Chomskian Neurolinguistics

Thanks everyone for another interesting discussion of the relevance of neuroscience to philosophy, psychology, and especially Chomskian linguistics.  Again, I agree that not every neuroscientific fact is relevant to every philosophical or psychological question.  Which neuroscientific facts are relevant needs to be determined on a case-by-base basis.  But if we don’t even look (i.e., if we ignore neuroscience), we are certainly not going to find out.  Therefore, we have to look.

Chomsky himself appears to be looking.  In his foreword to a forthcoming book on neurolinguistics (A. Moro, The Boundaries of Babel: The Brain and the Enigma of Possible Languages, MIT Press 2008), he writes (from the MIT webpage on the book):

“Andrea Moro has gained a unique position in formulating and implementing constructive approaches to … difficult and demanding tasks. He is able to address them with a deep understanding of modern linguistics, a field to which he has made a major contribution of his own, and mastery of the relevant technology and its potential. His new book is a lucid introduction to these exciting areas, superbly informed and imaginatively presented, with intriguing implications well beyond biolinguistics…. A rare achievement….”
–Noam Chomsky, from the foreword (emphasis added)

Here is what Howard Lasnik, another distinguished Chomskian linguist, has to say (from the same MIT website):

“In this engaging, informative, and provocative book, a leading theoretical linguist shows why so many of us are so excited about the ‘biolinguistic revolution.’ Neuroscientists can discover some of the central ideas of current Chomskian linguistics; linguists can learn some of the core concepts of neuroscience; and anyone interested can see how the two fields are beginning to come together.”
–Howard B. Lasnik, Department of Linguistics, University of Maryland (emphasis added)

So it’s not just me.  At least some of the Chomskians (including Chomsky) appear to share my view.


  1. Ken

    Of course one can rationally have a project that combines Chomskyan linguistics with neuroscience. No one here has challenged that, so the Moro book is beside the point. What you appear to have been saying is something much stronger, namely, that no one can rationally have a research program that ignores neuroscience. That you have not supported.

  2. I´m very pelased to welcome the merging of the two cultures: linguistic theory and brain sciences, as my previous comments made clear. But with the warning that we are in a transitional state toward that goal.

  3. kenneth aizawa

    But, perhaps this is too tame a reply.

    What Gualtiero wants is something to the effect that neuroscience is somehow especially important to philosophy of mind, etc.  But, the “How do you know if you don’t look?” argument doesn’t yield that result.  You can run the “How do you know if you don’t look argument?” in support of the idea that philosophers of mind, etc. should look at astronomy, or quantum mechanics, or group theory in mathematics. 

    The “How do you know if you don’t look?” argument does give Gualtiero the kind of blanket “need for neuroscience” conclusion that he seems to want, but it does not give the privileged position to neuroscience that he also seems to want.

  4. Eric Thomson

    But you could say the same about subatomic particles: no subatomic particles, no mind. I think it is sometimes justified to ignore ‘lower level’ details when studying something (e.g., when deciding whether to change interest rates the Fed shouldn’t try to work out the Shroedinger equation for the US economy). That makes it an empirical question whether it is justified in a particular case. For the case at hand, though, the obviously very tight link between mental processes and brain processes does suggest that things aren’t as indirect as the case of the economy, that it may be more like the case of stat mech and thermodynamics.

  5. kenneth aizawa

    Now Eric sounds like he is on my wavelength.   Basically everyone here is some form of materialist, I think, so that everyone thinks that some brain facts are going to be very important for some mind finds.  But, what I have been resisting is the idea that everyone should be trying to connect brain facts to mind facts.  Instead, there are probably going to be some areas where the brain facts we have today will connect with the mind facts we have today, but then there will also be other areas where they will not.  So, there will be cases where some people can rationally try to connect current brain facts and mind facts and other cases where some people can basically ignore current brain facts and do something else that is scientifically productive. 

    But, I have not mentioned another worry that one might have about the use of brain facts.  It could turn out that we use true brain facts, in combination with some false assumptions, to arrive at some bad conclusions about the mind.  I dare say that Descartes did this when he noted that there is only one pineal gland.  Or, take a case where Eric is more likely to disagree.  The connectionist work in Rethinking Innateness basically used connectionist networks to argue against innate knowledge of anything.  At most, there are innate biases (however exactly that differs from innate knowledge).  Ok.  So, suppose that there is innate knowledge of, say, grammar, then that might be a case where neuroscience facts have recently lead us astray.  It will be a case where neuroscience, plus some erroneous assumptions, lead us into a dead end.

    One can take exception to the particular examples here, but I think no one here will want to maintain that neuroscience is an infallible guide to the mental.  And, I say that the fallibility in using neuroscience is one reason to be cautious about urging that everyone needs to try to integrate neuroscience and psychology.  The time might not be ripe for that.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Professor Trehub.
    I´m on your side: No brain = No mind, though Eric´s incisiveness is right in suggesting how we have to depict the appropiate level of structural brain organisation to say which level is relevant and which not for whatever function.
    But in accordance with the spirit of the debate at hand, the conclusion is clear: No brain, No mind.

  7. Eric wrote: “no subatomic particles, no mind”. Funny, I have come to to the opposite conclusion: no mind, no subatomic particles. This, of course, does not deny the existence of a physical world including brains/minds and what the human brain models as “subatomic particles”:.

  8. Exactly! Standard levels of explanation (e.g., subatomic particles —> mind) don’t work. For meta-conceptual analysis in the broader domain of physics and phenomenal experience, linear progressions are misleading. Causal dependencies are more like Mobius loops than low-level to high-
    level progressions.

    Where to start? I’ve come to the conclusion that since science is an invention of the human brain/mind which, in turn, is an invention of science, understanding the human brain is an enterprise that will yield the broadest scope of understanding — encompassing the totality of our phenomenal world. Is there a better strategy?

  9. gualtiero piccinini

    I don’t see the matter as black or white (rational or irrational).  What I’m suggesting is that other things being equal and speaking in terms of where the discipline as a whole should be going, a research program that takes neuroscience into account is more promising than one that doesn’t.

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