Monthly Archives: January 2015

Hurford, and Davidson: Animal Conceptual Abilities.

“The term ‘concept’ itself is a battleground. On the one hand, some, particularly some philosophers deny that non-humans can ever have concepts. For them a concept is essentially bound up with language; only creatures with language, so only humans, can have concepts. This view is now substantially eroded, and a majority of researchers are happy to talk about concepts in non-human animals” (Hurford: The Origins of Language p.61)

Hurford’s cursory mention that a lot of philosophers think that language is necessary for a creature to have concepts is uninformative. He admits that a lot of philosophers hold this view but he doesn’t say who these philosophers are or what arguments they present to support their position. Furthermore, his mention that the view is now eroded; is not very helpful as he does not provide any evidence of why the view is eroded; what arguments and experimental evidence have been presented which make the view seem so untenable. In this blog I will discuss the topic in more detail than Hurford manages to. I will first outline the type of conceptual abilities that Hurford attributes to animals and the evidence he presents for these abilities. Then I will discuss the best arguments against attributing concepts to non-linguistic creatures and evaluate the extent to which these arguments undermine Hurford’s position on concepts for non-linguistic animals. In the final sections I will severely critique the arguments against attributing concepts to non-linguistic creatures. Overall I will argue that Hurford’s position is a defensible one and that criticisms against attributing concepts to non-linguistic creatures largely fail.

Hurford presents a series of important points that he thinks indicate that animals have concepts. A key point for Hurford is the idea of a Detached Representation. A Detached representation is a representation of an object that is no longer present. These Detached Representations involve an Index (a kind of pointer of all the properties associated with a remembered object); the index keeps memory of one object apart from other remembered objects. He argues that an index and its properties are the fundamental basis for the logical distinction between functions and arguments. So the idea of a detached representation is a key ability which helps animals form concepts.

He goes on to argue that some animals not only remember objects but they also remember events. He claims that ‘episodic memory’ is key in this particular skill. He cites experimental data (Raby et al. 2007) which indicates that scrub jays have episodic like memories. They remember the WHAT WHERE and When of events significant to them (ibid. p.67). This episodic memory only lasts a day or so, and is therefore not as powerful as human episodic memory which can last for many years. Non-human animal episodic memory may be limited (in the case of remembering events) but some non-human animals can remember objects years after they encountered them, for example elephants.  This indicates that remembering events is a much more difficult and complex process than remembering objects.

Hurford cites the experimental work of Duane Rumbaugh on ‘reverse learning’ which indicates that some animals can apply an OPPOSITENESS OPPERATION to a rule. Rumbaugh’s comparative experiments were done on apes and monkeys. Now obviously apes are more closely related to humans than monkeys. Rumbaugh’s experiments involved getting the monkey’s to associate a reward with a particular stimulus A and not with a stimulus B. Both Monkeys and Apes can learn this trick pretty easily. Once they have conditioned in this way the researchers reverse the procedure and reward stimulus B and do not reward stimulus A. What is interesting is that when the reversal is taught monkeys need to slowly and painstakingly unlearn what they learned in the first stage before they can learn the procedure in stage two (ibid p.71). Furthermore, the better the monkeys have learned the first procedure the longer it takes them to learn the second procedure. Surprisingly the opposite situation occurs for Apes the better they have learned procedure one the easier they can learn procedure two. The explanation given for this strange fact is that Apes have an abstract ability to reverse rules they have learned by applying what the experimenters call Oppositeness Operation on the rule. This level of abstraction is something apes can perform which most monkeys cannot and Hurford thinks that this ability of Apes may indicate a progression towards the type of conceptual abilities only humans seem to have.

So detached representations made possible by episodic memory and the Oppositeness Operation are used by Hurford as evidence of that non-human animals have concepts. Hurford grudgingly admits that one could call the animal abilities proto-concepts, which provide rich representational information about the world, but basically he argues that the evidence he provides is evidence of conceptual abilities in animals. Because of the limited space in his slim book which was only intended for popular consumption Hurford obviously only tipped the ice-berg in his evidence for conceptual abilities in animals. He touched on the evidence from Alex the Parrett who was very skilled at picking out abstract properties of objects as further evidence of animal conceptual abilities. He could have multiplied examples; the truth is that there is plenty of behavioural evidence which animal ethnologists and cognitive scientists think indicates non-human animals have concepts.

Yet despite the fact that it is pretty much a consensus in science that a wide variety of non-human animals have at least some conceptual abilities, as Hurford correctly noted a lot of philosophers disagree with this view. A variety of different philosophers have expressed scepticism about whether non-human animals have concepts: Quine, Rorty, Brandom, and Donald Davidson amongst others. Davidson has probably gone deeper into the matter than any philosopher. So it is probably best to evaluate his arguments against non-human animals having conceptual abilities attributed to them.

Davidson makes a number of arguments which he argues make it implausible to think (he admits that his arguments don’t amount to a proof on the matter) that animals are concept mongers.

  • Attributing concepts to animals because they can reliably distinguish aspects of their environment leads to a situation where one is forced to attribute concepts to flowers who can distinguish sunlight from non-sunlight, or thermostats which can distinguish degrees of heat. In none of these cases is reliable discrimination of aspects of an environment an indication of having a concept of x or y. To have a concept one needs to be able to make claims about x or y and justify them to others.
  • In order for a creature to have one concept it needs to have many other concepts connected to it. Having a concept of a dog, for example, entails having the concept of an animal, and the concept of an alive thing, and a concept of entities who do not count as dogs etc. To have a connected series of concepts is to have a series of beliefs, desires and intentions towards these concepts. These abilities cannot emerge without an intersubjective language that can be used to make claims about the world that can be judged true of false.
  • The Referential Opacity Objection: Davidson mentions the case of a dog running after a cat; while chasing the cat he momentarily loses sight of the cat and sees the rustling in a large tree near him. He starts barking at the rustling tree. Meanwhile the cat he was chasing has ran up a different tree. Davidson notes that someone viewing this situation may make the claim that this shows that the dog is entertaining the proposition ‘The dog is up the tree’, and holds the attitude of belief towards the proposition. Davidson notes that there is a difficulty with adopting this approach. In natural language quantifying into belief sentences results in the sentences becoming referentially opaque and this effects the truth value of the statement. Consider the sentence (A) Bruce Wayne is the crime fighter Batman who caught the Joker. Now consider sentence (B) John believes that Bruce Wayne is the crime fighter Batman who caught the Joker. Sentence A is true because Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person; the statement is simply one of identity. While sentence (B)’s truth value changes depending on what the beliefs of John are. Attaching ‘X believes that’ changes the sentences truth value from referentially transparent to referentially opaque. However in the case of the dog chasing the Cat up the tree things are different. Suppose in our imagined case that the cat has gone up a tree and the dog is barking at that tree. In this case the sentence (A) ‘The cat is up that tree’ would be true. Now suppose the tree the Dog was barking at was an oak tree. The sentence (B) ‘The cat is up that Oak tree’ will be true as well. If the tree the cat is up is the tallest tree in the forest then the sentence (C) ‘The cat is up the tallest tree in the forest’ will be true. As we know sentences change from a transparent to an opaque reading when attached to belief contexts. However when we attach belief sentences to non linguistic creatures this logical asymmetry does not occur. So take (D) ‘The dog believes that the cat is up the oak tree’, (E) ‘The dog believes that the cat is up the tree’ (F) ‘The dog believes that the cat is up the tallest tree in the forest’. In these sentences we have a series of attributions to the dog and we have no evidence to say that D-F are true or false, this contrasts with sentence 2 above where we can discover what John believes by simply asking him and getting him to justify his claim. There is little evidence that the dog has any of the above concepts of ‘tree, cat, forest, tallest, oak tree, or any of the other possibilities attributable to his behaviour. Thus we have little reason to attribute any concepts to the dog in this case. As Davidson puts it in his (1982) ‘Rational Animals’:

“In a popular if misleading idiom, the dog must believe, under some description of the tree that the cat went up the tree. But what kind of description would suit the dog? For example, can the dog believe of an object that it is a tree?  This would seem impossible unless we suppose the dog has many general beliefs about trees:  that they are growing things, that they need soil and water that they have leaves or needles that they burn. There is no fixed list of things someone with the concept of a tree must believe, but without many general beliefs, there would be no reason to identify a belief as a belief about a tree, much less an oak tree. Similar considerations apply to the dog’s supposed thinking about the cat.” (Rational Animals p. 98)

  • In his (1995) ‘What Thought Requires’ Davidson offers further arguments against the view that non-linguistic animals have concepts. He argues that even if a creature has a proto language consisting of a finite number of names, and predicates, and the ability to use demonstrative devices to pick out an in principle infinite amount of objects. And even if this creature could use truth-functional connectives to give this proto-language creativity (the ability to use the finite vocabulary in a way to make an in principle infinite amount of statements). We would still not be justified in attributing to such a creature an ontology according to Davidson. This is because for Davidson such a creature does not have a concept of an object. To have a concept of a creature needs to have grasped the syntax of quantification. It is according to Davidson these devices which help us construct complex predicates and map them on to objects in the world. If a creature cannot do this then Davidson believes that we are not justified in thinking that the creature is a concept mongering thinker until they have mastered all these apparatus and only creatures who have a language have this apparatus.
  • Davidson offers one final piece of evidence which he believes shows that only language using creatures have concepts. He argues that in order for a creature to have a concept of x the creature needs to have a concept of truth. The creature needs to know when he is correct or incorrect in applying the concept. If a creature has no concept of when he is using a concept correctly or incorrectly then we have no reason to think that the creature has said concept. On Davidson’s picture a creature has the concept of true and false applications of a concept only when he can triangulate on a shared object of experience, with another self. So a necessary condition of being a rational creature with concepts is having a self, another and a shared object of experience. The other and the shared world are what give the creature the ability to recognise that he has applied a concept incorrectly. This is provided by and only by having another subject (or community of such subjects), against whom one can check his reactions to the stimuli for correctness. Being able to triangulate on shared objects of experiences and make claims that are true or false is only possible according to Davidson for creatures who have a language. Therefore he concludes only of creatures who have a language are we justified in saying they have concepts.

