Philosophy, Language, Making Sense


Interview conducted at MIT, March 24, 2014

Q: Following on the last few interviews we’ve done, we have tried to gather questions from some younger folks. This time mostly high school aged people. We are always looking for different questions.  There is a mixed bag.  Some of these students looked at some of your linguistic material too.  Is that OK to take up? 

NC:  Sure

Q:  We will leap in to some of the questions about linguistics.  They have a lot, so if you could keep the answers relatively short.  A high school student says, “In looking at your website we noticed you work in the department of linguistics and philosophy.  What does it mean to be a philosopher?” 

NC:  Philosophy is mostly asking questions at the edge of understanding.  So, the sciences try to answer questions that are pretty well formulated within a framework of reasonably clear understanding.  There are lots of questions about human life, about the nature of the world, about the meaning of our existence, all kinds of things, which are extremely significant for all of us, and which have been the topic of inquiry and speculation and reflection for millennia.  Philosophers try to explore them, see if they can clarify them, see if they can move them to the point where you could answer the questions clearly, try to determine what would be a good life, why we believe it would be a good life, what are the values we are trying to realize, and so on.  Questions of this kind are questions of interest to everyone, but the professional philosophers are those who devote their lives to trying to explore them.

Q:  What might one do to become a philosopher? 

NC:  Just become a reflective human being who wants to think through problems of significance and try to understand them.  Try to understand what the great thinkers of the past have had to say about them and try to imagine how you can contribute to sharpening them and improving our understanding of them.  That is all it takes.

Q:  Is there a connection between your work in linguistics and philosophy?

NC:  Yes, a very close connection.  A lot of my work appears in things like “The Journal of Philosophy.”  In fact, there is not a very clear differentiation.  A good part of philosophy is concerned with the nature of mind, the nature of language; a good part of linguistics, at least some aspects of it, the kind I am interested in, are dedicated to questions that were raised by the great philosophers of the past.  So for example, everyone has heard about Descartes’ dualism, his theory of mind and body, but what is not too well known is that Descartes’ dualism was a very respectable scientific hypothesis.  There was a conception of body at the time.  It motivated the early scientific revolution, Galileo, Huygens, Newton, the whole modern scientific revolution.

To them, they had a conception of what the world is like.  The world, they held, is a machine, and “machine” meant what we mean by a machine, something with gears and levers and things pushing each other, something a skilled artisan could in principle construct.  That is a machine.  And you had a respectable scientific explanation, for say Galileo or Newton, if you could give a mechanical model of it.  So, if you want to account for the motion of the tides or the heavenly bodies, or whatever, if you can build a mechanical model that is an explanation.  That was the criterion for intelligibility and explanation.

Descartes thought, mistakenly, that he had a mechanical theory of just about everything in the world, the entire inorganic world, animals, humans, sensation, perception, but he noticed there were some things that did not fall within this, and the primary one had to do with language.  He observed, correctly, that our ordinary use of language is constantly creative, in a certain sense.  We are constantly producing new sentences which have never been produced before, expressing thoughts that we haven’t had, or somebody else hasn’t had.  This constant innovative behavior has no bounds, it can go on indefinitely.  It is not caused by situations.  So there is nothing in the current situation that is causing me to say what I am now saying.  There may be things in the current situation which are inciting me or inclining me to say certain things, but they are not compelling me to do so.  I could start talking about the prospects for the Red Sox this summer.  I could do that, it just would not be appropriate, but I could do it.

So, somehow we are acting in ways which are appropriate to situations but not caused by them, or caused by internal forces within us either, like the nature of my hormones, or whatever.  Furthermore, this creative activity engenders in other people thoughts that they realize they could have expressed but didn’t.  That whole collection of properties, sometimes called “the creative aspect of language use,” Descartes argued could not be accounted for in mechanical terms. He was correct about that, as far as we know.  He therefore, as a respectable scientist, proposed a new principle, kind of a creative principle: that is mind.  Then he spent much of his life trying to show how these two substances, as he called them in the metaphysics of the day, how these two substances interrelated.

There were experimental programs designed to try to determine whether another creature has a mind like ours; based on these properties could you carry out experiments to determine if this creature over there has these creative capacities.  It is all serious science.  Like a lot of serious science, it collapsed.  It collapsed when Newton showed there are no machines, there are no bodies.  That in order to account for the simple elementary phenomena of the world, say the fact that if I let go of this cup it will fall, you have to introduce what were considered at the time to be occult forces, mystical forces.  Action without contact – so the earth and the cup are interacting with each other but there is no contact between them.  Newton regarded that as a “total absurdity,” that was his phrase; he said it is an absurdity so great that no one with any scientific understanding could possibly believe it, but evidently it was true.  For the rest of his life Newton tried to overcome it, but couldn’t.  Other scientists tried, but couldn’t.  Finally it got kind of assimilated into scientific common sense, but that meant that we don’t understand the world.

The concept of understanding that motivated the scientific revolution is beyond us.  We have to abandon that hope.  We can understand theories about the world, but the nature of the world itself is really unintelligible to us.

