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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Some personal comments on ‘Knots, Language, and Computation: A Bizarre Love Triangle? Replies to Objections’ by Sergio Balari, Antonio Benítez-Burraco, Marta Camps, Víctor M. Longa & Guillermo Lorenzo, in Biolinguistics Vol 6, No 1 (2012).





Above article, as a rebuff to ‘All Tied in Knots’ by David J. Lobina (same volume) raises some interesting questions, as the saying goes. Here I am less interested in the crux of the matter, i.e. whether or not knot-theory – excuse the pun – explains anything about language and language evolution. Lobina seems to place the art of tying knots squarely in the domain of cognition, i.e. more or less independent of language, while his detractors elaborate on their original claim that the computational complexity of knot-theory can be incorporated into their Natural Computational System (NCS), if not into FLN:

            Thus, what we have characterized here as a NCS roughly corresponds to
what Hauser et al. (2002) called the Faculty of Language in the narrow sense
(FLN), but our characterization is broader in the sense that we do not conceive of our NCS as either language-specific or human-specific. Indeed, even though we follow Hauser et al.’s (2002) methodological proposal of distinguishing between narrow and broad aspects of some cognitive ability, we deny to their FLN its human and language specificity, whence our terminological switch here to NCS.

While both sets of authors claim to work within the Biolinguistics model (if not MP) – with Balari et al. more so than Lobina, it seems to me that in fact both are departing from Chomsky’s paradigm in a substantial way. Lobina puts it like this:

The position defended in Chomsky (2007a, 2007b), Hinzen (2011), and implicitly in the works I will discuss in the next section, however, seems to depart from the outline I have provided. It seems that these scholars are attempting to somehow modify the Aristotelian dictum that language is sound with meaning into a view of language as a system of meaning (thought) only accidentally connected to sound. A fortiori, then, linguistic “derivations” ought to be viewed, according to these scholars, as a kind of a “language of thought”. I take this is what Chomsky has in mind when he states that language is primarily an “instrument of thought” (2007a, p.17), but there is a certain circularity in the suggestion that language is the vehicle of thought and the overall attempt to explain how linguistic derivations meet the conditions imposed by another system of the mind, the C/I interface. (Note: this quote is from Lobina’s original paper ‘Conceptual Structure and the Emergence of the Language Faculty: Much Ado about Knotting’, as noted in his references)

Chomsky has of course evolved, as many a long-lived scientist does but it is worth to look back at one of his gems when he critiques Popper in Language and Mind (1968):

The assumption that human language evolved from more primitive systems is developed in an interesting way by Karl Popper in his recently published Arthur Compton Lecture, “Clouds and Clocks.” He tries to show how problems of freedom of will and Cartesian dualism can be solved by the analysis of this “evolution.” I am not concerned now with the philosophical conclusions that he draws from this analysis, but with the basic assumption that there is an evolutionary development of language from simpler systems of the sort that one discovers in other organisms. Popper argues that the evolution of language passed through several stages, in particular a “lower stage” in which vocal gestures are used for expression of emotional state, for example, and a “higher stage” in which articulated sound is used for expression of thought – in Popper’s terms, for description and critical argument. His discussion of stages of evolution of language suggests a kind of continuity, but in fact he establishes no relation between the lower and higher stages and does not suggest a mechanism whereby transition can take place from one stage to the next. In short, he gives no argument to show that the stages belong to a single evolutionary process. In fact, it is difficult to see what links these stages at all (except for the metaphorical use of the term “language”). There is no reason to suppose that the “gaps” are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of “higher” from “lower” stages, in this case, than there is for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking; the stages have no significant analogy, it appears, and seem to involve entirely different processes and principles.

Now, would it be too radical to extend Chomsky’s metaphor to ‘breathing = cognition’ and ‘walking = language’, whereby cognition is the catch-all phrase, as in cognitive linguistics, that seems to encompass all sorts of mental facilities and activities – language included. Indeed ‘cognition’ appears to have gathered the same force as ‘behaviourism’ once did, and where language was verbal behaviour. As we all know, we have to thank Chomsky for having us saved from this deviation.

If on the other hand we restrict cognition to mean a ‘natural computational system (NCS)’ in the sense described by Balari et al. (see earlier quote), especially as a descriptive term for the hardware found in brains of all species, then we are back to the body-mind conundrum which has been solved long ago by the common sense assertion that the mind arises from the brain. Indeed this NCS is very much the subject of current research and we learn more by the day about the biological architecture of it. Van Wedeen et al. (2012) report that

The structure of the brain as a product of morphogenesis is difficult to reconcile with the observed complexity of cerebral connectivity. We therefore analyzed relationships of adjacency and crossing between cerebral fiber pathways in four nonhuman primate species and in humans by using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging. The cerebral fiber pathways formed a rectilinear three-dimensional grid continuous with the three principal axes of development. Cortico-cortical pathways formed parallel sheets of interwoven paths in the longitudinal and medio-lateral axes, in which major pathways were local condensations. Cross-species homology was strong and showed emergence of complex gyral connectivity by continuous elaboration of this grid structure. This architecture naturally supports functional spatio-temporal coherence, developmental path-finding, and incremental rewiring with correlated adaptation of structure and function in cerebral plasticity and evolution.

