Minds and Machines

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 165–181 | Cite as

Explaining Computation Without Semantics: Keeping it Simple

  • Nir FrescoEmail author


This paper deals with the question: how is computation best individuated?
  1. 1.

    The semantic view of computation: computation is best individuated by its semantic properties.

  2. 2.

    The causal view of computation: computation is best individuated by its causal properties.

  3. 3.

    The functional view of computation: computation is best individuated by its functional properties.

Some scientific theories explain the capacities of brains by appealing to computations that they supposedly perform. The reason for that is usually that computation is individuated semantically. I criticize the reasons in support of this view and its presupposition of representation and semantics. Furthermore, I argue that the only justified appeal to a representational individuation of computation might be that it is partly individuated by implicit intrinsic representations.


Computation Semantics Representation Intrinsic Cognitive science Cognition Mental states Mechanistic explanation Causal properties 



Thanks to Axel Cleeremans, David Rosenthal, Gualtiero Piccinini, Joseph Agassi and Oron Shagrir for useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. An earlier version of this text was presented at the 2007 AAP (NZ) conference in Auckland, NZ. I am especially grateful to Phillip Staines for his helpful comments and ongoing support.


  1. Bedau, M. (2003). Artificial life. In L. Floridi (Ed.), Blackwell guide to the philosophy of information and computing (pp. 197–211). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  2. Burge, T. (1986). Individualism and psychology. Philosophical Review, 95, 3–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Carruthers, P. (2000). Phenomenal consciousness: A naturalistic theory. Cambridge: University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chalmers, D. J. (1994). On implementing a computation. Minds and Machines, 4, 391–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cleeremans, A. (2005). Computational correlates of consciousness. Progress in Brain Research, 150, 81–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Copeland, B. J. (1996). What is computation? Synthese, 108, 335–359.zbMATHCrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  7. Dietrich, E. (1989). Semantics and the computational paradigm in cognitive psychology. Synthese, 79, 119–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dretske, F. (1988). Explaining behaviour. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.Google Scholar
  9. Dretske, F. (1993). Can intelligence be artificial? Philosophical Studies, 71, 201–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the mind. Bradford: The MIT press.Google Scholar
  11. Egan, F. (1995). Computation and content. The Philosophical Review, 104, 181–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fodor, J. A. (1975). The language of thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Fodor, J. A. (1981). The mind-body problem. Scientific American, 244, 114–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fodor, J. A. (1998). Concepts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fodor, J. A. (2000). The mind doesn’t work that way: The scope and limits of computational psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  16. Fresco, N. (2008). An analysis of the criteria for evaluating adequate theories of computation. Minds and Machines, 18, 379–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kirsh, D. (1991). When is information explicitly represented? In P. P. Hanson (Ed.), Information, language, and cognition (pp. 340–365). Oxford, NY: University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Lycan, W. G. (1995). Consciousness as internal monitoring. Philosophical Perspectives, 9, 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mellor, D. H. (1991). How much of the mind is a computer? In D. H. Mellor (Ed.), Matters of metaphysics (pp. 61–81). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Peacocke, C. (1999). Computation as involving content: a response to Egan. Mind and Language, 14, 195–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Piccinini, G. (2004). Functionalism, computationalism, and mental contents. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 34, 375–410.Google Scholar
  22. Piccinini, G. (2007). Computing mechanisms. Philosophy of Science, 74, 501–526.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  23. Piccinini, G. (2008). Computation without representation. Philosophical Studies, 137, 205–241.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  24. Popper, K. R., & Eccles, J. C. (2006). The self and its brain: An argument for interactionism. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  25. Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1984). Computation and cognition. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  26. Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1989). Computing in cognitive science. In M. Posner (Ed.), Foundations of cognitive science (pp. 49–92). Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  27. Rosenthal, D. M. (2002). Explaining consciousness. In D. Chalmers (Ed.), Philosophy of mind: Classical, contemporary readings (pp. 406–421). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Scheutz, M. (1999). When physical systems realize functions. Minds and Machines, 9, 161–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Scheutz, M. (2001). Computational versus causal complexity. Minds and Machines, 11, 543–566.zbMATHCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Searle, J. R. (2002). Twenty-one years in the Chinese room. In J. Preston & M. Bishop (Eds.), Views into the Chinese room: Essays on Searle and artificial intelligence (pp. 51–59). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  31. Shagrir, O. (1999). What is computer science about? The Monist, 82, 131–149.Google Scholar
  32. Shagrir, O. (2001). Content, computation and externalism. Mind, 110, 369–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shagrir, O. (2006). Why we view the brain as a computer. Synthese, 153, 393–416.CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  34. Smith, B. C. (1996). On the origin of objects. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  35. Smith, B. C. (2002). The foundations of computing. In M. Scheutz (Ed.), Computationalism: New directions (pp. 23–58). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  36. Stich, S. (1983). From folk psychology to cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press.Google Scholar
  37. Tye, M. (1995). Ten problems of consciousness. Cambridge: The MIT Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations