Friday, June 5, 2009

Distributor Wires, the Human Brain, and Wittgenstein's Motto

Arguing that genes can be essential to human grammar without having to be sufficient for an entire account of human grammar, Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct employs the following apt analogy: removing the distributor wire prevents a car from moving, but that does not mean a car is controlled by its distributor wire.

Pinker then fails to realize his analogy is just as apt when applied to the human brain.

Science at its best was once a glorious exercise in the broadening of human context. If one wishes to comprehend the enduring appeal of the discoveries of Newton, Darwin and Einstein for instance, one should consider how each man re-described the surroundings of his problem, and thereby helped the problem disappear.

Today's scientists—the many Pinkertons among us—have forgotten this notion of context, and thus we have details and data coming out our ears, but little expansion of the human horizon.

The brain is indeed essential to language, learning, intelligence, etc.—remove it, and a human being will experience none of these. But as the distributor wire does not explain the motion of a car, the human brain does not provide an entire account of our expanding cognitive glory. The motto here is always: take a wider look around.

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