International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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MONDAY, JULY 6  /  19:00 - 20:30  /  Salle Marie Gérin-Lajoie
Two ways of thinking about modularity

Lucas Matthews (University of Utah, United States); Kenneth Blake Vernon (University of Utah, United States)

The concept of ‘modularity’ plays distinctly important roles in both philosophy and science. Philosophers of mind, for example, theorize about ‘Fodorian’ mental modules in efforts to explain conceptual challenges of human cognition while cognitive scientists invoke a similar sense of ‘Darwinian’ massive modularity (Fodor 1978, Machery 2007, and Robbins 2009). These two kinds of mental modules capture a distinct sense of cognitive modularity, accompanied by a refined set of features and properties, such as information encapsulation, operational manditoriness, superficiality, and domain specificity. On the other hand, however, biologists refer to at least three distinct kinds of modularity: structural, developmental, and functional (Schank and Wimsatt 2001; and Winther 2001). This sense of biological modularity is typically caste in efforts to solve the problem of evolvability (i.e., the evolution of highly complex biological systems) and accompanies a different set of properties (e.g., quasi-independence and continuity), applications (i.e., physiology and developmental biology), and empirical identificatory criteria (e.g., differential genetic specification, connectivity, repetition, and conservation). What is the relation between these two distinct ways of thinking about modularity? At first glance these dissonant concepts appear incompatible. In this poster presentation, however, we tease apart the key philosophical similarities and differences between biological modularity and cognitive modularity to make a case for two claims. On the one hand, we argue, there is an important sense in which most cognitive modules are merely a subset of functional biological modules (of the functional kind). On the other hand, however, we emphasize that cognitive modules exhibit unique properties related to information-processing that have no analogue in biological modularity and may be indispensable to theorizing about human cognition. The upshot of our analysis is motivation to revisit the concept of modularity with an eye for its explanatory value in both philosophy and biology.