Chomsky on Cognitive Science, and Anarchism

Noam_Chomsky Over at Reddit:

NOAM CHOMSKY: The first question here is from cocoon56: Do you currently see an elephant room of cognitive science, just like you named one 50 years ago—I guess that's a reference to my critique of radical behaviorism—something that needs addressing that gets too little attention?

Well, one thing that I think gets too little attention in the room of cognitive science is cognitive science. Most of the work that's done just doesn't seem to me to bear on cognitive science. I could pick up a couple of journals here and give examples.

Cognitive science ought to be concerned—should be just a part of biology. It's concerned with the nature, the growth, the development, maybe ultimately the evolution, of a particular subsystem of the organism, namely the cognitive system, which should be treated like the immune system or the digestive system, the visual system, and so on. When we study those systems, there are a number of questions we ask.

One question is of course, you know, what they are: can we characterize them? But that's almost totally missing in cognitive science. I mean, take my own particular area of interest, language. A ton of work in what's called “cognitive science” on what they call “language”, but it's very rare to see some effort to characterize what it is. Well, if you can't do that, it doesn't make much difference what else you do.

The second kind of question you have to ask about any organ, if you like (some use the term loosely), subsystem of the body, is how it gets the way it is. So how does it go from some initial state, which is genetically determined, to whatever state it assumes? And in investigating that topic, there are a number of different factors that you can take apart for analytic purposes. And one is the specific genetic constitution that's related specifically to this system. It doesn't mean that every piece of it is used only for this system, but just whatever combination of genetically determined properties happens to determine that you have a mammalian rather than an insect visual system, for example, or a gut-brain, or whatever it may be. That's one. The second is whatever data are outside that modify the initial state to yield some attained state. And the third is: how do laws of nature enter into the growth and development of the system? Which of course they do, overwhelmingly. I mean, nobody, for example, assumes that you have a particular genetic program to determine that cells split into spheres, not cubes, let's say—that's due to, you know, minimization of energy, other laws of nature. And the same holds throughout the course of development. Of course, the same is true for evolution. Evolution takes place with a specific physical, chemical channel of options and possibilities, and physical laws enter all the time into determining what goes on.