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The Philosophy of Computer Science

The philosophy of computer science is concerned with the ontological
and methodological issues arising from within the academic discipline
of computer science, and from the practice of software development and
its commercial and industrial deployment. More specifically, the
philosophy of computer science considers the ontology and epistemology
of computational systems, focusing on problems associated with their
specification, programming, implementation, verification and testing.
The complex nature of computer programs ensures that many of the
conceptual questions raised by the philosophy of computer science have
related ones in the
philosophy of mathematics,
the philosophy of empirical sciences, and the
philosophy of technology.
We shall provide an analysis of such topics that reflects the layered
nature of the ontology of computational systems in Sections 1–5;
we then discuss topics involved in their methodology in Sections

1. Computational Systems

Computational systems are widespread in everyday life. Their design,
development and analysis are the proper object of study of the
discipline of computer science. The philosophy of computer science
treats them instead as objects of theoretical analysis. Its first aim
is to define such systems, i.e., to develop an ontology of
computational systems. The literature offers two main approaches on
the topic. A first one understands computational systems as defined by
distinct ontologies for software and hardware, usually taken to be
their elementary components. A different approach sees computational
systems as comprising several other elements around the
software-hardware dichotomy: under this second view, computational
systems are defined on the basis of a hierarchy of levels of
abstraction, arranging hardware levels at the bottom of such a
hierarchy and extending upwards to elements of the design and
downwards to include the user. In the following we present these two

1.1 Software and Hardware

Usually, computational systems are seen as composed of two
ontologically distinct entities: software and hardware. Algorithms,
source codes, and programs fall in the first category of abstract
entities; microprocessors, hard drives, and computing machines are
concrete, physical entities.

Moore (1978) argues that such a duality is one of the three myths of
computer science, in that the dichotomy software/hardware has a
pragmatic, but not an ontological, significance. Computer programs, as
the set of instructions a computer may execute, can be examined both
at the symbolic level, as encoded instructions, and at the physical
level, as the set of instructions stored in a physical medium. Moore
stresses that no program exists as a pure abstract entity, that is,
without a physical realization (a flash drive, a hard disk on a
server, or even a piece of paper). Early programs were even hardwired
directly and, at the beginning of the computer era, programs consisted
only in patterns of physical levers. By the software/hardware
opposition, one usually identifies software with the symbolic level of
programs, and hardware with the corresponding physical level. The
distinction, however, can be only pragmatically justified in that it
delimits the different tasks of developers. For them, software may be
given by algorithms and the source code implementing them, while
hardware is given by machine code and the microprocessors able to
execute it. By contrast, engineers realizing circuits implementing
hardwired programs may be inclined to call software many physical
parts of a computing machine. In other words, what counts as software
for one professional may count as hardware for another one.

Suber (1988) goes even further, maintaining that hardware is a kind of
software. Software is defined as any pattern that is amenable to being
read and executed: once one realizes that all physical objects display
patterns, one is forced to accept the conclusion that hardware, as a
physical object, is also software. Suber defines a pattern as
“any definite structure, not in the narrow sense that requires
some recurrence, regularity, or symmetry” (1988, 90) and argues
that any such structure can indeed be read and executed: for any
definite pattern to which no meaning is associated, it is always
possible to conceive a syntax and a semantics giving a meaning,
thereby making the pattern an executable program.

Colburn (1999, 2000), while keeping software and hardware apart,
stresses that the former has a dual nature, it is a “concrete
abstraction” as being both abstract and concrete. To define
software, one needs to make reference to both a “medium of
description”, i.e., the language used to express an algorithm,
and a “medium of execution”, namely the circuits composing
the hardware. While software is always concrete in that there is no
software without a concretization in some physical medium, it is
nonetheless abstract, because programmers do not consider the
implementing machines in their activities: they would rather develop a
program executable by any machine. This aspect is called by Colburn
(1999) “enlargement of content” and it defines abstraction
in computer science as an “abstraction of content”:
content is enlarged rather than deleted, as it happens with
mathematical abstraction.

Irmak (2012) criticizes the dual nature of software proposed by
Colburn (1999, 2000). He understands an abstract entity as one lacking
spatio-temporal properties, while being concrete means having those
properties. Defining software as a concrete abstraction would
therefore imply for software to have contradictory properties.
Software does have temporal properties: as an object of human
creation, it starts to exist at some time once conceived and
implemented; and it can cease to exist at a certain subsequent time.
Software ceases to exist when all copies are destroyed, their authors
die and nobody else remembers the respective algorithms. As an object
of human creation, software is an artifact. However, software lacks
spatial properties in that it cannot be identified with any concrete
realization of it. Destroying all the physical copies of a given
software would not imply that a particular software ceases to exist,
as stated above, nor, for the very same reason, would deleting all
texts implementing the software algorithms in some high-level
language. Software is thus an abstract entity endowed with temporal
properties. For these reasons, Irmak (2010) definies software as an
abstract artifact.

Duncan (2011) points out that distinguishing software from hardware
requires a finer ontology than the one involving the simple
abstract/concrete dichotomy. Duncan (2017) aims at providing such an
ontology by focusing on Turner’s (2011) notion of specification
as an expression that gives correctness conditions for a program (see
Duncan (2017) stresses that a program acts also as a specification
for the implementing machine, meaning that a program specifies all
correct behaviors that the machine is required to perform. If the
machine does not act consistently with the program, the machine is
said to malfunction, in the same way a program which is not correct
with respect to its specification is said to be flawed or containing a
bug. Another ontological category necessary to define the distinction
software/hardware is that of artifact, which Duncan (2017) defines as
a physical, spatio-temporal entity, which has been constructed so as
to fulfill some functions and such that there is a community
recognizing the artifact as serving that purpose. That said, software
is defined as a set of instructions encoded in some programming
language which act as specifications for an artifact able to read
those instructions; hardware is defined as an artifact whose function
is to carry out the specified computation.

1.2 The Method of Levels of Abstractions

As shown above, the distinction between software and hardware is not a
sharp one. A different ontological approach to computational systems
relies on the role of abstraction. Abstraction is a crucial element in
computer science, and it takes many different forms. Goguen &
Burstall (1985) describe some of this variety, of which the following
examples are instances. Code can be repeated during programming, by
naming text and a parameter, a practice known as procedural
abstraction. This operation has its formal basis in the abstraction
operation of the lambda calculus (see the entry on the
lambda calculus)
and it allows a formal mechanism known as polymorphism (Hankin 2004).
Another example is typing, typical of functional programming, which
provides an expressive system of representation for the syntactic
constructors of the language. Or else, in object-oriented design,
patterns (Gamma et al. 1994) are abstracted from the common structures
that are found in software systems and used as interfaces between the
implementation of an object and its specification.

All these examples share an underlying methodology in the Levels of
Abstraction (henceforth LoA), used also in mathematics (Mitchelmore
and White 2004) and philosophy (Floridi 2008). Abstractions in
mathematics are piled upon each other in a never-ending search for
more and more abstract concepts. On this account, abstraction is
self-contained: an abstract mathematical object takes its meaning only
from the system within which it is defined and the only constraint is
that new objects be related to each other in a consistent system that
can be operated on without reference to previous or external meanings.
Some argue that, in this respect at least, abstraction in computer
science is fundamentally different from abstraction in mathematics:
computational abstraction must leave behind an implementation trace
and this means that information is hidden but not destroyed (Colburn
& Shute 2007). Any details that are ignored at one LoA must not be
ignored by one of the lower LoAs: for example, programmers need not
worry about the precise location in memory associated with a
particular variable, but the virtual machine is required to handle all
memory allocations. This reliance of abstraction on different levels
is reflected in the property of computational systems to depend upon
the existence of an implementation: for example, even though classes
hide details of their methods, they must have implementations. Hence,
computational abstractions preserve both an abstract guise and an

A full formulation of LoAs for the ontology of digital computational
systems has been devised in Primiero (2016), including:

  • Intention
  • Specification
  • Algorithm
  • High-level programming language instructions
  • Assembly/machine code operations
  • Execution

Intention is the cognitive act that defines a computational
problem to be solved: it formulates the request to create a
computational process to perform a certain task. Requests of this sort
are usually provided by customers, users, and other stakeholders
involved in a given software development project.
Specification is the formulation of the set of requirements
necessary for solving the computational problem at hand: it concerns
the possibly formal determination of the operations the software must
perform, through the process known as requirements elicitation.
Algorithm expresses the procedure providing a solution to the
proposed computational problem, one which must meet the requirements
of the specification. High-level programming language (such
as C, Java, or Python) instructions constitute the linguistic
implementation of the proposed algorithm, often called the source
code, and they can be understood by trained programmers but cannot be
directly executed by a machine. The instructions coded in high-level
language are compiled, i.e., translated, by a compiler into
assembly code and then assembled in machine code
, executable by a processor. Finally, the
execution LoA is the physical level of the running software,
i.e., of the computer architecture executing the instructions.

According to this view, no LoA taken in isolation is able to define
what a computational system is, nor to determine how to distinguish
software from hardware. Computational systems are rather defined by
the whole abstraction hierarchy; each LoA in itself expresses a
semantic level associated with a realization, either linguistic or

2. Intention and Specification

Intention refers to a cognitive state outside the computational system
which expresses the formulation of a computational problem to be
solved. Specifications describe the functions that the
computational system to be developed must fulfil. Whereas
intentions, per se, do not pose specific
philosophical controversies inside the philosophy of computer
science, issues arise in connection with the definition of what a
specification is and its relation with intentions.

