Saturday, December 29, 2012

The two Noam Chomskys

Noam Chomsky must enjoy making himself unpopular. His extreme (and extremely polarizing) political views are well-known.

I once sat down with one of his political tracts with a genuinely open mind, prepared to give it a go. But all I saw after devoting several hours to the book was anger and rhetorical posturing. I just couldn't figure out where he was coming from.

As I learned later, his attitudes are at least in part explained by his family background. Chomsky grew up in left-Zionist circles. His father was a distinguished Hebrew scholar and both his parents (his mother was more radical than his father, actually) were followers of the views of the essayist Asher Ginsberg. Writing under the name Ahad Ha'am, Ginsberg rejected purely political Zionism and promoted the idea of Jewish cultural and spiritual rebirth. By his early teens, Chomsky had embraced anarchism. He later identified with anarcho-syndicalism, working as an activist for various radical causes, often in association with radical Christians, whose spiritual and moral motivations for political action were similar to his own.

But what of the pioneering linguist? This side of Chomsky interests me, largely because I was taught by one of his students, and adopted many of his linguistic ideas. It matters to me whether (or to what extent) these ideas reflect reality.

So I have begun doing a bit of reading to see what Chomsky is currently saying and how this relates to the current state of research. This interview/article by Yarden Katz is a good place to start, though Chomsky's broad-brush references to intellectual history (Galileo is a big favorite of his) are not totally convincing. Linguistics is not physics, and it's conceivable that there is nothing there to understand in the way early physicists came to understand the principles of classical mechanics.

People generally draw a clear distinction between the two Chomskys, the political activist and the linguist. The former is generally characterized as progressive and radical and the latter, once radical, is now seen as conservative or even reactionary.

In fact Chomsky's scathing attacks on the trend to base research projects in linguistics and the cognitive sciences on Bayesian probability do make him sound like a bit of an intellectual reactionary. But the real issue is whether there is truth in his criticisms.

Bayesian probability is a topic I don't know enough about to write about, but this piece by a graduate student working with Bayesian methods in conjunction with traditional syntactic theory, seems very balanced and makes Chomsky's strictures on Bayesian approaches look a bit simplistic.

The main point I want to make, however, is that the two Chomskys may have more in common than meets the eye. One can see similarities in patterns of argumentation and thought between the political thinker and the linguist. One may also be able to trace some of Chomsky's basic convictions regarding the nature of human thought and language (as well as his political convictions) back to childhood influences.

If you read reports of his talks to linguists*, it's clear that Chomsky is deeply involved in the academic politics of research funding and concerned with the survival of linguistics as a distinct academic discipline, as well as with defending his status and reputation. These academic-political preoccupations (like any political preoccupations) encourage polarized thinking. What counts in the end is one's own side winning, not objective truth. (After all, the winners write the history books, including the intellectual histories.)

Whatever his motivations, Chomsky certainly exhibits a tendency to see things in terms of dichotomies, and is something of a past master of the straw man approach to dealing with challenges.

What, though, of the ideas that are being fought over? This, after all, is where the real interest lies. Does Chomsky's general view of life impinge on (and perhaps distort) his ideas on language and the mind?

The drivers of our thinking are always deep and obscure. Chomsky's longstanding moral (and, indeed, spiritual) preoccupations would, in my view, be likely to have had a profound influence on the way he sees the human mind, as well as reinforcing his views on the status of reason and intellectual intuition.**

I am really only starting to explore Chomsky's cultural and spiritual background, and I may return to these themes in the future and try to make a stronger case. There is much that remains obscure (the extent and nature of his secularism, for example).

I also need to do a bit of homework on some of the topics discussed in the interview. Frankly, I have sometimes found Chomsky's writings on language and thought, and Chomskyan linguistics in general, to be somewhat unclear or opaque, almost arbitrary in fact. I think this probably reflects Chomsky's commitment to a form of rationalism which is quite at odds with my fairly mundane empirical assumptions.

The interview is usually an easy form of discourse to follow and understand, ideal for introducing difficult thinkers to a wider audience, but Katz's interview with Chomsky remains – to me at least – obscure in parts. And I don't think Katz is to blame.