Note that ‘cross-species homology was strong’. If we take it as ‘not subject to rational debate’ (a phrase bandied about by Balari et al.) that language is human-species specific – an axiom of the biolinguistic program, I thought – then we are back to the famous question as to how the Language Faculty (FL) arose from this NCS, and how FL has developed features that cannot be explained via the biological features of NCS.

The best we can do, to employ another Chomsky metaphor, is to look like the drunk driver for the key under the lamp post because that’s where the light is. In other words we can investigate FL only via FL, in what I would call the language paradox or the snake devouring itself (or less dramatic, the kitten chasing its own tail). There are however some real insights to be had, much along the Chomskyian paradigm. From this point of view I wish to reclaim the term ‘cognition; in its original Cartesian sense of ‘cogito, ergo sum’. If we take cognition to mean the human-specific ability to think, then my claim is to equate cognition with language per se. Lobina (in above quote) credits Chomsky with asserting that language is primarily an instrument of thought, so I want to take this one step further. As a point of departure consider the problem raised by Lobina (ibid.):

There is an intuitive sense in which thought is possible without language, not least because of the manner in which the latter appears to underdetermine the former. Slips of the tongue, deictic reference and paraphrases are some of the phenomena in which the employed linguistic vehicles are neither rich nor accessible enough to represent the corresponding thoughts.

We can turn the argument that language sometimes ‘underdetermines’ thought on its head: if FL with features of UG gives rise to pre-language-specific thoughts, then it is not surprising that the constraints (fixed parameters) of a natural language may not succeed in expressing the thought we originally had. This is quite a common affliction, and at least from introspection I can say that this happens to me quite often, in that I think that have a brilliant thought but when it appears on paper it isn’t so brilliant anymore. Nevertheless, I think, the vast amount of verbal expression is prefixed with ‘I think that X’, and exactly echoes the Cartesian saying of ‘cogito, ergo sum’. Presumably it is also a skill which one can learn to ever more precisely match the thought with natural language, and precisely because thought equates with language at the level of UG. I would attribute such a skill to great writers and ‘thinkers’ who are able to communicate their thoughts with matching language. Bi-lingual speakers (e.g. my native language is German but I have lived in New Zealand for over 40 years, speaking and writing English) often comment on which language they ‘think’ in (in my case English) thus providing evidence of the close if not absolute link between thought and natural language. Note that the only real evidence we have of thoughts is our ability to verbalise them. As such it is pure speculation that pre-verbal infants and animals alike have thoughts. We have brought up two children and have three grandchildren at present (all three under 3 years old) and we have three cats (and had a few more before) and we all love them dearly but it would stretchy the truth to claim that any of them ever expressed a thought as pre-verbal infants, or in the case of the cats, at any age.

I am not sure how ‘slips of the tongue’ and ‘paraphrases’ can be evidence for thoughts being independent of language but lets look at the so-called problem of ‘deictic reference’. Nobody in their right mind would argue that the audio-visual system, maybe in terms of Balari ‘s NCS, does not strongly interact with cognition-FL-UG-language. Indeed a vast amount of language is dedicated to represent the visual world. Deictic reference is a clever and economical UG device to make use of visual information. We all know the consequences of audio-visual impairment: deictic reference suffers. One can also speculate that the audio-visual memory one develops over time is only accessible when labelled with language tokens. I can only see a tree in my head if and when I think/say ‘tree’ as a label I affixed to the visual representation of a tree or trees. When I immediately identify my wife’s voice on the phone, I presumably do so because I have an audio file in my memory, prominently labelled ‘my dear wife’. Since we have as many as five senses, we have of course a rich inventory of associations we can label and identify. FL-UG registers these experiences and sometimes we are lost for words of our natural language, as we are unable to translate the primordial thought-language data into our everyday language – notwithstanding other constraints such as memory loss, reduced verbal motor skills and psychological-emotional factors like fear, elation and surprise. As such ‘to be lost for words’ is evidence for and not against the equivalence of  thought and language at the level of UG.

