An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2006

How the mind works: what we still don’t know

Jerry Fodor
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Jerry Fodor is State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of several publications in philosophy and cognitive science, including “Modularity of Mind” (1983), “A Theory of Content and Other Essays” (1990), and “The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology” (2000).

One could make a case that the history of cognitive science, insofar as it’s been any sort of success, has consisted largely of finding more and more things about cognition that we didn’t know and didn’t know that we didn’t. ‘Throwing some light on how much dark there is,’ as I’ve put it elsewhere. The professional cognitive scientist has a lot of perplexity to endure, but he can be pretty sure that he’s gotten in on the ground floor.

For example, we don’t know what makes some cognitive states conscious. (Indeed, we don’t know what makes any mental state, cognitive or otherwise, conscious, or why any mental state, cognitive or otherwise, bothers with being conscious.) Also, we don’t know much about how cognitive states and processes are implemented by neural states and processes. We don’t even know whether they are (though many of us are prepared to assume so faut de mieux). And we don’t know how cognition develops (if it does) or how it evolved (if it did), and so forth, very extensively. In fact, we have every reason to expect that there are many things about cognition that we don’t even know that we don’t know, such is our benighted condition. In what follows, I will describe briefly how the notions of mental process and mental representation have developed over the last fifty years or so in cognitive science (or ‘cogsci’ for short): where we started, where we are now, and what aspects of our current views are most likely to be in need of serious alteration. My opinions sometimes differ from the mainstream, and where they do, I will stress that fact; those are, no doubt, the parts of my sketch that are least likely to be true.

The 1950s ‘paradigm shift’ in theories of the cognitive mind, initiated largely by Noam Chomsky’s famous review of B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, is usually described in terms of a conflict between ‘behaviorism’ and ‘mentalism,’ from which the latter emerged victorious. Behaviorists thought something was methodologically or ontologically controversial about the claim that we (and, presumably, other advanced kinds of primates) often do the things we do because we believe and desire the things we do. Chomsky’s reply was, in essence, ‘Don’t be silly. Our behavior is characteristically caused by our mental states; therefore, a serious psychology must be a theory about what mental states exist and what roles they play in causing our behavior. You put gas in the tank because you believe that, if you don’t, the car will grind to a stop, and you don’t want the car to do so. How could anyone sane believe otherwise?’ . . .

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