The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Wedding Biology and Linguistics

In the following years, a number of psychologists, linguists and philosophers corroborated the overall picture of Chomsky’s vision.

The US linguist Ray Jackendoff thinks that the human brain contains innate linguistic knowledge and that the same argument can be extended to all facets of human experience: all experience is constructed by unconscious, genetically determined principles that operate in the brain.  These same conclusions can be applied to thought itself, i.e. to the task of building concepts. Concepts are constructed by using some innate, genetically determined, machinery, a sort of "universal grammar of concepts".  Language is but one aspect of a broader characteristic of the human brain. 

According to the German linguist Eric Lenneberg, language should be studied as an aspect of our biological nature, in the same manner as anatomy. Chomsky's universal grammar is to be viewed as an underlying biological framework for the growth of language. Genetic predisposition, growth and development apply to language faculties just like to any other organ of the body.  Behavior in general is an integral part of an organism's constitution.

Another implication of the standard theory (and particularly of its transformational component) is on the structure of the mind.  The transformations can be seen as corresponding to mental processes, performed by mental modules (as in Jerry Fodor's computational theory of the mind), each independent of the others and each guided by elementary principles. 

The Canadian psychologist  Steven Pinker believes that children are "wired" to pay attention to certain patterns and to perform some operations with words. All languages share common features, suggesting that natural selection favored certain syntactic structures. Pinker identified fifteen modules inside the human mind, organs that account for instincts that all humans share.

Our genetic program specifies the existence and growth of the “language organs”, and those organs include at least an idea of what a language is. These organs are roughly the same for all humans, just like hands and eyes are roughly the same. This is why two people can understand each other even if they are using sentences that the other has never heard before.

In biological words, the universal grammar is the linguistic genotype. Its principles are invariant for all languages. The values of some parameters can be "selected" by the environment out of all valid values. This pseudo-Darwinian process is similar to what happens with other growth processes. The model used by Gerald Edelman both in his study of the immune system (the viruses select the appropriate antibodies out of those available) and in his study of the brain (experience selects the useful neural connections out of those available at birth) is quite similar.

A disturbing consequence of this theory is that our mental organs determine what we are capable of communicating, just like our arms or legs determine what movements we are capable of. Just like there are movements that our body cannot possibly make, there are concepts that our language can never possibly communicate.


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