Is software physical?

Discussion in 'General Philosophy' started by baftan, May 28, 2010.

  1. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    This question is asked by Doreen during our discussion in "Thinking and Philosophy" thread #11, in General Philosophy sub-forum. (

    According to definition (from Wikipedia):

    Problem arises here: "Something not tangible" does not necessarily mean that this thing is not physical: Light is one the most powerful example for intangible physical existence, alongside others such as electromagnetic force and gravity. However software is not a force either. The end result dictates itself as manipulation, arrangement, storage, protocol or direction of data, and necessarily of the physical working mechanism. So it acts like a type of force; not in the sense of physical source though.

    What is software then? Is it physical; if it is not, what is it? Is DNA code a software too, how about thoughts? Has anyone know any source, got any idea on this issue?

    I know that term belongs to computers, but I also use it as an analogy for thoughts, that's why I opened this thread under the General Philosophy sub-forum. Yet again, if moderation (this is you glaucon) finds a better place and move it, I will not make any objection.
    Last edited: May 28, 2010
    Ted Grant II likes this.
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  3. draqon Banned Banned

    software is physical, it cant exist without hardware, electrons flowing through wires and the mastermind people behind it all (or aliens).

    so are thoughts and dna as is God, but to know/see God one needs to have faith.
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  5. Dywyddyr Penguinaciously duckalicious. Valued Senior Member

    Show me a handful of software.

    So you think software doesn't exist until it's actually in operation?

    Thoughts? Evidence please.
    DNA, Crick probably showed that. Thoughts and DNA are not comparable.

    Supposition. And you cannot know god.

    @ Baftan: it depends on what you actually mean by "software".
    Is it the coding itself? (Whether written down, burnt onto DVD or still in the mind of the programmer). I assume this is what you mean.
    Software is as physical as a concept. That is to say, not very.

    Like that definition says: "term primarily used for digitally stored data".
    Are data physical?
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  7. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    Electrons flowing through wires refers to complete physical cycle, from electrons to wires. When you write down a piece of software code it starts/causes activity on these electrons (given that the necessary physical connections is already there). Again, when you think of something, certain brain cells are arisen/highlighted/activated. But neither thought, nor software itself is physical. Otherwise we wouldn't need to brand it software -said in the definition "as opposed to hardware"-.
    Physical environment do work without a software behind it. Imagine a piece of rock hitting the ground due to gravity. There is no software behind this activity, no aim or programme. Maybe software itself (or thoughts) can not exist without physical base/infrastructure. Yet they are the reason/programme/model behind why certain physical gathering is there: Why do we use need cables but not wooden structures for our computers, why does thoughts require brain cells with certain connections but not some plastics etc.
    So software is physical because it performs on the physical existence does not mean that software "is" physical. At least its not enough...
    so are thoughts and dna as is God, but to know/see God one needs to have faith.
  8. Sarkus Hippomonstrosesquippedalo phobe Valued Senior Member

    Software is a pattern. It can not exist without matter, but it is an arrangement of that matter, not the matter itself - whether it be on the storage device or within the flow of electrons around a computer etc. A hard-drive with "software" on it weighs the same as one without software.

    So it is no more physical than "beauty" - which is merely a descriptor of a physical arrangement.

    I would therefore say that "software" is more accurately termed a property of the physical, like "height" or "width", rather than the matter itself.

    Baftan, I thought light IS matter... or at least I think it is, according to modern physics, where energy and matter are equated?
  9. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    That's exactly what I am trying to understand. "What is software" in relation to physical existence.

    Yes, but it is not a made up mumbo jumbo like "soul", "god" or "magic". It is "not very" physical, yet it has concrete relation with physical environment.

    Do you want me to open a new thread for this, because it's tempting...
  10. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    I liked this "arrangement" word. Yet, there is an idea behind an arrangement if the arrangement is made by human thought. Or if we are talking about DNA code, arrangement comes through evolution, no idea behind it. So arrangement do not necessarily requires an idea behind it. That's why I liked it.

    But software is something more than a "descriptor"; it makes the arrangement itself as you said a couple of sentences before.

    Height or width brings the questions of "according to what", or "under which measurement"; they are similar to "beauty" in this perspective, subjective. Yet software arrangement does not leave a space for subjectivity: A nice piece of software/thought does the job, whether you find it beautiful/tall/short/ugly or not.

