• Manuel
    2.1k
    The purpose of this thread is to (hopefully), get a few people interested in reading this very important article by Chomsky:

    https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/ChomskyMysteriesNatureHidden2009.pdf

    There's plenty of interesting information in this 33ish page essay, in which he discusses (and arguably proves) "mysterianism", the reasons why "materialism" no longer makes sense, and why we should be very cautious in thinking about consciousness as being the "hard problem", among many other topics.

    It's quite scholarly and has plenty of resources for those interested in pursuing some specific line of enquiry.

    The format for this thread is quite free, people are encouraged to read a few pages, half the essay or the entire thing in one go and comment as you deem appropriate.

    There is no time table nor set date for discussion.

    The idea here is simply to discuss, argue, disagree or clarify on anything touched on by this essay.

    People interested in these topic are welcome.
  • Saphsin
    378
    I admit skimming it because I've recognized the various arguments he made articulated elsewhere (I saved the document and will get back to it though) but I never understood the point of his mysterianism. If we're not angels and have cognitive limits, there's no way to know and pinpoint how distant the gap actually is, yet he seems to be confident in how he asserts the implications of such and mapping it directly onto specific scientific examples.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    If we're not angels and have cognitive limits, there's no way to know and pinpoint how distant the gap actually isSaphsin

    I'm not sure I understood this. Angels refers to the beings people believed in back then, who had infinite knowledge, perhaps thinking of God or gods would be less confusing.
  • Saphsin
    378
    Our limits to knowledge is figured out on a case by case basis, and even then we may unexpectedly breakthrough an impasse. There’s no way to make detailed generalizations about this unless you already know everything there is to know from the start.
  • Manuel
    2.1k


    In this essay, he points out that Newton himself realized that the way gravity worked was an "absurdity" and that no person who was of right "philosophical" mind could ever "fall into it".

    The conclusion here being that the world does not work according to our common sense intuition and that the goal of scientific enquiry was henceforth lowered, from understanding the world to understanding theories of the world, which is quite different.

    The case was that we thought we knew almost everything about the way matter worked, and were proven wrong.

    There's also a reference to a paper by Lewontin, near the end, which also gives strong arguments as to what we cannot know about cognition, for instance. I could share the link, but I'd prefer to stick to this essay for a bit before branching out.
  • Saphsin
    378
    The threshold for the big questions that Newton imagined were lowered because the state of body of knowledge was not ready for them at the time, so yes they had to work within the frameworks of the theory. Science advances by answering smaller subquestions through working on the finer empirical details and math and not answering the big questions we’d like, but to suggest that answering more and more of these small subquestions doesn’t give you a new perspective of those big questions, even redefining the big questions, is a claim that’s really odd to me. I mean the action of a distance principle that Chomsky cites that Newton was so bewildered by, we confirmed evidence for gravitational waves just recently. That’s not a complete picture yet, but that’s why we have a century or more of fundamental physics to go.

    On evolution of language, that seems to me more akin to something like the problem of Abiogenesis. Both only happened once and we don’t have the comprehensive historical data for it, so we can only make educated guesses. Abiogenesis we can hypothesize through lab experiments and computer simulations, evolution of language is probably tougher (depending on how complicated it actually is. Chomsky’s complicated formalism is a small minority position in generative linguistics, which itself is only one of the theoretical approaches in the broader linguistics field) Yes these are technically examples of our limits of knowledge, but I don’t think that says much about our cognitive constraints, and definitely not generalizable to the extent that it tells us lessons on where to pinpoint our limitations on answering some completely different question.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    but to suggest that answering more and more of these small subquestions doesn’t give you a new perspective of those big questions, even redefining the big questions, is a claim that’s really odd to me.Saphsin

    That's not particularly relevant to the bigger picture.

    You're right that we can get a bunch of data from all these fields and learn a lot, but we no longer have any intuitions about how the world works. Action at a distance was inconvenible to Newton because it wasn't materialistic, but now General Relativity and QM is even less materialistic in this sense, as it's much further removed from common sense understanding.

    Yes these are technically examples of our limits of knowledge, but I don’t think that says much about our cognitive constraints, and definitely not generalizable to extent that it tells us lessons on where to pinpoint our limitations on answering some completely different question.Saphsin

    Sure, much of evolutionary evidence we just can't get given the paucity of the fossil record, so in this regard we can't answer certain questions, though this doesn't speak directly about constraint.

