What kind of creatures are we?

I have heard it said that every writer is writing against somebody, often implicitly. The example given was Darwin writing against William Paley, who invented the watchmaker argument for the existence of God. Another worthy irritant is Alfred North Whitehead, who is often quoted with "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of footnotes to Plato." Whether Whitehead intended to praise or damn the European philosophical tradition does not matter here, but an irritant it is.

It is an irritant because of its suggestion of "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose". Of course progress should not be assumed a priori, but neither should its possibility be excluded. Perspective is afforded by Susanne Langer's 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key, which opens with a quick overview of Western philosophy

Every age in the history of philosophy has its own preoccupation. Its problems are peculiar to it, not for obvious practical reasons—political or social—but for deeper reasons of intellectual growth.
These preoccupations
are not stated, they find expression in the form of its questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a number of alternatives that will complete its sense.

One such question is the one asked by Thales, "What is the world made of?" This focused attention on the changes of matter, growth, the transformations in nature. When this theme was exhausted in deadlocked speculations, all assuming an answer to "Which answer is true?", Socrates launched "What is Truth?" This new question inaugurated a new era in philosophy.

The book under review What kind of creature are we? by Noam Chomsky has as title a question that ranks with the ones mentioned above as one of those that breathes new life into the exhausted dead-ends of philosophy.

The title draws attention to the most striking difference between us and other kinds of creature, the use of language. Hence the first chapter,

"What is language?"

Since the 1960s Chomsky is known for his novel and controversial ideas on the topic. The controversy has continued over the decades. During this time Chomsky's own ideas have evolved, partially in response to recent technology allowing experimenters to observe the brain in action.

The controversy is an argument among linguists. The linguistic aspects are peripheral to Chomsky's thesis that language processing is a biological function specific to the species. He adduces "Masters of the planet" by Ian Tattersal. For the salient thesis of this book I gratefully quote Kirkus Reviews: "Homo sapiens, remarkably young at 200,000 years, did not seem a great improvement until about 60,000 years ago, when their brains began processing information symbolically, leading to language, art, technology and sophisticated social organization, all of which accompanied our species across the world, wiping out competing hominids."

Language is the salient capability that distinguishes humans. Therefore, to know what kind of creature we are it is important to agree on what language is. Surprisingly such agreement does not seem to exist, at least not between Chomsky and many other linguists.

A salient feature of language is that it can only be acquired by young children: if a child has not been stimulated by language by a certain age, then it will never speak or understand language. During these years the brain is still growing. It seems like capability for language is part of the brain structure that is created in these years.

Chomsky postulates what he calls the Basic Property of language: "each language provides an unbounded array of hierarchically structured expressions that receive information at two interfaces, sensorimotor for externalization and conceptual-intentional for mental processes." At the first interface linearly ordered strings are received and generated; these make up the corpus studied in conventional linguistics. Chomsky calls this the "E-language". The other interface deals with structures that are not linearly ordered. For Chomsky these are also a language, the "I-language". This is the Language Of Thought.

Chomsky, while not denying that language, in its manifestation of "E-language" (as opposed to "I-language") can be used for communication, maintains that this is ancillary.

Chapter 2. What can we understand?

Our cognitive capabilities have a biological basis. This basis determines not only their scope, but also their limitations. It is puzzling that such assertions are controversial, while analogous assertions concerning other human capabilities are not. For example, it is not controversial that human locomotion as manifested in the ability to walk makes it impossible for us to slither like snakes. C.S. Peirce is ascribed awareness of this. His abduction is intended to delineate what is knowable in principle. It is a useful concept, as it automatically implies that certain things are not abducible.

Chomsky introduced, long before this book, the distinction between "problems" and "mysteries". To the first category belong the unknowns that are knowable; the others are not. Given that our cognitive capabilities have a biological basis, the distinction is organism-relative. Ergo, there is motivation for viewing computers as substrate for minds that have a different physical basis hence different cognitive capabilities, with different scopes and limitations. For such artificial minds some of our mysteries may be problems.

It may be thought puzzling that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines what we think, is not even in the index of Chomsky's book. This should not be a puzzle because this hypothesis pertains to Chomsky's E-language. In Chomsky's model there is a Language of Thought and this is something different: the I-language.

Chomsky's model could be useful in the design of artificial languages. Communication between philosophers needs to be done in the linearly ordered strings of E-language. Difficulties arise in crossing the barrier to I-language. An artificial language may be designed to minimize such difficulties. An especially interesting class of artificial language consists of the varieties of formal logic. Their merit could be judged with this in mind.

Chapter 4. The mysteries of nature: how deeply hidden?

Chomsky wants the world to be comfortable with the fact that our cognitive capabilities have a biological basis. This fact implies that mysteries are inevitable. Accepting that fact will ensure that enlargement of understanding is not unnecessarily hampered by agonizing over some of the mysteries.

An example is Newton's concept of gravitation. It was deemed to imply "action at a distance", something rejected as inconceivable. Newton himself admitted it is an "absurdity". It took a long time to be clarified, if it ever was, but successive generations stopped agonizing. Chomsky's message seems to be that the criterion of conceivability is a hangover from philosophy.

Only with Newton did physics emancipate itself from philosophy: the title changed from Principia Philosophiae Naturalis to Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. The idea of Descartes, that planets are propelled by "vortices", commended itself to those who found action at a distance unacceptable. A slight change in wording makes all the difference. To paraphrase Bill Clinton one would like to shout: "It's a mathematical model, stupid!" Mathematical models don't need to be conceivable; they just need to work. And work Newton's model did. Galileo was doggedly dogmatic in his defense of the cosmology of Copernicus. Even with its refinements by Kepler it was indefensible. Then Newton came, and "all was light".

By the twentieth century all this was old hat, or could have been. But no, the conceivability controversy played itself out all over with quantum phenomena. And then again with consciousness, witness e.g. Francis Crick's The Astonishing Hypothesis, where the great scientist presents as daring novelty a position formulated by eighteenth-century thinkers such as David Hume and Joseph Priestley. The appearance of the former was no surprise to me, having always seen him introduced as a philosopher. It was a surprise to find that the philosopher Priestley seems to have been the same person as the pioneer in chemistry that I had heard of.

Another footnote to Plato

In the above quotes from Langer one may take away the impression that in the succession of generative questions each supplants the previous one. This is of course not the case: "What is the world made of?" remained alive from the Earth, Water, Air, and Fire of ancient Greece to the quarks of the 20th century. While this was still alive, a new science was inaugurated with the small book by Erwin Schrödinger with the title What is Life?.

It seems that Chomsky's "What kind of creatures are we?" is a new question that is generative in the same way as the ones noted above. In addition, it is useful in eliminating a lot of philosophical clutter. For example, after asking Chomsky's question, the "Problem of Universals", whether Plato's eternal Forms are mental artifacts, this ancient problem is solved with a resounding Yes.

The footnotes to Plato keep coming.