So How Does the Mind Work? (RIP Jerry Fodor, and your grandmother is surely immortal because of you)

JerryfoderIt may seem mean-spirited to remember the great Jerry Fodor by posting a critique of his work so soon after his death, but I think Steven Pinker's engagement with his thought brings out some of what made Fodor great. I met Fodor as a young man in my twenties at Rutgers once and he was kind and encouraging of my plans to go to grad school in philosophy (I was working as an engineer at the time). I ended up reading a lot of Fodor in grad school and seldom agreed with him but I recognized that he certainly made all his opponents think more clearly. (In case you are wondering about the title of this post, Fodor often invoked his grandmother in his philosophical papers!) Anyhow, here's Steven Pinker, writing in 2005:

In 2000 Jerry Fodor published a book called The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (hereafter: TMDWTW). The way that the mind doesn’t work, according to Fodor, is the way that I said the mind does work in my book How the Mind Works (HTMW).1 This essay is a response to Fodor, and one might think its title might be Yes, It Does! But for reasons that soon become clear, a more fitting title might be No One Ever Said it Did.

Fodor calls the theory in How the Mind Works the New Synthesis. It combines the key idea of the cognitive revolution of the 1950s and 1960s—that the mind is a computational system—with the key idea of the new evolutionary biology of the 1960s and 1970s—that signs of design in the natural world are products of the natural selection of replicating entities, namely genes. This synthesis, sometimes known as evolutionary psychology, often incorporates a third idea, namely that the mind is not a single entity but is composed of a number of faculties specialized for solving different adaptive problems. In sum, the mind is a system of organs of computation that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the physical and social worlds in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history.

Readers who are familiar with Fodor’s contributions to cognitive science but who have not read TMDWTW might be puzzled to learn that Fodor begs to differ so categorically. The first major theme of HTMW is computation, and Fodor, more than anyone, has defended what he calls the computational theory of mind: that thinking is a form of computation. The second major theme is specialization, and Fodor’s most influential book is called The Modularity of Mind, a defense of the idea that the mind is composed of distinct faculties rather than a single generalpurpose learning device or intelligent algorithm. The third theme is evolution, the source of innate biological structure, and Fodor, like many evolutionary psychologists, is willing to posit far more innate structure than is commonly accepted in contemporary philosophy and psychology. So it is surprising that Fodor insists that HTMW is wrong, wrong, wrong. Fodor and I must disagree on how the concepts of computation, faculty psychology (specialization), and innate biological organization should be applied to explaining the mind. This essay will be organized accordingly.

More here. [Especially for Morgan Meis.]