This left the mind intact, it didn’t affect the mind.  A lot of contemporary discussion tries to argue that Newton showed that the mind doesn’t exist, it is the opposite; he showed that the body doesn’t exist.  We are stuck with that.  The mind remains.  Well, here that leaves us with what John Locke, immediately after Newton, recognized to be a major problem.  He put it in a theological framework common in the day.  He said that Newton has demonstrated to us that God has attributed to matter properties that we cannot comprehend, like action at a distance. There is no reason why God shouldn’t have superadded to matter the capacity of thought, meaning that certain kinds of organized matter produce thought kind of the way the liver secretes bile.  And that point of view animated research right through the 18th century into the 19th century.  Charles Darwin, for example, said, “Why should we consider it more wonderful that the brain secretes thought than that bodies interact without contact?”  They are all mysteries beyond our comprehension, but we can try to understand them and develop theories about them.

Well, that is what a lot of the study of language is about, trying to find out the means that enter into this creative activity.  So this relates very closely to central questions in philosophy, but also in the history of modern culture, and contemplation about the nature of the world, and the nature of humans.

Q:  That is the most comprehensive description of Cartesian thought I’ve heard.  I did not realize most of what you just said until you said it.   

NC:  Nor do philosophers.  This is known to historians of science but it is quite unknown to the general philosophical world or to the world of scientists.  Almost all scientists, try it, think that Newton showed that the world is a machine.  He showed the world is NOT a machine, crucially that it is not a machine; that nothing is a machine; that a skilled artisan cannot put together a machine which will have the property of the motion of the planets because it requires action at a distance.  And, when say you build something with gears and levers, things are interacting because they connect with each other.  That is our conception of determinacy, and the world doesn’t work like that.

Very common in the literature, right to the present, is ridicule of Descartes’ notion of what is sometimes called “the ghost in the machine.”  It is the opposite.  Newton got rid of the machine.  He left the ghost intact, and the ghost is what we have to study, and people like Locke, and Hume, and Darwin, and others understood that, but not since.  It has been forgotten.

This is a very idiosyncratic position.  I think it is correct, but it is not ______ outside the history of science. Inside the history of science, it is understood.
Q:  Still following the matter of linguistics and language, are there any important recent discoveries about language you can share with and explain to high school students?

NC:  Well, I think there are quite significant discoveries which are not fully established but look more and more plausible.  One discovery you can kind of describe within the framework of thinking about the evolution of our language capacity.  There is not much known about it, but there are a few things known.  One thing that is known with very high confidence is that this capacity has not changed, has not evolved for maybe fifty to eighty thousand years, roughly that period.  That is the period since humans, our remote ancestors, began to leave east Africa.  We all come from Africa, and around that period, roughly fifty or sixty thousand years ago, humans started leaving east Africa and very quickly settled all over the world.  So, Papua, New Guinea could be forty thousand years ago.  In evolutionary time, these are very short periods, these are tiny moments.  So, around that period humans left east Africa, small numbers, maybe hundreds, and scattered around the world.  Since that time there have been no changes.  The cognitive abilities, as far as we know, have not changed since then.  So, if you take an infant from a Papua, New Guinea tribe that has not had other human contact for thirty thousand years, and bring the infant say to Boston and raise it here it will be indistinguishable from a child growing up in Boston.  There are individual differences but no known group differences.  So it looks as though language has not changed for roughly that period.

With some confidence, but less than this, we can assume that about fifty thousand years before that there weren’t any languages.  We don’t have tape recordings, obviously, but if you look at the archeological record there is a kind of a huge outburst of creative activity roughly in the ____ region of about seventy five thousand years ago.  Symbolic art, representation of natural events, coding of lunar motions and things, complex social structures, evidence of that, funeral procedures, very complex behavior, complicated tools, much more sophisticated tools.  All of this begins to develop pretty suddenly around that period, roughly seventy-five thousand years ago.

If you take a look at the dates…and it is generally assumed that it is a plausible assumption that this creative burst was the result of the sudden emergence of language.  It is hard to imagine how any of this could have been done without language, and there is no indication that any other species had anything like language.  There were plenty of other hominids, similar to homo-sapiens, they are all gone, and maybe because humans, modern homo-sapiens are a predatory species, they destroy everything that is around.  Anyhow, they are not around anymore.  And other organisms, say apes, there is not even a remote analogue to anything like this.

So it looks as if there was a very sudden emergence of something which is human language and hasn’t changed since then.  If that is correct, you would expect the core of human language to be something very simple.  What it suggests is that some small rewiring of the brain took place, maybe a slight mutation, which gave the fundamental capacity for language that we then all share in different ways.  And by now there is some understanding of what that small change might have been.  I think that is one of the major discoveries of the recent period.

Again, this is not a consensus view, by any means.  But I think that is the way it is coming more and more to look.  Thirty years ago this would have sounded crazy.  Twenty years ago it would have sounded audacious, but not crazy.  Today it does not sound crazy.  The task of the science of language, from this point of view, would then be to try to show that the apparently complex and diverse phenomena of language…you take a look at language, languages look very diverse and complex, the task would be to show that is a superficial phenomena, and that at the core they are really basically the same, and have very simple basic roots that are common to all of them and that children don’t learn because they are just part of our nature, and so on…and I think we are approaching that.

Q:  A follow-up, is language then our primary tool of making sense of the world and ourselves?

