For a guy who turns 88 this month, Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic, really gets around. Chomsky “remains a vital presence in American intellectual life,” The New York Times remarks in a recent Q&A. After reading Chomsky’s comments on the victory of Trump and the Republican Party (“the most dangerous organization in world history),” I watched the film Captain Fantastic, whose hero celebrates Chomsky’s birthday. I also wrote on this blog about flare-ups of the ancient debate over Chomsky’s language theory. (Actually, psychologist Steven Pinker wrote most of the column.) The brouhaha got me reminiscing about a day I spent with Chomsky in 1990, when we talked about, among other things, the limits of science. Below is a profile of Chomsky based on our 1990 meeting (and subsequent phone calls) and adapted from The End of Science. I’ve highlighted passages I find especially noteworthy. –John Horgan
In 1990, after traveling to Cambridge to interview Noam Chomsky, I watched him give a talk on organized labor. He was wiry, with the slight hunch of a chronic reader. He wore steel-rimmed glasses, sneakers and an open-necked shirt. But for the lines in his face and the grey in his longish hair, he could have passed for a graduate student.
Chomsky's main message was that labor-union leaders care about maintaining power more than representing workers. His audience? Union leaders. During the Q&A they reacted, predictably, with irritation. But Chomsky replied with such serene, unshakable conviction--and such a relentless barrage of facts--that before long the audience was nodding in agreement: yes, perhaps they were selling out to their corporate overlords.
After we returned to Chomsky’s office at MIT, I expressed surprise at the harshness of his criticism. He replied that he doesn’t believe in giving people with power “A's for being right." Of course, labor unions are losing their clout, so he usually dwells on the faults of the U.S. government, corporations and media. Chomsky called the U.S. a "terrorist superpower" and the media its "propaganda agent." If The New York Times started reviewing his books on politics, he would know he’s doing something wrong. He summed up his worldview as "whatever the establishment is, I'm against it."
It’s ironic, I said, that his political views are so anti-establishment, given that in linguistics he is the establishment. "No I'm not," he snapped. His voice, which ordinarily is hypnotically calm--even when he is eviscerating someone--had an edge. "My position in linguistics is a minority position, and it always has been." He insisted that he is "almost totally incapable of learning languages." MIT hired him and gave him tenure because it does not care much about the humanities; it simply needed to fill a slot.
I mention this exchange for its cautionary value. Chomsky is one of the most contrarian intellectuals I have met (rivaled only by philosopher Paul Feyerabend). He is compelled to criticize all authority figures, even himself. Chomsky is, notwithstanding his denials, the most important linguist who has ever lived. "There is no major theoretical issue in linguistics today that is debated in terms other than those in which he has chosen to define it," Encyclopedia Britannica declares.
In the 1950s, social sciences were dominated by behaviorism, which hewed to John Locke's notion that the mind begins as a blank state inscribed by experience. Chomsky challenged this approach, asserting that children cannot learn language from scratch solely through trial and error; fundamental principles of language--a “universal grammar”--must be imbedded in our genes. Chomsky's ideas helped rout behaviorism and pave the way for more evolutionary, gene-based views of cognition.
An irony lurks within Chomsky’s scientific career. His rhetoric often resembles that of a die-hard Darwinian. In his 1988 book Language and the Problems of Knowledge, he repudiated Marxists and other left-leaning theorists who suggest that culture is the primary determinant of human behavior, including morality.
"The evidence seems compelling, indeed overwhelming, that fundamental aspects of our mental and social life, including language, are determined as part of our biological endowment, not acquired by learning, still less by training, in the course of our experience,” he wrote. “It certainly seems reasonable to speculate that the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty."
These are central tenets of evolutionary psychology. But to the chagrin of evolutionary psychologists, Chomsky has also disparaged evolutionary explanations of the mind. Some Darwinians suspect his critiques are politically motivated, since genetic theories have traditionally been associated with right-wing ideologies, but Chomsky insists his concerns are strictly scientific. He accepts that natural selection influenced the evolution of language and other human attributes; but given the enormous gap between human cognitive capacities and those of other animals, science can say little about how those capacities evolved.