2.1 Intentions

Intentions articulate the criteria to determine whether a
computational system is appropriate (i.e., correct, see
and therefore it is considered as the first LoA of the computational
system appropriate to that problem. For instance, customers and users
may require a smartphone app able to filter out annoying calls from
call centers; such request constitutes the intention LoA in the
development of a computational system able to perform such a task. In
the software development process of non-naive systems, intentions are
usually gathered by such techniques as brainstorming, surveys,
prototyping, and even focus groups (Clarke and Moreira 1999), aimed at
defining a structured set of the various stakeholders’
intentions. At this LoA, no reference is made to how to solve
the computational problem, but only the description of the problem
that must be solved is provided.

In contemporary literature, intentions have been the object of
philosophical inquiry at least since Anscombe (1963). Philosophers
have investigated “intentions with which” an action is
performed (Davidson 1963), intentions of doing something in the future
(Davidson 1978), and intentional actions (Anscombe 1963, Baier 1970,
Ferrero 2017). Issues arise concerning which of the three kinds of
intention is primary, how they are connected, the relation between
intentions and belief, whether intentions are or presuppose specific
mental states, and whether intentions act as causes of actions (see
the entry on
More formal problems concern the opportunity for an agent of having
inconsistent intentions and yet being considered rational (Bratman
1987, Duijf et al. 2019).

In their role as the first LoA in the ontology of computational
systems, intentions can certainly be acknowledged as intentions for
the future, in that they express the objective of constructing systems
able to perform some desired computational tasks. Since intentions, as
stated above, confine themselves to the definition of the
computational problem to be solved, without specifying its
computational solution, their ontological and epistemological analysis
does not differ from those referred to in the philosophical
literature. In other words, there is nothing specifically
computational in the intentions defining computational systems which
deserves a separate treatment in the philosophy of computer science.
What matters here is the relation between intention and specification,
in that intentions provide correctness criteria for specifications;
specifications are asked to express how the computational problem put
forward by intentions is to be solved.

2.2 Definitions and Specifications

Consider the example of the call filtering app again; a
specification may require to create a black-list of phone numbers
associated with call centers; to update the list every n
days; to check, upon an incoming call, whether the number is on the
black-list; to communicate to the call management system not to
allow the incoming call in case of an affirmative answer, and to allow
the call in case of negative answer.

The latter is a full-fledged specification, though expressed in a
natural language. Specifications are often advanced in a natural
language to be closer to the stakeaholder’s intentions and only
subsequently they are formalized in a proper formal language.
Specifications may be expressed by means of graphical languages such
as UML (Fowler 2003), or more formal languages such as TPL (Turner
2009a) and VDM (Jones 1990), using predicate logic, or Z (Woodcock and
Davies 1996), focusing on set theory. For instance, Type Predicate
Logic (TPL) expresses the requirements of computational systems using
predicate logic formulas, wherein the type of the quantified variables
is specified. The choice of the variable types allows one to define
specifications at the more appropriate abstraction level. Whether
specifications are expressed in an informal or formal guise often
depends on the development method followed, with formal specifications
usually preferred in the context of formal development methods.
Moreover, formal specifications facilitate verification of correctness
for computational systems (see

Turner (2018) asks what difference is there between models and
specifications, both of which are extensively used in computer
science. The difference is located in what Turner (2011) calls the
intentional stance: models describe an intended
system to be developed and, in case of a mismatch between the two, the
models are to be refined; specifications prescribe how the
system is to be built so as to comply with the intended functions, and
in case of mismatch it is the system that needs to be refined.
Matching between model and system reflects a correspondence between
intentions — describing what system is to be
constructed in terms of the computational problem the system must be
able to solve — and specifications — determining
how the system is to be constructed, in terms of the set of
requirements necessary for solving the computational problem, as
exemplified for the call filtering app. In Turner’s (2011)
words, “something is a specification when it is given
correctness jurisdiction over an artefact”: specifications
provide correctness criteria for computational systems. Computational
systems are thus correct when they comply with their specifications,
that is, when they behave according to them. Conversely, they provide
criteria of malfunctioning
a computational system malfunctions when it does not behave
consistently with its specifications. Turner (2011) is careful to
notice that such a definition of specifications is an idealization:
specifications are themselves revised in some cases, such as when the
specified computational systems cannot be realized because of physical
laws constraints or cost limitations, or when it turns out that the
advanced specifications are not correct formalizations of the
intentions of clients and users.

More generally, the correctness problem does not only deal with
specifications, but with any two LoAs defining computational systems,
as the next subsection will examine.

2.3 Specifications and Functions

Fully implemented and constructed computational systems are
technical artifacts, i.e., human-made systems designed and
implemented with the explicit aim of fulfilling specific functions
(Kroes 2012). Technical artifacts so defined include tables,
screwdrivers, cars, bridges, or televisions, and they are distinct
both from natural objects (e.g. rocks, cats, or dihydrogen monoxide
molecules), which are not human-made, and artworks, which do not
fulfill functions. As such, the ontology of computational systems
falls under that of technical artifacts (Meijers 2000) characterized
by a duality, as they are defined by both functional
and structural properties (Kroes 2009, see also the entry on
philosophy of technology).
Functional properties specify the functions the artifact is required
to perform; structural properties express the physical properties
through which the artifact can perform them. Consider a screwdriver:
functional properties may include the function of screwing and
unscrewing; structural properties can refer to a piece of metal
capable of being inserted on the head of the screw and a plastic
handle that allows a clockwise and anticlockwise motion. Functions can
be realized in multiple ways by their structural counterparts. For
instance, the function for the screwdriver could well be realized by a
full metal screwdriver, or by an electric screwdriver defined by very
different structural properties.

The layered ontology of computational systems characterized by many
different LoAs seems to extend the dual ontology defining technical
artifacts (Floridi et al. 2015). Turner (2018) argues that
computational systems are still artifacts in the sense of (Kroes 2009,
2012), as each LoA is a functional level for lower LoAs and a
structural level for upper LoAs:

  • the intention expresses the functions that the system must achieve
    and is implemented by the specification;
  • the specification plays a functional role, explaining in details
    the concrete functions that the software must implement, and it is
    realized by an algorithm, its structural level; 
  • the algorithm expresses the procedures that the high-level
    language program, its structural level, must implement;
  • instructions in high level language define the functional
    properties for the machine language code, which realizes them;
  • machine code, finally, expresses the functional properties
    implemented by the execution level, which expresses physical
    structural properties.

It follows, according to Turner (2018), that structural levels need
not be necessarily physical levels, and that the notion of abstract
artifact holds in computer science. For this reason, Turner (2011)
comes to define high-level language programs themselves as technical
artifacts, in that they constitute a structural level implementing
specifications as their functional level
(see §4.2).

A first consequence is that each LoA – expressing
what function to accomplish – can be realized by a
multiplicity of potential structural levels expressing how
those functions are accomplished: an intended functionality can be
realized by a specification in multiple ways; a computational problem
expressed by a specification has solutions by a multiplicity of
different algorithms, which can differ for some important properties
but are all equally valid (see
an algorithm may be implemented in different programs, each written
in a different high-level programming language, all expressing the
same program if they implement the same algorithm (Angius and
Primiero 2019); source code can be compiled in a multiplicity of
machine languages, adopting different ISAs (Instruction Set
Architectures); executable code can be installed and run on a
multiplicity of machines (provided that these share the same ISA).

A second consequence is that each LoA as a functional level provides
correctness criteria for lower levels (Primiero 2020). Not just at the
implementation level, correctness is required at any LoA from
specification to execution, and the cause of malfunctions may be
located at any LoA not correctly implementing its proper functional
level (see
§7.3 and
Fresco, Primiero (2013)). According to Turner (2018), the
specification level can be said to be correct or incorrect with
respect to intentions, despite the difficulty of verifying their
correctness. Correctness of any non-physical layer can be verified
mathematically through formal verification, and the execution physical
level can be verified empirically, through testing
Verifying correctness of specifications with respect to
clients’ intentions would require instead having access to the
mental states of the involved agents.

This latter problem relates to the more general one of establishing
how artifacts possess functions, and what it means that structural
properties are related to the intentions of agents. The problem is
well-known also in the philosophy of biology and the cognitive
sciences, and two main theories have been put forward as solutions.
According to the causal theory of function (Cummins 1975),
functions are determined by the physical capacities of artifacts: for
example, the physical ability of the heart of contracting and
expanding determines its function of pumping blood in the circulatory
system. However, this theory faces serious problems when applied to
technical artifacts. First, it prevents defining correctness and
malfunctioning (Kroes 2010): suppose the call filtering app installed
on our smartphone starts banning calls from contacts in our mobile
phonebook; according to the causal theory of function this would be a
new function of the app. Second, the theory does not distinguish
intended functions from side effects (Turner 2011): in case of a
long-lasting call, our smartphone would certainly start heating;
however, this is not a function intended by clients or developers.
According to the intentional theory of function (McLaughlin
2001, Searle 1995), the function fixed by the designer or the user is
the intended one of the artifact, and structural properties of
artifacts are selected so as to be able to fulfill it. This theory is
able to explain correctness and malfunction, as well as to distinguish
side effects from intended functions. However, it does not say where
the function actually resides, whether in the artifact or in the mind
of the agent. In the former case, one is back at the question of how
artifacts possess functions. In the latter case, a further explanation
is needed about how mental states are related to physical properties
of artifacts (Kroes 2010). Turner (2018) holds that the intuitions
behind both the causal and the intentional theories of function are
useful to understand the relation between function and structure in
computational systems, and suggests that the two theories be combined
into a single one. On the one hand, there is no function without
implementation; on the other hand, there is no intention without
clients, developers, and users.

