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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 114-117 ( 18 March )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/harris.html

Book Review

The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology
by Jerry Fodor
Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000

Reviewed by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D., Department of Behavioral Health, San Bernardino, CA, USA.

For those who have not closely followed the intricacies of such seemingly arcane matters, the issues that Fodor takes up in this book might seem generally incomprehensible, or at best no more than a tempest in a teapot. But this would be a false impression. Questions of modularity, nativism, and the role(s) of language as applied to human consciousness are fundamental; those interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive psychology, and artificial intelligence will all find much to fascinate (and perhaps annoy) them in this book.

The aims of this small but thorny book are fairly clearly stated, though not necessarily or readily comprehended by the lay reader. (And it is the lay reader for whom Fodor produced this book.) First, Fodor wants to show that nativism (via Chomsky) is not compatible with, and cannot be incorporated into, the theories of evolutionary psychologists. He also wants to show that we are still a long, long, long way from understanding how the mind works, in spite of the aspirations and hopes of evolutionary psychology (EP). He wants to show how the computational approach to a theory of mind (TOM) has merit but falls far short of being a complete picture. And finally, he wants to demonstrate, often using logic alone, that massive modularity must be wrong.

Fodor’s career as a philosopher has largely focused on issues of language, meaning, and mind. He has taken on issues such as modularity, as well as fellow philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and cognitive scientists such as Steven Pinker, and has developed what he has termed the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). This current volume is a follow-up to a previous book1, and like that book is based on a series of public lectures.2

The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way is a clear if tongue-in-cheek answer to the title of Steven Pinker’s hefty tome, How the Mind Works (1997). Fodor also makes numerous references to the work of Henry Plotkin (i.e., Evolution in Mind, 1997). Fodor intends in this book to put in proper perspective several areas in which he believes evolutionary psychologists have become confused and have strayed woefully off-track. (This desire to set the record straight, so to speak, is even more abundantly clear in Fodor’s published review of recent books by Pinker and Plotkin.3)

Fodor initiates the central skirmish of this book by tracing a dividing line between Chomsky’s nativism and the so-called New Synthesis Psychology, of which Steven Pinker and Henry Plotkin are pioneers. According to Fodor’s views, whereas Chomsky based his ideas about the innate nature of language in epistemology, the New Synthesis approaches language from a cognitive and computational direction and attempts to connect language to the ideas of evolutionary psychology in order to establish a global theory of human nature.

Fodor objects to both the associationist and Darwinian approaches to the understanding of mind. He postulates that there is no reason to believe that mind (i.e., cognitive processes plus consciousness) is the product of natural selection. Instead, some degree of saltation (a process of sudden development of a new property) must be included in the history of the evolution of the human mind, he claims. “Darwinism can work only if (only where) there is some organic parameter the small, incremental variation of which produces correspondingly small, incremental variations of fitness” (p. 89).

As Fodor noted later in the London Review of Books article4, “Both Pinker and Plotkin think the mind is mostly made of modules; that's the massive modularity thesis in a nutshell.” And it is this massive modularity to which Fodor most strenuously objects.

While the first of the five chapters explains Chomsky’s nativism and compares it to what he calls the New Synthesis (see above), the second chapter handles some fairly complex ideas about the limitations of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM). Referring to our so-far unsuccessful attempts to produce artificially intelligent computers, Fodor asserts that “[t]he failure of our AI is, in effect, the failure of the Classical Computational Theory of Mind to perform well in practice” (p. 38).

Chapter Three demonstrates the centrality of the process of abduction to Fodor’s theses (which at this point in the book are yet to come). “As for me,” Fodor explains, “I’m inclined to think that Chicken Little got it right. Abduction really is a terrible problem for cognitive science, one that is unlikely to be solved by any kind of theory we have heard so far” (p. 41).

Abduction5 is a semiotics/logic term that refers to a specific method of reasoning in which one attempts to infer the best explanation possible with the limited information given. The term was first used by Charles Sanders Peirce6 around the turn of the last century. In its most basic form, abduction is the process of seeking explanatory hypotheses for what we observe in the world around us.7 However, “human cognition makes do with rather less than optimal rationality” (p. 42). The mind does not typically use formal logic to generate and process hypotheses, but generates reasonable hunches via heuristics and (largely unconscious) references to experience and knowledge.

