Literature/1998/Fodor J

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Fodor, Jerry (1998). The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism." London Review of Books. Vol. 20 No. 2 (22 January 1998) pp. 11-13.

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  • Pinker and Plotkin are reporting a minority consensus. Most cognitive scientists still work in a tradition of empiricism and associationism whose main tenets haven't changed much since Locke and Hume. The human mind is a blank slate at birth. Experience writes on the slate, and association extracts and extrapolates whatever trends there are in the record that experience leaves. The structure of the mind is thus an image, made a posteriori, of the statistical regularities in the world in which it finds itself. I would guess that quite a substantial majority of cognitive scientists believe something of this sort; so deeply, indeed, that many hardly notice that they do.
  • Pinker and Plotkin, by contrast, epitomise a rationalist revival that started about forty years ago with Chomsky's work on the syntax of natural languages and that is by now sufficiently robust to offer a serious alternative to the empiricist tradition. Like Pinker and Plotkin, I think the New Rationalism is the best story about the mind that science has found to tell so far. But I think their version of that story is tendentious, indeed importantly flawed. And I think the cheerful tone that they tell it in is quite unwarranted by the amount of progress that has actually been made. Our best scientific theory about the mind is better than empiricism; but, in all sorts of ways, it's still not very good. Pinker quotes Chomsky's remark the 'ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries' and continues: 'I wrote this book because dozens of mysteries of the mind, from mental images to romantic love, have recently been upgraded to problems (though there are still some mysteries too!)' Well, cheerfulness sells books, but Ecclesiastes got it right: 'the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.'

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