It is claimed by a lot of philosophers that because we are normative creatures, it is impossible to explain our minds in purely causal terms. Jerry Fodor writes (in LOT2)

... contents of symbols emerge from conventions that control their use, thereby determining what it is to use them correctly. Since causation per se is neither correct nor incorrect, content can't reduce to causation

I can't seem to understand this line of thought. A computer can be programmed to learn a language by use. it can even be hardcoded that "no" means a negative response (hence "normative") and "yes" means a positive response. The computer, a purely causal machine, can then have norms. Why doesn't the argument from normativity accept it?

  • I would need some more explanation of the words in order to comment. I do not understand Fodor's point and perhaps this could be explained here rather than by asking me to google it. If everyone else understands it then ignore me.
    – user20253
    Apr 12, 2017 at 11:30
  • Computers don't actully learn languages; they simply process data by mechanical means, so I don't know how you can justify your assumption that they could be hard-coded "that 'no' means a negative response." The data has no meaning whatsoever for the computer. Fodor is simply speaking of a version of the naturalistic fallacy
    – user3017
    Apr 12, 2017 at 13:14
  • In the case of computers normativity derives from humans, they decide which use of language is "right" or "wrong" and provide training sets accordingly. Same with hard coding. To aliens, who do not know what yes or no "means", operation of computers would look no different in principle than air currents in the atmosphere, just going through the motions. And humans (presumably) have nobody to train or code norms into them, other than "society", i.e. other humans.
    – Conifold
    Apr 12, 2017 at 18:45
  • it is possible to violate norms - do or say the "wrong" thing. it is not possible to violate causal laws. people can lie, computers cannot.
    – user20153
    Apr 12, 2017 at 18:54

1 Answer 1


The reason you can not understand the "line of thought," is that you are convinced that a computer "can be programmed to learn... hence 'normative'".
It is true that a computer is purely a "causal machine," that's why a computer can not "learn" anything, it can only processes data. Once you realize this, you will understand that because "we are normative creatures, it is impossible to explain our minds in purely causal terms."

  • I understand that this is the gap in my understanding of the problem. I just can't see how Normatively is such a deep issue, and not only, say, an issue of social behavior.
    – Amit Hagin
    Apr 18, 2017 at 13:19
  • 1
    @AmitHagin The quote is about ontology. The author simply states that normative judgements are not following the rules of causation and are nevertheless real and have real consequences. This is but one possible philosophical position. Others hold that the whole talk about freedom and normativity is a descriptive behaviour that just talks about essentially causal stuff going on we simply do not understand yet. Problem being: reality of normativity is rather obvious. Existence of strict causality in a relevant sense underlying this is nothing but a bold claim that is yet to be proven.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 18, 2017 at 18:05

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