What Kind of Creatures Are We?

An opinion on the new priesthood

Tis to be slave in soul/ And to hold no strong control/ Over your own wills, but be/ All that others make of ye. —Shelley

Noam Chomsky quotes the Romantic poet in his What Kind of Creatures Are We? printed by Columbia University Press in 2016. The Romantic movement is considered to have formed in opposition to the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. In this poem, Shelley laments the working conditions of industrial workers, who had been reduced from artisans to cogs in a machine. It is appropriate that Chomsky quotes Shelley in his work, for I believe a similar case can be made in regards to the philosophy of the mind, where another process of entrapment (namely eliminative materialism) seems to be taking place. Will Durant, the prolific historian and philosopher, in his book of essays titled Fallen Leaves wrote of the new priesthood of scientists whose “ordained members speak a language beyond the ken of their worshippers,” who “censor one another with aromatic praise,” who we trust because “they alone have direct access to God” (132). La, no. They have solved few of the hard questions that were first postulated by the Greeks, and instead repeat the same theories again and again, but with the loss of history each repetition becomes more arrogant and ignorant. It is important to keep in mind that it is more often common than not that lab scientists make for poor theorists, the exceptions being the polymaths through the ages, a group Chomsky falls into.

I listened to Noam Chomsky’s lectures on the Cognitive Revolution at the University of Girona in Spain (CR) before reading What Kind of Creatures Are We? Both shed light on the themes of language and consciousness. Language, which empirically according to Chomsky, is primarily a tool of consciousness at the conceptual-intentional interface, and not a result of communication at the sensorimotor interface as some argue. A rather compelling argument that Chomsky makes using empirical details in What Kind of Creatures Are We? These details are intricate and difficult to get into, but can be read in the first chapter titled What is Language?

Chomsky is known as one of the founders of cognitive science, and in his lecture series he compares the 20th century cognitive revolution to the 17th century cognitive revolution. Both of these revolutions were sparked by similar factors, including the emergence of automata and computational theories of mind. The first cognitive revolution took the form of framing Cartesian dualism, considered to be on the continuum of Plato’s Theory of Forms. According to Chomsky (whose paper, amongst a few others including one by Newell and Simon, contributed to the second cognitive revolution), the most current cognitive revolution has taken a turn for the worse, as he says, “The vast debate about the Chinese Room, Searle’s Chinese Room in the philosophy of mind, Artificial Intelligence literature, and all of this is a contemporary version of it. In my view a case of regression; however, I think it’s extremely misguided...Turing in his original paper in 1950 already pointed out why it it was off track. That is, it’s been following a line that he suggested people not follow” (CR).

The misdirection the recent cognitive revolution has taken with the philosophy of the mind is the debate framed as physicalism versus dualism. Dr. Shelley Kagan in his Open Yale Series lecture breaks the debate down through a semester’s worth of knowledge, using the philosophical tool of ‘inference to the best explanation’ to make his case. Bacteria, not spirits, cause disease because it is inference to the best explanation. He claims a soul can only be explained if it survives this scrutiny, he debates back and forth between physicalism and dualism, saying that if there is something about the soul that physicalism cannot explain the argument goes to dualism, to the soul argument. He calls human sensations “qualias,” tasting coffee and experiencing red, and the only differentiating factor between us and robots is qualias. It is only a matter of time before science explains qualias away, and Kagan sums up to assert that physicalism trumps dualism. If we are just machines though, then there’s no such thing as free will, belief, thought, leading to eliminative materialism. Chomsky has come to be seated outside this debate and see it descend into meaninglessness:

Again let me put in the strongest terms, virtually all the discussion in the field is not just wrong but meaningless, literally without meaning. It’s talking about a problem that’s un-state-able. That’s the strongest version of the position I’m trying to take. So let me put it in the most outrageous form possible: the whole field is not wrong, but meaningless, talking about something that it can’t characterize. Namely, something that presupposes a notion of the physical which has been abandoned since the 17th century. That’s the strongest version of this particular thesis. (CR)

According to Chomsky there are two forms of dualism: irrational/non-naturalistic and rational/naturalistic. Cartesian dualism (which arose during the first cognitive revolution) was rational in framing mental properties. Just as substances have acidic or basic properties, so too there were mental and physical properties. Cartesian dualism fell apart when Isaac Newton showed counter intuitively that contact mechanics, the physical, failed. The Cartesian view of the mind, in fact, remained untouched. Aristotle’s Logic finally overthrew Plato’s Forms. The human mind’s tendency to see the world in cause and effect, a contact mechanical way, simply became another thing to study about the mind as Chomsky claims. Since then we have had no fitting replacement definition of what “material” even is, making the debate between physicalism versus dualism and the idea of eliminate materialism somewhat absurd. Contrary to Gilbert Ryle’s unfounded ridicule of the “ghost within the machine,” ‘tis ghost within ghost. Newton revealed a world that is “ghost all the way down to its most elementary principles” (CR).

