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Representationalism vs. anti-representationalism: a debate for the sake of appearance

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In recent years the cognitive science community has witnessed the rise of a new, dynamical approach to cognition. This approach entails a framework in which cognition and behavior are taken to result from complex dynamical interactions between brain, body, and environment. The advent of the dynamical approach is grounded in a dissatisfaction with the classical computational view of cognition. A particularly strong claim has been that cognitive systems do not rely on internal representations and computations. Focusing on this claim, we take as a starting point a question recently raised by Cliff and Noble: "… if evolution did produce a design that used internal representations, how would we recognize it?" (Knowledge-based vision and simple visual machines, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 352, 1165-1175, 1997). We will argue that cognitive science lacks a proper operationalization of the notion of representation, and therefore is unable to fruitfully discuss whether a particular system has representations or not. A basic method to detect representations in a physical system, grounded in isomorphism, turns out to be quite unconstrained. We will look at a practical example of this problem by examining the debate on whether or not van Gelder's (What might cognition be, if not computation? Journal of Philosophy, 92, 345-381, 1995) controversial example of the Watt Governor is representational. We will conclude that cognitive science, as of yet, has no empirically applicable means to answer Cliff and Noble's question unequivocally. This makes the recent representationalism vs. anti-representationalism debate a debate for the sake of appearance.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2003-03-01

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