Rational analysis, intractability, and the prospects of ‘as if’-explanations

Synthese 195 (2):491-510 (2018)
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Despite their success in describing and predicting cognitive behavior, the plausibility of so-called ‘rational explanations’ is often contested on the grounds of computational intractability. Several cognitive scientists have argued that such intractability is an orthogonal pseudoproblem, however, since rational explanations account for the ‘why’ of cognition but are agnostic about the ‘how’. Their central premise is that humans do not actually perform the rational calculations posited by their models, but only act as if they do. Whether or not the problem of intractability is solved by recourse to ‘as if’ explanations critically depends, inter alia, on the semantics of the ‘as if’ connective. We examine the five most sensible explications in the literature, and conclude that none of them circumvents the problem. As a result, rational ‘as if’ explanations must obey the minimal computational constraint of tractability.

Author Profiles

Cory Wright
California State University, Long Beach
Iris van Rooij
Radboud University Nijmegen


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