Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part five


In fundamental respects, insects have richer experience and more sophisticated ways of dealing with it for action than humans do. Among other standards conclusion of modern science there are those that Priestley and many others drew centuries ago about thinking matter reiterated at the end of the decade of the brain, just two years ago without notable change or maybe surprisingly without much awareness that its revival not innovation. And thats it revival of something it was take to be unavoidable truism two centuries ago for quiet good reasons given the lack of a positive determinate account of the non mental part of the world, what is sometimes called the physical world.

Talk of the hard part of the mind-body problem, in recent years thas been taken to be conciousness conventionally. That talk of that kind is missleading at best. If its even meaningful. It may not be. Sometimes the problem is not quiet clearly posed, that its posed in terms of questions to which we can’t even think of wrong answers. So for example, there is no sensible answer to the question, what is it like to be me? Or what is it like to be a bat in Thomas Nagel famous paper. There are bad answers to that there are no good answers. Formal semantic inquiries often take the meaning of a question to be the set of propositions that are answers to it. And if that is at least a condition on meaning, than it follows that if there are no sensible answers, the question has no meaning. Even when legitimate questions are posed we dont have any good reason as far as I can see to suppose that they are intrinsicly harder than lots of other problems. Say the problem is posed for our understanding by quantum mechanics or cosmological theories of an infinity of universes or for that matter for the properties of motion.

We dont have any reason that I know of to question the opinion of Newton, David Hume and other not inconsiderable figures who in various ways reached Locks’ conclusion that motion has effects which we can in no way conceive motion able to produce. Even before Newton, puzzlement about motion was profound. His precursor Sir William Paddy described springing or elastic motion as the hard rock in philosophy. Philosophy means what we call science. The abscurity was so great, Robert Boyle felt, as to prove the existence of an intelligent author or disposer of things. Even the Skeptical Newtonian Voltair felt that the “impenetrable mysteries of motion proved that there must be a god who gave movement to matter” rather than Locks suggestion.

One cannot say that the hard problem was solved. It was just abandoned in the course of a significant revision of the enterprise of science. That is the recognition that in some fundamental sense, the world is just an unintelligently to us. And that we have to reduce our sights to the search for intelligible theories. Thas something quiet different. And even that goal has been strongly contested by prominent physicists. For example in the critique a century ago of atomic theory or even of the idea that physics should go beyond establishing quantitative relations between observable phenomena. The significance of this shift should not be underestimated. It was recognized soon enough, f.e. by David Hume who wrote that “Newtons discoveries reveal the obscurity in which Natures ultimate secrets will remain”.

These mysteries of nature, as Hume called them, refering to the phenomenon of motion will remain beyond our cognitive reach. Perhaps we might speculate he didn’t for reasons that are rooted in the biological endowment of the curious creature that alone is able even to contemplate these questions.

Well, I did talk about these topics 35 years ago and whats happen since including incidentally my own delayed self-education inclines me to believe that what I said then should be reiterated much more forcefully and in much greater depth and with much more explicit connections drawn to contemporary discussions about problems of language and mind.

Well lets return to the narrower question of emergence of mental aspects of the world or perhaps the development of an account of the non mental world that can be unified with them if the physic-chemistry model turnes out to be accurate. This scale of the gap that remains, and the very dubious grounds for the general optimism about overcoming it are revealed very clearly in the American Academy Symposium that reviewed the state of understanding at the end of the millennium. One leading specialist on vision who was toward the optimistic end of the spectrum never the less reminded the reader that how the brain combines the responses of specialized cells to indicate a continuous vertical line is a mystery that neurology has not yet solved. Or even for that matter how one line is differentiated from others or from the visual surround.

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