Mind Modules vs. Ideological Systems

A major theme on Triangulations is to show the value of understanding ourselves in terms of simple mental units (modules) instead of large ideological/theological systems.

People tend to identify themselves and evaluate others in terms of systems: religious, political, ideological etc.  But it only takes a little observation to see that within any given system, there are people who identify and participate with that system in very different ways.

For this reason, recognizing the particular modules that a person strings under their system’s banner is often much more valuable than paying attention to the system identity the person is outwardly using.  Such a shift of attention allows us to talk to each other in more basic shared terms and experiences.  It makes our encounters more “real”.

Throughout my blog, I try to get Christians, Buddhists and Atheists AWAY from discussing their systems and instead, have them dig down as deep as they can to discuss the smallest mind patterns they can recognize and use those modules for the purposes of dialogue — the less abstract the better.  Many of my posts try to illustrate the inherent problems of mis-identifying ourselves with construed abstract system titles.

Our modules are complex, nested webs– vibrant nests which support our lives.  It is the relationships and interaction between modules within these webs with their various tensions, resonance and weights that makes us much more than the mere sum of the simple modules we employ–thus escaping the simplistic “reductionist” criticism.  Due to this inherent complexity, many people attempt to identify themselves with several systems so as to try and capture more of their individual fluxing complexity.

I was inspired to summarize this theme in my blog after reading a friend’s post who writes something very similar (albeit more succinctly).  He calls his smaller units “stances” — which has a much more inviting anthropomorphic ring than my mechanical choice of “modules”.

Here are some of my past posts centering on modules:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

14 responses to “Mind Modules vs. Ideological Systems

  1. Ian

    As you know, I love this idea of a modular ‘mind’ or self. But I’m also interested in the interaction between these modules.

    Do you think that a those interactions are not important for understanding people and their religious/philosophical outlooks? If not, at what point do the larger scale interactions become important?

  2. @ Ian
    Yes, I think the imteractions are drastically important. Thus I wrote:

    It is the relationships and interaction between modules within these webs with their various tensions, resonance and weights that makes us much more than the mere sum of the simple modules we employ–thus escaping the simplistic “reductionist” criticism.

    So I am not to sure of the intent or direction of your question. So I can only guess when I say: I wouldn’t want to try to then try and label large interaction patterns as “systems” to create yet another layer of abstraction that is now not focused on modules but on interactions. That would seem like the same mistaken methodology drawing away from observations important for dialogue. But, again, I am not sure I understand your question. Perhaps your question is more of a statement.

    Does my reply seem like I am following your inquiry a bit? Abstractions are so slippery and ironically, my post is abstract.🙂

  3. Ian

    Great. Sorry about the confusion. I wasn’t sure if you were saying that the modules themselves explained the philosophical/religious ‘bits’, but that the human being was more than our religious components. Or whether you’d agree with me that even those ‘bits’ are actually made up of interactions too.

    “I wouldn’t want to try to then try and label large interaction patterns as “systems” to create yet another layer of abstraction that is now not focused on modules but on interactions.”

    Is that because you feel that you haven’t said enough, or focussed enough on the importance of the modules yet (i.e. you don’t want to say that because it isn’t time to say that yet)? Or wouldn’t you want to do that because you think those systems are not amenable to that analysis? (or for some other reason).

  4. Ian

    “Does my reply seem like I am following your inquiry a bit?”

    Yes, spot on. My initial comment was very ambiguous, on re-reading. Sorry.

  5. @ Ian:
    Hmmmm, to answer your question:
    because the focus on particulars (modules and their interactions) is incredibly useful while the more abstract systematizations of either of these can distract us and give us false, devisive identities. These abstractions may also delude us from separating contrivances vs. more concrete tendencies and actions. They pull us further away from what actually is.

    Sure, patterns of interactions are of course amenable to analysis. As you know, I love analysis. Ironically, doing the analysis can point us again back to the root of abstractions.

    I still can’t help feeling like you want to say more than you are asking. Is it me? Your questions seem to all be pointing back at your Systematic Atheist Theology project which we have debated several times on your blog. Is that accurate? Are you trying to offer something corrective here?

  6. Ian

    No, don’t worry. I’m not laying traps.

    Of course I’d want to say more, for myself, but I have done so, and we’ve locked horns over those excursions before. I entertain myself by trying to build those larger scale abstractions. I think there are useful things there. And I think that by first breaking down into modules, the rebuilding has some surprising features (such as the fact that interacting modules don’t have to belong to the same person).

