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In defense of the semantic view of computation

  • Oron ShagrirEmail author


The semantic view of computation is the claim that semantic properties play an essential role in the individuation of physical computing systems such as laptops and brains. The main argument for the semantic view (“the master argument”) rests on the fact that some physical systems simultaneously implement different automata at the same time, in the same space, and even in the very same physical properties (“simultaneous implementation”). Recently, several authors have challenged this argument (Piccinini in Philos Stud 137:205–241, 2008, Piccinini in Physical computation: a mechanistic account, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015; Coelho Mollo in Synthese 195:3477–3497, 2018; Dewhurst in Br J Philos Sci 69:103–116, 2018). They accept the premise of simultaneous implementation but reject the semantic conclusion. In this paper, I aim to explicate the semantic view and to address these objections. I first characterize the semantic view and distinguish it from other, closely related views. Then, I contend that the master argument for the semantic view survives the counter-arguments against it. One counter-argument is that computational individuation is not forced to choose between the implemented automata but rather always picks out a more basic computational structure. My response is that this move might undermine the notion of computational equivalence. Another counter-argument is that while computational individuation is forced to rely on extrinsic features, these features need not be semantic. My reply is that the semantic view better accounts for these extrinsic features than the proposed non-semantic alternatives.


Computation Implementation Individuation Semantic properties Mechanism Externalism 



I am thankful to Arnon Levy, Gualtiero Piccinini, Nick Shea, Mark Sprevak and the members of the Computability: Historical, Logical, and Philosophical Foundations group at the Israeli Institute of Advances Studies (Jack Copeland, Eli Dresner, Nir Fresco, Carl Posy, Diane Proudfoot, Stewart Shapiro and Moshe Vardi) for stimulating discussion. An early version of the paper was presented at the 8th Quadrennial Fellows Conference (Pittsburgh Center for Philosophy of Science) in Lund and at the International Association for Computing and Philosophy (IACAP 2016) in Ferrara. Thanks to the audiences for useful discussion. I am grateful to three reviewers of Synthese for their thorough reading and insightful comments. This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation Grant 830/18.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departments of Philosophy and Cognitive ScienceThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

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