Mind and Language

We’re beginning to understand something about the puppet and the strings but we have no idea whatsoever about the puppeteer what makes it happen.

Talk by Chomsky


Noam Chomsky on the hard questions of mind and language

We’re very strange species in many ways and the language capacity seems to be at the root of a good deal of this uniqueness. From 25 or 30 sounds that have no relation to anything in our minds we are somehow capable of producing an infinite number of thoughts that express anything that we can imagine: all the movements of our soul, anything that’s happening in our mental life and is worth thinking about.

That’s what Noam Chomsky has spent a lifetime doing and held firm to his theory of hardwired grammar even though it’s tricky to prove and he doesn’t buy the story that language emerged because we had to talk to each other to get things done. Simply this is not where words came from but rather for an adequate explanation we need to look inward rather than outward and that’s not so easy today.

You’ve pained an elegant little summary of the hard questions that still confront us. I noticed that language is still in the middle of it. Why is language such a difficult nut to crack?

We can start with what you might call the Galilean challenge and the earliest days of the Scientific Revolution. Galileo and other great scientists and philosophers were intrigued, in fact awed, by the fact that, paraphrasing as they put it, from 25 or 30 sounds that have no relation to anything in our minds we are somehow capable of producing an infinite number of thoughts that express anything that we could imagine and, as they put it, all the movements of our soul, anything that’s happening in our mental life and how is this amazing achievement possible. Galileo regarded it as the greatest invention in human history greater than the achievements of Michelangelo, Raphael or Titian and so on. So the Galilean challenge is to try to answer the question first of all what mechanism of mind in the brain makes this possible? How did it evolve? What’s its nature and so on? Wasn’t really until the mid 20th century that tools became available, intellectual tools for one to be able to at least formulate clearly some crucial elements of the problem and to address them and to identify the parts of Galileo’s challenge that we can make progress with and other parts that remain total mysteries, complete mysteries no conception of how to progress with them.

Language is being viewed in recent times that it is actually something to do with communication as opposed to other functions. Where do you think that leads us? Do you think that evolutionary notion that we had to communicate because we had to cooperate and hence we have the language that we have now? How do you see that?

Well, there is a modern doctrine believed overwhelmingly that in some sense the essential nature and function of languages as a means of communication but there’s mounting evidence that’s just false, that language is primarily an instrument of thought and it’s mostly internal to our minds. In fact we all more or less know that intuitively you can’t go five seconds without thinking to yourself, that language takes amazing act of will to prevent it and by now there’s even considerable evidence that a good deal of the internal use of languages is unconscious and probably inaccessible to consciousness. The empirical evidence that is increasing indicates that the externalization of language to some sensory motor system to articulation which is the usual one that’s not the only one, that this is kind of peripheral to the core nature of language which remains, pretty much as Galileo and his colleagues believed, an instrument for the creation and expression of mostly internal thought, an instrument of thinking and that means that communication is even more peripheral. It’s of course true that we communicate with language but we communicate with just about everything. We do with gestures with the style of clothes with how you comb your hair and so on and language is of course a very rich means of communication and we do use language for communication but it’s not its primary use source by any means and it’s nothing like the sense.

Hmm. It sort of turns Aristotle’s saying on this on its head that’s not sound with meaning but meaning with sound.

That’s correct. I think that’s a better way of looking at it it’s meaning usually with sound but really that’s only for convenience. The acquisition of language have been quite an abrupt and recent event which to a large degree goes against the evolutionary story of adaptation over time. Well actually that’s a common misinterpretation of the theory of evolution. There are many well-known events by now in the in evolution that were sudden and radical changes and so for example what’s called symbiosis of eukaryotic cells. The cells that constitute all complex organisms apparently happened once with one bacteria that kind of ingesting another and out of that structural constraints were broken and whole range of enormous consequences developed. So the idea that it might have happened very suddenly doesn’t break at all with evolutionary theory. It’s a question of fact and the facts just do seem to indicate that we have limited empirical evidence about the timing of appearance of language. Recent genomic work demonstrates that particular groups in Africa separated from the rest of Homo sapiens probably around 120,000 years ago. As far as we know they have the same language capacity, same cognitive system generally which means that the origin of language must be prior to that and furthermore it has not evolved since as far as we know. There are no differences among humans. The language capacity here in fact is general cognitive capacity so it emerged before roughly 120,000 years ago and has not evolved since. Well, Homo sapiens appeared only two hundred thousand years ago so there’s an evolutionary time, there’s a tiny window in which this system emerged. Furthermore it is increasingly clear that the language capacity is a true species capacity not only common to humans but also unique to humans. There’s nothing remotely analogous elsewhere in the animal world. That’s very rare in the whole biological world and there’s nothing similar in animals. As far as we know we’re a very strange species in many ways and the language capacity seems to be at the root of a good deal of this uniqueness and it does appear to have originated in a very brief period. That raises a question of what happened.

