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The concept of modularity within the mind has been expounded by its adherents since 1983 when Jerry Fodor wrote “The Modularity of the Mind”. While Fodor claimed that modularity was confined to input systems such as perception and language (Robbins, 2010) others, such as Carruthers, have since put forward theories for massive modularity of the mind which include modules for high-level cognition such as beliefs, problem-solving and planning (Robbins, 2010). Carruthers’ theory of massive modularity rests on the criterion that mental processes must be encapsulated systems. For Carruthers, they would be weakly encapsulated, while for Fodor they would have limited accessibility but complete encapsulation (Robbins, 2010).

Prinz (Prinz, 2006, p.22) uses Fodor’s (1983) criteria for modularity to contend that input systems and central systems are not modular. Jesse Prinz’s argument against modularity within the mind is based upon his view that the mind, alternatively, contains systems that are distinguished by their function. Prinz states that Fodor’s argument fails to satisfy, not just in the way the mind’s subsystems work but even in individual systems. At best, Prinz argues, subsystems are just a few dispersed modular types, and that even these systems do not qualify and are not effective constructions of the mind (Prinz, 2006, p.22).

Fodor’s claim of modularism arises from the fact that brain lesions cause particular mental deficits. Also neuroimaging studies profess to show brain areas that are active when healthy people do specific mental tasks (Prinz, 2006, p.23). However, Prinz contends that on closer analysis there are considerable inconsistencies in the findings of neuroimaging. Brain lesions also have similar diagnostic problems where the same lesion can produce different effects on different individuals (p.3). While there are areas of the brain that localize specific functions but, for Prinz, this still does not support modularity (Prinz, 2006, p.24).While defenders of modularity cite domain specifity to brain function, this is an assumption as mental functions could be found to be comprised of large overlapping networks (Prinz, 2006, p.24). This contention is supported by similar brain areas being active whilst a person performs multiple tasks and specific brain lesions causing multiple deficits (Prinz, 2006, p.24).  Therefore, the brain relies upon functional systems that are reliant upon networks of subsystems.

The main criteria of Fodor’s and Carruthers’ concept of modularity are that modules are inaccessible and encapsulated (Prinz, 2006, p.29). Prinz states that this seems reasonable as we have no introspective access to how our sensory or language systems work (Prinz, 2006, p.30). This is evidenced through a study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) who showed that judgement is often determined at a subconscious level (Prinz, 2006, p.30). However, Prinz argues that this does not show that modules are inaccessible, only that we lack the ability to consciously access them (Prinz, 2006, p.30). Also, encapsulation, which is put forward by Fodor as the most important criterion, is argued by Prinz to be false. If an encapsulated system was true it would have to be insulated from any external systems. However, there is evidence that input systems are interconnected with three studies finding direct and content-specific cross-referencing of information between sensory inputs (Prinz, 2006, p.31).

While the empirical evidence against encapsulation appears to negate the theory, one could also surmise that input systems are not the systems accessed by the brain for such sensory experiences but rather access memory. However, this would still mean that other modules are accessed to provide information for the subject module, leaving encapsulation and inaccessibility not able to be protected as the main criteria for modularity. Therefore, Prinz’s argument that the mind is not modular appears to hold.

References:

  • Prinz, J.J. (2006) Is the mind really modular? In R Stainton (ed)Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science (pp. 22-26) Oxford, Blackwell
  • Robbins, P. (2010), “Modularity of Mind” in E Zalta (ed) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/modularity-mind/ on 3/01/2013

 

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