Hi. I’m a cognitive psychologist, but I’m not that kind of cognitive psychologist. Specifically, I don’t believe in representations, and I reject the computational model of cognition. Yes, this makes me very unpopular. I this post I want to quickly review the dominant cognitive approach and then briefly raise several potential problems with this framework. I will go through these issues in detail in later posts, but I want to go ahead and present the big picture here.
Cognitive scientists tend to view cognition as computation. In this model, representations are data structures and cognitive processes are algorithms acting on these data structures. Input => transformation of input via manipulation of discrete symbols (representations) => output. The clear analogy is to information processing in a computer. Another way to think about representations is as internal mediating states (cf. Dietrich & Markman, 2003). For instance, when I see a cup, the stuff happening in the visual system will probably be a better match to my “cup” representation than to my “glass” representation. So, I correctly identify the object as a cup. In other words, my ability to identify an object depends on consulting a discrete, internal representation of that object.
There are a number of unresolved issues with this representational stance: First, there is no theory of what representations actually are or of what information they contain. Second, many cognitive phenomena seem to defy a computational explanation. For instance, attempts to use a computational framework to model cognitive behaviours have often failed to produce anything as flexible or interesting as what we humans get up to. Third, alternative stances (e.g., that there are no discrete representations or that they are not processed algorithmically) have not been thoroughly explored. Cognitive psychologists usually take representations for granted; their existence is assumed, rarely defined or tested. This just isn’t good science. I’m just raising these points here; in future posts I’ll lay out the evidence.
My goal is to spend some time discussing these issues and to think about alternatives to representation. As a cognitive psychologist, I could get away with not understanding or caring about perception. Honestly, it just doesn’t come up much. When it does come up (e.g., Barsalou) it’s in terms of the “sensation based theory of perception” (see previous post), which we know is outdated. In the long run, I want to discuss how it might be possible to ground the study of cognition in Gibsonian perception/action. This is risky since, at the moment, I have no idea what such a framework would look like. But, cognitive psychology needs to evolve, and this is currently my best bet on how that might happen.