On Fodor's First Law of the Nonexistence of Cognitive Science

Gregory L. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In his enormously influential The Modularity of Mind, Jerry Fodor (1983) proposed that the mind was divided into input modules and central processes. Much subsequent research focused on the modules and whether processes like speech perception or spatial vision are truly modular. Much less attention has been given to Fodor's writing on the central processes, what would today be called higher-level cognition. In “Fodor's First Law of the Nonexistence of Cognitive Science,” he argued that central processes are “bad candidates for scientific study” and would resist attempts at empirical analysis. This essay evaluates his argument for this remarkable claim, concluding that although central processes may well be “messier” than input modules, this does not mean that they cannot be studied and understood. The article briefly reviews the scientific progress made in understanding central processes in the 35 years since the book was published, showing that Fodor's prediction is clearly falsified by massive advances in topics like decision making and analogy. The essay concludes that Fodor's Law was not based on a clear argument for why the complexities of central systems could not be studied but was likely based on intuitions and preferences that were common in psychology at the time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12735
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2019


  • Cognitive science
  • Concepts
  • Higher-level cognition
  • Jerry Fodor
  • Philosophy of science

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Artificial Intelligence


Dive into the research topics of 'On Fodor's First Law of the Nonexistence of Cognitive Science'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this