Syllabus for Models & Explanation in the Cognitive Sciences, Spring 2008 Valid HTML 4.01! — version 2008-01-08
HPSC X755 | COGS Q700 | PHIL P590 — Models and Explanation in the Cognitive Sciences
Meeting time: Tu 4:-6:30; Location: Sycamore 022


Jonathan Weinberg <> Sycamore 011 | Weds 1:30pm-3pm | 855-3415
Colin Allen <> Goodbody 113 | Tues 1:30pm-3pm | 855-8916

Course Description

Modeling has become an absolutely essential tool for research in the cognitive sciences, which include cognitive psychology, linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics. But the literature seems to contain a great many different kinds of models, and a great many different uses for models. This course will survey philosophical issues that arise in the consideration of this great diversity of approaches to models and modeling.

Topics include:
--the methodological value of models: What advantages and/or disadvantages does modeling have over other analytic or explanatory activities?
--the ontological commitment of models: When (if ever) is it appropriate to treat something that we appeal to in making a model as reflecting some real aspect of the world? What is the relationship of models to natural or scientific laws?
--debates over different fundamental approaches to modeling in cognitive science, including mathematical, statistical, computational, and process models, as well as connectionist, dynamical, multi-agent, evolutionary, and robotic (both virtual and incarnate) models.

We will also spend some time in the course looking at particular models of interest such as generativist syntax, "mental model" models of human reasoning, "theory" vs. "simulation" models of mental state attribution, neurocomputational models of vision, dynamical models of infant perseverative reaching, prototype and exemplar models of concepts, and structural models of concept learning and categorization.

Readings & Schedule of Assignments

Electronic copies of readings will be provided via Oncourse.

Jan 08
Frigg, Roman, Hartmann, Stephan, "Models in Science", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Jan 15
Online Engagements by Will York & Carlos Zednik
Jerome Busemeyer (in prep.) Methods for Cognitive Modeling.
Kruschke, J. (in prep.) Exemplar Models of Categorization, To appear in: R. Sun (Ed.), Handbook on Computational Cognitive Modeling.
Barney Luttbeg and Tom A. Langen (2004). Comparing Alternative Models to Empirical Data: Cognitive Models of Western Scrub-Jay Foraging Behavior. American Naturalist 163: 263-276.
Jan 22
Online Engagements by Paul Williams, Sean Valles, Jenett Tillotson
Follow-up presentations by Will York, Carlos Zednik
Johnson-Laird et al 1992 "Propositional Reasoning by Model"
Bonatti 1998, "What the Mental Logic-Mental Models Controversy is not about"
Van der Henst, Jean-Baptiste (2002). "Mental model theory versus the inference rule approach in relational reasoning."Thinking & Reasoning 8: 193-203.
Cummins, Robert E. (2000). "How does it work" versus "what are the laws?": Two conceptions of psychological explanation. In F. Keil & Robert A. Wilson (eds.), Explanation and Cognition, 117-145. MIT Press.
Jan 29
Online Engagements by Robert Rose, Alejandra Rossi, Joshua Smart
Follow-up presentations by Sean Valles, Paul Williams
McLaughlin 1993 The Connectionism-Classicism Battle to Win Souls
Exchange in TiCS 2002 about Connectionist models of past tense learning
Wright and Bechtel 2006 Mechanisms and Psychological Explanation
Feb 05
Online Engagements by Jared Hotaling, Didem Kadihasanoglu
Follow-up presentations by Joshua Smart
Phattanasri, Chiel, and Beer (2007). The Dynamics of Associative Learning in Evolved Model Circuits. Adaptive Behavior
Note to engagers: Treat the next two items as one entity for commenting purposes...
Van Gelder, T. (1993). What might cognition be if not computation? Journal of Philosophy
Sections 5 and 6 of Bechtel (1998). Representations and Cognitive Explanations: Assessing the Dynamicist's Challenge in Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science 22: 295-318.
Feb 12
Online Engagements by Jon Agley, Tom Fennewald
Follow-up presentations by Jenett Tillotson, Alejandra Rossi
Thelen et al. (2001). The dynamics of embodiment: A field theory of infant perseverative reaching. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24:1-34. [Note, reading commentaries from p.34 onwards is optional.]
Feb 19
Online Engagements by Will York, Carlos Zednik
Follow-up presentations by Robert Rose, Didem Kadihasanoglu
Marco van Leeuwen (2005). Questions For The Dynamicist: The Use of Dynamical Systems Theory in the Philosophy of Cognition. Minds and Machines
Roe, Busemeyer, & Townsend (2001) Multialternative Decision Field Theory: A Dynamic Connectionist Model of Decision Making. Psych. Review. 108: 370-392.
Usher & McClelland (2004) Loss Aversion and Inhibition in Dynamical Models of Multialternative Choice. Psych. Rev.
Busemeyer et al. (2005). Contrast Effects or Loss Aversion? Comment on Usher and McClelland (2004). Psych. Rev.
Feb 26
Online Engagements by Paul Williams, Sean Valles, Jennett Tillotson
Follow-up presentations by Tom Fennewald, Jared Hotaling
Elisabeth A. Lloyd, "Confirmation of Evolutionary Models", chater 8 of The Structure and Confirmation of Evolutionary Theory Greewood, 1988.
R. Duncan Luce (1995) "Four tensions concerning mathematical modeling in psychology." Annu. Rev. Psychol. 46: 1-26.
Mar 04
Online Engagements by Robert Rose, Alejandra Rossi, Joshua Smart
Follow-up presentations by Jon Agley, Robert Rose
Brighton & Todd (forthcoming), "Situated Rationality"
Samuels, Stich, and Bishop, "Ending the Rationality Wars"
Franks, 1995, "On Explanation in the Cognitive Sciences: Competence, Idealization, and the Failure of the Classical Cascade"
Port, 2007, "Phonology is not psychological & speech processing is not linguistic"
Mar 11
Spring Break
Mar 18
Online Engagements by Jared Hotaling, Didem Kadihasanoglu
Mar 25
Online Engagements by Jon Agley, Tom Fennewald be continued


Grades will be based on performance in the following categories:

  • Classroom presentations (25%)
  • Participation (25%)
  • Writing (50%)


Classroom presentations

Each class will begin with two presentations by designated students following up from the previous week. A follow-up presenter should pick one item cited by or that cites a previous week's reading and briefly present it to the rest of the class, on the assumption that no one else has read it. Presenters should aim for 20 mins each, plus 10 minutes discussion. The goal is to expand on a theme that emerged from the previous week's discussion.

The format for the final research presentations to be given in April will be discussed after spring break.


  • Brief Engagements: For any given course meeting, about three students will be required to write a "brief engagement" on their choice of the texts assigned for that day. An engagement should be in the neighborhood of 1,000 - 1,500 words, and should provide some combination of (i) summarizing the important points and/or arguments of the text, and moreover (ii) critically evaluating those points and/or arguments. Such critical evaluation will often be negative, but may also take the form of looking to strengthen the author's arguments, or extend them in directions that the author might not have anticipated. Engagements must be posted to the relevant Oncourse discussion threads no later than 10am Monday morning.
  • Online Commentary: For any given course meeting, everyone who is not writing an engagement is required to make at least one comment on each discussion thread. So, because there will be about three engagements for any week, everyone else will need to do at least about three comments, one on each engagement. Ideally, interesting conversations will break out as a result, and certainly everyone is encouraged (even if not required) to respond to and critically (but politely!) engage each others' comments. The required comments must be posted to the relevant Oncourse discussion threads no later than noon Tuesday.

Performing these tasks as assigned is a requirement for receiving a passing grade in the course. Moreover, the quality of your participation in the online fora will also play a significant role in determining the participation component of your final grade.


  • preproposal due March 17
  • first draft due April 1
  • final version due April 29

The preproposal should be 1-2 pages outlining an issue, an approach, and target journal whose style you will follow for the full paper. Students are especially encouraged to pick a journal whose intended audience is significantly interdisciplinary within cognitive science (e.g., Mind and Language). Students are also encouraged to discuss their potential ideas with one or both of the instructors ahead of time, in part to make sure that they are thinking of a project appropriate for the course, and for the course number (COGS, HPSC, or PHIL) that they are enrolled under. The first draft, due after spring break, should probably be in the range of 3000-5000 words, aiming for a final paper of standard journal length (about 5000-8000 words).

Statement about Academic Misconduct
University rules concerning academic misconduct will be rigorously enforced in this class. See IU Code of Ethics, Part II for details.