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“Researchers now speak confidently of a coming solution to the brain“
mind problem.”2 Similar confidence has been expressed for half a
century, including announcements by eminent figures that the brain“
mind problem has been solved.
We can, then, identify several points of view with regard to the
general problem of unification:

(1) There is no issue: language and higher mental faculties
generally are not part of biology.
(2) They belong to biology in principle, and any constructive
approach to the study of human thought and its expression,
or of human action and interaction, relies on this assumption,
at least tacitly.

Category (2), in turn, has two variants: (A) unification is close at
hand; (B) we do not currently see how these parts of biology relate
to one another, and suspect that fundamental insights may be missing

Language and the brain

The last point of view, (2B), seems to me the most plausible. I
will try to indicate why, and to sketch some of the terrain that should
be covered in a careful and comprehensive overview of these topics.
As a framework for the discussion, I would like to select three
theses that seem to me generally reasonable, and have for a long time.
I will quote current formulations by leading scientists, however, not
my own versions from past years.
The first thesis is articulated by neuroscientist Vernon Mount-
castle, introducing the American Academy study I mentioned. A guid-
ing theme of the contributions, and the field generally, he observes,
is that “Things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of
brains,” though “these emergences are not regarded as irreducible
but are produced by principles that control the interactions between
lower level events “ principles we do not yet understand.”
The second thesis is methodological. It is presented clearly
by ethologist Mark Hauser in his comprehensive study Evolution of
Communication.3 Following Tinbergen, he argues, we should adopt
four perspectives in studying “communication in the animal kingdom,
including human language.” To understand some trait, we should:

(i) Seek the mechanisms that implement it, psychological and
physiological; the mechanistic perspective
(ii) Sort out genetic and environmental factors, which can also
be approached at psychological or physiological levels; the
ontogenetic perspective
(iii) Find the “fitness consequences” of the trait, its effects on
survival and reproduction; the functional perspective
(iv) Unravel “the evolutionary history of the species so that the
structure of the trait can be evaluated in light of ancestral
features”; the phylogenetic perspective

On nature and language

The third thesis is presented by cognitive neuroscientist C. R.
Gallistel:4 the “modular view of learning,” which he takes to be “the
norm these days in neuroscience.” According to this view, the brain in-
corporates “specialized organs,” computationally specialized to solve
particular kinds of problems, as they do with great facility, apart from
“extremely hostile environments.” The growth and development of
these specialized organs, sometimes called “learning,” is the result
of internally directed processes and environmental effects that trigger
and shape development. The language organ is one such component
of the human brain.
In conventional terminology, adapted from earlier usage, the
language organ is the faculty of language (FL); the theory of the initial
state of FL, an expression of the genes, is universal grammar (UG);
theories of states attained are particular grammars; the states themselves
are internal languages, “languages” for short. The initial state is, of
course, not manifested at birth, as in the case of other organs, say the
visual system.
Let us now look more closely at the three theses “ reasonable
I think, but with qualifications “ beginning with the first: “Things
mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.”
The thesis is widely accepted, and is often considered a distinc-
tive and exciting contribution of the current era, if still highly contro-
versial. In the past few years it has been put forth as an “astonishing
hypothesis,” “the bold assertion that mental phenomena are entirely
natural and caused by the neurophysiological activities of the brain”
and “that capacities of the human mind are in fact capacities of the
human brain”; or as a “radical new idea” in the philosophy of mind
that may at last put an end to Cartesian dualism, though some con-
tinue to believe that the chasm between body and mind cannot be

Language and the brain

The picture is misleading, and it is useful to understand why. The
thesis is not new, and it should not be controversial, for reasons under-
stood centuries ago. The thesis was articulated clearly in the eighteenth
century, and for compelling reasons “ though controversially then, be-
cause of affront to religious doctrines. By 1750, David Hume casually
described thought as a “little agitation of the brain.”5 A few years later
the thesis was elaborated by the eminent chemist Joseph Priestley:
“the powers of sensation or perception and thought” are properties of
“a certain organized system of matter”; properties “termed mental”
are “the result [of the] organical structure” of the brain and “the hu-
man nervous system” generally. Equivalently: “Things mental, indeed
minds, are emergent properties of brains” (Mountcastle). Priestley of
course could not say how this emergence takes place, nor can we do
much better after 200 years.
I think the brain and cognitive sciences can learn some useful
lessons from the rise of the emergence thesis in early modern science,
and the ways the natural sciences have developed since, right up to
the mid twentieth century, with the unification of physics“chemistry“
biology. Current controversies about mind and brain are strikingly
similar to debates about atoms, molecules, chemical structures and
reactions, and related matters, which were very much alive well into
the twentieth century. Similar, and in ways that I think are instructive.
The reasons for the eighteenth-century emergence thesis, re-
cently revived, were indeed compelling. The modern scientific revolu-
tion, from Galileo, was based on the thesis that the world is a great
machine, which could in principle be constructed by a master artisan,
a complex version of the clocks and other intricate automata that fas-
cinated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much as computers
have provided a stimulus to thought and imagination in recent years;
the change of artifacts has limited consequences for the basic issues,

