Virtual Machines in Philosophy, Engineering & Biology

Proceedings Workshop on Philosophy & Engineering WPE-2008, 2008
The concept of a virtual machine (VM), invented in the 20th Century can be shown to be important (a) for many engineering applications, (b) for theoretical computer science, (c) for understanding some of the major products of biological evolution (e.g. animal minds) and (d) for gaining new insights into several old philosophical problems, e.g. about the mind- body relationship, about qualia, and how to analyse concepts of mind by adopting the design stance in combination with the notion of an information processing architecture [1,2]. Analysing relations between different sets of requirements (niches) and designs for meeting the requirements exposes a space of possible minds (for animals and artifacts), raising new questions about evolution, about future intelligent machines, and about how concepts of mind should be understood. Most philosophers, biologists, psychologists and neuro-scientists completely ignore VMs, despite frequently (unwittingly) using them: e.g. for email, spreadsheets, text processing, or web-browsing. Academic philosophers generally ignore or misunderstand the philosophical significance of VMs. Pollock is a rare exception. Dennett often mentions virtual machines, but claims they are merely a useful fiction. Events in useful fictions cannot cause email to be sent or airliners to crash. I shall argue that thinking about VMs can have a significant impact on a collection of problems in several disciplines, and pose new problems for future empirical and philosophical research.


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