The Computational Mind

UG Y3/4 + MSc

Course description

This course introduces students to the idea that the mind is a computational device. Computational models dominate modern psychology. Computational models appear to offer the tantalising prospect of explaining how the mind works. These models raise numerous foundational philosophical questions. They also appear to have the potential to contribute to, and perhaps even answer, long-standing philosophical questions about the mind.

This course does not assume prior knowledge of computational modelling techniques or cognitive science.


The class meets every week for 11 weeks for a 2-hour session.

The sessions are a mixture of lecture and discussion. In advance of class, students are expected to have read the essential readings and posted on the course’s online discussion forum. In class, we discuss the readings and explore responses to them.

Course content

Computation appears to be our best hope for explaining how the mind works. Over the past forty years, computational models have scored numerous successes in explaining various mental phenomena. The course introduces the computational approach to the mind and explores some foundational questions and challenges that it faces.

Topics covered by the course include:

  • What is a computation?
  • What do computational explanations in psychology aim to achieve?
  • If the mind is a type of computer, what kind of computer is it?
  • How should we understand talk of symbols and representational content in these computations?
  • How does computational modelling relate to neuroscience?
  • Is computation an objective property of brain processes, or a projection of our interests?
  • Can consciousness (qualia) be explained in terms of computation?
  • Do the computations that underlie cognition lie inside the head or do some spill out into the environment?

MSc reading group

In addition to classes, the MSc version of the course has a reading group on more advanced topics. This is intended to provide a venue to explore ideas for writing a research-focused essay.

The reading group meets every 2 weeks. Readings are chosen in consultation with the MSc students.

In recent years, we have read chapters from:

  • M. Colombo and M. Sprevak, (Eds.) Routledge Handbook to the Computational Mind, forthcoming.
  • D. J. Chalmers. The Conscious Mind. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.
  • G. Piccinini. The Nature of Computation. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015.
  • R. Sun, (Ed). Cambridge Handbook of Computational Psychology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.
  • S. Russell and P. Norvig. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 3rd edition, 2010.
  • P. S. Churchland and T. J. Sejnowski. The Computational Brain. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.