Conceptual Atomism and the Computational Theory of Mind

A defense of content-internalism and semantic externalism

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What is it to have a concept? What is it to make an inference? What is it to be rational? On the basis of recent developments in semantics, a number of authors have embraced answers to these questions that have radically counterintuitive consequences, for example:<br />• One can rationally accept self-contradictory propositions (e.g. <br /><i>Smith is a composer and Smith is not a composer</i>). • Psychological states are causally inert: beliefs and desires do nothing. <br /> • The mind cannot be understood in terms of folk-psychological concepts (e.g. belief, desire, intention). <br /> • One can have a single concept without having any others: an otherwise conceptless creature could grasp the concept of justice or of the number seven. <br /> • Thoughts are sentence-tokens, and thought-processes are driven by the syntactic, not the semantic, properties of those tokens. <br /><br />In the first half of <i>Conceptual Atomism and the Computational Theory of Mind</i>, John-Michael Kuczynski argues that these implausible but widely held views are direct consequences of a popular doctrine known as content-externalism, this being the view that the contents of one’s mental states are constitutively dependent on facts about the external world. Kuczynski shows that content-externalism involves a failure to distinguish between, on the one hand, what is literally meant by linguistic expressions and, on the other hand, the information that one must work through to <i>compute</i> the literal meanings of such expressions.<br />The second half of the present work concerns the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). Underlying CTM is an acceptance of conceptual atomism – the view that a creature can have a single concept without having any others – and also an acceptance of the view that concepts are not descriptive (i.e. that one can have a concept of a thing without knowing of any description that is satisfied by that thing). Kuczynski shows that both views are false, one reason being that they presuppose the truth of content-externalism, another being that they are incompatible with the epistemological anti-foundationalism proven correct by Wilfred Sellars and Laurence Bonjour. Kuczynski also shows that CTM involves a misunderstanding of terms such as “computation”, “syntax”, “algorithm” and “formal truth”; and he provides novel analyses of the concepts expressed by these terms. (Series A)

Subjects: Consciousness research; Semantics; Philosophy



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