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Modularity and Mind
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I guess sometimes I get tired of debates about science in which each side states their side in bold terms, throws up a straw man to represent the other side, before finally hedging their bets and actually claiming some sort of middle ground.

The old "nature vs. nurture" debate is probably the grand-daddy of them all. But this just came up with the Penn et al. paper about whether or not the cognitive ability of non-human animals and humans falls along a continuum or exhibits discontinuity. Gradualism vs. punctuated evolution is another. Reductionism vs. holism.

And then of course there is the modular vs. non-modular view of the brain. Via Deric Bownd, here's an article by Michael Shermer called The Brain Is Not Modular: What fMRI Really Tells Us. Here's a bit:


Science traffics in metaphors because our brains evolved to grasp intuitively a world far simpler than the counterintuitive world that science has only recently revealed. The functional activity of the brain, for example, is nearly as invisible to us as the atom, and so we employ metaphors. Over the centuries the brain has been compared to a hydraulic ma­chine (18th century), a mechanical calculator (19th century) and an electronic computer (20th century). Today a popular metaphor is that the brain is like a Swiss Army knife, with specialized modules for vision, language, facial recognition, cheating detection, risk taking, spi­rit­uality and even God.


In general Shermer is right about the misapplication of metaphor, but I tripped up on the bit where he mentions "a specialized module for vision" and then goes on in the article to talk about how it's a silly idea. There's a little thing called the visual cortex, located at the back of your skull, that incrementally processes visual information and passes information up the cortical hierarchy for integration with information from other modalities such as auditory input. So isn't V1, the primary visual cortex, an example of a module?

So then we get this quote from Patricia Churchland:


University of California, San Diego, philosopher of the mind Patricia S. Churchland told me with unabashed skepticism: “Mental modules are complete nonsense. There are no modules that are encapsulated and just send information into a central processor. There are areas of specialization, yes, and networks maybe, but these are not always dedicated to a particular task.” Instead of mental module metaphors, let us use neural networks.


Okay, so Shermer's "module" is some completely isolated processing unit that communicates directly with some kind of CPU. Remember that strawman I was talking about earlier? So Churchland says there are "areas of specialization".

"Tomato", "tomahto", "module", "area of specialization". Let's call the whole thing off.


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