NC:  It is our only tool.  Language and whatever goes along with it.  I mean, language brings along a lot of other things.  So, for example, if you go back to the early days of the science of evolution and Alfred Russell Wallace who was the co-discoverer of natural selection, the two of them, there were things they found very puzzling and argued about.  One of them was the fact that all humans appear to have the capacity for arithmetic.  You find many tribes where they don’t have a lot of words for numbers, maybe “one, two,” however, when you investigate them it turns out they understand arithmetic perfectly well.  When they enter into market societies they can immediately handle everything.  So they guessed, and we now know with some confidence, that all humans have the arithmetical capacity which is unique in the organic world.  No other organism has anything like it.

And the question that bothered them was how this could have evolved because it’s never used. Until very recently in human history only quite small groups used it, for a long time nobody used this capacity, and in more recent years, the last couple thousand years, very small groups used it so it could not have been selected, yet we all have it.  So, how did that happen?  Wallace believed there must be some force in evolution other than natural selection.  Darwin did not want to go along with that, and it was a kind of an open dilemma.

The answer to it probably is that arithmetic is an offshoot of language.  We are now able to imagine how from a very rudimentary language, in effect a language with one word, you could derive a structure that has all the properties of arithmetic.  And it is very possible, though it isn’t established, that our arithmetical capacity is just an offshoot of language.  And the same is true of a lot of other capacities – the capacity to plan, for example. Elaborate planning, for possible future events…it is hard to imagine how that can be done without language.

So, language looks like it is at the core of an array of cognitive capacities.  Surely, it does not exhaust all of them, but it is a substantial part of it.  So, going back to the question, it looks as though the existence of language is fundamental to dealing with the kinds of questions you were raising.

Q:  Going back to the previous answer.  The proposed or alleged mutation, where is it located, is it in the pre-frontal or frontal lobe? 

NC:  Nobody knows enough about the brain to say anything about that.

Q:  And neuroscience or neuro-scientists?

NC:  Neuroscience cannot even deal with the neuroscience of insects.  These are hard problems.  Bees have very complicated communication systems, the famous waggle-dance, bees fly somewhere and identify a flower and come back to the nest and do a very complicated dance which indicates to other members of the hive how far the flower is, how high it is, what kind of a flower it is, what its quality is, and so on, and then the bees swarm towards that flower.  That is a pretty tricky operation, and there is some study of how it evolved, not a lot, because it is a hard problem.  But it is a much easier problem than the evolution of language. Bees are far simpler organisms, there are a couple of hundred species, they differ in their modes of communication, you can do comparative work, and you can do experimental work, and so on.  Nevertheless, it is not well understood.

If you look at the few papers of what is called sometimes “the language of the bees,” the communication system of the bees, most of the paper is just description of the capacity, and then there is some speculations about the stages in which it might have evolved.  But the question that you asked, each stage requires some kind of mutation.  When you get to the question “what kind of mutation could it have been” nobody even tries, and we are talking about bees, not humans.


So the kinds of questions you can’t answer for insects, you can’t hope to answer for humans.  I mean the neurosciences are in a much too primitive state to be able to answer questions like that, neurosciences and genetics, even for much simpler traits, far simpler than language.  The phrase used in the biological literature typically is “it is fiendishly difficult to find the genetic basis for even simple traits.”  These are hard problems.
Q:  Biologically it seems we have little to do with how we emerge, for example, nobody chooses their facial structure; and socially nobody chooses where and when they are born.  How much are we responsible for creating out own lives? 

NC:  Well, that is a typical philosophical question.  It is actually the question that Descartes raised.  So take the creative aspect of language use.  That is a special case of something more general, namely what is called “freedom of the will,” you know, the ability to make choices that are not determined and are not random.  We seem, all through our lives, to make choices that are somehow not determined by the situation that we are in, and they are not just at random.  That is your question.  So, how much of that does exist.  Well, again, if you took a poll of scientists and philosophers they would probably say it doesn’t exist, that all of what we do is either determined or random.  That is almost a dogma.  This is claiming that Descartes’ observation is just wrong.  We don’t have any reason to believe that I don’t think.  It is really a case where we don’t know the answer, and furthermore it might be a case where we will never find the answer.

One possibility, which is not widely accepted, but I think it should be; one possibility is that we are not angels, we are organic creatures, we are part of the natural world.  We are supposed to believe that, but if you think about it, if we are organic creatures then our cognitive capacities are just like all other capacities.  They have a certain scope and they have certain limits.  Like you have two arms, not two wings.  That is because your genetic, your genome had the capacity to grow arms, but by that very token it did not have the capacity to grow wings.  Scope and limits are logically connected.  Anything you are capable of doing is going to put limits on what you can do. There are other things you can’t do because you are capable of doing this.  Well, that same logic applies to cognitive capacities.  And we understand that very well with regard to other organisms.

So, take say rats.  You can train a rat to run a maze where it has to turn right and then left and then right and then left, you can train a rat to do that.  You cannot train a rat to run a maze in which it has to turn right at every prime number.  A rat just cannot be trained to do that, no matter how much you try, because it does not have that concept in its repertoire.  Well, that is true of rats, but if it is true of rats it is true of us, if we are not angels, and if we are part of the natural world, then our very capacities are gonna make it impossible to do other things and that means there are going to be questions, possible questions that are beyond our capacity to answer, just as a rat can’t answer the question “why am I not capable of running this maze these guys are setting up for me.”  I mean, I don’t know if rats think about those things, but if they did, they could raise the question, and some rat could say “Well we could do it, we are just not trying hard enough.”  I think that is similar to the philosophers and the scientists who are saying “we could explain everything as determined we are just not trying hard enough.”  Maybe, but maybe it is just beyond our cognitive capacities, and I think there is some reason to believe that.