That was going to be my next question.

Well, that’s Galileo’s challenge and there are several aspects to what happened. Some of them we can get a grasp of and investigate and make real progress while others remain quite mysterious. There are basically three questions. One is what’s the nature of the combinatorial system called generative system that yields an infinite array of structured expressions each of which expresses a thought with a finite base? What’s the nature of that system? That’s one question where we can make real progress. Another question is why combinatorial system begins with certain atoms? You know, things that are from the point of view of the combinatorial system basically word like elements that have meaning, words like, river, tree, house, person and so on and so forth. Now these pose an enormous mystery. They’re completely unlike anything known in animal systems. We have no idea how they evolved, when they evolved, where they came from. They’re common to all humans, they have very complex meanings, there’s a kind of a belief which is false that the simple words like this just pick out things in the world so you have kind of classic books called a word an object or a word a thing and so on but that doctrine is just unacceptable. The words of language are unlike animal symbols and don’t pick out extra mental objects. That’s critical. There’s good reason to believe it’s true but we don’t know how it works and as far as their evolutionary history is concerned it’s a complete blank. Not only there’s nothing known about it but it’s hard to imagine even how you could investigate it. We obviously don’t have tape recordings from 200,000 years ago and there aren’t any other known avenues to enquire the comparative work with other primates or even any other organisms just doesn’t get you anywhere because they don’t have these systems. That’s the second question. The third question which is actually the one that was salient for Galileo, for Descartes and in the parts of the tradition that at least faced the challenge is how we can use language in the innovative creative way that we do? To put it in Cartesian terms we are incited or inclined to say particular things but not compelled to do so. For example right at this minute I could start talking about the weather outside or you know a baseball game that I saw 50 years ago or a million other things but I’m not incited or inclined to give the kind of discussion that we’re entering into. Here we have a total mystery and not just for language but for voluntary action altogether. There is an interesting recent review of the state of the art and the study of voluntary action by two leading neuroscientists Emilio Beatsie and Robert Jimmy. They discuss what is understood and they end up by pointing out rather as they put it fancifully that we’re beginning to understand something about the puppet and the strings but we have no idea whatsoever about the puppeteer what makes it happen. That’s a total mystery.

Noam Chomsky on those hard questions. One of the things you write about is what kind of creatures are we and that some things will just remain mysteries and that is just a truism and it’s because we are I guess biologically caught in our form and in our shape and in what we’re able to actually perceive.

Yeah, we’re assuming that we’re organic creatures and not angels. We have certain fixed capacities which yield the range of abilities that we have but they impose limits as well. That’s true of all of biological nature so for example our human genome directs us to develop arms and legs and not wings, mammalian visual system and not an insect visual system, gives us enormous scope but also by the very logic of the situation imposes limits and there’s no reason to doubt that. That’s also true of our cognitive capacities. They give us enormous scope but the very mechanisms that provide the scope also determine certain limits and it’s just an empirical question whether the kinds of things we would like to understand fall within the limits of cognitive capacities that we are endowed with and that provide us with the remarkable abilities that we have. The fact that there are limits shouldn’t be regarded as a kind of a deficiency. It’s just as the fact that we can’t grow wings is not a deficiency. It’s because we can grow arms and the same is true in the cognitive domain and as this leads to the question of the hard problem of consciousness, well, what’s called the hard problem of consciousness. Actually if you look through history there were other hard problems. In the 17th century the hard problem was motion. That problem was not settled within the framework of intelligibility that animates modern science from the point of view of Galileo through Newton.

Unconscious is inaccessible to consciousness but enters directly into the fragments that reach consciousness. This is probably even a greater mystery and I suspect a harder problem. Can you elaborate on that?