I have obviously condensed Davidson’s arguments above but this is necessary in a short blog. Overall I think his arguments do not really touch the claims made by Hurford on animals having concepts. I will now briefly say what I think is wrong with each of Davidson’s arguments and show how they do not seriously undermine any of Hurford’s claims.

Davidson’s first complaint, that if we attribute concepts to non-linguistic creatures because they can reliably distinguish between aspects of their environment then we will be forced to attribute concepts to thermostats and flowers, is a serious point. It shows that we cannot simply use reliably distinguishing between aspects of the environment as a standalone justification for attributing a concept to something or someone. However in Hurford’s case he is not merely pointing to a creature reliably distinguishing between x and y. Hurford provides evidence that creatures can remember objects which are no longer present. That some creatures (Scrub-Jays) not only reliably distinguish between x and y but can use this distinction to judge that since x is perishable there is no point in digging it up, while since y is not perishable I will dig that up. This requires more than just the ability to distinguish between x and y but the ability to use this distinction to make inferences. If Davidson denies that this is the case he needs to find a way of predicting the behaviour of scrub-jays in a more accurate manner without using the language of the scrub-jay forming inferences. Incidentally Davidson mentioned that a creature being surprised by something may be good evidence that they believed that x is the case, and are surprised that x is false. The scrub jay experiment provides a way of testing whether they are capable of being surprised by deceiving them into thinking you are burying non-perishable food and actually burying perishable food. Monitoring the behaviour of the scrub-jay when it finds nothing may be instructive (though it would be far from conclusive).

Davidson’s second argument that order for a creature to have one concept they must have many concepts, which hang together in interconnected web of beliefs and intentions; is far from conclusive. I agree with Davidson’s claim that concepts are connected together in an interconnected web. But I don’t see how this fact has any consequences for the attribution of concepts to non-linguistic animals. If we start with the assumption that animals are genetically programmed with certain key concepts; causality, agency, object, dominance, submission (depending on the particular animal), and use these concepts to develop basic theories about the world. We have a perfectly reasonable schema with which to try and empirically test our assumptions. It could be argued that by arguing for this innate set of concepts I am begging the question against Davidson. I agree that I am making a question begging assumption; but one that can be tested by experimental evidence. If Davidson wants to start with the opposite assumption he is welcome to; as long as he is willing to test his assumptions empirically as well. However merely pointing to the fact that concepts are holistic is not a sufficient basis to provide any evidence pro or con for non-linguistic animals having concepts.

Davidson’s third argument amounts to nothing more than an appeal to intuition. He says that he can think of no way of telling whether a dog has a concept of ‘tree’, ‘an Oak Tree’, ‘the tallest tree in the forest’ etc. He says that since we have no way of deciding which if any of the concepts to attribute to the dog, then there is no fact of the matter and we have no justification for attributing any concepts to the animal. This argument simply doesn’t work. Davidson doesn’t even consider whether we can use a variety of different behavioural tests to whittle down what concepts the dog has of tree. He just assumes without trying that it cannot be done and draws his negative conclusion. This appeal to incredulity is a dreadful argument. We are only justified in drawing such negative conclusions if years of testing show that we cannot draw the relevant distinctions. But there is no reason to draw the conclusion, as Davidson does, by simply stating that we know in advance that there is no empirical way of deciding the issue.

Davidson’s forth argument that we have no reason for attributing an ontology to a creature until he has mastered quantification is derived directly from Quine.  Quine, like Davidson, argued that mastering the syntax of quantification was essential to a creature if we were to attribute an ontology to him. And that mastering the syntax of quantification was made possible through learning a language. This claim has been tested empirically.  In their 1990 paper ‘‘Ontological categories guide young children’s inductions of word meaning’’[1] Soja, Carey, and Spelke tested whether the ontological distinction between objects and non-solid substances conditions the projection of word meanings prior to the child’s mastery of count/mass syntax.  If before the child has grasped the syntax of quantification the child differentiates in the above manner, this shows that the child is not generalizing the word-based perceptual similarity, but is doing so based on the type of object he is presented with. So, for example, if he was generalizing according to an innate perceptual similarity quality space which focuses on shape then why does this not work for substances? The answer is because the child recognises that objects and substances are distinct ontological categories. Soja et al. summed up their results as follows:

“In sum, the children chose according to object type when the stimulus was an object and according to substance type when the stimulus was a non-solid substance. There was no effect of the syntactic context: performance was neither facilitated nor hindered by the additional syntactic information.

The data from Experiment 1 show that different inferences about the meaning of a newly heard word are drawn according to the ontological status of its referent. If the word refers to an object, the child’s projection respects shape and number, and ignores texture, color, and substance. If the word refers to a non-solid substance, the child’s projection ignores shape and number, respecting texture, color and substance. (ibid., 192)”


From this experiment, Soja, et al. claim to have shown that Quine’s view of how children learn language is incorrect because the experiment shows that, contrary to what Quine claims; children do indeed have a distinction between different ontological categories prior to grasping count/mass syntax (which for Quine and Davidson is the same thing as mastering the syntax of quantification). It also shows that these innate ontological categories are what help a child learn a language and not the apparatus of quantification. Soja et al.’s experiment purports to have shown that children learn words according to ontological distinctions which they exhibit knowledge of prior to learning a language.  This experiment indicates that, despite what Davidson and Quine, think a child has an ontology prior to mastering the syntax of quantification, and this ontology helps them learn their language. The experiment also shows that Davidson’s claim that a creature cannot have an ontology without having a language and the rules provided by the syntax of quantification; is false.

Davidson’s fifth point is about triangulation is simply too vague to evaluate. Non-linguistic creatures do seem to prefer dyadic interactions when communicating. But if Davidson wants to make any large scale claims on the topic he will need examine detailed cases like ‘Vervet Monkey’s’ seeming to triangulate with conspecifics,  and discuss things like the bee waggle dance etc. It is hard to even evaluate Davidson’s[2] claims here until he fills in much needed detail.

Overall Davidson’s arguments do not really present a serious challenge to Hurford’s views on non-linguistic animals having conceptual abilities. In my next blog I will evaluate Hurford’s discussion of how language developed from the conceptual abilities of our ancient ancestors.

[1] I have discussed this experiment in detail in my blog-post ‘The Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts’. Here I will just point to the conclusion of the experiment those looking for more detail should read my earlier blog-post.

[2] Obviously Davidson is dead so won’t be filling in any details but I refer to people who are convinced by Davidson’s arguments and the work they need to do on this topic.


My most recent blog ‘Hurford: Frogs, Flies, Dennett and Fodor’ discussed what I thought were some weakness in Hurford’s discussion of the proto-concepts of frogs. In a response to my blog linguist and philosopher Dr David Pereplyotchik (hence forth David P) offered some criticisms which warrant a detailed discussion as they help clarify my position. I will first discuss a criticism made by David P which I am in agreement with; this criticism reveals some sloppy thinking on my part. Now while a blog isn’t held to the same standards as a peer reviewed paper there is no excuse for the sloppy thinking in this case and I am grateful to David P for pointing it out to me:

David K.

“But talk of meaningful percepts is out of place in both cases. With this in mind one wonders why Hurford speaks of the frog having meaningful percepts this implies conscious awareness of the black dots.”

David P.

“Why would working at the personal level require recognizing only conscious awareness?  Why not just awareness, conscious or otherwise?  Are you assuming that nonconscious awareness is an oxymoron?  Or that it must be sub-personal?  Neither of those assumptions are defensible.”

David K:

“I think you have a point I did presume that personal level descriptions involve conscious awareness. This is unjustified and I will need to rework it.”

David P:

“A lot of people think that personal/sub-personal lines up with conscious/nonconscious and with occurrent/dispositional.  But there are counterexamples to all these claims.  Thoughts and perceptions are personal-level states, but routinely occur nonconsciously, as priming experiments and implicit bias experiments reveal.”


David P’s criticism here was correct; I did incorrectly line up the conscious/nonconscious and the occurrent/dispositional distinctions. This is a pretty elementary mistake by me. As David P correctly notes we often attribute non-conscious thought to people in both experimental and practical areas of discourse. As a guy who has studied Psychoanalysis, Neuropsychoanalysis, and Cognitive Science I should not have made the mistake of assuming that personal level ascriptions are always conscious as opposed to unconscious or nonconscious thoughts. Our folk psychological locutions often make use of unconscious thoughts in explanations[1].

However my sloppy use of language aside I do think that Hurford needs to be clear of what level he is giving his description of the frog’s behaviour at. When Hurford speaks of a frog having a meaningful percept of a fly, he seems committed to viewing the frog’s behaviour in intentional terms; he is using the language of beliefs/desires (whether conscious or unconscious beliefs and desires). He is speaking of the intentional object of the frog’s fly snap being a fly. I see no reason why Hurford thinks that an intentional as opposed to a pure reflex explanation is required. I further do not understand why, even if we did offer an intentional explanation, we would need to assume that the intentional object of the snap was a Fly as opposed to an Ambient Black Nuisance. So in short I don’t think that Hurford justified switching to an intentional locution, nor did he justify the intentional object he claims the frog is aiming at. This is a pretty serious situation. Hurford uses the frog’s proto-concepts as a foundation in his explanation of how concepts arrived on the scene, and how language evolves. So I think he needs to clear up this matter before moving on to an explanation of complex conceptual abilities.

David P also criticised some other claims I made. I will discuss these criticisms below as I think they help clarify my position. Here I think the fault lies with my unclear mode of expression as opposed to my making a mistake in my criticism of Hurford. In my blog I made the following claim which David P disagreed with:

David K:

“When one hears that a frog has a percept of a fly one thinks of a frog forming a meaningful image of a fly. This image is meaningful because it moves a certain way has a certain shape and size etc”

David P:

“This is bizarre, on two counts.  (1) The frog is perceiving the fly, not an image of the fly.  The frog wants to eat the fly, not an image of a fly.  (2) The fly moves and has a shape.  That’s obvious.  Does the image move and have a shape?  Not so obvious. You seem to be relying on a veil-of-ideas view of perception, on which perceiving the material world can only be done via a prior awareness of some mental representation (e.g., an image).  There’s no reason to hold this.  The presence of a mental representation is sufficient; one need not be, in addition, aware of it. You’re also endowing those representations with properties like shape and motion, which they could not plausibly have — particularly if those representations are neurally encoded. Why not say instead that what the frog perceives is the fly, but that how it does so is by using mental representations (of which it need not be aware)?”

