apesMcGill University, Psychology PSYC 492, Winter 2011:

Categorization, Communication and Consciousness

    Time: Fridays 12:30-3:30, Jan 7 - Apr 8 2011 

    Place: McGill University, Stewart Biological Sciences Building W7/21 

    Instructor: Stevan Harnad 

    E-mail: stevan[DOT]harnad[AT]mail[DOT]mcgill[DOT]ca

    Prerequisite: U2 or above. Open to students interested in Cognitive Science from the departments of Biology, Computer Science, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Philosophy, or Psychology at McGill or neighboring universities.

         Overview: What is cognition? It is what happens in our brains when we think, enabling us to learn and act adaptively, survive and reproduce. Cognitive science tries to explain the mechanism that generates that know-how. The brain is the natural place to look for the explanation, but that’s not enough. Unlike the mechanisms generating the capacities of other bodily organs such as the heart or the lungs, the brain’s capacities are too vast, complex and opaque to be read off by direct observation or manipulation: Computational modeling and robotics try, alongside behavioral neuroscience, to design and test mechanisms that can generate our cognitive capacities, thereby explaining them. The challenge of the celebrated "Turing test" is to scale up to the point where we can no longer distinguish the model’s performance from our own. Our model must generate not only our sensorimotor capacity -- able to do with the objects and agents in the world exactly what we can do with them -- but it must also be able to produce and understand language, as we do. What is language, and what was its adaptive value such that we are the only species that possesses it? And consciousness?

         Objectives: This course will outline the main challenges that cognitive science, still inchoate, faces today, focusing on the capacity to learn sensorimotor categories, to name and describe them verbally, and to transmit them to others, concluding with cognition distributed on the Web.

1. Introduction 

What is cognition? How and why did introspection fail? How and why did behaviourism fail? What is cognitive science trying to explain, and how?

2. The computational theory of cognition (Pylyshyn, Turing)  

What is (and is not) computation? What is the power and scope of computation? What does it mean to say (or deny) that “cognition is computation”?


Pylyshyn, Z (1980) Computation and cognition: issues in the foundations of cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1980) 3: 111-132 http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Temp/Pylyshyn1980.html

Harnad, S. (2009) Cohabitation: Computation at 70, Cognition at 20, in Dedrick, D., Eds. Cognition, Computation, and Pylyshyn. MIT Press http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/12092/ 

3. Searle's Chinese room argument (against the computational theory of cognition)

What’s wrong and right about Searle’s Chinese room argument that cognition is not computation?


Searle, John. R. (1980) Minds, brains, and programs. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3 (3): 417-457 http://cogprints.org/7150/

Harnad, S. (2001) What's Wrong and Right About Searle's Chinese Room Argument? In: M. Bishop & J. Preston (eds.) Essays on Searle's Chinese Room Argument. Oxford University Press. http://cogprints.org/1622/

4. The Turing test

What’s wrong and right about Turing’s proposal for explaining cognition?


Turing, A.M. (1950) Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 49 433-460 http://cogprints.org/499/

Harnad, S. (2008) The Annotation Game: On Turing (1950) on Computing, Machinery and Intelligence. In: Epstein, Robert & Peters, Grace (Eds.) Parsing the Turing Test: Philosophical and Methodological Issues in the Quest for the Thinking Computer. Springer http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/12954/ 

5. What about the brain? 

Why is there controversy over whether neuroscience is relevent to explaining cognition?

Rizzolatti G & Craighero L (2004) The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27L 169-92 http://psych.colorado.edu/~kimlab/Rizzolatti.annurev.neuro.2004.pdf

Fodor, J. (1999) "Why, why, does everyone go on so about the brain?" London Review of Books 21(19) 68-69. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n19/jerry-fodor/diary 

6. The symbol grounding problem 

What is the “symbol grounding problem,” and how can it be solved? (The meaning of words must be grounded in sensorimotor categories.)


Harnad, S. (2003) The Symbol Grounding Problem. Encylopedia of Cognitive Science. Nature Publishing Group. Macmillan. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/7720  

7. Categorization and cognition

That categorization is cognition makes sense, but “cognition is categorization”? (On the power and generality of categorization.)


Harnad, S. (2003b) Categorical Perception. Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science. Nature Publishing Group. Macmillan. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/7719/

Harnad, S. (2005) To Cognize is to Categorize: Cognition is Categorization, in Lefebvre, C. and Cohen, H., Eds. Handbook of Categorization. Elsevier.  http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/11725/

8. Evolution and cognition

Why is it that some evolutionary explanations sound plausible and make sense, whereas others seem far-fetched or even absurd? 


Buss, DM (1995) Evolutionary psychology: A new paradigm for psychological science. Psychological Inquiry 6(1) 1 – 30 http://instruct.uwo.ca/psychology/371g/Buss1995.pdf

Bolhuis JJ & Wynne CDL (2009) Can evolution explain how minds work? Nature 458, 832-833 [online version will be provided]

9. The evolution of language

What’s wrong and right about Steve Pinker’s views on language evolution? And what was so special about language that the capacity to acquire it became evolutionarily encoded in the brains of our ancestors – and of no other surviving species – about 300,000 years ago? (It gave our species a unique new way to acquire categories, through symbolic instruction rather than just direct sensorimotor induction.


