SEP Article on Computation in Physical Systems

My Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Computation in Physical Systems has just been published.  As some of you know, it discusses three main topics:  (i) what it takes for a physical system to implement a computation, (ii) whether every physical system implements computations, and (iii) which functions are physically computable.

The SEP editors made me work pretty hard on it, but I think it was worth it.  I am not aware of any other review of this literature of comparable scope and detail.  I hope it will be a helpful resource.

Given that SEP entries are revised and updated by their authors at regular intervals, I hope you will let me know if you find mistakes or additional material I should include in future editions of the entry.  (Thogh as always, I may or may not agree that something is a mistake or that something deserves to be included.)


  1. Joshua Stern

    Congratulations on the SEP article and thank you, the comprehensive overview and bibliography looks terrific.

    Additionally it has lead me to your own work on a “mechanistic” view of computation and to this blog where it might be discussed!

    I’ve been working on something along the same lines … which I will try to restrain myself from blurting out here. My background is decades working out in the real world rather than academia, but my intellectual history is a mixed bag of cognitive psychology, computational linguistics, computer science and artficial intelligence, going back to Roger Schank, probably closer to Jerry Fodor and his computational theory of mind (CTM) than anyone else – but recently and belatedly realizing that Fodor’s computation was never quite Turing’s, various claims to the contrary.

    So what then is computation, that it needs an explanation? Of course the traditional answer is – nothing. As your article describes, pancomputationalist views say computation is everywhere and therefore an empty concept. Of course this flies in the face of the fact that you are sitting in front of a computer right now, and not a rock. This requires explanation! As your article attempts. I hope to join the discussion.

    Again, thanks and congratulations!

  2. Finn Terdal

    I found your SEP article very helpful. I am writing my undergraduate philosophy thesis on computation in physical systems, specifically Putnam’s realization theorem and Chalmers’ response to it. Your explanations were clear, and your bibliography was a total windfall. Thanks!

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