David K:

“The frog wants to eat a fly not an image of a fly” You are just helping yourself to pre-theoretic intuitions that the fly can make that distinction. There is no evidence that this is the case. You are helping yourself to a view that no evidence supports.”

David P:

“I didn’t intend to take a stand on whether the frog wants to eat a fly or a small moving black dot.  Whether the frog can make that distinction is, I agree, an interesting question.  What I was saying was that whatever it is that the frog wants to eat, it’s not a mental image.  The reason is that the frog has no concept of mental images.  There is no behavioural or neural evidence that the frog is ever aware of mental images.  There may be evidence, of course, that the frog has such images–i.e., that the format of its representation is (sometimes) imagistic, but that’s a very different claim.  Having a mental image is not the same as being aware of that image, or perceiving it, let alone wanting it. Unless, of course, you assume that all mental images must be conscious, but there is abundant reason to believe that this is not so.”

David K:

I am not presupposing the truth of a veil of ideas theory of perception. Nothing I said indicates this.”

David P.

“You said that when we talk about the frog having a percept of a fly, it’s natural to think that the frog is perceiving a mental image.   This is precisely the veil of ideas view, according to which perceiving a material mind-independent object (e.g., a fly) requires/involves perceiving a mental image.  Perhaps you did not intend this, but your language certainly points in that direction.”


Firstly, contrary to what I said in my reply to David P, my mode of expressing myself did indicate that I was endorsing a veil of ideas view perception. This was not however my intention. The point I intended to make was that people in general pre-theoretically make this veil of ideas assumption (not that I endorse the assumption)[2]. So given the fact that this veil of ideas approach is common it is a natural way to interpret what Hurford may mean by claiming that a frog has a meaningful percept of a fly[3]. In David P’s reply to me he makes the point that the frog wants to eat the fly not the image of a fly. I replied to him that we have no evidence that the frog had a concept of a fly so it would be bizarre to attribute the desire to eat a fly to a frog. He said he didn’t want to take a stand on the frog versus ambient black nuisance issue. He was just arguing that there was no behavioural or neural evidence that the frog had a mental image of a fly. But my point, (admittedly badly expressed), was that there is no evidence that a frog has a mental image of a fly or concept of fly, or a concept of an ambient black nuisance. We can explain the frog’s behaviour entirely interms of unconscious, non-intentional reflexes. It is unclear to me at least why Hurford starts talking of frog proto-concepts, and meaningful percepts of flies. This is why I discussed the debate with Dennett and Fodor on the fly swatting issue. I sided with Dennett’s conception of the selective environment as opposed to some frog mentalese deciding on this issue what the fly was swatting at. I am unclear what Hurford thinks is going on with the frog.

A further issue David P disagreed  with me on was on the nature of phenomenology:

David K:

“You are right representations don’t have shape and motion at the sub-personal level but they can do at the personal level as can be seen by analysing the phenomenology; if you want to ignore the phenomenology that is fine, but the issue needs to be addressed  and Hurford doesn’t address it explicitly. But he needs to.”

David P:

“They don’t have those properties at any level.  They are neural states and processes, which are not the sorts of things that can have those properties.  Perhaps they have analogous or structurally similar properties, but that’s a very different sort of claim. I do not intend to ignore the phenomenology.  Focusing on one’s conscious perceptual states does not reveal them to have colour or shape.  It reveals them as representing colour and shape, and perhaps as having properties by means of which that representation is accomplished.  But my perceptual states are not red, in the way that a tomato is red. Again, though, you’re right that Hurford needed to be clearer.  No doubt about that.”

Again in my haste here I didn’t write as clearly in reply to David P as I should have. I argued that at the personal level people have representations of movement and shape. This was way too vaguely put by me. If I want to generalise as to what people experience at the personal level I will need to provide statistical evidence of their verbal reports in both experimental and naturalistic settings. In my reply I was focusing on a sub-section of the personal level of explanation that of conscious experience. And I made sweeping generalisations about people’s reports on their subjective experiences. This is entirely unjustified. I have long written on the danger of the typical mind fallacy; the fallacy of generalising from your own experiences of mental reality to the claim that all people experience the world this way. People making the typical mind fallacy might think that because they have an inability to form a mental image; other people who speak of having mental images are speaking metaphorically[4].

In my case I wasn’t generalising from my own experiences to the assumption that all people have similar ways of experiencing the world. Rather I was assuming that because a lot of people I have spoken seem to uncritically accept the veil of ideas approach then they would describe their experiences in a similar way to the way I do above. So such people would argue that they experienced mental content of colour, motion etc. This is despite the fact that at the sub-level no such ideas exist.

