Q&A: Idan Landau and Noam Chomsky on Mind and Matter

Chomsky’s writings invariably reflect the force of intellect and cogency of thought that befits one of the greatest thinkers of our times—this work is no exception.

~Robert May, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy & Linguistics, University of California, Davis

Noam Chomsky, author of What Kind of Creatures Are We?, is widely known and deeply admired for being the founder of modern linguistics, one of the founders of the field of cognitive science, and perhaps the most avidly read political theorist and commentator of our time. This week, we’ll be featuring an interview between Chomsky and Idan Landau, professor of linguistics at Ben Gurion University, Israel. Check back tomorrow for Chomsky’s perspective on mysterianism and free will.

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Idan Landau:The main lesson in this book is drawn from the collapse of the commonsense concept of matter because of Newton’s notion of action at a distance (gravity). From that point on, you argue, science’s concepts became ever more removed from common sense, and given that, we should follow Priestly and Russell in assuming that thought is another aspect of matter that is unintelligible to us. But are these two epistemological challenges on equal footing? “Contact physics” can perhaps be superseded once we acknowledge that some physical aspects of the world are invisible to us (being too small, or outside our wavelength sensitivity) and, hence, appear to act at a distance. The mind-body schism, however, feels immensely deeper. We’re stunned already at the first step: How can the memory of my childhood dog or Fermat’s last theorem be realized in matter—be it invisible or even inaccessible to any of our senses? It’s easier for me to imagine a parallel universe that humans will never gain access to than a material representation of Fermat’s theorem. You suggest it’s a difference in degree, at most, but introspection (which you value elsewhere) points to a dichotomy. Even if the dichotomy is yet another aspect of our folk psychology, it’s curious.

Noam Chomsky: It’s an interesting lesson, but I didn’t think of it as the main lesson of the book What Kind of Creatures Are We? (WKC). I will come back to that.

It is somewhat misleading to describe the lesson just as a failure of common sense or even as simply a matter of action at a distance. It cuts deeper than that. And introducing cases that are too small or are outside our perceptual range doesn’t help to alleviate the mystery—which was recognized at the time to be profound, rightly I think. And with consequences. As discussed by prominent historians of science whom I quote, the mystery gradually became tacitly accommodated within a new and less ambitious “scientific common sense,” a significant transition in the history of human inquiry, I think.

What was at stake was the sharp break from the despised “occult qualities” of neo-scholasticism to modern science, with its willingness to be puzzled about what seems just obvious (rocks fall to their natural place, faster than feathers; objects interact through sympathies and antipathies; etc.) and its demand for coherent explanation.

The proposed answer to what constitutes coherent explanation, from Galileo and his contemporaries through Descartes, Leibniz, Huyghens, Newton, and other leading figures of modern science, and somewhat beyond, was the “mechanical philosophy”: the idea that the world is a machine, a more complex version of the intricate machines being constructed by skilled artisans that were astonishing people all over Europe. That provided the very criterion of “intelligibility,” hence, real explanation, for Galileo and the other founders of modern science. What Newton, Leibniz, and other major figures regarded as an “absurdity” that no person of scientific competence could accept—what Locke and Hume regarded a mystery beyond human comprehension—was Newton’s conclusion that two ordinary objects attract each other without contact. This was a return to the “occult properties” of the neo-scholastics, Leibniz and Huyghens objected, with Newton’s substantial agreement. It meant that the enterprise that inspired the break of modern science from mystical neo-scholasticism had failed (though Newton added some qualifications, as discussed in WKC).

Not a negligible matter.

Note that it was not Newton’s theory that was unintelligible; quite the contrary. Rather, the world it described. The effect was that science lowered its standards, contenting itself with intelligibility of theory. It also followed at once, as was immediately understood, that there is no longer any clear notion of matter (body, physical). These are whatever the best explanatory theory postulates. If it turns out that the physicist John Wheeler’s theory of “it from bit” is adopted and “everything is information” answers the questions that are posed, then so be it. The same if the world consists almost entirely of mysterious dark energy/matter that cannot be found. Or if it is constituted of fields or multiverses or strings or gravitons or curved space-time or whatever other radical departures from the mechanical philosophy the best theory instructs us to adopt.

