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The Mind Doesn't Work That Way (Representation and Mind Series) [Hardcover]

Jerry Fodor


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1 Sep 2000 Representation and Mind Series
In this engaging book, Jerry Fodor argues against the widely held view that mental processes are largely computations, that the architecture of cognition is massively modular, and that the explanation of our innate mental structure is basically Darwinian. Although Fodor has praised the computational theory of mind as the best theory of cognition that we have got, he considers it to be only a fragment of the truth. In fact, he claims, cognitive scientists do not really know much yet about how the mind works (the book's title refers to Steve Pinker's "How the Mind Works"). Fodor's primary aim is to explore the relationship among computational and modular theories of mind, nativism and evolutionary psychology. Along the way, he explains how Chomsky's version of nativism differs from that of the widely received New Synthesis approach. He concludes that although we have no grounds to suppose that most of the mind is modular, we have no idea how nonmodular cognition could work. Thus, according to Fodor, cognitive science has hardly gotten started.

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Criticism from within always stings more sharply. When one of computational psychology's peppiest cheerleaders questions the enthusiasm of his fellows, we can expect some juicy, if civil, dialogue ahead. Jerry Fodor does just this in The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. Named to answer Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, this short, focused and heavy book calls Pinker and others to task for claiming too much for CP. While acknowledging that it's "by far the best theory of cognition that we've got", he expresses concern about the popularisations--and privately held beliefs--that imply that the strongly nativist computational theory explains, or will explain, our conscious and intentional being in toto. Using scholarly, diplomatic and sometimes hysterically funny language, Fodor demolishes the notion that CP has anything to say about large-scale or global thinking, and casts doubt on its future prospects. Proceeding more scientifically than his scientist colleagues, he proposes that a better theory of mind is looming, and will encompass CP much as relativity encompassed classical mechanics. Encouraging debate on the fundamentals of this increasingly popular theory, especially within the ranks of its adherents, can only be good for the theory and for cognitive science itself. The Mind Doesn't Work That Way follows in the great philosophical tradition of clobbering ideas in order to make them stronger, and provides a great mental workout for the reader. --Rob Lightner

