The Varieties of Representational Forms

The traditional approach to modeling in the cognitive sciences starts with the identification of the problem — let us say, causal explanation patterns — and then moves on to a a representational framework in which that problem can be addressed (let us say Bayesian probabilities) followed by theories that seek to explain experimental data (say children’s use of explanations in the learning of concepts). This method has some clear advantages — it clearly circumscribes the problem within a well defined mathematical framework and makes predictions about behavior on the basis of that model.

However, such an approach does not work well with the fact that we use different representations for different aspects of the same cognitive act; further, the use of different representations is much more important for a living breathing being than for an abstract account of the task — after all roman numerals and the modern decimal system both encode natural numbers, but the latter allows to compute with greater ease. It makes sense to use multiple modes of representing; different representations make different aspects of the world transparent. If one thinks of cognition as a tool that makes different aspects of the world ‘available’ to the cognizer, then each representation has its own ‘availabilities.’

Modelers should address the possibility that the human mind flexibly uses different kinds of representations depending on the task and that the same cognitive phenomena should be modeled using different representational forms. The key questions that arise are the following:

  1. What is made transparent by a given representational form?
  2. How is this representational form indexed in a given task?
  3. How are different representational forms combined in a given cognitive state/act?

We should bring as many different representational frameworks together in the study of the above questions. Some of the most important representational forms are: Logic, Probabilities, Games, Laws, Categories and Stories. We should take a few ‘core’ test cases (such as the Trolley problem) and show what is made transparent by each representational form in each test case and then ask how the similarities and differences between the various accounts can be integrated.

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