String theory is a really cool idea. I don’t actually understand it, of course; I’m not a physicist. But, it’s a neat to think that some of the oddness of our physical world is accounted for by this undetectable world of tiny, vibrating strings. Some physicists also seem to think that string theory is cool. But, physics has not adopted string theory and nobody’s really pushing for this, either. Why not? Well, strings are purely hypothetical entities. Maybe they exist, or maybe something completely different is going on. It doesn’t matter that they might explain some interesting stuff, they’re off the table because we can’t see or measure them. Tough. That’s physics.
Psychologists faced a very similar problem when people started thinking about theories of representation. Representations seemed to resolve thorny issues, like how we can successfully interact with the environment given inadequate information (e.g., poverty of the stimulus). It was a really cool idea; people are just like computers! But, as with strings, representations are hypothetical entities. They seem to explain certain behaviour, but we can’t see or measure them. They also aren’t the only game in town. Let go of certain assumptions (e.g., poverty of the stimulus) and the problems representations were supposed to solve look very different, or cease to look like problems at all. While physicists showed restraint in the face of their cool theory, psychologists took representation and ran with it. Although they remain poorly defined and undetectable (probably because we don’t know what we’re looking for), representations are ubiquitous in explanations of cognition.
So, what is the alternative? How about we bench the really cool idea until we’ve exhausted all the other possibilities? Let’s take the alternatives to representation seriously. Physics produces some insanely accurate predictions. Physics sent people to the moon. Psychology can’t reliably diagnose and treat depression. Some of that is down to the complexity of the subject – people are a mess. But I think that some of it is also down to method. While physics is cautious, psychology is eager.