On nature and language

as Alan Turing demonstrated sixty years ago. The thesis “ called “the
mechanical philosophy” “ has two aspects: empirical and method-
ological. The factual thesis has to do with the nature of the world: it is
a machine constructed of interacting parts. The methodological thesis
has to do with intelligibility: true understanding requires a mechanical
model, a device that an artisan could construct.
This Galilean model of intelligibility has a corollary: when
mechanism fails, understanding fails. For this reason, when Galileo
came to be disheartened by apparent inadequacies of mechanical ex-
planation, he finally concluded that humans will never completely un-
derstand even “a single effect in nature.” Descartes, in contrast, was
much more optimistic. He thought he could demonstrate that most
of the phenomena of nature could be explained in mechanical terms:
the inorganic and organic world apart from humans, but also human
physiology, sensation, perception, and action to a large extent. The
limits of mechanical explanation were reached when these human
functions are mediated by thought, a unique human possession based
on a principle that escapes mechanical explanation: a “creative” prin-
ciple that underlies acts of will and choice, which are “the noblest
thing we can have” and all that “truly belongs” to us (in Cartesian
terms). Humans are only “incited and inclined” to act in certain ways,
not “compelled” (or random), and in this respect are unlike machines “
that is, the rest of the world. The most striking example for the Carte-
sians was the normal use of language: humans can express their
thoughts in novel and limitless ways that are constrained by bodily
state but not determined by it, appropriate to situations but not caused
by them, and that evoke in others thoughts that they could have ex-
pressed in similar ways “ what we may call “the creative aspect of
language use.”
It is worth bearing in mind that these conclusions are correct,
as far as we know.
Language and the brain

In these terms, Cartesian scientists developed experimental pro-
cedures to determine whether some other creature has a mind like
ours “ elaborate versions of what has been revived as the Turing test
in the past half century, though without some crucial fallacies that
have attended this revival, disregarding Turing™s explicit warnings, an
interesting topic that I will put aside.6 In the same terms, Descartes
could formulate a relatively clear mind“body problem: having estab-
lished two principles of nature, the mechanical and mental principles,
we can ask how they interact, a major problem for seventeenth-century
science. But the problem did not survive very long. As is well known,
the entire picture collapsed when Newton established, to his great
dismay, that not only does mind escape the reach of the mechanical
philosophy, but so does everything else in nature, even the simplest
terrestrial and planetary motion. As pointed out by Alexander Koyr e, ´
one of the founders of the modern history of science, Newton showed
that “a purely materialistic or mechanistic physics is impossible.”7
Accordingly, the natural world fails to meet the standard of intelligi-
bility that animated the modern scientific revolution. We must accept
the “admission into the body of science of incomprehensible and in-
explicable ˜facts™ imposed upon us by empiricism,” as Koyre puts the
Newton regarded his refutation of mechanism as an “absurdity,”
but could find no way around it despite much effort. Nor could the
greatest scientists of his day, or since. Later discoveries introduced
still greater “absurdities.” Nothing has lessened the force of David
Hume™s judgment that by refuting the self-evident mechanical philos-
ophy, Newton “restored Nature™s ultimate secrets to that obscurity in
which they ever did and ever will remain.”
A century later, in his classic history of materialism, Friedrich
Lange pointed out that Newton effectively destroyed the materi-
alist doctrine as well as the standards of intelligibility and the
On nature and language