    You might think light is matter, however your thought doesn't fit this:

  11. CheskiChips Banned Banned

    Software is a geeky joke on Hardware the same way Unix was a geeky joke on Multics, and Linux was on Unix. These kind of things exist all through out computer science, the driving forces would create clever names and malapropisms. Software is actually a process rather than a thing... evidence to this can be found in old Fortran punch cards.

    Someone would sit there and enter punch cards in a specific order which would be interpreted by hardware as physical gaps in a card which could be used for other purposes. Those punch cards were instructions, or just manipulations of a binary system utilized for advantage ::: They were termed 'software'.
  12. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    First point, if hardware was not designed to interpret those cards, or at least if hardware didn't have necessary built-up which allows being manipulated by these cards, software would not interfere the working mechanism of the hardware.

    Second point (actually question) is, related to the first one, where else those card could be used? I am not asking could we use those cards to clean our teeth or not; could we use them as software without the minimum requirements of related hardware architecture? However, good thing with software, if you built up another machine that can make sense out of those cards, we could still use them as software.

    Software definitely makes sense if it can manipulate the hardware, that's for sure. And your cards are only the representation of the idea; cards themselves are hardware in a way. I was thinking software more like within the realm of what Dywyddyr asked as "Are data physical?"

    I think from this point we definitely step into the kingdom of philosophy, if glaucon doesn't feel comfortable whether or not this thread fits this sub-forum. I don't know what glaucon will think, I am just speculating.

    Let's follow the clue of Data then:

    The only thing that makes sense out of this definition -in terms of the main aspect of this topic- is the term "information":

    If this is not a black hole, what is it? Does it make any sense to anyone in terms of satisfying the main quest of software being physical or not?
    Last edited: May 28, 2010
  13. CheskiChips Banned Banned

    Nothing means anything unless there is an interpreter. A series of data broken down into binary form is no different than a stochastic generation of binary. That is, unless a compiler has been designed to make that chaotic generation follow a prescribed order which can be revered for interpretation. The data its self is worthless without a sensible compilation and interpretation...and even its output interpretation is worthless without a human to again interpret it into sensible events or tangible thoughts.

    Is the order of sand particulates on the beach data? Is the order of everything data? Only if it can be interpreted and even then you're only tweaking the definition of data and not delving into some philosophical quandary.

    Software is a collection of sensible information for interpretation by an opposite infrastructure. Further exploration of the topic is essentially pointless, software is not physical.
  14. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    That is the fashion I like.

    I believe I already made this separation above saying that:

    So I say rock, you say sand...

    Instead of complaining about it, you can start this "philosophical" platform and we can delve into it. As I stated in OP, I take software as an analogy to thinking in general, and human thinking in particular. If you are really honest to follow the philosophical side of the issue, you should get out of the "data" aspect of the software and go for "existential" side of it. Data or Data type information refers to more mathematically constructed side of software. In other way of saying it, there is no philosophy behind C++ or Foltran punch cards. It works if -as you said- they are compiled properly.

    Pointless for you maybe. But if you read OP, this question arose from another thread where we are trying to differentiate the physical side of thinking process -neurons- from the non-physical side -mind-. (Actually I am trying to do that, Doreen is coming from the other side; that's why she asked the main question of OP in the form of "Is software not physical?". I only deleted "not" part of the sentence.)

    It's pointless for you, because "software is not physical" is quite satisfactory from the point of the computer engineering.

    Can you answer these questions then:

    -If software is "not" physical, what type of existence it possess?
    -If we categorically deny "soul" or "aura" type explanations, do we need to classify the concept of existence as physical and non-physical?
    -If we limit the concept of existence to "physical only", how do we explain the existence of software alongside thought, data, etc.?
    -If software (and stop reading this as Foltran only) physically do not exist, yet it organizes the physical elements, how do you approach this issue "philosophically"?
    -Can you come up with a method to explain existence problem if you didn't like my pointless quest as "not delving into some philosophical quandary"?
    -Can you ignore my deep ignorance on this issue and enlighten all of us with your ontological explanations and/or showing us some school of thought which are already questioned this subject unbeknown to my ignorant mind?
    Last edited: May 28, 2010
  15. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    Software is organization (or as someone said earlier, "arrangement") of data. Unlike facts about history and science, which exist whether they're recorded or not, software isn't quite software if it's just in somebody's head. It has to be executable. Even the bits and bytes on the installation CD isn't really software yet, it's a tool for replicating the software on your computer.

    Therefore, the data which the software organizes must be stored on a physical medium. Once that happens, the software exists. However, the software is not the physical medium and it is not the data stored on that medium. It is the organization of that data. Perhaps this makes it a sort of metadata.

