Friday, October 11, 2013

Is computation observer-relative?

The 7th AISB Symposium on Computing and Philosophy:
Is computation observer-relative?

AISB-50, Goldsmiths, London, 1-4 April 2014

As part of the AISB-50 Annual Convention 2014 to be held at Goldsmiths, University of London

The convention is organised by the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB)


One of the claims integral to John Searle’s critique of computational cognitive science and ‘Strong AI’ was that computation is ‘observer-relative’ or ‘observer-dependent’ (Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, 1992). This claim has already proven to be very controversial in cognitive science and AI (Endicott 1996; Coulter & Sharrock, Rey, and Haugeland in Preston & Bishop (eds.), Views into the Chinese Room, 2002).

Those who come to the subject of computation via physics, for example, often argue that computational properties are physical properties, that is, that computation is ‘intrinsic to physics’. On such views, computation is comparable to the flow of information, where information is conceived of in statistical terms, and thus computation is both observer-independent and (perhaps) ubiquitous. Connected with this are related issues about causality and identity (including continuity of), as well as the question of alternative formulations of information.

This symposium seeks to evaluate arguments, such as (but not limited to) Searle’s, which bear directly on the question of what kind of processes and properties computational processes and properties are. It thus seeks to address the general question ‘What is computation?’ in a somewhat indirect way. Questions that might be tackled include: Are computational properties syntactic properties? Are syntactic properties discovered, or assigned? If they must be assigned, as Searle argues, does this mean they are or can be assigned arbitrarily? Might computational properties be universally realized? Would such universal realizability be objectionable, or trivialise computationalism? Is syntax observer-relative? What kinds of properties (if any) are observer-relative or observer-dependent? Is observer-relativity a matter of degree? Might the question of whether computation is observer-relative have different answers depending on what is carrying out the computation in question? Might the answer to this question be affected by the advent of new computing technologies, such as biologically- and physically-inspired models of computation? Is it time to start distinguishing between different meanings of ‘computation’, or is there still mileage in the idea that some single notion of computation is both thin enough to cover all the kinds of activities we call computational, and yet still informative (non-trivial)? Does Searle’s idea that syntax is observer-relative serve to support, or instead to undermine, his famous ‘Chinese Room argument’?


Questions of ontology and epistemology


Is computation an observer relative phenomenon? What implications do answers to this question have for the doctrine of computationalism?


Does computation (the unfolding process of a computational system) define a natural kind? If so, how do we differentiate the computational from the non-computational?


To what extent and in what ways can we say that computation is taking place in natural systems? Are the laws of natural processes computational? Does a rock implement every input-less FSA (Putnam, Chalmers)? Is the evolution of the universe computable as the output of an algorithm? I.e. is the temporal evolution of a state of the universe a digital informational process akin to what goes on in the circuitry of a computer? Digital ontology' (Zuse), "the nature of the physical universe is ultimately discrete"; cf. Kant's distinction - from the antinomies of pure reason - of "simple parts" and no simple parts; the discrete and the analogue.


Computation in machines and computation in nature; Turing versus non-Turing computation


Investigating the difference between formal models of physical and biological systems and physical/biological reality-in-itself and the implication(s) for theory of mind / cognition.

(a)  The study of 'computation' using natural processes / entities (i.e. machines not exclusively based on [man-made] silicon-based architectures).
(b)  What is the underlying nature of such natural [physical/biological] computational processes? I.e. are the laws of natural processes computational at their very core OR merely contingently computational because the mathematical language we use to express them is biased towards being computational?


Submissions must be full papers and should be sent via EasyChair:

Text editor templates from a previous convention can be found at: <>

We request that submitted papers are limited to eight pages. Each paper will receive at least two reviews. Selected papers will be published in the general proceedings of the AISB Convention, with the proviso that at least ONE author attends the symposium in order to present the paper and participate in general symposium activities.


      i. Full paper submission deadline: 3 January 2014
      ii. Notification of acceptance/rejection decisions: 3 February 2014
      iii. Final versions of accepted papers (Camera ready copy): 24 February 2014
      iv. Convention: 1st - 4th April 2014, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK [symposium date to be confirmed]

There will be separate proceedings for each symposium, produced before the Congress, and available to conference delegates. In previous years there have been awards for the best student paper, and limited student bursaries. These details will be circulated as and when they become available. Authors of a selection of the best papers will be invited to submit an extended version of the work to a journal special issue.


Symposium Chair: Dr. John Preston, Department of Philosophy, The University of Reading, Reading, UK.
                  tel. +44 (0) 118 378 7327
                  web page: <http://>

Symposium Executive-Officer and OC member: Dr. Yasemin J. Erden, CBET, St Mary's University College, Twickenham, UK.

tel: +44 (0) 208 224 4250
web page: <>

Symposium OC Member: Prof. Mark Bishop, Department of Computing, Goldsmiths, University of London, London, UK.

tel: +44 (0) 207 078 5048
web page: <>

Symposium OC member: Prof. Slawomir J Nasuto, School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading, Reading, UK.

tel: +44 (0) 118 378 6701
web page: <>




Dr Mark Coeckelbergh (University of Twente, NL)

Prof. S. Barry Cooper (University of Leeds, UK)

Dr. Anthony Galton (University of Exeter, UK)

Dr Bob Kentridge (Durham University, UK)

Dr Stephen Rainey (St Mary's University College, UK)

Dr Mark Sprevak (University of Edinburgh, UK)

Prof. Michael Wheeler (University of Stirling, UK) 

Dr Yasemin J. Erden
Lecturer/Programme Director Philosophy
St Mary's University College
Waldegrave Road
Twickenham, TW1 4SX
United Kingdom
AISB Committee member (Schools Liaison)

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