George Boole's work on Boolean logic is a basic foundational part of Computer Science, Bertrand Russell's work was influential on data types, Ludwig Wittgenstein invented truth tables, Logical Positivists were obsessed with classifying everything in the world as either true or false, Charles Sanders Pierce noticed that logical operations could be performed by electronically switching currents. Object-oriented programming has been compared by many to Plato's study of forms, although I have no idea if its inventors were actually influenced by it. It simply struck me as odd to see so many philosophers involved in foundational work in something that is not typically associated with Philosophy.

I myself see Computer Science and programming as a positively philosophical endeavor. Programmers create a purely abstract, synthetic implementation to solve a real world problem in an environment that scales through abstraction levels ranging from electronic logic gates, binary representations of numbers and data, more highly abstracted data types, and finally weaving through a complex and dynamic interaction of countless variables in some electronic playground we have created out of our own collective imaginations that then has to eventually produce output that somehow winds up being useful in the real world.

If that's not philosophy at work, then I believe I must be misunderstanding what philosophy is all about.

  • 1
    George Boole: Ok, Russell: partial. Wuttgenstein, Peirce, Logical Positivism: no real contribution at all to the development of Compter Science. The "founding fathers" (after some pionners, like Leibniz and Boole and Babbage) where Alan Turing and John von Neumann. Mar 12 '20 at 7:53
  • 1
  • Somewhere here there is a question about philosophy and artificial intelligence. Might be relevant.
    – puppetsock
    Mar 12 '20 at 13:45
  • The history of computer science before Presper Eckert and John Mauchley often pays a fast tribute to thinkers going back to the Antikythera mechanism, however, computer science is mostly interested in the birth and development of digital computers. If you're a computer science student, you certainly can learn a lot from the evolution of the Western Canon.
    – J D
    Mar 13 '20 at 2:59
  • I must say that I believe that truth tables are a huge foundational part of Computer Science. In fact, the entire world is nothing more than a complex interaction of truth tables. Mar 13 '20 at 4:16

Honestly, I don't think so. Boolean logic and truth tables aren't that complicated, given enough time really anybody could come up with similar logic. It was just inevitable that at some point someone actually did it, and someone else called it 'philosophy'.

But were these people fundamental to computer science and modern computer hardware? Not really. Modern computing, in my opinion, is likely the result of the contributions of probably hundreds of thousands of different people from all walks of life over the past millennia. You can't really pin a significant chunk of it to a few philosophers, or philosophy more broadly.


The situation is clouded because figures such as Leibnitz were both great mathematicians and great philosophers. Moreover Leibnitz once wrote how

"In imagining that there is a machine whose construct­ion would enable it to think, to sense, and to have perception, one could conceive it enlarged while retaining the same pro­portions, so that one could enter into it, just like into a mill. Supposing this, one should, when visiting within it, find only parts pushing one another, and never any­thing by which to explain a perception.

"Thus each organic body of a living being is a kind of divine machine or natural automaton which infinitely sur­passes all artificial automata."

A remarkable vision of an AI which can pass the Turing test, from the man who beat Newton to the calculus. And yes, I think it fair to say that Leibnitz' philosophical contribution to AI has been overlooked.

Indeed the key social issues of AI (currently little more than Machine Learning + Big Data) such as censorship, privacy, propaganda and personal safety are as much part of moral philosophy as anything else. As and when we start arguing whether Leibnitz was right or wrong and is a given Turing-competent AI therefore sentient, philosophy will truly return to computer science with a vengeance.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.