    We can quibble about whether the software exists in the abstract as a single entity, or in multiple copies on each of our computers. Personally I prefer to regard each installation as a disinct instance of the software. For the very good reason that it may become corrupted or vandalized, making it not identical with someone else's copy.

    For that matter, the distinction between instructions and data has been considerably blurred since I was a software engineer on a 256KB mainframe. Today a "software" package includes a gigantic array of tables, which are altered dynamically as it is used. So my copy is most definitely not identical to yours, even if it hasn't been corrupted.

    We don't have the same "software."
  16. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member



    Quite physical.
  17. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    On what basis?
  18. Gustav Banned Banned

    what are your thoughts on stuff like books or journals?
  19. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    Do you mean my non-physical "thoughts" on "physical" books and journals?
  20. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member

    Software is information represented in some format. The most common format are em pulses on a magnetic platter. Those pulses are very real and physical.

    DNA is made up of amino acids (which are quite physical). They instruct cells to do things for example (just like a program).

    Thoughts are bio-electral changes of the brain. Electrons and chemicals are quite physical.
  21. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    I submitted the definition of "information" from Wikipedia, abobe at #9, the one that includes:

    What you define as "physical" (em pulses on a magnetic platter) is the organisation of matter in order to store and transfer this information.

    DNA amino acids and their chemistry are obviously physical. Yet again, these structures are nothing more than a data carriers of a code. Carbon, oxygen and other elements are not the code itself. If you cut your finger this tissue (cells) are damaged. Yet information system repair it with brand new cells using different atoms with automated fashion.

    This is the critical spot as my initial intention (explained in OP) was to find a way to describe thoughts using software analogy. At the end, computer software does/can not exceed the limits of its constructed identity: However, thoughts can do that: That's how mind can come up with previously non-existing ideas. If you are interested this bit of the discussion I would recommend to have a look at this thread for further details: (

    The problem is ontological: If we say thoughts are physical, we say that the existential importance, driving force, identity of thoughts simply do not exist; we should redefine them as some form of neural activity and nothing else. In other way of saying, when I think of a formula (something that does not exist physically), and I think about it, I actually employ the physical parts of my brain for something actually doesn't exist. Yet, I can mobilize other people using this idea and they also can think about it, we can arrange policies, organise space programs and numerous other activities that would end up changing the entire civilization eventually. Here the physical existence of the formula (written on a software, been thought using brain cells etc.) has no definitive effect over the course of events. Does this formula exist? If it does, its existence claims more than individual atoms and/or their electrical/chemical process.
    Last edited: Jun 5, 2010
  22. Crunchy Cat F-in' *meow* baby!!! Valued Senior Member

    Yep. And that is physical in every respect

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    DNA is the carrier of the code. The amino acid sequence is the code (literally)... much like sequences of bits are code for computers.



    Sounds interesting. One way to think about thoughts are that they arise as the product of a software / hardware engine (the brain).

    Can't the identity simply be your brain?

    Formulas are symbolic abstractions used to express the relationships of physical entities. If that relationship exists then the formula will work. The formula itself is purely sybolic representation. It only exists as a representation (whether it be bio-electrical in your mind, ink on paper, or magnetic pulses on a platter). The actual relationships that the formula expresses are what really exists (or not if the formula is incorrect).
  23. baftan ******* Valued Senior Member

    Remember OP, and discover why I needed to open this thread in the first place: Because of a question that was raised in another discussion. I can say that this question of yours is equally tempting to start a completely new thread. However I need to understand the question a little bit more:

    "Identity" itself is a very problematic issue, especially in social understanding. I assume you meant this form of identity rather than the technical version such as a sticker or serial number on a product. This is from Wikipedia:

    I just add a big exclamation mark next to this "sciences" word located above sentence after "social". Apart from that, what do we mean by identity should be clarified before we start to talk about it. If you have any recommendation you are more than welcome. If you are happy with the above broad definition of identity, I'd say no; brain is not "person's conception and expression of their individuality or group affiliations"...

    Not strictly to explain the already existing relations, you can practically create new existence using formulas. Think about computers. The working principles of computers do not exist in nature, I mean binary logic; it is created by humans, and "working" computers have been produced since this logic is formulated according to certain principles (AND door, XOR door and others). Using these made-up formulas, we can explain and back-engineer the "working" computers, they are reliable.

    So a formula can express more than what "already exist"; you can also create new formulas and organise physical environment accordingly.

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