‘Pancomputationalism’: Origins of a Neologism

I just discovered that the view that everything in the universe is a computing system is “now often called” ‘pancomputationalism’, as Vincent Mueller puts it.  Mueller is right.  As of today, Googling ‘pancomputationalism’ generates 195 results, beginning with the omnipresent wikipedia article (titled “digital physics”).  I had no idea; for all I knew, I might have been the only person using this term.

If anyone is curious about the origin of this term, here is what I know.

Around 2001, I was working on my dissertation, entitled “Computations and Computers in the Sciences of Mind and Brain”.  In one chapter, I argued that contrary to the impression that many have, functionalism does not entail computationalism (= the view that the mind or brain is a computing system).  I sent a draft to my old mentor and friend, Diego Marconi.  Diego emailed back that my argument didn’t make any difference, because, after all, everything is a computing system.

I was dumbfounded.  I was dimly aware of statements to the effect that everything is a computing system, but I thought no one took them seriously.  Now, prompted by Diego, I had to take them seriously myself.  By September 2001, my chapter included a section arguing that the view that everything is a computing system was unclear, flawed, and ultimately irrelevant to the philosophy of mind.

My committee members were unimpressed.  One of them, John Norton, emailed me a harsh critique of that section.  Apparently, I had to take the view that everything is a computing system even more seriously.  By August 2002, I had greatly expanded my section.  I discussed the view that everything is a computing system in much greater detail, and I found it useful to give it a name: I called it ‘pancomputationalism’.  The August 2002 draft of my chapter on functionalism is the first place where, as far as I know, the term ‘pancomputationalism’ was used.  After I defended in June 2003, my whole dissertation, including my discussion of pancomputationalism, was published online by the University of Pittsburgh.

I eventually further expanded the section of my dissertation on pancomputationalism into a whole paper.  In October 2004, I posted the paper on the Pitt Phil-Sci archive.  I also submitted the paper to journals, but it encountered considerable resistance from referees and was rejected several times.  Some referees said pancomputationalism was too obviously false to deserve all the attention I paid to it, while others said it was too obviously true to be undermined by my arguments.  So I added a new paragraph at the beginning, pointing out the inconsistency between these two reactions.  Lo and behold, the paper was accepted.  It recently came out, in one of the last issues of Australasian Journal of Philosophy.  (Here is a link to a preprint.)

The next place where I found the term ‘pancomputationalism’ is an article by Luciano Floridi, entitled “Open Problems in the Philosophy of Information,” which appeared in an issue of Metaphilosophy dated July 2004.  Unsurprisingly, Floridi does not cite me.  His article is a revised version of a lecture he gave in 2001 (in Pittsburgh, where I was at the time, but I did not attend it).  It’s possible that Floridi coined the same term independently of me.  At any rate, I could not find the term ‘pancomputationalism’ in the PPT for Floridi’s lecture, which is available on Floridi’s website.

So I don’t know where Floridi got the term, but it’s likely that many of the other people who have been using it since 2004 (unbenownkst to me) got it from Floridi.

7 Comments

  1. Brandon N. Towl

    I love it! The question of whether pancomputationalism is true seems to be one of those “Do penguins have knees?” questions. Everyone thinks the answer is obvious, yet the split is 50/50 and neither side can even fathom that someone would hold the opposite view. (For the record, the questions about whether computers can/could think is another one, as many an undergraduate class has shown to me).

  2. marcin miłkowski

    Well, the abstract and the presentation are online:
    http://venus.ci.uw.edu.pl/~milek/filozofia/abstract_ECAP2005@MDH.pdf
    http://venus.ci.uw.edu.pl/~milek/filozofia/ict.pdf

    The final version contains improvements (thanks to the helpful comments from Ron Chrisley and Matthias Scheutz), but I cannot find it right now (too many drafts in the same folder…). I’ll try to find it next week.

    BTW, the funny thing is that reviewers had absolutely no comments nor objections to my article. That was surpripsing to say the least.

  3. Gordana

    Gualtiero,
    I guess Marcin is right.
    Vincent, like you was critical to the idea of Pancomputationalism, so over years we developed a dialogue
    http://www.idt.mdh.se/ECAP-2005/INFOCOMPBOOK/DialogueGordanaVincent/2009_DIALOG_Dodig_Mueller.pdf
    which now is published in a book Information and Computation, edited by me and Mark Burgin.
    The word Pancomputationalism I learned from Floridi, even though I am Natural computationalist as many of my colleagues physicists as long as I remember.
    I remember our discussion at NACP 2007 where you (like Vincent later on) opposed my enthusiastic acceptance of Pancomputationalism (Natural Computationalism) with many good arguments based on the best established knowledge. However Natural Computationalism is a change of a paradigm, so it is hard to capture by the existing theories (that is what I argue in my dialogue with Vincent).
    I newly found your article on Computation in Physical Systems in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and it is excellent! In general any theory needs to be scrutinized and you did a good job with your article for SEP.
    Best, Gordana
    http://www.mrtc.mdh.se/~gdc

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