For example take language which we understand better than many other aspects of cognition. When you do what we call at talking to ourselves, when we think in language, what actually happens if you think about it is that bits and pieces and fragments come to mind and you can sometimes put them together into a meaningful complex sentence but something’s going on unconsciously which created all of this and generated it all and we can’t penetrate by introspection into what that is actually. That should no longer really surprise us very much. In the last 30 years there is experimental work which shows that for simple voluntary action like lifting your finger it turns out that maybe three hundred milliseconds before you make the conscious decision to do it there’s already activity going on in the relevant parts of the brain which there’s been much discussion about. What I suspect it means is that the decisions are being made unconsciously and inaccessible to consciousness though they then sometimes but not always reach consciousness and then we may implement the decision or not – it seems very likely that in the case of the creation of thinking which is basically what language is about, that same thing is happening and I think there’s pretty good evidence for the reasons I mentioned that the very acts that you and I are now performing do rely on computational processes which we have some grasp of now from the outside. The way you study the laws of motion we know from the outside but they seem to be going on the inside and they’re entering critically into what I’m producing and what you’re interpreting but we can find out nothing about them by introspection. The study of language would be really easy if we would just think about it and oh yes all these principles would come out, but they don’t and in fact the principles are pretty surprising when you look at them and this is why it looks like it’s an act of radical emergence to have mind from body or mind from material.

I think since the 17th century we should really formulate the matter differently.

There was a classical approach to body mind. It’s clearest perhaps in Descartes and that was straight science. It wasn’t nothing mystical. We have to begin with the conception of natural science that was held in the early modern period expressed by Galileo through Newton. The idea was that the world is a machine and by machine they mean things that push and pull each other. A more complicated version of the fascinating automata that were literally being constructed by great artisans at the time. The world was that kind of machine and in fact created by a super skilled mechanic. It’s called the mechanical philosophy. Philosophy just meant science so mechanical science. The Cartesian body-mind dualism was based on that principle Descartes believed that he had given at least an outline of the machine and his account was supposed to have dealt with the entire inorganic world, the entire nonhuman world and a large part of the specifically human world like perception up to sensation. He noticed that there were certain things that could not be accounted for in these terms, a crucial one was the creative use of language that I mentioned. That’s what he brings up in the discourse and that as he recognized simply lay beyond the capacity of any machine that is correct. But what happened is that Newton in the Principia demonstrated that Descartes system simply doesn’t work and in fact went beyond and showed that there are no machines. That’s his invocation of a principle of action at a distance which was central to Newtonian physics that could not be implemented in mechanical terms. Now Newton himself regarded this is a total absurdity. They said no person of any scientific understanding can believe this because of course that can’t be true and in fact he spent the rest of his life trying to find some way out of this conclusion. He failed. Later generations also tried that and pretty much given up over time and the whole approach to science has changed in a subtle way. Instead of seeking to show that the world is intelligible to us the goals of science were implicitly lowered to trying to construct theories that are intelligible to us so for example the recent discovery of the demonstration that Einstein was correct in predicting gravitational waves that theory is intelligible to us but the conception on which it is based of curved space-time that quantum principles involved that would have just been outside the framework of science because it’s not intelligible to our conceptual systems. We can understand the theories, they are intelligible but the world isn’t and it’s not a machine. With that development Descartes mind-body problem disappeared. Not because there’s any problem with mind but because if there’s no body there’s no machine and there can’t be a mind-body problem and this was pretty much recognized. For example john Locke immediately after Newton, in fact having read Newton’s work, concluded that just as attraction and repulsion the properties of motion are unintelligible to us but are nevertheless true as the judicious Newton has demonstrated. He went on to say in the theological idiom of the time that just as God and matter with properties are unintelligible to us, it is not inconceivable that God may have superadded to matter the capacity of thought, meaning that thought is a property of some organic a structure of whatever the world consists of and that concept was pursued extensively through the 18th century culminating finally in the work of Joseph Priestley, a famous chemist philosopher of the late 18th century. It leads us to the scientific study of what properties of organized matter give thought and that brings you to the modern cognitive sciences and study of language and so on. In today’s conception we can call it mind if we like but that just means an aspect of matter just as electrical properties are an aspect of matter.

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