Sunday, March 01, 2009

Fodor's guide to oblivion

As an academic psychologist I generally have a positive regard for philosophers, particularly those who can cut through the muddy thinking of some of my colleagues. That said, I do wonder about some of them. Take Jerry Fodor, for example. Jerry has been around for quite some time and I, like most psychologists, have cited his work sometime, I'm ashamed to say, without reading the originals. I did read Modularity of mind, however, a slim volume published in 1983 which was voted in 2000 as being the seventh most influential cognitive science book of the 20th Century.  (Actually now I look back at those awards the 'esteemed judges' they turn out to be a bunch of people I've never heard of and all at the University of Minnesota, isn't it always the case with these things?)

Although slim Modularity of mind proved, to my 25-year-old self, to be a challenging read. I struggled through its pages never quite feeling that I'd got to grips with Fodor's argument. My problem was, I now believe, was that I was looking for the utility in Fodor's ideas and it was that I couldn't find and thus chided myself for my lack of intelligence. What do I mean? Well, put it this way. Like many people I'm occasionally seduced by kitchen gadgets. You know the kind of thing, something that makes chopping garlic easier (microplane it, damn it); things for doing perfect julienned carrots, and 'easy' graters for parmesan cheese. All of these things turn out to be initially attractive but ultimately useless and languish in my drawer with all of the other crap I've bought over the years. Modularity of mind is like that. It sounded impressive (informational encapsulation, etc.) but I never really got what it did.

Some people who did apparently get what it did were Leda Cosmides and John Tooby of UCSB who married sociobiology to Fodorian modularity which gave birth to Evolutionary Psychology. Thus we had "mental modules, innately specified, shaped by the evolutionary pressures that our ancestors encountered in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation that corresponds to the Upper Pleistocene period" and other specious seductera. Fodor, who has even gone so far as to suggest that all concepts are innate, or at least I think he did because I haven't read that one either, hates what they did to his precious modularity. He HATES Evolutionary Psychology, and now it seems he has a problem with evolution in general. How do I know this? I know this because he has written a paper about it and is currently writing a book about What Darwin Got Wrong. The paper is amazing in its wrongheadedness (and I suppose the book will be too). Its not that Fodor fails to understand evolution by natural selection. He is a highly intelligent man who has thorougly researched the area. Or at least it not that he fails to understand in in the way that you or I would fail to understand something. No, he seems to have invented and entirely new way of failing to understand something. He has applied his massive intellect to the theory, become so intimate with it and understood it so well that he's kind of gone through the theory and out the other side (I imagine there must have been a small popping sound when this happened, but that could just be me). So there he is literally beyond understanding with a unique and, one has to say, bizarre perspective on Darwin. I imagine it must have been a bit like that experience that you have when you repeat a familar word over and over again and suddenly it becomes stripped of its meaning, it as if it is an entirely alien word (I recall discovering this as a child with the word 'constable' and the words 'saddle bag' -- strange but true). This phenmenon is technically known as jamais vu from the French meaning 'never seen'. This is not quite Fodor, because obviously he feels that he understands what he's saying. He seems to be producing a kind of vicarious jamais vu where we suffer from the consequences of his over familiarity.

I have a lot of respect for Jerry Fodor, I just wonder whether someone put him here to mess with my mind, modular or otherwise.

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