Symbols, strings, and spikes

Unpublished (2005)
I argue that neural activity, strictly speaking, is not computation. This is because computation, strictly speaking, is the processing of strings of symbols, and neuroscience shows that there are no neural strings of symbols. This has two consequences. On the one hand, the following widely held consequences of computationalism must either be abandoned or supported on grounds independent of computationalism: (i) that in principle we can capture what is functionally relevant to neural processes in terms of some formalism taken from computability theory (such as Turing Machines), (ii) that it is possible to design computer programs that are functionally equivalent to neural processes in the same sense in which it is possible to design computer programs that are functionally equivalent to each other, (iii) that the study of neural (or mental) computation is independent of the study of neural implementation, (iv) that the Church-Turing thesis applies to neural activity in the sense in which it applies to digital computers. On the other hand, we need to gradually reinterpret or replace computational theories in psychology in terms of theoretical constructs that can be realized by known neural processes, such as the spike trains of neuronal ensembles.
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