Computational theory of the mind: what is it?

There are different theoretical models that attempt to explain how the human mind works.. One is the computer model or theory of mind, which uses the computer metaphor to support the idea that our cognitive system processes information the same way a computer does.

In this article, we talk about the computational theory of mind, the other theoretical and philosophical frameworks that it feeds on, its most prominent authors, and the type of criticism it has received.

Background to the computational theory of mind

Computational theory of mind is framed in cognitive psychology, which is responsible for the study of how human cognition works; that is, how people process, transform, encode, store, retrieve and use the information they receive from their environment.

Computationalism, proposed by Hilary Putnam in the 1960s, is located in cognitive psychology and understands that the functional architecture of human cognition is close to how it is understood from models of information processing and intelligence.

The formal bases of the computational theory of mind are based, on the one hand, on the mathematical formalism which conceived a discipline like mathematics as the art of manipulating symbols from, from formal rules; and on the other hand, in the experiments of Alan Turing, who implemented a mathematical model made up of an automaton capable of constructing any mathematical problem expressed by algorithms.

Computationalism also feeds on the synthesis of two philosophical positions: intentional realism and physicalism.. The first postulates the existence of mental states and intrinsic intentionality as part of the natural order of things, as well as the propositional attitude or the way in which people behave in relation to these propositions; and physicalism assumes that everything that exists has a physical and a material entity.

Basic principles of computationalism

The computer model is based on a number of basic principles that can help you better understand how it works.. Let’s see what they are:

  • The human mind is a complex biological machine responsible for processing symbols.

  • Cognition is understood as a system that sequentially processes symbolic information from a set of rules stored in the form of “logic programs”.

  • Cognitive systems and computers receive, encode, transform, store and retrieve information by following certain calculation rules, by working with digital code, as in propositional representation.

  • Human cognition and the computer are different structures (from a material point of view), but functionally equivalent.

  • The processing of propositional information, both for a computer and for the human mind, follows a sequential process and calculation rules (algorithms).

The works of Noam Chomsky

The computer model of the mind was based in its early stages on the theoretical propositions of Noam Chomsky and its generative grammar, which is based on the idea that, along with the specific rules for constructing sentences specific to each language, there are more basic rules. . (innate and common to all languages) which explain the ease with which we learn the language from childhood.

According to Chomsky, all sentences have one deep structure (which contains their meaning) and another superficial structure (the way the sentence is presented, when it is expressed). The deep structure would be abstract and the superficial structure would conform the physical or material reality of language.

Chomsky also distinguished between a person’s ability to associate sounds and meanings with certain unconscious and automatic rules, and linguistic action or execution, which alludes to how a particular phrase or language is interpreted and included.

With all, the theories of the popular linguist served to support the computational theory that Jerry Fodor developed and which we will see below.

Computational Theory of Fodor’s Mind

Computer theory of mind postulates that the functioning of the human mind is similar to what happens in a computer, Be the brain the hardware of the information processing system. This theory combines the explanation of how we reason and how mental states work, and is also known as “representational theory of mind”.

According to the philosopher Jerry Fodor, one of the greatest exponents of theory, the mind is intentional and more can be reduced to the physical. For this author, the human mind looks like a digital computer; that is, a device that stores symbolic representations and manipulates them using a series of syntactic rules.

Thoughts would thus be mental representations which, in turn, would function as symbols of the “language of thought”; and mental processes or states would be causal sequences guided by the syntactic (not semantic) properties of symbols. Fodor also defended the existence of an innate private language, different from other natural languages ​​or human languages.

Internal language vs. Natural

Private and innate language would be used to perform the calculations and calculations that underlie human behavior.. To explain the existence of this, Fodor uses a comparison with the languages ​​used by a computer: the input language and the output language, which are the ones we use to enter data and read the that provides the back computer. ; that is, the way the computer communicates with its environment.

These two input and output languages ​​are contrasted with machine language, which is what the computer understands and with which it performs its calculations and operations. Between the two languages, there are so-called compilation programs, which act as mediators or translators between them.

For Fodor, people’s private language can be compared to machine language; therefore, public languages ​​or natural languages ​​(Spanish, English, French, etc.) would be similar to computer programming languages. Well, this thought language would be an internal language and prior to public or natural languages, as is the case with machine language on a computer which must be previously installed in any input and output language ( enter exit). Exit).

Criticisms of the theory

Fodor’s ideas and computer science in general have not been without criticism in recent years.. If there is any support for the idea that mental states are intentional, what is questionable for some scientists is the fact that these representations are manipulated by means of calculations and calculations.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett considers the computer theory of mind to be empirically implausible, because a brain that manipulates computer symbols does not appear biological at all. However, he is in favor of “neuronal determinism”, which consists in assuming that neuronal activity precedes “free” decisions and that consciousness is only an epiphenomenon which, at most, has the evolutionary function of serving a control and supervision mechanism for the processes of adaptation to the environment.

In contrast, the philosopher Patricia S. Churchland is also critical of computer postulates and considers that the emergence of the language of innate thought does not seem very sensitive to evolutionary considerations, as the system must operate with formal or syntactic rules to manipulate representations and all aspects of the meaning of a symbol that affect psychological processing must be formally codified.

If the cognitive system functions exclusively according to syntactic principles, it cannot have access to the contexts which, in natural language, serve to eliminate the ambiguities in the different meanings of the term. Moreover, if each mental state is to be understood as a form of storing or processing a sentence in the language of thought, people would need an infinite number of sentences. stored in our mind.

In short, there is still a problem with the nature of intentionality that is not yet fully resolved.Despite attempts by computational theory to show, through the mind / computer metaphor, that physical systems can arise from intentional states.

Bibliographic references:

  • Horst, S. (1999). Symbols and calculus are a critique of the computational theory of mind. Minds and Machines, 9 (3), 347-381.

  • Horst, S. (2011). The computational theory of mind. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  • Ludwig, K. and Schneider, S. (2008). Fodor’s challenge to classical computer theory of mind. Mind and Language, 23 (1), 123-143.

  • Pinker, S. (2005). So how does the mind work? Mind and Language, 20 (1), 1-24.

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