Modularity and the Self



Modularity and the Self



We don’t always speak with one voice. We disagree with ourselves. The senses may say one thing while we say another. The classic case is visual illusion: the visual system may represent the world in a certain way, but reason says otherwise. The encapsulated visual module delivers an output that the central cognitive system contradicts.[1]There is internal dissent, discord in the ranks. One part of us says one thing while another part denies it. This can be global as well as local. Suppose someone arrives at the conclusion, on philosophical and scientific grounds, that ordinary material objects are neither solid nor colored: no matter how strongly held, this conviction will not alter how things visually seem. So the disagreement will persist indefinitely: the subject will disagree with his own senses. The same is true even for the belief that one is a brain in a vat seeing nothing: perception will keep on representing the world as if the subject were surrounded by objects of a familiar type. Perception is oblivious and impervious. If we think of perceptual outputs as assertive acts, then the visual system is saying “objects are solid and colored” or “I am really seeing external objects”, while the forces of reason are asserting the contrary. It is not common usage to report the senses as believing what they represent, but there is certainly something belief-likeabout what they do—they are committedto a certain view of things. They are not merely suppositional, as the imagination is; they make definite claims—as that objects are solid and colored and are really there. To say, “My visual sense believes that the two lines are unequal” while in the grip of the Muller-Lyer illusion is not wide of the mark—maybe it is even true unconsciously. Imay not be conscious of this belief, but my visual system might hold to it; in any case, it doesn’t seriously misrepresent the facts to say so. We might then describe the situation as follows: the senses believe that pbut reason (the central system) believes that not-p. Intrapersonal disagreement mirrors interpersonal disagreement. Cognitively speaking, we are at war with ourselves. The senses can’t bring us round to their point of view, but neither can we get them to accept ours. There is a split in our world-view: that is, our cognitive modules are not aligned.[2]

I put the point this way in order to accentuate a question, namely: Where is the self in all this? So far I have spoken of one module thinking one thing and another module thinking another, but this is not how we speak. I say, “My senses think (assert, believe, represent) that the lines are unequal, but Ithink they are equal”. So I seem to be supposing that one of my modules is more closely aligned with my self than the other: I merely havesenses, but I amwhatever it is that issues considered judgments. So my senses think one thing while I (my self) think another. The picture is that there is a supervisory self that evaluates what its several modules assert. And Ican reject what theyassert. They are something other than me, but I am not. Given that reason is what makes such judgments possible, it looks as if I am identical to reason: reason is what I refer to when I say “I”—not the senses. I might say, “My senses are misleading me badly” but not, “My reason is misleading me badly”—for that would be equivalent to saying that Iam misleading me badly. The senses are behaving like other people in relation to me, but I could not behave like another person in relation to me. At any rate, that is how we appear to conceive of ourselves: we privilege one module (faculty, capacity) over another in these internal disagreements, aligning it more closely with the self (maybe even identifying the two).

But what is the rationale for this? Why this aristocracy of reason? What if we inverted the privilege, asserting that I think the lines are unequal while my reason thinks they are equal? What if I preferred to link “I” to the senses not the intellect? What if I thought the soul resides in the senses not in the rational faculties?  We do have the locution, “I see the lines as unequal” as well as, “My visual sense tells me the lines are unequal”; so it might seem arbitrary to assign seeing to sense organs and thinking to the self, instead of assigning thinking to the rational faculty and seeing to the self. What if we simply adopted an organ theory of psychological ontology in which the self is no sort of additional entity? The sense organs give one sort of informational output while the central system gives another sort, with neither assigned preferentially to the self? The two organs disagree, but there is no selfthat takes sides in the disagreement: it is just reason versus sense, with no self in view. If we keep the word “I” in the picture, it seems that it can apply both to the senses and to reason—as in, “My reason tells me that not-pbut I see that p”. Why exactly do we talk as if I think but my eyes see? Descartes doesn’t say, “My reason thinks, therefore it exists”; and there is a long tradition of regarding reason as constitutive of the self. But it seems okay to say that my eyes (and brain) do the seeing—Isee only derivatively. This is why we so readily say that our eyes are deceiving us, but not that our reason is. The organ of sense is intuitively not a candidate for identity with oneself, while the organ of thought is. The central system is closer to methan the peripheral systems. Or so we tend to suppose. But why is this?