Ever since the 16th century, scientists and philosophers have been able to comprehend and deal with notions like determination, determinacy, and randomness.  They understood that in the 17th century, there can be things that are just random.  Randomness and determinacy are pretty clearly within our cognitive capacities. But suppose there are things in the world that do not fall within that range, just as prime numbers don’t fall within the range for a rat.  It is possible, and if so this will be one of the problems we cannot deal with.  And there are others, like intelligibility of the world.  The great Newtonian achievement, though Newton refused to accept it himself, is that there are mysteries that we cannot comprehend.  One of them is how the world works, and his immediate successors understood that.

So, if you read David Hume, great philosopher shortly after Newton, as well as being a philosopher he was also a historian (incidentally those distinctions didn’t much exist in the 17th century, so science, philosophy, history, that is just being an educated person, you do all of them…Kant couldn’t have said whether he was a scientist or a philosopher, he was both).  Hume did write history, he wrote a history of England, and there is a chapter in his history of England on Newton, of course.  He described Newton as the greatest genius the human race has ever produced, and he said his great achievement was to draw the veil away from some of the mysteries of nature but to show that there are other mysteries of nature which we do not and never will understand.  Namely how objects can interact without contact.  Hume was correct.  We cannot understand that.  We can accept it, but we cannot understand it in the sense of having an intelligible grasp of how it could happen. It is a point where there are mysteries that are beyond our cognitive reach.  We accept that they are true but we cannot comprehend them in the sense in which people like Galileo and Leibniz, Descartes, Newton, thought that you have real understanding.  And I think they were right.  We have kind of abandoned the hope, but that doesn’t change the fact that we cannot comprehend it.  They were right about the nature of intelligibility.  There are mysteries that are beyond us.  Hume was correct, and Newton may have demonstrated one of the major ones.  And it could be that the question you are now raising is another one.  I think it probably is.

Q:  There are universal features of humans, common humanity, and there are differences among humans.  Are the differences enough to stand in the way of creating what we might consider a decent society in which the common good is pursued and perhaps realized?

NC:  Personally, I would look at it differently: if there were not differences among humans I think it would be hell.  Can you imagine living in a world in which everyone was identical? That would be horrifying, it would be like the worst kind of science fiction movie.  What makes life interesting and exciting is that people are different.  And we should appreciate the differences.  That is part of a decent society, extreme differences.

In fact, that is even true of what is called “pathology.”  So, for example, parents of children with Down’s syndrome love their children.  They think their children are wonderful, and in many ways they are wonderful.  They are almost like a miracle, you want to be with them, and take care of them.  And the same is true of other differences.  There are things to be treasured.  The same with differences in culture, differences in belief, and so on.

So, I think the way we should look at it, is we should be thankful for the diversity of human beings and we should consider that to be a prerequisite for the existence of a decent society.

Q:  Some of our fellow citizens on this planet don’t share your belief?

NC:  Partially.  I think that if anybody was asked “Would you like to live in a world in which everyone is identical to you?” people would think it is horrifying, and rightly, because it would be horrifying.  You would want to kill yourself and everyone else.  But, it is true there are beliefs that certain groups of people are beneath contempt and we cannot allow them in our society.  That has always been held in one way or another.  It has varied over time.  So, for example, it was kind of interesting in the 17th century.  Take 17th century England and France, which was kind of culturally unified, among educated people it didn’t matter much if you were French, or German, or English. You lived in the same intellectual world, your language was Latin, you traveled to the other countries, and so on and so forth.

In the 17th, roughly the 16th/17th century, Europeans started spreading around the world, exploring other parts of the world. And they were discovering things that were very surprising to them.  They were discovering other strange animals, and strange looking things that were kind of like people.  So, there were Indians, what they called “Indians,” Native Americans, Southeast Asians, black Africans, orangutans, all kinds of things were being discovered.  And serious questions arose as to which ones were human, and that was a very serious question at the time.

Remember the culture was Christianity and that meant that human souls can be saved and resurrected, but not other souls, if there even are other souls.  So humans have souls and there is a lot invested in that in the Christian religion and in particular resurrection.  So, we have to decide say when we go to Africa and we see these strange creatures, or maybe Southeast Asia, and we find an orangutan and an ape and a Southeast Asian native and a black African, which ones have souls.  The ones that have souls we have to save, so we have to conquer their countries in order to save them.  Remember, this is the ideology of imperialism, it is all very noble, we have to conquer places and destroy them and enslave them in order to save them.  The way it was understood is just mind-boggling.

For example, take say, Massachusetts, where we are now.  Take a look at the Internet for the Great Seal of the Bay Colony of Massachusetts…that is 1629.  The King of England gave a Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Charter obligated the English settlers to carry out the task of civilizing and Christianizing the natives.  That was the condition for the settlement.  The Great Seal shows a picture of an Indian standing holding two spears pointing down (a sign of peace), and out of his mouth is a scroll coming and on the scroll it says “Come over and help us.”  So, the Native Americans were pleading with the English settlers to come over and slaughter and destroy them.  And that is the first humanitarian intervention, incidentally.  So, come over and help us.  That was the idea.  You have to Christianize the natives, and that goes all the way through to the 20th century.

