Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What is a computer?

Today I decided to indulge in a little philosophical musing, on the question of what Aristotle would think of the personal computer (note that I'm talking about any computer owned by a person, regardless of operating system). In the Aristotelian tradition, a thing is defined teleologically by what its final aim or purpose is. So to Aristotle, the answer to the question “what is a frying pan?” would be something like “a device for cooking food, usually involving liquids.” From this, according to Aristotle, you could then derive many of the characteristics of a frying pan without ever needing to see one: it must be fireproof, non-porous, of such a shape that liquid does not spill out, etc. The details, such as whether it was made of metal or stone, would be of less concern to him. This sort of question works pretty well with many of the everyday devices we take for granted nowadays: a toaster toasts bread, a refrigerator keeps food cold, a washing machine cleans clothes with water, a dryer drys them with warm air, etc. etc.

But I suspect Aristotle would have a slightly harder time with a computer. Because just what is the final aim or purpose of a computer? Is is communication? Entertainment? A medium for creating art, or conducting business? A computer can be all of those things, but it is not limited to just one. Hence the difficulty.

(Actually, Aristotle would probably come up with some quirky, amusing definition of what a computer is. The guy had a pretty sophisticated sense of humor. In answer to the question “what is a human being?” he gave the tongue-in-cheek answer “a featherless biped,” and his definition of “nothing” was “what rocks dream about.”)

I think what a computer really represents, at its core, is potential. Given the right software (and in some cases, various peripherals such as a printer) a computer can be used to do an extremely large number of things. For instance, in between writing the previous sentence and this one I had a sudden urge to see a list of all the words I've used in this post ranked in decreasing order by length, so I took 20 minutes and wrote a short function in Python that would do that for me. I didn't have that in mind when I began this post, but it illustrates my point about the versatility of the computer rather well.

Now, while musing on what Aristotle would think of the computer is amusing, I'd like this chain of thought to go somewhere useful, so over the next few days I'm going to offer up various pieces of software for increasing your computer's potential. I have a lot of varied interests and a powerful computer to experiment with, so I've collected quite a few good programs over the years that I use in a myriad different ways.  So, until next time, a hui hou!

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