If anything, evolutionary theory can explain too much. "You find that people cooperate, you say, 'Yeah, that contributes to their genes' perpetuating.' You find that they fight, you say, 'Sure, that's obvious, because it means that their genes perpetuate and not somebody else's.’ In fact, just about anything you find, you can make up some story for it." Chomsky called evolutionary psychology a "philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in."
Chomsky's evolutionary perspective has also convinced him that our ability to understand nature, including human nature, is limited. He divides scientific questions into problems, which are at least potentially answerable, and mysteries, which are not.
Before the 17th century, Chomsky explained, when science in the modern sense did not really exist, almost all questions appeared to be mysteries. Then Descartes, Newton and others began posing questions and solving them with the methods that spawned modern science. Some of those investigations have led to "spectacular progress," but others have proved fruitless. For example, scientists have made no progress investigating consciousness and free will. "We don't even have bad ideas," Chomsky said.
All animals, Chomsky argued, have cognitive abilities shaped by their evolutionary histories. A rat can learn to navigate a maze that requires it to turn left at every second fork but not one that requires it to turn left at every fork corresponding to a prime number. If humans are animals--and not "angels," Chomsky added sarcastically--then we, too, are subject to these biological constraints.
Although language allows us to formulate and resolve questions in ways that rats cannot, ultimately we face mysteries, too. In linguistics "there's a lot of understanding now about how human languages are more or less cast in the same mold, what the principles are that unify them and so on." But many mysteries posed by language remain impenetrable. Descartes, for instance, struggled to comprehend how we use language in endlessly creative ways. "We're facing the same blank wall Descartes did" on that issue, Chomsky said.
In Language and Problems of Knowledge, Chomsky stated: "It is quite possible--overwhelmingly probable, one might guess--that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology. The science-forming capacity is only one facet of our mental endowment. We use it where we can but are not restricted to it, fortunately."
The success of science, Chomsky suggested to me, stems from "a kind of chance convergence of the truth about the world and the structure of our cognitive space. And it is a chance convergence because evolution didn't design us to do this; there's no pressure on differential reproduction that led to the capacity to solve problems in quantum theory. We had it. It's just there for the same reason that most other things are there: for some reason that nobody understands."
Modern science has stretched the cognitive capacity of humans to the breaking point, according to Chomsky. In the 19th century, any well-educated person could grasp contemporary physics, but now "you've got to be some kind of freak." Chomsky rejected the possibility that physicists can attain a “theory of everything.” At best, physicists can create only a "theory of what they know how to formulate."
That was my opening. Does the increasing difficulty of science, I asked, imply that science might be approaching its limits? Might science, defined as the search for comprehensible regularities or patterns in nature, be ending?
Suddenly, Chomsky backpedaled. "Science is hard, I would agree with that. But when you talk to young children, they want to understand nature. It's driven out of them. It's driven out of them by boring teaching and by an educational system that tells them they're too stupid to do it." Suddenly, he was blaming science’s impasse on "the establishment," not our innate limitations.
Chomsky insisted that "there are major questions for the natural sciences which we can formulate and that are within our grasp, and that's an exciting prospect." Scientists will almost certainly learn, for example, how fertilized cells grow into complex organisms and how the brain generates language. There is still plenty of science left to do, Chomsky reiterated, “plenty of physics, plenty of biology, plenty of chemistry."
In denying the implication of his own ideas, Chomsky might have been exhibiting just another odd spasm of self-denial, but I suspect he was succumbing to wishful thinking. Like so many other scientists, he cannot imagine a world without science.
I once asked Chomsky which work he found more satisfying, his political activism or his linguistic research. He seemed surprised that I needed to ask. Obviously, he replied, he spoke out against injustice merely out of a sense of duty; he took no intellectual pleasure from it. If the world's problems suddenly disappeared, he would happily, joyfully, devote himself to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
Was Philosopher Paul Feyerabend Really Science's "Worst Enemy"? See also my profiles of Thomas Kuhn and Steven Weinberg.