When the United States invaded the Philippines in the early 20th century, a total horrifying massacre with hundreds of thousands of people killed, it was in order to Christianize and uplift them.  And it comes right to the present, now it is called humanitarian intervention, but it is the same idea.  But the question was, which ones are humans?  And it wasn’t very clear.  How do you decide if an orangutan or a Southeast Asian native, a Javanese native is human, and a lot depended on it, like Christianity and saving souls, and so on.

There wasn’t at that time racism in the current sense.  Racism in the current sense actually reflected patterns of subjugation and domination, so when you had slave societies, then you have to have a justification for treating these creatures as slaves.  And that requires an ideology of inferiority: God meant them to be slaves; they are physically designed with curved backs so they can pick cotton, etc.  You know, the whole business begins.  It is a reflection of the whole system of subjugation and domination that was imposed.  And there are some pretty interesting studies of this.

There is a very good book on white supremacy by a very good social historian, George Frederickson. He compares primarily the United States and South Africa, but other societies as well, and what he finds is that the conception of white supremacy in the United States is far deeper and far more pervasive than in any other society, much more than South Africa, for example.  And it probably has to do with the nature of slavery, which was different here than elsewhere. And it goes right to the present.

We’ve never escaped slavery. Just take a look at the number of people in jail.  It is a reflection of the existence of slavery.  It has never been overcome.  There is some little modification around the edges but it remains, and the doctrines of white supremacy which were upheld in the United States are quite extreme by comparison even with South Africa, let alone the rest of the world.

It is striking that say Barack Obama is called a “black president.”  In most of the world he wouldn’t be called “black,” he would be called “mixed race,” mulatto, or something. He is half white and half African.  In the United States there was an ideology of white supremacy in the United States in which the slogan was “one drop of blood.”  If you have one drop of black blood you are black. That is an extreme form of white supremacy.  In most of the world, including Latin America there are just lots of gradations, variations of color.  Here you are black or white, and you are black if there is a drop of black blood.  So, we just automatically describe Barack Obama as a black president.  And he describes himself that way, I suppose.  Actually, ironically it turned out there was some genetic analysis of his genome, or something, I don’t know what they did, but apparently they found that he does have a slave ancestor…on his mother’s side, the white side.  It couldn’t be on his father’s side because his father is from Kenya.

Q:  According to most biologists we are all Africans anyway.

NC:  We are originally Africans, yes, that is pretty well established.  Everyone agrees we all came from East Africa roughly 50 or 60 thousand years ago, and spread around the world.  So, yes, in that sense, we are all from a small group of Africans in fact.  But over 50,000 years you get superficial differences.  And the differences are superficial.  There don’t seem to be any cognitive differences, for example.  There are differences in size, and hair color, and eye color, and facial hair, lots of differences, and some of these differences are in some societies are picked to differentiate people, but typically as a reflection of social structures that were imposed like slavery.  Slavery is the extreme case.

And it is not just slavery, take say Chinese.  Asians were excluded from the United States. It was pretty free immigration into the United States.  They had to fill the country as the indigenous population was exterminated; you have this empty country and you have to fill it with immigrants, so there was pretty open immigration.  So, my father was able to flee the Ukraine a hundred years ago (actually fleeing it from a lot of the people who are running it now), and he was able to do that because he came in 1913.  Ten years later, 1924, an immigration law was passed designed to bar Jews and Italians.  So, during the whole period of the build up to the Holocaust Jews couldn’t come in.  In fact, afterward survivors couldn’t come in the late 40s.  There was one exception to this: Orientals.  They were excluded very early on. There was Oriental exclusion because they were considered somehow a different species.  You know, Chinese coolies would come to build the railroads and so on, but they could not be accepted into Western white society.  It is another form of white supremacy.  And that went right up to the 1950s where Red Chinese were considered something else.

The Second World War, I can remember as a child, if you look at the propaganda about Germans and Japanese, it was completely different.  The Germans were considered sort of humans, you know, white, Aryan, blue eyes, blond hair, maybe doing terrible things, but they were human beings.  The Japanese were just vermin, you just crush them, destroy them.  Right before the war, before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese could read in American newspaper reports of how the United States is planning to attack Japan to destroy the ant heaps in which the vermin live, the wooden cities in which they live, destroy the vermin in their ant heaps.  B17s, the biggest bombers of the day were coming off the Boeing line in Seattle and not being sent to Europe where the war was but to Manila, and Pearl Harbor, and Vladivostok, in a plan for an attack on the vermin who we were going to wipe-out.

And through the war the racist propaganda is just mind boggling.  There is a book by John Dower, and East Asian historian [“War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War”] who was here. He collects some of the propaganda.  I can remember it as a kid.  It was absolutely mind-boggling. Orientals were just vermin, they were not humans, and they were to be crushed.  So, they were blocked.

It has changed now. In fact, if you walk around MIT and half the students are Asian, but that is a big change.  So, over time the racial categories change, but it remains pretty severe.  There was plenty of anti-Semitism in the United States.  I can remember as a child, back in the 1930s. When my father finally got enough money to buy a car, around 1937 or so, he would sometimes take us up to the Pocono Mountains (I lived in Philadelphia), for the weekend, and we would have to stay in a motel, but a lot of the motels had a sign outside saying “restricted.” That meant no Jews.  Blacks, of course, not even a question.  But “restricted” meant no Jews, so we had to find a motel that did not have “restricted” on the front.