At first, I was confused by Chomsky's comments on Mendel. On the face of it, the case of Mendel argues for the power of statistical approaches, especially at a time when the basic science is undeveloped. But Chomsky's point – essentially that Mendel was aspiring to a deep understanding, and sought significance in the patterns he observed – is a fair one.

However, his arguments in favor of unification but against reduction in the sciences are less clear to me.

Chomsky's allusion to the case of chemistry not reducing to an older physics because the older physics was wrong seems – in the context of what he is arguing – a bit puzzling. Would not this example argue for having more tolerance for statistical and practical approaches which at least are dealing with reality rather than relying on prematurely postulated grand explanatory theories?

Chomsky himself says that cognitive science is at a primitive stage. 'Pre-Galilean', he calls it, but, as I said, I doubt that the comparison with classical mechanics is all that useful.

A more appropriate comparison for what Chomsky has been trying to do these past decades might be Einstein's doomed attempt during the last decades of his life to create a grand unified theory of physics.

Chomsky's thoughts on the origins of human language are very speculative. In fact, his account of a hypothetical individual in a group of non-thinking individuals 'getting language' (through a genetic mutation), and so being able to think, sounds quite far-fetched. (Chomsky, reasoning in a strangely a priori manner, sees language as an internal thing rather than being essentially communicational.)

There is, however, a lot of truth in what he says about science and intellectual fashion, and, yes, about language also.

I am aware that there are deep and serious questions about word order and context-free grammars and so on at issue here about which I have said nothing. Chomsky has made significant contributions to the application of formal language theory to linguistics, and influenced research directions profoundly. Just because other approaches may currently be in vogue does not mean that the work he inspired was misguided.

I suspect that, as our understanding of natural languages (and natural language processing) improves, many of the principles and insights developed by linguists working in the tradition he pioneered will be vindicated (and incorporated, one way or another, into truly effective natural language processing algorithms). But many of the key questions, both philosophical and practical, appear at this stage to remain unresolved.

Finally, a few thoughts on science and history.

Chomsky was asked by Katz about the importance of the philosophy of science and said it may be an interesting area but it doesn't contribute to science. What he considers valuable is the history of science. And he tries, as we have seen, to apply lessons from the history of science to emerging disciplines such as the cognitive sciences.

Though I am skeptical of some of the lessons he purports to derive, it's clear that a knowledge of the history of one's discipline – and the history of ideas in general – can allow one to put current research and current ideas into some kind of perspective.

Such knowledge is a part of the general culture a scientist might have, rather than a core component of his or her expertise. It's an optional extra, scientifically speaking.

Some people are just more interested in fitting their knowledge into a narrative than others, even sometimes preferring to learn their mathematics, physics, psychology or whatever in part as history.

Others have no interest in history or historical approaches which they see as a waste of time. And so they would be for them.

People have different ways of seeing things, that's all: different strengths, different ways of learning, different aspirations for understanding.

But the odd thing is, for all his talk about history, Chomsky strikes me as a basically – and profoundly – ahistorical thinker.

His fundamental insights within linguistics focus almost exclusively on the synchronic rather than the diachronic aspects of language, and aspire, in effect, to an abstract rationalism.

And look at the nature of his political work, which is perceived as extreme not just by conservatives but also by mainstream progressive thinkers. A true historical sense would have at least mitigated the free-floating and self-generating logic of his polemics.

In fact, you could make a case that his main concern with history is to mine it for debating points in order to advance his causes, defend his theories, and, by extension, to cement his own position in the narrative of science.

But it can't be denied that Chomsky still retains a certain aura, a certain iconic status. This is due, I think, not just to his achievements, but to an unrelenting seriousness, to a rare combination of intellect and passion.

* This hostile account of Chomsky's performance at an invitation-only event in London last year (by the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum) is very revealing.

** It's worth mentioning in this context that, unlike most social scientists and, perhaps, curiously (given the rigorously abstract and scientistic tenor of his work in syntax and related areas), Chomsky takes literary art seriously and respects the value of the writer's insight into society's moral and psychological complexities. But, again, this becomes much less surprising in the light of his early exposure to (and continuing interest in and respect for) Hebrew literature.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Here and there

I have just put up a few notes on Conservative Tendency relating to recent problems with comment spam (fixed, I think, for both blogs), and future directions.

As I said there, I will post something on Noam Chomsky's linguistic ideas soon on this blog, but, if I did a critique of his political views, it would go up on Conservative Tendency.

