Chomsky and The Science Forming Faculty


Chomsky argues that our ability to construct scientific theories is made possible by an innate domain specific faculty, he calls it our Science-Forming Faculty. It is worth pausing to consider this faculty and its nature.  The Science-Forming Faculty[1] is connected with the fact that our ordinary theories of the world are underdetermined. If one were to take any theory of the world it would be supported by a certain amount of data.  Chomsky’s point is that the data does not just imply one theory; rather there are countless theories which are compatible with the data but which are incompatible with each other. Such underdetermination has the air of a truism about it. Chomsky claims that humans are innately constrained in the types of theories they find plausible and therefore accept. He puts it as follows:

Because we share across the species a kind of science-forming faculty that limits us, if you will, but at the same time provides the possibilities of creating explanatory theories that extend far beyond the evidence that is available…it is worth paying attention to what the scientist is doing when a new theory is created…First of all the scientist has very limited evidence. The theory goes far beyond the evidence. Secondly, much of the evidence that is available is disregarded; that is in the hope that someone else will take care of it. At every stage in the history of science even normal science, there is a high degree of idealisation, selection of evidence even distortion of evidence (Magee 1978 p.187).


 In other words the SFF constrains the types of theories which humans can formulate.  At this point, an obvious question arises: Is Chomsky correct about us having a SFF? Does this faculty help us construct theories which in fact correspond with how things are in the world independent of us?

Chomsky’s answer to the above question is as follows:

The successful natural sciences, then, fall within the intersection of the scope of the SFF and the nature of the world. They treat the (scattered and limited) aspects of the world that we can grasp and comprehend by naturalistic inquiry, in principle. The intersection is a chance product of human nature (200b, 82).


So Chomsky is here claiming that it is just a chance product of how our minds are constituted that we can form accurate theories about some aspects of the objective world. While our SFF may help us construct true theories about some aspects of the world, its very scope and limits determine that there are some areas of the world that we cannot comprehend.

Chomsky holds that the SFF is deeply connected to the Problems/Mysteries distinction. He takes the fact that humans are epistemically bounded to be a truism that any naturalistic philosopher will accept, ‘…We are after all, biological organisms, not angels…’ (ibid., 83-84). Creatures created by evolution are bound to be contingent and fallible, having particular cognitive apparatus which works brilliantly in some domains but totally fails in other areas. Rats are a perfect example: there are some mazes which they simply cannot be taught to solve. Chomsky notes this point claiming: ‘There is no more reason to suppose humans to be capable of solving every problem they can formulate than to expect rats to be able to solve any maze’(1986b, 231). In another discussion of the SFF he claims, ‘The scope and limits are relative to humans; rats and Martians have different problems and mysteries’ (2000b, 83-84).

Chomsky claims that certain questions such as freewill, why a person makes one choice rather than another, are a mystery, whereas he argues other questions are mere problems, such as the questions of physics and questions about the syntax of natural language. He furthermore claims that we do not have to consider such questions as meaningless; rather we can consider them legitimate questions that the structure of our brains will not allow us to answer. In his Basque lectures he commented:

You can give a naturalist interpretation of such matters, and maybe there is a right question and we just cannot formulate it, because we are just not built that way. So if there is one we may not find it (2009, 47).

Chomsky’s discussion of our SFF commits him to a view of reality which is in some respects Kantian. Both thinkers believe that how we view the world is governed by our innate faculties of the mind. For both, reality conforms to our mode of cognition[2].Furthermore, like Kant, Chomsky believes that there is a ‘thing in itself’ which extends beyond what we can know. Clarification of Chomsky’s position is obviously needed. He believes that whatever we know about the world of physics is known because of the innate structure of our minds.  He further believes that there are some facts about the world that we cannot know because of the way our minds are structured. The limit on possible hypotheses which we can make is, Chomsky admits, similar to what Peirce called the principle of abduction. However, unlike Peirce, he does not think that there is anything about the theory of evolution which will guarantee that our SFF will allow us to answer all the questions we want to answer (2000b, 83).

Chomsky is committed to the view that there is a determinate world which exists independent of our cognition. He also believes that what we know can be known only insofar as it conforms to our mode of cognition, so the real world cannot be exhaustively known by humans. He captured this point in his Fara lectures when he used the metaphor of a scientist being like a person looking for his keys at night centring his search around a lamp post; the person is looking for his keys there not because he has lost them beside the lamp, but rather because this is the only place which is lit up. For Chomsky, the scientist achieves success by limiting his researches to the small areas where he can construct intelligible theories. Furthermore, he counsels that we should the treat these scientific theories as being more real than the ordinary world of empirical experience.

Ultimately, Chomsky can be construed as believing that humans are born with an innate SFF, which limits and makes possible the type of scientific theories which we can accept. These theories accurately capture certain aspects of the real world, but are ill equipped to deal with certain problems; hence part of the world will permanently remain hidden from us in darkness. Chomsky’s view on science can be captured with an image which Locke employed in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. This picture compared a scientist to a person who is positioned within a closet with some light shining in the doors towards him. While the light gives him some understanding of the real world, it is only a fragmentary limited grasp of the world[3]. In other words, the world is partially opaque to us because of the structure of our minds.


We saw in the last section that Chomsky compares the faculty of language with the SFF; he does, however, note a distinction between them. He spells out this difference as follows:

In some domains-acquisition of language, object perception, etc.-the growth of knowledge just happens to us, in effect. The mental faculty grows from its initial to its steady state without choice, though not necessarily without effort of willed action. In other domains- the natural sciences, for example- the growth of knowledge involves deliberate inquiry involving hypothesis formation and conformation; guided no doubt by ‘abductive’ constraints on potential hypotheses as well as other equally obscure factors that enter into choice of idealization and the like. The basic elements of rational inquiry may have some of the properties of such cognitive systems as the language faculty, though the ways in which they are employed is surely quite different: Scientific Knowledge does not grow in the mind of someone placed in the appropriate environment (1980a, 140).


This claim of Chomsky’s obviously needs clarification. He is making two key points: (1) the SFF does not just grow when a human is placed in an appropriate environment, and (2) the SFF uses a ‘generate and test’ model to construct its theories as well as certain abductive principles which Chomsky does not spell out. Since a generate and test model is easily captured by an empiricist model of the mind, he must think that it is the abductive aspect of the SFF which distinguishes it from other theories of how we develop our scientific abilities. This leads to the question of what the nature of this abductive principle is.

Chomsky has rarely explicitly discussed the exact nature of this abductive principle. However, when discussing the problems and mysteries distinction, he vaguely points towards the type of considerations which our abductive principle forces on us. Here are his reflections on the matter:

Equipped with SFF, people confront ‘problem situations’, consisting of certain cognitive states (of belief, understanding, or misunderstanding), questions are posed, and so on. Often SFF yields only a blank stare. Sometimes it provides ideas about how the questions might be answered or reformulated, or the cognitive state modified, ideas that can then be evaluated in ways that SFF offers (empirical test, consistency with other parts of science, criteria of intelligibility and elegance, etc.) (2000b, 83)


What is central here is the manner he claims the SFF evaluates questions. According to Chomsky, the SFF uses empirical tests, consistency with other parts of science, and a criterion of intelligibility and elegance. He adds an etc. at the end of the paragraph which implies that the SFF uses other criteria; however, we have no way of knowing what they are until he explicates them. Empirical testing is presumably what Chomsky refers to as trial and error, so this is something which can be accounted for by general intelligence. There is no reason to believe that consistency with other parts of science cannot be achieved by an inductive reasoner who has internalised a bit of logic. Our criterion of intelligibility and elegance is something which influences our thinking in aesthetics, as well as our reasoning in politics, etc. There is no reason to believe that our criterion of intelligibility and elegance is limited to a particular faculty of the mind.

The evidence that Chomsky has offered in favour of the SFF is so far extremely limited. He has pointed out that scientific theories are underdetermined by experience. This UD is basically an APS. However, it is meaningless unless he can provide an account of how much data is enough data for a scientist to learn from. Until such time that Chomsky provides such a theory, for him to say that such and such scientific theory cannot be learned from experience is meaningless.

Furthermore, Chomsky has never been able to provide a detailed theory of what the nature of the SFF is, and the few details he has provided do not distinguish his views from those of an empiricist. So in this sense he has not provided enough evidence to justify his postulation of a SFF. However there is a different strand of argumentation which Chomsky sometimes uses to support his claim that people have a SFF.  He points to the timing of new scientific discoveries and their reception by the public. Obviously people do not develop scientific theories at a fixed age. Chomsky clearly knows this; he is not claiming something absurd like children automatically acquire Newtonian Physics by the age of 5, and Einsteinian Physics by the age of 7. However, he does make claims about the fact that people hit on new scientific theories at the same time, and once these scientific theories are discovered people accept them as obviously true. In this context he is talking about historical time not developmental time. Chomsky claims that Peirce first recognised these points and in Of Minds and Language he cites approvingly Peirce’s conception of the matter:

Peirce’s sense was very straightforward and, I think, basically correct. He says you want to account for the fact that science does develop, and that people do hit upon theories which sort of seem to be true. He was also struck by the fact, and this is correct, that at a certain stage of science, a certain stage of understanding, everybody tends to come to the same theory, and if one person happens to come to it first, everybody says ‘Yes that’s right’ (2009, 3-4)


Here Chomsky is picking out what seems to be a real phenomenon. It does appear that for at least some scientific discoveries two great thinkers may hit upon the same idea at the same time, even though a generation beforehand nobody would have thought of the idea. Some examples from intellectual history are: Leibniz and Newton co-discovering infinitesimal calculus, Darwin and Wallace co-discovering the theory of evolution, and Frege and Russell co-discovering predicate calculus. However, it is hard to see how such facts can be used as evidence for a SFF. A more natural interpretation is that people like Darwin and Wallace hit upon the same discovery because they were hard working scientists who were able to build on the work of their predecessors. However, the question of how many new discoveries are made possible by prior theories is a question for biographers of scientists and historians of science to answer. Chomsky will need to engage with such thinkers if his speculations are to be given any substance.

