Here are some things I’ve run across lately that might be of more general interest.
First, in the long line of singing animal posts (Go Mice!!), here is a nice review of the largest bass-baritone critters: whales. The piece compares their songs with that of birds. They are amazingly similar once one speeds up the whale stuff and adjusts the register or slows down the bird stuff and adjusts the register. It appears that complex vocalization is something that sits there in many species quite far removed from one another on the evolutionary bush ready to evolve when the circumstances are propitious. So, mice, some birds, whales, humans, and I am sure, much more.
Second is this paper by Frank Wilczek (Nobel winner) on beauty in scientific theory. He identifies two properties that make a theory beautiful: (i) it has symmetrical laws and (ii) it is “exuberant.”
Now, current linguistics is not physics, but it seems to me that theories do have aesthetic virtues that are revealing. We have no conception of symmetry (or none that I know of) but we do value theories that have fewer moving parts and are less “fine tuned” than their competitors. Thus one reason to value “reduction” (as in e.g. reducing anaphora or control to movement (te he!)) or unifying phrase building and displacement as instances of Merge is that it provides a prettier theory than one where all of these phenomena are treated as sui generic. Here “pretty” means more constraining and more explanatory. Here’s a corollary: one reason to be suspicious of the injudicious use of grammatical features is that they allow too much fine tuning of our accounts and explanation is at odds with fine tuning. Pretty theories explain, and that is part of what makes them pretty. For the interested there is a pretty good discussion of the vice of fine tuning and its relation to explanation in Steven Weinberg’s (another Nobelist) recent Whig history of modern physics (here).
The exuberance condition is also a good sign that your theory is onto something. I am sure I am not alone in being surprised that some account generalizes to phenomena it was not constructed to account for. Maxwell describes this (according to Wilczek) as “get[ting] more out of them [i.e our theories, NH] than we put into them.” Again exuberance and reduction/unification go hand in hand, as does the avoidance of fine tuning. As Wilczek puts it:
The second source of beauty in the laws of physics is their productivity – what I call their exuberance. Just a handful of basic principles generates an astonishing wealth of consequences – everything in the physical world! You can write the equations of the core theories of physics – known as the standard model – quite comfortably on a T-shirt. To paraphrase Hertz, they give back far more than we put in.
It is interesting that the real sciences consider such aesthetic discussions worth having while less mature disciplines (linguistics?) seem, IMO, to find them generally embarrassing. Maybe it is a mark of a field’s explanatory achievements that it is willing to entertain aesthetic considerations in its evaluation of truth.
Third, and last, here is a terrific rant on current neuroscience and how much we understand about the brain. Not much according to this piece.
The first point on C. Elegans is worth thinking through carefully. If it is correct (and I have heard the point made before) that we have the entire inventory of neurons and how they are wired up for C. Elegans but we still have no idea how its brain works then this should lead us to question the utility of complete wiring diagrams as the holy grail of neuro understanding. I really don’t know if this rant is accurate (though several neuro types I respect did not declare its contents BS), but if it is anywhere near the truth, then there is little current reason for thinking that the demand that cognitive claims should justify themselves in neuro terms should be afforded any respect. From what I can tell, rather the reverse should hold. We have pretty good stories about some domains of cognition (linguistics being one very good story) and next to nothing about neural mechanisms. So which should be cart and which horse? Here’s the rant’s useful warning:
So, the next time you see a pretty 3D picture of many neurons being simulated, think “cargo cult brain”. That simulation isn’t gonna think any more than the cargo cult planes are gonna fly. The reason is the same in both cases: We have no clue about what principles allow the real machine to operate. We can only create pretty things that are superficially similar in the ways that we currently understand, which an enlightened being (who has some vague idea how the thing actually works) would just laugh at.