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Review of  The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology

Reviewer: Kornel Bangha
Book Title: The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology
Book Author: Jerry A. Fodor
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Psycholinguistics
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 13.2341

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Date: Wed, 11 Sep 2002 03:49:12 -0400
From: Kornel R. BANGHA
Subject: Psycholinguistics; Fodor, Jerry A. (2001) The Mind Doesn't Work That Way

Fodor, Jerry A. (2001) The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The
Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology, Cambridge,
Massachusetts, The MIT Press

Reviewed by: Kornel Bangha, University of Montreal


This book is about what could be called the New Synthesis:
the Computational Theory of Mind combined with nativism and
(neo-)Darwinism. It is a response to Pinker (1997) and
Plotkin (1997) who defend the New Synthesis. Fodor's aim is
to show that what our cognitive science has found out about
the mind so far is mostly that we don't know how it works.

Fodor states that CTM is by far the best theory of cognition
that we've got; indeed, the only one we've got that's worth
the bother of a serious discussion. There are facts about
the mind that it accounts for and we would be utterly at a
loss to explain without it; and its central idea - that
intentional processes are syntactic operations defined on
mental representations - is strikingly elegant. There is, in
short, every reason to suppose that CTM is part of the truth
about cognition. However, there is no reason to think that
this is the whole story about how the mind works or even a
large part of the truth.

In the first chapter, Fodor begins with making a distinction
between Chomsky's story about innateness and the New
Synthesis. The author states that the present phase of
nativistic theorising about the cognitive mind began with
two suggestions of Noam Chomsky's: that there are
substantive, universal constraints on the kind of grammars
that natural language can have; and that these constrains
express correspondingly substantive and universal properties
of human psychology (determined, presumably, by the
characteristic genetic endowment of our species). The
central problem of language acquisition arises from the
poverty of the "primary linguistic data" from which the
child construct a theory of the language; and the proposed
solution of the problem is that much of the knowledge that
linguistic competence depends on is available to the child a
priori (i.e., prior to learning).

Chomsky's rationalism consist primarily in nativism about
the knowledge that cognitive capacities manifest while New
Synthesis rationalism consists primarily in nativism about
the computational mechanisms that exploit such a knowledge
for the purposes of cognition. The New Synthesis shares with
traditional rationalism its emphasis on innate content; but
it has added Turing's idea that mental architecture is

Computation starts, for instance, with the remarkable fact
that you can tell, just by looking at it, that any
(declarative) sentence of the syntactic form P and Q is true
if and only if P and Q are themselves both true: you don't
have to know anything about the nonlinguistic word. This
really is remarkable since it's what they mean, together
with fact about the non-linguistic world, that decide
whether P or Q are true. This line of thought is often
summarized by saying that some inferences are "formally
valid", which is in turn to say that they hold just in
virtue of the "syntax" of the sentences that enter into
them. It was Turing's great discovery that machines can be
designed to evaluate any inference that is formally valid in
that sense. The basic thesis of the new psychological
synthesis is that cognitive mental processes are (perhaps
exhaustively) constituted by the kinds of operations that
such machines perform.

Fodor considers that rationalists are nativists practically
by definition. The main idea of rationalist psychology is
that beliefs, desires, thoughts, and the like have logical
forms, and that their logical forms are among the
determinants of the roles they play in mental process. What
connects rationalist psychologies and the thesis that mental
processes are computations is primarily the idea that the
logical form of a thought might be reconstructed by the
syntax of a mental representation that expresses it. A
rationalist psychology says that typical laws about the mind
specify ways in which the logical form of a mental state
determines its role in mental processes. So a rationalist is
in need of a theory about how a mental process could be
sensitive to the logical form of mental states. Turing's
notion of computation provides exactly what a rationalist
cognitive scientist needs to fill this gap.

In the second chapter, Fodor argues that there are some very
deep problems with viewing cognition as computational, but
these problems emerge primarily in respect of mental
processes that aren't modular. Indeed, Turing's idea that
mental processes are computations (i.e., that they are
syntactically driven), together with Chomsky's idea that
poverty of the stimulus arguments set a lower bound to the
information a mind must have innately, are half of the New
Synthesis. The rest is the "massive modularity" thesis and
the claim that cognitive architecture is a Darwinian

These problems are presented as follows. Mental processes
are sensitive solely to the syntax of mental representations
(because mental processes are computations). Syntactic
properties of mental representations are essential (because
the syntactic properties of any representation are
essential). Conclusion: Mental processes are insensitive to
context dependent properties of mental representation. And
this is where the trouble starts. For it would seem that, as
a matter of fact, this conclusion isn't true. Fodor proposes
some counter-examples: simplicity, abductive inference and

Simplicity is the first example of a context-dependent
property of mental representation to which cognitive
processes are responsive. The complexity of a thought is not
intrinsic; it depends on the context. But the syntax of a
representation is one of its essential properties and so
doesn't change when the representation is transported from
one context to another. So how could the simplicity of a
thought supervene on its syntax, as CTM requires it?