Actually, the statistics for Language, Life and Logic, initially very poor, seem to be picking up. I will certainly persist with it, for the time being at least.

LL&L is not free from ideology entirely, but the idea is to keep it free of that notorious divider of friends and families, partisan politics.*

Merry Christmas.

* In fact, a bit of politics has crept into the Chomsky draft in the sense that I am beginning to see early familial (moral and cultural) influences as relevant to the general way he conceives of thought and language.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Kirk dies

Massimo Pigliucci has recently referred to the classic puzzle I alluded to in my previous post on this site about whether the destruction of one's body entails annihilation if a reconstructed version of one's body survives.

He was trying out a new online tool for addressing questions to the philosophical community, and one of his questions concerned 'what happens when Captain Kirk steps into a transporter device'.

The answers he got were all over the place. The most common one amongst philosophical academics interested in metaphysics was: 'Kirk dies, a Trekkie cries.'

But, as a commenter put it: 'Presuming 1) that the Kirk who emerges at the end of the transportation process is physically identical to the Kirk that went in, and 2) there's no untransportable and intangible soul-stuff that makes Kirk Kirk, I don't understand how you can meaningfully say that Kirk has died after being transported.'

The response to Pigliucci's query (coupled with the comment thread attached to his post) illustrates a problem with much philosophical discourse.

The topics being addressed may or may not be interesting or important – this one is both, I think – but there is no standard or rigorous method for dealing with them, and so no real evidence of a coherent academic discipline (or profession) in operation. (Bear in mind that Derek Parfit set the ball rolling on this particular discussion three decades ago.)

Often philosophical questions seem to be without satisfactory answers (which suggests that the questions are confused, in the sense of carrying too much implicit metaphysical baggage). If an answer comes, it is, more often than not, a mere trigger for counterarguments, and more questions... The process just doesn't move forward most of the time.

Scientific knowledge is relevant to making sense of thought experiments like this, however. For example, if the processes involved violate known science then the whole discussion is just a fantasy and a waste of time. (Bad science fiction, if you like.)

One important scientific issue raised in the discussion relates to whether atoms can be distinguished from one another as macro-objects can. It seems not. Apparently, it just doesn't make sense to ask whether the atoms constituting the reconstructed body are the same ones which constituted the original body or different ones. The very notion of a 'copy' is called into doubt.

Inanimate objects (specifically the Mona Lisa) are discussed in the light of this fact. I think Ian Pollock goes too far in suggesting that if there was a perfect (atom for atom) copy of the Mona Lisa, then the notion of the real, original Mona Lisa would no longer have a clear, objective meaning. It would, surely. It is the one Leonardo actually painted. As Massimo Pigliucci points out, Pollock is not taking history seriously.

And, if the real Mona Lisa is the one actually painted by Leonardo (defined by its history as well as physics), so my real body (on which my subjective consciousness depends) is also defined in part by its history.

The heart of the question of personal identity relates to first-person experience, to my consciousness of being me and being alive. Would Kirk be right to have misgivings about entering the transporter?

Clearly, subjective experience is entirely dependent on a particular physical body. It is the body that is conscious. So, in the end, 'I' am my body in the sense that 'my' fate is inextricably bound up with the fate of this body. If it goes, 'I' go.

I put the pronouns in quotes to indicate that I personally doubt that there is any substantial thing, any entity, which is me. 'I' am a kind of composite of experiences: very basic sentience in the here and now (the sort of thing any living creature – even the most basic – might have) plus memory. When a certain level of neuronal complexity is reached, you have a sense of a continuing self.

The real mystery lies, in my view, with basic sentience rather than with identity. Sentience is a real, robust phenomenon whereas personal identity is arguably an illusion as there is no 'self', just a (sentient, etc.) body with a complex brain.

At my death nothing of substance will die, apart from the body.

Regarding the transporter, I would have to agree with Massimo Pigliucci that it kills Kirk. The copy may have Kirk's memories, but subjectively Kirk goes into the transporter, is scanned – and never wakes up.

To finish, here is a little thought experiment of my own, a little meditation on the nature of death.

We willingly go to sleep at night. We willingly get anaesthetized for an operation. We might also be happy to go into 'cold storage' for a long space journey or to survive a devastating catastrophe on earth (a 'nuclear winter', for example).

