Philosophy of Cognition: Topic3

From Wikiversity

A Brief Intro[edit]

In Topic 2 we have illustrated and treated the problem of cognition as a black box. We cannot have direct access to what is going on inside our “head”. However, we can try to look for clues left by cognition so as to guess how cognition works.

The so-called Computational Theory of Mind (hereafter CTM) provides a smart way of trying to look into the black box. The very idea of CTM is to reproduce or simulate what cognition (or a mind) does. If the performance of an artificial mind is comparable to that of a natural mind, then the artificial mind can be used as a model for studying the natural one. That is, what we see happening in the artificial black box can provide clues about how the real black box might work. And so we are now able transform the black box into an object sensitive to empirical testing.

According to CTM, cognition is nothing but a device which manipulates internal symbolic representations according to certain predefined rules. That is in a nutshell what is done by cognition. As you may have noticed, CTM is based on the analogy cognition-computer. That is, with minor differences our cognition works like a computer.

Now, let’s briefly see a little bit more in detail what the main features of CTM are. First of all, cognition can be explained in term of computation. As you may know, the very idea of computation is strictly related to that of Turing Machine, that is, a finite controller that is able to operate on symbols transforming an initial input into a desired output within finite set of steps called algorithms. The second important feature to mention is cognition is nothing but our mind. Our mind engages our brain the way a software does with the hardware. To study cognition is to study the mind. Thirdly, the mind is a representational device. That means the mind can only operate on symbolic representations of the world, not the world in itself. So, the limits of the mind are the limits of the mind as representation device - what it can represent. Everything that cannot be represented falls out of mind’s competence. Fourthly, the mind needs to create a complete representation of the environment in order to act on it.


Describe a cognitive activity that you are familiar with using the CTM as theoretical framework for your analysis.


1) What is the relationship between mind and brain according to the CTM?

2) Why can the mind described as a computer?

Compulsory readings[edit]

P. Thagard, Representation and Computation. in P. Thagard, Mind. Introduction to Cognitive Science. Available here:

Entries: Algorithm, Computation, Computational Brain. In R. Wilson & F.C. Kiel (eds) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Recommended readings[edit]

Rupert, R.D., Introduction: The Mind, the Computer, and the Alternatives. In R.D: Rupert, Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009.