Intuition about what seems “immensely deeper” is uninformative. It is all too deep for our comprehension, which is why the enterprise of early modern science was abandoned in a favor of a much more limited search for intelligible theory.

Also abandoned, though much later, was the demand for reduction. While the “lesson” we are now discussing does I think merit serious thought, the record of how chemistry developed on an independent path and how the “explanatory gap” was filled a century ago (discussed in chap. 4 of WKC) seems to me of considerably greater import for the study of language and mind, the course it should pursue, and the quandaries it is alleged to face.

Returning to the impact of Newton’s shocking discoveries, it was quickly recognized that the mind-body problem cannot even be posed, at least in the classical sense. It was entirely reasonable for Locke to suggest (putting his theological framework aside) that just as the constituents of the world have properties that are inconceivable to us, as Newton demonstrated, so it may also be that organized structures of these constituents have the property of thought—of your remembering your dog or my thinking about your questions. And it was reasonable for this suggestion to be pursued through the following century, leading to Priestley’s work (and reiterated as late as Darwin’s notebooks). Though it was not reasonable for it to be forgotten and then re-created in recent years without acknowledgment as “an astonishing discovery” (Francis Crick), the thesis of the new biology that “things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of the brain” (Vernon Mountcastle, summarizing the conclusions of the “Decade of the Brain,” 1990-2000), and so on, as discussed in WKC.

The new biology essentially repeats Locke’s suggestion and the work that followed (often in virtually the same words), ignoring the precedents and the important background: Locke’s recognition that after Newton we remain in “incurable ignorance of what we desire to know” about matter and its effects so we can only seek the best theories, letting the chips fall where they may, including the Lockean conception of “thinking matter,” now the new orthodoxy.

I think we can agree that we are no smarter than the figures I have been quoting, and it’s a fact that nothing relevant to Newton’s “absurdity” has been learned since. Accordingly, none of this can be casually dismissed. These are critical moments in the history of inquiry into the world and of “what kind of creature we are” and of how we reached our current best understanding of the way to investigate the world.

Landau: I don’t underestimate the magnitude of the failure of the “enterprise that inspired the break of modern science from mystical neo-scholasticism.” In using the phrase “immensely deeper” I was rather referring to prescientific, layman intuitions and not to the (still) more sophisticated mechanical philosophy. After all, occult qualities populate not only Aristotelian science but countless mythologies and ancient tribal belief systems, which means that they too—and not just contact physics—constitute our “folk science.” Although I haven’t spoken directly to any premodern people, I imagine that they would respond quite differently to the following propositions:

  1. An invisible, animate spirit moves the clouds around and showers rain on our fields.
  2. The memory of my childhood dog is nothing but some currents in my brain.

Less exotically, we may ask children which they find less reasonable. My hunch is that (2) is a greater violation of our inborn intuitions than (1) is; perhaps the intuition that is violated in (2) is universal while the one violated in (1) (if it’s “intuition” at all) is culturally specific. Maybe you disagree with this assessment. But if not, then (to clarify my original question), this is a schism in our “folk science” that is not “continuous” with the schism you so eloquently describe in the early scientific revolution.

Chomsky: On (1) and (2), my speculations are similar to yours, but for what seem to be different reasons. Maybe I can relate some personal experiences. With my children and grandchildren, I made up stories about mysterious little creatures that raise the sun in the morning, that cause the rain to fall and the grass to grow, etc. That’s easy to picture, not so different from what children make up or understand at once in fairy stories. And not unlike myth in many cultures. They accepted it easily—how literally depended on ages—and the memories stayed through their lives.

If I’d brought up memories stored in the brain, I suspect they’d have found it simple and boring. So OK, there are images storied in the brain somehow, who cares how? Maybe they are literal copies of what is perceived. And what are electrical currents? Something they never heard of.

In neo-scholastic philosophy, it was held that images, say, of a triangle, flit through the air and are implanted in the brain. This was among the occult ideas that the mechanical philosophy sought to dispel. Descartes considered the case of a blind man with a stick who traces the outlines of an image and then using that sequence of stimuli his mind constructs a triangle—a precursor to what we now know about saccadic eye motions and the ways cognitive processes enter into determining the most primitive accessible stages of perception. That seemed to fall within the mechanical philosophy.


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