I raise this question in a spirit of puzzlement. A no-self theory removes the puzzle because there isno self to attach to a given mental organ—there are just ways of talking using “I”. It is not that reason is identical to the self and the other organs of mind lie outside the boundaries of the self (its little helpers, as it were); there is just the faculty of reason coexisting with the other faculties of the mind. The mind is a federation not a monarchy. But that is a drastic position, and one that flies in the face of common sense (but not to be dogmatically dismissed). The weaker position is that there is no difference between sense and reason in respect of the self—the self belongs to each equally. This too is a bit of a strain: we really do think that our senses tell us things and that we may or may not heed them. We listen to our senses, but we don’t regard them asus. The central system of belief formation is what does the listening; it is where Iam. If there were no such system, there would be no I: but you can lose your senses and still exist. The problem is that internal disagreement puts a wedge between one part of the mind and another part, and the self has to fall on one or the other side of this divide; but why it falls as it intuitively does remains obscure (hence the appeal of the no-self position). My senses relate to me as other people relate to me—as sources of information with which I may disagree—so they are regarded as distinct from me. But it is harder to think of reason that way: it is not like an external informant with whom I can sensibly dispute. For what could that be if not my faculty of reason itself? And a bare transcendent self has no opinions with which to contradict other opinions. So the self aligns itself with reason as against sense—a very Cartesian position.[3]Yet the matter remains obscure.


[1]I am assuming Fodor’s position in Modularity of Mind(1983).

[2]The case of dreams is peculiar: dream content can certainly contradict what we believe when not dreaming, but it isn’t like perceptual illusion. It isn’t cut off from what we think in the way the senses are. It lies midway between sense and reason (rational thought). We might describe it as “semi-encapsulated”. Memory and the unconscious raise similar issues.

[3]The Cartesian might claim that thought essentially links to the immaterial ego while perception links to material sense organs; thisis why we talk as we do. That would be a kind of metaphysical reification of what must have a less startling explanation. And we know that “I” is a very funny word.

10 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Is the distinction here between active and passive? Is it reasonable to consider thinking as a motor function? We associate more with our actions than our senses.

    Is the act of sensing different from the senses themselves? I am looking – but the senses that are used in this act may not really be me. (I kick, but my leg is not really me.)

    With thinking it is hard to distinguish the organ that is the agent from that which is implementing the action. I’ll note that many forms of meditation are predicated upon the claim one can non-conceptually observe thoughts arise as if they are not you. (This is difficult to achieve without practice, as thoughts can very quickly fuse with the non-conceptual observer and take the ‘I’ on a ride.)

    And then there is memory: I am remembering, but is the memory really mine?

    I can’t help coming back to the process of reification (which our conceptual minds seem trapped in). The self is maybe the reification of the process of reification itself.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      I intend, but my body contributes to the act, and may contradict my intention if there is a malfunction. Believing (unlike thinking) is not an act, though it also seems to belong to the self.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Yes, the active/pssive distinction probably isn’t helpful here. It does seem that the self vs non-self distinction is an operation ie a construct (of some cognitive faculty); and the line can be redrawn in an instant. From ‘this feeling is mine’ to ‘this feeling is trying to influence me’ (from ‘I am hungry’ to ‘these are hunger pangs I might want to resist’; from ‘I believe in God’ to ‘this belief in God is a meme I learnt as a child’’). The cut involves a moment of self-awareness – though I am not sure if self-awareness is just a byproduct of this process (or a label we give to the experience of the cut), or if self-awareness is the function of some seperate mental organ that enables or activates this reification process that creates the self vs non-self cut.

  3. says:

    There’s a good deal in what your’e asking, Giulio. I would earnestly entreat you to look up the works of Thomas Metzinger—a contemporary German philosopher who in some respects, the more important respects, reminds one of Husserl. I’ve recommended Metzinger to our worthy host before, but he’s too damn stubborn to take a look at him. (All in good fun).

  4. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Is the self arbitrary? I was only suggesting it is not completely fixed as a referent.

    One view could be that the self-other distinction involves drawing a boundary that creates an inside-outside distinction (and possibly associated internalisation/externalisation processes), and that this boundary can be redrawn (to some extent). We can ask whether some things always need to be inside that boundary, and then define a core self as those minimal set of things.

    But this line of thinking assumes these ‘things’ that would comprise a core self exist independently of the boundary drawing operation (i.e. are prior to it). But maybe that is wrong – perhaps the core self are a set of processes that only come into being via the boundary creation.

    We feel some core observer or capacity for self-awareness and for knowing is always there when conscious. Does this exist independently of drawing a self-other distinction?

    I suspect something must exist, but it only becomes an observing self when a boundary is drawn. (As an analogy: a specific solution to a differential equation only exists once its boundary conditions are imposed.)

  5. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I have heard Metzinger interviewed on Sam Harris’ podcast, but am still to read one of his books. (His book Ego Tunnel is sitting there on my Kindle, behind a line of other unread books…)


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