Let us briefly return to the vexed question how FL could have arisen from NCS. The evolutionary change from primate to homo sapiens as far as the brain is concerned seems to simply be a process of more of the same. To accommodate the increasing neural mass, curved space reminiscent of Einstein, is made use of  (cf. Van Wedeen et al. (2012). I wonder if this can ever be determined, so in the meantime we can only employ unscientific metaphors, like, somewhat ironically, employed by one of the greatest materialists of our time, Engels (via Hegel), when he concluded that there must have been a ‘leap from quantity to quality’. We could also invoke quantum physics inasmuch sub-atomic particles seem to behave in wondrous ways, as one is unable to pinpoint their location other than to say that there is a statistical probability that they will be there at some point. By analogy the hazy mind with all its fuzzy logic may well be subject to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, metaphorically speaking at least.

The point I wish to make here is that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for a natural system to explain itself. Science and mathematics have the luxury to have reduced language to a meta-language for science and mathematics, stripping natural language of all embellishments, setting up theoretical spaces in the heads of scientists, in which they can ‘think’ and even dream to their hearts’ content (Schrödinger is said to have ‘dreamt’ his eponymous formula). We can now explain many natural phenomena, copy them and manipulate them; we can send machines to outer space but can we devise a half-decent economical system on earth? The study of cognition-FL-UG-language has the unique challenge of having no meta-language. Language can only study itself. While we cannot explain ourselves we do have the logical imagination – a subset of thoughts – that if there is a meta-language for language and the human condition in general, it cannot be ours, it must be at a higher level, it must be super-natural. Ipso ergo, we imagine gods and devils who know who we are, hence can influence our destiny. Some are waiting for science to take over this role; probably to no avail, for as Nietzsche famously noted in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, science is only telling stories like everyone else. Chomsky employed a more convincing metaphor (somewhat rephrased by the current author): when the Martians come to visit us they will figure out UG in a flash and speak all natural languages in five minutes. An optimistic reading might be that the earthlings will eventually evolve to the super-intelligent status of a Martian, and then are able to figure out that, for example, the past human propensity for generating false, insane and pathetic thoughts was due to the lack the Common Sense Faculty (CSF) which failed to develop in a large number of humans as a parallel thought-checking procedure. As such human history up this point is littered with humans not only thinking the un-thinkable but also speaking the un-speakable – and worst of all, putting into action un-imaginable atrocities, and often with scientific precision so as to demonstrate the schizophrenic condition they are in.

Strangely enough, as a Martian one also wonders what linguists think when they engage in rhetoric reminiscent of the linguistics wars. In the current exchange played out in Biolinguistics, Lobina critiques arguments put forth by Balari et al. in stinging terms:

I will attempt to show that these studies are predicated on a fanciful characterisation of the Chomsky Hierarchy, a misappropriation of Knot Theory from mathematical topology, and a frankly bizarre view of the mind.

Academics ought to remain calm and collected in the face of such onslaughts and not start a slinging match, upping the ante, as Balari et al. do:

            Nothing in Lobina advances our understanding of the problems that
were at stake here. It is a classic instance of formal bullying, whereby tools that ought to help us gain insight over our subject matter manage to turn into
rhetorical cilices for no discernible purpose other than posturing. It is sad to see how this sort of sophistic logic is often sold as sophisticated reasoning.

There is no doubt in my mind that academia is full of academic bullies who torture their underlings, making them wear cilices, making them rewrite their research articles for the nth time and generally enforcing the corporate model of modern society. Considering that both camps work under the umbrella of biolinguistics, one can only assume that biolinguistics has absolutely nothing to do with it.

As a footnote, let us consider the topic about knots. I am not sure if one can train a monkey to tie a simple knot. If so, then the NCS is sufficient. If not, i.e. it is human-specific skill, then I suspect that language and thought interact with the visual-tactile sensory systems, and thereby, after some practice, allowing us to tie and un-tie the knot.


References

Balari, Sergio, Antonio Benítez-Burraco, Marta Camps, Víctor M. Longa & Guillermo Lorenzo. 2012. Knots, Language, and Computation: A Bizarre
Love Triangle? Replies to Objections. Biolinguistics Vol 6, No 1 (2012).

Chomsky, N. 1968. Language and Mind. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Engels, F. 1925. Dialektik der Natur.

Lobina, David J. 2012. Conceptual Structure and the Emergence of the Language Faculty: Much Ado about Knotting.

Lobina, David J. 2012. All tied in Knots. Biolinguistics Vol 6, No 1 (2012).

Nietzsche, F. 1882. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft.

Wedeen, van J., Douglas L. Rosene, Ruopeng Wang, Guangping Dai, Farzad Mortazavi, Patric Hagmann, Jon H. Kaas, Wen-Yih I. Tseng. 2012. The Geometric Structure of the Brain Fiber Pathways. Science 30 March 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6076 pp. 1628-1634.