In the next chapter Fodor gets down to business. He begins by suggesting that the book’s task to this point was to establish several points: that the mind does not work by Classical computation processes; and that the degree to which the mind is modular rests in large part on whether abduction is as serious a problem as he thinks it is. He claims that the New Synthesis in psychology (as per the work of Pinker and Plotkin) depends on the legitimacy of massive modularity (MM). “But (so I’ll argue) there are good reasons to doubt that MM is true: Taken literally, it verges on incoherence. Taken liberally, it lacks empirical plausibility” (p. 55).

The arguments that make up the body of this chapter will challenge the casual reader, and I will not attempt to explicate them here. The bottom line is that Fodor argues that MM cannot survive unless the problem of abduction is addressed. “By all the signs, the cognitive mind is up to its ghostly ears in abduction. And we do not know how abduction works. So we do not know how the cognitive mind works; all we know anything much about is modules” (p. 78).

The final chapter constitutes Fodor’s direct assault on some of the central tenets of evolutionary psychology. “[N]one of the usual New Synthesis arguments for adaptationism about cognition is remotely convincing” (p. 79). Fodor claims that if cognitive inferences (processes) are largely abductive, which they seem to be, then massive modularity (a central claim of the New Synthesis) is simply unsupportable.

He also offers and attempts to counter three “bad arguments” for evolutionary psychology. The first “bad argument” is that human psychology must be consistent with other branches of science, more specifically biology. For example, because evolutionary theory has been so successful in biology, the “New Synthesists” assume that “cognitive architecture should be a Darwinian adaptation” (p. 83). This assumption is not justified, Fodor asserts.

The second “bad argument” circles about the idea of teleology. In biology, physiological characteristics are in general presumed to be functional-they have a purpose. Fodor’s example is that the heart functions to pump blood. If an organ did not serve a purpose, it would have been selected out by the relentless forces of the evolutionary process. However, Fodor argues, whereas evolutionary psychology looks outside the mind in order to address teleological constraints, physiologists do not need to: “Harvey didn’t have to look outside physiology to explain what the heart is for” (p. 86). Further, function is obvious even without Darwinian explanations in non-psychological arenas. “[T]he first guy to figure out what birds use their wings for lived in a cave” (p. 86).

The last “bad argument” identified by Fodor refers to the tendency of evolutionary psychologists to claim that because of its complexity, Darwinian natural selection is necessary to explain or account for the mind. According to Fodor, “[T]he complexity of our minds, or of our behavior, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether our cognitive architecture evolved under selection pressure” (p. 87).

At the end of this book the general reader might wonder again about the usefulness of Fodor’s sometimes elusive but always forcefully enunciated positions. But as noted in the first paragraph of this review, this work is more important than it might at seem at a casual thumbing-through, and deserves a careful reading even from - especially from - adherents and students of evolutionary psychology. Fodor’s challenges to EP should be taken seriously, and where relevant should be answered directly. For example, is massive modularity really central to evolutionary psychology? Is gradualism really necessary to support the hypothesis that mental processes, emotions, and human behavioral tendencies evolved via natural selection? Readers of this book will come away with a better grasp of the issues involved.


1. The Elm and the Expert was based on lectures delivered by Fodor in Paris in the spring of 1993 as the flagship presentations for the Jean Nicod Lecture series. The Jean-Nicod Lecture Series is arranged by Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and occurs in Paris. This series serves as an important forum for philosophers and scientists who deal with cognitive issues. Recent presenters have included John Perry, John Searle and, in 2001, Daniel Dennett.

2. As Fodor explains in the acknowledgements to this book, “In its first incarnation, this book was a series of three lectures presented in the summer of 1997 to the Facolta di Psicologia, Università San Raffaele.”

3.The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism,” published in the London Review of Books, 15 Jan 98.

4. London Review of Books, 15 Jan 98.

5. A variety of definitions and discussions of abduction can currently be found at http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/itc_data/abduction.html.

6. Many of Peirce’s writing are currently available online at http://www.peirce.org/

7. Abduction is generative but not always appropriately so. An example of logically faulty but seemingly common abductive reasoning might go like this:

1. All crows in Londonderry are black.
2. These crows are black.
3. Therefore, these crows are from Londonderry.

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© Keith S. Harris.


Harris, K. S. (2002). Review of The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology by Jerry Fodor. Human Nature Review. 2: 114-117.

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