Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part four

Half a century before Priestley, David Hume had casually described thought as “a little agitation of the brain” and shortly after the French philosopher physician Cabanis wrote that the brain “must be considered a special organ designed to produce thought as the stomache and the intestine are designed to operate the digestion, the liver to filter foil and various glance to produce salivary juices”. A century later Darwin asked rhetorically “why thought beeing a secretion of the brain should be considered more wonderful than gravity which is a property of matter”. Actually these and many other conception developed from an inquiry from what was called “thinking matter“, in part developed from what sometimes called by historians of philosophy John Lockes’ suggestion, that is his observation that “god might have choosen to superadd to matter a faculty of thinking just as he annexed effects to motion which we can in no way conceive motion able to produce”. The theological apparatus may well have been for self defense as Lockes. correspondance suggests.

By the late 18th century the thesis was widely regarded as inescapable. Newton has demonstrated to his considerable dismay that matter does not exist in the sense of the galilean revolution and of the scientists of his own day and his own sense. That beeing the case, the mind – body problem could not even be formulated, at least in anything resembling the classical form. Current formulation seem at best to restate the problem of unification of psychological and physiological approaches and to do so in highly missleading terminology. There was no mind – body problem anymore than there was a chemistry physics problem in the 1920s’.

Newtons discoveries lead to no coherant alternative to the conclusion that was drawn by Hume, priestly and others and rediscovered today in pretty much the same terms. But with the problem of emergence as unresolved as it was two centuries ago. That includes the question wether this notion with its reductionist connotation is even the right notion, maybe is the wrong notion as proved to be the case for chemistry and physics.

The traditional mind-body problem is often ridiculed as a problem of the “ghost in the machine”. But this is a misconception. Newton exercised the machine, he left the ghost completely intact. A similar observation has made very recently by two physicists Paul Davis and John Gribbin concluding in a book of theirs, the matter myth, they write that “during the triumphal phase of materialism and mechanism in the 1930s, Gilbert Ryle derided mind-body dulism in a pity reference to the mind part as the “ghost in a machine”. But already when he called the pity expression in the 1930s the new physics was at work undermining the materialist world view on which Ryle’s philosophy was based.

By the end of the 20th century they continue “we can see that Ryle was right to dismiss the notion of the ghost in the machine not because there is no ghost but because there is no machine”. There point is correct but the timing is of by at least two centuries, actually three, althou it take some time for Newtons demolition of the mechanical philosophy – the believe the world was a machine. It took a little time for that to enter scientific common sense.

Newton himself was well aware of the conclusion and far from pleased by it. He regarded his own conclusion as an absurdity that no serious person could entertain. And he saw away to the end of his life as did prominent scientist of his day and much later always in vain. Over time it came to be recognized that Newton had not only effectively destroyed the entire materialist physicalist conception of the universe but he had also undermined the standards of intelligibility on which the early scientific revolution was based. The outcome is familiar in the history of science. It was described very well in the classic 19th century history of materialism by Manuel deLanda. He pointed out that “scientists have accustomed themselves to the abstract notion of forces, or rather a notion covering in mystic obscurity between abstraction and concrete comprehension”. A turning point in the history of materialism that removes the surviving remanence of the doctrine far from the ideas and concerns of the genuin materialists of the 17th centuries and deprives them from any significance. That too is now a virtual truism at least among historians of science. One of the founders of the modern discipline, Alexander Koyre, he wrote 40 years ago that “a purly materialistic or mechanistic physics is impossible and we simply have to accept that the world is constituted of entities and processes that we cannot intuitively grasp”.

The problems of emergence and unification take on an entirely new form in the post newtonian era, a form that is furthermore unstable, changing as science comes to accommodate new absurdities as they would have been regarded by the founding figures of the scientific revolution including Newton. And I know of no reason to suppose that this process has come to an end. It is worth pointing out that the only part of our knowledge, or what we take to be knowledge, for which we can claim much confidence is our mental world. That is the world of our experience. As reflective beeings humans try in various ways to make sense out of this experience. One part of this effort is sometimes called folk science. When its conducted in a more systematic careful controlled way we nowadays call it science.

One standard conclusion of contemporary science is that each organism humans in particular reflexively develop, what ethologists call an umwelt – a particular mode constructing and interpreting experience given the data of sense. This is quiet different for us and for bees for example. Furthermore there is no great chain of being.


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