How Little We Know
I interview Norbert Hornstein about Noam Chomsky's philosophical views.
“Scientists like to claim that it’s not possible to beat something with nothing. But Chomsky’s point is that sometimes nothing actually is better than something, since postulated somethings that don’t do any explanatory work actually blind us to our ignorance—the point is that knowing how little you know is critical to moving forward.”
Norbert Hornstein is a professor emeritus of linguistics at the University of Maryland—he’s been reading and thinking about Generative Grammar and its philosophical consequences since first reading Language and Mind as an undergraduate 50 years ago.
This piece is an interview with Hornstein about Noam Chomsky’s philosophical views—Chomsky talks about philosophical issues all the time, but people don’t necessarily view Chomsky as a philosopher.
The following interesting papers are relevant to the below interview with Hornstein:
The first two are papers that I ask Hornstein about in the interview, the third paper lays out Chomsky’s argumentation regarding referentialism, and the fourth papers lays out Chomsky’s argumentation regarding mysterianism. The second paper has some notes—in red—that Hornstein took. And the third paper corresponds to a chapter in a 2013 volume.
I was honored and thrilled to be able to interview Hornstein—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and added hyperlinks to.
1) Do most people underestimate Noam Chomsky’s level of involvement in philosophy? And how would you describe Chomsky’s involvement in philosophy?
Philosophers haven’t ever doubted Chomsky’s involvement in philosophy—it’s hard to do that given his regular contributions to central philosophical debates about the innateness hypothesis and radical translation and the mind–body problem and mysterianism.
Some philosophers have questioned Chomsky’s philosophical competence, but today few philosophers would deny that he’s a major figure in contemporary philosophy and that he sits comfortably alongside luminaries like Kripke and Davidson and Lewis. And some would even say that he’s been the major figure.
This is a terrific little paper that ties together the various kinds of arguments that Chomsky has given against the coherence of “materialism” or “physicalism”.
I’d only part company with him when it comes to his sanguine belief that we might one day understand qualia in some non-trivial way—I’m skeptical about that, though he might actually share my skepticism and seems ready to concede that right now we know little about “What is it like to be bat?” phenomena.
I generally find Collins’s arguments in this paper to be congenial, though I might quibble about certain specific claims.
I’m sympathetic to this paper’s point that semantic concerns don’t actually drive syntactic structure. And to this paper’s suggestion that it’s wrong to believe that they somehow must.
I think that the claim that semantic concerns must drive syntactic structure reflects conceptions about the kind of logical syntax required for a logically perfect language—the supposition that natural languages fit this idealized profile has always seemed incorrect to me.
I might push Collins a bit regarding his deference to theories of meaning that rely so much on context variables. Context variables are very poorly understood in my opinion—we all know that context variables include not just who the people are and where they’re talking and when they’re talking, but also the interlocutors’ hopes and dreams and aspirations and background knowledge and ambiguity tolerance and so on. And it’s entirely mysterious what exactly these factors are and how they interact and how we weight them across contexts—we have countless specific examples of these variables but no hint of any general account, so my view is that such theories are formally imposing but explanatorily basically empty.
But I definitely agree with Collins’s main points in this excellent paper.
4) Chomsky says that language use is “appropriate to circumstances—typically—but not caused by circumstances or even elicited by them”. Why can’t I give the exact same quote—that Chomsky gave—about my decision to move my finger?
It might actually be the same problem.
There are many domains where we’re inclined to behave in certain ways without being caused to so behave. And it’s true that the difference between “being inclined to do X” and “being caused to do X” is obscure, but what do you expect in domains where the relevant causal facts and factors—and their interactions—are either obscure or downright mysterious?
Regarding linguistics, I don’t think we have any theories whatsoever about how language is used in particular circumstances to do anything at all—we can explain particular uses of language of course, but we have no general account of why people say what they say across occasions and people.
Maybe we lack theory in this area because there are so many interacting factors and because humans are pretty bad at finding general theories to explain interactions’ effects. Or maybe the reason is that humans can do and say whatever they want in a way that involves an irreducible element of free will. Or maybe something else entirely.
The point is that right now the causal bases of these phenomena are mysterious. And have been for a very long time.
5) What do you think about Chomsky’s argument about free will? What exactly is Chomsky’s argument there and do you think that it’s a strong argument?
My understanding is that Chomsky takes a threefold approach on free will.
First, there’s the observation that humans are “free” to do as they please when they’re not subject to obvious—or maybe non-obvious—forms of coercion. I think Chomsky regards this as self-evident.
