"Noam Chomsky is an infinitely better Scientist than Richard Dawkins, intellectually & morally - and an infinitely better Atheist" - RWS
Chomsky puts Science and Mystery in Perspective
Published: February 16, 2011
BY SIMON ROWNEY
During my university days, something strange happened to myself and many of my fellow students. A kind of world weariness set in. Strange indeed for teenagers and twenty somethings. But there it was. For us, the world appeared to hold no surprises and not too much of interest.
Why did nothing surprise us? The answer is that we believed that science either had all the answers, or at least would very shortly. We also thought that human beings were a very predictable species and, finally, we thought religion and culture were pure bio-chemical epiphenomena.
For many of us this first changed on reading Noam Chomsky. As such, I think his significance as a scientist and for me personally, remains, even if his theories prove false. His influence will remain long after his science is gone. Whether or not language is innate and whether there is a Universal Grammar or not; whether or not the mind is modular or even whether or not language has a context-free grammar; it does not matter.
Chomsky remains a great scientist because he brought back the wonder of enquiry and the beauty of mystery.
His first achievement was his realisation that science didn't merely try to predict future events. Chomsky thought science tried to explain events. Any mere catalog of facts wasn't good enough, without explanation it was worthless.
He thus restored some of the excitement of discovery; reminding us that scientific enquiry began with wonder and amazement and resulted in appreciation and even more wonder.
Next, when asked how his linguistic theory would be compatible with Darwinian evolution, Chomsky would reply that he didn't know. He would then go a step further and suggest that the evolution of the cognitive capacity of human beings remains shrouded in mystery. Natural selection is no more plausible an explanation than any other.
Chomsky would say that scientific questions divided into problems and mysteries. Problems were the type of enquiry that involved a very clear and precise question to be answered. A mystery was an enquiry where we cannot even frame our question clearly, when dealing with a mystery we do not even really know what we are looking for.
Thus whereas setting out to cure cancer is trying to pierce through the shroud of mystery, resolving the question to something precise such as trying to develop a vaccine against the HPV virus, is to change something from mystery to mere problem. And modern science deals with problems not mysteries.
Chomsky's political views developed from this attitude because he believes human affairs remain impenetrable to science, they are shrouded in mystery. This does not mean reason cannot be used but the methods of modern science clearly can not.
Whether or not the details are correct, Chomsky taught us that mystery is always present. Even if a science of human affairs did exist, it would not change the fact that beyond the boundary of what we know, wherever that boundary is drawn, there is and always will be mystery.
Even though science develops, it does not reduce the amount of mystery present in the world. It doesn't take us closer to some final goal, a point where all enquiry will cease. Why not? Because the things we don't know are completely mysterious. We cannot count what we cannot distinguish.
There is no doubt Chomsky belief's make him a better scientist. It is liberating to the imagination and reason to permit mystery to exist side by side with understanding. Not being bogged down by the narrow constraints of behaviourism or Darwinism freed Chomsky’s considerable intellectual gifts. This enabled him to progress further than anyone before towards an explanation of human cognition.
Chomsky's attitude is scarcely more than common sense and there's no doubt my interpretation is parochial. But as students we certainly needed reminding that there are many things about which we haven't got a clue.
Simon Rowney is a CathNews reader who blogs from Corrimal, NSW.
MOD EDIT: DISCUSSION CLOSED BY POPULAR DEMAND.
Replies are closed for this discussion.
David & Adriana, I thought better of both of you. Didn't know you would stoop to such a low level.
And no Adriana, I am not a Catholic Christian - but even if I was - so what ?