Chomsky and the Universal Grammar


Don Cruse


Noam Chomsky is well known on two fronts, as a philosopher and as a social thinker. He is justifiably famous today for his efforts to combat social injustice, which has led him to present a radical critique of the institutions of power in modern society. His fame initially arose, however, from his work as a linguistic philosopher and his still controversial suggestion that the human brain is somehow equipped at birth with a Universal Grammar out of which all human languages later develop. It is mainly with regard to this aspect of Chomsky's thought that I wish to comment here.

The human brain is indeed a remarkable organ, consisting as it does of billions upon billions of nerve cells that are daily dying and being replaced in vast numbers, but still for most of us retains its coherent function throughout our lives. There are two radically opposite accounts, however, of what that function is. The first and most familiar is that the brain is a thought generator, and its ability to function as such has developed incrementally and accidentally over billions of years in the manner described in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The second view is the one most effectively presented in the work of Rudolf Steiner, who insists that the brain's primary function is not to be a generator of thought, but an organ of perception, and that what it perceives is the spiritual 'inside' of all matter, which he tells us is what thought really is, a proposition now beginning to be borne out in Quantum Physics. This view and some of its many ramifications has been clearly represented to the modern mind in the work of the late Owen Barfield.

In the first (materialistic) account the brain function is analogous to that of a computer, and even though the brain is immensely complex, recent developments in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) have convinced many that it will soon become obsolete, and that this obsolescence will eventually apply to mankind itself.(See Christopher Dowden: "Last Flesh", Harper/Collins, Toronto, 1998). There are aspects of modern brain research, however, which suggest that this might not be the case, and that we have in fact barely begun to understand the brain's true function. Important in this respect has been the work of the Stanford University neurologist Karl Pibram, whose study of how memories are stored in the brain led him to postulate that the brain operates on a holographic basis wherein 'the whole is present in every part,' and suggesting that the real repository of memory is not the brain cells but somewhere outside of the brain. This ties together with the work of the physicists Alain Aspect and David Bohm in postulating a holographic background to the entire physical universe. (See The Universe as a Hologram).

This all suggests that Rudolf Steiner's description of brain function may well be the true one. How might this possibility affect the work of Noam Chomsky?

One of the great mysteries of human understanding, the one that has puzzled many of the twentieth century's greatest minds, not least among them Albert Einstein, has to do with the manner in which thought maps itself onto external reality. The following quotation describes this seemingly insoluble problem:

"No scientist working today can deny that aesthetics, something that is purely a product of the inward reality of our consciousness, also provides us with a map for discovering the outward reality of the universe. But why is this so?...Or as Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz has put it, why is it, when we work through Newton's second law of motion for the first time, we get the a feeling of a return to some primordial knowledge?"...As Einstein wrote in 1921, "Here arises a puzzle that has disturbed scientists of all periods. How is it possible that mathematics, a product of human thought that is independent of experience, fits so excellently the objects of physical reality? Can human reason without experience discover by pure thinking the properties of things? "

Wigner concluded that the structure of mathematics and the structure of the physical universe are disturbingly similar. Wigner capped off his paper with a quote from the late philosopher Charles Pierce "that there is some secret here which remains to be discovered". Quoted by John Cafferky in "Evolution as Hand: Searching for the Creator in Contemporary Science". East End Books, Toronto, 1997, p 17.

Rudolf Steiner's answer to this problem is straightforward and revealing. Thought maps so well onto external reality because, in its very essence, it is that reality. He describes how in the course of our evolution human consciousness has developed from an early unselfconscious state of deep 'participation' in nature's inwardness, which we still find today in the animal kingdom, to one of progressive isolation and alienation from nature, and from each other, out of which developed individualism, which in turn makes human freedom possible. Nature, he tells us, still lives in our consciousness, but not in the vital and overpowering way that it once did. The tide of nature's vital inner reality has all but completely withdrawn from our conscious minds, and has left only its skeletal remnant, as it were, on the shores of human consciousness, and this skeletal remnant is what we call 'logic'.

As Steiner describes the act of cognition, the world comes to us not from just one direction, as has long been assumed in philosphic materialism, but from two opposite directions. Sense-born percepts are private, in that they are the product of our external sense organs, which are different for each of us, and because we each must occupy a different point in space. Percepts, however, do not carry their conceptual content with them, and without that content the world remains meaningless to us.

