There is a lot of new material in my paper, and in particular a much more detailed analysis of the notion of computation than I’ve given elsewhere, and fairly extensive interaction with the literature on Searle’s argument for the observer-relativity of computation. Here are the opening paragraphs of the paper, which will give the interested reader an idea of what’s in it:
Talk of information, algorithms, software, and other computational notions is commonplace in the work of contemporary philosophers, cognitive scientists, biologists, and physicists. These notions are regarded as essential to the description and explanation of physical, biological, and psychological phenomena. Yet, a powerful objection has been raised by John Searle, who argues that computational features are observer-relative, rather than intrinsic to natural processes. If Searle is right, then computation is not a natural kind, but rather a kind of human artifact, and is therefore unavailable for purposes of scientific explanation.
In this paper, I argue that Searle’s objection has not been, and cannot be, successfully rebutted by his naturalist critics. I also argue, however, that computational descriptions do indeed track what Daniel Dennett calls “real patterns” in nature. The way to resolve this aporia is to see that the computational notions are essentially a recapitulation of the Aristotelian-Scholastic notions of formal and final causality, purportedly banished from modern science by the “mechanical philosophy” of Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton. Given this “mechanical” conception of nature, Searle’s critique of computationalism is unanswerable. If there is truth in computational approaches, then this can be made sense of, and Searle’s objection rebutted, but only if we return to a broadly Aristotelian-Scholastic philosophy of nature.
The plan of the paper is as follows. The next section (“From Scholasticism to Mechanism”) provides a brief account of the relevant Aristotelian notions and of their purported supersession in the early modern period. The third section (“The Computational Paradigm”) surveys the role computational notions play in contemporary philosophy, cognitive science, and natural science. The following section (“Searle’s Critique”) offers an exposition and qualified defense of Searle’s objection to treating computation as an intrinsic feature of the physical world—an objection that, it should be noted at the outset, is independent of and more fundamental than his famous “Chinese Room” argument. In the fifth section (“Aristotle’s Revenge”), I argue that the computational paradigm at issue essentially recapitulates certain key Aristotelian-Scholastic notions commonly assumed to have been long ago refuted and that a return to an Aristotelian philosophy of nature is the only way for the computationalist to rebut Searle’s critique. Finally, in “Theological Implications,” I explore ways in which computationalism, understood in Aristotelian terms, provides conceptual common ground between natural science, philosophy, and theology…
UPDATE 5/20: Readers who use Project MUSE can get online access to my article and the rest of the articles from the current issue of Nova et Vetera.