Context: I wrote this essay in 1989. The situation at Seaver College
has changed considerably since then. Although the following comments no longer
apply in the current environment, they may be of use to those who have
an interest in the relation between computer science and the liberal arts.
See the work of the
Liberal Arts Computer Science Consortium for similar ideas to those
The Seaver College Dean recently asked the Natural Science Division to examine the viability of the Computer Science major at Pepperdine University. The primary concern is financial because of the low enrollment that the major is now experiencing. However, another concern appears to be a philosophical one, namely the perception that Computer Science is more of an applied or engineering discipline and as such cannot be justified as one of the full-fledged, true liberal arts deserving of support on a par with the traditional liberal arts disciplines. The purpose of this paper is to present the philosophical case for computer science as a true liberal arts discipline.
The sciences have a strong tradition in the liberal arts. No one would argue that biology, chemistry or physics are not legitimate liberal arts disciplines. The fact that the object of their study is the physical world as opposed to the human world, which is the concern of literature and history, makes them no less legitimate in the curriculum of the liberal arts. What is the characteristic of the natural sciences that distinguishes them from the engineering or applied sciences? The central characteristic of the natural sciences that gives them legitimacy in the liberal arts curriculum is the existence of a substantial, coherent body of theory, which is subject to scientific investigation and experimentation. Scientific theories describe the natural world and are expressed in the language of mathematics, the queen of the sciences.
The question, then, is "Does computer science have a substantial, coherent body of theory, which is subject to scientific investigation and experimentation?" The answer to this question, perhaps surprisingly, is "Yes." The problem with computer science is that most people outside the discipline, even other scientists, do not realize the depth and significance of the theoretical basis of computer science. It is common for computer scientists to lament their second-class status as true "scientists", because most people equate computer science with programming. That is, they view computer science as a tool to be used in their respective disciplines, but discount the value of it as a discipline in its own right. In the following, I will try to indicate the extent and the nature of the theoretical foundations of computer science.
The father of computer science is generally regarded to be Alan Turing, who began investigating its theoretical basis more than 50 years ago. His studies led him to postulate a mathematical model that has come to be known as the Turing Machine. Using mathematical reasoning with this abstract machine, he was able to prove many fundamental theorems that are independent of any physical machine. The theorems will always remain true regardless of the inevitable advance of technology because they are based on a coherent body of theory.
Another branch of computer science is language theory. The languages of computer science are artificial. Instead of evolving as the natural languages do, they are designed by computer scientists. An extensive body of language translation theory has been developed based on the concepts of syntax and semantics of artificial languages. It mirrors the same concepts in the natural languages but is based on mathematics.
Logic and Boolean algebra is another branch of computer science. The same Aristotelian logic studied by philosophers is the basis of all modern binary computer circuits. (It is not a coincidence that a professor of philosophy at Seaver College occasionally teaches computer science courses for our Division.) A recent branch of computer science, called artificial intelligence, includes logic-based languages. This branch of computer science studies human reasoning from a cognitive point of view as well as from a physiological point of view. For example, a current area of research involves the functioning of the nerve cells in the human nervous system, in an attempt to better understand how humans think. Computer scientists have constructed computational models based on neural physiology as a result of this research.
Many other areas of computer science theory could be cited. The point is that in the liberal arts, computer science is the victim of its own utilitarian success. It is so useful as a tool to so many in the liberal arts and sciences, that it is viewed as simply an applied or engineering discipline with no intellectual basis of its own. Its theoretical basis is hidden, in the same way that Newton's Laws are hidden in the plumbing when you turn on the water. We do not teach plumbing as a liberal art, but we do not hesitate to teach Newton's Laws in physics, on which all our plumbing is based.
As the computer science discipline has matured, a distinction has emerged between computer engineering and computer science. The engineering aspect concerns itself with applying the principles to the construction of programs and machines. The science aspect concerns itself with the theory and corresponding experimentation. The theory is grounded in mathematics and abstraction.
Our approach at Seaver College is closely tied to mathematics, which is the appropriate approach given our commitment to the liberal arts. Our major is not even Computer Science, but Computer Science/Mathematics. Frequently students with a purely vocational interest inquire about the possibility of majoring in Computer Science without the mathematics. We have always resisted such pressures even though that approach would likely generate greater student demand for our program.
The Computer Science curriculum at Seaver College is designed to complement the natural sciences, especially mathematics. The fact that Computer Science has widespread application to problems in the sciences and liberal arts does not diminish its less-appreciated scientific content. It deserves to be supported without apology alongside the other liberal arts disciplines at Seaver College.
23 October 1989
Personal web page.
Seaver College Faculty Profile.