Information-processing in Robotics, Biology and Philosophy
University of Birmingham,
author Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy, Science and Models of Mind
What can biologists, roboticists and philosophers learn from one another?
One of the major advances in computer science and software engineering has been the separation of virtual machines from physical implementation, allowing many different kinds of functionality to share the same physical basis. It is very likely that evolution also "discovered" the importance of that separation. Understanding what organisms do and how they do it may require us to shift the main focus of research on biological information-processing away from physical/chemical details towards investigation of the virtual machines used. That will require new ways of thinking about brains and other biological mechanisms.
Acknowledging the importance of virtual machines that process information and perform control functions has profound implications for philosophical investigations of the nature of causality, for it implies that events in virtual machines, can cause physical effects. Moreover, if engineers often find it useful to design and analyse complex systems in terms of the virtual machines involved rather than the specific physical mechanisms implementing them, the same could be true of biological and artificial systems that need to understand their own operations. From this viewpoint biological self-aware systems could to be construed as self-monitoring, self-modifying virtual machines that run on, but are different from, physical information-processing substrates. This has profound implications for several branches of philosophy, including, philosophy of mind, epistemology, philosophy of science and mathematics, and philosophical studies of free will. Questions about the nature of free-will are transformed in the context of virtual machines that are able to grow themselves ...
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© C J M Hewett, 2008