Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Descartes' Error

Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain
by António R. Damásio
Penguin (Non-Classics), 2005 (first published 1994)

The book starts with neuroscience's cause celebre - a man whose head was pierced by a metal stake that passed through his neck and out of the top of his head. The fact that he survived is astonishing, and is where many neuroscientists in the past have stopped, having proven some point or another about neuroanatomical structure. Damasio not only provides us with gorgeous detail about the tragic accident that resulted in Phineas Gage's custom-made tamping rod exploding through his skull, he also follows Gage after his initial recovery into a tragic story of the downfall of a once-proud man. As well as Gage, Damasio offers many more intriguing stories of brain damage and other ailments that affect the way that we operate in our social environments and in doing so he makes a very strong case for the reintegration into science of emotion. Damasio complains that emotion has been ignored for too long - perhaps because of the over-riding desire to be logical and "scientific".

Even if (as Descartes would have us believe) it is possible to think and act logically, that does not mean that we cannot logically study the emotions. On the contrary, it is the passion, insight, intuition and inspiration that has produced the greatest advances in science - great innovators just knew they were right even when nobody else believed it. More specifically, Damasio argues that it is precisely when people lose their ability to evaluate emotionally that they become paralysed by logical thought. Certain syndromes result in people being unable to choose the right option, even when one may involve losing a job or a friendship. Damasio's answer is to propose a model of thought that gives the emotions a key part in cognitive processes, and demanding that the Dualism so popular in science that follows Descartes is consigned to the history books.

If you are not entirely convinced that emotion plays a part in our most logical thought processes, consider these 2 points:
1. Descartes reasoned that the only truth any of us can be sure of is that "I think therefore I am". One error he made was that he did not take his logical analysis 1 step further. How do we know we think? We feel we know. Without the feeling that we know we would not be so sure that we think. This is not how Descarte's error is explained in the book, but it is what I have learned from it.
2. Our primary sense is not vision. It may be the one we are most aware of using, but vision depends on another sense: Touch. Not touch at the end of the fingertips, but touch as our whole skin. We touch our environment by taking a position within it, and only when we know where we are and how we are situated in our environment can we start using our other senses as comparative measures. We feel who we are and where we are. Without touch we have no awareness, and without awareness we have no thought.

You guessed it... another Goodreads review

Monday, November 14, 2011

Project Nim

A film about linguistics... in the cinema. Who woudda thunk?!?!?

Nim Chimpsky has refound fame - albeit posthumous. (Nim died of a heart attack in 2000, aged 26.) From James Marsh, the man who brought us the brilliant 'Man on Wire' documentary as a 'heist', comes Project Nim about the chimpanzee who was taught by humans to sign as a story of  abandonment by (almost) every human who was supposed to care for him. Based on the book by Elizabeth Hess, this is a story of the inhumane treatment by humans of an animal that became a member of a family, the subject of a scientific experiment, a laboratory test animal and a legal test case.

Originally envisaged as a means of showing how animals can acquire syntax, thereby disproving Noam Chomsky's (hence the name - geddit?!?) assertion about unique human abilities to learn language, and apparently as a way to make the main investigator, Herbert Terrace, famous, it seems Nim never conformed to humans' expectations. Surprisingly, he turned out to be a chimpanzee - but one who was able to communicate with humans.

(More clips from the film available here.)

The film was thoroughly enjoyable and comes highly recommended. If you can't get to a cinema in time, the DVD is on its way.

Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus

Alex Clark & Shalom Lappin critique the Argument from the Poverty of Stimulus (APS) in this new book from Wiley-Blackwell.

This is certainly not the first attack on the bedrock of TG and its decsendants, and I fear not the last, but having read the first few chapters, I feel that it is taking the argument to formal, generative linguists by using just the arguments that they would understand.

With Pullum & Sholtz (see here and here) working hard to discredit the theory, Tomasello working full out to empirically disprove the hypothesis (see examples here and here and his homepage), and Luc Steels (see his homepage) demonstrating that you do not need any kind of hard-wiring for language to evolve, not to mention theories of embodiment, emergentism, and evidence from autopoiesis, you would think that the APS would be a thing of the past. I expect that there are too many people (and research grants) dependent on this hypothesis so we cannot expect it to disappear too soon.

Review for LinguistList on its way, and there is a GoogleBooks entry.  Serendipitously, Prof. Pullum of Edinburgh University recently posted yet another refutation of most of Chomsky's arguments to Linguistlist after the MIT professor delivered a lecture at University College, London.  Meanwhile, here are a few pages from Clark & Lappin, courtesy of the publisher's page. (To read these pages, click on an image, and then right click to open the image in a new page/tab. Then it can be magnified to a suitable size.)