Computationalism under attack

In M. Marraffa, M. De Caro & F. Ferretti (eds.), Cartographies of the Mind: Philosophy and Psychology in Intersection. Springer (2007)
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Since the early eighties, computationalism in the study of the mind has been “under attack” by several critics of the so-called “classic” or “symbolic” approaches in AI and cognitive science. Computationalism was generically identified with such approaches. For example, it was identified with both Allen Newell and Herbert Simon’s Physical Symbol System Hypothesis and Jerry Fodor’s theory of Language of Thought, usually without taking into account the fact ,that such approaches are very different as to their methods and aims. Zenon Pylyshyn, in his influential book Computation and Cognition, claimed that both Newell and Fodor deeply influenced his ideas on cognition as computation. This probably added to the confusion, as many people still consider Pylyshyn’s book as paradigmatic of the computational approach in the study of the mind. Since then, cognitive scientists, AI researchers and also philosophers of the mind have been asked to take sides on different “paradigms” that have from time to time been proposed as opponents of (classic or symbolic) computationalism. Examples of such oppositions are: computationalism vs. connectionism, computationalism vs. dynamical systems, computationalism vs. situated and embodied cognition, computationalism vs. behavioural and evolutionary robotics. Our preliminary claim in section 1 is that computationalism should not be identified with what we would call the “paradigm (based on the metaphor) of the computer” (in the following, PoC). PoC is the (rather vague) statement that the mind functions “as a digital computer”. Actually, PoC is a restrictive version of computationalism, and nobody ever seriously upheld it, except in some rough versions of the computational approach and in some popular discussions about it. Usually, PoC is used as a straw man in many arguments against computationalism. In section 1 we look in some detail at PoC’s claims and argue that computationalism cannot be identified with PoC. In section 2 we point out that certain anticomputationalist arguments are based on this misleading identification. In section 3 we suggest that the view of the levels of explanation proposed by David Marr could clarify certain points of the debate on computationalism. In section 4 we touch on a controversial issue, namely the possibility of developing a notion of analog computation, similar to the notion of digital computation. A short conclusion follows in section 5.

Author Profiles

Marcello Frixione
Università degli Studi di Genova


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