CSE 4/510 & PHI 498, Spring 2004
Position Paper #1: What Is Computer Science?
Last Update: 22 January 2003
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The purpose of this position paper is to give you an opportunity to
clarify your beliefs about what computer science is, so that as
we continue to discuss the topic in class and as you continue to read
about it, you'll know where you stand--what your beliefs
are. Later, when your beliefs have been "contaminated" by further
readings and by our discussions, you may wish to revise your
beliefs. But you can't revise a belief that you don't have (you can
only acquire new beliefs). So, here I am forcing you to
discover, clarify, and defend the beliefs that you
now have, by turning them into words and putting them on paper.
Imagine that you are the newly-appointed Dean of the School of Science at the
University of Aix (pronounced like the letter "X"). In an attempt to
build up the rival School of Engineering, the newly-appointed Dean of
Engineering has proposed to the Provost (the Deans' boss) that the
Department of Computer Science be moved--lock,
stock, and computer, so to speak--to Engineering, on the following
- Science is the systematic observation, description, experimental
investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena.
- Computer science is the study of computers and related phenomena.
- Therefore, computer science is not a science.
(The Dean of Engineering has not yet argued that computer science
is an engineering discipline; that may come later.)
You may agree with this argument; then again, you may not agree with it.
You should ignore political considerations:
you may suppose that the move from Science to Engineering involves no
loss of money, prestige, or anything else, and it is to be done, if at all,
only on strictly intellectual grounds. How might you respond to the Dean of
The Provost is eagerly awaiting your reply, and will abide by your
decision...if, that is, you give a well-argued defense of your
There are several possible responses that you might have:
You might disagree for any of 3 reasons:
...or you might believe some combination of these.
- You believe that premise (1) is false.
- You believe that premise (2) is false.
- You believe that (1) and (2) are true but that conclusion (3) does
not follow from them.
- E.g., you might believe that "computers and related
phenomena" are "natural phenomena".
Please explain to the Provost why you disagree, by explaining
which of (a), (b), and/or (c) you do believe.
You might agree for any of the following reasons:
You believe (1) and (2) and that (3) follows from them. If so, please
explain to the Provost why you believe (1) and (2), and how (3) follows
from them. (E.g., you might believe that "computers and related
phenomena" are not "natural phenomena", or you might believe that
computer science doesn't study them "sytematically", or....)
You don't believe (1) or you don't believe (2), but you do
believe (3), whether or not it follows from (1) and (2). If so, please
explain why you don't believe (1) and/or (2) and what other
reasons you have for believing (3).
You might neither agree nor disagree with (3); alternatively, you might
both agree and disagree with it. For example, you might believe
that computer science is both a science and an engineering
discipline (or, alternatively, that it is neither). If so, then please
give your reasons for this.
You might not agree with any of these responses. However, I believe
that any other response can, perhaps with a bit of force, be seen to
fall under one of the above Responses. But if you really feel that your
position is not exactly characterized by any of the above Responses,
then please say what your position is, why you believe it, and why you
think it is not one of the above.
If you resort to a dictionary, textbook, article, website, etc., be sure
to say which one.
Your answer should honestly reflect your beliefs (not
what you think the fictional
Provost or Dean of Engineering want to hear!).
Your position paper should be approximately
|1 typed page and double-spaced (i.e., about 250 words).
to class on the due date.
This paper only needs the title "Position Paper #1", your name, and the
date at the top of the page.
For general assistance with writing (including my preferred method of
paper preparation and format, as well as advice on grammar), see my
website "How to Write".
DUE AT THE BEGINNING OF LECTURE, THURSDAY, JANUARY 29
Copyright © 2004 by
William J. Rapaport