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Machines Like Us

Jerry Fodor

Jerry Fodor is a philosopher at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and a major proponent of functionalism and opponent of inferential role semantics. According to Fodor, "the basic question in cognitive science is, How could a mechanism be rational? The serious answer to that question is that it could be rational by being a sort of proof-theoretic device, that is, by being a mechanism that has representational capacities – mental states that represent states of the world – and that can operate on these mental states by virtue of its syntactical properties. The basic idea in cognitive science is the idea of proof theory, that is, that you can simulate semantic relations – in particular, semantic relations among thoughts – by syntactical processes." Fodor first defends this idea in his 1975 book The Language of Thought. He also defends a strong version of faculty psychology, according to which the mind consists of informationally encapsulated, ‘low-level’ perceptual modules which feed information to ‘higher-level’ non-modular cognitive processes, in his 1983 book The Modularity of Mind. According to Fodor, only modular cognitive processes can be studied scientifically. He is also an ardent critic of connectionist models of cognitive phenomena, arguing that they cannot account for the rationality of thought. This criticism is bolstered by Fodor’s endorsement of the strict separation of psychology from neuroscience. Fodor believes that the neurological properties of the brain are irrelevant to its cognitive properties. Other books by Fodor include The Mind Doesn't Work that Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind, Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind, and RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science.

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Jerry Fodor Quotes

Sooner or later, political correctness and cognitive science are going to collide. Many tears will be shed and many hands will be wrung in public. Be that as it may; if there is a human nature, and it is to some interesting extent genetically determined, it is folly for humanists to ignore it. We're animals whatever else we are; and what makes an animal well and happy and sane depends a lot on what kind of animal it is.

If you don't know what a can-opener is for, you are going to have trouble figuring out what its parts do. In the case of more complex machines, like for example people, your chance of getting the structure right is effectively nil if you don't know the function.