The determinacy of computation


*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


A skeptical worry known as ‘the indeterminacy of computation’ animates much recent philosophical reflection on the computational identity of physical systems. On the one hand, computational explanation seems to require that physical computing systems fall under a single, unique computational description at a time. On the other, if a physical system falls under any computational description, it seems to fall under many simultaneously. Absent some principled reason to take just one of these descriptions in particular as relevant for computational explanation, widespread failure of computational explanation would appear to follow. This paper advances a new solution to the indeterminacy of computation. Very roughly, I argue that the computational identity of a physical system is determinate relative to a contextually specified way of regarding that system computationally—known as a labelling scheme. When a system simultaneously implements multiple computations, it does so relative to different labelling schemes. But relative to a fixed labelling scheme, a physical system has a unique computational identity. I argue that this relativistic conception of computational identity vindicates computational explanation in the face of simultaneous implementation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number43
Number of pages28
Issue number1
Early online date25 Feb 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Thanks to Soyeong An, Matteo Biachetti, Preston Lennon, Daniel Olson, Richard Samuels, Stewart Shapiro, Declan Smithies, Damon Stanley, and audiences in Bergamo and online at BSPS 2021 for comments and discussion. Special thanks to three anonymous referees, whose suggestions led to substantial improvements in the final paper. Any errors that remain are entirely my own.


  • Computation
  • Explanation
  • Implementation
  • Indeterminacy
  • Individuation


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