Philosophy & Informatics, and a future for computer science

I just returned from attending an interesting and lively workshop about philosophy and informatics that had as this year’s theme bio(med), which was held at the DFKI building on the campus of Saarland University in Saarbrücken and co-organised by the Philosophy and Informatics SIG of Germany [1] and IFOMIS [2].

Apart from the occasional comment that informaticians are just teenagers, the atmosphere was generally constructive. Topics varied from developing Aristotelian ontologies with OWL to Gestalt & mereology to (ontology) fusion, and then some. One of the contributions that generated much discussion (and will continue to do so I think) was about the (future) role of computer science in the 21st century by Dieter Fensel and Dieter Wolf [3].

Fensel and Wolf propose that computer science will become the foundation of the sciences because it has information processing and knowledge management (and goal-oriented services) at its core. From that perspective, physics, biology and neuroscience are then branches of computer sciences as they deal with specific types/sections of information and knowledge management. But not everybody sees computer science in that light.
There is the (longstanding?) debate if all knowledge can be captured in axioms or not, and even if it can, this does not mean the computer can do something with it (cf. undecidability, intractability, approximations, …). The argument that the human mind is more and more complex featured prominently; the magic of the mind versus the descartian machine methaphor. Then there were some issues regarding the from-data-to-information-to-knowledge sequence, which features clearly in undergraduate informatics courses, but, as it appeared, has not penetrated study programmes of other disciplines.
Then there is the ‘traditional’ philosophy of science, but this did not make it to a discussion point. Recollecting my philosophy of science course, they taught that, aside from philosophy as the foundation for the sciences, there is the dogmatic/established view that there are somehow ‘layers’, where the core sciences are its basis (e.g. cell physiology, physics), the applied sciences bring knowledge of a few core sciences together in a context (e.g. biomedicine, food science), technology/engineering brings it to the application stage and ‘enables’ scientific research, and practice really implements it. Then the knowledge generated at each layer sort of flows in the direction from core to practice, with few examples the other way around (i.e. that some technology just works, but scientifically the “why” is not known yet). Some (sub-)sub-disciplines of informatics can be considered applied mathematics, others as technology. To put that at the basis is like saying that all biology rests on medicine and health care. Or maybe the analogy does not hold.

Talking about the scientific role of computer sciences, be it now or in the (near) future, assumes it is known to both informaticians (computer scientists) and others what exactly computer science is. Research activities currently categorized under computer science are quite diverse, and contents of BSc & MSc degrees in different countries, even at different universities in the same country, vary widely and do not only comprise “scientific and technological aspects of (automated) information processing” (the definition of informatics/computer science according to my dictionary).
Before discussing the role of computer science, it may be useful to clarify what is computer science. But if one adheres to the information processing and knowledge management essence, then it may well be that the role of computer science is to function as the foundation of the other sciences, which would amount to an interesting paradigm shift – at least it provides some food for thought for philosophers of science.

[1] Philosophy and Informatics SIG

[2] Institute for Formal Ontology in Medical Information Science (IFOMIS)

[3] Fensel, D., Wolf, D. The Scientific Role of Computer Science in the 21st Century. Third International Workshop on Philosophy and Informatics (WSPI06), Saarbrücken, 3-4 May 2006. pp33-46. Online proceedings


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