Monday, February 26, 2007

The implications of software

In the Dilbert Blog, Scott Adams ponders:

How does something that is NOT here touch something that IS here? It makes no sense.

I dont know if Mr Adams means that the something that is not here cannot be apprehended by the senses, hence it couldnt possibly touch the something that is here, OR if he means that the idea that something that isnt here touches something that is here is absurd, or impossible (makes no sense), but whatever it is he meant, I'll try to show that something that is 'not here' can touch something that 'is here' and it is occurring right now as you read this.

If you take a sledgehammer to your computer, smashing it into uselessness, did you do damage to its software? That is, if your computer is running, say, Windows 2000 with a whole suite of applications in it such as MS Word, Photoshop, Firefox, etc, did you, in bringing sledgehammer to the hardware, do damage to Windows 2000 and the other software installed in it?

I submit that you did not do any damage to the software at all. Being non-material, it is not subject to physical damage and decay. To say that you damaged the software is like saying you burned Hamlet when you tossed your copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare into the fire. When you smashed your computer with the sledgehammer, you damaged your computer hardware's ability to access the software, but the software itself was not damaged, nor can it be damaged by any means of entropy or physical violence. The software isnt located in the computer. It isnt located anywhere. It's a non-material phenomenon that exists independent of the hardware that runs it. Even killing all the software's authors and burning all their notebooks will not destroy the software.

But apart from the hardware, the software is useless. It contains the medium by which the hardware reads the software and follows its instructions. And apart from the software, the hardware is useless. Without the software, your computer is just an expensive paperweight. To be properly called a computer, your machine needs both.

If this sounds like a pitch for Mind-Body dualism, it's because it is. I believe the computer industry has laid to rest (for me at least) the issue because it offers answers to objections against it, particularly the argument articulated by The Dilbert Blog (although Dilbert wasnt objecting to dualism in that particular blog entry).

But I think the major objection to dualism doesnt come from its inability to answer the something-without-any-physical-properties-could-have-any-physical-effects question. I think the major objection to it comes from what it implies. As Ive tried to show above, mind is analogous to software, and software dont write themselves. Someone wrote it. It came from someone's mind, a product of someone's intelligence. Who wrote Mind 1.x? The physical evidence doesnt say, but as the experience of Mr Adams showed when he wrote about intelligent design theory, opponents of the theory will try to inject theology into the discussion even though the theory itself has no theology. They dont like the possibility that there might be other intelligence in the universe (or universes) that would be capable of making simple things like, say, other universes, especially when arguments like that open the door to religious people to wag their fingers at them and say, See? They hate that.

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