What strikes me as interesting is that the possibility of explanations of what we think of as the biological kind in terms of function rather than in terms of (the building blocks) physics and chemistry, what we are made of, have come under more attention recently as a result of computer science.
This raises something that I’m particularly interested in when we talk about computer science that is the interaction between our technology in the case of computers and philosophy, not just science and philosophy.
Computers were originally constructed on the basis of a self-conscious analogy with the human mind. However as they became more and more sophisticated, we began to learn things from them about the human mind. So, our construction of computers and what they then tell us about ourselves seems to actually proceed by interactive growth.
The interesting thing about the computer case is one might have thought that the rise of the computer would encourage a certain kind of vulgar materialism. And the idea is saying that we are machines, and everything about us can be explained in terms of physics and chemistry. Paradoxically, the real effect of the computer on psychology and on the philosophy of mind has been a decrease in that kind of reductionism.
The thing about the computer is, when we work with computers, we very rarely have to think about their physics and chemistry. There’s a distinction that people draw between their “software” — meaning their program, their instructions, their rules, the way they do things — and their “hardware”. And generally, we ignore their hardware and we talk about computers at the software level.
And we wouldn’t really be able to explain what they do in a way that would be of any use to anyone in terms of the hardware level. There is a kind of emergency here, although it’s not a mystical kind of emergency, it is not that they are re violating the laws of physics. It’s just that the higher level of facts about the organization has a kind of autonomy.
If you apply this to the mind, it suggests a return to a view of the mind that I associated with Aristotle. It is the view that we are not “ghosts in a machine”, not spirits which are only temporarily in bodies, but that the relation between the mind and the body is a relation of function to what has that function.
Finally, Aristotle said, “If you used the word ‘soul’ in connection with an ax, you would say the soul of an ax is cutting, the soul of the eye is seeing.” And he thought of man as a thing that thinks.