Computing, Modelling, and Scientific Practice: Foundational Analyses and Limitations

Dissertation, (2018)
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This dissertation examines aspects of the interplay between computing and scientific practice. The appropriate foundational framework for such an endeavour is rather real computability than the classical computability theory. This is so because physical sciences, engineering, and applied mathematics mostly employ functions defined in continuous domains. But, contrary to the case of computation over natural numbers, there is no universally accepted framework for real computation; rather, there are two incompatible approaches --computable analysis and BSS model--, both claiming to formalise algorithmic computation and to offer foundations for scientific computing. The dissertation consists of three parts. In the first part, we examine what notion of 'algorithmic computation' underlies each approach and how it is respectively formalised. It is argued that the very existence of the two rival frameworks indicates that 'algorithm' is not one unique concept in mathematics, but it is used in more than one way. We test this hypothesis for consistency with mathematical practice as well as with key foundational works that aim to define the term. As a result, new connections between certain subfields of mathematics and computer science are drawn, and a distinction between 'algorithms' and 'effective procedures' is proposed. In the second part, we focus on the second goal of the two rival approaches to real computation; namely, to provide foundations for scientific computing. We examine both frameworks in detail, what idealisations they employ, and how they relate to floating-point arithmetic systems used in real computers. We explore limitations and advantages of both frameworks, and answer questions about which one is preferable for computational modelling and which one for addressing general computability issues. In the third part, analog computing and its relation to analogue (physical) modelling in science are investigated. Based on some paradigmatic cases of the former, a certain view about the nature of computation is defended, and the indispensable role of representation in it is emphasized and accounted for. We also propose a novel account of the distinction between analog and digital computation and, based on it, we compare analog computational modelling to physical modelling. It is concluded that the two practices, despite their apparent similarities, are orthogonal.


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