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Thursday, April 29, 2021

Why evolutionary psychology should abandon modularity

Pietraszewski, D., & Wertz, A. E. 
(2021, March 29).


A debate surrounding modularity—the notion that the mind may be exclusively composed of distinct systems or modules—has held philosophers and psychologists captive for nearly forty years. Concern about this thesis—which has come to be known as the massive modularity debate—serves as the primary grounds for skepticism of evolutionary psychology’s claims about the mind. Here we will suggest that the entirety of this debate, and the very notion of massive modularity itself, is ill-posed and confused. In particular, it is based on a confusion about the level of analysis (or reduction) at which one is approaching the mind. Here, we will provide a framework for clarifying at what level of analysis one is approaching the mind, and explain how a systemic failure to distinguish between different levels of analysis has led to profound misunderstandings of not only evolutionary psychology, but also of the entire cognitivist enterprise of approaching the mind at the level of mechanism. We will furthermore suggest that confusions between different levels of analysis are endemic throughout the psychological sciences—extending well beyond issues of modularity and evolutionary psychology. Therefore, researchers in all areas should take preventative measures to avoid this confusion in the future.


What has seemed to be an important but interminable debate about the nature of (massive) modularity is better conceptualized as the modularity mistake.  Clarifying the level of analys is at which one is operating will not only resolve the debate, but render it moot.  In its stead, researchers will be free to pursue much simpler, clearer, and more profound questions about how the mind works. If we proceed as usual, we will end up back in the same confused place where we started in another 40 years —arguing once again about who’s on first. Confusing or collapsing across different levels of analysis is not just a problem for modularity and evolutionary psychology.  Rather, it is the greatest problem facing early-21st-century psychology, dwarfing even the current replication crisis. Since at least the days of the neobehaviorists (e.g. Tolman, 1964), the ontology of the intentional level has become mingled with the functional level in all areas of the cognitive sciences (see Stich, 1986). Constructs such as thinking, reasoning, effort, intuition, deliberation, automaticity, and consciousness have become misunderstood and misused as functional level descriptions of how the mind works.  Appeals to  a central agency who uses “their” memory, attention, reasoning, and soon have become commonplace and unremarkable. Even the concept of cognition itself has fallen into the same levels of analysis confusion seen in the modularity mistake.  In the process, a shared notion of what it means to provide a coherent functional level (or mechanistic) description of the mind has been lost.

We do not bring up these broader issues to resolve them here.  Rather, we wish to emphasize what is at stake when it comes to being clear about levels of analysis.  If we do not respect the distinctions between levels, no amount of hard work, nor mountains of data that we will ever collect will resolve the problems created by conflating them.  The only question is whether or not we are willing to begin the slow, difficult — but ultimately clarifying and redeeming — process of unconfounding the intentional and functional levels of analysis. The modularity mistake is as good a place as any to start.