As late as the mid 1960s, here in Boston, 1964, my wife and I couldn’t pay the rents anymore in Cambridge, we had little kids and couldn’t pay, so we were moving out to the suburbs to try to buy a house, and there was one suburb which we were interested in, we liked the looks of it, and we asked the real estate agent if there was anything for sale there, and he looked at us and said “you wouldn’t be happy there,” meaning “they do not allow Jews there.”  That is Boston, 1964.

Take Harvard University. When I was a student there in the early 50s, there were maybe three Jewish faculty members, something like that.  One of them had a chair of Jewish studies.  One of the reasons MIT became a great university is because lots of people like say Norbert Weiner couldn’t get jobs at Harvard, so they came down to the engineering school down the street which didn’t have the same caste distinctions, class distinctions.  That is the 1950s.  These things do change.

One of the most horrifying cases, never discussed, is Holocaust survivors.  It was pretty clear in the Thirties what was happening.  It was awful.  A lot of Jews were trying to escape.  Very few could get to the United States.  A few did, like Einstein, and some others were able to get in, but most couldn’t.  There were refugee conferences, international conferences, in, I think, 1938, 1942, a couple, in which there were international attempts to try to figure out how to do something about the Jewish refugees.  The US wouldn’t take them in.  There is a famous case of a ship, the Saint Louis, full of Jewish refugees; it must have been around 1939.  It made it as far as I think Cuba and the U.S. simply would not let them in.  They were sent back to Europe. I don’t know what happened to them.

After the war, Jews remained in concentration camps, and the conditions were not very different than under the Nazis, except that there were no extermination camps.  President Truman sent a commission, Harrison Commission, I think it was called, to the concentration camps to give an account of what was happening, and came back with really horrifying stories.  The people were living as they were under the Nazis.  Did they come to the United States?  No.  In fact, Truman is regarded as deeply humanitarian because he compelled Britain to allow a hundred thousand Jews into Palestine.  How about allowing a hundred thousand Jews into the United States? That was unthinkable.  And if you think about the conditions at the end of the Second World War, I mean half of Europe would have wanted to come to the United States.  The Unites States gained enormously from the war, it was the richest country in the world, Europe was devastated, and these people are living in concentration camps.  We’re not going to take them here, and a lot of that is just straight anti-Semitism. Now, everyone talks about the Holocaust, but we don’t look at ourselves.  How did we act when it was possible to save people?

Q:  A bit of a science fiction question a student created.  If your 20 year old self could suddenly transition from 1948 to the present, what do you think that 20 year old self would find most surprising?  There is a second part:  the 20 year old self returns back to 1948 knowing what you know in the present, what you discovered.  Then the question is “how would you have lived differently?” 

NC:  Go back to 1939. There was a World’s Fair in New York, Flushing Meadows, in New York.  And my parents took me to the World’s Fair, and it was really exciting.  There was all kinds of futuristic elements, what is the world going to look like in the future.  Like kids that age, I liked cars, so there was a General Motors exhibit which I remember very well, which was about what New York was going to look like in thirty years, super highways up in the sky, cars going the speed of rocket ships.  It was really fantastic.  Go to New York today, and it is actually worse than it was then.  Having been at MIT for sixty years, you constantly hear about the great things that are going to happen in the future.  If you go to Stanford, you hear about singularity, you know, machines will take over the world, but it looks pretty much the same as it did before.

A lot of things are worse than they were.  For example, infrastructure is collapsing beyond what it was sixty five years ago.  There are things that have changed and some of them are good.  For example, take say what we’ve been talking about, anti-Semitism, anti-oriental racism, anti-black racism, has not been overcome but modified slightly, different.  The role of women is completely different.  So, in 1948, Harvard had no women.  They were not allowed in.  There was one woman professor, one official professor.  My wife was a student at Radcliff at the same time I was at Harvard.  If she wanted books at some of the Harvard libraries I had to get them for her.  MIT did not have a rule against women the way Harvard did, but there were practically no women here.  Now, it is quite different, it is roughly half-women, women faculty, and so on.  Those are changes.

If I wrote letters in the 1960s I did it by typewriter, now I do it on a computer.  That is a difference.

Q:  Which do you prefer?

NC:  It is actually mixed.  The computer is obviously easier, but from another point of view it is harder.  For example, if I wrote a letter on a typewriter and I mailed it to someone, I might get an answer back two weeks later.  Now I write a letter and I get an answer back thirty seconds later.  And that is a burden.  It is both good for some things, but burdensome for others.  I probably spend much more time now answering letters than I did when it was with a typewriter because the communication is just so rapid.  So it has a kind of an up-side and a down-side.  I don’t know how to evaluate it exactly.  One of the effects…take say for research.  It saves a lot of time to be able to look something up on the Internet and not to go across the street to the library and find it there.  I’ve done a lot of work on media analysis and up until the 1980s I would go to the library and look up the microfilm copies of the “New York Times,” the index.  It was there and you could find it but it was work.  Now you can just look it up on the Internet.  That saves time.  If I want to find the Great Seal of the Bay Colony of Massachusetts, I can find it on the Internet in two minutes.  Before, I had to search for awhile.

