Pancomputationalism and the Computational Description of Physical Systems

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Anderson, Neal G.; Piccinini, Gualtiero
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According to pancomputationalism, all physical systems – atoms, rocks, hurricanes, and toasters – perform computations. Pancomputationalism seems to be increasingly popular among some philosophers and physicists. In this paper, we interpret pancomputationalism in terms of computational descriptions of varying strength—computational interpretations of physical microstates and dynamics that vary in their restrictiveness. We distinguish several types of pancomputationalism and identify essential features of the computational descriptions required to support them. By tying various pancomputationalist theses directly to notions of what counts as computation in a physical system, we clarify the meaning, strength, and plausibility of pancomputationalist claims. We show that the force of these claims is diminished when weaknesses in their supporting computational descriptions are laid bare. Specifically, once computation is meaningfully distinguished from ordinary dynamics, the most sensational pancomputationalist claims are unwarranted, whereas the more modest claims offer little more than recognition of causal similarities between physical processes and the most primitive computing processes.