Wednesday, March 03, 2010

From another link at Leiter's page, again on Fodor. The link is to an MS Word doc. The author's page is here
The interesting issue isn’t whether Fodor is right—he isn’t—but why he should have taken against Darwin so. Some of his arguments suggest an answer. One of the founding principles of Fodor’s computationalist school of cognitive science is its rejection of associationist psychology. Where computationalists like Fodor hold that we are born with innate cognitive programmes, associationists maintain that our brains are shaped by experience of stimulus-reward patterns. Fifty years ago psychology, under the leadership of BF Skinner, did little but study such patterns in pigeons and rats. That is all now history. Young computationalists today are brought up on tales of how Noam Chomsky, Fodor’s longtime colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, slew the associationist dragon once and for all with his demolition of Skinner’s theory of language in 1959.
Fodor wants do to Darwin what Chomsky did to Skinner. At various points in their book, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini point out that there are strong analogies between associationist psychology and Darwinism. Both appeal to mechanisms that favour items that produce favourable effects. So it is arguable, and Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini repeatedly argue it, that if associationist psychology is all wrong then Darwin must be all wrong too.
Chomsky on Skinner, in 1959, and 1971:
A century ago, a voice of British liberalism described the "Chinaman" as "an inferior race of malleable orientals."1 During the same years, anthropology became professionalized as a discipline, "intimately associated with the rise of raciology."2 Presented with the claims of nineteenth-century racist anthropology, a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined. The question of the scientific status of nineteenth-century racist anthropology is no longer seriously at issue, and its social function is not difficult to perceive. If the "Chinaman" is malleable by nature, then what objection can there be to controls exercised by a superior race?

Consider now a generalized version of the pseudo-science of the nineteenth century: it is not merely the heathen Chinese who are malleable by nature, but rather all people. Science has revealed that it is an illusion to speak of "freedom" and "dignity." What a person does is fully determined by his genetic endowment and history of "reinforcement." Therefore we should make use of the best behavioral technology to shape and control behavior in the common interest.
Is he criticizing Skinner's science or only his morality? Science is amoral, that's its weakness and its strength. In a later preface to his 1959 review, linked above
I had intended this review not specifically as a criticism of Skinner's speculations regarding language, but rather as a more general critique of behaviorist (I would now prefer to say "empiricist") speculation as to the nature of higher mental processes.

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