3. Algorithms

Even though known and widely used since antiquity, the problem of
defining what algorithms are is still open (Vardi 2012). The word
algorithm” originates from the name of the
ninth-century Persian mathematician Abū Jaʿfar
Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who
provided rules for arithmetic operations using Arabic numerals.
Indeed, the rules one follows to compute basic arithmetic operations
such as multiplication or division, are everyday examples of
algorithms. Other well-known examples include rules to bisect an angle
using compass and straightedge, or Euclid’s algorithm for
calculating the greatest common divisor. Intuitively, an algorithm is
a set of instructions allowing the fulfillment of a given task.
Despite this ancient tradition in mathematics, only modern logical and
philosophical reflection put forward the task of providing a
definition of what an algorithm is, in connection with the
foundational crisis of mathematics of the early twentieth century (see
the entry on the
philosophy of mathematics).
The notion of effective calculability arose from logical
research, providing some formal counterpart to the intuitive notion of
algorithm and giving birth to the theory of computation. Since then,
different definitions of algorithms have been proposed,
ranging from formal to non-formal approaches, as sketched in the
next sections.

3.1 Classical Approaches

Markov (1954) provides a first precise definition of algorithm as a
computational process that is determined,
applicable, and effective. A computational process
is determined if the instructions involved are precise enough
not to allow for any “arbitrary choice” in their
execution. The (human or artificial) computer must never be
unsure about what step to carry out next. Algorithms are
applicable for Markov in that they hold for classes of inputs
(natural numbers for basic arithmetic operations) rather than for
single inputs (specific natural numbers). Markov (1954:1) defines
effectiveness as “the tendency of the algorithm to
obtain a certain result”. In other words, an algorithm is
effective in that it will eventually produce the answer to the
computational problem.

Kleene (1967) specifies finiteness as a further important
property: an algorithm is a procedure which can be described by means
of a finite set of instructions and needs a finite number of steps to
provide an answer to the computational problem. As a counterexample,
consider a while loop defined by a finite number of steps,
but which runs forever since the condition in the loop is always
satisfied. Instructions should also be amenable to mechanical
execution, that is, no insight is required for the machine to follow
them. Following Markov’s determinability and strengthening
effectiveness, Kleene (1967) additionally specifies that instructions
should be able to recognize that the solution to the computational
problem has been achieved, and halt the computation.

Knuth (1973) recalls and deepens the analyses of Markov (1954) and
Kleene (1967) by stating that:

Besides merely being a finite set of rules that gives a sequence of
operations for solving a specific type of problem, an algorithm has
five important features:

  1. Finiteness. An algorithm must always terminate after a
    finite number of steps. […]
  2. Definiteness. Each step of an algorithm must be precisely
    defined; the actions to be carried out must be rigorously and
    unambiguously specified for each case. […]
  3. Input. An algorithm has zero or more inputs.
  4. Output. An algorithm has zero or more outputs.
  5. Effectiveness. An algorithm is also generally expected to
    be effective, in the sense that its operations must all be
    sufficiently basic that they can in principle be done exactly and in a
    finite length of time by someone using pencil and paper. (Knuth 1973:
    4–6) […]

As in Kleene (1967), finiteness affects both the number of
instructions and the number of implemented computational steps. As in
Markov’s determinacy, Knuth’s definiteness principle
requires that each successive computational step be unambiguously
specified. Furthermore, Knuth (1973) more explicitly requires that
algorithms have (potentially empty sets of) inputs and outputs. By
algorithms with no inputs or outputs Knuth probably refers to
algorithms using internally stored data as inputs or algorithms not
returning data to an external user (Rapaport 2019, ch. 7, in Other
Internet Resources). As for effectiveness, besides Markov’s
tendency “to obtain a certain result”, Knuth requires that
the result be obtained in a finite amount of time and that the
instructions be atomic, that is, simple enough to be understandable
and executable by a human or artificial computer.

3.2 Formal Approaches

Gurevich (2011) maintains, on the one hand, that it is not possible to
provide formal definitions of algorithms, as the notion continues to
evolve over time: consider how sequential algorithms, used in
ancient mathematics, are flanked by parallel, analog, or quantum
algorithms in current computer science practice, and how new kinds of
algorithms are likely to be envisioned in the near future. On the
other hand, a formal analysis can be advanced if concerned only with
classical sequential algorithms. In particular, Gurevich (2000)
provides an axiomatic definition for this class of algorithms.

Any sequential algorithm can be simulated by a sequential abstract
state machine satisfying three axioms:

  1. The sequential-time postulate associates to any algorithm
    A a set of states S(A), a set of initial states
    I(A) subset of S(A), and a map from S(A) to
    S(A) of one-step transformations of A. States are
    snapshot descriptions of running algorithms. A run of A is a
    (potentially infinite) sequence of states, starting from some initial
    state, such that there is a one-step transformation from one state to
    its successor in the sequence. Termination is not presupposed by
    Gurevich’s definition. One-step transformations need not be
    atomic, but they may be composed of a bounded set of atomic
  2. According to the abstract-state postulate, states in
    S(A) are first-order structures, as commonly defined
    in mathematical logic; in other words, states provide a semantics to
    first-order statements.
  3. Finally, the bounded-exploration postulate states that
    given two states X and Y of A there is
    always a set T of terms such that, when X and
    Y coincide over T, the set of updates of X
    corresponds to the set of updates of Y. X and
    Y coincide over T when, for every term t in
    T, the evaluation of t in X is the same as
    the evaluation of t in Y. This allows algorithm
    A to explore only those parts of states which are relative to
    terms in T.

Moschovakis (2001) objects that the intuitive notion of algorithm is
not captured in full by abstract machines. Given a general recursive
function f: ℕ → ℕ defined on natural
numbers, there are usually many different algorithms computing it;
“essential, implementation-independent properties” are not
captured by abstract machines, but rather by a system of recursive
. Consider the algorithm mergesort for sorting
lists; there are many different abstract machines for
mergesort, and the question arises which one is to be chosen
as the mergesort algorithm. The mergesort algorithm
is instead the system of recursive equations specifying the involved
function, whereas abstract machines for the mergesort
procedure are different implementations of the same
. Two questions are put forward by Moschovakis’
formal analysis: different implementations of the same
algorithm should be equivalent implementations, and yet, an
equivalence relation among algorithm implementations is to be formally
defined. Furthermore, it remains to be clarified what the intuitive
notion of algorithm formalized by systems of recursive equations
amounts to.

Primiero (2020) proposes a reading of the nature of algorithms at
three different levels of abstraction. At a very high LoA, algorithms
can be defined abstracting from the procedure they describe, allowing
for many different sets of states and transitions. At this LoA
algorithms can be understood as informal specifications, that
is, as informal descriptions of a procedure P. At a lower
LoA, algorithms specify the instructions needed to solve the given
computational problem; in other words, they specify a procedure.
Algorithms can thus be defined as procedures, or descriptions
in some given formal language L of how to execute a procedure
P. Many important properties of algorithms, including those
related to complexity classes and data structures, cannot be
determined at the procedural LoA, and instead make reference to an
abstract machine implementing the procedure is needed. At a bottom
LoA, algorithms can be defined as implementable abstract
, viz. as the specification, in a formal language
L, of the executions of a program P for a given
abstract machine M. The threefold definition of algorithms
allows Primiero (2020) to supply a formal definition of equivalence
relations for algorithms in terms of the algebraic notions of
simulation and bisimulation (Milner 1973, see also
Angius and Primero 2018). A machine Mi executing a
program Pi implements the same algorithm of a
machine Mj executing a program
Pj if and only if the abstract machines
interpreting Mi and Mj are in
a bisimulation relation.

3.3 Informal Approaches

Vardi (2012) underlines how, despite the many formal and informal
definitions available, there is no general consensus on what an
algorithm is. The approaches of Gurevich (2000) and Moschovakis
(2001), which can even be proved to be logically equivalent, only
provide logical constructs for algorithms, leaving unanswered the main
question. Hill (2013) suggests that an informal definition of
algorithms, taking into account the intuitive understanding one has
about algorithms, may be more useful, especially for the public
discourse and the communication between practitioners and users.

Rapaport (2012, Appendix) provides an attempt to summarize the three
classical definitions of algorithm sketched above stating that:

An algorithm (for executor E to accomplish goal G) is:

  1. a procedure, that is, a finite set (or sequence) of statements (or
    rules, or instructions), such that each statement is:

    • composed of a finite number of symbols (or marks) from a finite
    • and unambiguous for E—that is,
      1. E knows how to do it
      2. E can do it
      3. it can be done in a finite amount of time
      4. and, after doing it, E knows what to do next—
  2. which procedure takes a finite amount of time (that is, it
  3. and that ends with G accomplished.

Rapaport stresses that an algorithm is a procedure, i.e., a finite
sequence of statements taking the form of rules or instructions.
Finiteness is here expressed by requiring that instructions contain a
finite number of symbols from a finite alphabet.

Hill (2016) aims at providing an informal definition of algorithm,
starting from Rapaport’s (2012):

An algorithm is a finite, abstract, effective, compound control
structure, imperatively given, accomplishing a given purpose, under
given provisions.(Hill 2016: 48).

