Phenomena and mechanisms: Putting the symbolic, connectionist, and dynamical systems debate in broader perspective

In R. Stainton (ed.), Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science. Basil Blackwell (2006)
Cognitive science is, more than anything else, a pursuit of cognitive mechanisms. To make headway towards a mechanistic account of any particular cognitive phenomenon, a researcher must choose among the many architectures available to guide and constrain the account. It is thus fitting that this volume on contemporary debates in cognitive science includes two issues of architecture, each articulated in the 1980s but still unresolved:
• Just how modular is the mind? (section 1) – a debate initially pitting encapsulated
mechanisms (Fodorian modules that feed their ultimate outputs to a nonmodular central
cognition) against highly interactive ones (e.g., connectionist networks that continuously
feed streams of output to one another).
• Does the mind process language-like representations according to formal rules? (this
section) – a debate initially pitting symbolic architectures (such as Chomsky’s generative
grammar or Fodor’s language of thought) against less language-like architectures (such
as connectionist or dynamical ones).
Our project here is to consider the second issue within the broader context of where cognitive science has been and where it is headed. The notion that cognition in general—not just language processing—involves rules operating on language-like representations actually predates cognitive science. In traditional philosophy of mind, mental life is construed as involving propositional attitudes—that is, such attitudes towards propositions as believing, fearing, and desiring that they be true—and logical inferences from them. On this view, if a person desires that a proposition be true and believes that if she performs a certain action it will become true, she will make the inference and (absent any overriding consideration) perform the action
Keywords Cognitive Science  Mechanism  Psychology
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