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With the insistence that the computer is to be understood in its relation to human beings, how do we understand automation, in which the computer might run for a long time without any human intervention? Is this not at least one situation in which we should think of the computer 'in itself' ('an sich'), apart from human functioning?

One difficulty with the position implied by that question, that of the autonomous computer, becomes obvious when we ask who programmed the computer? In most cases, human beings created the program under which the computer runs in automated fashion. In some cases, the program might have been generated by another program, but that program will most likely have been produced by human beings. We can continue the chain backwards and will always find human beings at the start. There is, as yet, no known case in which no human beings have ever been involved.

Another difficulty with that position is that the automated functioning itself is to be seen as meaningful in a human context, usually for some human purpose. For example, the program to control a car engine run with the express, humanly-led, purpose of controlling a car engine. This is a formative aspect of automation.

A third involvement of human beings, in many cases of automation is that the human beings monitor what is going on. This occurs, for example, in control of industrial plant, and the program not only controls the plant but also displays symbols that carry meaning about what is happening, whether this is simply a whistle blowing when something goes wrong, or complex information displayed on screen. This is a lingual aspect of automation.

Fourthly, automation always occurs within a framework of human responsibility. Human beings have overall responsibility for what occurs during automated running. This is the juridical aspect of automation. Likewise, we can see there is an economic aspect of automation.

However, our Dooyeweerdian analysis of automation is not exhausted by being able to identify various human aspects thereof. We need to account for why automation is possible. What enables automation to proceed, and to proceed reliably, is that the computer functions as subject in the physical aspect. That is, once a program has been loaded in memory, then its operation is supported, via a short chain of inter-aspect dependency, by functioning in the physical aspect, which is subject-functioning. It is this subject-functioning that enables computers to run 'by themselves' for a time. It is the fact that the laws of the physical aspect are determinative that accounts for the reliability of such functioning.

This page is part of a collection that discusses application of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

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Created: 21 November 2005 Last updated: