Notes on Modularity, Value Pluralism, Cultural Variation, etc.

I am convinced that the mind is at least moderately modular. The mind is composed of an interrelated suite of neural “programs” selected to solve problems specific to different domains of human activity. I’ve recently been intrigued by the idea that a variety of modules that operate according to different rules might provide some basis for the thesis that there are plural, incommensurable values.

I don’t believe in extreme versions of value realism, that there are value-properties out there in the world independent of their relation to human beings. I think value-properties are relational, and are what they are in part because of the contribution of human emotional and cognitive capacities. However, they are not subjective. Things aren’t valuable just because I believe they are, or because I want them to be. Beauty, for example, is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of the way objective features of external objects or events jive with certain more or less universal human mental capacities. People can have wrong opinions about beauty, because the relevent capacities might be insufficiently developed, or because they haven’t learned to pay attention to right thing, or because their judgment is clouded by a specious theory. So there can be right or wrong answers about value questions within the class of people who share the relevant capacities.

Value-properties, and accurate value-judgments, are capacity-dependent in this way. But there is no single value-responsive capacity. Our ability to judge a fair trade, a good mate, a decent piece of meat, or a nice song, likely depend on different capacities that produce judgments based on different standards. The love for one’s daughter may be produced by a very different cognitive/emotive mechanism than one’s love for Bach. Our value judgments in a particular case likely depends on which module is activated and deployed. It may be that we judge our own reasons in a different way than we judge other people’s reasons, due to the different standards implicit in the operation of different modules, which may lead to seemingly hypocritical sets of judgments. Different contexts, which elicit different modules, may lead to varying value-experience and (correct) value-judgments about the same subject matter, and thus our reasons for action may seem to fail to cohere. It is well-confirmed that people make different judgments when in “hot” and “cold” states. And it may be that neither state produces the uniquely correct judgment, but that different contexts activate programs that sensitize us to different, incompatible values, each of which we are responsive to and regard as reason-giving.

Moral “learning” might then involve becoming conditioned to activate one module rather than another in certain contexts where the other module is “naturally” dominant. One social convention about the proper mode of value-response might enable different coordinative possibilities and therefore different social formations than another convention, although both sets of social formation are, at bottom, the consequence of value-responsive motivation and action. Culture we can think of as a set of institutions and practices that reinforces patterns of contextual modular activation, and therefore value-response, and therefore individual action, shared expectations about individual action, social coordination, and social formation.

Every culture in one sense is equally natural, relying on natural capacities for value-response. But some cultures might be less natural than others in the sense that rely less on the “default” modular activation rules and rely more on “trained” modular activation, or on conventional external institutions and cues “designed” to manipulate the default rules. Certain patterns of modular activation might have unintended coordinative consequences, which might undermine the pattern, further reinforce the pattern, or create pressure to modify the pattern and create cultural change.

We get cranky sometimes because our culture constantly reinforces and rewards counter-“intuitive” activation of non-default modules, and this can be effortful and feel unsatisfying, leaving us constantly feeling that there is something it might have been better to do. But reversion to default patterns is badly maladaptive within a set of social formations built on coordination around heavily reinforced non-default patterns. Alienation. We don’t crave the Pleistocene. We’d just like to take a little holiday from time to time, and respond to value, and be motivated by reasons, according to the “natural” default pattern of modular activation.

That was more for me than for you. But if you got this far, thanks for listening. Pope Benedict: beware modular pluralism!