How does the brain process information? In particular, is the cognitive portion of the brain divided up into a number of task-specific ‘modules’, each of which are devoted to a specific task, or is the brain constituted by (one or many) processing units which are flexible in their operation? Modularists, as those in the former camp are called, often appeal to a form of argument which makes use of the idea that certain cognitive characteristics appear to be dissociable from others, such that certain individuals can excel, or struggle, in distinct tasks in ways not necessarily related to the complexity of the task, or proportional to their general intelligence. To this end, Williams Syndrome and – at the other end of the spectrum – SLI are invoked to support a modular conception of language faculties, and autism is sometimes (questionably) invoked in support of the view that the capacity to deploy a theory of mind is modular.
The notion of a mental disorder, or illness, is an essentially normative notion. It is dependent on the availability of some metric of normalcy, or orderliness. Whether a given mental tendency is a disorder or not depends on whether or not, and in what ways, it deviates from what is considered normal, or orderly. But, what are the norms that determine this metric?
This question is highly controversial, and its importance transcends far beyond the walls of academia. Few such seemingly terminological issues have such a tremendous impact on the day to day lives of so many millions of individuals across the world. For example, until quite recently (1973!!), homosexuality was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Its status as a disorder gave legitimacy to subject individuals ‘afflicted’ with this ‘disorder’ to psychiatric treatment, often leading to detrimental effects (not to mention the pervasive social and legal discrimination they faced). Characterizing a given tendency as a disorder has the potential to bring about terrible harms and injustices. However, there are also cases in which pursuing various corrective measures seems crucial. Certain tendencies, such as schizophrenia, can be so disruptive to an individual’s life that treatment seems necessary. Labeling such a tendency as a ‘disorder’ potentially brings with it various societal and legal commitments to provide support that can substantially alter the lives of suffering individuals for the better. It is clear, then, that much hangs on how we come to characterize a mental tendency as a disorder.