Ideas or concepts become a part of the cognitive act through the brain's capacity as an organ of sense for spiritual reality, i.e. for thought, which is the spiritual 'inside' of everything that is real. All ideas and concepts, therefore, have a universal or 'public' content in addition to the private content which we give them when we marry them, correctly or incorrectly, to our private world of percepts, and to the mental content, true or false, that we have already made into our own 'world-view'. He tells us that the seeming paradox "I think, yet the world thinks in me" is a profound truth, and that any truly critical introspective study of the cognitive act will show this to be the case. He insists that the modern world has been almost totally blinded to this truth by the prevalence of materialistic assumptions in science and philosophy, i.e. by the view that ideas and concepts are merely the end-products of physical sense stimulation. Given this assumption, even great minds like Albert Einstein are left to impotently wonder why it is that human thought, seen as an entirely subjective activity, maps onto external reality in so remarkable a manner.

A similar dilemma confronts Noam Chomsky, but this time in relation to internal reality. As already mentioned, he has argued persuasively for the existence of a Universal Grammar out of which all human languages are born, but as a materialist he is required to believe (1) that this grammar is somehow concealed in the physical workings of the brain itself, and (2) that it is the end-product of a succession of evolutionary accidents (DNA mutations) occurring in Darwinian fashion over countless millions of years. There is little or no convincing evidence that either of these propositions is true, but as a materialist, i.e as one who subscribes to the direction of causal logic implicit in a Monism of Matter, (See my article 'Causal Logic: Dualism and the Two Monisms' in the Nov/Dec, 2000 issue of SouthernCross Review), Chomsky has no alternative but to accept them. In accepting them, however, he is faced with the task of explaining how this Universal Grammar might operate. He does this, as do materialists the world over, by making use of mechanistic imagery:

We may think of UG as an intricately structured system, but one that is only partially "wired up". The system is associated with a finite set of switches, each of which has a finite number of positions (perhaps two). Experience is required to set the switches. When they are set, the system functions.

("Chomsky for Beginners", John Masher and Judy Groves, Icon Books, Cambridge, UK, 1996, p.106.)

In several of my recent articles I have argued, I believe convincingly, that the use of mechanistic imagery in attempting to explain or to 'prove' materialistic assumptions, involves a profound historical error in causal logic. An error which arose when materialism first turned Descartes' philosophical dualism into a Monism of Matter by removing the concept of 'God the Designer,' but all the while continuing to use the language of design, which was all that really mattered. Later, when the word 'mechanistic' became a dictionary definition for materialism, an assumed Monism of Matter, no one any longer questioned its entitlement to the use of such imagery, or the use of intentional idioms. In fact, mechanistic imagery and intentional idioms are logically inadmissible to materialism's basic argument, because they serve merely to substitute human creativity for universal or divine creativity, the existence of which materialism seeks to deny. (See Don Cruse 'Design in Nature and Purpose in Language' in Elemente der Naturwissenschaft, Vol. 72, Toil 2, 1999.)

Mankind did not create the universe, but to make the use of mechanistic imagery and intentional idioms logically acceptable in the defense or explanation of materialism, we would need to have done so. The fact that language cannot rationally be used in defense of materialism, says something about its deeper nature and origin, and it is this 'something' that Chomsky comes close to with his idea of a Universal Grammar.

There may have been a profound underlying reason for the historical error referred to above, indeed it may have been a kind of necessity. Steiner suggests that the task of materialism has been the development of individualism, and also to teach humanity the use of the scientific method. This discipline, once learned in relation to matter, may then be applied to realities beyond the physical realm. For this proposition to be true, early thinkers needed to be convinced that matter was the sum of everything that was real, otherwise they would not have taken it seriously enough to make it the primary focus of their attention, and what better way (for world destiny) to accomplish this than the above mentioned linguistic and logical oversight? This may also be why science was first developed in Europe and the West, and not by the often more sophisticated cultures to the East, because in the East, until quite recently, matter was widely held to be 'maya,' or illusion.

The error to which I have drawn attention then, may have arisen simply to permit a necessary growth in human understanding, which has never been a mere linear development out of ignorance as so many still assume, and could easily have required a movement first in one direction and then in another, just as a sailing ship makes forward progress by tacking into the wind. That this would suggest a spiritual guidance in human affairs, may seem an affront to our now acute sense of individualism, but this feeling may not be justified. It was in this context that Rudolf Steiner often drew attention to Gotthold Lessing's now little read 'Essay on the Education of the Human Race'. (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1728-81) German dramatist and essayist.)

Grammar is the logic of language, and by claiming that a Universal Grammar exists, Noam Chomsky is drawing attention to the same problem that so worried Einstein, Morowitz, Wigner et al. Namely, that the human mind appears somehow to have access to a non-personal and therefore universal reality.

