Roles for Morphology in Computation



From Pfeifer, Iida and Lungarella (2014)

Tomorrow I’m giving an invited talk in Gothenburg at the Symposium on Morphological Computing and Cognitive Agency, as part of the The International Society for Information Studies Summit 2017 (entitled — deep breath — “DIGITALISATION FOR A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY: Embodied, Embedded, Networked, Empowered through Information, Computation & Cognition!”).  Here’s my title and abstract:

Roles for Morphology in Computation

The morphological aspects of a system are the shape, geometry, placement and compliance properties of that system. On the rather permissive construal of computation as transformations of information, a correspondingly permissive notion of morphological computation can be defined: cases of information transformation performed by the morphological aspects of a system. This raises the question of what morphological computation might look like under different, less inclusive accounts of computation, such as the view that computation is essentially semantic. I investigate the possibilities for morphological computation under a particular version of the semantic view. First, I make a distinction between two kinds of role a given aspect might play in computations that a system performs: foreground role and background role. The foreground role of a computational system includes such things as rules, state, algorithm, program, bits, data, etc. But these can only function as foreground by virtue of other, background aspects of the same system: the aspects that enable the foreground to be brought forth, made stable/reidentifiable, and to have semantically coherent causal effect. I propose that this foreground/background distinction cross-cuts the morphological/non-morphological distinction. Specifically, morphological aspects of a system may play either role.

The Symposium will be chaired by Rob Lowe, and Gordana Dodig Crnkovic, and the other speakers include Christian Balkenius, Lorenzo Magnani, Yulia Sandamirskaya, Jordi Vallverdú, and John Spencer (and maybe Tom Ziemke and Marcin Schroeder?).

I’m also giving an invited talk the next day (Tuesday) as part of a plenary panel entitled: “What Would It Take For A Machine To Have Non-Reductive Consciousness?”  My talk is entitled “Computation and the Fate of Qualia”.  The other speakers are Piotr Bołtuć (moderator), Jack Copeland, Igor Aleksander, and Keith W. Miller.

Should be a fantastic few days — a shame I can’t stay for the full meeting, but I have to be back at Sussex in time for the Robot Opera Mini-Symposium on Thursday!


Functionalism, Revisionism, and Qualia

logoA paper by myself and Aaron Sloman, “Functionalism, Revisionism, and Qualia” has just been published in the APA Newsletter on Philosophy and Computing. (The whole issue looks fantastic – I’m looking forward to reading all of it, especially the other papers in the “Mind Robotics” section, and most especially the papers by Jun Tani and Riccardo Manzotti). Our contribution is a kind of follow-up to our 2003 paper “Virtual Machines and Consciousness”. There’s no abstract, so let me just list here a few of the more controversial things we claim (and in some cases, even argue for!):

  • Even if our concept of qualia is true of nothing, qualia might still exist (we’re looking at you, Dan Dennett!)
  • If qualia exist, they are physical – or at least their existence alone would not imply the falsity of physicalism (lots of people we’re looking at here )
  • We might not have qualia: The existence of qualia is an empirical matter.
  • Even if we don’t have qualia, it might be possible to build a robot that does!
  • The question of whether inverted qualia spectra are possible is, in a sense, incoherent.

If you get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear what you think.


The Embodied Nature of Computation



The next E-Intentionality seminar will be held Wednesday, June 8th from 13:00 to 14:50 in Pevensey 1 1A3.  Ron Chrisley will speak on “The Embodied Nature of Computation” as a dry run of his talk at a symposium (“Embodied Cognition: Constructivist and Computationalist Perspectives”) at IACAP 2016 next week:


Although embodiment-based critiques of computation’s role in explaining mind have at times been overstated, there are important lessons from embodiment which computationalists would do well to learn. For example, orthodox schemes for individuating computations are individualist, atemporal, and anti-semantical (formal), but considering the role of the body in cognition suggests by analogy that — even to explain extant information processing systems unrelated to cognitive science and artificial intelligence contexts — computations should instead be characterised in terms that are world-involving, dynamical and intentional/meaningful. Further, the counterfactual-involving nature of computational state individuation implies that sameness of computation is not in general preserved when one substitutes a non-living computational component with a living, autonomous, free organism that merely intends to realise the same functional profile as component being replaced. Thus, contra computational orthodoxy, there is no sharp divide between the computational facts and what is usually thought of as the implementational facts, even for unambiguously computational systems. The implications of this point for some famous disputes concerning group minds, and strong AI, will be identified.

Image from

The Mereological Constraint



E-Intentionality, February 26th 2016, Pevensey 2A11, 12:00-12:50

Ron Chrisley: The Mereological Constraint

I will discuss what I call the mereological constraint, which can be traced back at least as far as Putnam’s writings in the 1960s, and is the idea, roughly, that a mind cannot have another mind as a proper constituent.  I show that the implications (benefits?) of such a constraint, if true, would be far-ranging, allowing one to finesse the Chinese room and Chinese nation arguments against computationalism, reject certain notions of extended mind, reject most group minds, make a ruling on the modality of sensory substitution, etc.  But is the mereological conjecture true?  I will look at some possible arguments for the conjecture, including one that appeals to the fact that rationality must be grounded in the non-rational, and one that attempts to derive the constraint from a comparable one concerning the individuation of computational states.  I will also consider an objection to the conjecture, that argues that it would confer on us a priori knowledge of facts that are, intuitively, empirical.

Audio (28.5 mb, .mp3)