Noam Chomsky On The Evolution Of Language: A Biolinguistic Perspective


Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Truth-out.org ~ September 2016. Human language is crucial to the scientific quest to understand what kind of creatures we are and, thus crucial to unlocking the mysteries of human nature.

In the interview that follows, Noam Chomsky, the scholar who single-handedly revolutionized the modern field of linguistics, discusses the evolution of language and lays out the biolinguist perspective — the idea that a human being’s language represents a state of some component of the mind. This is an idea that continues to baffle many non-experts, many of whom have sought to challenge Chomsky’s theory of language without really understanding it.

Journalist and ”radical chic” reactionary writer Tom Wolfe was the latest to do so in his laughable new book, The Kingdom of Speech, which seeks to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky through sarcastic and ignorant remarks, making vitriolic attacks on their personalities and expressing a deep hatred for the Left. Indeed, this much-publicized book not only displays amazing ignorance about evolution in general and the field of linguistics in particular, but also aims to portray Noam Chomsky as evil — due to his constant and relentless exposure of the crimes of US foreign policy and other challenges to the status quo.

C. J. Polychroniou: Noam, in your recently published book with Robert C. Berwick (Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, MIT Press 2016), you address the question of the evolution of language from the perspective of language as part of the biological world. This was also the theme of your talk at an international physics conference held this month in Italy, as it seems that the scientific community appears to have a deeper appreciation and a more subtle understanding of your theory of language acquisition than most social scientists, who seem to maintain grave reservations about biology and the idea of human nature in general. Indeed, isn’t it the case that the specific ability of our species to acquire any language was a major theme of interest to the modern scientific community from the time of Galileo?

Noam Chomsky: This is quite true. At the outset of the modern scientific revolution, Galileo and the scientist-philosophers of the monastery of Port Royal issued a crucial challenge to those concerned with the nature of human language, a challenge that had only occasionally been recognized until it was taken up in the mid-20th century and became the primary concern of much of the study of language. For short, I’ll refer to it as the Galilean challenge. These great founders of modern science were awed by the fact that language permits us (in their words) to construct “from 25 or 30 sounds an infinite variety of expressions, which although not having any resemblance in themselves to that which passes through our minds, nevertheless do not fail to reveal all of the secrets of the mind, and to make intelligible to others who cannot penetrate into the mind all that we conceive and all of the diverse movements of our souls.”

We can now see that the Galilean challenge requires some qualifications, but it is very real and should, I think, be recognized as one of the deepest insights in the rich history of inquiry into language and mind in the past 2500 years.

The challenge had not been entirely ignored. For Descartes, at about the same time, the human capacity for unbounded and appropriate use of language was a primary basis for his postulation of mind as a new creative principle. In later years, there is occasional recognition that language is a creative activity that involves “infinite use of finite means,” in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s formulation and that it provides “audible signs for thought,” in the words of linguist William Dwight Whitney a century ago. There has also been awareness that these capacities are a species-property, shared by humans and unique to them — the most striking feature of this curious organism and a foundation for its remarkable achievements. But there was never much to say beyond a few phrases.

But why is it that the view of language as a species-specific capacity is not taken up until well into the 20th century?

There is a good reason why the insights languished until mid-20th century: intellectual tools were not available for even formulating the problem in a clear enough way to address it seriously. That changed thanks to the work of Alan Turing and other great mathematicians who established the general theory of computability on a firm basis, showing in particular how a finite object like the brain can generate an infinite variety of expressions. It then became possible, for the first time, to address at least part of the Galilean challenge directly — although, regrettably, the earlier history [for example, the history of Galileo’s and Descartes’ inquiries into the philosophy of language, as well as the Port-Royal Grammar by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot] was entirely unknown at the time.

With these intellectual tools available, it becomes possible to formulate what we may call the Basic Property of human language: The language faculty provides the means to construct a digitally infinite array of structured expressions, each of which has a semantic interpretation expressing a thought, and each of which can be externalized by means of some sensory modality. The infinite set of semantically interpreted objects constitutes what has sometimes been called a “language of thought”: the system of thoughts that receive linguistic expression and that enter into reflection, inference, planning and other mental processes, and when externalized, can be used for communication and other social interactions. By far, the major use of language is internal — thinking in language. Read more

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Oxford Union ~ Yanis Varoufakis – Full Address & Q&A


Yanis Varoufakis is an academic economist who was a member of the Greek parliament between January and September 2015. He represented the ruling Syriza party and held the position of Minister of Finance for seven months.
See: https://yanisvaroufakis.eu/

About the Oxford Union Society: The Oxford Union is the world’s most prestigious debating society, with an unparalleled reputation for bringing international guests and speakers to Oxford. Since 1823, the Union has been promoting debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.
See: http://www.oxford-union.org/

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Global Warming And The Future Of Humanity: An Interview With Noam Chomsky And Graciela Chichilnisky


Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Noam Chomsky

Graciela Chichilinsky

Graciela Chichilinsky

truth-out.org. September 2016. How serious of an issue is climate change? Does global warming really threaten human civilization? Can it be reversed, or is it already late?

