Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part three

Well with the biolinguistic approach in place we want to discover the relationship between psychological states and the world as described in other terms. We want to know how computational states are related to neurophysiological states or represented in one terminology. We also want to find out how those mental states relate to the organism external world. As for example when the motions and noises produced by our forager bee direct others to a distanced flower or when I talked about a recent trip to india. Or when I say that I recently read Darwin’s Decent of Men but “Men” referring to a book. All of this is called intentionality in philosophical jargon.

The broad issuses were raised permanently at the end of the decade of the brain which brought the last millenia to a close. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences at the end of the millenium in the year 2000 published a volume to mark the occasion. It summarized the current state of understanding in these areas. The guiding theme of the volume was formulated by a distinguished neuroscientist Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle in the introduction to the collection. It is in his words “the thesis that things mental indeed minds are emergent properties of brains while these emergencies are not regarded as irreducible but are produced by principles that control the interaction between lower level events, principles we do not yet understand.” That same thesis has been put forth in recent years as a “astonishing hypothesis of the new biology” a “radical new idea in the philosophy of mind” the “bold assertion that mental phenomena are entirely natural and caused by neuro-physiological activities of the brain” opening the door to new and promising inquiry and so on.

Contributors to the American Academy Volume where for the most part quiet optimistic about the prospects about the remaining gaps between psychological and physiological accounts. Mountcastle’s phrase “we do not yet understand” reflect that optimism. Suggests we will soon understand. He wrote that “researchers speak confidently of a coming solution to the brain-mind problem” similar confidence has been expressed for half a century including announcements by prominent scientists, nobel price winner in one case, that the brain-mind problem has already been solved.

We may recall usefully similar optimism. Shortly before the unification of chemistry and physics, in 1929 Bertrand Russels who new the sciences well, he wrote that “chemical laws cannot at present be reduced to physical laws”. In his phrase “at present” like Mountcastle’s “yet” expresses the expectation that the reduction should take place in the course of scientific progress perhaps soon. Now in the case of physics and chemistry it never did take place. What happend was something different and totally unexpected, namely unification of a virtually unchanged chemistry with a radically revised physics. And its hardly necessary to stress the fact that the state of understanding and achievment in these areas, 50 – 80 years ago, was far beyond anything that can be claimed for the brain and cognitive sciences today. With outh to give us pause.

The American Academy Volume reviews many important discoveries but the leading thesis should arouse our skepticism. Not only for the reason that i just mention. Another reason is that the thesis is by no means new. In fact it was formulated in virtually the same words two centuries ago, late 18th century, by the eminent chemist Joseph Priestley. He wrote that “properties of mind arise from the organisation of the nervous-system itself and those properties termed mental are the result of the organic structure of the brain”. Just as matter is possessed of powers of attraction and repulsion that act as a distance contrary to the founding princibles of the modern scientific revolution from Galileo and Newton and beyond.


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