So that is all a kind of progress, but it has its downside too.  Take a look at the actual use of the Internet.  There have been some studies.  Overwhelmingly it is used for a kind of diversion: pornography, commodity purchasing, trivia, and so on.  An interesting effect of blogs…there was a lot of hope that the accessibility of lots of different opinions would enrich people’s lives; give them a sense of the diversity of things.  It is probably having the opposite effect.  It tends to draw people to what they want to hear.  Actually, I am the same way.  There are a few blogs that I go to and those are the ones written by the people I agree with.  I don’t go to FOX NEWS.  This is maybe having the effect of creating cultism.  It has created cults.  You can definitely show that.  People get reinforced in strange beliefs, prejudices develop.  It is a complicated story.

Fundamentally, I don’t think the world has changed that much.  It has changed in a lot of superficial ways, and with all the fancy talk about the great things that are happening in the future, I don’t really expect massive changes.  There will be some, some of them for the good.

Take say, the development of robotics.  That could improve life.  I mean if we could get robots to do a lot of the boring work that has to be done, that would be all to the good.  It would free people.  The way it is usually looked at is that it would take jobs away, but that is a very strange way of looking at it.  It would free people to do the kinds of things they want to do, including leisure, or cultural enrichment, or diverse experiences.  Robots doing things would mean we would have a higher standard of living.  It does not mean you have to take jobs away from people, it means you have a richer life, in a differently organized society, of course.
Q: We were promised to have more freedom and leisure when more robotics were inculcated in society, but it appears to be producing more human suffering and degradation. 

NC:  The robotics, like all technology, is kind of neutral.  The question is how we decide to use it.  We could use it to enrich life, we could use it to impoverish life, we could use it to throw people out of work because the dirty work they were doing can now be done the way it ought to be done, by robots, and instead of using that opportunity to enrich life we may use it as is now being done: to concentrate wealth dramatically and to throw most people into the gutter.

It is kind of striking, if you take a look at the United States, over the last roughly thirty or forty years, real wages for male workers are now at the level of 1968.  There has been plenty of wealth created since then, but it is not going into the pockets of working people.  It is male workers because more women have come into the workforce, so their wages have in fact gone up somewhat, which is a good thing, though less than men.  If you take all wages, they are now at the level of about 25 years ago. There has been, again, plenty of economic growth since, but it is not getting to people.

A huge amount of the population has no wealth.  They live from pay check to pay check.  It is a very high percentage, I don’t remember the numbers, probably forty or fifty percent.  Among blacks, the last recession practically wiped out wealth because whatever little wealth they had was mostly in houses, and they lost it.  That means this population is living hand to mouth, day to day, nothing to fall back on.  It means you can’t do anything with your life.

These are all extremely harmful effects of social and economic policies that have been instituted not because they are necessary in any way, but by design.  There is a very interesting study of all of this by the “Economic Policy Institute” that is the main institute that produces regular data, the standard data bases for what is going on in the working economy.  They have a study, “Failure by Design.”  They describe the failure of economic policy for the large majority of the population, for the last roughly thirty years; and they point out it is by design, it is not by a law of nature, and it is not globalization, it is not technology, it is the way policy is designed.

The only thing wrong with their study is the word “failure.”  It is not a failure for the designers, they are doing great.  They have got wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.  But for the rest of the population it is failure.  And the same is happening in Europe with the austerity, even worse in fact.  The austerity programs are just a savage attack on the population, and designed to destroy the welfare state.  All of this is making things worse, even though the opportunities for a better life are improving.  But they are not being used.  They are being used to make life worse.

Q:  So, where is the IWW when we need them?

NC:  There they are [we were joined in the interview by a Boston-area Wobbly organizer).  The message is still right.  Actually, my father was a member of the IWW.  He was an immigrant.  He came, as I said, in 1913, didn’t know any English.  He was seventeen years old and managed to get a job in a sweatshop.  He told me once that he had joined the IWW and I asked him what made him join, and he said “A guy came around,” and he couldn’t understand what he was saying, “but he seemed to be for the workers,” so he signed up.

Q:  When did you sign up?

NC:  As soon as I was old enough to know anything.

Q:  We noticed you still have your IWW card.

NC:  We are probably one of the few father/son pairs.

Q:  How many people in the world of academia do you think are members of the Wobblies?

Wobbly Organizer:  A handful.

Q:  Is it worth asking a question about the role of dreams, or what we know about dreams? Is that worth pursuing?

NC:  There are studies of dreams.  I am not a big specialist.  There are ways of telling when a person is dreaming in deep sleep, brain rhythms you measure and they tell you they are in deep sleep.  There have been experiments when people have been awakened from deep sleep and asked what they were dreaming, and there is some information that comes out.  But there are a lot of things that are not known.

For example, all of us know just by thinking about it, when we dream we are speaking to ourselves, we are speaking; we are talking in our dreams. Of course, we are not actually talking.  An interesting question is “What about people who use sign, and not speech?  Are they signing in their dreams?”  It hasn’t actually been investigated.  Most people who do it kind of guess “probably,” but they don’t know.  It could be studied.

This goes into much deeper questions.  Let us go back to “free will,” that we are talking about before.  It is now known that when you make a decision, like I decide to pick up this cup, very briefly, before you have consciously made the decision, there is brain activity in the areas that will have to be activated to carry out the decision.  So in the motor areas of the brain that will be involved in picking this up, there is some activation, very briefly before I even make the decision.  Libet, is an experimenter that did the standard work on this.