First of all, algorithms are compound structures rather than
atomic objects, i.e., they are composed of smaller units, namely
computational steps. These structures are finite and effective, as
explicitly mentioned by Markov, Kleene, and Knuth. While these authors
do not explicitly mention abstractness, Hill (2016) maintains it is
implicit in their analysis. Algorithms are abstract simply in
that they lack spatio-temporal properties and are independent from
their instances. They provide control, that is,
“content that brings about some kind of change from one state to
another, expressed in values of variables and consequent
actions” (p. 45). Algorithms are imperatively given, as
they command state transitions to carry out specified operations.
Finally, algorithms operate to achieve certain purposes under
some usually well-specified provisions, or preconditions.
From this viewpoint, the author argues, algorithms are on a par with
specifications in their specifying a goal under certain resources.
This definition allows to distinguish algorithms from other compound
control structures. For instance, recipes are not algorithms because
they are not effective; nor are games, which are not imperatively

4. Programs

The ontology of computer programs is strictly related to the subsumed
nature of computational systems (see
If computational systems are defined on the basis of the
software-hardware dichotomy, programs are abstract entities
interpreting the former and opposed to the concrete nature of
hardware. Examples of such interpretations are provided in
and include the “concrete abstraction” definition by
Colburn (2000), the “abstract artifact” characterization
by Irmak (2012), and programs as specifications of machines proposed
by Duncan (2011). By contrast, under the interpretation of
computational systems by a hierarchy of LoAs, programs are
implementations of algorithms. We refer to
on implementation for an analysis of the ontology of programs in this
sense. This section focuses on definitions of programs with a
significant relevance in the literature, namely those views that
consider programs as theories or as artifacts, with a focus on the
problem of the relation between programs and the world.

4.1 Programs as Theories

The view that programs are theories goes back to approaches in
cognitive science. In the context of the so-called Information
Processing Psychology (IPP) for the simulative investigation on human
cognitive processes, Newell and Simon (1972) advanced the thesis that
simulative programs are empirical theories of their simulated
systems. Newell and Simon assigned to a computer program the role of
theory of the simulated system as well as of the simulative system,
namely the machine running the program, to formulate predictions on
the simulated system. In particular, the execution traces of the
simulative program, given a specific problem to solve, are used to
predict the mental operation strategies that will be performed by the
human subject when asked to accomplish the same task. In case of a
mismatch between execution traces and the verbal reports of the
operation strategies of the human subject, the empirical theory
provided by the simulative program is revised. The predictive use of
such a computer program is comparable, according to Newell and Simon,
to the predictive use of the evolution laws of a system that are
expressed by differential or difference equations.

Newell and Simon’s idea that programs are theories has been
shared by the cognitive scientists Pylyshyn (1984) and Johnson-Laird
(1988). Both agree that programs, in contrast to typical theories, are
better at facing the complexity of the simulative process to
be modelled, forcing one to fill-in all the details that are necessary
for the program to be executed. Whereas incomplete or incoherent
theories may be advanced at some stage of scientific inquiry, this is
not the case for programs.

On the other hand, Moore (1978) considers the programs-as-theories
thesis another myth of computer science. As programs can
only simulate some set of empirical phenomena, at most they play the
role of computational models of those phenomena. Moore
notices that for programs to be acknowledged as models, semantic
functions are nevertheless needed to interpret the empirical system
being simulated. However, the view that programs are models should not
be mistaken for the definition of programs as theories: theories
explain and predict the empirical phenomena
simulated by models, while simulation by programs does not offer

According to computer scientist Paul Thagard (1984), understanding
programs as theories would require a syntactic or a
semantic view of theories (see the entry on
the structure of scientific theories).
But programs do not comply with either of the two views. According to
the syntactic view (Carnap 1966, Hempel 1970), theories are sets of
sentences expressed in some defined language able to describe target
empirical systems; some of those sentences define the axioms of the
theory, and some are law-like statements expressing regularities of
those systems. Programs are sets of instructions written in some
defined programming language which, however, do not describe any
system, insofar as they are procedural linguistic entities and not
declarative ones. To this, Rapaport (2020, see Other Internet
Resources) objects that procedural programming languages can often be
translated into declarative languages and that there are languages,
such as Prolog, that can be interpreted both procedurally and
declaratively. According to the semantic view (Suppe 1989, Van
Fraassen 1980), theories are introduced by a collection of models,
defined as set-theoretic structures satisfying the theory’s
sentences. However, in contrast to Moore (1978), Thagard (1984) denies
programs the epistemological status of models: programs simulate
physical systems without satisfying theories’ laws and axioms.
Rather, programs include, for simulation purposes, implementation
details for the programming language used, but not of the target
system being simulated.

A yet different approach to the problem of whether programs are
theories comes from the computer scientist Peter Naur (1985).
According to Naur, programming is a theory building process not in the
sense that programs are theories, but because the successful
program’s development and life-cycle require that programmers
and developers have theories of programs available. A theory is here
understood, following Ryle (2009), as a corpus of knowledge shared by
a scientific community about some set of empirical phenomena, and not
necessarily expressed axiomatically or formally. Theories of
programs are necessary during the program life-cycle to be able to
manage requests of program modifications pursuant to observed
miscomputations or unsatisfactory solutions to the computational
problem the program was asked to solve. In particular, theories of
programs should allow developers to modify the program so that new
solutions to the problem at stake can be provided. For this reason,
Naur (1985) deems such theories more fundamental, in software
development, than documentations and specifications.

For Turner (2010, 2018 ch. 10), programming languages are mathematical
objects defined by a formal grammar and a formal semantics. In
particular, each syntactic construct, such as an assignment, a
conditional or a while loop, is defined by a grammatical rule
determining its syntax, and by a semantic rule associating a meaning
to it. Depending on whether an operational or a denotational semantics
is preferred, meaning is given in terms of respectively the operations
of an abstract machine or of mathematical partial functions from set
of states to set of states. For instance, the simple assignment
statement (x := E) is associated, under an operational semantics,
with the machine operation (update(s,x,v)) which assigns variable
(v) interpreted as (E) to variable (x) in state (s). Both in
the case of an operational and of a denotational semantics, programs
can be understood as mathematical theories expressing the operations
of an implementing machine. Consider operational semantics: a
syntactic rule of the form (langle P,s rangle Downarrow s’)
states semantically that program (P) executed in state (s) results
in (s’.) According to Turner (2010, 2018), a programming language
with an operational semantics is akin to an axiomatic theory of
in which rules provide axioms for the relation

4.2 Programs as Technical Artifacts

Programs can be understood as technical artifacts because programming
languages are defined, as any other artifact, on the basis of both
functional and structural properties (Turner 2014, 2018 ch. 5).
Functional properties of (high level) programming languages are
provided by the semantics associated with each syntactic construct of
the language. Turner (2014) points out that programming languages can
indeed be understood as axiomatic theories only when their functional
level is isolated. Structural properties, on the other hand, are
specified in terms of the implementation of the language, but not
identified with physical components of computing machines: given a
syntactic construct of the language with an associated functional
description, its structural property is determined by the physical
operations that a machine performs to implement an instruction for the
construct at hand. For instance, the assignment construct (x := E)
is to be linked to the physical computation of the value of expression
(E) and to the placement of the value of (E) in the physical
location (x).

Another requirement for a programming language to be considered a
technical artifact is that it has to be endowed with a semantics
providing correctness criteria for the language implementation. The
programmer attests to functional and structural properties of a
program by taking the semantics to have correctness jurisdiction over
the program.

4.3 Programs and their Relation to the World

The problem of whether computer programs are theories is tied with the
relation that programs entertain with the outside world. If programs
were theories, they would have to represent some empirical system, and
a semantic relation would be directly established between the program
and the world. By contrast, some have argued that the relation between
programs and natural systems is mediated by models of the outside
world (Colburn et al. 1993, Smith 1985). In particular, Smith
(1985) argues that models are abstract descriptions of empirical
systems, and computational systems operating in them have programs
that act as models of the models, i.e., they represent abstract models
of reality. Such an account of the ontology of programs comes in handy
when describing the correctness problem in computer science (see
§ 7):
if specifications are considered as models requiring certain
behaviors from computational systems, programs can be seen as models
satisfying specifications.

Two views of programs can be given depending on whether one admits
their relation with the world (Rapaport 2020, ch. 17, see Other
Internet Resource). According to a first view, programs are
“wide”, “external” and “semantic”:
they grant direct reference to objects of an empirical system and
operations on those objects. According to a second view, programs are
“narrow”, “internal”, and
“syntactic”: they make only reference to the atomic
operations of an implementing machine carrying out computations.
Rapaport (2020, see Other Internet Resources) argues that programs
need not be “external” and
“semantic”. First, computation itself needs not to be
“external”: a Turing machine executes the instructions
contained in its finite table by using data written on its tape and
halting after the data resulting from the computation have been
written on the tape. Data are not, strictly speaking, in-put-from
and out-put-to an external user. Furthemore, Knuth (1973) required
algorithms to have zero or more inputs and outputs (see
§ 3.1).
A computer program requiring no inputs may be a program, say,
outputting all prime numbers from 1; and a program with no outputs can
be a program that computes the value of some given variable x without
returning the value stored in x as output. Second, programs need not
be “external”, teleological, i.e., goal oriented. This
view opposes other known positions in the literature. Suber (1988)
argues that, without considering goals and purposes, it would not be
possible to assess whether a computer program is correct, that is, if
it behaves as intended. And as recalled in
Hill (2016) specifies in her informal definition that algorithms
accomplish “a given purpose, under given provisions.”
(Hill 2016: 48). To these views, Rapaport (2020, ch. 17, see Other
Internet Resource) replies that whereas goals, purposes, and
programmers’ intentions may be very useful for a human computor
to understand a program, they are not necessary for an artificial
computer to carry out the computations instructed by the program code.
Indeed, the principle of effectiveness that classical approaches
require for algorithms (see
demands, among other properties, that algorithms be executed without
any recourse to intuition. In other words, a machine executing a
program for adding natural numbers does not “understand”
that it is adding; at the same time, knowing that a given program
performs addition may help a human agent to understand the
program’s code.