I should note two things here. (1) A lot of phenomenologists have noted that “the veil of ideas” is not a description of how people actually experience the world but is a theorists claim we have inherited from Descartes and Hume[5]. There is some justification to this claim of phenomenologists and this casts doubt on my claim about how people things at the personal level[6]. (2) If I want to make claims about people’s reports of how they experience the world I need to reference the literature of experimental philosophy. Do people in general report experiencing a veil of ideas with movement or colour, or do they experience representations of movement and colour which are not coloured? Dogmatic claims by me on this topic are out of place. The truth is I haven’t researched the issue sufficiently and will need do further research before commenting further.

When David P says that personal level descriptions do not have properties of movement and colour in general because the neural states and processes are not the sort of things that can have these properties he is making a theoretical claim. I assume he is claiming that there is nothing else for our mental states to be than brain states (unless we want to be dualists). So even if people claim to experience X or Y then if there is no way the brain can implement these experiences then we are justified in treating the person’s verbal report as a theorist’s (inadvertent) fiction. This seems to be a similar view point as the one adopted by Dennett. In a recent mail David P tells me he is influenced by Sellars attack on the myth of the given. So I presume that is why David P won’t accept verbal reports from subjects that contradicts known brain mechanics. I think his approach is a sensible one and I am largely in agreement[7]. What I should have said is that at a personal level people will report experiencing movement and colour in their minds eye[8]. Again this is a lesson on being clearer on what I meant to say and the way that I formulated my view.

In some ways I think that the difficulties I had in discussing the nature of reports of language using subjects views on their own intentional states and conscious experiences underlies the need for clarity in Hurford’s book. Hurford moves to a personal level description of the intentional object of a Frog’s fly snap without any explanation of why this move is justified. I think if his evolutionary explanation of the origin of language is to get off the ground he needs to address this issue before moving on to more complex claims.

Thanks to David P for his helpful criticisms of my last blog. In my next blog I will discuss the following claim by Hurford:

“On the one hand, some, particularly some philosophers, deny non-humans can ever have concepts. For them a concept is essentially bound up with language; only creatures with language, so only humans, can have concepts. This view is now largely eroded.” [9](Hurford: The Origins of Language p.61)

Hurford doesn’t go into the arguments of philosophers who strongly equate having a concept with having a language. In my blog I will present the arguments as put forth by people like Davidson and Brandom and critically evaluate them.

[1][1] David P uses nonconscious as  synonymous with the cognitive scientists unconscious. He doesn’t want to use the word unconscious because of its Freudian connotations. It is worth noting that Neuropsychoanalysts like Mark Solms use the term unconscious in the similar way to modern cog scientists and have dropped the old Freudian view equation of the unconscious with repressed emotion (Freud to be fair did have a concept of the unrepressed unconsciousness which Matte Blanco discusses in detail in his ‘The Unconscious as Infinite Sets’)

[2] Here I am making a claim about how the majority of people interpret the idea of a meaningful percept. The truth is that this claim remains entirely anecdotal. The fact is if I want to justify this claim I will need empirical data. Experimental philosophers are quite good at drawing out what people pre-theoretically believe about the mind. I will need to analyse this data closely to demonstrate that people do indeed presuppose a veil of ideas psychology. On this issue the question is very much open.

[3] It could be argued, that I am being careless in assuming that because it may be the case that people in general make the veil-of-ideas assumption; that Hurford is making the same assumption. A trained scientist will generally have their intuitions to some degree modified by experience. This fact makes it even more difficult to interpret what Hurford means and underlines the need for him to be more explicit of what a “Meaningful Percept” is for him

[4] William James and Francis Galton have both spoken of the dangers of this fallacy. David Berman has demonstrated how the debate between Locke and Berkeley on abstract ideas is because of the different types of mind of both theorists. I have discussed the topic in detail in my  long blog post ‘Dennett and The Typical Mind Fallacy’, and in less detail in my ‘Intellectual Disability and Radical Translation.

[5]  See Evan Thompson ‘Mind in Life” chapter 10 and references there in.

[6] Despite the good work done by a lot of phenomenologists they do not represent the variation in how people report seeing the world in sufficient detail in this authors view.

[7] Obviously this approach is contentious see Evan Thompson, Chalmers, Alva Noe for debates on the topic.

[8] And justified this claim with a corpus analysis of how people actually speak on these topic.


Hurford: Frogs, Flies, Dennett and Fodor

The linguist James R Hurford recently wrote a popular introduction to the evolution of language ‘The Origins of Language: A slim guide’. As popular introductions go the book is one of the best out there. Hurford manages to deal things like the FOXP2 gene in a nuanced manner, likewise when discussing the KE family who supposedly have language specific impairments but spared intelligence he deals with the evidence in a balanced manner. He also discusses in detail things like the importance of imitation and social learning through triangulation (topics sometimes ignored by linguists) this approach is at odds with the highly polemical approach of people like Pinker and Chomsky who go out of their way to pretend that all the evidence supports them and none supports theorists of a different persuasion. Overall, I think that Hurford’s book is one of the best popular level introductions to the topic out there. However I did have some difficulties chapter 4 of the book where Hurford discusses animal concepts as precursors to human language development.

Hurford thinks that the correct way to start with discussing simple concepts is to discuss simple examples of animals classifying things in their environment. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition of a creature having a concept is their being able to classify things in their environment. A lot of reflex behaviours of creatures satisfy this criterion. He notes that Frogs have a reflex that ensures they only swat at certain objects moving in certain ways. So the frog’s brain is directly connected to the tongue and it swats when objects within a certain proximity move a certain way. All of this is common place and has been widely discussed in the literature since Lettvin et al. ‘What the Frog’s Eye tells the Frog’s Brain’ (1959).

Hurtford then goes on to make the following claims about the frog swatting the fly. For the Frog the class of events (moving black objects) has meaning or significance, but it would be a mistake to ask what the moving insect was significant of to the frog. He asserts that the moving insect is not a symbol of anything to the frog. But he argues the frog’s brain is partitioned to organise things into flies and not flies. For Hurford these frogs have internal mental representations, of classes of objects, events, and states of affairs. He is careful to note that the frog’s perception of a fly goes straight to his motor mechanisms and the response is not stored in memory. So in this sense he argues the frog does not have a full concept of a fly. The frog can though form a percept of the fly and this percept has significance for the frog. And the ability of the frog to form significant percepts is for Hurtford the start on the road to developing fully fledged concepts (‘The Origins of Language’ p. 62).

Now when one hears that a frog has a percept of a fly, one thinks of the frog perceiving a meaningful image of a fly. This image is meaningful because it moves a certain way, has a certain shape and size etc. However Hurford warns that this is not how he intends us to interpret his claims. He assures us that he does not believe that there are pictures in the head which the frog inspects because pictures are two static and are made of the wrong stuff. However his explanation from this point in interms of networks of neurons connected to each other while mainly accurate (though simplified), seems to move from the personal level of explanation to the sub-personal level without offering even a cursory defence of doing so.

At the sub-personal level we can talk of the brain interpreting particular patterns in its environment triggering certain reflexes like fly swatting. This is similar to the way we can talk about a thermostat interpreting particular patterns in its environment which cause the thermostat to behave in certain ways. But talk of meaningful percepts is out of place in both cases. With this in mind one wonders why Hurford speaks of the frog having meaningful percepts, this implies conscious awareness of the black dots, however he has not provided evidence to support this picture. Likewise when he speaks of frogs distinguishing between flies and non-flies this gives a confused picture. The frog is distinguishing between dots of a certain size and motion but as it has no concept of a fly, talk of the frog distinguishing between flies and non-flies is way off base. He also argues that the frog is not inspecting pictures in his mind (because pictures are made of the wrong stuff), while simultaneously arguing that the frog is experiencing a significant percept that is the foundation for more complex conceptual abilities. These claims are in tension with each other and he needs to resolve this ambiguity by either dropping his intentional locutions which imply conscious awareness or if he does indeed think that frogs have flies as the content of their experiences he needs to justify this claim not merely assume its truth.

Here I am not saying that Hurtford needs to solve the hard problem of consciousness before proceeding further. But I think he needs to be clearer in what he means when he speaks of frogs having meaningful percepts. If we think of the case of mental imagery and whether it is used in thought (see Kosslyn vs Pylyshyn) this debate is usually handled at the sub-personal level. So know that when people think of mental imagery and rotate some image in their “minds-eye” topographic images are formed in the brain. However, the debates around these topics centre on whether the brain uses these topographic images on the brain in thinking or whether at bottom the brain uses a language of thought for all thinking. The point is that in these debates describing accurately the phenomenology of mental imagery is not considered important. Behavioural tests and neuroscientific studies are the tools typically used. People’s phenomenological reports are treated in different ways by different theorists. They are sometimes treated as mere verbal descriptions of the way things “seem” although no actual images are displayed to a subject (see Dennett 2003). Or the mental images can be treated in a realistic manner as something that a person actually experiences (something with real content), we can explain the neural correlates of these experiences but we cannot explain why these experiences arise from these correlates (See Chalmers). When talking of frogs distinguishing flies from non-flies, or of frogs having meaningful percepts Hurford needs to be clear whether he is speaking at the sub-personal level like Pylyshyn and Kosslyn or if he is speaking at the personal level about frogs experiences.

The debate around on this issue has played a big role in the philosophy of mind and I think Hurtford could have referenced the issue in his foot note. Dan Dennett has discussed this issue on numerous occasions and has argued that there is no fact of the matter as to what the frog intends when he swats at the fly:

“And to the extent that there is nothing in the selective environment that uniquely singles out a particular class of occasions, there is also no fact of the matter about what the frog’s eye report really means.” (Dennett: Intuition Pumps p.257)

“Suppose scientists gather up a small population of frogs from some fly-grabbing species on the brink of extinction, and puts them under protective custody in a new environment-a special frog zoo in which there are no flies, but rather Zoo keepers who periodically arrange to launch little food pellets past the frogs in their care. To the keepers’ delight, the system works; the frogs thrive by zapping their tongues for these pellets, and after a while there is a crowd of descendent frogs who have never seen a fly, only pellets.” (ibid p.258)

Dennett notes that what happens to the frogs in his thought experiment happens all of the time in evolution. It is a case of exaptation where a particular piece of machinery is selected for a different function. To make the case clearer Dennett supposes that in the new environment, variation in pellet detecting ability meant that certain frogs were more likely to survive than other frogs. He further argues that there was no particular moment when we are justified in saying that this is the point where what the frog’s eye report means changes. He argues that there is no fact of the matter about what a frog’s eye report means, and that it is a mistake to think that there is some determinate meaning encoded in the frog’s brain in terms of some kind of mentalese. The meaning of the black dots on the frog’s retina isn’t determined by some central meaner in the brain, rather it emerges gradually through shifts in environmental conditions. He argues that without the “indeterminate” variation in the triggering conditions of the frog’s eyes, selection for a different function would not be possible (ibid p.257).