But, what if, though we could be certain the hibernation device would not fail to keep our body alive and in a resusitatable state, we just did not know whether or not it would ever get around to waking us up?

Going into such a device becomes exactly equivalent to a game of Russian roulette. Death (as in the death of the body) is functionally equivalent to not waking up, ever. All the death of the body does is make it impossible ever to wake up. It takes away hope.

But, from the point of view of the unconscious person, hope – or any kind of expectation – is irrelevant. So the experience of death is equivalent to the experience of going into a state of unconsciousness – nothing more.

[Update, July 11, 2014: I have realized that there is a flaw in this argument. As soon as I have time I will write a new post explaining what I see the flaw to be.]

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Death or immortality?

Be assured that I am not prone to having mystical experiences, but I do – it must be said – seem to spend an inordinate amount of time in that twilight zone between sleep and waking (either going into or coming out of sleep). And in such a state for some hours very early one morning I wrestled with the question of death – and came to a conclusion.

At the end of it all I felt absolutely sure that I (and presumably you too) would never – could never – be totally snuffed out.

There are two basic ways of responding to such an 'insight', as I see it: to take it at face value (as I did at the time), or to take it merely as evidence for how our brains work.

On the second (and more plausible) interpretation, all I did on that sleepless morning was to demonstrate to myself that my conscious self (due to the limitations of my brain and presumably all human brains) was incapable of conceiving of its own future nonexistence.

I know some people claim to be able to conceive of their future nonexistence (and to be quite happy about the prospect), but I would argue (like Matthew Hutson) that such people are still imagining themselves as a faint presence in their own post-death future.

Of course, nothing concerning the reality or non-reality of survival can be inferred from the fact (if it is a fact) that we cannot conceive of our own individual deaths.

Just getting clear what (if anything) personal identity is and making sense of the notion of such an entity surviving the death of the body with which it had been associated is a very difficult task. Sometimes I think it is a futile one.

I may have more to say about these and related questions in the future, but, just to give an indication of the sort of thinking which I think touches on the nub of the problem, I want to mention a classic thought experiment devised by Derek Parfit.

Briefly, it is about a choice of means of transport. It is some time in the future and you need to visit Mars on a regular basis. You have the slow option of a space ship; or the speed-of-light option which involves a Star Trek-like scanner which records your body's exact physical state and sends the information to Mars where you are reconstructed, memories intact. The scanning process is fatal, but it doesn't matter as you will be aware only of having arrived on Mars.

Parfit thinks that people would get over their initial reluctance to use the new system very quickly, and that we wouldn't feel as though the reconstructed people were just copies of defunct originals.

But what if a number of copies were made? And, most importantly, how do I know that if I was scanned etc., I would, from a subjective point of view, 'wake up' on Mars (or anywhere), rather than just die, pure and simple, copy or no copy?*

Now, all this may sound very hypothetical and irrelevant to whether you or I will survive (in some sense) our respective deaths. But new developments in cosmology, notably the theory of eternal inflation, make it very relevant. For it appears likely that exact (and not so exact) copies of us do in fact exist in distant and forever inaccessible reaches of an unimaginably large and expanding complex of universes (variously called the multiverse or the megaverse).

I know it sounds fanciful, but leading physicists have put forward such views; and, though I remain personally skeptical about particular theories, the notion that the cosmos is (infinitely) more than what we can observe or even potentially have access to is very plausible and generally accepted in the physics community.

In the end, the (possible) existence of duplicate and similar worlds probably has no bearing on whether my subjective sense of self will be extinguished at my death. It is, however, a comfort to know that the cosmos may not be as boringly bounded as mid-20th century science suggested.

It may be going too far to say that anything is possible, but the vista of possibilities has certainly expanded.

*Parfit doesn't believe we relate to the future (or the future relates to us) in the way we think we do (or in the way we think it does). As I recall, he even suggests that the future should not concern us any more than the past.

When I first read Parfit's book Reasons and Persons I struggled with this idea for a while, but finally gave it up as being inconsistent with the fact that, as individuals, we plan (or fail to plan) for the future – and enjoy or suffer the consequences. (Parfit's view would be, I presume, that these experiences were not being had by a self-entity that moved from the past to the future – or perhaps by any entity at all.)