freedom Evolves).
  • Grim, Marr and St. Dennis programmed logical and game theoretic systems to illuminate standard philosophical problems in The Philosophical Computer.
  • Lastly, in John Pollock’s essay ‘Procedural Epistemology’ (in The Digital Phoenix) he reports about OSCAR, an epistemological agent, to demonstrate his philosophical theories.

In the last essay we are encouraged to "put our model where our mouth is" when it comes to our epistemological theories. Indeed we should, in epistemology and elsewhere.

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