Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part eight


Notice again that that shift still leads us a long way from the problems of actions. Thats a vastly different matter. I have myself often quoted Wilhelm von Humboldt’s aphorism that the core problem of the study of language is the “infinite use of finite means”. It was a leading concern of Cartesian philosophy before him and a problem that really could not be posed until the mid 21th century when the concept of recursive generative proceedures was fully clarified. These proceedures constitue the finite means that are put to infinite use. But its important to be aware, I don’t think I stressed this enough, that despite quiet a lot of progress in understanding the means, means that are employed for infinite use, the question of how they are used is scarcely even addressed. And it was that question, that was the fundamental one for Descart, Humbold and other fairly modern figures. And again those questions are not even addressed for insects led alone humans.

Its reasonably clear that the human capacity for languages, whats called a species property, that is biologically isolated in essential respects and close to uniform accros the species. That actually seems less suprising today than it did not long ago in the light of very recent discoveries about the very limited genetic variation among humans as compared with other primates suggestes that we have all descended from a very small breething group maybe a hundred thousands years ago. Humans are basically identical from the point of view an outside Biologist looking at us. The biolinguistic approach adopted from the start what has been called, I quote the recently published encyclopedia of cognitive neuro science, “the norm these days in neuroscience, the modular view of learning, that is the conclusion that in all animals learning is based on specialised mechanisms, instincts to learn in specific ways” Randy Gallistel again. These organs within the brain perform specific kinds of computation in accordance with specific design appart from extremely hostil environments. The organs change state under the triggering and shaping effect of external factors. They do so more or less reflexively and in accordance with internal design. Thats the process of learning although growth might be a more appropriate term, avoiding misleading connotations of the term learning. The language organ, the faculty of language fits that normal pattern. According to the best theories we have, each attainable state of the system (i language) is a computational system that determines, generates in a technical sense infinately many expressions.

Each of this expressions is a store of information about sound and meaning which is accessed by performance systems. The properties of the I-language resold from the interplay of several factors. One factor is individual experience which selects among the options that are permitted by the initial state. A second factor is the initial state itself which is the product of evolution. And a third factor is general properties of organic systems. In this case computational systems incorporating and its reasonable to expect princibles of efficient computation.

The general picture involving crucially the third factor is familiar in the study of organic systems generally. The classic work of D’Arcy Thompson and Alan Turing on organic form and morphogenesis is an illustration topic currently in contemporary biology. One current example might be suggestive in the present context. There is recent work by Christopher Cherniak, Mathematical Biologist in Meryland, whos been exploring the idea that minimization of wire length – as in microchip design- shall best produce the best of all possible brains. And he has tried to explain in this terms the neuroanatomy of nematode – one of the simplest and best studied organisms. And also various pervasive properties of nervous systems. Such as the fact that the brain is as far forward as possible on the body axis. He wants to try to show thats just a property of efficient computation based on wire length minimization.

Well, one can trace interest in this third factor -general properties of organisms- back to a Galilean intuition, namely his concept that “nature is perfect” from the tide to the flight of bird. And its the task of the scientist to uncover in just what sense this is true. Newtons confidence that Nature must be very simple reflects the same intuition. However obscure it may be that intuition about what Ernst Haekel “Natures drive for the beautiful” has been a driving theme of modern science since its modern origin with the Galilean Revolution perhaps its defining characteristic.

It is hard to say exactly what it is, but that its a guiding intuition is not in doubt. Biologist however have tended to think rather differently about the objects of their inquiry. Very commonly they adopt what Francois Jacob, Nobel Laureate, image of nature is what he called a tinker – which does the best it can with the material at hand. Often a pretty rotten job as human intelligence seems to be keen on demonstrating about itself.

One well known contemporary Biologist, Gabriel Dover, British geneticist. He concludes in a recent book that “biology is a strange and messy business and perfection is the last word one can use to describe how organisms work particulary anything produced by natural selection.” Doe of course produced only in part by natural selection as he emphasizes, and this any biologist knows, and to an extend that cannot be quantified by available tools.

Well, we just dont know which of these conflicting intuition is more accurate – the galilean intuition or say Jacob’s intuition. And we will not know until we know the answer. And they seem very remote as answers. The same author, Gabriel Dover, writes that “we are nowhere near relieving our deepest ignorance about the biological world around us” he goes on to reserve his sharpest words ” for those who seek scientific respectability to complex behavioral phenomena in humans that we cannot even begin to investigate seriously”. He calls that “a sign of intellectual laziness at best and shameless ignorance at worst” when confronting issues of massive complexity which far exceeds the reach of contemporary science. He gives some exambles but for charity I ignore them.

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