Sunday, November 16, 2008

A linguistic heretic takes on Pope Chomsky

"""When I first started working with the Pirahã, I realized that I needed more linguistics if I was going to understand their language. When I began to tell them the stories from the Bible, they didn't have much of an impact. I wondered, was I telling the story incorrectly? Finally one Pirahã asked me one day, well, what color is Jesus? How tall is he? When did he tell you these things? And I said, well, you know, I've never seen him, I don't know what color he was, I don't know how tall he was. Well, if you have never seen him, why are you telling us this?

I started thinking about what I had been doing all along, which was, give myself a social environment in which I could say things that I really didn't have any evidence for—assertions about religion and beliefs that I had in the Bible. And because I had this social environment that supported my being able to say these things, I never really got around to asking whether I knew what I was talking about. Whether there was any real empirical evidence for these claims.

The Pirahã, who in some ways are the ultimate empiricists—they need evidence for every claim you make—helped me realize that I hadn't been thinking very scientifically about my own beliefs. At the same time, I had started a Ph.D. program in linguistics at the University of Campinas in southern Brazil, and I was now in the middle of a group of very intelligent Brazilian intellectuals, who were always astounded that someone at a university doing a Ph.D. in linguistics could believe in the things I claimed to believe in at the time. So it was a big mixture of things involving the Pirahã, and at some point I realized that not only do I not have any evidence for these beliefs, but they have absolutely no applicability to these people, and my explanation of the universe.

I sat with a Pirahã once and he said, what does your god do? What does he do? And I said, well, he made the stars, and he made the Earth. And I asked, what do you say? He said, well, you know, nobody made these things, they just always were here. They have no concept of God. They have individual spirits, but they believe that they have seen these spirits, and they believe they see them regularly. In fact, when you look into it, these aren't sort of half-invisible spirits that they're seeing, they just take on the shape of things in the environment. They'll call a jaguar a spirit, or a tree a spirit, depending on the kinds of properties that it has. "Spirit" doesn't really mean for them what it means for us, and everything they say they have to evaluate empirically. This is what I hadn't been doing, and this challenged the faith that I thought I had, to the extent that I realized that it wasn't honest for me to continue to claim to believe these things when I realized how little investigation I had done into the nature of the things I claimed to believe.""""

Maestro Chomsky's a formidable intellectual force: at the same time, he's arguably become a sort of guru for many (both in terms of his linguistic theory and political views). More than a few psychologists, linguists, and philosophers have criticized Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar as somewhat idealist and "Cartesian", though doing so requires some skill in terms of empirical psychology, and philosophical debate (skills generally absent in many hysteria cases of left and right). One recent criticism of UG relates to Chomsky's insistence on infinite recursion as an aspect of UG (Recursiveness is the ability--presumed to be universal by Chomskyites-- to embed endless phrases in any syntax).

Dan Everett has for years studied a native language, Piraha, which apparently falsifies the UG claim of recursiveness. A Piraha native might say "Moe's house" (in his language of course), and he can say "Moe's brother", but if he wants to say "Moe's brother's house", he must say "Moe has a brother. This brother has a house". The Piraha don't embed, but say that in separate sentences. (We suspect that recursion's characteristic of most languages, but not all, especially those without writing (while realizing the political-ethical problems implied by saying one language or culture is more advanced than another)). Recursion as used in programming involves a bit more complexity than the linguist's, but related: in both programming and linguistics recursion involves an equation that relates later terms in the sequence to earlier terms (iterations, and loops also make use of recursion in various ways).

Everett has in effect offered an empirical rebuttal of the recursion claims of UG. Old empirical savages like Skinner (and his logician pal WVO Quine) had of course brought up similar points a few decades ago, before Pope Noam's excommunication of behaviorism. Finiteness, empiricism, human language use as conditioned by environment, dare we say synthetic a posteriori: all of that was more or less proclaimed anathema by the Chomsky-Cartesian school, which demanded, instead of Watson/Skinner's experimental methods, an a priori account of language acquisition (indeed, the Noamster has no problem citing Platonic metaphysics as support for UG). Everett's research suggests that the experimentalists were not completely mistaken (or Sapir-Whorf, perhaps?), though Everett's not the first scholar to point out key differences in primitive languages compared to modern and/or indo-european languages. This might not be a refutation of Chomsky's UG, yet an interesting development, and of course Dr. Everett's already been dismissed as a fascist, hick, imperialist lackey, etc.


Searle approves of Dan Everett's work: "Dan Everett has written an excellent book. .....his data and his conclusions about the language of the Piraha run dead counter to the prevailing orthodoxy in linguistics. If he is right, he will permanently change our conception of human language.' That in itself could be anathema.

Speaking of Searle, he's written a somewhat interesting book on "free will" and determinism (not unrelated to the Everett/Chomsky debate). He recently paid a visit to Google:

(that was Zeno's paradox, Doc--actually a rather more challenging problem than the language specialist Searle realizes)

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