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.






Selection of the week

The Kyrie from Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, K427, played  by the Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The solo is sung by the American soprano Arleen Auger, who died in 1993 of brain cancer at the age 53.  Bernstein died in 1990 so this must have been performed sometime in the 1980’s.

Addendum: Actually it is from 1990 so it must have been right before Bernstein died.

Here is the whole mass if you have an hour.

Inequality, spending, and GDP

In this article in the New Republic, economists Alan Auerbach and Lawrence Kotlikoff give empirical evidence that the rich spend less in proportion to their wealth than the less well off.

3114c4f1245834a98303e801cbf1c9b8d304b13dAlthough, their article is about how inequality is not as bad as we think if we compare how much people spend rather than their wealth, their conclusion implies that if we made wealth more equal overall spending would go up since the rich are not spending to their full potential. In fact, only in the highest quintile does wealth exceed spending. Thus, the spending of the lower four quintiles is wealth limited and thus would increase if they had more wealth. Now, Rick Gerkin would argue that GDP growth would not increase or may even slow if wealth were redistributed because savings and investment would decrease but that is a separate issue. The bottom line is that there would be an immediate GDP boost if wealth were made equal.

Selection of the week

For these turbulent times, here is the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050, played by the early music group Apollo’s Fire.


Personally I think the keyboardist doesn’t quite go ballistic enough in the chromatic part of the cadenza. Listen from about the 9 min mark of the iconic version by Concentus Musicus Wien from 1964.