The author argues that abductive inferences could be
computations only at the price of a ruinous holism; that is,
by assuming that the units of thoughts are much bigger than
in fact they could possibly be.

Finally, estimates of which beliefs count for a lot and
which ones count for a little when one is reckoning the
conservativism of a theory change have to be context
sensitive. But the syntactic properties of representations
aren't theory sensitive and can't change with the context.

The third chapter considers some ways in which computational
nativists have tried to evade the limitations mentioned in
chapter 2. Fodor believes that abduction is a terrible
problem for cognitive science, one that is unlikely to be
solved by any kind of theory we have heard of so far.
However, cognitive scientists might hope two kids of
solution. Some psychologists think that even if they are
unable to model the global determination of ideally rational
inference, they can produce heuristic approximations good
enough to account for the cognitive capacities that people
actually have. Other psychologists often prefer a
connectionist model of cognitive architecture, which they
think has no principled difficulty with holistic effects in

The main problem with heuristics is simply that it doesn't
work. This is because reliable abduction may require that
the whole background of epistemic commitments be somehow
brought to bear in planning and belief fixation. But
feasible abduction requires, in practice, that no more than
a small subset of even the relevant background beliefs is
actually considered. How to make abductive inferences that
are both reliable and feasible is what they call in AI the
frame probleme. The failure of AI is considered by the
author as the failure of the Classical CTM to perform well
in practice.

Fodor argues that there is something fundamentally wrong
with connectionist networks. Since nodes in different
networks, or at different positions at the same network, are
ipso facto different types of nodes, it follows that its
position in its network is among a node's essential features
and that nodes can't be "transported" from one network to
another. Thus, network architectures haven't any way to say
that representations can have recurrent parts; for example,
that "John loves Mary" and "Mary loves John" do.

Fodor presents in the fourth chapter what modularity is as
well as what his main problem with it is. The author calls
the idea that most or all of cognition is modular the
"massive modularity" thesis (MM) and considers that the
likelihood of New Synthesis Psychology will turn out to be a
reasonably general theory of the cognitive mind is hostage
to MM. Classical computations are sensitive, at most, to the
local context; and so too are the computations that modular
mechanisms perform. Modular cognition is the kind of
processing of which the Classical computation story is the
most likely to be true.

It is sometime claimed that there are very general,
adaptationist considerations that militate in favour of
massively modular cognitive architecture over domain-general
architectures, or "mixed" ones that acknowledge
computational mechanism of both kinds. According to Cosmides
and Tooby there are three reasons why it's "impossible in
principle" that the human mind consist of nothing but
domain-general mechanisms. The first is that definition of
error is domain-dependent. The second is the poverty of
stimulus. The third reason is that combinatorial explosion
paralyzes any system that is truly domain-general.

Fodor examines each of these three arguments and tells us
why he doesn't consider them convincing. At the end of the
chapter, he presents an argument against Massive Modularity:
The Input Problem (i.e. the problem of identifying
representations in its proprietary domain). Really massive
modularity is a coherent account of cognitive architecture
only if the input problem for each module can be solved by
inferences that aren't abductive (or otherwise holistic);
that is, by domain-specific mechanisms. There isn't,
however, any reason to think that it can.

The New Synthesis is widely commited to the thesis that
"cognitive architecture is an evolutionary adaptation" and
one might wonder how this claim fits with the other two.
That's what the last chapter is about.

Fodor offers a disapproving survey of the main standard
arguments for adaptationism about cognition: consistency,
teleology and complexity. Consistency claims that psychology
should be constrained by the theory of evolution since valid
scientific knowledge - whether from the same or different
field - should be mutually consistent. Teleology argues that
functional explication is essential in the biological
sciences and in cognitive science too. The argument of
complexity says that there is no way except evolutionary
selection for Nature to build a complex mind.

At the end of the chapter, Fodor tells us why he thinks
there is an intrinsic connection between adaptationism and
the particular kind of cognitive nativism that New Synthesis
psychologists endorse.


The book is very small (about 100 pages) but the reading is
far from being easy. There is little in it about linguistics
and much about cognitive sciences. Indeed, it concerns
several fields: psychology, logics, Artificial Intelligence,
linguistics, and even biology, philosophy, etc. I would
consider it as a merit and a defect at the same time. It is
good to have a large view, and most probably even necessary
for Fodor's topics, but it might be quite hard to follow for
people less familiar with cognitive psychology.

I believe that once you understand the points Fodor writes
about, you get also convinced. Abductive inference remains a
problem, not only in Classical CTM but also in the New
Synthesis. This leads us to the author's conclusion that we
don't know much about the mind.

The only point which remains unclear for me in the book is
the following: Why does Fodor think that Plato would have
understood Chomsky well enough, and Turing not at all?


Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. New York: Norton
Plotkin, H. (1997) Evolution in Mind. London: Alan Lane
Tooby, J. and Cosmides, L. (1992) The Adapted Mind. Oxford:
Oxford University Press

About the reviewer: Kornel Bangha prepares a Ph. D. of Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Montreal. His research is about how the process of interpretation of linguistic units in discourse is influenced by lexical knowledge, by context and by knowledge about the world. µ