David Villena

David Villena

Probing cognitive functions of the human mind

An interest in methodological and conceptual issues arising from adaptationist analyses of the human mind, combined with a desire to go step further with his master’s research into the problems of functionalism, led a postgraduate student from Lima, Peru to turn his sights towards Asia back in late 2017. 

“I knew there was a vibrant community of philosophers working within the analytic tradition in Hong Kong, and that many of them were concentrated at Lingnan University,” says Joseph David de Jesús Villena Saldaña, who more usually goes by just David Villena. “My main concern throughout my research career has been to give an accurate account of practical reasoning. To accomplish such a goal, I considered it was essential to become skilled in formal methods, philosophy of mind and epistemology, apart from developing a necessary expertise in ethics. I did that by pursuing a PhD at Lingnan, which was a genuinely enriching experience in both professional and cultural terms.”

When approaching the task, Villena already had some impressive experience behind him. He had held positions as adjunct and assistant professor at prestigious universities in his home country, served as an instructor for high-ranking civil servants at the Latin American Center for Public Administration and Development, and been a visiting research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Along the way, he also co-authored a book on logic and published papers on personal identity, game theory, relativism, and other topics tied to the study of rationality.

Several of these themes came together in his PhD dissertation, which was successfully completed in 2021 despite the disruptions caused by Covid.

The title he settled on was “Massive Modularity: An Ontological Hypothesis or An Adaptationist Discovery Heuristic?” which took the theory that cognitive modules are internal mental structures and built upon it.  

“Modules are unobservable,” Villena says. “Their existence, if any, is a matter of inference and not something that can be determined by means of direct observation. In this respect, the truth of the hypothesis claiming that the mind is massively comprised of modules is open to a debate that is more theoretical than empirical in nature.”  

The basic problem is how to make sense of the mechanisms that underlie human cognitive capacities, something which has long perplexed psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers,

Those capacities are associated with the performance of tasks which are both specialised and functional, including statistical reasoning, managing hazards, identifying threats, and choosing and wooing a mate.

The concept of cognitive modules can also help to make sense of intriguing psychological phenomena such as perceptual illusions, impaired face recognition, colour blindness, and alexia, or incapacity to recognise visual words, among many others.

“Some philosophers, as well as cognitive scientists, consider that it is reasonable, and even necessary, to invoke modules in explaining the central systems of mind,” Villena says.

His question, though, was whether this hypothesis was really a cogent view about the ontological nature of human mind or, rather, just a source of  adequate explanations for psychological traits and properties.

“I suggested approaching and valuing massive modularity as an adaptationist discovery heuristic,” Villena says. “While working on this, I received constant feedback and constructive criticism from my supervisor and co-supervisors. I appreciated their advice on how to approach the topic, build arguments, and respond to possible objections. They also gave me important tips about the style of academic writing, which helped me get more papers published. And replying to their objections was a challenge that kept me fully motivated. In short, they gave me philosophical teachings, personal support, and professional orientation.”

As a postgraduate who received support from the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme (HKPFS), Villena found the regular seminars and workshops offered by each department at Lingnan created a lively academic environment, which spurred new perspectives and truly innovative research.

“Also, the extraordinary cultural diversity found on campus invites students to develop a broader, more pluralistic worldview,” he says. “There is a unique and thrilling synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions that challenges and expands one’s outlook.”

Since completing his thesis, Villena has taught in a master’s programme at Lingnan and is currently teaching in the Department of Philosophy at The University of Hong Kong. His ongoing research interests extend to applied ethics, with a particular focus on the public sector and international affairs, as well as moral issues raised by the latest information and communication technologies. This has led to publications on search engines, the right to be forgotten on the internet, “hacker ethics” and transparency, and how social media is shaping the concept of a post-truth era.

Regarding general advice for prospective PhD students, he stresses the importance of getting into the habit of writing papers and presentations right from the start and not leaving things to the last minute.  

“Aim to ‘socialise’ your research by playing a full part in conferences, seminars and workshops, and be open to criticism and new cultural experiences,” he says. “Also, stay healthy and have a life outside your academic studies to avoid burning out.”