Well, this has been interpreted widely as an argument against freedom of the will.  But that is just a mistake.  All it means is that our mental processes are beyond the level of consciousness.  It shouldn’t surprise us.  In fact, for anybody who studies language, it should be obvious.  If you take a look at the processes involved in language, they are completely beyond the level of consciousness.  You can’t introspect into them.  And the same is probably true of decision making.  And dreams conceivably could give some insight into this.

But the whole question of unconscious, of mental processes that are not only unconscious but beyond the level of consciousness, that is pretty much an open question and it is not studied much, partially, just out of dogma.  There is a kind of a dogma that everything has to be accessible to consciousness, and if you look at the history of the subject, way back, there is almost no discussion of things that are beyond the level of consciousness.  There is some discussion of “the unconscious,” like Freud.  But even for Freud, it is not clear that he thought that there was anything inaccessible to consciousness.  In fact, the whole procedure of psycho-analysis is sort of based on the idea that you could bring things to consciousness.  But that is probably false, and probably false in a very deep way. It is probably the case that our mental activities in general are going on just as far beyond the level of consciousness as our digestive processes are.

Actually, we do have a second brain; vertebrates in general have a brain, sometimes called “the gut brain,” a very complicated brain that controls all of our complex digestive processes (which are pretty intricate when you look into them).  It is a huge brain, a huge number of neurons.  It has all of the properties of the first brain.  It even suffers from diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and so on.  We are completely unaware of it, except if you have a stomach ache, say, you are aware of it.

Q:  This is not in the head though?

NC:  It is here [points to stomach area].  That is a second brain, but it is completely beyond the level of consciousness, and it is probably true of our first brain too.  But it is not a topic that has been studied, partly just for reasons of dogmatism.  It is considered a principle, sometimes modern philosophers enunciate it as a principle, that mental processes must be accessible to consciousness; otherwise they are not mental processes.  Probably, that excludes a huge amount of what is going on in our thought.  There could be ways of investigating this, and I think the study of dreams is maybe one possibility.

John Holder ( holder@hartford.edu ) works at the University of Hartford. Doug Morris works at Eastern New Mexico University ( dmorrisscott@yahoo.com ).



  1. george patterson May 11, 2014 3:57 pm 

    Your interview Noam is enrapturing about making sense of language & philosophy and the relationship between mind and body. Since our use of of language is constantly creative, isn’t it possible that eventually we could utilize that save the planet from ecological destruction and from the destruction of weapons of mass destruction?

  2. george patterson May 11, 2014 5:41 am 

    I just wonder whether there will ever be a solution by Homo Sapiens TO ERADICATE VIOLENCE ONCE AND FOR ALL! We can not continue living like this indefinitely!

  3. avatar
    Julie Labrouste May 5, 2014 8:35 pm 

    Enthralling as usual.

  4. David Dobereiner May 5, 2014 7:23 pm 

    Very interesting discussion, and some of it quite provocative.
    I was particularly struck by the assertion that Newton delineated the limits of human understanding, through the discovery of ‘action at a distance’. He showed that ‘we can understand theories about the world, but the nature of the world itself is really
    unintelligible to us’.
    This, to my mind, links up with other limits some of us have come to recognize such as ‘limits to growth’. For most of us, even the nature of our own economic system has become unintelligible. At any rate, while it is obvious that is is killing the earth, nobody seems to know how to change it.
    Leaving that aside, I take issue with your assertion that arithmetical capacity is unique to humans.
    ‘Pigeons and primates are equally good at understanding abstract numerical rules’., according to Mike Colombo, quoted in the current issue of New Scientist in an article by Kirsten Weir, entitled “Who you calling Featherbrain: Memory, mathematics and art appreciation – pigeons have it all”
    In the same issue there is a study showing that laboratory mice get more stressed by interaction with a male human than with a female.
    Another note in the same issue is about someone at U. of Valencia who has figured out a way of communicating with bacteria.
    The fact that many bird species give different names to their offspring and can recognize human individuals by their faces – such facts and many more suggest to me that one area in which science is very far from reaching its limit is in the study of other animal behavior, psychology and cognitive skills.
    New Caledonian crows have undergone lab tests that reveal an intuitive grasp of the principles of specific gravity first adumbrated (we thought) by Archimedes. An adult crow has been found to have the same cognitive ability as a 7 year old child.
    Elephants have recently been found to be able do distinguish the sounds of different languages. They need this to escape the tribes that go in for ivory hunting while ignoring the presence of those who don’t.
    I believe it is not only linguistic animals who can think. Thinking can be carried out using visual imagery. At some level I believe even human thought starts out visually.
    Someone asked me where I had been. I forgot the name of the place so I said ‘Oh
    it was Lewisham or something like that’. Afterwards I checked a map. I had been to Lemington, not Lewisham. My memory had (mis)filed the written word, not its sound. Some part of my brain had flipped the ‘m’ in Lemington and given me the ‘w’ in Lewisham – another well known place, just not the right one.

    So I come to believe, beyond the unique human ability to create an original sentence, in the ability of all animals to have original thoughts.
    All organisms down to the most elementary manifestations of life are born unique with their own special character.
    They make choices that are non-random and non-determined. They all have free will and use it to optimize their own being in the world to which they are connected but independent.

    Mind permeates the universe and is the means by which everything is connected to everything else – at a distance.


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