Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS
Part IV: CONSCIOUSNESS AND COGNITION
with STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Today we'll be exploring "Language and Consciousness." With me is Dr. Steven Pinker, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Center at MIT. Dr. Pinker is the author of numerous books, including Visual Cognition, and most recently, The Language Instinct. Welcome again, Steven.
STEVEN PINKER, Ph.D.: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: We're going to focus in specifically in this half hour on the issue of consciousness itself. In some of our previous discussions we have talked about the notion of innate structures of the mind related to language -- the ideas that were developed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, at a time when the field of psychology itself was very behaviorally oriented and almost willing to discard the concept of consciousness completely. Chomsky argued from a linguistic perspective that the mind itself did have a structure, and we could find that structure by looking at language.
PINKER: That's right. It used to be the dogma among psychologists that it was unscientific even to talk about consciousness, that this was like talking about fairies or ghosts or prescientific folk concepts, and we've got to just get them out of our science. But that has changed, starting in the late fifties with Chomsky and other cognitive scientists, who started to try to figure out what the mind's software was -- what's in our heads that allows us to do things like have common sense or talk or see or walk. And even more recently there's been a focus on what makes some kinds of mental processes conscious and others unconscious. How come, when we learn to drive a stick shift, we have to think carefully about every move, then, after it's practiced hundreds and hundreds of times, we can carry on a conversation and shift gears without realizing it? Obviously something very complicated is going on, but at that point it's below the level of consciousness, and that's something that now can be studied and thought about seriously.
MISHLOVE: In your book The Language Instinct you use the term instinct in a specific way to imply that it's somehow beneath the level of logic -- that an organism never asks why; they do what they do. We don't ask why we speak; we do it.
PINKER: That's right. I think that we speak in the same way that, say, a spider spins a web. I don't think that the spider reasons it out consciously, and I don't think that we reason out consciously how to put the words together when we talk, or how to decode the words when we understand, except under very special circumstances, like when we're writing something very difficult or when we're teaching language to someone else. But aside from that it just happens. It happens like digestion or like balance or like walking, and it just develops in every child as part of the brain structures that go on below the level of consciousness.
MISHLOVE: You refer to these structures as modules sometimes.
PINKER: In the sense that I don't think that the brain is just one lump of stuff that just has this mysterious property called intelligence. I think the brain is a complicated device that has lots of different parts that are designed to solve different kinds of problems. So I think we have parts of the brain that are dedicated to language, to speaking and understanding; other parts dedicated to recognizing objects and recognizing faces; other parts for social reasoning, how we interact with people; other parts perhaps for sexual attraction, and so on. There may actually be a fairly long list of kinds of intelligence, rather than this idea that there is one thing that the brain does called intelligence. It's just like, I think, if you're a carpenter or a mechanic. You don't have a general-purpose tool; it's hard to know what that would be -- some lump of metal with a prong at one end. You've got a whole bunch of tools, each one of which is designed to do something else. You need a corkscrew to take the cork out of a wine bottle, and you need a cup to drink out of. You couldn't use the cup to get the cork out, or the corkscrew to drink with. And I think the brain is the same way. It's a bunch of tools, each one of which does a certain kind of information processing that helps us accomplish one of the feats of everyday life. There's something for language, something for vision, and so on.
MISHLOVE: Well, when we refer to these tools or modules, I get the sense that what you're saying is that some of them are primary, and others, maybe involving other mental processes involving the combination of several of these, might be secondary in a sense.
PINKER: Yes, I think there are a lot of things that we do in everyday life that we clearly can't be doing with any kind of special-purpose module. When we play chess, when we do science, when we write music -- a lot of our everyday activities involve combinations of parts of the mind that were probably originally designed for other things. I don't think there's a module for watching basketball games. It probably involves a lot of things, including perception of motion, including a sense of competition and identification with in groups versus out groups, and so on.
MISHLOVE: So if we can identify the basic, fundamental tools, or fundamental modules, of the mind, they might be akin to the way in which you've used the word instinct -- that they're something basic. You can't reduce them any further.
PINKER: Yes. In a sense I like the word instinct even better than module, because it's closer to what I have in mind. I think that people are in some sense smarter than animals -- not because we have fewer instincts; that's been the traditional view; animals just are compelled to build a dam, if you're a beaver, or fly south, if you're a bird, and we humans somehow escape the realm of instinct and we have this pure intelligence. I think that we have more instincts than animals, not fewer, and the reason that we seem so intelligent, at least to each other, is because there are so many different tools in our mind that we can use to attack a problem, but that each one of them does have its own properties, and some things it does well, some things it doesn't do well.
MISHLOVE: One of the instincts that you've described seems to be an innate intuition for understanding the way plants and animals work.
PINKER: Well, this is kind of speculative; it's a guess. But I wouldn't be surprised if the human mind had certain instincts for reasoning about the living world. For one thing, our ancestors, in fact most people in the history of the human race, couldn't just go to a supermarket or a restaurant when they were hungry. They had to figure out where to get the plant foods and the animals in their environment. Try to imagine that you're on a camping trip that lasts all of your life, and you don't have any provisions with you; you've got to track down the animals and the plant foods. And hunter-gatherer peoples all over the world are very sophisticated intuitive biologists. In fact often when an academic biologist goes into an area, they will learn a vast amount of information simply by asking the local tribe, "How many kinds of plants are there? When do they bloom? What are the habits of animals?" And usually the indigenous tribes are, in one sense, much better biologists than the people with degrees from Harvard. I think we do that because everywhere the mind has certain intuitions about how living things work. We sense that animals and plants have an essence, hidden causal processes under the skin, that make them do what they do, and that allow them to grow and reproduce, and I think that modern biology, academic biology, may even have grown out of our gut-feeling biology. So we have a sense -- the first biologists took bits of leaves and put them under a microscope to figure out how plants work. But no one in his right mind would take bits of a chair and put them under a microscope to understand how chairs work. Chairs just work according to different processes than living things, and we all have that intuitive sense, and that's sort of what I mean by a folk or an intuitive biology -- just a gut-level sense as to how living things work as opposed to artifacts like chairs.
MISHLOVE: And when you refer to those kinds of intuitions, it sounds like they're not so different from the intuition one has that a sentence is properly formed, or it conveys the idea that I intend to express.
PINKER: It might be. I mean, it might be that the mind is divided into these different circuits, or these different parts, that work below the level of consciousness generally, that have their own special rules -- the language module would have rules for subjects and objects, and the biology module, if there is such a thing, would have rules for growth and change and hidden energy and so on -- and that each one of these modules would be built in a way that allows it to work toward solving that particular kind of problem -- where to find the lettuce, as opposed to how to put the words together when you're talking to someone.
MISHLOVE: You've listed, in your book The Language Instinct, maybe fifteen such modules. I gather you don't intend that to be an inclusive list.
PINKER: No, and that's just a rough guess. It's certainly not something that the science of the mind has given us an answer to yet. It's really for the future. And also it depends on whether you like to lump things together or split them into bits. But I would not be surprised if we were to discover that the mind had universal, innate instincts, for things like danger; that's where our sense of fear comes from, and phobias for dangerous objects like spiders and dangerous animals and heights and enclosed spaces, which you find universally; a sense of justice and rights, of who owes who what and who's obligated to do what; a sense of intuitive physics, how things fall and bounce and break.
MISHLOVE: Space and time.
PINKER: Space and time; of love, both love for offspring and parents and sexual desire; probably a number of others.
MISHLOVE: So when you look at these different qualities, you're suggesting that they are modules because they emerge from our own biology. And these are not the typical categories that one would find, let's say, in a psychology text, if we were to break down the way psychologists think of the mind. They don't quite divide it up that way.
PINKER: That's right. Academic psychology and sociology and anthropology and a lot of philosophy assume that the mind doesn't have any parts that are dedicated to particular contents -- that is, that there isn't a part of the mind for our sense of attraction, and another part of the mind for our sense of danger, and another part of the mind for our sense of disgust, that operate according to their own logic. The idea has been that there are a few processes that operate across every aspect of experience -- things like limited short-term memory, or limited ability to pay attention, or how you remember things over the long term, or laws of learning, how you make associations -- and that those are applied to everything from how you learn algebra in school, to your feelings toward your mother, to why you avoid incest with your sister or brother, and why you fear snakes, on and on; the same laws apply across the board. And I think that's a misconception. I think the mind evolved with circuits that were designed for these particular kinds of content.
MISHLOVE: You've even suggested that the traditional way psychologists think about the mind might be like dividing an automobile into the plastic parts and the aluminum parts.
PINKER: Yes, and the red parts as opposed to, say, the carburetor and the pistons and the transmission and so on. I think that one of the first questions you want to ask about the mind is, what are its parts? What are the bits that work in some understandable way? And it might be that just limited short-term memory, to only remember five items at a time, isn't going to explain all that much about why we find some things sexy and other things not -- that you might need something specific to, say, sexual attraction to explain sexual behavior in humans.
MISHLOVE: Well, do you think the problem here resulted from the fact that psychology evolved as a branch of philosophy rather than, say, a branch of biology?
PINKER: I think that's part of it. I also think part of it is that there are always political and ethical undercurrents to theories in the social sciences -- that there is an idea that came to dominate social sciences early in this century that basically the mind had no inherent structure. And the reason I say that it's political is that it's a nice safe position if you are in favor of racial equality and sexual equality and so on, which are things that I think people should be in favor of. But I think it's mistaken to invent a psychology that makes that an easy belief. I think that the belief as an ethical position should stand on its own. The logic has been, "Well, if the mind had no structure, then we'd be really safe, because there couldn't be innate differences between the races, because there isn't anything for there to be a difference about. So let's stick to that, and we don't have to address the problem of, say, social stratification."
MISHLOVE: In other words, it makes certain forms of discourse sort of taboo right to begin with.
PINKER: That's right. And you can say also it means that we can create any society we want, because there's no constraints in human nature. If we want a society where the sex roles are reversed or completely equal, we don't have to worry about innate differences in desire for power or standards of beauty and attractiveness. We can just engineer the environment to bring out the kind of human nature that we want. That's behind it. I think it's based on a psychology that isn't correct -- which isn't to say that those ethical principles are wrong. I think they're right, but I think they have to be justified as ethical principles, regardless of the way the mind works.
MISHLOVE: And the whole notion of social engineering seems perhaps to have largely failed because it didn't fully account for the innate biological qualities that we've been speaking of, to begin with.
PINKER: That's right. I mean, the most horrifying cases are, say, in Cambodia, Pol Pot, and even in Maoist China and Stalinist Russia, where there are very extreme views of the malleability of human nature. All we have to do is have the right program of indoctrination, and people will behave according to the theory in the Little Red Book. I think that's why those programs really have had very damaging consequences.
MISHLOVE: But to get back to the nature of consciousness itself, you seem to be suggesting that there are a finite number of modules or instincts or intuitional structures of the brain, and that these are primary, and that they cannot be further reduced.
PINKER: Well, they probably could be reduced in that each one probably has a set of rules or principles or structures. We can figure out why we're afraid of what we're afraid of, say, in the module for danger; what are the different parts of that. There may be different kinds of danger for animals, like venomous insects, versus physical danger, like falling off cliffs. So I don't know if it necessarily stops there, but it sort of tells you what's a nice cohesive chunk of the mind that you could try to understand at once.
MISHLOVE: Then there are higher orders of functioning, which involve the integration of all of these.
PINKER: Definitely, because obviously at some level the various parts of the mind have to be coordinated. They have to pass information back and forth, so we don't have different parts of the body being pulled in different directions by different parts of the mind, but we function in some sense as cohesive actors or agents.
MISHLOVE: Now, earlier we discussed language as operating on at least two levels. There's the spoken language in which we share our ideas, and then there's the notion of mentalese. It's the internal way we process our thoughts, which is very different from the spoken language. And it suggests to me that at these different levels of the mind itself, when we look at these instincts or modules, there may be different kinds of mentalese that are appropriate.
PINKER: I think so. I think that there are several languages of thought and other forms of thought that may not even be language-like -- like a mental image, a mental picture, which may be in some regards more like a picture than it is like a sentence. If I ask you, for example, whether a German shepherd's ears stick up or hang down, probably the only way you can answer that question is sort of by looking vacantly into space, conjuring up an image of a German shepherd, and in a sense even looking at where the ears are.
PINKER: That's something that's not language-like at all. You zoom in; you scan over; maybe you mentally turn the head of the dog around. And that's not at all like stringing words together.
MISHLOVE: But it's -- I call it a language in the larger sense.
PINKER: Yes, in the larger sense. It's a form of mental representation, that's right, that may be more or less language-like.
MISHLOVE: And if we have these different modules or instincts, and they each have their own way -- I suppose the common term in cognitive science is to process information, which is sort of a computer-like model, and we lose the organic feel of things a bit in that kind of language. But then there's the higher order of processing where there's interaction amongst the modules, and amongst the different forms of mentalese -- I like your term. There could be almost infinitely many different languages within the brain.
PINKER: I don't know if there are infinitely many languages, but the interactions could be very complicated.
MISHLOVE: The combinations and permutations.
PINKER: That's right. And certainly within each language there are an infinite number of possible thoughts that a mind can have. And there's no limit to the set of images you can have, or the set of thoughts you can have, that underlie sentences, for example.
MISHLOVE: But you mentioned a moment ago a list of fifteen different mental modules, which is not meant to be an inclusive list, and the number of different permutations of interactions just among those would be in the millions.
PINKER: Absolutely. And that's probably where the richness of human cultures comes from, even though I think all human minds work alike in that we all have a sense of humor, we all have a sense of justice, we all have a sense of fear, we all have an intuitive understanding of how living things work. But of course the Afghan culture is different from German culture, which is different from the culture of the Incas, and so on. These are obviously very real differences, but they might come from how you understand what parts of the mind you apply to different problems. Even in the history of Western thought, for example, the ideas of science clearly borrow from our gut-level understanding of everyday objects. When we try to explain how heat works in physics class, the physics teacher will say, "Well, it's sort of like a fluid" -- tapping into your intuitions about how fluids work, in order to explain this very abstract concept of heat. So we certainly don't have a module for physics; that was just invented recently. But we do have a module for understanding things in the world that might be exploited in developing new forms of thought, like the formal sciences taught in schools.