expectations that were based on it: scientists have since “accustomed
ourselves to the abstract notion of forces, or rather to a notion hovering
in a mystic obscurity between abstraction and concrete comprehen-
sion,” a “turning-point” in the history of materialism that removes
the surviving remnants of the doctrine far from those of the “genuine
Materialists” of the seventeenth century, and deprives them of much
Both the methodological and the empirical theses collapsed,
never to be reconstituted.
On the methodological side, standards of intelligibility were
considerably weakened. The standard that inspired the modern scien-
tific revolution was abandoned: the goal is intelligibility of theories,
not of the world “ a considerable difference, which may well bring
into operation different faculties of mind, a topic some day for cog-
nitive science, perhaps. As the preeminent Newton scholar I. Bernard
Cohen put the matter, these changes “set forth a new view of science”
in which the goal is “not to seek ultimate explanations,” rooted in
principles that appear to us self-evident, but to find the best theoreti-
cal account we can of the phenomena of experience and experiment. In
general, conformity to common-sense understanding is not a criterion
for rational inquiry.
On the factual side, there is no longer any concept of body, or
matter, or “the physical.” There is just the world, with its various
aspects: mechanical, electromagnetic, chemical, optical, organic,
mental “ categories that are not defined or delimited in an a priori way,
but are at most conveniences: no one asks whether life falls within
chemistry or biology, except for temporary convenience. In each of
the shifting domains of constructive inquiry, one can try to develop
intelligible explanatory theories, and to unify them, but no more than

Language and the brain

The new limits of inquiry were understood by working sci-
entists. The eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Black observed that
“chemical affinity must be accepted as a first principle, which we can-
not explain any more than Newton could explain gravitation, and let
us defer accounting for the laws of affinity until we have established
such a body of doctrine as Newton has established concerning the
laws of gravitation.” That is pretty much what happened. Chemistry
proceeded to establish a rich body of doctrine; “its triumphs [were]
built on no reductionist foundation but rather achieved in isolation
from the newly emerging science of physics,” a leading historian of
chemistry observes.8 In fact, no reductionist foundation was discov-
ered. What was finally achieved by Linus Pauling sixty-five years ago
was unification, not reduction. Physics had to undergo fundamental
changes in order to be unified with basic chemistry, departing even
more radically from common-sense notions of “the physical”: physics
had to “free itself ” from “intuitive pictures” and give up the hope of
“visualizing the world,” as Heisenberg put it,9 yet another long leap
away from intelligibility in the sense of the scientific revolution of the
seventeenth century.
The early modern scientific revolution also brought about what
we should properly call “the first cognitive revolution” “ maybe the
only phase of the cognitive sciences to deserve the name “revolution.”
Cartesian mechanism laid the groundwork for what became neuro-
physiology. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers also devel-
oped rich and illuminating ideas about perception, language, and
thought that have been rediscovered since, sometimes only in part.
Lacking any conception of body, psychology could then “ and can to-
day “ only follow the path of chemistry. Apart from its theological
framework, there has really been no alternative to John Locke™s cau-
tious speculation, later known as “Locke™s suggestion”: God might

On nature and language

have chosen to “superadd to matter a faculty of thinking” just as he
“annexed effects to motion which we can in no way conceive motion
able to produce” “ notably the property of attraction at a distance,
a revival of occult properties, many leading scientists argued (with
Newton™s partial agreement).
In this context the emergence thesis was virtually inescapable,
in various forms:

For the eighteenth century: “the powers of sensation or
perception and thought” are properties of “a certain
organized system of matter”; properties “termed mental”
are “the result [of the] organical structure” of the brain
and “the human nervous system” generally.
A century later, Darwin asked rhetorically why “thought,
being a secretion of the brain,” should be considered
“more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter.”10
Today, the study of the brain is based on the thesis that “Things
mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of brains.”

Throughout, the thesis is essentially the same, and should not be
contentious: it is hard to imagine an alternative in the post-Newtonian
The working scientist can do no better than to try to construct
“bodies of doctrine” for various aspects of the world, and seek to unify
them, recognizing that the world is not intelligible to us in anything
like the way the pioneers of modern science hoped, and that the goal
is unification, not necessarily reduction. As the history of the sciences
clearly reveals, one can never guess what surprises lie ahead.
It is important to recognize that Cartesian dualism was a rea-
sonable scientific thesis, but one that disappeared three centuries ago.
There has been no mind“body problem to debate since. The thesis

