Brian Cantwell Smith
Professor Brian Cantwell Smith's research focuses on the conceptual foundations of computation, information, and cognitive science, and on the use of computational metaphors in such fields as biology, physics, and art. These investigations have increasingly led him into metaphysics -- specifically, to an attempt to lay out a systematic metaphysics that aims (i) to steer a path between realism and constructivism, (ii) to account for the integrated emergence of subject and object, and (iii) to reconcile our causal and normative understandings of the world ("matter" and "mattering"). A first cut at this project was first described in On the Origin of Objects (MIT, 1996). A multi-volume study of the foundations of computing, The Age of Significance, is being simultaneously published by MIT Press and serially, on the web, over a period of five or six years (at www.ageofsig.org).
Smith moved to University of Toronto from Duke University in 2003, where he was Kimberly J Jenkins University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and New Technologies, Professor in the departments of Philosophy and Computer Science, and Director of the Center for Rethinking Science and Technology (CREST). Before moving to Duke he was for five years Professor of Cognitive Science, Computer Science, and Philosophy, and Assistant Director of the Cognitive Science Program.
Earlier he was principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and adjunct professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. He was a founder of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University (CSLI), a founder and first President of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), and President (1998-99) of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP).
Smith received his BS, MS and PhD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1974, 1978, 1982). His doctoral dissertation introduced the notion of computational reflection in programming languages, still an area of active research in computer science. Previous publications in computer science have addressed questions in computational reflection, meta-level architecture, programming languages, and knowledge representation. He is on the editorial board of several journals in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and philosophy.
Before coming to Duke, he taught at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, he was principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and adjunct professor of philosophy at Stanford University. He was a founder of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University (CSLI) , a founder and first President of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) , and is President (1998-99) of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP) . Smith received his BS , MS and PhD degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1974, 1978, 1982). He is on the editorial board of several journals in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and philosophy. Smith's research focuses on the foundations and philosophy of computing, both in the practice and theory of computer science, and in the use of computational metaphors in other fields -- such as philosophy, cognitive science, physics, and art. His doctoral dissertation introduced the notion of computational reflection in programming languages -- an area of active ongoing research in computer science. Past publications have addressed questions in computational reflection, meta-level architecture, programming languages, and knowledge representation. Over the last decade, his work has focused on fundamental issues in the foundations of epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics.
Professor Cantwell Smith was Dean of the Faculty of Information at University of Toronto from 2003-2008, and is currently a Professor in the Information, Philosophy and Computer Science faculties.
Professor Cantwell Smith initiated a seven-volume series publication of his major life work entitled Age of Significance, which provides a sustained, systematic philosophical analysis of the foundation of computation and intentionality.
Project on the foundations of computing
Many mainstay notions of programming practice remain in need of adequate conceptual analysis: symbol, representation, algorithm, information, effectiveness, implementation, object, abstraction, modularity, data, etc. The aim of the Foundations of Computing project is to develop a richly-textured foundational theory of computing that makes explicit our tacit understanding of these notions-intuitions that run deep in any working programmer. The first phase of the project involves analyzing six reigning models of computation: the Turing-theoretic notion of effective computability, cognitive science's conception of formal symbol manipulation, intuitions about rule-following and algorithm execution, the idea of a digital or discrete state machine, several models of information processing, and Newell & Simon's notion of a "physical symbol system". In spite of various well-known equivalence proofs, these models are all conceptually distinct, rest on separate intellectual footings, and apply to different real-world phenomena. Critical analysis shows, moreover, that not one of these models, nor any group in combination, can simultaneously meet three key criteria: (a) empirical adequacy, in the sense of doing justice to extant computational practice (e.g., explaining Microsoft Word); (b) conceptual adequacy, in the sense of discharging all unpaid intellectual debts, such as to semantics; and (c) cognitive adequacy, in the sense of explaining the content of the computational theory of mind. Nevertheless, the models rest on important intuitions and insights: such as about the constraints of concrete mechanism (implicit in the effective computability construal), and about the non-efficacy of at least some aspects of semantics (constitutive to the notion of formal symbol manipulation). The second phase of the project is to formulate a tenable alternative theory of computing, one that not only meets all three criteria, but also does justice to the intuitions underlying prior views. Achieving this goal, it is argued, requires developing a new metaphysics: one that, steering between realism and constructivism, provides new accounts of intentionality (semantics), ontology (objects), and "registration," a proposed replacement for the notion of representation. The results of the analysis of computation are being reported in a series of books, collectively entitled The Age of Significance: An Essay on the Foundations of Computation and Intentionality. The metaphysics to which the study has led is presented in On the Origin of Objects, M.I.T. Press, 1996.
Project on computational ontology
Real-world computer systems involve extraordinarily complex issues of identity. Often, objects that for some purposes are best treated as unitary, single, or "one", are for other purposes better distinguished, treated as several. Thus we have one program; but many copies. One procedure; many call sites. One call site; many executions. One product; many versions. One Web site; multiple servers. One url; several documents (also: several urls; one Web site). One file; several replicated copies (maybe synchronized). One function; several algorithms; myriad implementations. One variable; different values over time (as well as multiple variables; the same value). One login name; several users. And so on. Dealing with such identity questions is a recalcitrant issue that comes up in every corner of computing, from such relatively simple cases as Lisp's distinction between eq and equal to the (in general) undecidable question of whether two procedures compute the same function. The aim of the Computational Ontology project is to focus on identity as a technical problem in its own right, and to develop a calculus of generalized object identity, one in which identity -- the question of whether two entities are the same or different -- is taken to be a dynamic and contextual matter of perspective, rather than a static or permanent fact about intrinsic structure.
On the Origin of Objects, M.I.T. Press, 1996
"The Third Day" in Adam Lowe et al., Registration Marks, London: Pomeroy-Purdy Press; 1992: pp. 23-33.
"The Owl and the Electric Encyclopaedia," Artificial Intelligence, 47 (1991); pp. 251-288; reprinted in David Kirsh, ed., Foundations of Artificial Intelligence, MIT 1992.
"The Semantics of Clocks," in James Fetzer, ed., Aspects of Artificial Intelligence, Kluwer, 1988
"Varieties of Self-Reference," in Joseph Halpern, ed., Theoretical Aspects of Reasoning about Knowledge: Morgan Kaufmann; 1986, pp. 19-43.
"Limits of Correctness in Computers," SIGCAS 1985, 14:4, pp. 18-26. Reprinted in T. R. Colburn et al., eds., Program Verification, Kluwer 1993, pp. 275-293.
"Reflection and Semantics in Lisp," POPL 1984, pp 23-35