Time will show, and I suspect very soon, that this reality does not exist in the manner that materialism requires it to do, i.e. that it is not something concealed in the substance of the brain cells and accidentally arrived at by the blind creativity suggested in Darwin's theory. It derives instead from the spiritual creativity working inside nature, and to which, unbeknownst to most of us, the power of thinking has all along permitted us direct and immediate access, because, as Rudolf Steiner makes clear, thinking precedes the distinction between subject and object, and therefore is not, as has been widely assumed, a purely subjective activity. This is the reality pointed to in Steiner's claim "I think, yet the world also thinks in me," and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's assertion that both light and thought are universal, and that 'intuition is to thinking what observation is to seeing'..

Religious tradition has long contended that the Word or Logos is the universal creative force to which we owe both our own existence and that of the universe in which we live. It would make sense, therefore, that this might also be the source of Chomsky's Universal Grammar. But such matters cannot be left at the level of religious belief. It must be possible, in a manner that is scientifically acceptable, to make them the subject of critical knowledge arrived at through each individual's higher cognitive development, and through the consequent higher application of the scientific method. If Steiner is to be believed, higher cognitive development is possible, although by no means easy.

(See Rudolf Steiner: Knowledge of Higher Worlds, How it is Attained, Rudolf Steiner Press, London.) But first we will need the necessary openness of mind to begin to take his work seriously.

Also, if what I have said concerning the role of the word 'mechanism' is correct, then it will need to be admitted that modern science and philosophy have become trapped, by a kind of necessity, into falsely believing that to allow even a foothold for divine creativity must lead to the abandonment of science. Rudolf Steiner, through his life's work, has shown that for modern man religious tradition is neither the only nor the best source of spiritual truth, and that in future the application of the scientific method can, and for our humanity's sake must, extend far beyond the narrow confines of materialistic thought.

Imagination, as Owen Barfield never tired of explaining in his many works, is not merely 'faded sense;' it is a vital cognitive faculty which links the human mind directly to the ever-evolving Logos. It is the link, as Goethe so well demonstrated, by means of which human consciousness can itself evolve upward towards a deeper cognitive comprehension of the divine creative forces that are at work everywhere in nature, and that also work, as Noam Chomsky has partially understood, within the human mind itself.

Not only is the source of all logic inexplicable to a science that limits itself to the material world, it is also the case that the very word 'matter,' without the opposite concept 'spirit,' can be shown to have no conceptual validity. This was a central theme in Owen Barfield's work.

(See for example the article 'Matter, Imagination and Spirit' by Owen Barfield, originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 1974, and later in Barfield's work "The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays", Wesleyan University Press, Middletown Connecticut, 1977.

Chomsky states that science effectively ceased to be based on a Monism of Matter after Newton introduced the "occult" concept of gravity into the mechanical philosophy of his day, the wider ramifications of which step had greatly disturbed him.

Einstein also, in his lifelong but unsuccessful search for what has been called the Holy Grail of physics, 'the final field theory' observed that this task had been made much more difficult by the fact that Newton had replaced touch with action at a distance.

Both of these honored gentlemen, in my view, have stopped short of the essential realization that where causal logic is concerned a Monism of Matter is and always was a false world view, which ultimately will need to be replaced by a Monism of Mind, so that by unconsciously discrediting it Newton did us all a great favour. However, until we recognise this, the dead Monism of Matter passed on to us by Newton will still not lie down; its ghost will continue to haunt both science and philosophy, and to perpetuate an unjustified materialism which can only be maintained by our attempting to discredit or ignore causal logic.

John R. Searle, for example, in his influential work "The Rediscovery Of The Mind", (MIT Press, 1994), argues that the causal concepts of 'monism' and 'dualism' should now be completely abandoned, which if successful would leave all future argument unaccountable to causal logic, allowing free reign to his assumed but unproven materialism.

As I have sought to show here, such a materialistic philosophy can really explain nothing, and moreover requires for its continuation, as is the case with Darwinism, the false logic concealed in our centuries-old misuse of the word 'mechanism,'.

Science may soon be called upon to formally change the direction of its usually unspoken causal logic, and to adopt a critical Monism of Mind or thought in place of the now redundant but still widely accepted Monism of Matter. If I am right, this will happen because the integrity of science and of scientists makes it untenable to do otherwise, but it can hardly fail to be a very stressful and traumatic transition.

Don Cruse, Box 19, Site 1, RR2, PONOKA, Canada, T4J 1R2

Tel/fax 403 704 1341

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