Chomsky has the deep sense that he could—for example—take off his watch at any given moment and throw it across the room if he were so inclined. I think that Chomsky regards this kind of counterfactual as self-evidently true as well. Endorsing that kind of counterfactual is—for Chomsky—about as problematic as believing that the Atlantic Ocean exists and abuts Massachesettes and extends to the United Kingdom.
Second, Chomsky argues that the self-evident facts are—in this case—more solid than the theories that aim to undermine these self-evident facts. And that we should therefore conclude either that these theories are outright wrong or that we misunderstand these theories.
Sidney Morgenbesser once asked what one ought to conclude if one’s favorite physical theory had as a consequence that the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t exist—Morgenbresser’s view was that you’d have to dismiss the theory in that case. But to make a smoother analogy to this issue about free will, imagine that your favorite physical theory had as a consequence that the Atlantic Ocean cannot exist.
Regarding free will, Chomsky’s view is that the arguments that lead one away from the self-evident truisms are “fancy” arguments that rely on theoretical speculation and on our various ideas—especially as developed in the sciences—about causation. These “fancy” arguments invoke our general conception of causality and leave no room for Chomsky’s intuition—regarding the counterfactual—being possible. And Chomsky prefers to conclude that the theories on which these arguments rest are wrong as opposed to concluding that the self-evident facts are wrong.
Third, Chomsky suggests that the issue of free will might be outside our powers to understand—this is the “mysterian” position. We might be in a philosophical bind on this front because the solution requires cognitive tools that we lack.
And Chomsky might add—to these three points—that he’s thought about the issues surrounding free will professionally. He hasn’t written much about free will specifically, but he’s written about the problem of behavior and how to study it—he famously distinguished linguistic competence and linguistic performance, has been very skeptical about possible progress in studying performance, and has been highly critical about theories that purport to explain why people do what they do when they exercise their capacities.
I’d actually argue that the mental sciences only began to progress when inquiry switched from viewing behavior as the correct object of study to viewing competences and capacities as the correct objects of study—60 years ago at the outset of the cognitive revolution, Chomsky explicitly and presciently argued that this transition would move the mental sciences forward.
It’s hard not to be impressed with how little we actually know about behavior—as opposed to capacities—and with how little the theories aimed at explaining behavior ever actually explain:
My view is that things actually haven’t gotten any better since Verbal Behavior. Just sticking to linguistics, you can see that we know quite a bit about linguistic competence but that it’s hard to argue that we know much about how people exercise this capacity, appropriately use language across contexts, or anything like that—we can sometimes explain individual linguistic performances but we have no decent general theories about such performance. And I don’t expect that any such theories will soon be forthcoming.
I should add that this skepticism about understanding performance relates closely to the skepticism that Jerry Fodor expresses—in his 1983 book The Modularity of Mind—about theories of central cognition and about the study of any mental capacity that isn’t informationally encapsulated. Chomsky and Fodor disagree about whether central systems can be informationally encapsulated, but I think they agree that mental systems resist fruitful inquiry to the extent that these systems aren’t informationally encapsulated.
So Chomsky and Fodor observe that it’s precisely when we abstract away from the deep and opaque issues regarding performance that we start to understand mental phenomena moderately deeply. And I suspect that this observation from Chomsky and Fodor tells us something about how shrouded in mystery these issues about performance really are.
And if these issues about performance are indeed so shrouded in mystery, we arguably shouldn’t take very seriously the possibility of causal accounts that undermine our basic intuitions about free will.
We’ve accepted some counterintuitive theories in the past. But we’ve usually gotten something substantial in return when we’ve done this—in the free will case, we’re being asked to give up strong intuitions in exchange for a quite paltry payout at best, which seems to me to be a bad deal.
6) What exactly is Chomsky’s argument regarding referentialism? And do you think that it’s a strong argument?
Chomsky thinks that referentialism lacks explanatory force—he doesn’t challenge the fact that people use language to refer but he objects to the idea that there’s a notion of reference that ties words and things together in a way that actually helps explain how people are able to mean what they do or refer as they do. And as Chomsky will tell you, P. F. Strawson and J. L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein and others have all made similar points.
In my opinion, Chomsky doesn’t offer any positive account of how people manage to use language to refer. And I suspect that Chomsky doesn’t expect that a decent theory of how people refer will soon be forthcoming—I know that I myself certainly don’t have any expectations on that front.
This problem—about how people use language to refer—belongs firmly in the domain of performance. And that’s a domain where we’ve had relatively little success when it comes to theoretically elucidating things.
Does referentialism deliver the explanatory goods? The burden of proof is on those who invoke the reference relation in order to help explain natural language’s semantics—there’s a burden on them to show that the reference relation does indeed do explanatory work, so they can’t merely show that it might do so, or that it’s not inconceivable that it could do so, or that it’s not logically impossible that it could do so. And according to Chomsky, the emperor has no clothes.