An example of the meaninglessness of the eliminative materialism debate is the oft cited idea that “consciousness is firing neurons” (CIFN). By arguing against irrational dualism the CIFN priests are actually framing and perpetuating it. Irrational dualism arises from choosing to study some parts of the world naturalistically and other parts non-naturalistically. Non-naturalistically, because the study of the mind unlike the rest of nature is not taken to have “limits and scopes.” The closest example we have to the brain is the gut, which with its extensive neuronal activity is termed the second brain in medical literature. Chomsky uses this example to show that there is no “innateness hypothesis” about the gut. The gut, like the rest of nature, has limits and scopes, or as Chomsky labels them “problems and mysteries.” Yet, it is taken for granted that the mind can understand the nature of reality, when all of nature shows us to have limits and scopes. The human mind can do certain things, because it cannot do others. Dogs may be able to see things differently, just as bats in Thomas Nagel’s What is it Like to Be a Bat? Scientists such as Einstein had questioned how the human mind is capable of understanding the nature of reality, how it was that from the Enlightenment onwards science was able to make such huge strides. The problem is that the intelligible source of the universe is inside us. Chomsky says the onus of justification would fall on those claiming that something should not be studied naturalistically, in this case those who claim the human mind is capable of grasping reality — of jumping from subjective consciousness to an objective reality. The justification for this is often cited as evolution (by Charles Sanders Pierce and Stephen Hawking), but Chomsky cites leading evolutionary biologist Dick Lewontin in claiming that there is nothing in the evolution of humankind that would have naturally selected consciousness to understand reality, i.e. the science forming faculty.

We cannot firmly base the “science forming faculty,” this intelligibility that has allowed us to understand the nature of reality, it could be wrong, it could be right, but it comes down to an unknown cause within the mysteries realm of the mind. In other words, within the problems realm is the mind’s ability to experience, experiment, hypothesize, but within the mysteries realm is ultimate explanation, as in his book Chomsky narrates:

Historians of science have recognized that Newton's reluctant intellectual moves set forth a new view of science in which the goal is not to seek ultimate explanations but to find the best theoretical account we can of the phenomena of experience and experiment." As Richard Popkin claims, science proceeds by "doubting our abilities to find grounds for our knowledge, while accepting and increasing the knowledge itself," and recognizing that "the secrets of nature, of things themselves, are forever hidden from us.” (89, What Kind of Creatures Are We?)

We don’t know the first thing about the human mind, those things on the experiential and experimental realms, so to make grandiose claims about the nature of consciousness, ultimate explanations, does not make sense. When people seek my father, a practicing neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, for medical advice, he reminds them that we understand less than 5% of the human brain (rather than a statement of precision, it is a statement to affirm our unknowingness). Mental states may be reduced to the organic function of the brain (both properties of this world and thus reducible in that sense) as post-Newtonian John Locke and Joseph Priestly already had, but we cannot claim to know more than that. Consciousness may arise from the brain, but you cannot claim to know how. To do so is to fall prey to irrational dualism. Chomsky relates that when Newton discovered gravity, his rival Leibniz claimed that it was occult, and Newton replied saying it was not occult, “their causes only are occult,” leading to the famous statement: hypotheses non fingo (I frame no hypotheses). It is frightening to face naked unintelligibility. Claiming ignorance and admitting to the mysteries of the world takes wisdom and courage, qualities that unfortunately parts of the contemporary scientific world in their epistemological arrogance and historical ignorance are slowly losing.

Works Cited

1) Chomsky, Noam. What kind of creatures are we? New York: Columbia U Press, 2016. Print.

2) ThePublicMindDenver. "Noam Chomsky speaks about Cognitive Revolution - Part 1." YouTube. YouTube, 06 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 July 2017.

3) Durant, Will. Fallen leaves: last words on life, love, war, and God. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. Print.

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