Tag: The Book of Change

Ancient Chinese Thought and the Invention of the Computer

Ancient Chinese Thought and the Invention of the Computer

        We may say that the theoretical background for the invention of the computer was established through the work of certain philosophers. Usually most of the credit is given to the German philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) who invented the binary system. It is a number system of two values, 0 and 1, which in terms of a machine language represent the two phases “off” and “on”. This was the foundation of the digital technology which today is used by every computer, calculator and smart phone.

       Recently I read an article that gives credit to these philosophers and traces the origins of the idea of the computer more than two thousand years ago. Starting from its more recent predecessors such as George Boole (1815-1864) and Gottlob Frege (1848-1925)—the pioneers of the so called mathematical logic—and going back through Leibniz, the author finds the foundations of the idea of the computer in the logical system developed by Aristotle. This is completely acceptable since we consider Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) as the father of the logic. All in all, logic is a philosophical study of correct reasoning including the attempts to finding a perfect language, which in turn are necessary for the operation of the computers.

        The article also mentions many others who had contributed to the development of the idea of the computer. However, I will focus here on Leibniz and say something about what is not said in it. He was familiar with the ancient Chinese classic The Book of Change (Yi Jing) which was originally used for divination, but later many philosophical comments were appended to it. The book contains sixty-four pictograms consisted of six lines—so that they are called hexagrams—and there are two types of lines: broken __  __ and unbroken ____ . They in a way represent opposites and are called yin and yang. They are also alternatively called female and male, dark and bright, cold and warm and so on. It is believed that this system was invented by Fuxi, the legendary founder of Chinese culture, who first made combinations of three lines, thus coming to eight trigrams, and than combined each trigram with the others and itself, coming to sixty-four hexagrams. Thus, each hexagram is a different combination of the lines.

         We can see the striking similarity here with the binary system of 0 and 1. However, I do not intend to say that Leibniz got the idea from Fuxi’s hexagrams. He was working on his binary system for years and he learned about them when he was coming closer to the final version. It may be that the discovery of The Book of Change made him think that he was not insane since someone else invented something similar long time go, which encouraged him to complete his work. The familiarity of Leibniz with this book is confirmed by the correspondence he had with Joachim Bouvet, a member of the Jesuit Mission in China, who introduced the hexagrams to him. And, actually, Leibniz himself commented on the hexagrams in his work. His binary system was published under the title An Explanation of Binary Arithmetic Using only the Characters 0 and 1, with Remarks about its Utility and the Meaning it Gives to the Ancient Chinese Figures of Fuxi.

          I do not want to imply that it is this ancient Chinese classic that had direct impact on Leibniz and can be credited for the invention of the computer. Such a statement would be too exaggerated. We cannot neglect Leibniz’s Western educational and scientific background including the familiarity with Aristotle’s logic. However, we cannot also neglect the fact that before publishing his binary system, Leibniz was already familiar with The Book of Change.