Philosophy of Computer Science

Position Paper #1:

What Is Computer Science?

Last Update: 31 January 2010

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"; there really is such a place (almost)!).

In an attempt to build up the rival School of Engineering,
the newly-appointed Dean of Engineering has proposed to the Provost (the boss of both deans)
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.)

How do you respond to the Dean of Engineering's argument?
You may agree with it, or not (but there are several ways that might happen; see below).

You should ignore political considerations:
You may suppose that the move from Science to Engineering involves no loss or gain of money, prestige, or anything else,
and it is to be done, if at all, only on strictly intellectual grounds.

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.

To formulate and defend your position, you should:

  1. Say whether you agree that conclusion (3) logically follows from premises (1) and (2),and why you think it follows or doesn't.

  2. Say whether you agree with premise (1), and why you do or don't.

  3. Say whether you agree with premise (2), and why you do or don't.

  4. If you thought that there were missing premises that validated the argument,
    say whether you agree with them, and why you do or don't.

  5. If you think that the argument is logically invalid,
    you might still agree or disagree with conclusion (3)
    independently of the reasons given for it by premises (1) and (2) (and any missing premises).

It's also possible that you might neither agree nor disagree with (3);
alternatively, you might both agree and disagree with it.

And, if you are unsure about any of your answers,
try to be very precise about why you are unsure
and what further information would help you decide.

Other responses:

You might not agree with any of these ways to respond.

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:

For general assistance on analyzing arguments, see A Heuristic for Argument Analysis and the links at Argument Analysis

Ground Rules:

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

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

    Give as much detailed information as you can that would assist someone else to locate the item by themselves.

    (See the "How to Handle Citations" section of my "How to Write" for the proper way to do this.)

  3. Your position paper should be approximately (not including any bibliographic citations).

  4. Please bring to lecture on the due date.

  5. At the top of the page, please put all and only the following information:

    1. the title "Position Paper #1"
    2. your name
    3. the course you are enrolled in (CSE 484, CSE 584, or PHI 584)
    4. the due date.

    (The space taken up by this will not count against your total pages.)

  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 © 2004–2010 by William J. Rapaport (