Scientists like to claim that it’s not possible to beat something with nothing. But Chomsky’s point is that sometimes nothing actually is better than something, since postulated somethings that don’t do any explanatory work actually blind us to our ignorance—the point is that knowing how little you know is critical to moving forward.
In my opinion, Paul Pietroski has been able to approach the problem of meaning in new ways precisely because of a recognition of how little we know about how meaning functions in natural language—I think that Pietroski’s important work has only been possible as a result of acknowledging our level of ignorance.
7) What exactly is Chomsky’s argument regarding mysterianism? Do you think that it’s a strong argument?
Chomsky has simply made the observation that whatever allows for human understanding’s scope will necessarily come with limits—the 2014 James Hill paper that you asked me about makes this point nicely.
Can we survey the borders of our potential knowledge, specify exactly how our intellects are limited, and discover exactly where our mental capacities simply run out? In principle, why not?
But in practice, it seems like there’s not much to say right now—we can identify areas where humans have engaged in fruitful inquiry and also areas where we haven’t made progress, but I don’t think that Chomsky has ever said with any confidence that some particular thing lies beyond our cognitive scope, although he does discuss the example of motion:
“The Mysteries of Nature” (2009)
Maybe the question of where our cognitive limits kick in is itself a question that lies beyond our cognitive scope—who knows?
Consider a better-defined domain, namely computation theory—if you give us an individual Turing machine then we can tell you whether the Turing machine will halt, but we can have no general rule that allows us to actually predict when a Turing machine will halt. And we can’t demarcate the Turing machines that will halt from those that won’t, though in particular individual cases we can show that a given Turing machine will or won’t halt.
Questions in the computational domain are much better formulated than the more general and open-ended question about what lies beyond humanity’s cognitive scope. So therefore we shouldn’t expect much of a definitive answer to the latter question.
8) Regarding mysterianism, imagine that you wrote down on a piece of paper everything about gravity that humans are capable of knowing—all of the equations and diagrams. Is Chomsky merely saying that a Martian would look at that piece of paper and then say “This captures the extent of my knowledge about gravity and I have nothing to add to the knowledge on this piece of paper, but unlike you humans I don’t find this at all counterintuitive or weird”? If that’s what the Martian would say, then isn’t this just a banal psychological issue about the fact that Martians and humans experience the emotion of surprise differently? And I’m not sure what percentage of human infants—or human adults—actually find gravity surprising.
The emotional reaction of surprise depends on a cognitive evaluation or expectation—things that go against our expectations surprise us, whereas things that fit with our expectations don’t surprise us. And we might never overcome the cognitive gap that made a phenomenon surprising to us but nevertheless get used to the phenomenon and cease to feel surprised about it—in that case, we should be surprised in some relatively clear sense even if we’re gotten used to something.
The issue isn’t the emotion—it’s (1) the cognitive state that prompts the emotion and (2) the question of whether or not our mind is able to fill the cognitive gap.
Regarding your scenario, maybe the Martian would write down some additional knowledge—on that piece of paper—that we can’t understand because it’s simply too complicated, because it involves kinds of math and geometry that we couldn’t ever understand, or because it involves something non-mathematical and mathematically unformulable that we couldn’t ever understand. This additional human-inaccessible knowledge causes the Martian to not be surprised about something that does surprise humans, who lack this knowledge.
You’d expect humans to have cognitive limits, since minds rich enough to come up with non-trivial hypotheses are certain—on account of that richness—to be limited in the hypotheses that they can lucidly entertain. As Chomsky says, scope entails limits.
I don’t find Chomsky’s view on this particularly remarkable. And it has nothing to do with our emotional responses—it’s to do with our humanly available cognitive states.
9) Isn’t it extremely implausible to object to this idea that human cognition forecloses certain concepts?
We’re biological creatures—it would be very odd if we didn’t have inherent limitations. We certainly have physical limitations, so why wouldn’t we also have cognitive limitations? People who have trouble with the idea that humans have cognitive limits are treating humans like angelic beings instead of treating humans like normal biological organisms.
10) When it comes to the foreclosed concepts’ value to us, isn’t it plausible that we got lucky and ended up with access to the most valuable-to-us concepts?
No—why think that?
There are many things that are important to us that we’re very bad at—for example, it would’ve been very nice if we’d done something to alleviate the ongoing climate disaster and yet we seem to be unable to do the self-interested intelligent thing. So I don’t see why we should think that our brains are wired such that we’ll be able to cognitively grasp the things that are important to us. Believing that we lucked out is just the modern version of Descartes’s view that a benevolent deity designed us—why believe that?