Language and Human Nature

Osiatynski: Language, then, is a key to human nature?

Chomsky: In Western scientific thought of the last several centuries there has been a tendency to assume that human nature is limited to the immediately observable physical structure of the organism. And that for other aspects of human nature, specifically for behavior, there are no genetically determined structures of comparable complexity to the directly observable physical organization of the body. So human physical structures and intellectual structures are generally studied in different ways. The assumption is that physical structures are genetically inherited and intellectual structures are learned.

I think that this assumption is wrong. None of these structures is learned. They all grow; they grow in comparable ways; their ultimate forms are heavily dependent on genetic predispositions. If we understood, as we do not, the physical bases for these structures, I have little doubt that we would find structures in the brain for social interactions, or language, or analysis of personality — a whole variety of systems developed on the basis of a specific biological endowment.

Osiatynski: Do you mean that all our behavior is innate, genetically determined?

Chomsky: No, but the basic structures for our behavior are innate. The specific details of how they grow would depend on interaction with the environment.

Osiatynski: Supposing linguistics could describe one such structure, would the findings apply to all our intellectual activities? Do we think only in language? Or do there exist nonlinguistic forms of thinking too?

Chomsky: The analysis of linguistic structures could help in understanding other intellectual structures. Now, I don’t think there is any scientific evidence about the question of whether we think only in language or not. But introspection indicates pretty clearly that we don’t think in language necessarily. We also think in visual images, we think in terms of situations and events, and so on, and many times we can’t even express in words what the content of our thinking is. And even if we are able to express it in words, it is a common experience to say something and then to recognize that it is not what we meant, that it is something else.

What does this mean? That there is a kind of nonlinguistic thought going on which we are trying to represent in language, and we know that sometimes we fail.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

22/x mmxv

In the Aztec language, the words for sun and eagle are the same – so are the words for moon and rabbit.

In 2011, ASAPS (American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery) surgeons performed 316,848 breast-augmentation procedures.

If you drilled a tunnel straight through the Earth and jumped in, it would take you exactly 42 minutes and 12 seconds to get to the other side.

In Cambodia, male prostitutes outnumber female prostitutes by a ratio of three to one.

Iran is one of the few countries in the world where a couple can have a “temporary marriage” in order to facilitate sex within wedlock – essentially prostitution. These so-called marriages can be valid for as short as an hour.

See other: Quite Interesting Facts

Reforming Education

‘Every country on earth at the moment is reforming public education. There are two reasons for this. The first of them is economic. People are trying to work out how do we educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century? How do we do that given that we can’t anticipate what the economy will look like at the end of next week, as the recent turmoil is demonstrated. How do we do that?

The second is cultural. Every country on earth is trying to figure out how do we educate our children so they have a sense of cultural identity so that we can pass on the cultural genes of our communities while being part of the process of globalisation? How do we square that circle?

The problem is they’re trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past. And on the way they’re alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school. When we went to school we were kept there with a story which is if you work hard and did well and got a college degree you would have a job. Our kids don’t believe that. And they’re right not to, by the way. You’re better having a degree than not, but it’s not a guarantee any more. And particularly not if the route to it marginalises most of the things that you think are important about yourself.’

– Robinson, K. (2008, June 16) Ken Robinson: Changing Education Paradigms. Retrieved from

Simplicity of Design

Tim: What’re you doing?

Wilson: Just carving out a canoe, Tim.

Tim: Sounds hard.

Wilson: Not really Tim. You just take a big block of wood and chip away everything that’s not a canoe.

Home Improvement (1991) Series 1, Episode 11; “Look Who’s Not Talking” [No. 11]

The Natural-law Argument

‘Then there is a very common argument from natural law. That was a favourite argument all through the eighteenth century, especially under the influence of Sir Isaac Newton and his cosmogony. People observed the planets going around the sun according to the law of gravitation, and they thought that God had given a behest to these planets to move in that particular fashion, and that was why they did so. That was, of course, a convenient and simple explanation that saved them the trouble of looking any further for explanations of the law of gravitation.

Nowadays we explain the law of gravitation in a somewhat complicated fashion that Einstein has introduced. I do not propose to give you a lecture on the law of gravitation, as interpreted by Einstein, because that again would take some time; at any rate, you no longer have the sort of natural law that you had in the Newtonian system, where, for some reason that nobody could understand, nature behaved in a uniform fashion. We now find that a great many things we thought were natural laws are really human conventions. You know that even in the remotest depths of stellar space there are still three feet to a yard. That is, no doubt, a very remarkable fact, but you would hardly call it a law of nature. And a great many things that have been regarded as laws of nature are of that kind.

On the other hand, where you can get down to any knowledge of what atoms actually do, you will find they are much less subject to law than people thought, and that the laws at which you arrive are statistical averages of just the sort that would emerge from chance. There is, as we all know, a law that if you throw dice you will get double sixes only about once in thirty-six times, and we do not regard that as evidence that the fall of the dice is regulated by design; on the contrary, if the double sixes came every time we should think that there was design. The laws of nature are of that sort as regards a great many of them. They are statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was.

Quite apart from that, which represents the momentary state of science that may change tomorrow, the whole idea that natural laws imply a lawgiver is due to a confusion between natural and human laws. Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way, in which you may choose to behave, or you may choose not to behave; but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave, and being a mere description of what they in fact do, you cannot argue that there must be somebody who told them to do that, because even supposing that there were, you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those natural laws and no others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of natural law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary. You really have a law outside and anterior to the divine edicts, and God does not serve your purpose, because he is not the ultimate lawgiver.

In short, this whole argument about natural law no longer has anything like the strength that it used to have. I am traveling on in time in my review of the arguments. The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.’

– Denonn. L.E., Egner. R.E. Ed. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell London, United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin (1962) p. 587-589

Bertrand Russell delivered the lecture Why I am not a Christian (of which this is an excerpt) on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

The Fallibility of Written Codes

‘The court considers it has obligation to add comment to its verdict. By the force of evidentiary conclusions you, Captain William Bligh, stand absolved of military misdeed. Yet officers of stainless record and seamen, voluntary all were moved to mutiny against you. Your methods, so far as this court can deserve showed what we shall cautiously term an excess of zeal. We cannot condemn zeal. We cannot rebuke an officer who has administered discipline according to the Articles of War, but the Articles are fallible, as any articles are bound to be. No code can cover all contingencies. We cannot put justice aboard our ships in books. Justice and decency are carried in the heart of the captain or they be not aboard. It is for this reason that the Admiralty has always sought to appoint its officers from the ranks of gentlemen. The court regrets to note that the appointment of Captain William Bligh was, in that respect, a failure. Court is dissolved.’

– Rosenberg. A. (Producer), Milestone. L. (Director). (1962). Mutiny on the Bounty [Motion Picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer