The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

Chomsky Revisited

In 1986 Noam Chomsky, aware of the shortcomings of his generative theory of language, introduced a new theory of language, the theory of “Principles and Parameters”, later (1995) renamed “Minimalism”.

Chomsky recognized that there might be no universal grammar, just a circuit in the brain that is more or less plastic: change the connections and you get one or the other language. Instead of innate knowledge of language, Chomsky proposed that the brain comes equipped with a virtually infinite set of concepts. There are no “rules” of grammar as such, but there are associations between sounds and concepts: we learn a concept when we make the connection with a sound. Basically, we “rediscover” concepts that we have always unconsciously known (they have always been in our mind, since, presumably, prehistoric times).

Chomsky basically claimed that the “rules” of grammar are only a consequence, a side-effect, of the way language works. One could come up with a set of rules of how a muscle or a stomach works, but it is not that the brain has rules on how to run the muscle or the stomach: the rules are a way to explain what actually happens. The key is to discover the mechanism that generates those apparent “rules” of behavior (and their countless exceptions).

Most linguists simply neglect history and the fact that we are a species capable of learning and of transmitting knowledge. Were we a species that does not change over the centuries, Chomsky’s original theory of language might have worked just fine. Alas, we keep changing our culture and our behavior, and we instruct our children to maintain our changes. Whatever human phenomenon we observe we are bound to be confused by our own messing with it over the millennia. There might indeed be simple mechanisms that explain language, but those mechanisms are probably perturbed by the fact that humans continuously change their own culture, including their own language. Thus, at every point in time, one can find countless exceptions to every rule. Those exceptions are probably a sign that language is in progress, changing as we observe it. Imagine if you had to study the behavior of a machine while the machine is being dismantled and rebuilt. That is what we do when we study any human phenomenon.

A study of the history of language might show that there are many more regularities than one supposes.  Irregular verbs probably have a reason to be what they are (they may have been regular in the past, according to a long-forgotten rule). Words may be derived from very simple sounds. Idiomatic expressions may be based on bodily features. And so forth. If one studies the history of a language, there might be simple explanations for every “odd” feature of it.

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