Language and logic (updated)

Some careful philosophical discussion by Monti, Parsons, and Osherson (2009):

There may well be a “language of thought” (LOT) that underlies much of human cognition without LOT being structured like English or other natural languages. Even if tokens of LOT provide the semantic interpretations of English sentences, such tokens might also arise in the minds of aphasic individuals and even in other species and may not resemble the expressions found in natural language. Hence, qualifying logical deduction as an “extra-linguistic” mental capacity is not to deny that some sort of structured representation is engaged when humans perform such reasoning. On the other hand, it is possible that LOT (in humans) coincides with the ‘‘logical form’’ (LF) of natural language sentences, as studied by linguists. Indeed, LF (serving as the LOT) might be pervasive in the cortex, functioning well beyond the language circuit […].

Levels of analysis again. Just because something “is” not linguistic doesn’t mean it “is” not linguistic.

This calls for a bit of elaboration! (Thanks Martin for the necessary poke.)  There could be languages—in a broad sense of the term—implemented all over the brain. Or, to put it another way, various neural processes, lifted up a level of abstraction or two, could be viewed linguistically. At the more formal end of cognitive science, I’m thinking here of the interesting work in the field of neuro-symbolic integration, where connectionist networks are related to various logics (which have a language).

I don’t think there is any language in the brain. It’s a bit too damp for that. There is evidence that bits of the brain support (at the personal-level of explanation) linguistic function: picking up people in bars and conferences, for instance. There must be linguistic-function-supporting bits in the brain somewhere; one question is how distributed they are. I would also argue that linguistic-like structures (the formal kind) can characterise (i.e., a theorist can use them to chacterise) many aspects of brain function, irrespective of whether that function is linguistic at the personal-level. If this is the case, and those cleverer than I think it is, then that suggests that the brain (at some level of abstraction) has properties related to those linguistic formalisms.

Reference

Monti, M. M.; Parsons, L. M. & Osherson, D. N. (2009). The boundaries of language and thought in deductive inference. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

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4 comments

  1. Martin

    Hi Andy,

    I’m very glad you are discussing thist, but your summary has missed the point (in favour of “gotcha” journalism glamour?!)!

    If you read the preceding section you will see that the word language is being used with two different meanings:

    Meaning1: what you think of as being “the faculty of language”
    Meaning2: “It’s neural implementation” (or the standard view we currently have of how it’s neurally implemented — which may be right or wrong..).

    Now your sentence (I’ll turn it into the crucial question) makes excellent sense — and justice to the authors’ thoughts (I can speak for one of them :) — although admittedly it is a bit less glamorous than you may have intended it to be:

    “Just because something “is” not linguistic (i.e. doesn’t fall in the standard neural basis of language [Meaning2]) does it mean it “is” not linguistic (i.e. part of what we think of as ‘the faculty of language [Meaning1]?”.

    I’m glad you are discussing this though,

    all the best,

    martin

  2. Andy

    I don’t think one sentence counts as discussion—I was letting you speak for yourselves :-)

    But to expand a little, I would want to say that there could be languages—in a broad sense of the term—implemented all over the brain. Or, to put it another way, various neural processes, lifted up a level of abstraction or two, could be viewed linguistically. At the more formal end of cognitive science, I’m thinking here of the interesting work in the field of neuro-symbolic integration, where connectionist networks are related to various logics (which have a language).

    I have no sympathy with the view that if a part of the brain “doesn’t do language” then the process is not linguistic.

  3. Martin

    Andy, yes this is certainly a crucial question.

    The central problem is what do you mean by “linguistic” (e.g. just because something has ‘a’ structure, call it ‘a’ syntax, does it mean it has anything to do with the syntax of natural language?), and what language are we talking about (e.g. natural language, formal languages like Turbo-Pascal and FORTRAN?).

    And I agree your view is perfectly plausible/possible, but one could similarly say that s/he has no sympathy for the view by which everything in the brain must be linguistic. Indeed once you take one-two steps back in abstraction we are talking about representations of the world that, presumably, were (in some form) available in primitive man, and that seem to be available in non-human primates and that are available in language-less individuals (whom interestingly retain, in some cases, other types of syntaxes — such as that of algebra — despite complete agrammatism in natural language).

    So why should these representations be thought of as linguistic?

    Anyways, I’m glad for the exchange of thoughts,

    all the best

    martin

  4. Andy

    Back to levels of description again.

    So I don’t think there is any language in the brain. It’s a bit too damp for that. There is evidence that bits of the brain support (at the personal-level of explanation) linguistic function: picking up people in bars and conferences, etc. There must be linguistic-function-supporting bits in there somewhere; one question is how distributed they are. I would also argue that linguistic-like structures (the formal kind) can characterise (i.e., a theorist can use them to chacterise) many aspects of brain function, irrespective of whether that function is linguistic at the personal-level. If this is the case, and those cleverer than I think it is, then that suggests that the brain (at some level of abstraction) has properties related to those linguistic formalisms.

    I suspect (though am willing to be disproved) we actually agree, modulo the journalistic glamour :-D (But I’m glad I used the latter since it started this discussion!)

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