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Modularity in Cognition

Abstract

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The heightened debate on rather controversial notion of
modularity has been going on for a few decades. The debate has been launched by
Fodor’s The Modularity of Mind (Fodor, 1983) and in spite of innumerable
research it had inspired, paucity of the empirical evidence do not support the
notion in explaining the structure of mind which, in overall, clearly lacks a
comprehensive theory to date. In this article subsequent to delineating Fodor’s
hypothesis, will highlight the epigenetics and phenotype of genes as a complementing
angle to Carruthers’ approach.

Fodor’s Hypothesis

In general, modularity hypothesis states that the mind is
not a homogenous, all purpose processing system but consists of task-specific
sub-systems that function relatively independent of each other.

In general terms Fodor thinks of modules as task-specific,
information wise encapsulated systems and makes a distinction of three
mechanisms namely, transducers, input and output systems and central systems.
The central system is principally concerned with reasoning, problem solving,
making up explanations, etc. Transducers, which are of two types, specifically
input and output, are a kind of interface between the mind and the world. Input
transducers take non-symbolic physical input and generate symbols as output. On
the other hand output transducers transform these into representation of
external world to make them available to thought and both of the transducers
operate automatically. For Fodor there is a separate input system that coincide
with five senses and additionally a language system that forms a distinct input
system.

The main pillar of Fodor’s modularity thesis is that input
systems are modules. Even though Fodor does not provide clear definitions or
analysis of his notion, what is referred as “Fodor Modules” are domain-specific
innately specified processing systems with its own transducers that deliver
non-conceptual outputs and furthermore of which operations are mandatory and
not available to remaining parts of cognition (i.e. encapsulated). As such,
Fodor ascribes nine properties to them:

1. “Input systems are domain specific” (Fodor, 1983, p. 47).
These systems perform highly specialized tasks and are restricted with their
specialization.

2. “The operation of input systems is mandatory” (Fodor,
1983, p. 52).Some cognitive processes that we are able to carry out are up to
our discretion.

3. “There is only limited central access to the mental
representations that input systems compute” (1983: 55). Input modules generate
series of intermediary representations on which they build their outputs that
they pass on but hide the intermediary representations.

4. “Input systems are fast” (Fodor, 1983, p. 61). Even
though it is rather difficult to measure accurately, it is apparent that input
systems are very fast relative to central processes dealing with a problem.

5. “Input systems are informationally encapsulated” (Fodor,
1983, p. 64). Input systems cannot access information stored in the system they
are part of even if that information would help them perform their tasks
successfully. They have their own task-specific information to execute their
operations.

6. “Input systems have “shallow”
outputs” (Fodor, 1983, p. 86). Information delivered by input systems are not
judgmental, the central system draw conclusions.

7. “Input systems are associated
with a fixed neural architecture” (Fodor, 1983, p. 98). Input systems are
localized dedicated structures in the brain.

8. “Input systems exhibit
characteristic and specific breakdown patterns” (Fodor, 1983, p. 99). Input
systems are prone to functioning deficiencies due to damage to the brain or
genetic impairment. This constitutes a neural localization of input systems.

9. “The ontogeny of input systems
exhibits a characteristic pace and sequencing” (Fodor, 1983, p. 100).The
hypothesis that input systems and their capacities develop in the same manner
across the species.

Discussions on
Modularity

The debates on modularity are focused around the issues of
whether the modularity is “massive” comprising the whole mind (Carruthers,
2006) or “peripheral” comprising parts of it namely low-level perception and
excluding high level systems and cognition (Fodor, 1983) or if it is organized
of networks of interconnected systems and subsystems (Prinz, 2006).

Throughout the above referenced studies the ideas, be it
massive or peripheral modularity or network of interconnected systems, are all
built on a common assumption which accepts mind as a static unit, disregarding,
not taking into account the evolutionary development of human beings. Human
minds do not function in a vacuum but are integral part of a body with all
sorts of sensory arrays. And as such are subject to developmental affects and
influences the evolution imposes on humans. In this connection, even though
genes play a major role in development and formation of human beings,
obviously, without any shadow of doubt, genes are not everything. Epigenetics term
which was coined in an effort to explain cellular differentiation during
development denotes that a phenotype can be changed without altering the
genotype. Following this notion it is apparent and an accepted fact that
throughout the lifespan organisms do not remain static but respond dynamically
to social and environmental stimuli in which epigenetics mediate the brain in
adaptability to the environment. The alterations epigenetics induce are sustained
across generations and this awesome role that epigenetic mechanisms play leads
to the possibility of altering “normal” brain connectivity and operation
through changing of the patterns of stimuli experienced in lifespan. This
implies that there is not one, single way to define every brain organization as
some dimensions may be due to some particular phenotypes. Considering the
accepted fact that the important role social and cultural environment play in
human brain organization, we need to take into account environmental physical
changes like global temperature changes, the type of food we consume, the
chemicals we are exposed to, the movement skills we use or not use anymore that
may shape morphology, physiology and metabolism of our bodies if we are to consider
multifaceted context the brain develops.

Another item taken as granted in the above referenced
modularity discussions is that all neurons are regarded as one, single type.
However, findings in neurotechnology revolution show that there are hundreds of
different kinds of neurons which make a considerable difference as the whole
picture may change when we know exactly what type of neurons are interconnected
where. In fact, taking into account the laws probability, it is rather quite
unrealistic to think that more than 85 billion neurons are all same doing same
type of work.

 

Conclusion

Neuroscience today is developing on empirical facts rather
than ideas and it has been more than three decades since Fodor’s “The
Modularity of Mind” has been published. This time frame is rather long when one
considers the rate of progress in cognitive science. New ideas, hypotheses will
be inspired by changing the vantage point looking at cognitive science. For
example, the “New Synthesis” in cognitive science is characterized by four
principles: computational theory of mind (CTM), modularity (massive), nativism
and adaptationism (Weiskopf, 2002, p.551). If we can shed some light on how our
brain puts together the smaller pieces of input and make inferences and bind
the output, this will be a quantum leap in understanding the most complex and
diverse structure we know of which solution, I believe, lies in computational
theory of mind (CTM) contrary to Fodor’s unduly pessimism reached both in “The
Modularity of Mind” (1983) and “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way” (2000) on the
grounds that holistic character of central processing weakens the prospect of
CTM as a theory explaining such a process.

 

References

Cain, M.J.
(2002). Fodor: Language, Mind, and
Philosophy. U.S.A.: Blackwells Publishers Inc.

Caruthers, P.
(2006). The Architecture of the Mind.
New York: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, J.A.
(1983). The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Prinz, J.J.
(2006) Is the mind really modular? In Stainton, R.J. (ed.), Contemporary
Debates in Cognitive Science (pp. 22—36). Cornwall, U.K.: Blackwell
Publishing Ltd.

Weiskopf,
D.A. (2002). A critical review of Jerry A. Fodor’s The mind doesn’t work that
way. Philosophical Psychology, 15
(4), pp.551-562.

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