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Reconstructing Reason and RepresentationReview - Reconstructing Reason and Representation
by Murray Clarke
MIT Press, 2004
Review by Harry Witzthum, Ph.D.
Aug 17th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 33)

Chances are that you might have heard or read something lately about evolutionary psychology. This still very young discipline has given rise to a booming research industry which regularly makes news headlines even in the non-scientific press. The goal of evolutionary psychology, as with any brand of psychology, is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. But fuse psychology with evolution as evolutionary psychologists do, and you will have a major controversy at your hand. But why is this?

According to evolutionary psychologists, taking evolutionary theory seriously will lead to a major reframing of how we should think about our human mind. Whereas traditional cognitive scientists assume that the human mind is mainly driven by generalized cognitive abilities which are basically jack-of-all-trades and applicable to all knowledge domains, evolutionary psychologists on the contrary assume that our minds are largely composed of vast arrays of cognitive modules, i.e. cognitive capacities that are specialized and dedicated to solve very limited problems and nothing else besides. A much better theoretical model to capture the human mind than the general-problem solvers of early artificial intelligence researchers therefore is the Swiss Army knife. However, contrary to the Swiss Army knife, the human mind did not have an intelligent designer -- the structure of our mind is completely due to blind evolutionary forces. Natural processes which took thousand of years of mutation and selection crafted its highly complex design. This is why the popular evolutionary psychologists' saying has it that our anatomically modern bodies house a mind well adapted by natural selection to an ancient environment (the Pleistocene). No wonder that «traditional» cognitive scientists have raised criticisms against such a profane view of the origins of our mind.

In Reconstructing Reason and Representation, Murray Clark attempts to do two things. First, he wants to clarify and evaluate the empirical and conceptual credentials of evolutionary psychology.  Second, he wants to assess the implications of evolutionary psychology for some issues in epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind (p. 1). As Clark correctly points out, this is not an easy task given that evolutionary psychology is still in its infancy and that there is no consensus among evolutionary psychologists themselves as to the central theories or methods of their discipline. To circumvent many of these problems, Clark decides to focus on the work of the discipline's best-known advocates, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.

Clark's basic theoretical postulate is "that we ought to allow epistemology to go modular and view knowledge as a set of natural kinds housed in a massively modular mind. That is, knowledge is not a univocal concept to be clarified by a priori analysis but an empirically discovered phenomenon, like water, to be elucidated using the results of science and made consistent with other scientific results." (p. 1-2). He wishes to propose nothing more but also nothing less than a new approach to naturalized epistemology updated by results derived from evolutionary psychology. The list of topics Clark touches on his way is impressive:

Chapter 1 attempts to clarify and systematize ideas about the massive modular mind derived by Cosmides and Tooby's work. Chapter 2 takes up foundational worries that Jerry Fodor has recently voiced against the whole massive modularity project, and tries to show moreover that these are unfounded. In particular, Fodor has argued that evolutionary psychology cannot accommodate global, abductive inference within the context of local, computational processes as realized in cognitive modules. Clark wants to show that Fodor has misrepresented evolutionary psychology and thus has argued against a straw man all along. Chapter 3 attempts to work out an account of misrepresentation based on a modular mind that is capable of solving the disjunction problem of misrepresentation in accounts of naturalized epistemology. Chapter 4 then attempts to show that reliable processes have been selected for because of their indirect connection to true belief during the Pleistocene period of our ancestral history; this argument is aimed particularly at Steven Stich's argument against reliable inferential systems. In chapter 5, Clark then argues for a version of naturalized epistemology that is based on reliabilist and externalist conceptions of epistemic justification and knowledge, and defends it against general philosophical criticism against the project of naturalization. Finally, in chapter 6 Clark directly moves to a defense of his postulations that knowledge is a set of natural kinds, that it should be studied empirically and not just by an a priori appeal to reason alone.

The list is impressive, but is the book up to its ambitious project? There is no question about the need of detailed studies to assess the philosophic implications of evolutionary psychology. Most studies to date have concentrated on several and detailed aspects of evolutionary psychology, but very few investigations have concentrated on drawing out the implications of this research framework in any systematic way. Given the need of investigations to assess the implications of evolutionary psychology, it is unfortunate that Reconstructing Reason and Representation does not deliver what it promises. Many chapters in the book fall short on their aims because the arguments developed therein are not as effective as they should be against worries put up against evolutionary psychology. I do not have the space here to go into details, but will highlight just one shortcoming.

In chapter 2, Clark takes on Fodor's arguments against evolutionary psychology. In them Fodor argues that there is a serious problem every modular mind will face, namely the so-called "input problem": how does the modular mind know where to send incoming information? How does the modular mind manage to assign specific information to the proper cognitive module? There are, so it seems, only two possible ways to do it. Either there is a single mechanism that takes representations at large as its input domain and assigns some representations to one cognitive module and others to other modules -- in which case this mechanism would have to be less modular than the cognitive modules it has to serve (but that option is ruled out by someone advocating a massively modular mind). Or there are specific mechanisms with distinct input information, one of which (M1) assigns its input information to one cognitive module (C1) and the other of which (M2) assigns its different input information to a different cognitive module (C2). But this option would not help either since it faces a regress. The question would come up again as to the nature of the mechanism assigning representations to either (M1) or (M2): is it a single general mechanism or are there different mechanisms, etc. Now Clark's solution to the input problem simply reads, "If there is a cheater detection module, then thought, conscious or not, is not required, because the module is triggered automatically by the contextual cues in the environment." (p. 25)

However, this will not do as a solution since the input problem is precisely not about thought, conscious or not. The problem is generated because there are no reliable perceptual cues marking out each of the various specific domains to the corresponding proper modules (such as cheater detection).  Fodor's guess is that in the case of cheater detection such assigning mechanisms will inevitably have to involve judgments that draw on the whole resource of the mind (and thus they will be general). The contextual cues of social exchange situations such as cheating need intelligent interpretation; a kind of interpretation modules would not be able to deliver based solely on their limited access to information within the mind.

As the cited sentence makes clear, Clark does not even address the central issues of Fodor's input problem. Sadly, many passages in the book show similar shortcomings in its arguments against prominent skeptics of evolutionary psychology or naturalized epistemology generally. However, this notwithstanding, Clark's book has lots of merits and is worthwhile to read. Reconstructing Reason and Representation is the first book to systematically address philosophic implications of evolutionary psychology by explicitly connecting issues in evolutionary psychology with traditional problems in epistemology. There is a great deal to learn from its discussion, and the book has definitely set the agenda for future work to come. But it also shares some of the weaknesses of first attempts -- future investigations will have to take up the challenge and lead it to better results. 

   

 

© 2005 Harry Witzthum

 

Harry Witzthum, Ph.D. did his doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield (UK). His research interests comprise the philosophy of mind and psychology, philosophy of language, and cognitive science.  He currently lives in Switzerland.


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