    The example Chomsky uses in this article is about the "creative aspects" of language use, which interested Descartes and his followers, which don't appear to be within reach of scientific enquiry.

    I can't speak of the technical aspects of linguistics, but I'm sure there are other, useful approaches not covered here.
  • Saphsin
    378
    Chomsky sees knowledge of what’s “really there” as grasping the deep principles at the fundamental baseline, what you call intuitive knowledge. General Relativity is admittedly itself partial (until we have a confirmed theory of Quantum Gravity, which itself may not be the end), but I have a hard time seeing if Newton was brought to the future, that he would not see it as a closer clarifying answer to what confounded him about Action at a Distance, it became less mysterious so to speak. It helped narrow our view about the nature of phenomenon, and that counts as an improvement of our knowledge of what’s “really there” as far as I can tell, and on the way it continuously redefines what we understood as physical/material.

    The world is not continuous, we’re made of discrete atoms, spacetime is an entity and not just a construct of the mind as Kant thought. That this doesn’t count as knowledge of the physical world if we don’t grasp causation all the way down and amounts to just examining theoretical constructs on the surface strikes me as a rather extreme reductionist way of thinking of Chomsky’s. He is perhaps correct in the really long term if we’re talking about a complete penetration of reality, but he speculates specific scientific problems to be beyond us when he doesn’t actually know that, unless he has the foresight of an angel with infinite knowledge.

    On the Cartesian question, I was just responding to when you cited the part where Chomsky talks about Lewontin’s claim.
  • Saphsin
    378
    There are probably people on the opposite side of the spectrum who confuse appearances of things with knowledge of scientific principles. I really liked this video here of Chomsky's skeptical argument of A.I. programs as revealing something about human cognition:

    https://youtu.be/RdbWSQyfa2g

    I just happen to think he takes his position way too far with the whole mysterianism thing.

    Georges Rey has a book released relatively recently critiquing Chomsky on the mind-body problem. Haven't picked it up yet, but there may be a review out there somewhere.
  • Tom Storm
    2.9k
    Thanks for this. There are many people who dislike Chomsky and perhaps will not engage with this in good faith. For my money, Chomsky is likely to be better informed and smarter than possibly everyone on this forum. We can't readily ignore what he says. I have seen his talks on this subject several times and subscribe low-rent mysterianism myself. When I get some time, I will attempt to read this and understand it, which may be somewhat more challenging.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    I should say, I appreciate the feedback and thought put into your answers, even if I disagree with some of it, you certainly posing good questions. Just wanted to say that.

    Chomsky sees knowledge of what’s “really there” as grasping the deep principles at the fundamental baseline, what you call intuitive knowledge.Saphsin

    Well, towards the end of the essay, he ends up by quoting Wheeler's "It from Bit" doctrine, but doesn't signal if he accepts or rejects it.

    but I have a hard time seeing if Newton was brought to the future, that he would not see it as a closer clarifying answer to what confounded him about Action at a Distance, it became less mysterious so to speak. It helped narrow our view about the nature of phenomenon, and that counts as an improvement of our knowledge of what’s “really there” as far as I can tell, and on the way it continuously redefines what we understand as physical/material.Saphsin

    Arguably, one can say that General Relativity is more "intuitive". One example would be that, we all feel time differently. What for me seems like forever as I'm in pain, for you passes in seconds as you stroll in the park - and yet only a minute passed for both of us.

    In other respects, GR is not intuitive. I don't have the intuition that a body "shapes" the space time around it, it seems to me as if a body is simply there and space and time are around it. Which is strictly speaking false.

    The intuition here, the one Descartes and Newton believed in (and the one which seems to be innate in us), is mechanistic materialism, the view that the world functions like a giant clock. The idea was that if someone could build something, that thing was understood.

    Crucially, contact is needed from one body to move another body. This direct contact doesn't exist in nature. And in QM, you have people even questioning if causality exists.

    The world is not continuous, we’re made of discrete atoms, spacetime is an entity and not just a construct of the mind as Kant thought. That this doesn’t count as knowledge of physical mechanisms if we don’t grasp causation all the way down strikes me as a rather extreme reductionist view of Chomsky’s.Saphsin

    The important part, I think, is that he's quoting Newton, Locke, Priestley and Hume and seems to agree with them in so far as the world not making sense in relation to our common sense, mechanistic intuitions.

    I don't see him arguing for reduction, though he talks about the case of chemistry and QM.

    Absolutely, it is knowledge of phenomena. The argument would be that we don't grasp causation in a simple case of a body moving (Newton didn't as quoted), never mind deeper principles.

    Our intuition seems to be that of constant conjunction, as Hume pointed out, there's probably more than this to causation, but we can't prove it.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    Thanks for this. There are many people who dislike Chomsky and perhaps will not engage with this in good faith. For my money, Chomsky is likely to be better informed and smarter than possibly everyone on this forum. We can't readily ignore what he says. I have seen his talks on this subject several times and subscribe low-rent mysterianism myself. When I get some time, I will attempt to read this and understand it, which may be somewhat more challenging.Tom Storm

    I think so too.

    His views should be taken quite seriously as his breadth of knowledge is considerable.

    Having said that, of course one if free to disagree and argue. So, no worries about the reading, give it a try, ask about any doubts - if they arise - and just enjoy.

    No time pressure for this type of thread.
  • frank
    9.6k
    I didn't realize Newton had said that rational people would reject gravity for lack of a physical explanation.


    If we transport Newton to our time, would he say rational people would reject qualia for lack of a physical explanation?
  • Xtrix
    2.9k


    An important essay indeed. Chomsky's been saying this for years, and too few listen. He demonstrates, quite clearly, how there is no mind/body problem without the concept of "body," which was long ago destroyed as a technical notion -- and hasn't been replaced since.

    I don't think he's advocating for "mysterianism" or mysticism. He's simply saying we have limits in our capacities to understand the world, and while we may not know exactly what they are, there are many hints. We seem to progress in some domains and hit brick walls in others, historically.

    So any accusation that Chomsky, who's a scientist though and through, is simply becoming a mystic is unfounded. Rather, he's reiterating what Newton pointed out, and using this to demonstrate how little we really know about what's "physical" and "material."

    For my money, Chomsky is likely to be better informed and smarter than possibly everyone on this forum.Tom Storm

    About nearly everything, yes. Philosophy, history, politics, and most of the sciences. But we could mop the floor with him if it came to popular culture.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    If we transport Newton to our time, would he say rational people would reject qualia for lack of a physical explanation?frank

    I've read Priestley, Locke, Hume's Treatise and some Reid. The very clear impression I get from all of them, without doubt, is that qualia exist and are as obvious as anything we can know.

    Locke very clearly says that we don't know how objects' powers could possibly cause us to see yellow or have taste.

    They wouldn't reject qualia at all, they fully and obviously accept them, but admit that we don't know the explanation for them, it was obvious to those mentioned, perhaps with a slight qualification from Reid, though nothing big.
  • frank
    9.6k


    So qualia is just like gravity in that we know about it, but can't explain it. For gravity, a paradigm shift was required to begin explaining it, but Newton didn't realize that.

    Now I'm curious about how we finally decide our definition of "physical" has to change in order to move forward.

    I'll keep reading. :grin:
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    I don't think he's advocating for "mysterianism" or mysticism. He's simply saying we have limits in our capacities to understand the world, and while we may not know exactly what they are, there are many hints. We seem to progress in some domains and hit brick walls in others, historically.Xtrix

    You're right to point that out. He always calls it "common sense", which is perhaps the one thing I'd disagree with him. Not because what he's saying is crazy, it's just that it to me it seems that such a designation can cause others to think that they're not being common sensical.

    I think he should say he a "rationalistic idealist", as he labels Cudworth. Or a modern Cartesian.

    The thing is that the name "mysterianism" has stuck, so, might as well use it.

    So qualia is just like gravity in that we know about it, but can't explain it. For gravity, a paradigm shift was required to begin explaining it, but Newton didn't realize that.frank

    Hmmm. In a certain sense, though qualia wasn't a problem for them, in terms of how it is a problem for us in so far as it figures in the "hard problem".

    Locke and Hume take them as properties of objects, given properties, obvious properties, forming part of our simple ideas or simple impressions.

    Priesteley concludes, in essence, that we don't know enough about matter to say that matter could not be said to have mind, in certain configurations: any arguments to the effect that mind must be immaterial or non-physical is made out of ignorance, because we don't know enough about matter to say otherwise. That includes qualia, clearly.
  • Wayfarer
    14.6k
    Top of page 171: [Newton] wrote that the notion of action at a distance is “inconceivable.” It is “so great
    an Absurdity, that I believe no Man who has in philosophical matters a competent Faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it.”