In this interview for Truthout, two scholars, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, and Graciela Chichilnisky, a renowned economist and climate change authority who wrote and designed the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol, concur on a few key points. First of all, global warming and climate change constitute the greatest challenge facing humanity, and may pose an even greater threat to our species than that of nuclear weapons. Secondly, the operations of the capitalist world economy are at the core of the climate change threat because of over-reliance on fossil fuels and a perverse sense of economic values. Thirdly, the world needs to adopt alternative energy systems as quickly as possible. And finally, it is crucial to explore technologies to assist us in reversing climate change — as time is running out.

C. J. Polychroniou: A consensus seems to be emerging among scientists and even political and social analysts that global warming and climate change represent the greatest threat to the planet. Do you concur with this view, and why?

Noam Chomsky: I agree with the conclusion of the experts who set the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. They have moved the Clock two minutes closer to midnight — three minutes to midnight — because of the increasing threats of nuclear war and global warming. That seems to me a credible judgment. Review of the record shows that it’s a near miracle that we have survived the nuclear age. There have been repeated cases when nuclear war came ominously close, often a result of malfunctioning of early-warning systems and other accidents, sometimes [as a result of] highly adventurist acts of political leaders. It has been known for some time that a major nuclear war might lead to nuclear winter that would destroy the attacker as well as the target. And threats are now mounting, particularly at the Russian border, confirming the prediction of George Kennan and other prominent figures that NATO expansion, particularly the way it was undertaken, would prove to be a “tragic mistake,” a “policy error of historic proportions.”

As for climate change, it’s by now widely accepted by the scientific community that we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which the Earth’s climate is being radically modified by human action, creating a very different planet, one that may not be able to sustain organized human life in anything like a form we would want to tolerate. There is good reason to believe that we have already entered the Sixth Extinction, a period of destruction of species on a massive scale, comparable to the Fifth Extinction 65 million years ago, when three-quarters of the species on earth were destroyed, apparently by a huge asteroid. Atmospheric CO2 is rising at a rate unprecedented in the geological record since 55 million years ago. There is concern — to quote a statement by 150 distinguished scientists — that “global warming, amplified by feedbacks from polar ice melt, methane release from permafrost, and extensive fires, may become irreversible,” with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth, humans included — and not in the distant future. Sea level rise and destruction of water resources as glaciers melt alone may have horrendous human consequences.

Graciela Chichilnisky: The consensus is that climate change ranks along with nuclear warfare as the top two risks facing human civilization. If nuclear warfare is believed to be somewhat controlled, then climate change is now the greatest threat.

As difficult as it is to eliminate the risk of nuclear warfare, it requires fewer changes to the global economy than does averting or reversing climate change. Climate change is due to the use of energy for industrial growth, which has been and is overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels. Changing an economic system that is bent on uncontrolled and poorly measured economic growth and depends on fossil energy for its main objectives, is much more difficult than changing how nuclear energy is used for military purposes. Some think it may be impossible.

Read more

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A New Economic System For A World In Rapid Disintegration


socialismtruth-out.org. September 2016. We live in ominously dangerous times. The world capitalist system — having fueled colonialism, imperialism and the constant intensification of labor power exploitation for roughly 500 years — now threatens the planet with an ecological collapse of unprecedented proportions. Unsustainable resource exploitation, water pollution (the transformation of lakes, rivers and oceans into garbage dumps) and massive economic inequality are at the root of the possibly irreversible collapse of industrial civilization. Meanwhile, however, too many of us remain caught up in abstract and ahistorical predictions of collapse that fail to offer an alternative realistic vision of a future socio-economic order.

Simultaneously, the phenomenon of global warming, driven mainly by the dynamics and contradictions of a fossil-based economy, has prepared the soil for the eruption of new sources of conflict with the manifestation of historically unique destabilizing social forces. Climate change directly threatens billions of people and most other beings — besides the occasional cockroach, diadem or tardigrade — with outright extinction brought on by droughts, floods and other “natural” disasters.