    But none of that is to undermine what you want to say at all. If you wanted to argue that the larger scale stuff is either irrelevant or impossible to deal with, I would want to disagree. But I understand you as saying that those levels aren’t as helpful for inter-personal communication. Then I’d agree.

  7. Thank you for the link!

    I wonder if it would be useful to be more specific about the sorts of mental modules you are thinking of, and how one could talk in terms of them rather than systems?

    Do you have in mind the examples in your “modular god” post — “wishing god” and “morality god” for example? Maybe some people who have abandoned the wishing god still have the morality god, and it would be useful for them to say so. But then, aren’t these conceptions or aspects of god, rather than modules of mind? (That is, as a theist understands the situation.)

  8. @ David

    This post is far from exhaustive and your questions are excellent. Let me shortly discuss three issues I think you are touching:

    Exposing deeper Qualities:
    As you are probably familiar, Haidt tried a similar move when he took the Political dichotomy of Conservative vs. Liberal and instead explored the qualities (modules) of no harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, respect for authority and purity. In doing so, he showed a greater variety of people groups than the simple bimodal dichotomy. He also illustrated why they moved to the circles they have and exposed other groups — libertarians weren’t in his model but later had to be included as trimodal distributions were noted (I think). I don’t know about the details or the soundness of his methodology, but you can see my direction.

    As a methodology, perhaps we start with categories withIN the systems themselves. For that reason, I ask readers to identify themselves. After they disclose their theologies, philosophical preferences, or worldviews, then we could explore personality traits, demographic qualities and temperament preferences as more basic components to explore if how many modes appear within any given theological trait.

    Traits vs. Stances
    This takes me to my second point, I think most people fall into their worldviews and religions as a mere accident of birth and demographics and temperaments. Few people really pick and choose by looking for the best philosophy — this is the delusion of philosophers. And those that think they choose are usually highly self deceptive.

    Dissecting Gods
    The gods, in my morality gods, are not gods, of course. Instead, we have a desire to affect magic, a dualism module for continued personhood, and many psychological modules that comprise the modules inside the modular god. I was only breaking it down to a first level of dissection so as to aid dialogue.

    I think with religions, the exact same qualities Haidt discusses could be explored along with many others.

    I hope all that gives you a bit better picture of how I am imagining the functioning of the human mind.

  9. Ah, yes, Haidt’s work is inspiring. As you say, whether or not he got the details right, the direction looks very promising.

    I agree with what you say about how people end up in particular systems.

  10. If you agree, then I am wondering if identifying philosophical stances inside of systems is enough. Digging deeper to psychological proclivities and demographic forces to show how these are attractive is perhaps more useful than stopping at philosophical stances. For is it really stances that change people, or changes in situations that bring people to embrace appropriate stances.

    I think our philosophical sides wants to think that clarifying the market of ideas is very important, but sometimes I wonder.

    They probably are mutually creative and thus both efforts may be useful. (There, I feel better – smile!)

  11. Yes, I think it’s critical to understand the emotional motivations for adopting philosophical stances. And temperament affects philosophical convictions partly though predisposing one to particular emotional dynamics.

    In the “Meaningness” work, several of the rows in each of the “schematic overview tables” (that summarize particular stances) are devoted to the emotional factors that lead you into and out of the stance.

    Understanding these dynamics in yourself can help you get out of confused stances and into better ones. They may also be useful in constructing rhetoric that could help get other people out of confused stances.

  12. Jen

    I’ve been thinking about this one since reading it yesterday. I also read your friend’s post. I have a less rigorous response and will simply say that this linking of many self/no self clarifies the rather ambiguous sense I’ve had when contemplating emptiness and no self. I believe my intuitive sense is very close to what you describe, but you’ve given it a form that makes it easier to grasp.

    Problems arise when we try to ossify our “modules” or concepts, or try to freeze an image of another person as being just so. No self is less frightening to consider when you see it this way, as a “constellation” of traits, some expressed, some dormant, moving slowly or quickly, in flux.

  13. @ David
    I found your “schematic overview tables” — they are well done and helpful. I see that you view “Eternalism” as drawing to those who desire more control — those who feel perceive insecurity, which the data apparently bears out. You propose that Eternalism then nurtures sentimentality or self-righteousness. And then see “Nihilism” as drawing to those who realize they can’t get what they want thus nurturing intellectualization and perhaps contempt and rage.

    Fun categories — and better yet, they seem to be useful to understanding real emotional/spiritual tendencies. Thank you.

  14. @ Jen :
    Glad you enjoyed the model — fun how it has popped into my mind over the years.

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