Saturday, January 3, 2009

My views on the NATURE-NURTURE debate – Part 8



One criticism one may levy against Sampson is that of reductionism. Popper says that we cannot dispense with certain postulates simply because it seems prima facie viable to do so. Popper uses the rather well-known example of behaviourism which tried to dispense with mental states. We first need a behaviourally based theory, then a theory of cognitive states, and then we need to see what unifying principles can be found between them. Likewise, with the acquisition of language, we should not at the outset try and reduce all learning to general cognitive structures without seeing what merit postulating modularity of mind has. Regarding language, we need an accurate description of the nature and properties of languages or language in general, before we are in a position to begin arguing whether that kind of system could or could not be acquired by the general learning mechanisms through which we learn other things, particularly culturally-specific things that are unlikely to be innate.

Sampson actually does not disagree with this, and does not think that this fact undermines the crux of his claim as outlined in his book. Sampson did not state that we need not describe languages accurately; he assumed that people were striving to do this, yet nothing they came up with gave us reasons for believing in Chomsky’s theory of innate knowledge of language.

Mind-body dualism

Sampson claims that we learn language because we are creative, and this creativity is what acts as a spring-board to grammatical innovation. Cowley thinks this raises certain questions which need to be answered.

Due to Sampson’s faith in human creativity, he does not ask how machines might be able to simulate the emergence of grammar, or how “primate interactions might have come to be mediated by structured vocalisations”. Otherwise, what precludes a machine from exhibiting creative behaviour? Turner has already explained how this could be the case, as I mentioned earlier, therefore providing the aforementioned explanation which Cowley asks for.

Cowley also has a more general problem though, with the implication that Sampson’s thesis seems to put the notion of mind beyond the reach of theory, and Cowley has a problem with being asked to “abandon the idea that the mental is reducible to matter”. Language is now not conceptualised as an organ, but taken to be part of behaviour. Hence, as a behavioural construct, language is to have arisen from the evolutionary interaction of genotype and phenotype. This implies that biology cannot be reduced to physics. I personally do not see any problem with the latter, but since Cowley considers it as one of the limitations of Sampson’s framework, I will address it accordingly. This leads to what is referred to as mind-body dualism (or the “mind-body problem”)[1]. Carr, it may be worth noting, also seems to have a problem with Sampson’s version of empiricism because it “embraces Cartesian dualism, a doctrine which is simply untenable”, even though he does not give any reasons as to why it is “simply untenable”. Cowley then continues to state that “even open-minded readers will find themselves hard-pressed to accept its ontological implications”.

Sampson does not make the claim that understanding the mind, and subsequently human creativity, is something beyond science, but more specifically something which is beyond the reach of hypothetico-deductive science, which is certainly not the same as being out of the realms of science. Einstein is reported to have said that his pencil is cleverer then he is, pointing to the fact that intuitive inspiration is something beyond the reach of the intellect. In fact, creativity and intuition are natural gifts which some are simply born with, and are faculties which are distinct from the mind. Note, however, that there has been some confusion about the meaning of the word CREATIVE, since Chomsky has decided to reinvent the term; I use the term in its conventional sense, referring to creativity as something revolutionary, like Picasso’s paintings, and Einstein’s ground-breaking theories, instead of the everyday creativity you and I are involved in on a daily basis, like finding a new method of cleaning the house, and it is actually the latter sense of “creative” that Sampson (and Popper) are referring to as well. Actually, the notion that intuition, intellect, and knowledge are distinct entities which are ‘mediated’ by the mind is certainly neither surprising nor new. Authors like Sivananda (cf. his 1965 book, The Mind – its mysteries and control) and Deepak Chopra (in his admittedly new age, yet scientifically based genre of works) explain the human mind in exactly this manner from a quantum mechanical perspective, which, as any educated reader would know, challenges some of our most basic scientific tenets; even a very rudimentary understanding of quantum mechanics requires nothing short of a paradigm shift in thinking. Chopra clearly states in his book Quantum Healing: “The obvious nonsense of putting mind into a box was one of the chief reasons why science separated mind and matter to begin with, since all matter can be put into a box.” One of the foremost thinkers in this field, Paul Davies, has the following to say on this matter:
The lesson of quantum mechanics is this: Something that ‘just happens’ need not
actually violate the laws of physics. The abrupt and uncaused appearance of
something can occur within the scope of scientific law, once quantum laws have
been taken into account. Nature apparently has the capacity for genuine spontaneity.
Hence, no-one could plausibly state that this phenomenon falls outside the realm of science. In light of this, I also fail to see the import of Carr’s claim that “there is no properly scientific answer to the question”.

