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Philosophical Rambling

Posted by Rick · October 19th, 2003 · 1 Comment

This is a bit of a rambling post. I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts tonight and I’m feeling more like journaling than writing anything substantive. About the best I can offer is this: if this post starts to bore you, scroll past the autobiographical details down to the boxed content (e.g., if your browser functions as my HTML code expects, it will be a tan-colored box).

I’ll try to get back to regular posts soon, but I’m trying to get myself refocused on law school studies….

In my “free time,” I’ve just started reading Steven Pinker’s the blank slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. I met Pinker once years ago at a meeting of the Society for Philosophy & Psychology of which I was a student member. Being a part of that group was a highlight of my educational experience and I attended several of the yearly meetings. I had the pleasure of attending one in Montreal, Canada. It was an experience I won’t soon forget.

Somehow — and I don’t recall exactly how now — I had managed to befriend someone who worked with John Searle. Because of this, he responded to some questions I’d asked by sending me drafts of the chapters for Searle’s book, The Rediscovery of the Mind, which was just about to come out. And because of that I ended up spending some time talking to Paul Churchland at the Montreal meeting. As I recall, the book was just about to hit the market when the meeting occurred and he had not yet seen it. We spent some time discussing it, as I went through the mental gymnastics of attempting to get my weak brain to recall enough of the material to respond without looking like a complete fool. (It almost worked, too! Actually, Churchland seemed satisfied, but afterwards I was in a fugue and couldn’t recall what I’d said — what an experience! — I think I was in shock that I’d had an actual philosophical discussion with Paul Churchland and did not come out looking like a complete fool.)

As I was saying before my ADD kicked in again, I met Pinker at one of the sessions (I’d tell you about having met Dan Dennett, too, but then I’d just start to sound like some kind of twisted geek groupie). Pinker was like a walking philosophy of language/cognitive science computer. I was in a group of several people with whom he was talking. After just a few minutes, I made two decisions. I actually stuck to one of them. I reminded myself that it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt; I was not going to open my mouth in his presence. And I decided I was going to try to read what I think was his first book, which (I’m going off a very weak memory here) I believe was just about to come out around the time I met him. So now it’s time to (sort of) follow through on the second decision: I’m finally going to read one of his books, although it’s not his first.

Since I’m about to read the blank slate, I was reviewing some of my old cognitive science notes this weekend and ran across a journal entry I made in November 1991, which seemed appropriate:

In the Ansel Adams Wilderness area, where I like to go camping, there is a long ragged depression in the land strewn irregularly with rocks, boulders, branches and mountain detritus which sometimes houses a small river. It represents the course of that river. It is the means of production by which the mountain is able to convey water from its uppermost portions to its lowermost portions. The mountain is able to convey this water from upper to lower levels, but it is not aware of its ability. Furthermore, this watercourse is not innate for this mountain. What is innate to this mountain is a characteristic it shares with other mountains: the ability to develop watercourses as a means of conveying water from a higher level to a lower level in large quantities and in a short period of time.

It takes the water, acting on the mountain, and over some period of time which probably varies as a function of both the amount of water and certain aspects of the mountain, to carve out the watercourse. Each time there is a situation which presents water to the top of the mountain, it reaches the bottom following various routes, but tending to utilize the same ones again and again. The result is that repeated presentations of water select and thereby accentuate structures in the side of the mountain for the communication of water from top down. (At the same time, this can only occur, because the sediments in the watercourse are lifted from the bottom up.)

Water doesn’t only, or always, travel along exactly the same pathway, but I daresay if the mountain could speak, it might be heard to remark that it just “felt right” when water was processed this way, and perhaps would say that it “felt funny” when it was not.

The above seems to me a perspicuous metaphor for my own ideas about language ability or propensity, acquisition and internalization of grammar. Our brains are the mountain. Early in our lives, sounds present in the environment serve (as a minimal set of stimuli) to carve out pathways in the brain — neuronal structures responsible for language processing develop over time — just as the water present in the biosphere begins working in the infancy of the mountain. A grammar has been internalized when the structures are so well developed that any other way of processing a string of meaningful sounds doesn’t “feel right”; the neuronal pathways are well worn. The well-worn neuronal pathways represent the grammar of a language.

There are at least two important differences between living creatures like the human beings I have been discussing in the last two paragraphs and the mountain. We are capable of presenting water to ourselves and that presentation carves pathways both in the processing and processes which bring it about and in the subsequent processing of the heard product. Second, we can sense the presence, however inchoately, of the structures, once carved. Some of us even work very hard at this; we are the philosophers of language and the linguists. If mountains do introspect, they have thus far been quite circumspect about it.

Well, I liked it, anyway. 😉 Incidentally, if you’re not already familiar with this topic, you may want to look up some terms — I’d post links for it, but I’ve got to get back to my law books! Some phrases and terms, such as “represents,” “means of production,” “top down,” and “bottom up” are philosophical patois; although they come variously from linguistics and philosophy of language, the nexus for their use here is my own twisted mind and the cognitive science books I was reading at the time I wrote the passage — that is, some of the earlier writings of the discipline when it was beginning to come into its own in the early 1990s. The phrases “feel right” and “feel funny” are, to my recollection, the ways I remember some of the cognitive science folks at these early SPP meetings talking about the self-referential aspects of being conscious of, or perhaps trying to making sense of, inchoate apprehensions of electrical activity within one’s own brain. For more on that topic, take a look at Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

Categories: Philosophy


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Peter Sean Bradley // Oct 24, 2003 at 4:21 pm

    There was a big dust up – full of philosophical name-calling – between Dennett and Searle a few years back. The exchange is contained in one of Searle’s books that collects his articles. I think Searle won that one hands down.

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