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"The Mind Doesn't Work That Way obliges us to dismiss simplistic assumptions and focus on the hard issues we often hide under the rug. This book is as important as Modularity of Mind was almost twenty years ago." - Jacques Mehler, Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Paris, and International School for Advanced Studies, Trieste --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Over the years, I've written a number of books in praise of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM often hereinafter). Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 3.5 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good-bye evolutionary psych? 14 Jan 2004
By David H Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is an attack by an "insider" on the contemporary disciplines of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.
Fodor does not deny that there are some valid aspects to these two disciplines. Rather, he rejects their extravagant claims to have successfully explained "The Way the Mind Works," to quote the title of a recent book by Steve Pinker, who is one of the leading evangelists for cognitive psychology and evolutionary psych.
Fodor's central complaint against evolutionary psychology is quite simple. Anyone who claims to offer an evolutionary explanation for the wings of birds can start with a great deal of solid knowledge about how bird's wings are in fact constructed, about how wings make flight possible given the laws of aerodynamics, etc.
But no one in fact yet possesses the equivalent information for the brain and the mind.
We do not yet know how the neurons are connected and in what manner they function so as to produce thought. More basically, we do not understand what "mind" really is from the viewpoint of the underlying physics of the brain (see, e.g., David Chalmers' "The Conscious Mind" or Colin McGinn's "The Mysterious Flame").
Fodor also has more specific objections. He is highly concerned with the issue of "abduction," the ability to make global judgments of simplicity, relevance, etc. over a broad intellectual domain. Fodor believes that humans are very good at this, but that the current "modular" approach pursued by cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists cannot explain how humans could be good at this.
I'm not sure human judgment is as powerful as Fodor believes, but he is correct that modular systems have difficulty making broad global judgments.
In his final chapter, Fodor directly addresses the issue of evolution, arguing that, for a feature to be the product of natural selection, it must be built up by a small number of steps. Using the example of the giraffe's neck, he argues, "Make the giraffe's neck just a little longer and you correspondingly increase, by just a little, the animal's ability to reach the fruit at the top of the tree; so it's plausible, to that extent, that selction stretched giraffe's necks bit by bit."
This example is somewhat misleading: there is no reason in principle why a single mutation could not have created huge giraffe necks in one fell swoop and natural selection then stepped in to preserve the mutation.
But Fodor is correct that such a "saltationist" explanation is not available to evolutionary psychology. The plethora of specialized mental modules favored by evolutionary psychologists (a language module, a "cheater detection module," a face-recognition module, a theory-of-mind module, to name only a few) are supposed to be carefully honed adaptations exquisitely polished by natural selection to serve human needs in the "ancestral environment" (the Paleolithic). Just as a complex organ such as the eye could not realistically be created in one single fortuitous mutation, so neither could these complex mental "organs" hypothesized by evolutionary psych.
But why does Fodor reject a gradual, multifaceted evolution of these hypothetical mental "organs"? He does not say, but there is a fairly powerful argument from the human genome project. We only have about 30,000 genes; most of these are shared with lower mammals and many with non-vertebrates and even non-animals. There just are not that many genes left which distinguish us from mice.
A change in a relatively small number of regulatory genes can bring dramatic changes in development -- our much larger brain, for example. But to actually create a number of new specialized "organs," not possessed by mice or cows places much greater demands on the genome. It's doubtful we have enough genes to handle it.
The evolutionary psych response, as made in Pinker's "The Blank Slate," to this argument is in essence that since these mental modules _do_ exist, our genes _must_ be able to produce the modules. That of course assumes what is to be proven, i.e., that the human mind is based on evolutionarily-derived specialized mental modules.
Fodor completely demolishes the claim that the unity of science demands that evolutionary psychology be true. The degree to which the science of evolution is relevant to the science of psychology is, he rightly argues, an empirical matter, just as (to use his example) it is an empirical matter whether "the theory of lunar geography constrains the theory of cellular mitosis." Not every science has to be relevant to every other science.
Fodor also shreds what he calls "neo-Darwinist anti-intellectualism," the view (he is quoting from Patricia Churchland) that "looked at from an evolutionary point of view, the principal function of nervous systems is to get the body parts where they should be in order that the organism may survive...Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost."
Fodor counters that for humans "a cognitive system that is specialized for the fixation of true beliefs interacts with a conative system that is specialized to figure out how to get what one wants from the world that the beliefs are true of..." or, in simple English, humans engage in "rational actions predicated on true beliefs."
We are designed to pursue both truth and our own well-being -- there is no contradiction here. Not action instead of truth, but action based on truth.
Despite the brief length and Fodor's engaging style, this book is not easy reading. But it does raise questions which, if not adequately answered by Fodor's opponents, cast grave doubts on the grandiose claims of contemporary apostles of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ANOTHER EXCELLENT FODOR BOOK 24 Jan 2002
By The philosopher - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Fodor is one of our greatest living philosophers. He has laid out groundbreaking theories on the philosophy of mind and language. This book is a bit of a departure, in that he is less interested in theory-building than in theory-destruction. You might think that the result would be rather dreary -- who wants to hear someone harping on other people's mistakes all of the time? -- but in fact the book is very engaging.
Fodor argues that while "computational" models of the mind (roughly, theories that the mind is just a computer) may be able to explain how the mind's modules work, they fail to explain how the mind's central processor works. (If the theory of modules and central processors is unfamiliar to you, then you MUST first read Fodor's excellent book "The Modularity of Mind" in order to understand "The Mind Doesn't Work That Way.") The primary problem, as Fodor sees it, is that central processors are general-problem solvers (or, more accurately, general-interest learners). They work with large databases of beliefs and are bombarded by immense amounts of information. If the mind were like a computer, it would experience the problem of "combinatorial explosion" as it tried to analyze all of this information, that problem being that with so many sentences in the language of thought, there would be far too many calculations to perform over these sentences in anything like a reasonable amount of time. Put another way, if you think your computer is slow loading Windows 2000, just wait until it had to load and analyze the entire database of a person's beliefs AND chew gum at the same time.
Although the problem of combinatorial explosion is the driving problem in the book, Fodor addresses many other interesting topics in his typically witty and insightful way. He gives glancing blows to connectionism, Darwinian approaches to psychology, the theory of heuristics, and more.
As always, Fodor presents many forceful and ingenious arguments, and even when I disagree with him (as I often do), I always walk away from his books understanding difficult issues more clearly and having a profound respect for his penetrating intellect.
This book is not a good introduction to Fodor's work or to philosophy of mind, but for those with some grasp of both, I highly recommend "The Mind Doesn't Work That Way." If only he had come up with a better title....
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fodor has the guts to take on... Fodor 10 Nov 2003
By N N Taleb - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This critique of the computational theory of mind and the pan-adaptionist tradition is clearly so honest that it goes after the ideas promoted by Fodor's own 1983 watershed book "The Modularity of Mind". In brief the essay is an attack on massive modularity by saying that there are things after all that escape the programming (encapsulation and opacity are key: how can we talk about something OPAQUE? We know nothing about a few critical things...).
Granted the book is horribly written (that is Fodor's charm after all) but his argumentation is so ferocious that he ends up loud & clear.
The man is critical of his own ideas, and of the current in thought that he he helped create --one may use Fodor-1 against Fodor-2. Perhaps persons I hold in highest respect are those who go after their own ideas!
Bravo Fodor. Even if I do not agree I can't help admiring the man.
14 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great book---review of the fodorian worldview 1 Nov 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great opportunity to catch up on the way Fodor figures things work. He provides a simplified, only sometimes-snarky, review of his key committments, as previously laid out in a daunting series of brief and difficult books.
What's more, it's a chance to see where the hard problems are, and why Pinker et al. are a bit drunk on recent gains.
12 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Inelegant language for a compelling topic 7 Nov 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In general, I find the question of how cognition happens to be a compelling one. Asking how we learn, remember, know, and use information is akin to asking what it means to be human, what it means to be conscious. Unfortunately, the language used in this book hides the elegance of the arguments cognitive scientists have thus far put forth. Generally, I found Fodor's language to be unnecessarily flowery and complex. As an example, after reading 20 pages of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2, I found that the author used an average of 1.4 Latin phrases per page - many of them fairly esoteric. In my opinion, this excessively complex writing style occludes the important points of the text, rendering them much less powerful. I would refer readers to articles in "A Companion to Cognitive Science," to writings by Keith Holyoak and Arthur Markman, and to Douglas Hofstadter and Melanie Mitchell's work for much more compelling and elegant versions of the arguments presented in "The Mind Doesn't Work That Way."
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