In defense of the semantic view of computation

Oron Shagrir*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


The semantic view of computation is the claim that semantic properties play an essential role in the individuation of physical computing systems such as laptops and brains. The main argument for the semantic view (“the master argument”) rests on the fact that some physical systems simultaneously implement different automata at the same time, in the same space, and even in the very same physical properties (“simultaneous implementation”). Recently, several authors have challenged this argument (Piccinini in Philos Stud 137:205–241, 2008, Piccinini in Physical computation: a mechanistic account, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015; Coelho Mollo in Synthese 195:3477–3497, 2018; Dewhurst in Br J Philos Sci 69:103–116, 2018). They accept the premise of simultaneous implementation but reject the semantic conclusion. In this paper, I aim to explicate the semantic view and to address these objections. I first characterize the semantic view and distinguish it from other, closely related views. Then, I contend that the master argument for the semantic view survives the counter-arguments against it. One counter-argument is that computational individuation is not forced to choose between the implemented automata but rather always picks out a more basic computational structure. My response is that this move might undermine the notion of computational equivalence. Another counter-argument is that while computational individuation is forced to rely on extrinsic features, these features need not be semantic. My reply is that the semantic view better accounts for these extrinsic features than the proposed non-semantic alternatives.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)4083-4108
Number of pages26
Issue number9
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Computation
  • Externalism
  • Implementation
  • Individuation
  • Mechanism
  • Semantic properties


Dive into the research topics of 'In defense of the semantic view of computation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this