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Thoughts Online Magazine
Collected Articles on Culture & Politics
The Long Mystery 
15th-Dec-2006 11:04 am
I've decided that the best example of human gullibility around is Noam Chomsky. Despite the fact that anyone who takes the areas he writes about seriously (which does not include the professoriate in that area realiably -- see prior post, they have other things on their minds), knows that he is a kook with a knack for twisting and lying about things. Previously, I've referred Chomsky idolizers to this, and David Horowitz has done a wonderful job at exposing the lies at the heart of his duplicity. His problem is a simple one: he doesn't footnote properly (in an academic, this is amazing), he doesn't change his mind when the facts on which he relies are shown to be false, and those who expect that as a professor he might know what he is talking about are taken in by his apparent ease with facts and detail, without bothering to check and find out that he's simply wrong most of the time.

A perfect candidate for the Mary McCarthy line: everything he writes is false, including "and" and "the." Really a pity.
19th-Dec-2006 02:14 pm (UTC)
I agree with Horowitz on Chomsky, and have an additional complaint regarding his views.

Back in the 1960's, Chomsky originated a theory that only humans are capable of speech because humans have, alone, developed an "inherent" (genetically-derived) syntactical capability, without which "real" speech is impossible. It is this theory, of the inherent human speech ability, which is Chomsky's main contribution to actual science (as opposed to Red Holocaust Denial).

Now, from the late 1960's on, there has been an increasing body of animal cognitive research which has shown that humans are probably not the only sapient race on Earth -- simply the smartest one. Members of all four other species of great ape -- most successfully bonobos and gorillas -- have been taught complex symbolic languages. Several African Gray parrots have been taught to speak and understand English. And we are discovering more and more complex communication systems and other behavior among virtually all the highest mammals and avians -- particularly primates, ceteceans, proboscids, pscattids, and corvids.

This is one of the most profound discoveries in the history of our kind. And the reason why it has mostly gone unnoticed?

Because Noam Chomsky has thrown his gigantic reputation behind the position that these achievements must all be hoaxes and misinterpretations, that the animals in question must merely be engaging in conditioned-responses or mindless mimicry of their human teachers.

And Noam's reason for believing this? Because, he says, nonhuman animals lack human syntactical facility, so they can't possibly understand what they are saying.

Now, this begs a question big enough to bury a million Cambodians in: namely, why should human syntactical facility be necessary to intelligently use language? I can see why human-level syntax makes language much more powerful, because it enables the production of utterances of much less ambiguity (i.e. "There will be bananas on that tree" means something different from "there are bananas on that tree," but if natural ape languages don't contain the distinction, instead saying something like "bananas-tree," there are great opportunities for misunderstanding). (*)

How does Chomsky handle the obvious existence proof of the experiments with Kanzi, Koko, Alex, etc?

He simply ignores them. He is so sure he is right that he has refused to examine the experimental findings, and declined numerous invitations to visit the experimenters and their acculturated animals.

In so doing, he is setting back the cause of granting any civil rights at all (even minimal ones) to animals who (unlike snail darters) may be capable of experiencing the world at near-human levels of intellect. And this is more than purely theoretical -- most of the probably-sapient animal species (being large and slow-breeding creatures) are endangered in the wild.

Oh well -- I guess a guy who doesn't consider Southeast Asians as humans deserving rights can't be expected to extend such a courtesy to non-human sapients.

- Jordan

(*) Indeed, I believe that it is likely that the development of a fully syntactical language, along with the final refinement of the Broca's area in the brain to support it, was responsible for the Great Explosion of human culture c. 50,000 BCE.
19th-Dec-2006 02:44 pm (UTC)
But you and he have a different approach: for him, the human syntactical abiltity is a "property" -- he's never been more than mildly supportive to theories of brain function -- while to you, it has a physical basis. You'd think of him as a good Platonist: he has his abstract patterns in place, and if the world doesn't support it, well, the world has imperfections.
19th-Dec-2006 03:28 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting and insightful point.

My approach to knowledge is very naturalistic: I assume an objective reality which I am attempting to understand through the limitations of my senses and reasoning abilities, and go with what seems the most probable theory based on the observed evidence.

For instance, back 20-25 years ago, when I hadn't heard of most of these animal-cogition experiments that I'm referring to, I assumed that humans were the only sapient species on Earth. This is because only humans, to my knowledge, displayed sapient behaviors -- language, toolmaking, etc (*).

Now, I did assume that we had somehow evolved brain structures that made us sapient, because I was aware that humans had evolved from apes and yet were clearly smarter than the other apes. I am materialistic regarding consciousness, in that I believe that consciousness is an emergent property of certain kinds of complex physical structures -- one obvious example being the human brain (**).

I saw no theoretical reason why only the human brain could support sapient-level consciousness. As a longtime reader of science fiction, I was highly familiar with the concept of nonhuman sapience, and had long ago come to the conclusion that anything sapient morally deserved some equivalent of human civil rights (***). The alternative -- that only entities biologically "human" deserved civil rights -- would create clear problems if we encountered (or created) a biologically nonhuman sapient.

I was incredibly pleased when evidence, over the last quarter-century, mounted that we are not alone -- that we are not the only sapient species on Earth. Even if I hadn't been incredibly pleased, however, I would have accepted the evidence, because it appears overwhelming. If you study the reported utterances of Kanzi, Koko and Alex (to name three out of a larger group of experimental higher animals being taught human languages) it is obvious that while they are not as smart as humans, they are using language intelligently, and that they have complex inner lives of much the same order, though not magnitude, as our own.

To me the notion of trying to pound inconvenient objective facts into shape to conform to one's pre-conceived theories is horrible -- it's the antithesis of good science. And I guess it does have a Platonic origin -- it's at the root of the "wrong turn" that the Classical world took, over two millennia ago, which denied itself the fruits of a Scientific Revolution.

- Jordan

(*) I did have my suspicions that bottlenose dolphins might be sapient, but noticed a lack of conclusive evidence. There is still a lack of conclusive evidence on them, though there is quite a lot suggestive of sapience in their behavior. For some reason, possibly because their mode of existence (aquatic, sonar-using) is rather alien to ours, they are a lot harder to work with than are great apes or even parrots (and parrots are by far more distant kin).

(**) I would argue that most higher animals -- most birds and mammals -- are self-aware ("sentient"), but not sapient. Mere "consciousness," in the emotional sense -- the next lower step, might be a common property of all vertebrates and higher cephalopods.

(***) The details of the implementation, of course, might vary according to the nature of the given sapient species.
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