Cognitive Computation sans Representation

  • Paul SchweizerEmail author
Part of the Philosophical Studies Series book series (PSSP, volume 128)


The Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) holds that cognitive processes are essentially computational, and hence computation provides the scientific key to explaining mentality. The Representational Theory of Mind (RTM) holds that representational content is the key feature in distinguishing mental from non-mental systems. I argue that there is a deep incompatibility between these two theoretical frameworks, and that the acceptance of CTM provides strong grounds for rejecting RTM. The focal point of the incompatibility is the fact that representational content is extrinsic to formal procedures as such, and the intended interpretation of syntax makes no difference to the execution of an algorithm. So the unique ‘content’ postulated by RTM is superfluous to the formal procedures of CTM. And once these procedures are implemented in a physical mechanism, it is exclusively the causal properties of the physical mechanism that are responsible for all aspects of the system’s behavior. So once again, postulated content is rendered superfluous. To the extent that semantic content may appear to play a role in behavior, it must be syntactically encoded within the system, and just as in a standard computational artifact, so too with the human mind/brain—it’s pure syntax all the way down to the level of physical implementation. Hence ‘content’ is at most a convenient meta-level gloss, projected from the outside by human theorists, which itself can play no role in cognitive processing.


Computational theory of mind Representational theory of mind Mathematical theory of computation Effective procedure Language of thought Mental content 



I would like to thank an anonymous IACAP reviewer for constructive comments, as well as Joe Dewhurst and Alistair Isaac for useful discussion.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Language, Cognition and Computation, School of InformaticsUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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