Beyond Eliminativism


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There is a school of thought which links connectionist models of cognition to eliminativism‐the thesis that the constructs of commonsense psychology (principally, beliefs and desires) do not exist. This way of construing the impact of connectionist modelling is, I argue, deeply mistaken and depends crucially on a shallow analysis of the notion of explanation. I argue that good, higher level descriptions may group together physically heterogenous mechanisms, and that the constructs of folk psychology may fulfil such a grouping function even if they fail to pick out discrete states of individual processing. More speculatively, the paper goes on to suggest that the virtues which recommend such constructs from a theorist's third person perspective may nonetheless have close analogues in individual processing. Various difficulties for what I term a pure distributed connectionism may be solved by systems which utilise both distributed and classical symbolic representations‐the latter exhibiting the discreteness and semantic interpretability which the eliminativist (wrongly) requires to vindicate common‐sense psychology. If human beings turned out to be such mixed systems, then the eliminativist claim would be doubly misguided. It would be false as a conditional since even if pure distributed connectionism were a complete and accurate formal model of individual processing, it would not follow that the other, higher level constructs were not accurate and essential tools for a different kind of explanation. And it would involve a false antecedent since in a mixed system the symbolic descriptions may indeed be incarnate in the system's own individual processing. The paper is in four main sections. Section 1 attempts to systematise a certain received picture of the relative status and accuracy of various levels of description of a (pure distributed) connectionist system. Section 2 then introduces a general model of explanations which aim to group systems into equivalence classes defined for various purposes. Each grouping requires a special vocabulary and the constructs of any given vocabulary are legitimate just insofar as the grouping is interesting and useful. Section 3 goes on to show that, relative to such a model of explanation, the constructs of both symbolic AI and commonsense psychology may have a legitimate role to play in giving psychological explanations. This role is not just that of a useful approximation. The paper ends with a speculative section in which the argument for the theoretical usefulness of such symbolic constructs is extended, in a very natural way, to the domain of individual processing. Here the cognizer, in the process of regulating, debugging and understanding her own representations, creates symbols to stand for sets of distributed activity patterns. The section points out some difficulties for a pure distributed approach which may be eased by the addition of such symbolic constructs and relates the speculations to the current debate over the ‘correct’architecture of cognition. If the speculations are on target, this whole debate turns out to be fundamentally illposed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-279
Number of pages29
JournalMind & Language
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1989
Externally publishedYes


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