Modal Considerations on Information Processing and Computation in the Nervous System

Volume 14
Issue 3
Abel Wajnerman Paz
We can characterize computationalism very generally as a complex thesis with two main parts: the thesis that the brain (or the nervous system) is a computational system and the thesis that neural computation explains cognition. As Piccinini and Bahar (2012) point out, over the last six decades, computationalism has been the mainstream theory of cognition. Nevertheless, there is still substantial debate about which type of computation explains cognition, and computationalism itself still remains controversial. My aim in this paper is to make two main contributions to the debate about the first subthesis of computationalism, i.e. that the brain is a computational system. First, I want to offer an accurate elucidation of the notion relevant for understanding computationalism (the notion of computation) and clarify the relation between computation and information as well as the relations between both computation and information processing and the nervous system. Second, I want to argue against a peculiar form of computationalism: the thesis that neural processes are constitutively computational in some sense; that neural processes cannot be realized by a system that is not in some sense computational. I will call this thesis “modal computationalism.” In particular, I want to argue that neural processing can be realized by a system that is not a sui generis computer (i. e., a computing system that is neither digital nor analog) and by a system that is not a generic computer (a computer in the most general sense: one that includes digital, analog, and any other kind of computation). Actual neural processing is presumed to be computational in these two senses (Piccinini and Bahar 2012). I will argue that, even if this is true, neural processing can be realized by a computing system that is not of the same kind as those that perform actual neural processing and even by a system that is not computational at all.

Key words: semantic information, computationalism, feedback control, neural computation, generic computation