October 08, 2018

Foundations of Cognitive Science: Mental Representation

Michael Rescorla, University of California, Los Angeles

Just as the heart serves to pump blood and the stomach serves to digest food, one of the mind’s principal functions is to represent the world. For instance, I have various beliefs about Barack Obama: that he was once president of the United States, that he is married to Michelle Obama, and so on. These beliefs represent Barack Obama as being a certain way. Thus, the mind somehow reaches beyond itself to external reality, depicting the world as having certain features. In that sense, the mind is a representational organ. Traditionally, philosophers have emphasized the mind’s representational capacity as among its most important properties. Cognitive science builds upon this tradition, assigning a foundational role to mental representation when constructing theories of perception, motor control, navigation, reasoning, decision-making, planning, linguistic communication, and other core mental activities. Cognitive scientists elaborate the traditional picture of the mind as a representational organ into rigorous, empirically well-confirmed theories.