Nonetheless, the catastrophic scenario sketched out behind the operations of global capitalism does not merely represent the other side of a wild socio-economic system bent on constant and abstract growth in pursuit of ever greater rates of profit. The so-called Golden Age of capitalism ended decades ago and the system has now run into a brick wall, as it appears to have reached a point where it is no longer capable of sustaining a constant momentum of growth to keep the economy reproducing itself at a pace that generates higher standards of living for the next generation.

Indeed, the productivity rates in the advanced industrialized regions of the world (such as the US, Europe and Japan) since the eruption of the financial crisis of 2007-08 are far slower than those of previous decades, thereby confirming the claims of various experts who argue that we have reached the end of the age of growth.

Moreover, in spite of all the talk about the marvelous and awe-inspiring accomplishments of the high-tech revolution, these innovations pale in comparison to the innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The new technologies reach billions of people, generating mythical fortunes for founders and investors, but increasingly employ only a handful of privileged workers. In the meantime, the problems of massive unemployment, increased inequality, growing economic insecurity, and dangerous levels of public and corporate debt are mounting.

In this context, the present crisis facing the world economy as a whole “consists precisely in the fact,” as Antonio Gramsci put it in his Prison Notebooks, “that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” and all of the above represent the “morbid symptoms” of this antinomy that the great Italian revolutionary underscored as being part of this interregnum. Read more

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Avoiding Extinction: The Way Out Of Climate Change


Chichil

Professor Graciela Chichilnisky

For the first time ever, humans are dominating planet Earth. We are changing the basic metabolism of the planet: the composition of gases in the atmosphere, its bodies of water, and the complex web of species that makes life on Earth. What will come next?

We see that the changes we are precipitating in the atmosphere are fundamental and can lead to disruptions in climate and global warming. Both the North and the South Poles are melting. Water expands when it is heated. Since the seas are warming, sea level is rising all over the world. This irrevocable upward trend is well documented: slowly but surely the rising waters will sink most island states. There are 43 island states in the United Nations representing about 23% of the global vote and most or all could disappear soon under the warming seas.

The current shift in climate patterns threatens many species. It has allowed for the spread of insects that are migrating to areas they did not previously inhabit, bringing with them a variety of vector- borne illnesses. For example, new outbreaks of malaria in Africa are on the rise. Humans are also shifting ground. The UN reports that 21 million people are reportedly migrating due to drought and other climate change induced conditions, and the numbers are increasing rapidly (http://newsroom.unfccc.int/unfccc-newsroom/human-mobility-and-the-paris-agreement/). The 2014 migration of one million people into the EU is causing considerable political stress leading to anti-immigration candidates in German, UK, and US elections, and some anticipate that it could damage the fabric of Western democracy.

In the U.S., the consequences are less extreme but still evident: the mighty Colorado River is drying up, prompting orders to turn off farm water in several states. Lake Mead’s waters in Nevada are exhibiting record lows, threatening the main supply of water to Las Vegas. Wild fires from drought conditions have multiplied and have spread rapidly around the region and in California since 2006.

The world is aware of the connection that scientists postulate between climate change and the use of fossil energy. The largest segment of carbon emissions, about 45% of the global emissions of CO2, originate in the world’s power plant infrastructure, 87% of which are fossil fuel plants that produce the overwhelming majority of the world’s electricity. This power plant infrastructure represents a value worth $45-55 trillion according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which is about the scope of the world’s economic output. New forms of clean energy are emerging, such as wind farms in Scotland and solar farms in Spain and the US, in an attempt to forestall carbon emissions. But the process is necessarily slow since the world’s fossil power plant infrastructure is comparable in monetary value to the world’s entire GDP, and changing this infrastructure can take decades. Transforming the power plant infrastructure is too slow to avert the potential catastrophes that are anticipated in the next 10–20 years. What is the solution?

Below I propose a realistic plan that involves market solutions in industrial and developing nations which will simultaneously resolve the problems of economic development and climate change and the global climate negotiations. But climate change is just one of several global environmental areas that are in crisis today. Biodiversity is another; industrialization and climate warming threaten the world’s ecosystems. Endangered species include sea-mammals, birds such as cockatoos, polar bears, and marine life such as coral, saw-fish, whales, sharks, dogfish, sea turtles, skates, grouper, seals, rays, bass, elephants, and even primates, our cousins in evolution. Scientists know that we are in the midst of the sixth largest extinction of biodiversity in the history of our planet, and that the scope of extinction is so large that 75% of all known species are at risk today. The UN Millennium Report documents rates of extinction at 1,000 times higher than fossil records. The current extinction event is the largest following the dinosaurs’ extinction that took place 60 to 65 million years ago. But today’s extinction event is unique in that it is caused by human activity. And it puts our own species at risk. There is a warning signal worth bringing up: all major recorded planetary extinctions were related to changes in climate conditions. Through industrialization we have created environmental conditions that could threaten our own species’ survival. 99.9% of all species that ever existed are now extinct.

