Chomsky on the “Limits” of Knowledge & Thought


One consequence of your theories is that we are as human beings a very very rigidly pre-programmed, there are certain things we can understand, certain things we can communicate and anything that falls outside that we simply can’t, is that so? That’s certainly correct So I mean in a way, this is a rather alarming doctrine I mean, it certainly contravenes the way we want to feel about ourselves. Well that may be an immediate reaction, but I think it’s It’s not the correct reaction. In fact, well, it’s true that our genetic program rigidly constrains us I think the more important point is that the existence of that rich, of that rigid constraint is what provides the basis for our freedom and creativity and the reasons I mean It’s only because we have pre-programmed that we can do all the things and exactly the point is that if we really were plastic organisms without an extensive pre-programming Then the state that our mind achieves would in fact be a reflection of the environment which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished Fortunately for us we’re rigidly pre-programmed with extremely rich systems that are part of our biological endowment correspondingly a small amount of rather degenerate experience Allows a kind of a great leap into a rich cognitive system essentially uniform in a community and in fact roughly uniform.. Which would have developed over complex evolutionary ages through all the basic? solution represents the basic system itself developed over long periods of evolutionary development. We don’t know how it really But for the individual it’s present, as a result… The individual is capable of with a very small amount of evidence of constructing an extremely rich system, which allows him to act in the free and creative fashion, which in fact is normal for humans we can say Anything that we want over an infinite range Other people will understand us, though they’ve heard nothing like that before We’re able to do that precisely because of that rigid programming But short of that we would not be able to at all. – What account are you able to give of creativity if we are? Pre-programmed in the way you say then how is creativity and possibility for us? Well here I think one has to be fairly careful I think we can say a good deal about about the nature of the System that is acquired the state of knowledge that is attained we can say a fair amount about the biological basis the The basis in the initial state of the mind for the acquisition of this system But when we turn to a third question namely how is this system used? How are we able to act creatively? How can how do we decide to how can we decide to say things that are? New but not random that are appropriate to occasions, but not under the control of stimuli when we ask these questions We really enter into a realm of mystery where human science at least so far and maybe in principle does not reach We can say a fair amount about the principles that make it possible for us to behave in our normal creative fashion But as soon as questions of will or decision or reason or choice of action when those questions arise Human science is at a loss. It has nothing to say about them as far as I can see these questions remain in the obscurity that In which they were in classical antiquity. We are all very used I think to the idea that in social life Each one of us as individuals tends to construct a picture of the world around his own experience and indeed We it’s difficult to see how we could do anything else. We’re bound to do that We’ve got no alternative, but it does mean but each one of us Forms, a systematically distorted view of the world because it’s in because it’s all Built up on what accidentally happens to be the particular and really rather narrow Experience of the individual who does it… Now, do you think that something of that kind applies to man as a whole because of the reasons implicit in your theory that is to say that the the whole picture that Mankind has formed of the cosmos of the universe of the world must be systematically distorted and what’s more drastically limited by the nature of the particular apparatus for understanding that he happens to have? Well, I think that is undoubtedly the case but again, I would question the use of the word limited which carries unfortunate suggestions… That is, I assume that one of our faculties one of our mental organs if you like is let’s call it a science forming capacity a capacity to create intelligible explanatory theories in some domain and if we look at the history of science We discover that time after time when particular questions were posed at a particular level of understanding It was possible to make very innovative leaps of the imagination two rich explanatory theories that Presented an intelligible picture of that sub-domain of the universe, often in wrong theories as we later discovered But there’s a course that’s followed And this gives this could have been the case only because we do have and we in fact share across the species a kind of a science forming capacity that is That limits us as you say, but at the same in the same, but same token provides the possibility of creating Explanatory theories that extend so vastly far beyond any evidence that’s available. I mean, it’s very important to realize that there should be some obvious say but it’s worth saying that when When it’s when a new theory is created and I don’t necessarily mean Newton. I mean even a small theory What the scientist is typically doing? First of all, he has very limited evidence The theory goes far far beyond the evidence secondly much of the evidence that’s available is typically disregarded That is it’s put to the side in the hope that somebody else will take care of it someday and we can forget about so at every stage in the history of science, there’s Even normal science not, you know kuhnian revolutions There’s a high degree of idealization that goes on, so there’s selection of evidence, and distortion of evidence, creation of new theory… Conformation or a refutation or modification of that theory, further idealization… These are all very curious steps and we’re capable nevertheless We can often make them, and make them in a way which is intelligible to others… Doesn’t look like some random act of the imagination And where that’s possible we can we can develop intelligible theories. We can gain some comprehension of the nature of this aspect of the world. Now, this is possible only because we are rigidly pre-programmed again because we have somehow developed through evolution or however This specific faculty of forming very particular theories, of course it follows at once, or at least, Follow it’s reasonable to assume that this very faculty which enables us to construct extremely rich and successful theories in some domain May lead us very far astray and some other domain For example, there may be some you know again I’m a Martian scientists looking at us and observing our successes and errors from a higher intelligence let’s say… might be mused to discover that Whereas in some domains we seem to be able to make scientific progress, in other domains we always seem to be running up against a blank wall… Because our minds are so constructive that we just can’t make the intellectual leap that’s required. We can’t formulate the concept We don’t have the categories that are required to gain insight into that domain

72 thoughts on “Chomsky on the “Limits” of Knowledge & Thought”

  1. I have my disagreements with Chomsky, but nevertheless he occasionally says insightful things.

  2. **If determinism is true knowledge does not exist

    P1. If Libertarian free will does not exist determinism is true

    P2. If determinism is true there exists no non-determined mind outside the deterministic system

    P3. If determinism is true there exists only a determined brain inside the deterministic system

    P4. If determinism is true the brain is determined to believe that determinism is true

    — The belief: “I believe determinism is true” is a determined belief

    P5. If determinism is true the brain cannot know that determinism is true
    — The belief: “I know determinism is true” is a determined belief

    C. If determinism is true knowledge does not exist

  3. And it all goes back to Kant. To understand the world, we must first understand how our perceptual faculties present it to us

  4. Overdose how are ya my friend ? Now here we know Magee is nothing but what the heck is Chomsky talkinabout here ? And we know Magee has no clue but maybe we can try asking that question ? and I know you still didn’t answer my last question ,( about Wittgenstein and the language game ) but I'm thinking this one willave a better luck ,maybe ..

  5. I find him so unengaging. He talks like someone who wants to be the authority, the centre of attention. And he says so little with so many words.

  6. Any one care to tell me when this backlash against Chomsky began? Since 2012 I've watched his lectures and interviews, but only recently, say past year or so, have i seen comments that go so far as to call him stupid, retarded, etc.
    (Edit: Fyi, I know about Pirahã and the challenge it gave to his theory of recursion in language.)

  7. Overdose no ear from you yet but no worry maybe I can help start us off anyhow . Magee starts by asking a totally clueless question (the rigid preprogaming thing, that is to supposed to set limits to what we can know etc) ,though of course it not so well that the question itself is clueless as it could be made sense of ,just that Magee himself can't and has no idea what he's asking about , to which then chomsy instead of dodging and letting it slide , or even maybe calling Magee on it , what does Chomky do instead ? No less than create one concept ,and right there and then on the spot god bless his soul and praise to Him who blessed him with it and it with such creativity and freedom etc ..Of course I'm a talking about "plastic organism " Maybe you could begin now by saying or just try to say what if anything you understand by that whatever it is ? And youd certainly be helping me out because I certainly gots nothing.

  8. I don't agree with this at all.
    If what he is saying is true, then, the development of Greek philosophy was nothing new, or just a fluke. According to this line of reasoning the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were not new ways of thinking at all.
    I don't agree with this.

  9. And presumably there'll be evidence and concepts which inhabit a grey area…a Twilight Zone…between what we can know and what we cannot know, for instance Dark Matter.

  10. Let us note the mosh mosh of techie jargon employed to circulate about the countryside in a wide manœuvre around the concepts of Reason, Freewill, and Consciousness. Choamsky invents all this mismatch all to avoid the level of intellectual discourse of the preplatonics. He then doesn’t have to deal with Aristotle. He then calls his approach scientific.

  11. How do we learn languages, chow Mr MIT? Reason idiot. Not a system, but a method. This man is a concept stealer and inflator.

  12. I like Chomsky, just find the evidence of mental rigidity to be rather arbitrary. Creative insights aren't going to be so well understood within this framework when there are too many variables at play. Maybe at the individual level, this makes some kind of sense, but no one understands the individual "rigid" structure, not even of themselves, hence why ideas just come to people without any real meaningful attachment to language at all.

  13. Evidently Chomsky has never heard of Schiller. And he certainly knows nothing about being an artist. An artist is a person of perceptions, first and foremost. And we spend our entire lives studying to improve them. How does that work? Well, art can, and does improve our perceptions in proportion to the gratitude we spend in our devotion to it. That's why Raphael understood light and color better than you ever could. It's why Mozart understood music better than you ever will. And it's why Shakespeare and Dostoevsky understood human beings better than anyone. They all put the work in and studied the known masters tirelessly with a devotion not unlike love. Love is in fact genius. It's our greatest faculty and there is no equal. "Your consciousness is limited only by your ability to love and to embrace with that love the space around you, and all it contains." -Napoleon

  14. Who are "we"? Not me. In football, you see… "They" loose when they loose and "we" win when they win. Guy's with a ball – though it's small – tells me all.

  15. On thing is true about human nature is that we are weird and socioculturell animals and everything between angels, demons, fools and averge joe.

    We have ideas about reality and how to handel it. It is so cool and strange! Terry was right about humans in that aspect.

  16. Oh, my dear foolosophers! In the long run, we''re all dead. Keynes might have been a blithering idiot when he dunked a big toe into the mechanics of how men produce and exchange goods(of which currency is merely a useful symbol of exchange). But idiot or no, his cerebral lightbulb went off once when he made that statement. Actually, it was a re-statement of the 'carpe diem' non-philosophy of the 17th pre-enlightenment, for what it's worth, and the bedfellow of nihilism, which can never be refuted because it in itself is no-thing.

  17. Sounds like anti thought to me. He’s rigidly against something bigger than himself. A noticeable trait among non doers and users of big words poorly delivered. I love how professors in their ivory towers judge life and society while wearing tweed, yet never picking up a hand tool, sail on a commerce ship, or nail a roof. How high are our philosophers!

  18. This was recorded before Chomsky declared 911 and the JFK assassination as culturally irrelevant given these events happened long enough ago so as to have diminishingly little influence over current sociopolitical trends. SMH……

  19. Does Chomsky discuss further in some papers or books this speculative notion of not possessing necessary categories to acquire knowledge ("make leaps") in some domains? I find it fascinating and highly plausible, not just in scientific domains.

  20. Yesterday upon a stair
    I saw a man who wasn't there
    He wasn't there again today
    Oh how I wish he'd go away.

  21. Dude is smart. The mercury must have got to our brains. Meanwhile even he sticks to US foreign policy history without disclaimers. Also ignores 911 in the same breath.

  22. Chomsky is as sharp today as he was then. Ninety years old and still going strong. Still talking about current events and still focused on the future.

  23. If he is such a brain box then why hasn't he fixed the world problems. Anyone can point out the obvious. But it takes a genius to bring eveyone to his supposedly higher level

  24. In a few decades we'll look back at today's understanding of quantum physics and see how ridiculous it was.

  25. So fix me if I'm wrong, a low IQ individual can get a problem simplified by a high IQ individual, and the lower IQ guy can have a perspective that can possibly solve or surpass the freedom and creative limits that the problem possesed even for the understanding of a higher IQ individual.

  26. Even within science, we do not have the faculties to fully understand simple observations. eg fundamentals of quantum physics

  27. I shit on his cereal; prick. Said "what matter would it make" before Hillary, except he was talking about government complicity in 911. Shameful.

  28. The greatest minds in history are characterized by one thing and that is intellectual humility. Socrates said “I only know that I know nothing” Newton said “The only reason I have seen further is because I stepped on the shoulders of the giants who came before me”. The greatest minds in history don’t boast on how much they know but how little they know, they clearly understand the limits of the mind.

  29. One of the main reasons Chomsky is so persuasive on whatever topic he discusses is A: he understands them fully and deeply, and B: he can express that knowledge in a simple and clear manner. It reminds me of the old saying (and I paraphrase): If you can't explain something, anything to a 5-year old you don't fully grasp it yourself. Debates today are too full of pseudo-science and long words hiding the fact that most "talkers" have no idea what they're talking about. Not so with Chomsky!

  30. I hope to see the beginning of the thousands of years of research and philosophy that will take place from studying alien languages.

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