Minds and Machines

, Volume 22, Issue 4, pp 353–380 | Cite as

The Explanatory Role of Computation in Cognitive Science

  • Nir FrescoEmail author


Which notion of computation (if any) is essential for explaining cognition? Five answers to this question are discussed in the paper. (1) The classicist answer: symbolic (digital) computation is required for explaining cognition; (2) The broad digital computationalist answer: digital computation broadly construed is required for explaining cognition; (3) The connectionist answer: sub-symbolic computation is required for explaining cognition; (4) The computational neuroscientist answer: neural computation (that, strictly, is neither digital nor analogue) is required for explaining cognition; (5) The extreme dynamicist answer: computation is not required for explaining cognition. The first four answers are only accurate to a first approximation. But the “devil” is in the details. The last answer cashes in on the parenthetical “if any” in the question above. The classicist argues that cognition is symbolic computation. But digital computationalism need not be equated with classicism. Indeed, computationalism can, in principle, range from digital (and analogue) computationalism through (the weaker thesis of) generic computationalism to (the even weaker thesis of) digital (or analogue) pancomputationalism. Connectionism, which has traditionally been criticised by classicists for being non-computational, can be plausibly construed as being either analogue or digital computationalism (depending on the type of connectionist networks used). Computational neuroscience invokes the notion of neural computation that may (possibly) be interpreted as a sui generis type of computation. The extreme dynamicist argues that the time has come for a post-computational cognitive science. This paper is an attempt to shed some light on this debate by examining various conceptions and misconceptions of (particularly digital) computation.


Computation Connectionism Dynamicism Computationalism Classicism Computational neuroscience Cognitive science Mechanistic explanation Representation 



Many thanks to Gualtiero Piccinini and Chris Eliasmith for insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I am grateful to Phillip Staines for his constructive and useful remarks on various drafts of this paper. A much earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2009 AAP conference in Melbourne, Australia. I thank several anonymous referees for their helpful comments and criticisms that resulted in a drastically improved paper. All the people mentioned above contributed to the final draft of the paper, but I am solely responsible for any remaining mistakes.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of History and PhilosophyUniversity of New South WalesSydneyAustralia

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