Chomsky not only appeals to the fact that great scientific thinkers hit upon the same ideas at the same time to support his theory, he also claims that when such discoveries are made people recognise them as obviously true.  Here he is presumably claiming that people find such discoveries obviously true because they interpret them using their own SFF. Now, while I do not want to engage in amateur intellectual history, the historical record strongly suggests that Chomsky is mistaken on this point. Darwin’s theory of evolution was not greeted by the scientific community as being obviously true. In fact the theory sparked massive debates and controversies. Newton’s infinitesimal calculus was severely criticised by George Berkeley amongst others. In fact most of the great scientific discoveries have been greeted with severe resistance; they have not been just accepted as obviously true upon discovery.  This leads us to the question of how Chomsky’s speculations on the SFF can handle the people who did not find Darwin’s theory of evolution obviously true. Did they have a malfunctioning SFF? Did they have no SFF? Or was the faculty overruled by a stronger faculty in the mind? Chomsky does not even consider such questions. It is obvious that if he wants to construct an accurate theory of a SFF he will need to mesh this theory with actual facts from the history of science and sociological studies of people’s reactions to new scientific discoveries. As in the area of language production, when it comes to scientific discoveries and their reception, Chomsky will need to sketch an accurate description of performance in order to justify any claims he makes about competence. In the absence of such a description Chomsky’s claims remain nothing but idle speculation.

Questions about the history of science raise another interesting point. Most historians believe that science was developed in the seventeenth century. When Chomsky discusses the SFF he usually does it in relation to modern science. John Collins in his paper ‘‘On the Very Idea of a Science Forming Faculty’’ claimed that we could view Chomsky’s SFF in two different ways. The first way he calls the narrow interpretation; on this interpretation the faculty is responsible for our grasp of science in the modern sense. The broad interpretation claims that our faculty is responsible for our ability to construct rational theories to account for our experiences, so this faculty would account for far more than just modern science.

The narrow interpretation is the one which Chomsky seems to intend us to use. All of the examples which he uses pertain to seventeenth century science. However, if this is the account that Chomsky has in mind, then it is seriously in error. Chomsky concedes that his SFF is not on a par with the language faculty in terms of evidence in favour of it. While UD is used as an argument for both faculties, there is much more evidence which can be adduced in favour of a language faculty than for a SFF. Collins notes that there are four tests which can be used to argue that a particular ability is made possible by a distinct faculty: (1) a faculty-based competence must be uniform across the species, it cannot be a culturally specific capacity; (2) the competence must follow a strict ontogenetic course, explicit teaching must not make a significant difference to the speed of the development of a final competence arrived at; (3) the competence must, to some degree, be invariant over various pathologies, injuries and differences of intelligence, so that a disturbance of a face recognition faculty should not necessarily lead to a disturbance of the language faculty; (4) the competence should reach normal maturity in the face of a poverty of stimulus (2002, 135).

Whether we interpret the SFF in the broad or narrow sense will influence whether we think that the SFF meets conditions 1-4. It is plausible to say that all cultures have science in the broad sense of constructing theories to explain, predict and control their experiences. However, science in the narrow sense is definitely culture specific, and did not even exist five hundred years ago. So, taken in the broad sense, we could say that science is species specific and does occur in all cultures. However, science in the narrow sense obviously does not occur in all cultures. In both the broad and narrow interpretations obviously scientific competence does not seem to follow a strict ontogenetic course and teaching does make a difference to it. In both interpretations the competence is not invariant over pathologies.  Furthermore, understanding whether the competence arrives in the face of APS is impossible until Chomsky specifies how much stimulus we need in order to learn[4] science in its broad or narrow sense. Until we have such a theory, it is impossible to answer the question or understand whether the stimulus is indeed impoverished.

So, as of yet, Chomsky has not provided us with any good reason to postulate a SFF in either the broad or the narrow sense.  He has given us no reason to think that such a faculty is needed to account for our scientific knowledge. His primary reason for postulating the faculty is because he thinks that the faculty can help us overcome UD.

In the next blog I will show that Quine linguistic conception of science is also incapable of accounting for our scientific competence. In the final blog I will show what how Paul Churchland’s model in Plato’s Camera in terms of non-linguistic maps can deal with problems which elude the Quinean and Chomskian models.

[1] Hence forth Science Forming Faculty will be referred to as SFF

[2] There are obvious disanalogies with both thinkers. Most importantly Kant thinks that we can only know the world insofar as it conforms to our mode of cognition. He further thinks that we can never know the real world  whereas Chomsky thinks that our mode of cognition means that we can only partially grasp certain aspects of the world while others will forever elude our grasp.

[3] While this Lockean image is useful to illustrate Chomsky’s picture of the minds relation to the world it would be a mistake to otherwise equate Chomsky and Locke’s theory of knowledge.

[4] Sketching a PoS for scientific knowledge seems impossible; it  will need to give a plausible story of how Newton or Einstein learned or created their respective theories. It is wildly implausible that they just read them off experience, while it is just as implausible that they knew them innately. Given the difficulty we have in explaining the behaviour of animals and ordinary humans explaining how creative geniuses construct their theories seems impossible.

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