CSE 4/510 & PHI 498, Spring 2004

Position Paper #1: What Is Computer Science?

Last Update: 22 January 2003

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

The purpose of this position paper is to give you an opportunity to clarify your beliefs about what computer science is, so that as we continue to discuss the topic in class and as you continue to read about it, you'll know where you stand--what your beliefs are. Later, when your beliefs have been "contaminated" by further readings and by our discussions, you may wish to revise your beliefs. But you can't revise a belief that you don't have (you can only acquire new beliefs). So, here I am forcing you to discover, clarify, and defend the beliefs that you now have, by turning them into words and putting them on paper.

Imagine that you are the newly-appointed Dean of the School of Science at the University of Aix (pronounced like the letter "X"). In an attempt to build up the rival School of Engineering, the newly-appointed Dean of Engineering has proposed to the Provost (the Deans' boss) that the Department of Computer Science be moved--lock, stock, and computer, so to speak--to Engineering, on the following grounds:

  1. Science is the systematic observation, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.

  2. Computer science is the study of computers and related phenomena.

  3. Therefore, computer science is not a science.

(The Dean of Engineering has not yet argued that computer science is an engineering discipline; that may come later.)

You may agree with this argument; then again, you may not agree with it. You should ignore political considerations: you may suppose that the move from Science to Engineering involves no loss of money, prestige, or anything else, and it is to be done, if at all, only on strictly intellectual grounds. How might you respond to the Dean of Engineering's argument? The Provost is eagerly awaiting your reply, and will abide by your decision...if, that is, you give a well-argued defense of your position.

There are several possible responses that you might have:

Response 1:

You might disagree for any of 3 reasons:

  1. You believe that premise (1) is false.
  2. You believe that premise (2) is false.
  3. You believe that (1) and (2) are true but that conclusion (3) does not follow from them.
...or you might believe some combination of these.

Please explain to the Provost why you disagree, by explaining which of (a), (b), and/or (c) you do believe.

Response 2:

You might agree for any of the following reasons:

  1. You believe (1) and (2) and that (3) follows from them. If so, please explain to the Provost why you believe (1) and (2), and how (3) follows from them. (E.g., you might believe that "computers and related phenomena" are not "natural phenomena", or you might believe that computer science doesn't study them "sytematically", or....)

  2. You don't believe (1) or you don't believe (2), but you do believe (3), whether or not it follows from (1) and (2). If so, please explain why you don't believe (1) and/or (2) and what other reasons you have for believing (3).

Response 3:

You might neither agree nor disagree with (3); alternatively, you might both agree and disagree with it. For example, you might believe that computer science is both a science and an engineering discipline (or, alternatively, that it is neither). If so, then please give your reasons for this.

Other responses:

You might not agree with any of these responses. However, I believe that any other response can, perhaps with a bit of force, be seen to fall under one of the above Responses. But if you really feel that your position is not exactly characterized by any of the above Responses, then please say what your position is, why you believe it, and why you think it is not one of the above.

Ground Rules:

  1. If you resort to a dictionary, textbook, article, website, etc., be sure to say which one.

  2. Your answer should honestly reflect your beliefs (not what you think the fictional Provost or Dean of Engineering want to hear!).

  3. Your position paper should be approximately 
    1 typed page and double-spaced (i.e., about 250 words).

  4. Please bring
    5 copies
    to class on the due date.

  5. This paper only needs the title "Position Paper #1", your name, and the date at the top of the page.

  6. For general assistance with writing (including my preferred method of paper preparation and format, as well as advice on grammar), see my website "How to Write".

Copyright © 2004 by William J. Rapaport (rapaport@cse.buffalo.edu)
file: 510/pospaper1.2004.01.20.html