Computational grounding

Psycoloquy 12 (58) (2001)
Harnad defines computation to mean the manipulation of physical symbol tokens on the basis of syntactic rules defined over the shapes of the symbols, independent of what, if anything, those symbols represent. He is, of course, free to define terms in any way that he chooses, and he is very clear about what he means by computation, but I am uncomfortable with this definition. It excludes, at least at a functional level of description, much of what a computer is actually used for, and much of what the brain/mind does. When I toss a Frisbee to the neighbor's dog, the dog does not, I think, engage in a symbolic soliloquy about the trajectory of the disc, the wind's effects on it, and formulas for including lift and the acceleration due to gravity. There are symbolic formulas for each of these relations, but the dog insofar as I can tell, does not use any of these formulas. Nevertheless, it computes these factors in order to intercept the disc in the air. I argue that determining the solution to a differential equation is at least as much computation as is processing symbols. The disagreement is over what counts as computation, I think that Harnad and I both agree that the dog solves the trajectory problem implicitly. This definition is important, because, although Harnad offers a technical definition for what he means by computation, the folk- definition of the term is probably interpreted differently, and I believe this leads to trouble
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