According to this view, computing involves just symbols, not meanings.
Turing machines become symbols manipulators and not a single but
multiple meanings can be associated with its operations. How can then
one identify when two programs are the same program, if not
by their meanings, that is, by considering what function they perform?
One answer comes from Piccini’s analysis of computation and its
internal semantics” (Piccini 2008, 2015 ch. 3):
two programs can be identified as identical by analysing only their
syntax and the operations the programs carry out on their symbols. The
effects of string manipulation operations can be considered an
internal semantics of a program. The latter can be easily determined
by isolating subroutines or methods in the program’s code and
can afterwards be used to identify a program or to establish whether
two programs are the same, namely when they are defined by the same

However, it has been argued that there are cases in which it is not
possible to determine whether two programs are the same without making
reference to an external semantics. Sprevak (2010) proposes to
consider two programs for addition which differ from the fact that one
operates on Arabic, the other one on Roman numerals. The two programs
compute the same function, namely addition, but this cannot always be
established by inspecting the code with its subroutines; it must be
determined by assigning content to the input/output strings,
interpreting Arabic and Roman numerals as numbers. In that regard,
Angius and Primiero (2018) underline how the problem of identity for
computer programs does not differ from the problem of identity for
natural kinds (Lowe 1998) and technical artifacts (Carrara et al.
2014). The problem can be tackled by fixing an identity criterion,
namely a formal relation, that any two programs should entertain in
order to be defined as identical. Angius and Primiero (2018) show how
to use the process algebra relation of bisimulation between the two
automata implemented by two programs under examination as such an
identity criterion. Bisimulation allows to establish matching
structural properties of programs implementing the same function, as
well as providing weaker criteria for copies in terms of simulation.
This brings the discussion back to the notion of programs as
implementations. We now turn to analyze this latter concept.

5. Implementation

The word ‘implementation’ is often associated with a
physical realization of a computing system, i.e., to a machine
executing a computer program. In particular, according to the dual
ontology of computing systems examined in
implementation in this sense reduces to the structural hardware, as
opposed to the functional software. By contrast, following the method
of the levels of abstraction
(§ 1.2),
implementation becomes a wider relation holding between any LoA
defining a computational system and the levels higher in the
hierarchy. Accordingly, an algorithm is an implementation of a (set
of) specification(s); a program expressed in a high level programming
language can be defined as an implementation of an algorithm (see
assembly and machine code instructions can be seen as an
implementation of a set of high-level programming language
instructions with respect to a given ISA; finally, executions are
physical, observable, implementations of those machine code
instructions. By the same token, programs formulated in a high-level
language are also implementations of specifications, and, as similarly
argued by the dual-ontology paradigm, executions are implementations
of high-level programming language instructions. According to Turner
(2018), even the specification can be understood as an implementation
of what has been called intention.

What remains to be examined here is the nature of the implementation
relation thus defined. Analyzing this relation is essential to define
the notion of correctness
Indeed, a correct program amounts to a correct implementation of an
algorithm; and a correct computing system is a correct implementation
of a set of specifications. In other words, under this view, the
notion of correctness is paired with that of implementation for any
LoA: any level can be said to be correct with respect to upper levels
if and only if it is a correct implementation thereof.

The following three subsections examine three main definitions of the
implementation relation that have been advanced in the philosophy of
computer science literature.

5.1 Implementation as Semantic Interpretation

A first philosophical analysis of the notion of implementation in
computer science is advanced by Rapaport (1999, 2005). He defines an
implementation I as the semantic interpretation of a
syntactic or abstract domain A in a medium of implementation
M. If implementation is understood as a relation holding
between a given LoA and any upper level in the hierarchical ontology
of a computational system, it follows that Rapaport’s definition
extends accordingly, so that any LoA provides a semantic
interpretation in a given medium of implementation for the upper
levels. Under this view, specifications provide semantic
interpretations of intentions expressed by stakeholders in the
specification (formal) language, and algorithms provide semantic
interpretations of specifications using one of the many languages
algorithms can be formulated in (natural languages, pseudo-code, logic
languages, functional languages etc.). The medium of implementation
can be either abstract or concrete. A computer program is the
implementation of an algorithm in that the former provides a semantic
interpretation of the syntactic constructs of the latter in a
high-level programming language as its medium of implementation. The
program’s instructions interpret the algorithm’s tasks in a
programming language. Also the execution LoA provides a semantic
interpretation of the assembly/machine code operations into the medium
given by the structural properties of the physical machine. According
to the analysis in (Rapaport 1999, 2005), implementation is an
asymmetric relation: if I is an implementation of A,
A cannot be an implementation of I. However, the
author argues that any LoA can be both a syntactic and a semantic
level, that is, it can play the role of both the implementation I and
of a syntactic domain A. Whereas an algorithm is assigned a semantic
interpretation by a program expressed in a high-level language, the
same algorithm provides a semantic interpretation for the
specification. It follows that the abstraction-implementation relation
pairs the functional-structural relation for computational

Primiero (2020) considers this latter aspect as one main limit of
Rapaport’s (1999, 2005) account of implementation:
implementation reduces to a unique relation between a
syntactic level and its semantic interpretation and it does not
account for the layered ontology of computational systems seen in
In order to extend the present definition of implementation to all
LoAs, each level has to be reinterpreted each time either as syntactic
or as a semantic level. This, in turn, has a repercussion on the
second difficulty characterizing, according to Primero (2020),
implementation as a semantic interpretation: on the one hand, this
approach does not take into account incorrect
implementations; on the other hand, for a given incorrect
implementation, the unique relation so defined can relate
incorrectness only to one syntactic level, excluding all other levels
as potential error locations.

Turner (2018) aims to show that semantic interpretation not only does
not account for incorrect implementation, but not even to correct
ones. One first example is provided by the implementation of one
language into another: the implementing language here is not providing
a semantic interpretation of the implemented language, unless the
former is associated with a semantics providing meaning and
correctness criteria for the latter. Such semantics will remain
external to the implementation relation: whereas correctness is
associated with semantic interpretation, implementation does not
always come with a semantic interpretation. A second example is given
by considering an abstract stack implemented by an array; again, the
array does not provide correctness criteria for the stack. Quite to
the contrary, it is the stack that specifies correctness criteria for
any of its implementation, arrays included.

5.2 Implementation as the Relation Specification-Artifact

The fact that correctness criteria for the implementation relation are
provided by the abstract level induces Turner (2012, 2014, 2018)
to define implementation as the relation
specification-artefact. As examined in
specifications have correctness jurisdiction over artifacts, that is,
they prescribe the allowed behaviors of artifacts. Also recall that
artifacts can be both abstract and concrete entities, and that any LoA
can play the role of specification for lower levels. This amounts to
saying that the specification-artefact relation is able to define any
implementation relation across the layered ontology of computational

Depending on how the specification-artifact relation is defined,
Turner (2012) distinguishes as many as three different notions of
implementation. Consider the case of a physical machine implementing a
given abstract machine. According to an intentional notion of
implementation, an abstract machine works as a specification for a
physical machine, provided it advances all the functional requirements
the latter must fulfill, i.e., it specifies (in principle) all the
allowed behaviors of the implementing physical machine. According to
an extensional notion of implementation, a physical machine
is a correct implementation of an abstract machine if and only if
isomorphisms can be established mapping states of the latter to states
of the former, and transitions in the abstract machine correspond to
actual executions (computational traces) of the artifact. Finally, an
empirical notion of implementation requires the physical
machine to display computations that match those prescribed by the
abstract machine; that is to say, correct implementation has to be
evaluated empirically through testing.

Primiero (2020) underlines how, while this approach addresses the
issue of correctness and miscomputation as it allows to distinguish a
correct from an incorrect implementation, it still identifies a unique
implementation relation between a specification level and an artifact
level. Again, if this account is allowed to involve the layered
ontology of computational systems by reinterpreting each time any LoA
either as a specification or artifact, Turner’s account prevents
from referring to more than one level at the same time as the cause of
miscomputation: a miscomputation always occurs here as an
incorrect implementation of a specification by an artifact. By
defining implementation as a relation holding accross all the LoAs,
one would be able to identify multiple incorrect implementations which
do not directly refer to the abstract specification. A miscomputation
may indeed be caused by an incorrect implementation of lower levels
which is then inherited all the way down to the execution level.

5.3 Implementation for LoAs

Primiero (2020) proposes a definition of implementation not as a
relation between two fixed levels, but one that is allowed to range
over any LoA. Under this view, an implementation I is a
relation of instantiation holding between a LoA and any other
one higher in the abstraction hierarchy. Accordingly, a physical
computing machine is an implementation of assembly/machine code
operations; by transitivity, it can also be considered as an
instantiation of a set of instructions expressed in high-level
programming language instructions. A program expressed in a high-level
language is an implementation of an algorithm; but it can also be
taken to be the instantiation of a set of specifications.

Such a definition of implementation allows Primiero (2020) to provide
a general definition of correctness: a physical computing system is
correct if and only if it is characterized by correct implementations
at any LoA. Hence correctness and implementation are coupled and
defined at any LoA. Functional correctness is the property of
a computational system that displays the functionalities required by
the specifications of that system. Procedural correctness
characterizes computational systems displaying the functionalities
intended by the implemented algorithms. And executional
is defined as the property of a system that is able
to correctly execute the program on its architecture. Each of these
forms of correctness can also be classified quantitatively, depending
on the amount of functionalities being satisfied. A functionally
efficient computational system displays a minimal subset of
the functionalities required by the specifications; a functionally
optimal system is able to display a maximal subset of those
functionalities. Similarly, the author defines procedurally as well as
executionally efficient and optimal computational systems.

5.4 Physical Computation

According to this definition, implementation shifts from level to
level: a set of algorithms defining a computational system are
implemented as procedures in some formal language, as
instructions in a high-level language, or as operations in a
low-level programming language. An interesting question is whether
any system, beyond computational artifacts, implementing
procedures of this sort qualifies as a computational system. In other
words, asking about the nature of physical implementation amounts to
asking what is a computational system. If any system implementing an
algorithm would qualify as computational, the class of such systems
could be extended to biological systems, such as the brain or the
cell; to physical systems, including the universe or some portion of
it; and eventually to any system whatsoever, a thesis known as
pancomputationalism (for an exhaustive overview on the topic
see Rapaport 2018).

Traditionally, a computational system is intended as a mechanical
that takes input data, elaborates them
algorithmically according to a set of instructions, and
returns manipulated data as outputs. For instance, von Neumann (1945,
p.1) states that “An automatic computing system is a (usually
highly composite) device, which can carry out instructions to perform
calculations of a considerable order of complexity”. Such an
informal and well-accepted definition leaves some questions open,
including whether computational systems have to be machines, whether
they have to process data algorithmically and, consequently, whether
computations have to be Turing complete.

Rapaport (2018) provides a more explicit characterization of a
computational system defined as any “physical plausible
implementation of anything logically equivalent to a universal Turing
machine”. Strictly speaking personal computers are not physical
Turing machines, but register machines are known to be Turing
equivalent. To qualify as computational, systems must be
plausible implementations thereof, in that Turing machines,
contrary to physical machines, have access to infinite memory space
and are, as abstract machines, error free. According to
Rapaport’s (2018) definition, any physical
implementation of this sort is thus a computational system, including
natural systems. This raises the question about which class of natural
systems is able to implement Turing equivalent computations. Searle
famously argued that anything can be an implementation of a Turing
machine, or of a logical equivalent model (Searle 1990). His argument
levers on the fact that being a Turing machine is a syntactic
property, in that it is all about manipulating tokens of 0’s and
1’s. According to Searle, syntactic properties are not intrinsic
to physical systems, but they are assigned to them by an observer. In
other words, a physical state of a system is not intrinsically a
computational state: there must be an observer, or user, who assigns
to that state a computational role. It follows that any system whose
behavior can be described as syntactic manipulation of 0’s and
1’s is a computational system.

Hayes (1997) objects to Searle (1990) that if everything was a
computational system, the property “being a computational
system” would become vacuous, as all entities would possess it.
Instead, there are entities which are computational systems, and
entities which are not. Computational systems are those in which the
patterns received as inputs and saved into memory are able to change
themselves. In other words, Hayes makes reference to the fact that
stored inputs can be both data and instructions and that instructions,
when executed, are able to modify the value of some input data.
“If it were paper, it would be ‘magic paper’ on
which writing might spontaneously change, or new writing appear”
(Hayes 1997, p. 393). Only systems able to act as “magic
paper” can be acknowledged as computational.

A yet different approach comes from Piccinini (2007, 2008) in the
context of his mechanistic analysis of physical computations
(Piccinini 2015; see also the entry on
computation in physical systems).
A physical computing system is a system whose behaviors can be
explained mechanistically by describing the computing
mechanism that brings about those behaviors. Mechanisms can be defined
by “entities and activities organized such that they are
productive of regular changes from start or set-up to finish or
termination condition” (Machamer et al. 2000; see the entry on
mechanisms in science).
Computations, as physical processes, can be understood as those
mechanisms that “generate output strings from input strings in
accordance with general rules that apply to all input strings and
depend on the input (and sometimes internal states)” (Piccinini
2007, p. 108). It is easy to identify set-up and termination
conditions for computational processes. Any system which can be
explained by describing an underlying computing mechanism is to be
considered a computational system. The focus on explanation helps
Piccinini avoid the Searlean conclusion that any system is a
computational system: even if one may interpret, in principle, any
given set of entities and activities as a computing mechanism, only
the need to explain a certain observed phenomenon in terms of a
computing mechanism defines the system under examination as

6. Verification

A crucial step in the software development process is verification.
This consists in the process of evaluating whether a given
computational system is correct with respect to the specification of
its design. In the early days of the computer industry, validity and
correctness checking methods included several design and construction
techniques, see for example (Arif et al. 2018). Nowadays,
correctness evaluation methods can be roughly sorted into two main
groups: formal verification and testing. Formal verification (Monin
and Hinchey 2003) involves a proof of correctness with mathematical
tools; software testing (Ammann and Offutt 2008) rather consists in
running the implemented program to observe whether performed
executions comply or not with the advanced specifications. In many
practical cases, a combination of both methods is used (see for
instance Callahan et al. 1996).

6.1 Models and Theories

Formal verification methods require a representation of the
software under verification. In theorem proving (see van
Leeuwen 1990), programs are represented in terms of axiomatic systems
and a set of rules of inference representing the pre- and
post-conditions of program transitions. A proof of correctness is then
obtained by deriving formulas expressing specifications from the
axioms. In model checking (Baier and Katoen 2008), a program
is represented in terms of a state transition system, its property
specifications are formalised by temporal logic formulas (Kröger
and Merz 2008), and a proof of correctness is achieved by a
depth-first search algorithm that checks whether those formulas hold
of the state transition system.

Axiomatic systems and state transition systems used for correctness
evaluation can be understood as theories of the represented
artifacts, in that they are used to predict and explain their future
behaviors. Methodologically state transition systems in model checking
can be compared with scientific models in empirical sciences (Angius
and Tamburrini 2011). For instance, Kripke Structures (see Clarke
et al. 1999 ch. 2) are in compliance with Suppes’
(1960) definition of scientific models as set-theoretic structures
establishing proper mapping relations with models of data collected by
means of experiments on the target empirical system (see also the
entry on
models in science).
Kripke Structures and other state transition systems utilized in
formal verification methods are often called system specifications.
They are distinguished from common specifications, also called
property specifications. The latter specify some required behavioral
properties the program to be encoded must instantiate, while the
former specify (in principle) all potential executions of an already
encoded program, thus allowing for algorithmic checks on its traces
(Clarke et al. 1999). In order to achieve this goal, system
specifications are considered as abductive structures,
hypothesizing the set of potential executions of a target
computational system on the basis of the program’s code and the
allowed state transitions (Angius 2013b). Indeed, once it has been
checked whether some temporal logic formula holds of the modeled
Kripke Structure, the represented program is empirically tested
against the behavioral property corresponding to the checked formula,
in order to evaluate whether the model-hypothesis is an adequate
representation of the target computational system. Accordingly,
property specifications and system specifications differ also in their
intentional stance (Turner 2011): the former are requirements
on the program to be encoded, the latter are (hypothetical)
descriptions of the encoded program. The descriptive and abductive
character of state transition systems in model checking is an
additional and essential feature putting state transition systems on a
par with scientific models.

6.2 Testing and Experiments

Testing is the more ‘empirical’ process of launching a
program and observing its executions in order to evaluate whether they
comply with the supplied property specifications. Such technique is
extensively used in the software development process. Philosophers and
philosophically-minded computer scientists have considered software
testing under the light of traditional methodological approaches in
scientific discovery (Snelting 1998; Gagliardi 2007; Northover et
. 2008; Angius 2014) and questioned whether software tests can
be acknowledged as scientific experiments evaluating the
correctness of programs (Schiaffonati and Verdicchio 2014,
Schiaffonati 2015; Tedre 2015).

Dijkstra’s well-known dictum “Program testing can be used
to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence”
(Dijkstra 1970, p.7), introduces Popper’s (1959) principle of
falsifiability into computer science (Snelting 1998). Testing
a program against an advanced property specification for a given
interval of time may exhibit some failures, but if no failure occurs
while observing the running program one cannot conclude that the
program is correct. An incorrect execution might be observed at the
very next system’s run. The reason is that testers can only
launch the program with a finite subset of the potential
program’s input set and only for a finite interval of time;
accordingly, not all potential executions of the program to be tested
can be empirically observed. For this reason, the aim of software
testing is to detect programs’ faults and not to guarantee their
absence (Ammann and Offutt 2008, p. 11). A program is falsifiable in
that tests can reveal faults (Northover et al. 2008). Hence,
given a computational system and a property specification, a test is
akin to a scientific experiment which, by observing the system’s
behaviors, tries to falsify the hypothesis that the program is correct
with respect to the interested specification.

However, other methodological and epistemological traits
characterizing scientific experiments are not shared by software
tests. A first methodological distinction can be recognized in that a
falsifying test leads to the revision of the computational system, not
of the hypothesis, as in the case of testing scientific hypotheses.
This is due to the difference in the intentional stance of
specifications and empirical hypotheses in science (Turner 2011).
Specifications are requirements whose violation demands for program
revisions until the program becomes a correct instantiation of the

For this, among other reasons, the traditional notion of scientific
experiment needs to be ‘stretched’ in order to be applied
to software testing activities (Schiaffonati 2015). Theory-driven
, characterizing most of the experimental sciences,
find no counterpart in actual computer science practice. If one
excludes the cases wherein testing is combined with formal methods,
most experiments performed by software engineers are rather
explorative, i.e. aimed at ‘exploring’
“the realm of possibilities pertaining to the functioning of an
artefact and its interaction with the environment in the absence of a
proper theory or theoretical background” (Schiaffonati 2015:
662). Software testers often do not have theoretical control on the
experiments they perform; exploration on the behaviors of the
computational system interacting with users and environments rather
allows testers to formulate theoretical generalizations on the
observed behaviors. Explorative experiments in computer science are
also characterized by the fact that programs are often tested in a
real-like environment wherein testers play the role of users. However,
it is an essential feature of theory-driven experiments that
experimenters do not take part in the experiment to be carried

As a result, while some software testing activities are closer to the
experimental activities one finds in empirical sciences, some others
rather define a new typology of experiment that turns out to belong to
the software development process. Five typologies of experiments can
be distinguished in the process of specifying, implementing, and
evaluating computational systems (Tedre 2015):

  • feasibility experiments are performed to evaluate whether
    a system performs the functions specified by users and
  • trial experiments are carried out to evaluate isolated
    capabilities of the system given some set of initial conditions;
  • field experiments are performed in real environments and
    not in simulated ones;
  • comparison experiments test similar systems,
    instantiating in different ways the same function, to evaluate which
    instantiation better performs the desired function both in real-like
    and real environments;
  • finally, controlled experiments are used to appraise
    advanced hypotheses on the behaviors of the testing computational
    system and are the only ones on a par with scientific theory-driven
    experiments, in that they are carried out on the basis of some
    theoretical hypotheses under evaluation.