    Can't help but remind me of Einstein's complaints of 'spooky action at a distance' that arose from Schrodinger's equation.

    One thought struck me was in regard to the section beginning with this:

    As the impact of Newton’s discoveries was slowly absorbed, such lowering of the goals of
    scientific inquiry became routine. Scientists abandoned the animating idea of the early scientific revolution: that the world will be intelligible to us. It is enough to construct intelligible explanatory theories, a radical difference.
    — P173

    The mischievious thought that occurs to me is that perhaps what's being shown here is that matter is basically unintelligible. I've been studying ancient philosophy (in a piecemeal fashion), but I recall a general statement about Platonism which is that it held that 'to be, is to be intelligible'. Perhaps the sensory domain/empirical realm/'the world' doesn't actually meet that standard; it's unintelligible, because it is unreal in some sense. We can learn to manipulate it - 'if I pull this lever, than I get x' - without really understanding it. Maybe.

    Getting through it but it's a dense paper. I'll read some more later.
  • Manuel
    2.1k
    The mischievious thought that occurs to me is that perhaps what's being shown here is that matter is basically unintelligibleWayfarer

    That's actually not far from being the case, in fact it's a plausible reading of this paper.

    About the world being unintelligible, in some sense yes: Chomsky mentions Wheeler's "It from Bit", which is a kind of idealist position. So it's an option for him.

    I would agree with you that Chomsky at times is focuses on science for many philosophical positions, I'm more liberal and like ordered speculation so...

    Getting through it but it's a dense paper. I'll read some more later.Wayfarer

    Your thoughts are always welcome.
  • 180 Proof
    7k
    @Manuel

    I've not (yet) read the article, though I've been aware of Chomsky's (vague) quasi-mysterianism for decades, and I wonder does Chomsky state clearly what he means by
    • understanding
    • explanation, explaining

    and demonstrate how he / we can know (i.e. scientifically explain)^ what we cannot know^ or, more fundamentally, what cannot (in principle) be known^. (e.g. Lord Kelvin's prophesy :roll:) How, with straight faces, can 'mysterians' even feign any confidence in – let alone understand – their own 'mysterianism' (à la Gorgias' p0m0-like performative contradictions)? :mask:
  • Tom Storm
    2.9k
    The mischievious thought that occurs to me is that perhaps what's being shown here is that matter is basically unintelligible.Wayfarer

    Yes, he essentially says this in a couple of lectures I've seen from the 1980's.

    I don't think he's advocating for "mysterianism" or mysticism.Xtrix

    Not mysticism, but he does include himself in mysterianism in the same lectures (which I will try to find, they're on YouTube).

    About nearly everything, yes. Philosophy, history, politics, and most of the sciences. But we could mop the floor with him if it came to popular culture.Xtrix

    :gasp: I know very little popular culture, since I often dislike and avoid it; but with my lack of serious study I probably know more pop than Noam. Not much virtue in this, however. :groan:
  • Wayfarer
    14.6k
    How, with straight faces, can 'mysterians' even feign any confidence in – let alone understand – their own 'mysterianism'180 Proof

    Doesn't (your oft-mentioned) fallibilism say that hypotheses are only falsifiable conjectures? That they don't need to be declared to be knowledge, as such, provided that they enable accurate predictions?

    332dc87ao2ppfkuj.gif
  • 180 Proof
    7k
    'Mysterianism' is not a hypothesis (i.e. explanation of matters of fact, etc) which is experimentally testable so your "point", Wayf, is a non sequitur.
  • Manuel
    2.1k


    As I read him, his approach tends to be straight forward, he's always called it "common sense", and thought the term can be misleading, it's a good way to approach him generally. Understanding and explanation are related.

    For him, as a scientist/philosopher, understanding is approached via "methodological naturalism": one studies all aspects of nature the same way, as a biologist studies digestion, so a cognitive scientist studies the mind.

    The goal of scientific enquiry is to be able to provide a theoretical account or principle, usually as simple as possible but no less, from which predictions and observed phenomena can be accounted for - under the theory.

    On this view, an explanation would be what is predicted from the theory. If the theory of General Relativity predicts that light will bend a certain way given how the sun interacts with a planet, then if the light bends in the predicted way, this counts as an explanation and is understood to follow from the theory.

    How, with straight faces, can 'mysterians' even feign any confidence in – let alone understand – their own 'mysterianism180 Proof

    He cites Hume, Locke and Priestley (among many others) who were wrestling with Newton's discovery of gravity. Prior to Newton, roughly from Descartes until Newton, understanding was taken to mean intuitive understanding: if a billiard ball hits another billiard ball, the cause was a direct contact.