Are we next?

Will humans survive?

The issue now is how to avoid extinction. Read more

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Can Economics Value Human Survival? ~ An Interview With Graciela Chichilnisky


ChichilniskyClimate change threatens human survival and the existing economic arrangements and values are directly responsible for this sad state of affairs, argues Graciela Chichilnisky, author of the Kyoto Protocol Carbon Market and a world authority on climate change, in the interview that follows. Moreover, Professor Chichilnisky thinks that a new global economy based on “green capitalism” is not only possible but absolutely essential for the future of the planet. Graciela Chichilnisky is Professor of Economics and of Statistics at Columbia University, Visiting Professor of Economics at Stanford, and co-founder and CEO of Global Thermostat.

Marcus Rolle: Professor Chichilnisky, can you discuss what might be some of the long-term effects of climate change on global economic activity?

Graciela Chichilnisky: The effects of climate change on global economic activity are profound and widespread and can be counted in the trillions of dollars, including losses of property from flooding, droughts and fires and other catastrophic events such as typhoons and tornadoes that have become more intense, more frequent and more volatile due to a warmer atmosphere and hydrosphere, which contain more energy. Think of New York City with three Sandy Superstorms per year. Firms and schools will be closed for most of the year, the police will be out of action, there will be no electricity, cars will be floating in the streets, etc. In sum, New York will not be a working city. The effects are incalculable. But the problem is larger than the dollar value of storms and floods and weather events because of the hundreds of millions or billions of lives that are either ruined or lost and the incalculable damage done to our political and social institutions and structures that make up the fabric of human civilization.

MR: There are several studies indicating that global warming impacts adversely on productivity and impacts negatively on global GNP per capita.  Aren’t we throwing money around by not addressing global warming?

GC: Climate change will have indeed serious adverse effects on the economy and, in a recent OECD study, the value of losses of property in the world’s leading cities alone are in the trillions of dollars, including those in Miami Florida and Shanghai China. So, in this sense, we are definitely throwing money around. In reality, however, the whole concept of GDP and of economic value that we use today is suspect and many expect it to change sometime soon. I do.

MR: Developing countries are most likely to absorb much of the losses caused by climate change. If so, how will this development impact on migration flows to developed countries?

GC: I believe that among the first and worst effects of climate change that we will witness will be massive migration movements of tens or even up to hundreds of millions of people from poor nations badly affected by climate change into rich nations and, subsequently, the manifestation of extremist political processes in the latter nations as a result of these migration waves. Indeed, the process has already started, and, the war in Syria, which caused the massive migration of over 1million people into Europe, came in the aftermath of an unprecedented in terms of severity four-year drought that left millions desperate, with no jobs, food, or hope, forcing them in turn to flee for their lives. These unprecedented migration waves of refugees have already led, as I predicted in an earlier article, to political extremism both in Europe and the United States.   Brexit is perhaps the most direct and explicit consequence of these developments, but there are others as well. We are witnessing the direct political consequences of radical extremism on the political stage in Europe and the United States right now. Climate change means that this pattern will continue and amplify and it can easily lead to the destruction of Western democratic values and of our most important governance institutions. This, in my view, is one of the most immediate, direct, dangerous and destructive effect of climate change as our entire social fabric and institutions, the very foundations of human societies as we know them, are at risk. All this can happen — and is in fact already happening very quickly –, and it can be, and probably will be, devastating to human societies. Humans will not disappear and become extinct without violence and conflicts and wars can be expected. Of course, most people have trouble imagining how this will develop as the physical survival of some human groups is still likely, but not when it comes to human civilization itself if the trend continues and prevails. Think of the follow-up effect of the massive asteroid that is believed to have hit Mexico about 60 million years ago and to have led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs, which were a globally dominant species at the time as we are now. Massive dust clouds stopped sun rays and the earths’ main source of energy. Millions perished. It is generally thought that the dinosaurs who could fly and overcame the lethal dust created by the impact of the asteroid are now still around and can be seen as birds, for example chickens. Will humans become the chickens of the future? Possibly. Read more

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