6.3 Explanation

A software test is considered successful when miscomputations are
detected (assuming that no computational artifact is 100% correct).
The successive step is to find out what caused the execution to be
incorrect, that is, to trace back the fault (more familiarly named
‘bug’), before proceeding to the debugging phase and then
testing the system again. In other words, an explanation of
the observed miscomputation is to be advanced.

Efforts have been made to consider explanations in computer science
(Piccinini 2007; Piccinini and Craver 2011; Piccinini 2015; Angius and
Tamburrini 2016) in relation to the different models of explanations
elaborated in the philosophy of science. In particular, computational
explanations can be understood as a specific kind of mechanistic
(Glennan 1996; Machamer et al. 2000; Bechtel
and Abrahamsen 2005), insofar as computing processes can be analyzed
as mechanisms (Piccinini 2007; 2015; see also the entry on
computation in physical systems).

Consider a processor executing an instruction. The involved process
can be understood as a mechanism whose components are states and
combinatory elements in the processor instantiating the functions
prescribed by the relevant hardware specifications (specifications for
registers, for the Arithmetic Logic Unit etc..), organized in such a
way that they are capable of carrying out the observed execution.
Providing the description of such a mechanism counts as advancing a
mechanist explanation of the observed computation, such as the
explanation of an operational malfunction.

For every type of miscomputation (see
a corresponding mechanist explanation can be defined at the adequate
LoA and with respect to the set of specifications characterizing that
LoA. Indeed, abstract descriptions of mechanisms still supply one with
a mechanist explanation in the form of a mechanism schema,
defined as “a truncated abstract description of a mechanism that
can be filled with descriptions of known component parts and
activities” (Machamer et al. 2000, p. 15). For
instance, suppose the very common case in which a machine miscomputes
by executing a program containing syntax errors, called slips. The
computing machine is unable to correctly implement the functional
requirements provided by the program specifications. However, for
explanatory purposes, it would be redundant to provide an explanation
of the occurred slip at the hardware level of abstraction, by
advancing the detailed description of the hardware components and
their functional organization. In such cases, a satisfactory
explanation may consist in showing that the program’s code is
not a correct instantiation of the provided program specifications
(Angius and Tamburrini 2016). In order to explain mechanistically an
occurred miscomputation, it may be sufficient to provide the
description of the incorrect program, abstracting from the rest of the
computing mechanism (Piccinini and Craver 2011). Abstraction is a
virtue not only in software development and specification, but also in
the explanation of computational systems’ behaviors.

7. Correctness

Each of the different approaches on software verification examined in
the previous section assumes a different understanding of correctness
for software. Standardly, correctness has been understood as a
relation holding between an abstraction and its implementation, such
that it holds if the latter fulfills the properties formulated by the
former. Once computational systems are described as having a layered
ontology, correctness needs to be reformulated as the relation that
any structural level entertains with respect to its functional level
(Primiero, 2020). Hence, correctness can still be considered as a
mathematical relationship when formulated between abstract and
functional level; while it can be considered as an empirical
relationship when formulated between the functional and the
implementation levels. One of the earlier debates in the philosophy of
computer science (De Millo et al. 1979; Fetzer 1988) was
indeed around this distinction.

7.1 Mathematical Correctness

Formal verification methods grant an a-priori analysis of the
behaviors of programs, without requiring the observation of any of
their implementation or considering their execution. In particular,
theorem proving allows one to deduce any potential behavior
of the program under consideration and its behavioral properties from
a suitable axiomatic representation. In the case of model checking,
one knows in advance the behavioural properties displayed by the
execution of a program by performing an algorithmic search of the
formulas valid in a given set-theoretic model. These considerations
famously led Hoare (1969) to conclude that program development is an
“exact science”, which should be characterized by
mathematical proofs of correctness, epistemologically on a par with
standard proofs in mathematical practice.

De Millo et al. (1979) question Hoare’s thesis: correct
mathematical proofs are usually elegant and
graspable, implying that any (expert) reader can
“see” that the conclusion follows from the premises (for
the notion of elegance in software see also Hill (2018)). What are
often called Cartesian proofs (Hacking 2014) do not have a
counterpart in correctness proofs, typically long and cumbersome,
difficult to grasp and not explaining why the conclusion necessarily
follows from the premises. Yet, many proofs in mathematics are long
and complex, but they are in principle surveyable, thanks to
the use of lemmas, abstractions and the analytic construction of new
concepts leading step by step to the statement to be proved.
Correctness proofs, on the contrary, do not involve the creation of
new concepts, nor the modularity one typically finds in mathematical
proofs (Turner, 2018). And yet, proofs that are not surveyable cannot
be considered mathematical proofs (Wittgenstein 1956).

A second theoretical difficulty concerning proofs of correctness for
computer programs concerns their complexity and that of the programs
to be verified. Already Hoare (1981) admitted that while verification
of correctness is always possible in principle, in practice it is
hardly achievable. Except for trivial cases, contemporary software is
modularly encoded, is required to satisfy a large set of
specifications, and it is developed so as to interact with other
programs, systems, users. Embedded and reactive software are cases in
point. In order to verify such complex software, correctness proofs
are carried out automatically. Hence, on the one hand, the correctness
problem shifts from the program under examination to the program
performing the verification, e.g. a theorem prover; on the other hand,
proofs carried out by a physical process can go wrong, due to
mechanical mistakes of the machine. Against this infinite regress
argument, Arkoudas and Bringsjord (2007) argue that one can make use
of a proof checker which, by being a relatively small program, is
usually easier to verify.

Most recently, formal methods for checking correctness based on a
combination of logical and statistical analysis have given new
stimulus to this research area: the ability of Separation Logics
(Reynolds, 2002) to offer a representation of the logical behavior of
the physical memory of computational systems, and the possibility of
considering probabilistic distributions of inputs as statistical
source of errors, have allowed formal correctness check of large
interactive systems like the Facebook platform (see also Pym et
. 2019).

7.2 Physical Correctness

Fetzer (1988) objected that deductive reasoning is only able to
guarantee for the correctness of a program with respect to its
specifications, but not for the correctness of a computational system,
that is also accounting for the program’s physical
implementation. Even if the program were correct with respect to any
of the related upper LoAs (algorithms, specifications, requirements),
its implementation could still violate one or more of the intended
specifications due to a physical malfunctioning. The former kind of
correctness can in principle be proved mathematically, but the
correctness of the execution LoA requires an empirical assessment. As
examined in
software testing can show only in principle the correctness of a
computational system. In practice, the number of allowed executions of
non-trivial systems are potentially infinite and cannot be
exhaustively checked in a finite (or reasonable) amount of time
(Dijkstra 1974). Most successful testing methods rather see both
formal verification and testing used together to reach a satisfactory
correction level.

Another objection to the theoretical possibility of mathematical
correctness is that since proofs are carried out by a theorem prover,
i.e. a physical machine, the knowledge one attains about computational
systems is not a-priori but empirical (see Turner 2018 ch.
25). However, Burge (1988) argues that computer-based proofs of
correctness can still be regarded as a-priori, in that even
though their possibility depends on sensory experience, their
justification does not (as it is for a-posteriori knowledge).
For instance, the knowledge that red is a color is a-priori
even though it requires having sensory experience of red; this is
because ‘red is a colour’ is true independently of any
sensory experience. For further discussion on the nature of the use of
computers in mathematical proofs, see (Hales 2008; Harrison 2008;
Tymoczko 1979, 1980).

The problem of correctness eventually reduces to asking what it means
for a physical machine to satisfy an abstract requirement. According
to the simple mapping account, a computational system
S is a correct implementation of specification SP
only if:

  1. there can be established a morphism from the states ascribed to
    S to the states defined by SP, and
  2. for any state transition (s_1 rightarrow s_2) in S
    there is a state transition (s’_1 rightarrow s’_2) in SP
    between state (s’_1) mapping to (s_1) and state (s’_2) mapping
    to (s_2).

The simple mapping account only demands for an extensional agreement
between the description of S and SP. The weakness of
this account is that it is quite easy to identify an extensional
agreement between any couple of physical system-specification, leaving
room for a pancomputationalist perspective.

