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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I like your aviation metaphor!!
There is an old saying (don't know who's) that if you don't understand something then it must be simple. So there are linguists, physicists, computer scientists, philosophers etc. lining up to misunderstand biology. And visa verse probably.

Karthik Durvasula

1) I kinda see all evolutionary accounts of language as "just so" stories. I don't think I have seen one that is robust and allows a mechanistic implementation. Most depend on some sort of "functional explanation". However, this is NOT an explanation in the true evolutionary sense, because ultimately evolution thru natural selection is a non-functional explanation of how things are the way they are. This is why it is important to ask "why?" not just "how?" when theorising about evolutionary origins of anything, including language. The Minimalist programme sets before it, exactly this agenda. A caricature of the programme does no one any good, let alone lambasting it based on a severe misunderstanding of it.

2) This is false analogy:
"Consider this parallel argument: flight ... evolvability should be a central constraint on aeronautical theorizing"

The right analogy would be "flight in biological species is a biological object that came into existence in the evolution of birds, bats, and insects; therefore, evolvability should be a central constraint on theorizing about biological flight "

And you will see that evovability is a central concern for the scientist concerned with the workings of the mechanism.

3) The following statement amounts to claiming serendipity is the only route to knowledge:

"That's the way the knowledge runs—from experience to analogy."

If this were the case we would have NO knowledge about abstract fields like Mathematics, cos in most cases the math preceded the experiential use/recognition of the concept - Fourier Transforms to mention one amongst the many.

Even in the sciences, non-experiential predictions are routinely made. I don't quite understand your claim. If you had said, experience is "a way to understanding" - I might agree with you, but it cannot the only way (although, a stricter rationalist would disagree even with that).

Karthik Durvasula

a note to add to (3) from the previous post:

Experience allows us to entertain at best previously suppressed hypotheses - perhaps suppressed because of a disbelief in their plausibilty, for whatever reason. It doesn't generate the hypothesis itself.

For example, experience can equally well mislead as it leads - classic inductive inference mistakes. It is the rational, not experiential side, which has to ultimately decide between the hypotheses. Hence, experience is both a good thing and a bad thing, but knowledge is garnered only by reflecting on the plausible hypotheses, NOT through the experience to analogy.

There is a strong flavour of "empiricism" to your statements. They amount to saying, if given enough data/facts, we can figure out the truth, and this has been shown repeatedly to be a misunderstanding of how to proceed with knowledge accumulation.

A classic lesson is available from neurobiological investigations: we have an incredible amount of facts about the brain, yet we have NO understanding of it, by which I mean, why it does what it does/how it does it - exactly cos more facts don't equal more knowledge.


So Karthik Durvasula, are you saying that empirical science is failing to begin to understand the brain during recent history while non-empirical methods used for the previous 1000 years or more have made progress? If so I would strongly disagree. Science is the tool of choice where ever possible.
BLOGGER: I was a bit startled to be called an empiricist, like that was a bad thing. However, she did have a point when she said facts alone are not enough. Science works by getting facts, then proposing an idea that explains them, then getting more facts, then, if the ides survives, getting more facts. Eventually the idea that explains them fails and you look for another idea and more facts to test it. I'm also sympathetic to the notion that facts have a dull Joe Friday quality, but the amassing of facts has proven to be an effective path to finding workable theories.

Karthik Durvasula

Hi Janet,

No, that's not what I said. Simply put, empiricism is not the same thing as "empirical science'.

Rationalist, empiricist, mixed approaches ... are all approaches to science and are all "empirical science". "Empirical" in "empirical science" means "evidence-based" or "dependent on experimentation".

While, "empiricism" refers to (inductive) inferential theorising.

The terminological overlap is unfortunate, but it is what it is.

As far as the brain is concerned, I maintain my earlier claim. There is a tonne of information about the brain, but we have no clue as to why the brain behaves the way it does.

If you think "information = knowledge", then I guess you won't agree with me; but if you think "understanding = knowledge", then you will see the problem I am raising.

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