Q&A: Idan Landau and Noam Chomsky on Skepticism

Differentiating between problems, which we can solve, and mysteries, which we cannot, Chomsky concludes that the relationship between brain and consciousness may well be a mystery. Still, we can explore.

~Jackson Lears, London Review of Books

Welcome back to the fifth and final part of this week’s interview series. Today, Noam Chomsky, author of What Kind of Creatures Are We?, shares his view on skepticism with interviewer Idan Landau, professor of linguistics atBen Gurion University, Israel.

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Idan Landau: This book develops many ideas and themes that your readers will recognize from your earlier works. Still, I sense a new, or at least a more pronounced thread of skepticism running through it—especially as regards the limits of human cognition. “Mysteriansim” is a form of skepticism, so it is no wonder that one encounters Hume in these pages much more often that one did in your earlier writings. I wonder about the roots of this shift: Is it a natural perspective one gains with old age (Ecclesiastes-style wisdom)? Or is it a well-directed response to the over-optimism you see in certain branches of theoretical cognitive science? Jerry Fodor, perhaps, has gone through a similar process of “disenchantment” with the prospects of the cognitive enterprise between his Modularity of Mind (1983) and The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way (2000). Certain things you say may strike some as a defeatist position, which cannot inspire truly groundbreaking work. After all, if we wouldn’t constantly try to push against our limits, how would we know where they are?

Noam Chomsky: We should certainly push against our limits, just as the sciences have done, with remarkable results, since lowering their aspirations as the import of Newton’s discoveries set in. What for me at least is the most important part of WKC is the first chapter: the review of work that has tried “to push against our limits.” The results discussed were not considered within the realm of possibility only a few years ago. And going farther back, we may recall that a prevailing structuralist doctrine in the fifties was the “Boasian thesis” mentioned in chapter 1, holding that with marginal exceptions, languages can differ arbitrarily and that each new one must be studied without preconceptions.

My own concern with “problems and mysteries” (in the organism-relative sense that I am using) is not recent. In print, it goes back to an essay in a 1976 collection in memory of my close friend Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (“Problems and Mysteries in the Study of Human Language,” in Language in Focus, ed. A. Kasher)—topics that we had discussed privately well before.

Your comment about over-optimism is quite appropriate, but it goes much farther back. Bar-Hillel wrote about it in his retrospective essays, referring to the highly exaggerated expectations for machine translation as a branch of science (later completely abandoned, as he discussed). More generally, the groundless euphoria about the prospects for behavioral science in the postwar period was a good part of the reason why in the early fifties, three skeptical graduate students at Harvard (Morris Halle, Eric Lenneberg, and I), later a few others, inaugurated the generative-biolinguistic project outlined in the first chapter. The euphoria continues today with very serious misinterpretations of the (real but different) results of deep learning. Indeed, it has been a persistent feature of these fields, notably in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, matters of some sociological-political interest I think, discussed briefly in my monograph Language and Mind fifty years ago.

I didn’t entirely share my old friend Jerry Fodor’s growing “disenchantment” with the prospects for cognitive science—in part because I had lesser expectations in the first place. But again, I certainly agree that we should push against our limits while also trying to discover them experimentally, with history and experience as a useful guide. And if humans are part of the organic world, we should not be surprised to discover that the same properties of mind that yield enormous scope should also impose limits on the questions we can formulate and our ability to answer those we can. If that is so, then there is a human-relative distinction between problems that we can address and mysteries that are beyond our grasp, verifying the conclusions of Locke and Hume in the wake of Newton’s discoveries and requiring that we lower our aspirations, as apparently happened in the sciences after Newton.

That may bear on the recurrent notion of “hard problem.” Today, it is common to hear that consciousness is “the hard problem.” In the seventeenth century, motion was “the hard problem” (“the hard rock in philosophy”; see chap. 4). Its fate may be suggestive.

Landau: It seems to me that there is a suggestive similarity—I’m now risking a very speculative thought—between skepticism in the sciences and skepticism in the social/political arena. What you describe as the “groundless euphoria” of behavioral science was and still is part of a general modern outlook that goes by many titles—“progressivism,” “positivism,” and so forth (see Steven Pinker’s recent writings): The firm belief that mankind is constantly marching forward and upward—that overall, things get better for more and more people and that the world becomes more humane and progressive thanks to the steady beacon of Western science. There are fewer ideas that I find more repulsive and dangerous than this; it directly leads to the American project of “spreading democracy and freedom” across the globe, or social engineering in general (ironically, it comes from Marx). There’s “groundless euphoria” among political thinkers and policy makers, too, that “democracy” and “freedom” are just within reach and all it takes is a little (or brutal) push in the right direction to get there, that people can be molded into whatever political system one assigns to them.

