Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Dual Nature of Computer Programs Redux

In the first manifestation of this blog I wrote an entry on the Dual Nature of Computer Programs that touches on matters that still are of great concern to me as I struggle to make sense of the application of Patent Law and Copyright Law to computer programs.

I have, therefore, decided to repeat it here, omitting a few footnotes and references that can still, I hope, be found in the original.


As I have indicated before I believe that the inconsistent ways in which we think of computer programs as one of the causes of a great many--dare I say it?--nonsensical legal arguments as to why the government can legally forbid the publication of the text of those programs.

As I see it, the phrase ``computer program'' has two quite distinct primary meanings. One meaning refers to the text of the program that is made up of signs and symbols which may be fixed in some tangible medium of expression or transmitted as a stream of binary digits or other signals from one installation to another. The other meaning refers to the process that takes place inside a computer when the steps of the program are carried out.

An analogy might be to an ``orchestra program'': which could refer either to the notes--typically fixed on sheets of paper--that are to be played by the orchestra or to the actual production of the music by the orchestra.

But that analogy, I admit, does not seem seem very precise.

I was therefore extremely grateful when Teemu Pyyluoma told me, in a message posted on the Lit-Ideas mailing list, of the existence of the research program into ``The Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts''.

The following passages are quoted from a paper by Kroes & Mejiers, also named The Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts 4 Techné 6:2 Winter 2002.

In our thinking, speaking and doing we employ two basic conceptualizations of the world. On the one hand, we see the world as consisting of physical objects interacting through causal connections. On the other hand, we see it as consisting of agents (primarily human beings), who intentionally represent the world and act in it. The great successes of natural science have suggested to many that the physical or material conceptualization fits every part of the empirically accessible universe, including humans. This idea, however, has created serious problems for the intentional conceptualization. It suggests that mental states are causally inefficacious in human actions, or conversely, that human action is causally overdetermined by mental states as well as brain states. Nowadays a large part of the philosophy of mind is devoted to analyzing these types of problems.

Our research program, "The dual nature of technical artifacts", willaddress a set of problems that originate in the existence of these two conceptualizations. The intentional conceptualization applies not only to mental states of individual persons, but also to social entities, i.e., entities involving several persons, such as gangs, armies, banks, governments, countries, etc. And it stretches out in another direction, so to speak, to include (technical) artifacts, such as screwdrivers, spectrographs and skyscrapers. It is this category of technical artifacts on which the research program focuses. Its subject matter is the applicability of the two conceptualizations and their interrelatedness when human beings connect to the physical world in the creation of technical artifacts (artifacts designed by engineers). The problems encountered here are different from the ones in the philosophy of mind. In that discipline one problem among others is the existence of two alternative conceptualizations of mental states, where one seems to be superfluous in the explanation of human action. As will be explained below, the problem addressed here is the indispensability of both conceptualizations for understanding and explaining the nature of technical artifacts. This calls for an integrated account.

Technical artifacts are, at least prima facie, always physical objects, but they are also objects that have a certain function. Looked upon merely as physical objects, they fit into the physical or material conception of the world. Looked upon as functional objects, however, they do not. The concept of function never appears in physical descriptions of the world; it rather belongs to the intentional conceptualization. This is shown, for one thing, by the fact that attributions of function lend themselves to normative judgments artifacts can perform their function well or badly and normative statements make sense only within the intentional conceptualization. Technical artifacts thus have a dual nature: They cannot exhaustively be described within the physical conceptualization, since this has no place for their functional features, nor can they be described exhaustively within the intentional conceptualization, since their functionality must be realized in a physical structure that is adequate to it.

The category of technical artifacts is a neglected topic in philosophy [One of the exceptions is R.R.Dipert (1993, 1995)]. This is shown particularly in the philosophical treatment of the notion of function. Philosophical analysis of this concept virtually always centers on its use in biology, although such analyses admit that the concept was imported from the functionality of designed artifacts. One expects, then, a clear analysis of the functionality of artifacts to be available. Such an analysis, however, is missing to such an extent that even occasional attempts to remedy this lack take their departure from biology and are consequently laden with biological terminology (natural selection, survival), the relevance of which to an understanding of artifacts is doubtful. It is still a problem exactly how the intentional and the physical description of artifacts hang together. If functions are primarily seen as `added to' the physical substrate, or as realized in physical objects, then the question remains how these functions are related to the mental states of human individuals, which, after all, form the core of the intentional conceptualization. If functions are primarily seen as patterns of mental states, on the other hand, and exist, so to speak, in the heads of the designers and users of artifacts only, then it becomes somewhat mysterious how a function relates to the physical substrate in a particular artifact. But relating them is exactly what happens in the design of artifacts. So how well does the rather metaphorical idea that structure and function `come together' in the making of an artifact fit the engineering practice of designing? Does this imply that on the route toward the physical realization of a function we are speaking two languages the intentional and the physical at the same time and in a coherent way?

On the one hand, the problem is thus how physical structure and function are related to each other in artifacts and what the precise role of intentions is in relating them. On the other hand, it is equally a matter for further inquiry how technical artifacts are related to social objects and what the role of physical realizations is in distinguishing them. There are numerous social objects of which we also say that they are made by humans, e.g., codes of law or universities. Prima facie it seems that artifacts are always `kickable', whereas such `social artifacts' are not. But does this mean that for social artifacts the point of their physical realization is irrelevant? Moreover, there is also a category of artifacts, such as computer programs, that seem to share some features with technical artifacts and others with social artifacts. We have, so to speak, two `triangles' of basic concepts: The first is structure--function--intention, and the second is technical artifact--physical object--social artifact. The relations between these triads and among the elements making up each triad are to be further analyzed and clarified.

If the existence of this research project does not yet give us much aid towards understanding the dual--or triple or quadruple--nature of computer programs, at least it alerts us to the fact that there is a serious philosophical problem lurking there. Unfortunately, though, I have the impression that the courts have never been much good at resolving philosophical problems. But perhaps we can somehow persuade the courts and legal scholars and other members of the legal community that a computer program--computer code, at least when fixed in a tangible medium, is essentially the same as the text of a printed book and thus perhaps avoid worrying about the fact that both computer programs and books have dual natures.

And that reminds that there once was a cryptographic program that was actually printed as a book: PGP: Source Code and Internals by Philip R. Zimmermann, MIT Press (June 9, 1995),


Unfortunately, the program on the "Dual Nature of Technical Artifacts" seems to have expired, so I have little hope of finding answers there to the problems that puzzle me.

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