Computational theory of mind: what does it consist of?
This theory proposes a metaphor between the functioning of the human mind and a computer.
There are different theoretical models that try to explain the functioning of the human mind.. One of them is the computational model or theory of mind, which uses the computer metaphor to support the idea that our cognitive system processes information in the same way as a computer does.
In this article we discuss computational theory of mind, what other theoretical and philosophical frameworks it draws on, who are its most prominent authors, and what kind of criticisms it has received.
Background of the computational theory of the mind
The computational theory of mind is framed within cognitive psychology, which deals with the study of the functioning of human cognition; that is, how people elaborate, transform, encode, store, retrieve and use the information they receive from their environment.
Computationalism, proposed by Hilary Putnam in the 1960s, is situated within cognitive psychology and understands that the functional architecture of human cognition is close to how it is understood from models of information processing and artificial intelligence.
The formal bases of the computational theory of mind are based, on the one hand, on mathematical formalism, which conceived a discipline such as mathematics as the art of manipulating symbols based on formal rules; and on the other hand, on the experiments of Alan Turing, who implemented a mathematical model consisting of an automaton capable of constructing any mathematical problem expressed through algorithms.
Computationalism is also nourished by the synthesis of two philosophical positions: intentional realism and physicalism.. The former 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 with respect to such propositions; and physicalism assumes that everything that exists has a physical and material entity.
Basic principles of computationalism
The computationalist model is based on a number of basic principles that can help to better understand how it works.. Let's see what they are:
The human mind is a complex Biological machine in charge of 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". "logic programs".
Cognitive systems and computers receive, encode, transform, store and retrieve information following certain computational rules, working with a digital code, as occurs in propositional representation.
Human cognition and the computer are different structures (from the 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 computational rules (algorithms).
The work of Noam Chomsky
The computational model of the mind was initially based on the theoretical proposals of Noam Chomsky and his generative grammar, which is based on the idea that, together with the specific rules of sentence construction specific to each language, there are more basic rules (innate and common to all languages) that explain the ease with which we learn language as children.
According to Chomsky, all sentences have a deep structure (which contains their meaning) and a surface structure (the form in which the sentence is presented when expressed). The deep structure would be abstract and the surface structure would be 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 performance, which refers to the way of interpreting and understanding a particular sentence or language.
All in all, the theories of the popular linguist served to underpin the computational theory developed by Jerry Fodor and developed by Jerry Fodor, which we will see below.
Fodor's computational theory of mind
The computational theory of mind postulates that the functioning of the human mind is similar to that which occurs in a computer.The brain being the hardware of the information processing system. This theory combines the explanation of how we reason and how mental states function, and is also known as the "representational theory of mind".
According to the philosopher Jerry Fodor, one of the leading exponents of the theory, the mental is intentional and can also be reduced to the physical. For this author, the human mind resembles a digital computer; that is, a device that stores symbolic representations and manipulates them by means of a series of syntactic rules.
Thoughts would thus be mental representations that, in turn, function as symbols of the "language of thought"; and mental processes or states would be causal sequences guided by the syntactic (and not semantic) properties of the symbols. Fodor also defended the existence of innate private language, distinct from the rest of natural languages or human languages.
Inner vs. natural language
Private, innate language would be used to perform the computations and computations that are at the basis of human behavior.. To explain its existence, Fodor uses a simile with the languages used by a computer: the input and output languages, which are used to enter data and read the data provided by the computer in return; that is, the way in which the computer communicates with its environment.
These two input and output languages are contrasted with the machine language, which is the language understood by the computer and with which it performs its calculations and operations. Between the two languages there are so-called compiler programs, which act as mediators or translators between them.
For Fodor, the private language of people can be compared to machine language; therefore, public languages or natural languages (Spanish, English, French, etc.) would be similar to the programming languages of computers. Well, this language of thought would be an internal language and prior to public or natural languages, just as it happens with the machine language in a computer that must be installed prior to any input/output language.
Criticism of the theory
Fodor's ideas, and computationalism in general, have not been exempt from criticism in recent years.. Although the idea that mental states are intentional is accepted, what is debatable for some scientists is the fact that these representations are manipulated by means of calculations and computations.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett considers that the computational theory of mind is empirically implausible, because a brain that manipulates computational symbols does not seem entirely biological. However, he is in favor of "neural determinism", which implies assuming that neuronal activity is prior to "free" decisions and that consciousness is only an epiphenomenon that, at most, has the evolutionary function of serving as a mechanism for controlling and supervising the processes of adaptation to the environment.
On the other hand, the philosopher Patricia S. Churchland is equally critical of the computational postulates and considers that the emergence of the language of innate thought does not seem very sensitive to evolutionary considerations, since the system has to operate with formal or syntactic rules for manipulating representations, and every aspect of the meaning of a symbol that affects psychological processing must be formally codified.
If the cognitive system works exclusively according to syntactic principles, it cannot have access to the contexts that, in natural language, serve to eliminate ambiguities in the different meanings of the term. Moreover, if every mental state is to be understood as some form of storage or processing of a sentence in the language of thought, people would need an infinite number of sentences stored in our minds.
In short, there remains a problem with the nature of intentionality that is still not fully resolved, despite attempts in computational theory to show, through the mind/computer metaphor, that physical systems can arise from intentional states.
Horst, S. (1999). Symbols and computation 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., & Schneider, S. (2008). Fodor’s challenge to the classical computational theory of mind. Mind & Language, 23(1), 123-143.
Pinker, S. (2005). So how does the mind work?. Mind & Language, 20(1), 1-24.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)