Admittedly, Sivananda bases his teachings on the ancient Hindu school of Vedanta, which some may deem religious, and therefore not scientific, but I argued (cf. the entry here entitled Science and Vedanta) that the purports of the Vedanta school of thought is nothing other than scientific; the same point is made in numerous other works, like Fritjof Capra’s THE TAO OF PHYSICS. To flesh out the details would not be viable here; nevertheless, the details are not central to the debate at hand. The point is simply that seeing the mind and body as distinct entities is not problematic, and the above-mentioned authors are only three amongst dozens of others who have dealt with this. Likewise, the fact that the human mind is beyond the grasp of conventional science is not something that would make someone familiar with the relevant literature uncomfortable.

Cowley also makes the surprising claim that Sampson “fails to confront… Pinker’s belief that the mind and brain are a single information-processing system”, and that we need to “drop Sampson and Pinker’s assumptions about linguistic autonomy”, and that only if we do so, would we be able to make “more plausible approaches to behavioural, cognitive and evolutionary aspects of language.”

Regarding the assumption that the mind and brain are a single information-processing system, Cowley is being contradictory. His main problem with Sampson is that his thesis leads to mind-body dualism. So stating at the outset that he joins Pinker in assuming that the mind and brain are conflated does not make sense. Regarding the latter claim, Cowley says that Sampson joins Pinker in assuming linguistic autonomy, yet goes on in the rest of his paper to show that Pinker (and Chomsky, of course) does this, and why this is wrong, without showing what leads him to assume that Sampson does as well. In fact, Sampson’s entire theory is centred around the claim that language is not a modularised organ, that it is part and parcel of other cognitive systems, in agreement with theorists Turner and Lakoff, and therefore cannot be an autonomous construct.

Hence, I do not see the force of Cowley’s claim that even an “open-minded” reader would be hard-pressed to accept these “ontological implications”.

Is Sampson accurate in his representation of Popper?

It is evident that Sampson is not accurate in his representation of Popper’s philosophy.
Sampson wants to extend Popper’s own account of knowledge acquisition to language acquisition. Sampson himself argues that it is legitimate to do so, given that Popper was at times inconsistent in his paradigm. Even though Sampson wants to argue against Chomsky’s notion of innateness using Popper’s account, it is somewhat ironic that Popper unambiguously states that the “disposition to learn some human language – is an inborn characteristic of the human species alone”. And later on in that very same book he says that “there is an innate ability and keen-ness to learn a language in every human being”. Elsewhere, Popper says:

As children we learn to decode the chaotic messages which meet us from the
environment. Learning to decode the messages which reach us is extremely
complicated. It is based on innate dispositions…

And a few pages later:

… to every man who has any feeling for biology it must be clear that most
of our dispositions are inborn, either in a sense that we are born with them…
or in a sense that in the process of maturation, the development of the disposition
is elicited by the environment (for example, the disposition to learn a language).

Admittedly, Popper’s view is not quite as extreme as Chomsky’s. His view on the innateness of language is analogous to that of a child’s expectation to be fed. For example, I once saw a two-week old baby being fed with a bottle, and the child kept putting his hands around the bottle without touching it. I found this quite intriguing, so I asked the paediatrician why the baby kept doing that. He explained that new-born babies who are put on the bottle (not breast-fed) tended to ‘look’ for the mother’s breast by feeling. Of course, a two-week old baby does not have much chance to learn this behaviour, so this behaviour is best explained by appealing to an innate expectation. Likewise, Popper says that we must also have an innate predilection to learn a language. The child has to know to pay attention to words, as opposed to the continual rustling of leaves, etc. This is not the same as Chomsky’s claim. With regards to our “baby being fed” example, a more viable analogue would be to claim that babies have a device in their minds, along with a “feeding gene”, which naturally unfolds as part of the human genetic blueprint, in the same way as our genes dictate how the teeth grow, when the milk teeth will fall out, etc.

Nevertheless, Sampson does not endorse even this ‘weaker’ version of nativism. As mentioned earlier, the dispute of whether we have certain innate mechanisms is not the contention. What is disputed is exactly how much is innate. For Sampson, all he postulates by way innate endowment is the ability to postulate hypotheses and update them in light of subsequent experience. As we have seen, for Popper this alone would not suffice. It is a necessary condition for knowledge acquisition, linguistic or otherwise, but it certainly is not sufficient. For example, we also need to “learn to decode the chaotic messages which meet us from the environment”.

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