I was asked how it went in Nijmegen. Let me say a word or two, with the understanding that what I say here is very much a one sided perspective.
When I left for David’s lectures I was pretty confident that the GG linguistic worldview, which I take to be hardly worth contesting, is treated with great skepticism (if not worse, ‘naivety’ and ‘contempt’ are adjectives that come to mind) in the cog-neuro (CN) of language world. One prominent voice of this skepticism is Peter Hagoort, whose views concerning GG I critically discussed here. Before leaving, I was pretty confident that neither my views nor his had changed much so I was looking forward to a good vigorous back and forth. Here are the slides I presented. They were intended to provoke, though not because I thought that they were anything but anodyne intellectually speaking. The provocation would come from the fact that the truisms I was defending are barely understood by many in the “opposition.”
The presentation had four objectives:
1. To note that Chomsky’s views are always worth taking seriously, the main reason being that he very often right
2. To explain why it is virtually apodictic that
a. Part of human linguistic capacity involves having an mind/brain internal G
b. FL exists and that it had some linguistically specific structure (aka UG is not null)
3. That cog-neuro of language investigators should hope like hell that something like the Minimalist program is viable
4. To dispel some common misconceptions about GG widespread in the CNospehere
This, IMO, went well. I led with (1) in order to capture the audience’s attention (which, I believe I did). However, I really wanted to make points (2) and (3) in a way that a non-linguist could appreciate. To do this I tried to make a distinction between two claims: whether mental Gs and FL/UG exists in human minds/brains and what they actually look like. The first, I argued, cannot be contentious (i.e. that humans have mental grammars in the brain is a trivial truth). The second I noted must be (e.g. whether FL/UG has bounding nodes and a subjacency principle is an empirical issue). In other words, that humans have internal Gs and that humans have an FL with some linguistically specific properties is a virtual truism. What Gs and FL/UG looks like is an empirical question that both is and should be very contentious, as are theories in any domain.
And here was the main point: one should not confuse these two claims. We can argue about what human Gs look like and how FL is constituted. We cannot seriously argue about whether they exist incarnated in a region roughly between our ears.
Why are the points in (2) virtual truisms? For the reasons that Chomsky long ago noted (as I noted in (1), he is very often right). They are simple consequences of two obvious facts.
First, the fact of linguistic creativity: it is obvious that a native speaker can produce and understand an effective infinity of linguistic structures. Most of these structures are novel in that sense that speakers have never encountered them before. Nonetheless, these sentences/phrases etc. are easily produced and understood. This can only be explained if we at least assume that speakers who do this have an internalized set of rules that are able to generate the structures produced/heard. These rules (aka Gs) must be recursive to allow for the obvious fact of linguistic creativity (the only way to specify an infinite set is recursively). So given that humans display linguistic creativity and given that this evident capacity requires something like a G, we effortlessly conclude that humans have internal Gs. And assuming we are not dualists, then these Gs are coded somehow in human brains. The question is not whether this is so, but what these Gs look like and how brains code them.
The second evident facts is that humans have FLs. Why? Because 'FL' is the name we give to the obvious capacity that humans have to acquire Gs in the reflexive effortless way they do. To repeat the mantra: nothing does language like humans do language? So, unless you are a dualist, this must mean that there is something special about us that allows for this. As this is a cognitive capacity, then the likely locus of difference between us and them lies in our brain (though, were it the kidney, liver or left toe that would be fine with me). ‘FL’ is the name of this something special. Moreover, it’s a pretty good bet that at least some of FL is cognitively specific to language because, as anyone can see (repeat mantra here) nothing does language like we do language. Ergo, we have something special that they do not. And this something special is reflected in our brains/minds. What that special thing is and how brains embody them remain difficult empirical questions. That said, that humans have FLs with linguistically specific UG features is a truism.
I believe that these two points got across, though I have no idea if the morals were internalized. Some remarks in the question period led me to think that people very often confuse the whether and what question. Many seem to think that accepting the trivial truth of (2) means that you have to believe everything that Chomsky has to say about the structure of Gs and FL. I assured the audience that this was not so, although I also mentioned that given Chomsky’s track record on the details it is often a good idea to listen carefully to what he has to say about these empirical matters. I believe that this surprised some who truly believe that GGers are mindlessly in thrall to Chomsky’s every word and accept it as gospel. I pleaded guilty. Thus, I assured them that though it was true that, as a matter of cognitive policy, I always try my hardest to believe what Chomsky does, my attitudes were not widely shared and are not considered prerequisites for good standing in the GG community. Moreover, sadly, even I have trouble keeping to my methodological commitment of intellectual subservience all the time.
I next argued that Minimalism (M) is not the bogeyman that so many non-linguists (and even linguists) think it is. In fact, I noted that cog-neuro types should hope like hell that some version of the program succeeds. Why? If it does it will make studying language easier in some ways. How so?
Well if M works then there are many parts of FL, the non-linguistically proprietary ones, that can be studied in animals other than humans. After all, M is the position that FL incorporates operations that are cognitively and/or computationally general, which means that they are not exclusive to humans. This is very different from earlier views of FL where a very large part of FL consisted of what looked like language specific (and hence human specific) structure. As it is both illegal and rude to do to us what we regularly do to mice, if most of FL resides in us but not in them then standard methods of cog-neuro inquiry will be unavailable. If however, large aprts of FL are recycled operations and principles of a-linguistic cognition and/or computation (which is what M is betting) then we can, in principle, learn a lot about FL by studying non-human brains. What we cannot learn much about are the UG parts, for, by assumption, these are special to us. However, if UG is a small part of FL, this leaves many things to potentially investigate.
