Language and Scientific Understanding


Osiatynski: Would this extrahuman observer think the same way about our symbols, ideas, needs, and values?

Chomsky: Absolutely. I think he would be struck by the uniformity of human societies in every aspect. And there is more than that. Let’s imagine again an observer looking at us without any preconceptions. I think he would be struck by the fact that although human beings have the capacity to develop scientific knowledge, it must be a very limited capacity because it is only done in very narrow and specific domains. There are huge areas where the human mind is apparently incapable of forming sciences, or at least has not done so. There are other areas — so far, in fact, one area only — in which we have demonstrated the capacity for true scientific progress.

Osiatynski: Physics?

Chomsky: Physics and those parts of other fields that grow out of physics — chemistry, the structure of big molecules — in those domains, there is a lot of progress. In many other domains, there is very little progress in developing real scientific understanding.

Osiatynski: Isn’t it because man wants to exercise control over the physical world?

Chomsky: I don’t think so. I think it probably reflects something very special about the nature of our minds. There is no evolutionary pressure to create minds capable of forming sciences; it just happened. Evolutionary pressure has not led to higher rates of reproduction for people capable of solving scientific problems or creating new scientific ideas. So if, in fact, the science-forming capacities evolved for other reasons, it would not be too surprising if those particular structures that have developed proved to be rather special in their nature, reflecting the contingencies of their evolution or the working of physical law.

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

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3 thoughts on “Language and Scientific Understanding

  1. I think it relates more to our innate curiosity, to know what’s around the curve or over the next hill, and most especially, to ask ‘why?’

  2. It’s my opinion that needing to know what was over the next hill, eventually took us out of Africa.

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