Computer Science and Philosophy Have More in Common Than You’d Think

Can studying both help us face the future we’re creating?
Tammy Xu
Staff Reporter
October 21, 2021
Updated: October 27, 2021
Tammy Xu
Staff Reporter
October 21, 2021
Updated: October 27, 2021

Peter Millican had no intention of majoring in philosophy when he first arrived at college in 1976 on a math scholarship.

But he found himself, as many do in college, having long, interesting conversations with his peers that touched on philosophical subjects. “Life, the universe and everything, as they say,” Millican said.

That experience sparked his interest to make the switch. He graduated with a philosophy degree and eventually became a lecturer of computer science and philosophy at the University of Leeds, where he focused on bridging the gap between the computer science and philosophy departments.

Millican recognizes that having an interest in both computer science and philosophy seems strange to a lot of people. In some ways, the two fields couldn’t be more different: Computer science is among the most marketable degrees available, while philosophy is often the punchline of jokes about useless college degrees. As Millican put it, for a lot of people, philosophy conjures up images of people in bars “sounding off on things that they feel strongly about.”

What Do Computer Science and Philosophy Have in Common?

Computer science and philosophy share a foundation rooted in logical reasoning. While computer scientists and programmers use a mathematical and symbolic form of logic to build hardware and software products, philosophy uses words to logically examine ideas and concepts.

The truth is the two subjects have a lot in common. Both are built on a foundation of logical reasoning — only for computers, logic is used to build hardware and software programs, and in philosophy, it’s used to build and examine ideas. Many of history’s famous philosophers were also mathematicians, or known as “natural philosophers,” like René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Galileo.

“There’s a lot of intellectual affinity between the two,” Millican said. “Technical reasoning can sometimes seem a little bit arid. Thinking about life, thinking about the nature of morals, the existence of God, how much we know about the world, what is possible to know — they’re just very, very interesting problems.”

These days, Millican is a professor at the University of Oxford and creator of the university’s degree program in computer science and philosophy. That program — and others like it at universities such as the University of Illinois, Purdue University and Northwestern University — are a timely trend. As technology becomes more prominent in every aspect of life, it’s become apparent that we can’t afford to not consider its place in society and the ways people interact with and are affected by it.

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Philosophy Teaches You to Challenge Your Assumptions

The computer science and philosophy program at Oxford was created in 2010. Students take computer science courses alongside CS students and read philosophical works. They study in small classes and practice discussing ideas and analyzing their points of view. One of the most popular courses in the program is a close reading of two papers Alan Turing wrote on computing and intelligence, which introduced the idea of computers and artificial intelligence. Students learn to navigate going back and forth between understanding difficult technical and philosophical concepts.

“People tend to pigeonhole subjects in a way that’s rather unhelpful,” Millican said. “They’ll say, ‘Philosophy is an art subject, computer science is a science subject,’ or maybe, ‘Philosophy is an impractical subject, whereas computer science is a practical subject.’”

Millican doesn’t agree with that type of binary thinking — fundamentally, both use logical reasoning to solve conceptual problems.

“With philosophy, you’re doing it mainly using words as your tools, words as vehicles of logical thinking,” he said. “In computer science, you’re doing it in mathematical terms or symbolic terms.”

The two subjects can complement each other. For most of history, Millican said, humans have been reactive instead of proactive about the social and economic changes caused by technological advancement. But Millican said technological change is accelerating because software is now driving these changes rather than hardware and isn’t bound by the same physical limitations. There might not be an acceptable alternative other than dealing with it proactively.

“Society has tended in general to get by with muddling through learning in real time how to cope with all sorts of practical problems,” he said. “[Now] the risk is that huge damage is done before we’ve even got to grips with what the problems are. You desperately need people who can think in advance and anticipate those problems, and think in imaginative ways around ways of solving them.”

“Philosophers have been asking themselves questions, which most people would think completely mad.”

For some, big advances in digitization and automation signal a not-so-distant future, sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that will drastically affect wages, jobs and the availability of work. That’s a concern because most countries’ social and economic policies still assume that a single wage earner can support a family by working full time, Millican said.

“Suddenly, somebody invents the perfect automated driver — that puts all the drivers out of work,” he said. “Automated shop worker, automated factory floor, everything — suddenly, you have a very wide range of your population whose activity is simply not economically worth enough for them to be able to support a family, even with two of them working.”

Society needs to address these concerns, and the study of philosophy can help by training students to face difficult questions. Students in technical fields encounter plenty of problems and learn to work out technical solutions to them, but all of those solutions still function within existing frameworks. Philosophy students learn to examine even basic assumptions about the world, stripping away old frameworks and learning to rely on their own logical reasoning. The practice helps illuminate assumptions society often takes for granted.

“Philosophers have been asking themselves questions, which most people would think completely mad,” Millican said, like questioning whether the world we sense around us is real. “Here I am at my desk. I can see it, I can touch it — and then I ask, ‘Is there really a desk?’ What if I am a brain in a vat? What if there is an evil demon, like Descartes hypothesized, deceiving me into thinking that there is a desk?”

Outside the classroom, these exercises train students to not take things for granted.

“What I’m doing is practicing thinking outside the standard assumptions,” Millican said. “When somebody says, ‘Well, suppose the economic assumptions on which our society is based no longer hold?’ I’m not going to suffer the same kind of vertigo as someone who’s never had to think about anything fundamentally different from the usual assumption.”

 

Tech Already Poses Philosophical Questions

Carl Gunter, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches security and privacy issues in tech, often sees the intersection between technology and philosophical issues.

Currently, one of Gunter’s research topics is genomics, which examines the effects of technological advancements in gene sequencing on society. Services like 23andMe have made genetic testing widely accessible and have already impacted law enforcement and individual privacy. Data from these companies have been used by law enforcement to trace evidence from crime scenes back to perpetrators, like in the case of the Green River killer.

“Some of these things bump up against topics that are part of the traditional philosopher repertoire,” Gunter said. “One of the themes we see all the time with the internet is how much it should be regulated … How much do we need to get involved with regulation to try to control the potential harms while preserving the potential benefits of things?”

These questions don’t have easy or correct solutions, and having both technical and philosophical skills is necessary for addressing them. A technical foundation is essential for understanding the issue and the limits of possible solutions. But it’s just as important to have real and substantial conversations on these topics in order to make real progress, which can be difficult.

“How much do we need to get involved with regulation to try to control the potential harms while preserving the potential benefits of things?”

“Very often, you find that arguments trade on subtle ambiguity,” Millican said. If those subtleties aren’t handled with care, they can cause misunderstandings and stalemates. “Problems can arise, even when everyone concerned is approaching it in a spirit of goodwill — but they just end up talking past each other, and they can end up thinking worse of the other side.”

He pointed to high-profile cases, such as Facebook’s congressional hearings in 2020, where public officials and tech industry leaders talk about technology regulations. Even the language each side uses can cause such problems — but philosophical training teaches students to work past those issues to get to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to dismiss arguments once you assign bad motivations to their proponents. But when people do that, the danger is that the reality is often what can get ignored.

“We want to get to the truth,” Millican said. “If you want to get to the truth, you don’t just engage with rubbish arguments, you try to get the best arguments and put them on and see where they lead.”

 

Philosophy Can Benefit From Computer Science Innovations Too

Combined computer science and philosophy programs are part of a larger trend at universities to integrate computing into more fields of study. Christopher Yeomans, head of the philosophy department at Purdue University, said philosophy is a popular double major or second major at universities. Purdue recently began offering programs that combine computer science or data science with philosophy. Students in the programs learn about topics like machine learning, statistical approaches to knowledge, and issues around privacy and security.

The initial motivation for the program was to allow students the opportunity to study philosophy in depth without being weighed down by burdensome requirements from both departments, he said. The initiative reduced the total number of core curricula students had to satisfy for multiple majors, making it easier for curious computer science students to study philosophy too.

“We had long hoped to partner with computer science because we have tons of computer science students in our philosophy classes,” Yeomans said.

“What counts as intelligence? What counts as knowledge? Is machine learning really learning?”

When people think of philosophy and computer science they tend to jump straight to ethical or political issues, but there are plenty of other interesting areas to explore besides ethics, Yeomans said.

“What counts as intelligence? What counts as knowledge? Is machine learning really learning?” he said. “You have these issues about the explicability of machine learning outcomes, questions about what counts as making choices, what counts as being a responsible agent, what counts as being an autonomous agent — there’s a whole huge range of interesting philosophical questions that can be brought to bear here.”

Computers can be a useful tool for exploring the subject of philosophy in new ways.

“Philosophers, for millennia, have been concerned about the systematization of logical thinking,” Millican said. “What computers do is bring to a reality the kind of automation of reasoning which philosophers have dreamed of.”

Students in high school generally haven’t had exposure to philosophy. It’s a disservice to students when prevailing notions about career paths “closes students eyes to the possibility of doing a joint degree,” he said.

“The kind of people [the program] is turning out are people that society absolutely needs,” Millican said. “Not just for airy fairy speculative thinking, but practical solving of real world problems which we have to address now.”

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Philosophy Is More Accessible Than You Assume

Each university’s program is different and it can be difficult to find the right balance between computer science and philosophy course requirements. Yeomans said it’s important to create a flexible curriculum so that students aren’t overwhelmed by core classes and requirements. 

Stanford, for instance, launched its CS + X pilot program in 2014 and stopped accepting new students into the program just a few years later due to low enrollment, which some students in the program attributed to the large workload and difficulty integrating the two sides of the program.

That inability to integrate the two sides is a common concern for many programs. Purdue hopes to add capstone projects co-taught by faculty members from each department and incorporating lessons from both fields on a specific project and problem.

But Jordan Mayer, who graduated from Purdue last year with a computer science and philosophy double major, said the benefits gained from studying both were worthwhile in many ways. He was surprised to find that the skills he picked up in philosophy classes applied to his job after graduation.

“I didn’t realize until I got a job as a software engineer how much of that job would just be talking to people and trying to agree what on we’re going to do before we actually go and code something,” Mayer said.

“I didn’t realize until I got a job as a software engineer how much of that job would just be talking to people and trying to agree on what we’re going to do.”

It was useful to have practiced analyzing various lines of reasoning from classes like Critical Thinking and Theory of Knowledge. And he was also grateful for learning to look at disagreements in a different way — not assuming that they were due to one person being smarter than the other, but as a result of people each trying to think through things logically from different starting points.

The reading material philosophy classes cover also taught him to synthesize large amounts of complex ideas and communicate them effectively, which comes in handy working with other developers and non-technical stakeholders

“That was super useful in teaching the skill that I feel every everyone who’s a programmer engineer should have, which is, ‘How do you take something really complex and explain it concisely and simply in a way that makes sense to everyone?’” Mayer said.

Philosophy isn’t a subject that only those studying the arts should have access to. Despite its reputation, philosophy is a fundamentally accessible topic because it’s something humans already do naturally — ask questions about themselves and the world they live in. 

Mayer said he was glad that an AI class he took within the computer science department not only delved into the technical aspects of AI, but also engaged students in discussions of what the technology would mean for society.

“Most computer science people do find these discussions interesting, have opinions about them and enjoy having a platform to share them,” Mayer said. “Everyone wants to have these discussions, even if they’re not in a dual philosophy program.”

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