Mental Models

From: Harnad, Stevan (
Date: Wed May 14 1997 - 11:59:00 BST

Hi Phil,
I'm right now teaching mental models to our 1st year's
and I have a question:
In what respect are mental models mental?
If in doing a logical or spatial problem I generate mental tokens of
exactly the sort you and Jane describe, how is that different from
writing out the tokens in full on paper?
I mean we would not (I think) want to call counting in one's head
"mental arithmetic" -- or would we? And if I carry the 1's in
my head when I'm doing an addition, how is this more (or less)
mental than if I write them out?
If we do in our heads what we could do with our hands I suppose it's
covert, in some way, but doesn't mental (or perhaps cognitive)
explanation begin where we start to explain what generates this
kind of activity (whether it is overt of covert).
Another way to put it: What would become of mental-models theory if
everyone everywhere always did these things overtly on a scratch-pad,
and it always transpired precisely as you predict: There would
not even be a contest between your theory and its rivals
(Lance's, say) because by direct observation of the scratch pad you
could confirm that it is what you say that they are doing, and not what
Lance says, that is correct.
In doing it on paper, would they make it into a paper-model,
rather than a mental model?
(I don't think, by the way, that this problem, if it is a problem, is a
problem only for mental-models theory: It is a problem for any
quasi-homuncular theory, in which, the explanation consists of
positing that we do overtly what we could have done overtly.
It seems that an explanation must discharge the homunculus after all --
as Shepard's "mental rotation" does: For though we could of course
do a slow rotation-match overtly, the mental task is accomplished
so quickly that we had no time to rotate -- or even notice that we had
"done" a rotation: It is then that the homunculus is dispensed with,
because I confess that I was fed the outcome on a platter by my brain: I
did not do the rotation; I just saw its outcome.)
Ruminations, as old, perhaps, as introspection...

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