"Parsimony arguments are pretty weak." Norbert, in the comments last week
OK, after a longer hiatus than I [wji] intended, back to more discussion of Substance-Free Phonology (SFP). Reiss 2016:4 makes the following observation:
“[OT] advocates building into Universal Grammar, as constraints in CON, phenomena that have independent explanations via phonetic, physiological and physical factors. As pointed out by John Ohala in various contexts (e.g. 1990) it is not better in science to have two explanations (phonetics and phonology) rather than one (just phonetics) for a given observation.”
This viewpoint ignores the modular and model nature of the phonology component. Take a current favorite animal in cognitive science, the dead reckoning ant from Gallistel and King 2009 (which is certainly also dead from all its dead reckoning by now). It moves about in the world, and in doing so changes its location. We have a geophysical account of its location (which might include us diabolically transporting it to another location). But that doesn’t in any way preclude or supplant an account of what is in the ant’s brain, which will correspond in some ways to the geophysical model (in step-wise updating r and θ in its mental map) but not in others, as when we carry it elsewhere, or attach stilts to its legs, throwing off the updating routine or what distance a step is worth. It’s sensible at that point to say that the ant doesn’t know where it is (but also that it doesn’t know that it doesn’t know, thanks Donald Rumsfeld). Likewise, as we have been saying in this series of posts, the information in the phonology module model for speech has at least some correspondences to “phonetics” (i.e. articulation and audition) in its data structures and relations (Reiss 2016:27 “universality of the interface of the substantive primitives with the human transduction systems”). As a direct consequence, some regularities in phonetics will then be recapitulated as regularities in the phonology model. The question is (and it is very much an empirical one) which of these regularities is identified inside the phonology model? I.e. which reflected regularities are instantiated as phonological generalizations (rules, processes, constraints, laws)?
But, moreover, it’s not clear that Ockam’s razor applies in cases like those that we are considering. The most trenchant reply overall might be (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hickam%27s_dictum):
“While Occam's razor suggests that the simplest explanation is the most likely, implying in medicine that diagnostician should assume a single cause for multiple symptoms, one form of Hickam's dictum states: "A man can have as many diseases as he damn well pleases."”
While we are definitely in favor of “explaining away” (Pearl 1988) as a mode of causal inference, the application of explaining away or Ockham's razor in modular system is less than clear to us.
And Elliott Sober (pc to er) reminds us that there is a long philosophical tradition of pluralism. So, for homework, the philosophers of science should dig out that copy of Against Method again. And the computationally inclined should think model averaging (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensemble_averaging_(machine_learning)).
Coming soon: The lore of the excluded middle