Professional philosophers from around the world spent their holiday weekend at UCSB discussing issues of phenomenology, Russellian content and the computational theory of mind.

The Philosophy Dept. hosted a conference titled “Concepts Content: A Conference in the Philosophy of Mind,” which began Friday evening and gave an opportunity for prominent philosophers to share their ideas at the MultiCultural Center. Lecturers followed the theme of the conference by concentrating on theories of how the mind thinks and perceives the world.

Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, gave the first talk of the conference, describing his computational theory of mind. Pinker began by describing what he believes intelligence to be.

Pinker said that the attraction between Romeo and Juliet when separated by a wall is similar to the way in which iron fillings are held away from a magnet by a wall. While the intelligent Romeo can figure out a way to circumvent the wall, however, the fillings are simply pulled against the wall.

Non-intelligent systems have a fixed path with variable-end goals, while intelligent systems have fixed-end goals but variable paths, Pinker said.

In this way, Pinker said that the computational theory of mind describes a system of logic that was shaped by evolution, not by a designer.

“The computational theory of mind is not the same as the computer metaphor – the idea that the human brain looks like a desktop PC,” Pinker said.

In the computational theory, knowledge is information, thinking is computation and emotions are feedback loops, Pinker said.

Pinker said the theory is based on evolution because it relies on the fact that the mind has adapted over time to fit an environment. Philosophers and scientists try to figure out the brain’s function by looking at its structure and components.

“In reverse engineering[[,]] you stumble across a device and try to figure out what it was designed to do,” Pinker said. “Biology can be seen as a kind of reverse engineering.”

There are still many things not understood about the brain’s organization and abilities. These special abilities make it difficult to describe the brain as a simple computer, Pinker said.

“Despite 50 years of research in artificial intelligence, we haven’t been able to build a robot like those in sci-fi films,” Pinker said.

“People are good at recognizing faces; they are not so good at computing decimals of pi. But in terms of computation, computing pi is a simpler process,” Pinker said.

Despite these apparent difficulties in categorizing minds as computational system, Pinker said there is evidence that shows that minds still obey what has been programmed by evolution, even if it is no longer directly applicable.

“For example, why do people eat themselves into an early grave with too much junk food? Why do people use contraception – a sort of Darwinian suicide? Why do people play the lottery tickets and gamble – being known as the stupidity tax? If the house is to make a profit, the players must lose,” Pinker said.

“These become less mystifying when one thinks that the mind evolved in a world where good-tasting things were nutritious, in which sex granted you babies and statistical patterns had underlying significance,” Pinker said.

Pinker addressed the views of an opponent, Jerry Fodor, to his theory, who said in his book that the computational theory of mind does not describe the mind’s behavior known as abduction.

Abduction is distinct from induction and deduction. Pinker said that abduction is the ability to simultaneously grasp overlying concepts and immediate information about the problem at hand in order to make intelligent guesses – in other words, common sense.

Pinker said his theory does describe abduction because Fodor tries to disprove the theory by comparing the mind to a Turing machine, which is not a valid comparison. The mind is more complex than a Turing machine, Pinker said.

A Turing machine is a device that performs a set logical operation on a stream of input data and produces a subsequent stream of output data.

David Chamlers from the University of Arizona described how perception itself is dependent on the definition of perception.

“A content C of a visual experience is a phenomenal content if and only if any experience with the same phenomenal character has content C,” Chalmers said.

Phenomenal content is the actual feeling or essence of a situation. For example, when looking at a red apple, the actual redness of the apple is phenomenal.

Chalmer’s said that Russellian content is a complex of objects and properties, which have phenomenal character. Even though this may seem obvious to some, not all philosophers can agree on it.