    On the old view of understanding, direct contact was how the world worked. It makes sense "folk psychologically" - to use that term.

    Under this view, the material world, was understood as being a big machine, not unlike a clock which could be built by an artisan. The problem was that this manner of intuitive explanation, did not reach the domain of mind, specifically the creative aspect of language use which Descartes thought could not be recreated through an automaton.

    Newton essentially believed this view, that the world was a clock-like machine. Only that when he discovered gravity he realized that the universe did not work like a machine, there is no direct contact. As Newton says:

    "It is inconceivable, that inanimate brute matter should, without the mediation of something else, which is not material, operate upon and affect other matter without mutual contact.... is to me so great an absurdity, that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking, can ever fall into it."

    By "philosophical", Newton meant what we today call "scientific."

    The world does not follow our intuitions. We now strive to get explanatory theories that explain aspects of the world, we no longer seek to understand the world itself, as Chomsky points out in the article.

    So by "mysterian" (not a term he likes for himself), or "common sense", he simply means that there are aspects about the world we don't understand, given the creatures we are. Our intuitions mislead us into the nature of the world.
  • Tom Storm
    2.9k
    So by "mysterian" (not a term he likes for himself)Manuel

    Just heard the quote - of mysterianism Chomsky says, 'I'm cited as one of the culprits responsible for this strange post-modern heresy which I'll happily accept although I would prefer a different term for it, namely Truism."
  • Manuel
    2.1k


    Exactly. The point is simple. We are biological creatures, like all other biological creatures, we have a nature. Dogs have a nature, birds have a nature, humans too.

    Many things birds do, dogs cannot and vice versa.

    Our mental capacities are also a product of natural evolution and biology. So there's two options:

    Either we are capacitated with certain scopes and limits (this is needed to have a nature - if we had none, we would be a structureless "creature") which include our mental powers.

    Or, we have the capacity, through hard work, to understand everything - because apparently the mind is not subject to biological constraints.

    As he says somewhere, we have to distinguish "infinite" from "limitless". English is infinite. But it is not Greek. We can picture or imagine infinite things, it does not follow that we can imagine everything that there is in nature.

    In any case, I'm off for the night. Thanks for posting that.
  • Xtrix
    2.9k
    The mischievious thought that occurs to me is that perhaps what's being shown here is that matter is basically unintelligible.Wayfarer

    Exactly right. It’s perfectly fine to use in normal everyday discourse, but it has no technical notion.

    Not mysticism, but he does include himself in mysterianismTom Storm

    Really? I’ve never heard him say so, so I welcome the correction if I’m mistaken.

    Human beings have a scope and limit. I don’t think that’s “mysterianism.” He uses the example of rats failing at a prime number made as an example. Their cognitive capacities are limited. Ours are clearly limited as well. We know this in terms of senses (we don’t have echolocation or the olfactory capability of dogs), perception (the moon illusion), and in terms of basic biology (we can’t fly like birds). I consider this just truism. Shouldn’t be controversial.

    So maybe we can’t “understand” the world in the way understanding was once meant.
  • 180 Proof
    7k
    I know all this; in order to evaluate Chomsky's arguments I'd like to read Chomsky's language (in the article at issue) and not mere paraphrases. The conclusions as paraphrased here do not follow soundly and seem polemical at best. I'm not a mysterian and thereby need some uncontroversial, or unambiguous, basis for engaging the topic again. From summaries elsewhere, Manuel, I glean nothing new here in Chomsky's ramblings.
  • Xtrix
    2.9k


    Just wanted to say that I think you’ve understood Chomsky very well. That’s pretty rare, in my experience, despite him usually pointing out fairy straightforward things.
  • Tom Storm
    2.9k
    So maybe we can’t “understand” the world in the way understanding was once meant.Xtrix

    I agree with you. And then there is the matter of individual capacity. I struggle to understand the system I work in, let alone recondite philosophy. The chances that I would every come close to understanding the 'true nature of reality' (however this is to be understood or redefined) is, I would imagine, infinitesimal.
  • Xtrix
    2.9k
    I'm not a mysterian180 Proof

    Neither is Chomsky. Try engaging with texts instead of labeling with an “ism.” Or send him an e-mail about his “ramblings” and teach him a thing or two — I for one would be very interested to see it.
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