The Coming of "The Age of Significance"?

Reading an unpublished paper by Nir Fresco led me to discover a website where Brian Cantwell Smith announces the imminent publication of his seven-volume “The Age of Significance,” to be published simultaneously online (one chapter per month over several years) and in print by MIT Press.

BCS has been announcing the publication of his opus for at least 14 years (since his 1996 book “On the Origin of Objects,” where “The Age of Significance” is listed as forthcoming).  It will be interesting to see the degree to which BCS follows through this time.

According to the Introduction to the first volume, which is available on the same website and gives and overview of the project, “The Age of Significance” addresses the “foundations of computing”. 

Most of the material to be published appears to be organized around discussions of what BCS considers the “current construals of computation” (such as “formal symbol manipulation, effective computability, information processing, digitality, digital state machines”) and their putative shortcomings.

The main thesis of the books is that computers are “meaningful material systems” or “intentionally significant physical artifacts” and that there is nothing more to say about them (Introduction, p. 39).  This is an especially inclusive version of what I call the “semantic view of computation”.  it appears to include things like paintings, pictures, DVD players, digital-to-analog converters, etc. among the computers.  This strikes me as a problem, but maybe BCS won’t mind because he also holds that no theory or account of computation can be given. 

BCS also maintains that computers are ushering us into “the age of significance”, in which we can see the world as more imbued with meaning.  Or something like that.

In his Introduction, BCS makes some good points–for example, that computation is a concrete physical process (as opposed to something “abstract”).  Of course, this sort of point has been made by Rolf Landauer–one of the pioneers of the physics of computation–with his slogan “computation is physical” at least since the 1960s.  This is one case among others in which BCS exaggerates the originality of what he says.  For example, the point about the concreteness of computation is presented as if BCS were the first person to notice it; Landauer is not mentioned.  

BCS tends to present his views as standing as the lone opposition to various received views.  The views that BCS criticizes are rarely attributed to any names, which makes it difficult to know who if anyone holds them.  BCS appears to be responding primarily to philosophy of mind literature from the 1980s (by people like Haugeland, Fodor, Putnam, Dreyfus, and Searle) plus the views of computer scientists that he talked to and that remain mostly unnamed.  BCS complains that people have not devoted enough attention to the foundations of computing but he does not seem to have noticed (or learned much from) the best philosophical literature on the foundations of computing (by people like Chalmers, Copeland, Shagrir, Sieg, myself, etc.). 

All in all, I didn’t notice any interesting thesis defended by BCS that is both correct and novel.  To be fair, I did notice several theses that were definitely novel.  Unfortunately they all struck me as false or at least misleading.  For instance, BCS maintains that “computability theory … is not a theory of computation at all” (Introduction, p. 27).  This is wrongheaded.  Computability theory is the theoretically deepest and most important body of knowledge we have about computation.

But please let me know what I’m missing.  I will try to read the rest of the seven volumes as they appear, to see what can be learned from them.


  1. Ken

    I have not worked through much of BCS’ stuff, but much (but certainly not all) of what he says depends on what he has chosen as his “target” concept of computation. He seems to want to come up with a characterization that does justice to just about everything that ever has been seriously counted as computation. Once you pick a target as broad as that strange things will happen. So, for example, once you pick a target that broad it presumably will not be a counterexample if calculators are compute. The account is intended to rule calculators as computers.

    Gualtiero, for his part, picks a somewhat different “target” for his theory of what computation is. Suppose that target is Turing’s notion of computation. So, then, if one points to analog computation as a counterexample to Gualtiero’s idea (roughly) that computation is digital string manipulation, then that’s not really a counterexample since that is not within Gualtiero’s target.

    This introduction of the relevance of “targets” of course has ramifications, but it opens the door to pluralism about what computation is.

  2. gualtiero piccinini

    He would probably say it takes seven volumes to show that no theory can be given, but in any case, I agree with your sentiment.  Your analogy with Wolfram’s personality seems fitting to me.

  3. gualtiero piccinini

    Ok, but what kind of pluralism?  I’m all for pluralism in the sense that there are different (though related) notions of computation.  See this forthcoming paper for a taxonomy.  I’m against any pluralism that says that object O is or isn’t a computer of kind K depending on how you look at it.  And I’m skeptical about many of the things that BCS says about computation and computers under any notion of computation and computers.

  4. kenneth aizawa

    I’m thinking about a pluralism that says that there are multiple different scientifically legitimate types of processes called “computation.”

  5. gualtiero

    I completely agree. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can say anything you want about computation, so I still disagree with BCS on a number of points.)

  6. Joshua Stern

    fta: The goal of this investigation is to map this uncharted conceptual territory.

    oh, I hope not. And from the sample chapter, fortunately he does not really seem to. I very much like what I read there except for one thing, that (as in his earlier Origin of Objects) he insists there is no subject matter to computation. I read most of the chapter’s affirmative claims as *exactly* about this non-existent subject matter. I find hints in the chapter that BCS has found the same key as I have, that putting computation first as physicalist and constructive, is the way to go. That defines a subject matter right there, and a basis for theories of all kinds. I think that, again, this work may be well-founded and insightful on its own terms, but a bit naive philosophically. Of course I understand this as stylistic as much as meaningful, a claim to The True and Complete Theory of Computation At Last! would be difficult to present and defend. But I think a better approach is small and strong claims, rather than grand and flabby ones and full of false modesties.

  7. Carl Gillett

    Thanks for posting the link to BCS’s Age of Significance, it looks like really interesting stuff indeed.

    Couple of quick points.

    First, this is the intro — so give the guy a break! It would be crazy to weigh down the intro with citations to many people. We shall see what literature he engages in later chapters.

    Second, the introdction is an elegant and high quality peice of work, I enjoyed the definitions of things I am interested in. I don’t necessarily agree with everything, but it is nicely done.

    I am now looking forward to this and I will probably sign-up for the Chapter-a-Month club — a very nice idea. Like Dickens for philosophers, a chapter of the potboiler each month that we can sit around the fireplace and read.

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