Language and the brain

did not disappear because of inadequacies of the Cartesian concept of
mind, but because the concept of body collapsed with Newton™s de-
molition of the mechanical philosophy. It is common today to ridicule
“Descartes™s error” in postulating mind, his “ghost in the machine.”
But that mistakes what happened: Newton exorcized the machine; the
ghost remained intact. Two contemporary physicists, Paul Davies and
John Gribbin, close their recent book The Matter Myth by making that
point once again, though they misattribute the elimination of the ma-
chine: to the new quantum physics. True, that adds another blow, but
the “matter myth” had been demolished 250 years earlier, a fact that
was understood by working scientists at the time, and has become
part of the standard history of the sciences since. These are issues that
merit some thought, I believe.
For the rejuvenated cognitive science of the twentieth century,
it is also useful, I think, to pay close attention to what followed the
unification of a virtually unchanged chemistry with a radically revised
physics in the 1930s, and what preceded the unification. The most dra-
matic event that followed was the unification of biology and chemistry.
This was a case of genuine reduction, but to a newly created physical
chemistry; some of the same people were involved, notably Pauling.
This genuine reduction has sometimes led to the confident expectation
that mental aspects of the world will be reduced to something like the
contemporary brain sciences. Maybe so, maybe not. In any event, the
history of science provides little reason for confident expectations.
True reduction is not so common in the history of science, and need
not be assumed automatically to be a model for what will happen in
the future.
Still more instructive is what was taking place just before the
unification of chemistry and physics. Prior to unification, it was com-
monly argued by leading scientists that chemistry is just a calculating

On nature and language

device, a way to organize results about chemical reactions, sometimes
to predict them. In the early years of the last century, molecules were
regarded the same way. Poincare ridiculed the belief that the molecu-
lar theory of gases is more than a mode of calculation; people fall
into that error because they are familiar with the game of billiards, he
said. Chemistry is not about anything real, it was argued: the reason
is that no one knew how to reduce it to physics. In 1929, Bertrand
Russell “ who knew the sciences well “ pointed out that chemical laws
“cannot at present be reduced to physical laws”;11 not false, but mis-
leading in an important way. It turned out that the phrase “at present”
was out of place. Reduction was impossible, as was soon discovered,
until the conception of physical nature and law was (radically) revised.
It should now be clear that the debates about the reality of chem-
istry were based on fundamental misunderstanding. Chemistry was
“real” and “about the world” in the only sense of these concepts that
we have: it was part of the best conception of how the world works
that human intelligence had been able to contrive. It is impossible to
do better than that.
The debates about chemistry a few years ago are in many ways
echoed in philosophy of mind and cognitive science today “ and theo-
retical chemistry, of course, is hard science, merging indistinguishably
with core physics: it is not at the periphery of scientific understanding,
like the brain and cognitive sciences, which are trying to study systems
that are vastly more complex, and poorly understood. These very re-
cent debates about chemistry, and their unexpected outcome, should
be instructive for the brain and cognitive sciences. They suggest that it
is a mistake to think of computer models of the mind that are divorced
from biology “ that is, in principle unaffected by anything that might
be discovered in the biological sciences “ or Platonistic or other non-
biological conceptions of language, also insulated from important

Language and the brain

evidence, to their detriment, or to hold that the relation of the mental
to the physical is not reducibility but the weaker notion of supervenience:
any change in mental events or states entails a “physical change,”
though not conversely, and there is nothing more specific to say. The
pre-unification debates over chemistry could be rephrased in these
terms: those denying the reality of chemistry could have held that chem-
ical properties supervene on physical properties, but are not reducible
to them. That would have been an error: the right physical properties
had not yet been discovered. Once they were, talk of supervenience be-
came superfluous and we move towards unification. The same stance
seems to me reasonable in the study of mental aspects of the world.
In general, it seems sensible to follow the good advice of post-
Newtonian scientists, and Newton himself for that matter, and seek to
construct “bodies of doctrine” in whatever terms we can, unshackled
by common-sense intuitions about how the world must be “ we know
that it is not that way “ and untroubled by the fact that we may have
to “defer accounting for the principles” in terms of general scientific
understanding, which may turn out to be inadequate to the task of
unification, as has regularly been the case for 300 years. A good deal of
discussion of these topics seems to me misguided, perhaps seriously
so, for reasons such as these.
There are other similarities worth remembering between pre-
unification chemistry and current cognitive science. The “triumphs of
chemistry” provided valuable guidelines for the eventual reconstruc-
tion of physics: they provided conditions that core physics would have
to meet. In a similar way, discoveries about bee communication pro-

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