Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Development of language

David Berlinski (author of amongst other things A Tour of the Calculus) is, I understand, no particular friend of Christianity. However, being unconvinced about the sufficiency of darwinism as an explanatory mechanism for what we see, he has chosen to align himself with proponents of Intelligent Design, and he is a senior fellow with the Discovery Institute. In this article, considering a paper by Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch published in Science, he is starting to add another thread to the argument.

Chomsky and his collaborators have been looking at the development of language, and have noted the difference between humans and all other animals. Even the most intelligent chimpanzees – which, as have been noted, share in excess of 96% of human DNA – only learn relatively few words with a great deal of effort. Humans have a built-in ability to develop language such that a young adult human may have a vocabulary of 60,000 words and more significantly a grammar that allows the expression of an infinite range of concepts.

Three components are required in animals, according to Chomsky, for language to appear. The first two arise in many animals – they are a sensory motor system and a conceptual intentional system. The third is a recursive system, which allows an organism to move from imitating sounds to constructing a grammar that allows the generation of an infinite range of sentences and ideas. Whilst Chomsky et al are happy to come to the conclusion that, although this is apparently uniquely present in the human species, they argue in effect that it was just a lucky evolutionary fluke. Berlinski argues that the appearance of this recursive facility is effectively "irreducibly complex".

From a Christian perspective, this is an interesting analysis. The Bible talks about humans being made "in the image of God", and various people have spent considerable time trying to understand what that might mean. Communication and relationship have certainly been considered to be part of this image. The fact that the Christian God is "three in one" - that within a single God, there are three persons in relationship – has been suggested by Christian philosophers such as Francis Schaeffer to be what underlies the fact that humans also live in relationship and are able to communicate. If the Christian God did not have different persons, then communication as it is known uniquely amongst human beings would not be possible. It is interesting to see again that key Christian concepts – in this case, the unique status of humans amongst animals – are being brushed on in scientific circles.

It also links with the comments I made in an earlier post, relating to the difference between data, information, knowledge, wisdom and truth. I referred to the fact that each level, with the exception of truth, represents an organisation of the lower level. Computers are only able to take us so far in the organisation of data – which is what I said would prevent Google from ever becoming "god-like". This idea of a recursive mind being uniquely human would allow us to make a bridge between the "particular" information that is all we (and for that matter animals) are capable of observing in the world, and "universal" truth, which is what we sense underlies the nature of the universe and the particulars that we see(including our pursuit of such things as scientific laws), and which Christians would understand is revealed by God.