Second, I noted that if M gets anywhere then it promises to address what David Poeppel describes as the parts-list problem: it provides a list of basic properties whose incarnation in brains is worth looking for. In other words, it breaks linguistic competence down to manageable units. In fact, the fecundity of this way of looking at things has been exploited by some cog-nuero types already (e.g. Pallier et. al. and Friederici & Co) in their efforts to localize language function in the brain. It turns out that looking for Merge may be more tractable than looking for Raising. So, two nice consequences for cog-neuro of language should M prove successful.
I do not think that this line of argument proved to be that persuasive, but not rally because of the Mishness of the ideas per se. I think that the main resistance comes from another idea. There is a view out there that brains cannot track the kinds of abstract structures that linguists posit (btw, this is what made David's second lecture so important). Peter Hagoort in his presentation noted that brains do not truck in “linguaforms.” He takes the Kosslyn-Pylyshyn debate over imagery to be decisive in showing that brains don’t do propositions. And if they don’t then how can they manipulate the kinds of ling structures that GG postulates. I still find Hagoort’s point to be a complete non-sequitur. Even if imagery is non-propositional (a view that I do not accept actually) it does not follow that language is. It only follows that it is different. However, the accepted view as Hagoort renders it is that brain mechanisms in humans are not in any way different in kind from those in other animals and so if their brains don’t use linguaforms then neither can ours. I am very confident that our brains do manipulate linguaforms, and I suspect that theirs do to some extent as well.
What makes a brain inimical to linguaforms? Well basically it is assumed that brains have a neural net/connectionist architecture. IMO, this is the main stumbling block: CNers take all brain function to be a species of signal detection. This is what neural nets are pretty good at doing. There is a signal in the data, it is noisy and the brains job is to extract that signal from the data. GGers don’t doubt that brains do some signal processing, but we also believe that the brain also does information processing in Gallistel’s sense. However, as Gallistel has noted, CNers are not looking for the neural correlates required to make information processing possible. The whole view of the brain as a classical computing device is unpopular in the CN world, and this will make it almost impossible to deal with most of cognition (as Randy has argued), language being just a very clear hard example of the cognitive general case.
I was asked what kind of neuro experiment could we do to detect that the kinds of ling structure I believe to exist. Note, neuro experiments, not behavioral ones. I responded that if CNers told us the neural equivalent say of a stack or of a buffer or of embedding I could devise an experiment or two. So I asked: what are the neural analogues of these notions? There was silence. No idea.
Moreover, it became pretty clear that this question never arises. Gallistel, it seems, is entirely correct. The CN community has given up on the project of trying to find how general computational properties are incarnated. But given that every theory of parsing/production that I know of is cast in a classical computational idiom, it is not surprising that GG stuff and brain stuff have problems making contact. CN studies brains in action. It cannot yet study what brains contain (i.e. what kinds of hard disks the brain contains and how info is coded on them). Until we can study this (and don’t hold your breath) CN can study language to the degree that it can study how linguistic knowledge is used. But all theories of how ling knowledge is used requires the arsenal of general computational concepts that Gallistel has identified. Unfortunately, current CN is simply not looking for how the brain embodies these, and so it is no surprise that making language and the brains sciences fruitfully meet is very hard. However, it's not language that's the problem! It is hard for CN to give the neural correlates of the mechanisms that explain how ants find their way home so the problem is not a problem of language and the brain, but cognition and the brain.
So, how did it go? I believe that I got some CNers to understand what GG does and dispelled some myths. Yes, our data is fine, no, we believe in meaning, yes Gs exist as does FL with some UG touches, no, everything is not in the signal… However, I also came away thinking that Gallistel’s critique is much more serious than I had believed before. The problem is that CN has put aside the idea that brains are information processing systems and sees them as fancy signal detection devices. And, until this idea is put aside and CN finds the neural analogues of classical computational concepts, mapping ling structure to neural mechanisms will be virtually impossible, not because they are linguistic but because they are cognitive. There is no current way to link linguistic concepts to brain primitives because brain primitives cannot do any kind of cognition at all (sensation yes, perception, partly, but cognition, nada).
Where does that leave us? We can still look for parts of the brain that correlate with doing languagy things (what David Poeppel calls the map problem (see next post)), but if the aim is to relate brain and linguistic mechanisms, this is a long way off if we cannot find the kinds of computational structures and operations that Gallistel has been urging CN to look for.
So how did it go? Well, not bad. Nijmegen is nice. The weather was good. The food served was delicious and, let me say this loud and clear, I really enjoyed the time I spent talking with the CNers, especially Peter Hagoort. He likes a good argument and is really fun to disagree with (and that is easy to do given how wrong he is about things linguistic). So, it was fun. It may even have been productive. However, I doubt the lectures, excellent though they were, will mark a sea-change in ling-neuro interactions. I hope I am wrong, but I doubt it. We shall see.