Computer Science and Philosophy

By Castelluccio, Michael | Strategic Finance, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Computer Science and Philosophy


Castelluccio, Michael, Strategic Finance


The University of Oxford began as a teaching institution in 1096, the same year as the commencement of the First Crusade. Last year, as the Academic Ranking of World Universities was finalized, Oxford was listed 10th best in the world and second best in Europe. It isn't entirely surprising then that the faculty at the venerable institution recently announced a new academic degree that weds the oldest formal science with one of the most modern.

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The first students studying for Oxford's newly minted computer science and philosophy degree began in 2012 at the Hertford College of the university. The school designated the first matriculates in the program as a "cohort"--appropriate for an institution that, until the 1960s, had demanded a proficiency in Latin from all applicants.

The computer science and philosophy degree isn't a major/minor designation with one discipline providing a basis for advanced study in the other. The study of Descartes's dualism and modern database design are coequals in the program abbreviated as CompPhil.

The Oxford online catalog offers two degrees in the program: "Computer Science and Philosophy can be studied for either three years, leading to a BA, or four years, leading to a Masters [sic] degree ... The degree brings together relevant courses from both subjects, concentrating on those close to the interface."

The interfaces identified by the course designers are at those points where philosophy and computer science gravitate together. There are the more obvious areas like artificial intelligence (AI), logic, robotics, ethics, virtual reality, epistemology, and metaphysics. "But there are also many others," Oxford's website says, "since the two disciplines share a broad focus on the representation of information and rational inference, embracing common interests in algorithms, cognition, intelligence, language, models, proof, and verification. Computer Scientists need to be able to reflect critically and philosophically about these, as they push forward into novel domains." Not only are the expanded horizons of AI considered relevant, but also are the new ethical considerations around privacy and intellectual property.

The balance of the two disciplines changes through the years in the program. There's an emphasis on computer science and reasoning in the first year. First-year students concentrate on computer science (50%), logic (25%), and philosophy (25%). The computer courses for freshmen include Functional Programming, Imperative Programming, Algorithms, Discrete Mathematics, and Probability. The philosophy first-year courses include General Philosophy, Elements of Deductive Logic, and a "bridging course on Alan Turing's work on Computability and Intelligence." Actually, a non-matriculating passer-by can get an in-class experience of the program on iTunes and YouTube. It happens that the professor overseeing the program, Peter Millican, who was a lecturer in computer science and philosophy at the University of Leeds for 20 years, has made the first general philosophy lectures available for free at iTunes U. Just download the app, and you can sit in on the lectures, view the slides, and download transcripts in PDF format. The general philosophy course series is an abbreviated historical overview of philosophy and the major personalities from Aristotle to John Locke. You can preview or subscribe at https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/general-philosophy/id381701319. Or check the 32 videos on YouTube (search for "General Philosophy Oxford" on www. …

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