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Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation

I just started reading Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (1984). Weizenbaum was not a philosopher. He was a computer science researcher at MIT who became a philosophical thinker when he began to grasp how the people around him had become overly entranced by the the computer metaphor of mind. Weizenbaum writes powerfully on the inadequacy of formal logic for dealing with human problems. Formal logic is not only the logic by which computers operate, but is also the narrow focus of most academic philosophy departments in the Anglo world. I quote him here at length:

Joseph Weizenbaum
Joseph Weizenbaum

“I want [teachers of computer science] to have heard me affirm that the computer is a powerful new metaphor for helping us understand many aspects of the world, but that it enslaves [a] mind that has no other metaphors and few other resources to call on.”

Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (1984) by Joseph Weizenbaum
Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (1984) by Joseph Weizenbaum

“Just because so much of a computer-science curriculum is concerned with the craft of computation, it is perhaps easy for the teacher of computer science to fall into the habit of merely training. But, were he to do that, he would surely diminish himself and his profession. He would also detach himself from the rest of the intellectual and moral life of the university. The univerity should hold before each of its citizens, and before the world at large as well, a vision of what is possible for a man or a woman to become. It does this by giving ever-fresh life to the ideas of men and women who, by virtue of their own achievements, have contributed to the house we live in. And it does this, for better or for worse, by means of the example each of the university’s citizens is for every other. The teacher of computer science, no more or less than any other faculty member, is in effect constantly inviting his students to become what he himself is. If he views himself as a mere trainer, as a mere applier of “methods” for achieving ends determined by others, then he does his students two disservices. First, he invites them to become less than fully autonomous persons. He invites them to become mere followers of other people’s orders, and finally no better than the machines that might someday replace them in that function. Second, he robs them of the glimpse of the ideas that alone purchase for computer science a place in the university’s curriculum at all. And in doing that, he blinds them to the examples that computer scientists as creative human beings might have provided for them, hence of their very best chance to become truly good computer scientists themselves.”

Computer Power and Human Reason is available on Amazon here.

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