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Struggle and Achievement


I don’t really have heroes, but if I did, Noam Chomsky would be at the top of my list. Who else has achieved such lofty scientific and moral standing? Linus Pauling, perhaps, and Einstein. Chomsky’s arguments about the roots of language, which he first set forth in the late 1950s, triggered a revolution in our modern understanding of the mind. Since the 1960s, when he protested the Vietnam War, Chomsky has also been a ferocious political critic, denouncing abuses of power wherever he sees them. Chomsky, who turns 90 on December 7, remains busy. He spent last month in Brazil speaking out against far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro, and he recently discussed the migrant caravan on the radio show “Democracy Now.” Chomsky, whom I first interviewed in 1990 (see my profile here), has had an enormous influence on my scientific and political views. His statement that we may always “learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology” could serve as an epigraph for my most recent book, Mind-Body Problems. Below he responds to my emailed questions with characteristic clarity and force. — John Horgan

Do you ever chill out?

Would rather skip personal matters.

Your ideas about language have evolved over the decades. In what ways, if any, have they remained the same? 

Some of the earliest assumptions, then tentative and only partially formed, have proven quite robust, among them that the human language capacity is a species property in a double sense: virtually uniform among humans apart from serious pathology, and unique to humans in its essential properties.  The most basic property of the language faculty is that each internal language generates an unbounded array of structured expressions, each of which yields an interpretation at the interface with other cognitive systems (basically a linguistically-articulated thought) and can be externalized in some sensorimotor system, usually speech, in ways that allow others to access our thoughts – a property of language that Galileo and his contemporaries rightly regarded with awe and wonder.  Basic ideas about the mechanisms that have these remarkable properties have also proven fairly stable, though there has been great progress in refining them and reducing them to principles simple enough to provide sound explanations for many surprising aspects of language and to suggest a plausible evolutionary scenario.  From the outset, 65 years ago, the languages investigated closely were typologically varied, and in tandem with theoretical advances inquiry has proceeded to unprecedented typological range and depth.

Your claims about the innateness of language helped inspire evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, which attempt to trace human thought behavior to their biological roots. And yet you’ve been critical of these fields. Why?

Not so much of the fields, which are surely legitimate and important, but of some of the practices within them.

You once said we will probably “always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” Is that still your view?

Another thought that has proven robust.

John Ioannidis and other scholars have discovered that many peer-reviewed scientific claims cannot be replicated. Do you have an explanation, and possible cure, for the so-called replication crisis?

Nothing beyond the obvious.  Sometimes failure of replication has to do with complexity of what is being studied and with inadequate tools and ideas.  The intense pressure to publish and sometimes ugly competitiveness are other factors.  As compared with other domains, the scientific culture is quite admirable I think, though hardly without flaws that can and should be corrected.

Do you take seriously the Singularity, the idea that artificial intelligence and other fields will soon radically transform humanity?

One can certainly imagine how, in principle, systems that can detect patterns with massive data processing might find hitherto unknown ways of constructing theories that surpass those within the reach of human intelligence.  And that could have all sorts of effects.  But among the concerns we face, this doesn’t seem to me to rank high.  Even tasks mastered almost reflexively by infants are far beyond the capacities of contemporary AI.

In his recent book Enlightenment Now, your former MIT colleague Steven Pinker argues that life has gotten better and better, morally and materially, and he scolds other intellectuals for knocking western civilization. What’s your view of his perspective?

I don’t find these broad-brush observations very helpful or informative.  The devil is in the details.

There is work on these matters that seems to me much more compelling.  In his very important study on the rise and fall of American growth, Robert Gordon observes that there was virtually no economic growth for millennia until 1770, slow growth for another century, and then a “special century” until 1970, dependent largely on specific inventions.  Since the 1970s the picture is much more mixed: in the US, with actual decline in real wages for non-supervisory workers over 40 years and even increased death rates in recent years.  These are among the features of the neoliberal era that have led to the rise of the kind of “morbid symptoms” that Gramsci warned about from Mussolini’s prison cell, as we see all too clearly in the western world today.  Elsewhere we find different patterns.  Thus Russia suffered severe economic decline and demographic collapse when market reforms were introduced in the ‘90s.  China has been different again.  As Amartya Sen has shown, Maoist China saved about 100 million people – not a small number – as compared with democratic capitalist India from independence to 1980, not from “enlightenment” in the usual sense, but from rural health programs and other reforms.  And since then it has undergone spectacular growth and provided the bulk of the reduction in global poverty, in a society that’s not a model of enlightened values.  Nazi Germany experienced very rapid growth in the ‘30s, not a triumph of enlightenment.  There are numerous other complexities that are of major significance, but that disappear in unanalyzed statistical tables.

As for “moral growth,” there are even greater complexities.  The American Revolution introduced the novel and important idea (put aside the fact) that “we the people” should take control of our fate –- and at the same time developed the most vicious system of slavery in human history, the foundation of much of US-British wealth and economic development.   Or take Germany again.  In the 1920s, it was at the peak of western civilization in the arts, the sciences and mathematics, and even political development, regarded as a model of democracy.  Ten years later it was descending to the depths of human savagery.  A decade later it was recovering what had been lost.

As for the Enlightenment and modern science, no serious analyst can question their major achievements – or overlook their role in the age of discovery that brought untold horrors to much of the world, devastating the Western Hemisphere and Africa, crushing the leading world centers of civilization in India and China.

With all that, a good case can be made I think that moral horizons are, overall, slowly widening, including recent years, when the activism of the ‘60s has had a considerable civilizing effect in many areas.

