Chomsky on the “Limits” of Knowledge & Thought


One consequence of your theories is that we are as human beings a very very rigidly pre-programmed, there are certain things we can understand, certain things we can communicate and anything that falls outside that we simply can’t, is that so? That’s certainly correct So I mean in a way, this is a rather alarming doctrine I mean, it certainly contravenes the way we want to feel about ourselves. Well that may be an immediate reaction, but I think it’s It’s not the correct reaction. In fact, well, it’s true that our genetic program rigidly constrains us I think the more important point is that the existence of that rich, of that rigid constraint is what provides the basis for our freedom and creativity and the reasons I mean It’s only because we have pre-programmed that we can do all the things and exactly the point is that if we really were plastic organisms without an extensive pre-programming Then the state that our mind achieves would in fact be a reflection of the environment which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished Fortunately for us we’re rigidly pre-programmed with extremely rich systems that are part of our biological endowment correspondingly a small amount of rather degenerate experience Allows a kind of a great leap into a rich cognitive system essentially uniform in a community and in fact roughly uniform.. Which would have developed over complex evolutionary ages through all the basic? solution represents the basic system itself developed over long periods of evolutionary development. We don’t know how it really But for the individual it’s present, as a result… The individual is capable of with a very small amount of evidence of constructing an extremely rich system, which allows him to act in the free and creative fashion, which in fact is normal for humans we can say Anything that we want over an infinite range Other people will understand us, though they’ve heard nothing like that before We’re able to do that precisely because of that rigid programming But short of that we would not be able to at all. – What account are you able to give of creativity if we are? Pre-programmed in the way you say then how is creativity and possibility for us? Well here I think one has to be fairly careful I think we can say a good deal about about the nature of the System that is acquired the state of knowledge that is attained we can say a fair amount about the biological basis the The basis in the initial state of the mind for the acquisition of this system But when we turn to a third question namely how is this system used? How are we able to act creatively? How can how do we decide to how can we decide to say things that are? New but not random that are appropriate to occasions, but not under the control of stimuli when we ask these questions We really enter into a realm of mystery where human science at least so far and maybe in principle does not reach We can say a fair amount about the principles that make it possible for us to behave in our normal creative fashion But as soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action when those questions arise Human science is at a loss. It has nothing to say about them as far as I can see these questions remain in the obscurity that In which they were in classical antiquity. We are all very used I think to the idea that in social life Each one of us as individuals tends to construct a picture of the world around his own experience and indeed We it’s difficult to see how we could do anything else. We’re bound to do that We’ve got no alternative, but it does mean but each one of us Forms, a systematically distorted view of the world because it’s in because it’s all Built up on what accidentally happens to be the particular and really rather narrow Experience of the individual who does it… Now, do you think that something of that kind applies to man as a whole because of the reasons implicit in your theory that is to say that the the whole picture that Mankind has formed of the cosmos of the universe of the world must be systematically distorted and what’s more drastically limited by the nature of the particular apparatus for understanding that he happens to have? Well, I think that is undoubtedly the case but again, I would question the use of the word limited which carries unfortunate suggestions… That is, I assume that one of our faculties one of our mental organs if you like is let’s call it a science forming capacity a capacity to create intelligible explanatory theories in some domain and if we look at the history of science We discover that time after time when particular questions were posed at a particular level of understanding It was possible to make very innovative leaps of the imagination two rich explanatory theories that Presented an intelligible picture of that sub-domain of the universe, often in wrong theories as we later discovered But there’s a course that’s followed And this gives this could have been the case only because we do have and we in fact share across the species a kind of a science forming capacity that is That limits us as you say, but at the same in the same, but same token provides the possibility of creating Explanatory theories that extend so vastly far beyond any evidence that’s available. I mean, it’s very important to realize that there should be some obvious say but it’s worth saying that when When it’s when a new theory is created and I don’t necessarily mean Newton. I mean even a small theory What the scientist is typically doing? First of all, he has very limited evidence The theory goes far far beyond the evidence secondly much of the evidence that’s available is typically disregarded That is it’s put to the side in the hope that somebody else will take care of it someday and we can forget about so at every stage in the history of science, there’s Even normal science not, you know kuhnian revolutions There’s a high degree of idealization that goes on, so there’s selection of evidence, and distortion of evidence, creation of new theory… Conformation or a refutation or modification of that theory, further idealization… These are all very curious steps and we’re capable nevertheless We can often make them, and make them in a way which is intelligible to others… Doesn’t look like some random act of the imagination And where that’s possible we can we can develop intelligible theories. We can gain some comprehension of the nature of this aspect of the world. Now, this is possible only because we are rigidly pre-programmed again because we have somehow developed through evolution or however This specific faculty of forming very particular theories, of course it follows at once, or at least, Follow it’s reasonable to assume that this very faculty which enables us to construct extremely rich and successful theories in some domain May lead us very far astray and some other domain For example, there may be some you know again I’m a Martian scientists looking at us and observing our successes and errors from a higher intelligence let’s say… might be mused to discover that Whereas in some domains we seem to be able to make scientific progress, in other domains we always seem to be running up against a blank wall… Because our minds are so constructive that we just can’t make the intellectual leap that’s required. We can’t formulate the concept We don’t have the categories that are required to gain insight into that domain

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