How Aristotle Invented Computer Science

In pop­u­lar con­cep­tions, we take the com­put­er to be the nat­ur­al out­come of empir­i­cal sci­ence, an inher­i­tance of the Enlight­en­ment and sub­se­quent sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tions in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. Of course, mod­ern com­put­ers have their ancient pre­cur­sors, like the Antikythera Mech­a­nism, a 2,200-year-old bronze and wood machine capa­ble of pre­dict­ing the posi­tions of the plan­ets, eclipses, and phas­es of the moon. But even this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­fact fits into the nar­ra­tive of com­put­er sci­ence as “a his­to­ry of objects, from the aba­cus to the Bab­bage engine up through the code-break­ing machines of World War II.” Much less do we invoke the names of “philoso­pher-math­e­mati­cians,” writes Chris Dixon at The Atlantic, like George Boole and Got­t­lob Frege, “who were them­selves inspired by Leibniz’s dream of a uni­ver­sal ‘con­cept lan­guage,’ and the ancient log­i­cal sys­tem of Aris­to­tle.” But these thinkers are as essen­tial, if not more so, to com­put­er sci­ence, espe­cial­ly, Dixon argues, Aris­to­tle.

The ancient Greek thinker did not invent a cal­cu­lat­ing machine, though they may have exist­ed in his life­time. Instead, as Dixon writes in his recent piece, “How Aris­to­tle Cre­at­ed the Com­put­er,” Aris­to­tle laid the foun­da­tions of math­e­mat­i­cal log­ic, “a field that would have more impact on the mod­ern world than any oth­er.”

The claim may strike his­to­ri­ans of phi­los­o­phy as some­what iron­ic, giv­en that Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers like Fran­cis Bacon and John Locke announced their mod­ern projects by thor­ough­ly repu­di­at­ing the medieval scholas­tics, whom they alleged were guilty of a slav­ish devo­tion to Aris­to­tle. Their crit­i­cisms of medieval thought were var­ied and great­ly war­rant­ed in many ways, and yet, like many an empiri­cist since, they often over­looked the crit­i­cal impor­tance of Aris­totelian log­ic to sci­en­tif­ic thought.

At the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, almost three hun­dred years after Bacon sought to tran­scend Aristotle’s Organon with his form of nat­ur­al phi­los­o­phy, the for­mal log­ic of Aris­to­tle could still be “con­sid­ered a hope­less­ly abstract sub­ject with no con­ceiv­able appli­ca­tions.” But Dixon traces the “evo­lu­tion of com­put­er sci­ence from math­e­mat­i­cal log­ic” and Aris­totelian thought, begin­ning in the 1930s with Claude Shan­non, author of the ground­break­ing essay “A Sym­bol­ic Analy­sis of Switch­ing and Relay Cir­cuits.” Shan­non drew on the work of George Boole, whose name is now known to every com­put­er sci­en­tist and engi­neer but who, in 1938, “was rarely read out­side of phi­los­o­phy depart­ments.” And Boole owed his prin­ci­ple intel­lec­tu­al debt, as he acknowl­edged in his 1854 The Laws of Thought, to Aristotle’s syl­lo­gis­tic rea­son­ing.

Boole derived his oper­a­tions by replac­ing the terms in a syl­lo­gism with vari­ables, “and the log­i­cal words ‘all’ and ‘are’ with arith­meti­cal oper­a­tors.” Shan­non dis­cov­ered that “Boole’s sys­tem could be mapped direct­ly onto elec­tri­cal cir­cuits,” which hith­er­to “had no sys­tem­at­ic the­o­ry gov­ern­ing their design.” The insight “allowed com­put­er sci­en­tists to import decades of work in log­ic and math­e­mat­ics by Boole and sub­se­quent logi­cians.” Shan­non, Dixon writes, “was the first to dis­tin­guish between the log­i­cal and the phys­i­cal lay­er of com­put­ers,” a dis­tinc­tion now “so fun­da­men­tal to com­put­er sci­ence that it might seem sur­pris­ing to mod­ern read­ers how insight­ful it was at the time.” And yet, the field could not move for­ward with­out it—without, that is, a return to ancient cat­e­gories of thought.

Since the 1940s, com­put­er pro­gram­ming has become sig­nif­i­cant­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed. One thing that hasn’t changed is that it still pri­mar­i­ly con­sists of pro­gram­mers spec­i­fy­ing rules for com­put­ers to fol­low. In philo­soph­i­cal terms, we’d say that com­put­er pro­gram­ming has fol­lowed in the tra­di­tion of deduc­tive log­ic, the branch of log­ic dis­cussed above, which deals with the manip­u­la­tion of sym­bols accord­ing to for­mal rules.

Dixon’s argu­ment for the cen­tral­i­ty of Aris­to­tle to mod­ern com­put­er sci­ence takes many turns—through the qua­si-mys­ti­cal thought of 13th-cen­tu­ry Ramon Llull and, lat­er, his admir­er Got­tfried Leib­niz. Through Descartes, and lat­er Frege and Bertrand Rus­sell. Through Alan Tur­ing’s work at Bletch­ley Park. Nowhere do we see Aris­to­tle, wrapped in a toga, build­ing a cir­cuit board in his garage, but his modes of rea­son­ing are every­where in evi­dence as the scaf­fold­ing upon which all mod­ern com­put­er sci­ence has been built. Aristotle’s attempts to under­stand the laws of the human mind “helped cre­ate machines that could rea­son accord­ing to the rules of deduc­tive log­ic.” The appli­ca­tion of ancient philo­soph­i­cal prin­ci­ples may, Dixon con­cludes, “result in the cre­ation of new minds—artificial minds—that might some­day match or even exceed our own.” Read Dixon’s essay at The Atlantic, or hear it read in its entire­ty in the audio above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es

How the World’s Old­est Com­put­er Worked: Recon­struct­ing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mech­a­nism

The Books on Young Alan Turing’s Read­ing List: From Lewis Car­roll to Mod­ern Chro­mat­ics

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Roger Fuller says:

    Robert Record deserves some cred­it for using sym­bols to make math more vis­i­ble. He pop­u­lar­ized the equal sign.

    His Whet­stone of Whitte was in Eng­lish and con­tributed to that lan­guage enabling it’s speak­ers to jump ahead in tech.

    In comouter pro­gram­ming the LET oper­a­tor has been replaced be the equal sign.

    Final­ly, in Gen­e­sis, all of cre­ation begins with a Let.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.