Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wheeler 2005 on representation and computation 1

The representational theory of mind and the computational theory of cognitive processing are empirical hypotheses. However, they are empirical hypotheses whose truth has been pretty much assumed by just about everyone in cognitive science.  (Wheeler, 2005, p. 8).

I like Mike's writing because it is clearly wrong, rather than obscurely wrong like so much of the EC lit.  (Isn't there a principle of deontic logic according to which if you're going to be wrong, you should be clearly wrong?)  Mike is probably right that the representational theory of mind and the computational theory of cognitive processing are empirical hypotheses whose truth has long been pretty much assumed by just about everyone in cognitive science.  But, I think it's because folks have largely been satisfied that the empirical case for that has been made, so that it's time to move on to other dimensions of these views.  It's, to me, just like the fact that so much of biology has pretty much assumed that evolution is true.  That has been established, so it is time to move on to other dimensions.

Remember that representationalism emerged in opposition to Skinner's behaviorism which was often anti-representational and which was orthodoxy circa 1955 (right?).  In that context, representationalism didn't just emerge by assumption; there must have been something somewhere that gave at least some people some reason to think that there must be some representations somewhere somehow.  Just so, evolution emerged in opposition to creationism  which was orthodoxy circa 1855 (right?).  In that context, evolution didn't just emerge by assumption; there must have been something somewhere that gave at least some people some reason to think that there must be some evolution somewhere somehow.

Wheeler, M. (2005) Reconstructing the Cognitive World.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


  1. Given that there is no noncontroversial definition of "representation" or "computation" agreed upon by the field, I don't think Wheeler is "clearly wrong" about his statement. Often "representation" is just used as a synonym for "map", but I certainly don't think it's obvious that "re-presentation" is the right term for making sense of neural maps in the brain, especially since the maps seem to work by means of isomorphism, not re-presentational symbolism (as assumed by the original cognitive formalists like Newell and Simon). The concept of representing something in the mind has a long Cartesian history and it isn't obviously clear that cognitive science should be taking up this model without considerable skepticism of the kind Wheeler is known for. In this respect, Wheeler is not clearly wrong in his statement. It's one thing to say that everyone uses the term "representation" in cognitive science, it's another to say that there is a well-worked out philosophical explanation of how representations function as re-presentations, and not just as isomorphic causal maps, that is agreed upon by everyone in the field. And simply changing the term representation to mean "map" such that neurons can be said to "represent" things isn't satisfactory since the mapping metaphor is adequate without the necessity of talking about re-presentation, which has a lot of homuncular baggage when you think about what it means to be presented with something. I often get the sense that the representational camp has been shifting the goalposts for a long time, updating itself with new metaphors every once in awhile.

  2. I agree Gary. As a dedicated student of cognitive neuroscience, I do not at all feel that representation is given a unitary definition. More often than not it appears in papers where it doesn't even make sense, as a kind of stand-in for 'we don't have an actual mechanistic model so we'll just talk about representations and transformations over representations'. I wholeheartedly applaud Wheeler for stating what I have now believed for some time: that the informational ontology and biology of representation remains a totally unproven hypothesis. We go from the fact that, for example, sensory corpuscles alter firing rates in response to surface pressure increases in a predictable fashion, to calling the entire neurocognitive system representational. Social cognition then is 'meta-representational'. I think the fact of the matter is we're working with folk-psychological assumptions about the causal function of an extremely dynamic system we have only begun to understand. I'm willing to bet in 10-20 years neurobiologists will laugh at the idea that neurons compute symbolic representations and that this highly a priori model will scale up to anything like social cognition and consciousness. Anyway, back to writing papers about neural representation without any clear idea of what the hell that term means...

    P.S. At least folks like Leslie are pretty straight-forward when they talk about how a system might compute representations. That was 15 years ago and the field still uses this term as if it has real explanatory power. I think Wheeler's point is especially strong on these grounds.

  3. Sorry for the second post- but I do want to add that I am at least partially sympathetic to some of your agenda Ken. I do think that the 4E movement has been too quick to use tired metaphors with little explanatory value, and are thus ripe for the exact same criticism I would level at the representational cognitivists. I don't think however, that Wheeler's paper is a solid example of this. I do feel like there has been far too little progress and too much jargon worship since Varela's untimely death.

  4. It's one thing to say that there is ambiguity and confusion surrounding representation; it's another to claim that there has been no empirical debate about the matter (that representations are just a cognitivist assumption). I'm drawing attention to the second claim.

    So, I'm happy to allow that there has been empirical debate about a murky, confused concept of representation; but I think it's about as clear as it gets that there has been some empirical debate about the existence of representations. Clearly, Chapter 1 of Verbal Behavior has arguments against mental representations/ideas/images, but just as clearly, Chomsky thought he needed them in order to account for human linguistic competence. There was a debate here. And lots of cognitive scientists have heard about this.

  5. And, it's also one thing to say that cognitivist arguments for mental representations are no good; it's another to suggest, as I think Mike does, that there have been no arguments for mental representations, just the assumption that there are mental representations.

  6. Or, put the matter only slightly differently. What do you make of the Behaviorism of the 20th Century? Wasn't that pretty self-consciously anti-representational? And didn't a lot of cognitive scientists take notice of this during the emergence of cognitive science?