Chomsky: It won’t surprise you to hear that I share your feelings.

Landau: Perhaps there are also “properties of the mind”—humans being part of the organic world—that stand in the way of promoting these goals. Humans are communal creatures and find it easier to feel empathy to those like them than to those unlike; humans easily fall prey to tribalist propaganda because it taps into their concentric “circles of solidarity.” I think we should definitely push against these limits just as we do against our cognitive ones, but acting with no regard to them—treating humans as tabula rasa also in the social/moral sense—can only cause harm. It goes without saying that other innate properties—like the instinct to freedom or fairness—provide the potential for progress, which pushes against the above limits.

I wonder whether you find this parallelism useful. These concerns are not abstract, of course; the charged debates about immigration quotas—in the United States, in Europe, and also in Israel—revolve precisely around the limits of our solidarity.

Chomsky: I’ll return to your comments, but the similarity I had in mind was a different one. I was thinking of the post-Newtonian fate of the “hard rock” of the century.” The hard rock was finally left in place. The seventeenth-century mysteries were not solved, but rather shelved as science adopted more modest objectives, as discussed earlier. The general collapse of foundationalism in the seventeenth century—quoting the historian of science Richard Popkin—led to “the recognition that absolutely certain grounds could not be given for our knowledge, and yet that we possess standards for evaluating the reliability and applicability of what we have found out about the world,” thus “accepting and increasing the knowledge itself” while recognizing that “the secrets of nature, of things-in-themselves, are forever hidden from us.” Hume’s permanent mysteries, Kant’s unknowable. A great deal has been learned about the properties and nature of motion, of course, but leaving in place the “absurdity” that so troubled Newton and his contemporaries.

Perhaps today’s “hardest problem” should be viewed in a similar way.

Turning to your comments, they raise many considerations—complex, poorly understood, and with such profound consequences for human life that I’m reluctant to try to engage them casually.

I think you’re quite right about the concentric circles and the tribalism and the need to push beyond them. Major and very timely issues. There is no need to elaborate. Enough is within arm’s length, for both of us. And fortunately, some are pushing against the tribalism, courageously. As you know, I’m now living not far from the southern border with Mexico and Trump’s despicable wall—built with the assistance of Israeli specialists who are well experienced in such matters. It all sometimes reminds me of time I spent in Hazorea in more civilized days almost seventy years ago, when I’d sometimes join kibbutzniks on night-time guard duty who refused to take arms because the mistanenim were just poor farmers trying to harvest the fields from which they had recently been driven.

There are good people. Here in Tucson, where I now live, there are groups who leave bottles of water or set up small aid camps for miserable refugees wandering in the brutal desert, fleeing from the Central American countries that we have devastated. When brought to federal trial here, charged with felony for the crime of trying to provide some help at risk of their lives, they have so far been freed by juries of local people, and many lawns in town have signs saying “humanitarian aid is not a crime.” There’s hope.

I also quite agree with you about the moral consequences of the absurd claim that humans have no nature and are just products of history and experience—and can therefore be molded and controlled by their betters—for their own benefit of course. That theme resonates through history, in various forms, and across the political spectrum. It is given a “scientific” imprimatur by prominent modern figures, for example by Edward Thorndike, one of the founders of modern scientific psychology, who explained that “it is the great good fortune of mankind that there is a substantial correlation between intelligence and morality including good will toward one’s fellows. . . . Consequently our superiors in ability are on the average our benefactors, and it is often safer to trust our interests to them than to ourselves.” Or in more technical garb by the most prominent figure of modern behaviorism, B. F. Skinner, whose influence was overwhelming in my earlier years in Cambridge, Mass. As he explained, “Ethical control may survive in small groups, but the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies.”

More significantly, the same doctrines quite openly guide the huge public relations industry and are prominent theses of modern democratic theory, which—just keeping to the progressive end of the mainstream spectrum—instructs us that we should dismiss “democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” They are not. We are. We, the “responsible men,” the “intelligent minority.” And to perform our responsibilities, we must be protected from “the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” who must be fed “necessary illusions” and “emotionally potent oversimplifications” to keep them in their place (Howard Lasswell, one of the founders of modern liberal political science; Walter Lippmann, the most prominent liberal public intellectual of the twentieth century; Reinhold Niebuhr, the revered “theologian of the liberal establishment”). In other versions, the Vanguard Party and Central Committee.

Yes, the concerns are anything but abstract.

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