Pinker, Richard Wrangham and Edward Wilson have suggested that human males are innately warlike. Do you agree? Can humanity move past militarism once and for all?

Since humans (males and females) are sometimes warlike, it follows that their intrinsic nature permits this outcome under certain circumstances.  Under other circumstances they prefer peace – normally I think.  But it’s highly misleading to say that they are “innately warlike” or “innately peaceloving.” I don’t know of any argument showing that we cannot create circumstances under which warlike tendencies will be suppressed – as has often been the case in history.

Are you a pacifist? Is violence sometimes justified in pursuit of justice?

Not an absolute pacifist.  I didn’t object to entering World War II after Japan attacked military bases in two virtual colonies and Germany declared war, and in fact thought that the US should have intervened more forcefully before.  But it’s also worth bearing in mind that the Nazi plague could have been contained before it led to war.

Why did you recently call the Republican Party “the most dangerous organization in world history”?

Take its leader, who recently applied to the government of Ireland for a permit to build a huge wall to protect his golf course, appealing to the threat of global warming, while at the same time he withdrew from international efforts to address the grim threat and is using every means at his disposal to accelerate it.  Or take his colleagues, the participants in the 2016 Republican primaries.  Without exception, they either denied that what is happening is happening – though any ignorance is self-induced – or said maybe it is but we shouldn’t do anything about it.  The moral depths were reached by the respected “adult in the room,” Ohio governor John Kasich, who agreed that it is happening but added that “we are going to burn [coal] in Ohio and we are not going to apologize for it.” Or take a recent publication of Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a detailed study recommending an end to regulations on emissions. It presented a rational argument: extrapolating current trends, by the end of the century we’ll be over the cliff and automotive emissions don’t contribute very much to the catastrophe – the assumption being that everyone is as criminally insane as we are and won’t try to avoid the crisis.  In brief, let’s rob while the planet burns, putting poor Nero in the shadows.

This surely qualifies as a contender for the most evil document in history.

There have been many monsters in the past, but it would be hard to find one who was dedicated to undermining the prospects for organized human society, not in the distant future — in order to put a few more dollars in overstuffed pockets.

And it doesn’t end there. The same can be said about the major banks that are increasing investments in fossil fuels, knowing very well what they are doing.  Or, for that matter, the regular articles in the major media and business press reporting US success in rapidly increasing oil and gas production, with commentary on energy independence, sometimes local environmental effects, but regularly without a phrase on the impact on global warming – a truly existential threat.  Same in the election campaign.  Not a word about the issue that is merely the most crucial one in human history.

Hardly a day passes without new information about the severity of the threat.  As I’m writing, a new study appeared in Nature showing that retention of heat in the oceans has been greatly underestimated, meaning that the total carbon budget is much less than had been assumed in the recent, and sufficiently ominous, IPCC report. The study calculates that maximum emissions would have to be reduced by 25% to avoid warming of 2 degrees (C), well above the danger point.  At the same time polls show that — doubtless influenced by their leaders who they trust more than the evil media — half of Republicans deny that global warming is even taking place, and of the rest, almost half reject any human responsibility.  Words fail.

Wasn’t Richard Nixon worse than Donald Trump? 

Nixon had a mixed record.  In some respects, he was the last liberal president: OSHA and EPA for example.  On the other hand, he committed terrible crimes.  Arguably the worst was the bombing of rural Cambodia, a proposed article of impeachment but voted down though it was incomparably more important than the others.  And the article was much too weak, focusing on the secrecy.  There has been little attention to the orders that Nixon delivered, relayed to the Pentagon by his faithful servant Henry Kissinger: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” It is not easy to find comparable orders for genocide in the archival record.  But all of Nixon’s crimes pale in comparison with the decision to race towards the precipice of environmental catastrophe.

Are the U.S. media doing their job?

It depends on what we think their job is.  They are businesses, so by accepted standards their job is profit.  By other standards, they have a duty to the public to provide “all the news that’s fit to print,” under a concept of “fitness” that is as free as possible from submission to power interests or other distorting factors.  About this there is a great deal to say – I’ve devoted many words to the topic elsewhere, as have many others.  But in today’s strange climate of Trumpian “alternative facts” and “false reality,” it is useful to recognize that with all their flaws, which are many, the mainstream media remain an indispensable source of information about the world.

Can incremental reforms transform the U.S. into a just, prosperous society, or are more drastic measures required? In other words, are you a reformer or a revolutionary?

Both.  Generalizations are misleading; too much depends on specific circumstances.  But some have a fair degree of validity, I think. One is that there is both justification and pressing need for radical changes in the socioeconomic and political orders.  We cannot know to what extent they can be achieved by incremental reforms, which are to be valued on their own.  But unless the great mass of the population comes to believe that needed change cannot be implemented within the existing system, resort to “drastic measures” is likely to be a recipe for disaster.

My students are pretty gloomy about the future. What can I tell them to cheer them up?

Apart from the truly existential threats of nuclear war and global warming – which can be averted – there have been far more difficult challenges in the past than those young people face today, and they have been overcome by dedicated effort and commitment.  The historical record of struggle and achievement gives ample reason to take to heart the slogan that Gramsci made famous: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

What’s your utopia?

I don’t have the talent to do more than to suggest what seem to me reasonable guidelines for a better future.  One might argue that Marx was too cautious in keeping to only a few general words about post-capitalist society, but he was right to recognize that it will have to be envisioned and developed by people who have liberated themselves from the bonds of illegitimate authority.

Further Reading:

Noam Chomsky Is So Anti-Establishment He Disses Himself

Is Chomsky’s Theory of Language Wrong?

Advice to Young Science Writers: Ask “What Would Chomsky Think?

The End of War

Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are

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