Pinker, S. & Bloom, P. (1990). Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13(4): 707-784. http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/papers/Pinker%20Bloom%201990.pdf

Harnad, S. (2010) Symbol Grounding and the Origin of Language: From Show to Tell. In: Origins of Language. Cognitive Sciences Institute. Université du Québec à Montréal, June 2010. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/21438/ 

10. Chomsky and the poverty of the stimulus 

A close look at one of the most controversial issues at the heart of cognitive science: Chomsky’s view that Universal Grammar has to be inborn because it cannot be learned from the data available to the language-learning child.


Pullum, G.K. & Scholz BC (2002) Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. Linguistic Review 19: 9-50 http://www.ucd.ie/artspgs/research/pullum.pdf 

Pinker, S. Language Acquisition. http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/pinker.langacq.html 

11. The mind/body problem and the explanatory gap 

Once we can pass the Turing test -- because we can generate and explain everything that cognizers are able to do -- will we have explained all there is to explain about the mind? Or will something still be left out?


Dennett, D. (unpublished) The fantasy of first-person science. http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/chalmersdeb3dft.htm 

Harnad, S. (unpublished) On Dennett on Consciousness: The Mind/Body Problem is the Feeling/Function Problem. http://cogprints.org/2130 

Harnad, S. (2002) Turing Indistinguishability and the Blind Watchmaker. In: J. Fetzer (ed.) Evolving Consciousness Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Pp. 3-18.  http://cogprints.org/1615/ 

Harnad, S. (2003) Can a Machine Be Conscious? How? Journal of Consciousness Studies 10(4-5): 69-75. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/7718/

Harnad, S. & Scherzer, P. (2008) Spielberg's AI: Another Cuddly No-Brainer. Artificial Intelligence in Medicine 44(2): 83-89  http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/14430/ 

12. Distributed cognition and the World Wide Web

Can a mind be wider than a head? Collective cognition in the online era: the Cognitive Commons.


Clark, A. & Chalmers, D. (1998) The Extended Mind. Analysis. 58(1) http://www.cogs.indiana.edu/andy/TheExtendedMind.pdf 

Dror, I. & Harnad, S. (2009) Offloading Cognition onto Cognitive Technology. In Dror & Harnad (Eds): Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/16602/ 

13. Overview

Drawing it all together.

Method: Three hours of lecture and discussion per week. After the first session each of the readings (all papers, usually two per week) for the following eleven weeks will be assigned to at least one student to comment on orally and one student to comment on via email quote/commentary (see “Student Skywriting” below). Depending on the size of the enrollment, there may be more than two students per paper, but every student will get at least 2 papers to comment on orally and at least 4 to comment on electronically. The electronic discussion will be circulated to the class list and archived in the course online web archive.

Language of graded written work: In accord with McGill University’s Charter of Students’ Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded. L'enseignant est complètement bilingue: Vous êtes invitès à poser vos questions (et à reçevoir les réponses) ainsi que de faire vos présentations orales et vos « ciélographies » (citations/commentaires) en-ligne dans n'importe quelle des deux langues offiicelles. ( Le même cours se donne aussi en français les mardi soir à l'UQàM . )

Student Skywriting: All the readings are online ("skyreadings"). Each enrolled student will be assigned six of the c. 24 readings, two on which to comment orally and four to quote/comment on online. This means taking the text, reading it, deleting the passages on which you have no comment, and quote/commenting the remaining portions on which you have comments to make (BBS-style); the quoted text should amount to a total of about 10-25% of each skyreading paper, followed by your comments, amounting to about 50% of the length of the original paper. In addition to your own four quote/commented papers, you are encouraged to comment on the quote/commentaries from other students (length of posts on posts is up to you, and there can be a few iterations of back and forth student skywriting) for extra credit. I will also intervene in the skywriting, to provide feedback and keep the skywriting going. The skywriting will not occur at the end of the course, but during the week following each module as it is presented in class.

A sample of some past student skywriting archives from Southampton (psychology as well as computer science) is here: http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Hypermail/ 

And here is some background reading on “skywriting” if you are interested:

Harnad, S. (1990) Scholarly Skywriting and the Prepublication Continuum of Scientific Inquiry. Psychological Science 1: 342 - 343 (reprinted in Current Contents 45: 9-13, November 11 1991). http://cogprints.org/1581/ 

Harnad, S. (1995) Interactive Cognition: Exploring the Potential of Electronic Quote/Commenting. In: B. Gorayska & J.L. Mey (Eds.) Cognitive Technology: In Search of a Humane Interface. Elsevier. Pp. 397-414. http://cogprints.org/1599/ 

Light, P., White, S., Harnad, S., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. (1998) Student Experiences of Skywriting. Implementing Student Learning Technologies: Strategies and Experience. Learning Technologies Conference. Southampton, April, 1998.

Harnad, S. (1999) The Future of Scholarly Skywriting. In: Scammell, A. (Ed.) i in the Sky: Visions of the information future. Aslib, November 1999  http://cogprints.org/1698/ 

Light, P., Light, V., Nesbitt, E. & Harnad, S. (2000) Up for Debate: CMC as a support for course related discussion in a campus university setting. In R. Joiner (Ed) Rethinking Collaborative Learning. London: Routledge.  http://cogprints.org/1621/ 

Harnad, S. (2003/2004)  Back to the Oral Tradition Through Skywriting at the Speed of Thought. Interdisciplines.  Retour à la tradition orale: écrire dans le ciel à  la vitesse de la pensée. Dans: Salaun, Jean-Michel & Vendendorpe, Christian (dir). Le défi de la publication sur le web: hyperlectures, cybertextes et méta-editions. Presses de l'enssib. http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/7723/