Computation in Physical Systems: A Normative Mapping Account

  • Paul SchweizerEmail author
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 134)


The relationship between abstract formal procedures and the activities of actual physical systems has proved to be surprisingly subtle and controversial, and there are a number of competing accounts of when a physical system can be properly said to implement a mathematical formalism and hence perform a computation. I defend an account wherein computational descriptions of physical systems are high-level normative interpretations motivated by our pragmatic concerns. Furthermore, the criteria of utility and success vary according to our diverse purposes and pragmatic goals. Hence there is no independent or uniform fact to the matter, and I advance the ‘anti-realist’ conclusion that computational descriptions of physical systems are not founded upon deep ontological distinctions, but rather upon interest-relative human conventions. Hence physical computation is a ‘conventional’ rather than a ‘natural’ kind.


Computational Theory of Mind Physical computation Simple mapping account Pancomputationalism Computational stance 


  1. Bishop, J.M. 2009. Why computers can’t feel pain. Minds and Machines 19: 507–516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Block, N. 2002. Searle’s arguments against cognitive science. In Views into the Chinese room, ed. J. Preston and J.M. Bishop. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Boolos, G., and R.C. Jeffrey. 1989. Computability and logic. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  4. Chalmers, D.J. 1996. Does a rock implement every finite-state automaton? Synthese 108: 309–333.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chrisley, R.L. 1994. Why everything doesn’t realize every computation. Minds and Machines 4: 403–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Copeland, J. 1996. What is computation? Synthese 108: 335–359.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dennett, D. 1981. True believers: the intentional strategy and why it works. In A. F. Heath (Ed.) Scientific Explanation: Papers Based on Herbert Spencer Lectures given in the University of Oxford, Oxford: University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Fodor, J. 1981. The mind-body problem. Scientific American 24: 114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Kripke, S. 1982. Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Maudlin, T. 1989. Computation and consciousness. Journal of Philosophy 86 (8): 407–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Milkowski, M. 2013. Explaining the computational mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Newman, M. 1928. Mr. Russell’s “Causal Theory of Perception”. Mind 37: 137–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Piccinini, G. 2015a. Computation in physical systems. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, ed. E.N. Zalta.
  14. ———. 2015b. Physical computation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Putnam, H. 1988. Representation and reality. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  16. Rescorla, M. 2014. A theory of computational implementation. Synthese 191: 1277–1307.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Scheutz, M. 1999. When physical systems realize functions. Minds and Machines 9 (2): 161–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schweizer, P. 2012. Physical instantiation and the propositional attitudes. Cognitive Computation 4: 226–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. ———. 2016. In what sense does the brain compute? In Computing and philosophy, Synthese library 375, ed. V.C. Müller, 63–79. Heidelberg: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Searle, J. 1990. Is the brain a digital computer? Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association 64: 21–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Shagrir, O. 2001. Content, computation and externalism. Mind 110 (438): 369–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Sprevak, M. 2010. Computation, individuation, and the received view on representations. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 41: 260–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Turing, A. 1936. On computable numbers, with an application to the entscheidungsproblem. Proceeding of the London Mathematical Society, (series 2) 42: 230–265.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. ———. 1950. Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind 59: 433–460.MathSciNetCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Language, Cognition and Computation, School of InformaticsUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

Personalised recommendations