MISHLOVE: And we often seem to work by analogy.
PINKER: Yes, we work by analogy far more than we realize. Even in our everyday figures of speech, they're just saturated with metaphors and analogies that we often don't even realize until linguists point them out. For example, in an argument, in discussing how an argument goes, all the metaphors that are used will be metaphors of war and physical fighting: "He stomped on my arguments. He tore it to shreds. But then I blasted back with such and such." And if you follow a conversation, if you didn't know that it was metaphor you would think they were describing an actual fist fight. And love is often described as a journey: "Our relationship started out well, but then hit a few rocks," and so on. So I think that in developing new cultural forms, new domains in which we talk to each other, we often go back to these very concrete physical structures that might be deeply rooted in the modules of the mind -- things like conflict, or like motion.
MISHLOVE: Now, in the cognitive sciences these days, it seems as if the computer has become the metaphor of choice. And yet in your writings you consistently point out the limitations of that metaphor for really describing the mind. If you were to use a metaphor for consciousness, what would you prefer?
PINKER: Well, I think the computer and computation have given us a very important set of ideas for understanding the mind. I think there is a sense in which thinking is a form of computation, in the sense that we have internal symbolic representations that get manipulated according to fixed rules; in a way that the symbols correspond to ideas and the changes correspond to logical relations between them. That's almost a definition of computation, but I think that the actual computer that you go out and you buy in Computerland -- you know, the Mac or the PC -- is obviously very, very different from the human mind. It's just at a very abstract level that I think computation is taking place in both. And this leaves open the question of consciousness. Why does the kind of computation that goes on in our heads give rise to pain and joy and a sense of redness and all the dimensions of consciousness? That's something that I don't think anyone has really proposed a good answer to. We have a clear distinction between, say, a robot and human. If I think of you as a flesh-and-blood human being, and I really believe that you're seeing me, you're having internal experience, you feel the light on the back of your head, and so on. But if someone told me that you were just a cleverly designed robot, just the most brilliantly engineered robot anyone ever constructed, then it would just be, you know, clanking gears and circuits, without any internal person doing the feeling. Why there's that difference I don't think has been adequately explained. Some philosophers would deny that there is a difference, that it's just a meaningless pseudo-question. I think it's a real question, but I am actually in the dark as to what the answer might be.
MISHLOVE: Well, our time is almost over. Perhaps I could ask you to reflect with me for a moment on the spiritual dimensions of all this, of language and consciousness. Does that ever enter into your thinking? It's perfectly OK if it doesn't.
PINKER: It's certainly nothing I have anything particularly intelligent to say anything about, but it's also true that language has always been woven into spiritual matters. Many forms of religion have kinds of ritualized word play, either chanting, or sometimes analyses of the word itself, like in the Jewish Cabala, where you assign, say, numbers to each letter, add them up, and infer from the numerical properties of the alphabet what the mystical significance of the word is. So language is so much part of human experience that I think that when our minds turn to spiritual matters we're apt to try to find that in language itself.
MISHLOVE: I'm always struck when I think of how great social movements, which religions certainly are, are founded by people who had extraordinary mastery of the language and were able to communicate powerful new ideas in ways that allowed millions of people to kind of get the message and to want to repeat it.
PINKER: Absolutely. I mean, the spellbinding orator or the persuasive silver-tongued devil I think has always had a leadership role in human societies. And that may have had something to do with how language developed in our species in a Darwinian sense. What is the advantage to having complex language? Well, you win friends and you influence people. You get them to come around to your way of thinking. I think that's really part of what it is to be human.
MISHLOVE: And there's a sense in which our whole world has been shaped by these kinds of events, and I suppose it's very hard to capture such extraordinary moments within a scientific framework.
PINKER: Yes, that's certainly the kind of thing that science doesn't have a whole lot to say about, because these are events that happen quite rarely, these kind of charismatic movements.
MISHLOVE: And yet it seems that there's another sense in which each of us, moment by moment, as we think, as we instinctively reach out to each other, or know how to listen to what another person says, without knowing, we just do, that we're all in touch with that same ground of being.
PINKER: Absolutely. I think that despite all of the cultural differences that anthropology has shown, deep down we have the same minds. I think that within a culture, if we didn't have the same minds, then language would be impossible, because you only really sketch out a hint of what you mean when you use the words, and the other person has got to figure out what you're thinking. And I think that's true when you visit another culture. To the extent that you understand it at all, it's because you see the same categories of reality as in that other culture.
MISHLOVE: Steven Pinker, it's sure been a pleasure sharing this four-part series with you on language and consciousness. Thanks so much for being with me.
PINKER: It's been a pleasure for me too. Thanks for having me.
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