Platonic Chomsky?

Dace edace at
Thu Mar 30 15:06:10 PST 2000

From: Scott Martens

>> We will never know how language works in the brain, not because it's some
>> sort of impenetrable mystery, but because language does not work in the
>> brain. Language works in the mind. The mind can be equated with the
>> only if neuroscientists can isolate memory in the brain. No memory, no
>> mind.
>Ah, Cartesianism!
>I'm a materialist. To whatever extent minds exist, they exist in the human
nervous system.

This is a Cartesian argument. You're saying there are two things-- mind and brain-- and the mind is "in" the brain. You cannot escape the Cartesian trap merely by leaving open the possibility that minds don't exist at all. If the mind does not exist, then it's a hallucination. But hallucinations are a mental property. According to your materialist Cartesianism, this hallucination would presumably be located in the brain.

>There is evidence to support this idea, for example how behaviour and
personality traits change when the brain is damaged sometimes, and specifically how language ability can change or be completely eliminated by brain damage. Memories can be lost or changed by physical damage to the brain. Language and linguistic abilities can be changed by messing with the brain.
This is not evidence to support the notion that the mind exists in the brain. Let's take an analogy: If a radio receiver is damaged, then the sound that comes out of the radio will be altered or even eliminated. Does this prove that the signal arises from within the radio itself?

>> Neuroscientists assume that memory lurks somewhere in the arrangement of
>> neurons and synapses. The paradox is that once they find it, it will no
>> longer exist. Memory is recall. To remember is to retrieve something
>> has been lost to the present. So, computers don't actually have memory.
>> the sought-after information has been stored all this time, then there's
>> need to recall it. It's as if every particular thing you would ever need
>> remember is written down on a little scrap of paper somewhere, and it's
>> simply a matter of finding the piece of paper so you don't have to
>> it. If we really do have memory, and we have no reason to assume it's a
>> hallucination, then it can't be found in the brain.
>You have defined memory in such a way that it can't be stored in any form.
If so, how does memory persist in time? It must be encoded into some sort of physical medium in order to be accessible at a later time.
This is not a scientific statement. It's an assumption, i.e. an article of faith. Why should it be necessary to ask how mentality can persist through time? Is there something about time that would preclude this possibility? Do we even understand anything at all about time? Do we have any knowledge of time outside of our experience? Time is subjective. The amount of time an event takes is all in our minds. Why should a second last a second? What exactly is a clock measuring? Looks like space to me. (Digital clocks don't measure anything. They just count.) In the objective world, what we have is not time, but sequence. Why not compress all the events of a sequence into an instant? Or why not stretch them all into an eternity? Why does time exist, and why does it exist in the amounts that we find it in? Instead of asking why mentality persists through time, why not ask why matter *fails* to persist through time. Mentality embraces time as a whole-- always current yet also retaining the past. Matter remains current, yet it does not retain the past. Why is matter temporally impaired? Not that I'm complaining, of course. If it weren't temporally impaired, then you could never cross the street, because you'd be hit by all the cars that have ever driven down it. It's probably for the better that matter is too dense to have memory.

>> Memory is intrinsic to language. To understand a statement, we have to
>> remember the preceding statements. Like music, language is essentially
>> temporal. It exists in time but not in the same way that objects exist
>> time. For an object, time is passage. For language, time is
>Huh? Okay, memory is intrinsic to langauge. To understand a statement, we
must be able to use a stored algorithm to parse the statement and construct meaning from it. The rest of this doesn't even make sense.
Again, you are not making a scientific statement. You are assuming that there is an alogorithm, and that it is stored. Just because we *could* use an algorithm to understand a statement doesn't mean we really do. Why assume we think the way computers "think"?

Beware of a theory that "doesn't even make sense." It might not make sense, or then again it might be the harbinger of a paradigm shift.

>> So, language exists *across* time, just as the brain exists across space.
>> The brain does not contain language; it merely facilitates its
>> The brain is the playing out of the mind; it's the moment-to-moment
>> materialization of mentality. It doesn't contain the secrets of language
>> its rules. It just facilitates speech and comprehension in the moment.
>> not suggesting that the mind exists on some higher plane, imposing its
>> "rules" onto matter. The mind is merely the "echo" of the brain. It
>> informs the brain based on the brain's own past activities.
>Okay, so you're saying minds do exist in the brain? I'm confused.
As for language existing "across time" in what sense does it do so that the brain doesn't?
Welcome to the wonderful world of philosophy. I'm not suggesting minds exist in brains. "Mentality" and "matter" are both questionable concepts. As a former student of physics, you should be aware of just how "strange" matter has become. It has so many special rules now that maybe the whole thing should be chucked. Body and mind are the same thing (and are therefore irreducible to each other). They seem different only because space and time are different. Whatever this "thing" is, the body manifests it in space, and the mind manifests it in time. This means that the mind exists in time in a way that the body does not. As an object, the body exists only in the current moment. It has no past, and if we destroy it, it will have no future. Let's take, as an example, the March 20 issue of The Nation. (I'm a little behind, no thanks to this list!) When did this magazine come into being? Well, according to the mast, it was printed on March 1. But what if this is a misprint? Or what if that portion of the mast had been torn out? I would have had no way of knowing when it was printed, because the magazine's history does not inhere to the magazine itself. It's full of words, but I can't ask it anything. It has no memory, just information that records its past in the present. Its entire existence is limited to the present. Furthermore, if I were to burn this issue of The Nation, it would entirely cease to exist. This is not the case with memories. If a portion of the brain which has facilitated a certain kind of memory is destroyed, that memory still exists and can be facilitated by another portion of the brain.

>> This leads to a question: Is Chomsky a Platonist? These rules that
>> and govern languages sound similar to transcendent Ideas. Do these rules
>> vary at all over time? Or are they static and essentially eternal?
>Whether Chomsky is a Platonist isn't of the slightest interst to me,
however, language does change in time if that's what you mean. What bearing this has on the mind/body problem eludes me.
Yes, language changes over time, but do the rules that generate it change over time? Can we express these rules as equations? Isn't an equation ideal and atemporal? You stated that the algorithms by which we understand statements are stored. In other words, they exist as an arrangement of molecules. So, here's my question: Is it Platonic Chomsky or Atomic Chomsky?


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