Chomsky on The Philosopher’s Zone

Listen to MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky on ABC’s radio show The Philosopher’s Zone (link here).  Even at 87, he is still as razor sharp as ever. I’ve always been an admirer of Chomsky although I think I now mostly disagree with his ideas about language. I do remember being completely mesmerized by the few talks I attended when I was a graduate student.

Chomsky is the father of modern linguistics. He turned it into a subfield of computer science and mathematics. People still use Chomsky Normal Form and the Chomsky Hierarchy in computer science. Chomsky believes that the language ability is universal among all humans and is genetically encoded. He comes to this conclusion because in his mathematical analysis of language he found what he called “deep structures”, which are embedded rules that we are consciously unaware of when we use language. He was adamantly opposed to the idea that language could be acquired via a probabilistic machine learning algorithm. His most famous example is that we know that the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” makes grammatical sense but is nonsensical while the sentence “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless”, is nongrammatical. Since, neither of these sentences had ever been spoken nor written he surmised that no statistical algorithm could ever learn the difference between the two. I think it is pretty clear now that Chomsky was incorrect and machine learning can learn to parse language and classify these sentences. There has also been field work that seems to indicate that there do exist languages in the Amazon that are qualitatively different form the universal set. It seems that the brain, rather than having an innate ability for grammar and language, may have an innate ability to detect and learn deep structure with a very small amount of data.

The host Joe Gelonesi, who has filled in admirably for the sadly departed Alan Saunders, asks Chomsky about the hard problem of consciousness near the end of the program. Chomsky, in his typical fashion of invoking 17th and 18th century philosophy, dismisses it by claiming that science itself and physics in particular has long dispensed with the equivalent notion. He says that the moment that Newton wrote down the equation for gravitational force, which requires action at a distance, physics stopped being about making the universe intelligible and became about creating predictive theories. He thus believes that we will eventually be able to create a theory of consciousness although it may not be intelligible to humans. He also seems to subscribe to panpsychism, where consciousness is a property of matter like mass, an idea championed by Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi. However, as I pointed out before, panpsychism is dualism. If it does exist, then it exists apart from the way we currently describe the universe. Lately, I’ve come to believe and accept the fact that consciousness is an epiphenomenon and has no causal consequence in the universe. I must credit David Chalmers (e.g. see previous post) for making it clear that this is the only recourse to dualism. We are no more nor less than automata caroming through the universe, with the ability to spectate a few tens of milliseconds after the fact.

Addendum: As pointed out in the comments, there are monoistic theories, as espoused by Bishop Berkeley, where only ideas are real.  My point about the only recourse to dualism is epiphenomena for consciousness, is if one adheres to materialism.







9 thoughts on “Chomsky on The Philosopher’s Zone

  1. I like Berekely’s idea. I even have a paper by a polish physicist (published in Physics Essays, a sort of crank journal though G t’ Hooft is on its editorial boad—nobler prize for standard model, and now into ’emergent quantum mechanics—sortuh the idea that quantum theory emerges from a classical microdynamics) which derives quantum theory from Berkely’s ideas.

    Chomsky’s new book ‘why only us?’ with Berwick (along with his paper with Berwick, Hauser, Lewontin, etc. in PLOS in 2014) has been roundly ridiculed and trashed in reviews. ITs larglely theology—-with its own cast of gods, acronyms, etc. you need to know to enter into that heaven (or hell) (FNB, FNL, Merge, etc.). Perhaps thats a bit harsh but Chomsky deserves it (i’ve dealt with him 2 times in seminars and both times since i brought up connectionist views he basically ridiculed me and his crew basically shunned me like i was rabid; on the ‘left’ he’s typically seen and portrayed as this great compassionate humanitarian, but when you get into academic arena he’s a dogmatic , ruthlesss, authoritarian. Muhc of the left with which i am quite familiar basically has a very limited capacity for critical thinking beyond a few basics—but most are ‘activists’ so their energy goes into being out on the street, etc. . It is possible that their analyses is adequate—eg ‘capitalism’ is the problem (naomi klein, amy goodmanm ad nauseum…). But they are also the first people to buy a new computer, smart phone, set up webn cites, put out magazines and t-shrirts, etc. If you talk to them nothing happenned in USA except the wobblies, civil rights movement, battle of seattle, occupy wall street. If you ask phsicists what happened they might standard model, superstrings, etc. To me the issue is what is called ‘the new class problem’—sort of knowkledge workers versus truck drivers, home health aids, serivce workers, bus drivers, the gas and electric company, etc..

    I do wonder if his logical formalism (minimalist program) will have some use—i guess chomsky grammars like Turing machines are widely used, even though they may be mostly irrelevant to linguistics. (They are another version of universal truing machines as was shown first in the 60’s—it defintaely is a ‘universal grammar’ ..since it can say anything that can be said using symbols.

    http://www.arxiv/org/abs/cs/0212024 (andrew clark on unsupervised language aquisition, among many results of this type due to the CMU group (mcllelland, rumelhart, hinton, Macwhinney, etc. ) and UCSD (elman and bates —rethinjking innateness). clark was dismissed by Chomsky, as was Terrance Deacon, and everyone else.

    Interestingly his stuff on anarchism I think is actually quite good (his other stuff in policits, eg manufacturing consent with e hermann of wharton school—-perfect place for a self-righteous tenured radical) basically like his linguistics went off the rails in the 60’s since it realized it was inconsisntant and hypocritical so the only way to hide it is to write more books.

    see his youtube video ‘what is anarchism’ on youtube (2013). he knows alot of his history.

    i have alot of links to Chomsky on my fb pages and (i have 2 due to a typing error). the FB group ‘philosophy and evolutionary theory’ and posted links there also has alot of discussions about chomsky (some by me)

    Scott aronson *quantum computing, NYU) discusses Tononi’s theory though i didnt go through the details—he disagrees with it.
    I like Schrodinger’s ‘mind and matter’ view—last chapter in his book what is life.
    I’m somewhat agnostic on this sort of stuff—i don’t really understand how to pose the question of consciousness, and alot of linguistics theory similarily I am unclear what problem they are trying to solve. I view basic symbolic logic (concatenation, recursion, etc.) to basically have the unerlying formalism. All the rest is details.


  2. @ byong Embodied cognition is most certainly true at the most basic level in that cognition is shaped by the external world, which includes the body. This concept may be useful for developing treatments for mental disorders or robotics but it does not directly address the hard problem of consciousness


  3. Insofar as I have any beliefs here I’m an epiphenomenalist as well. It does require believing some outlandish things, though – the fact that human beings believe themselves to be conscious must be in some sense coincidental, rather than (as it seems) a direct response to subjective experience.


  4. @lukas The fact that we talk about consciousness is extremely interesting and something I’ve thought a little about. I don’t think it is a coincidence. To me it implies that while we are not using consciousness per se to drive the ship, it is within the realm of our observable universe and thus does contribute to our future actions. Thus, it has some causal influence, in the sense that any environmental input has causal influence, but not directly.


  5. I wonder how Koch reconciles his dualistic beliefs with the sheer deterministic manner in which neurons, even at the single-neuron-level, are known to behave – an unsurprising fact that I learned actually from one of his talks. I personally don’t think consciousness is a hard or important problem at all because I don’t believe that it exists in the way that people think it does. We are really just deterministic machines with a thin shell of what we call consciousness. If true will outside of the mechanics of matter exists, it is limited by the causality of the universe in the classical world.


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