Minds and Machines

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 19–32

Conscious Representations: An Intractable Problem for the Computational Theory of Mind



Advocates of the computational theory of mind claim that the mind is a computer whose operations can be implemented by various computational systems. According to these philosophers, the mind is multiply realisable because—as they claim—thinking involves the manipulation of syntactically structured mental representations. Since syntactically structured representations can be made of different kinds of material while performing the same calculation, mental processes can also be implemented by different kinds of material. From this perspective, consciousness plays a minor role in mental activity. However, contemporary neuroscience provides experimental evidence suggesting that mental representations necessarily involve consciousness. Consciousness does not only enable individuals to become aware of their own thoughts, it also constantly changes the causal properties of these thoughts. In light of these empirical studies, mental representations appear to be intrinsically dependent on consciousness. This discovery represents an obstacle to any attempt to construct an artificial mind.


Consciousness Mental representation Mental causation Computational theory of mind 


  1. Bedau, M. A. (2003). Downward causation and autonomy in weak emergence. Principia, 6, 5–50.Google Scholar
  2. Bickle, J. (2003). Philosophy and neuroscience. A Ruthlessly reductive account. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  3. Cheng, D. T., et al. (2008). Neural substrates underlying human delay and trace eyeblink conditioning. Proceedings of National Academy of Science USA, 105(23), 8108–8113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Clark, R. E., Manns, J. R., & Squire, L. R. (2002). Classical conditioning, awareness and brain systems. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(12), 524–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clark, R. E., & Squire, L. R. (1998). Classical conditioning and brain systems: The role of awareness. Science, 280, 77–81.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  7. Fodor, J. (2000). The mind doesn’t work that way: the scope and limits of computational psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Haugeland, J. (1997). What is mind design? In J. Haugeland (Ed.). Mind design II, pp. 1–28. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  9. Höllinger, P., et al. (1999). Mental representations of movements. Brain potentials associated with imagination of eye movements. Clinical Neurophysiology, 110, 799–805.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kandel, E. (2000). Cellular mechanisms of learning and the biological basis of individuality. In E. Kandel, J. Schwartz & T. Jessell (Eds.). Principles of neural science, pp. 1245–1279. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  11. Kandel, E. (2001). The molecular biology of memory storage: A dialogue between genes and synapses. Science 294, 1030–1038.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kandel, E. (2007). In search of memory—The emergence of a new science of mind. New York: WW Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  13. Lukowiak, K., & Sahley, C. (1981). The in vitro classical conditioning of the Gill Withdrawal Reflex of Aplysia californica. Science, 26(212), 1516–1518.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Manns, J.R., Clark, R.E., & Squire, L.R. (2000). Parallel acquisition of awareness and trace eyeblink classical conditioning. Learning Memories 7(5), 267–272.Google Scholar
  15. Pitt, D. (2008). Mental representation. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-representation/.
  16. Putnam, H. (1975). Mind, language, and reality: Philosophical papers, vol. 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Scheutz, M. (1999). The Ontological Status of Representations. In A. Riegler, M. Peschl, & A. von Stein (Eds.). Understanding representation in the cognitive sciences, pp. 33–38. New York: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  18. Sperber, D. (2007). Seedless grapes: Nature and culture. In E. Margolis, & S. Laurence (Eds.). Creations of the mind: Theories of artifacts and their representation, pp. 124–137. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  19. von Eckardt, B. (1993). What is cognitive science? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  20. von Eckardt, B. (1999). Mental representation. In R. A. Wilson, & F. C. Keil (Eds.). The MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Sciences, pp. 527–529. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  21. Zhang, X., et al. (2006). A mechanism of cell death involving an adenylyl cyclase/PKA signaling pathway is induced by the Cry1Ab toxin of Bacillus thuringiensis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(26), 9897–9902.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European School of Molecular Medicine, SEMMMilanItaly
  2. 2.The University of MilanMilanItaly

Personalised recommendations