The role of the environment in computational explanations

Abstract

The mechanistic view of computation contends that computational explanations are mechanistic explanations. Mechanists, however, disagree about the precise role that the environment – or the so-called “contextual level” – plays for computational explanations. We advance here two claims: Contextual factors essentially determine the computational identity of a computing system ; this means that specifying the “intrinsic” mechanism is not sufficient to fix the computational identity of the system. It is not necessary to specify the causal-mechanistic interaction between the system and its context in order to offer a complete and adequate computational explanation. While the first claim has been discussed before, the second has been practically ignored. After supporting these claims, we discuss the implications of our contextualist view for the mechanistic view of computational explanation. Our aim is to show that some versions of the mechanistic view are consistent with the contextualist view, whilst others are not.

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Oron Shagrir
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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