The danger of pancomputationalism has led some authors to attempt an
account of correct implementation that somehow restricts the class of
possible interpretations. In particular,

  1. The causal account (D. J. Chalmers 1996; Copeland 1996)
    suggests that the material conditional (if the system is in the
    physical state (s_1) …) is replaced by a counterfactual
  2. The semantic account argues that a computational system
    must be associated with a semantic description, specifying what the
    system is to achieve (Sprevak 2012). For example, a physical device
    could be interpreted as an AND gate or an OR gate but without a
    definition of the device there is no way of fixing what the artifact
  3. The syntactic account demands that only physical states
    that can be defined as syntactic can be mapped onto computational
    states. What remains to be examined is what defines a syntactic state
    (see Piccinini 2015 or the entry on
    computation in physical systems
    for an overview of the syntactic account
  4. The normative account (Turner 2012) maintains not only
    that abstract and physical computational processes must be in
    agreement, but also that the abstract specification has normative
    force over the system. According to such an account, computations are
    physical processes whose function is fixed by an abstract
    specification. This relationship is stronger than both the semantic
    account, asking for a simple descriptive relationship, and the
    syntactic account, focusing on a syntactic object and its semantic

7.3 Miscomputations

From what has been said so far, it follows that correctness of
implemented programs does not automatically establish the
well-functioning of a computational system. Turing (1950) already
distinguished between errors of functioning and errors of
. The former are caused by a faulty implementation
unable to execute the instructions of some high-level language
program; errors of conclusion characterize correct abstract machines
that nonetheless fail to carry out the tasks they were supposed to
accomplish. This may happen in those cases in which a program
instantiates correctly some specifications which do not properly
express the users’ requirements on such a program. In both
cases, machines implementing correct programs can still be said to

Turing’s distinction between errors of functioning and errors of
conclusion has been expanded into a complete taxonomy of
miscomputations (Fresco and Primiero 2013). The classification is
established on the basis of the different LoAs defining computational
systems. Errors can be:

  • conceptual: they violate validity conditions requiring
    consistency for specifications expressed in propositional conjunctive
    normal form;
  • material: they violate the correctness requirements of
    programs with respect to the set of their specifications;
  • performable: they arise when physical constraints are
    breached by some faulty implementing hardware.

Performable errors clearly emerge only at the execution level, and
they correspond with Turing’s (1950) error of functioning, also
called operational malfunctions. Conceptual and material
errors may arise at any level of abstraction from the intention level
down to the physical implementation level. Conceptual errors engender
mistakes, while material errors induce failures. For
instance, a mistake at the intention level consists of an inconsistent
set of requirements, while at the physical implementation level it may
correspond to an invalid hardware design (such as in the choice of the
logic gates for the truth-functional connectives). Failures occurring
at the specification level may be due to a design that is deemed to be
incomplete with respect to the set of desired functional requirements,
while a failure at the algorithm level occurs in those frequent cases
in which the algorithm is found not to fulfill the specifications.
Beyond mistakes, failures, and operational malfunctions,
slips are a source of miscomputations at the high-level
programming language instructions level: they may be conceptual or
material errors due to, respectively, a syntactic or a semantic flaw
in the program. Conceptual slips appear in all those cases in which
the syntactical rules of high-level languages are violated; material
slips involve the violation of semantic rules of programming
languages, such as when a variable is used but not initialized.

A further distinction has to be made between dysfunctions and
misfunctions for software-based computational systems
(Floridi, Fresco and Primiero 2015). Software can only misfunction but
cannot ever dysfunction. A software token can dysfunction in case its
physical implementation fails to satisfy intentions or specifications.
Dysfunctions only apply to single tokens since a token dysfunctions in
that it does not behave as the other tokens of the same type do with
respect to the implemented functions. For this reason, dysfunctions do
not apply to the intention level and the specification level. On the
contrary, both software types and tokens can misfunction, since
misfunctions do not depend on comparisons with tokens of the same type
being able to perform some implemented function or not. Misfunction of
tokens usually depends on the dysfunction of some other component,
while misfunction of types is often due to poor design. A software
token cannot dysfunction, because all tokens of a given type implement
functions specified uniformly at the intention and specification
levels. Those functions are implemented at the algorithm
implementation level before being performed at the execution level; in
case of correct implementation, all tokens will behave correctly at
the execution level (provided that no operational malfunction occurs).
For the very same reason, software tokens cannot misfunction, since
they are implementations of the same intentions and specifications.
Only software types can misfunction in case of poor design;
misfunctioning software types are able to correctly perform their
functions but may also produce some undesired side-effect. For the
application of the notion of malfunctioning to the problem of malware
classification, see (Primiero et al. 2019).

8. The Epistemological Status of Computer Science 

Between the 1960s and the 1970s, computer science emerged as an
academic discipline independent from its older siblings, mathematics
and physics, and with it the problem of defining its epistemological
status as influenced by mathematical, empirical, and engineering
methods (Tedre and Sutien 2008, Tedre 2011, Tedre 2015, Primiero
2020). A debate is still in place today concerning whether computer
science has to be mostly considered as a mathematical
discipline, a branch of engineering, or as a scientific

8.1 Computer Science as a Mathematical Discipline

Any epistemological characterization of computer science is based on
ontological, methodological, and epistemological commitments, namely
on assumptions about the nature of computational systems, the methods
guiding the software development process, and the kind of reasoning
thereby involved, whether deductive, inductive, or a combination of
both (Eden 2007).

The origin of the analysis of computation as a mathematical notion
came notoriously from logic, with Hilbert’s question concerning
the decidability of predicate calculus, known as the
Entschiedungsproblem (Hilbert and Ackermann 1950): could
there be a mechanical procedure for deciding of an arbitrary sentence
of logic whether it is provable? To address this question, a rigorous
model of the informal concept of an effective or mechanical method in
logic and mathematics was required. This is first and foremost a
mathematical endeavor: one has to develop a mathematical analogue of
the informal notion. Supporters of the view that computer science is
mathematical in nature assume that a computer program can be seen as a
physical realization of such a mathematical entity and that one can
reason about programs deductively through the formal methods of
theoretical computer science. Dijkstra (1974) and Hoare (1986)
were very explicit in considering programs’ instructions as
mathematical sentences, and considering a formal semantics for
programming languages in terms of an axiomatic system (Hoare 1969).
Provided that program specifications and instructions are advanced in
the same formal language, formal semantics provide the means to prove
correctness. Accordingly, knowledge about the behaviors of
computational systems is acquired by the deductive reasoning involved
in mathematical proofs of correctness. The reason at the basis of such
a rationalist optimism (Eden 2007) about what can be known about
computational systems is that they are artifacts, that is,
human-made systems and, as such, one can predict their
behaviors with certainty (Knuth 1974).

Although a central concern of theoretical computer science, the topics
of computability and complexity are covered in existing entries on the
Church-Turing thesis,
computational complexity theory, and
recursive functions.

8.2 Computer Science as an Engineering Discipline

In the late 1970s, the increasing number of applications of
computational systems in everyday contexts, and the consequent booming
of market demands caused a deviation of interests for computer
scientists in Academia and in Industry: from focusing on methods of
proving programs’ correctness, they turned to methods for
managing complexity and evaluating the reliability of those system
(Wegner 1976). Indeed, expressing formally the specifications,
structure, and input of highly complex programs embedded in larger
systems and interacting with users is practically impossible, and
hence providing mathematical proofs of their correctness becomes
mostly unfeasible. Computer science research developed in the
direction of testing techniques able to provide a statistical
evaluation of correctness, often called reliability (Littlewood and
Strigini 2000), in terms of estimation of error distributions in a
program’s code.

In line with this engineering account of computer science is the
thesis that reliability of computational systems is evaluated in the
same way that civil engineering does for bridges and aerospace
engineering for airplanes (DeMillo et al. 1979). In
particular, whereas empirical sciences examine what exists, computer
science focuses on what can exist, i.e., on how to produce
artifacts, and it should be therefore acknowledged as an
“engineering of mathematics” (Hartmanis 1981). Similarly,
whereas scientific inquiries are involved in discovering laws
concerning the phenomena under observation, one cannot identify proper
laws in computer science practice, insofar as the latter is rather
involved in the production of phenomena concerning computational
artifacts (Brooks 1996).

8.3 Computer Science as a Scientific Discipline

As examined in
because software testing and reliability measuring techniques are
known for their incapability of assuring for the absence of code
faults (Dijkstra 1970), in many cases, and especially for the
evaluation of the so-called safety-critical systems (such as
controllers of airplanes, rockets, nuclear plants etc..), a
combination of formal methods and empirical testing is used to
evaluate correctness and dependability. Computer science can
accordingly be understood as a scientific discipline, in that it makes
use of both deductive and inductive probabilistic reasoning to examine
computational systems (Denning et al. 1981, 2005, 2007; Tichy 1998;
Colburn 2000).

The thesis that computer science is, from a methodological viewpoint,
on a par with empirical sciences traces back to Newell, Perlis, and
Simon’s 1967 letter to Science (Newell et al. 1967) and
dominated all the 1980’s (Wegner 1976). In the 1975 Turing Award
lecture, Newell and Simon argued:

Computer science is an empirical discipline. We would have called it
an experimental science, but like astronomy, economics, and geology,
some of its unique forms of observation and experience do not fit a
narrow stereotype of the experimental method. Nonetheless, they are
experiments. Each new machine that is built is an experiment. Actually
constructing the machine poses a question to nature; and we listen for
the answer by observing the machine in operation and analyzing it by
all analytical and measurement means available (Newell and Simon 1975,
p. 114)

Since Newell and Simon’s Turing award lecture, it has been clear
that computer science can be understood as an empirical science but of
a special sort, and this is related to the nature of experiments in
computing. Indeed, much current debate on the epistemological status
of computer science concerns the problem of defining what kind of
science it is (Tedre 2011, Tedre 2015) and, in particular, the nature
of experiments in computer science (Schiaffonati and Verdicchio 2014),
the nature, if any, of laws and theorems in computing (Hartmanis 1993;
Rombach and Seelish 2008), and the methodological relation between
computer science and software engineering (Gruner 2011).

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