In Fodor’s (2011) ‘What Darwin got Wrong’ (co-authored with Piattelli-Palmarini) he takes the direct opposite approach to frogs fly snapping and uses it as a tool to beat the concept of natural selection. Fodor discusses Frog’s eating flies interms of the ‘Selection-Selection for distinction’. He outlines Gould and Lewontin’s argument in detail and says that the argument has more serious consequences for adaptationism than they realised. To make this point they discuss the issue of the heart pumping and the heart making thump-thump noises. The heart plays vital role in pumping blood so evolutionary theorists typically argue that the heart was selected-for pumping blood. The problem is that every time the heart pumps blood it also makes thump-thump noises. Now on this issue evolutionary theorists will argue that thump-thump noises are free-riders which piggy back on the selected-for property of pumping blood. Fodor’s problem is that while he assumes that there is a fact of the matter as to whether trait T1 or T2 plays the primary function, he thinks that there is no physical mechanism in the TNS (Theory of Natural Selection) which can distinguish between T1 and T2 so he thinks that there is serious problems with the selection-for story.

Fodor argues that this problem of co-extensive traits appears in behavioural learning theory as well. When we perform conditioned response experiments on Rats we learn that certain responses can be elicited from certain stimulus. However, the problem is that particular responses are massively undetermined by the data of experience. So suppose in an experimental situation we train a rat in stimulus stimulation. Now to do this we reinforce the rat in the presence of a yellow triangle (Stimulus A) but don’t reinforce it in the presence (Stimulus B) a card with an X on it (Fodor and Piattelli p. 103). When the training is complete the rat will produce a particular response when and only when Stimulus A is presented. Fodor notes that in this situation when we ask what the rat has learned in this experiment we don’t know because the Rats behaviour is underdetermined by the data of experience.

Fodor correctly notes that using Mill’s Method of Differences we can whittle away various different possibilities of why the Rat is behaving in the way it is. He mentions learning theory to show how the situation between learning theory and the selection-selection for in the TNS are analogous. However in the case of learning theory we have clever experimenters who can whittle down the options to decide what the fact of the matter is. While in the case of TNS which theorists claim selects for trait 1 as opposed to 2, there is no mother nature to do the clever experiment, and of course in the course of evolutionary history when Hearts were developing there were no clever humans to do the relevant experiment either. We can do experiments now to decide what the fact of the matter is in terms of what is selected for, but mother nature would have been blind to this data. Fodor sums up his argument so far as being that the moral of the story is that to decide what is learned (or selected-for) we need to appeal to counterfactuals (which can be explored in experiments), but “Mother Nature” is blind to counterfactuals so cannot in principle “select-for” one of two co-extensive traits.

Fodor on the Naturalisation of Content:

Fodor argues that the selection-for problem is not limited to learning theory and the TNS but the same problem arises in theories of content. He tries to demonstrate where this problem arises in his theory of content. To do this he discusses the famous question of Frogs swatting Flies. Here is Fodor on Frogs:

“In a nutshell: if the assumption of local coextensivity holds (as of course, it perfectly well might), then fixing the cause of the frog’s snaps doesn’t fix the content of its intention in snapping: either an intention to snap at a fly or an intention to snap at an ABN (ambient black nuisance) would be compatible with a causal account of what the frog has in mind when it snaps. So causal accounts of content encounter a selection-for problem: If something is a fly if and only if it is an ABN, the frogs behaviour is correctly described either as caused by flies or as caused by ABNs. So, it seems, a causal theory of content cannot distinguish snaps that manifest intentions to catch the one from snaps that manifest intentions to catch the other” (Fodor and Piattelli p. 108)

Like in the case of TNS and Learning Theory Fodor argues that the solution is found by appeals to counterfactuals. Fodor goes on to argue that since fly swatting is a behaviour of phenotypes then the problem is one that is raised for the TNS. The TNS is not capable of deciding whether Frogs were selected for Fly swatting or ABN swatting. He reiterates the point again as follows:

“Rather it’s that the individuation of traits depends on the truth of counterfactuals: since (by assumption) every fly-snap in the actual world is an ABN-snap and vice-versa, selection between fly-snappers and ABN-snappers must be sensitive to the counterfactual consideration that ABN-snapping gathers no flies in worlds where the ABNs are BBs, rather than flies. It’s a nice thing about intentional systems that they are sensitive to merely counter factual contingencies. It means that beliefs can take account of what the outcomes of actions would be if…and the believer can act accordingly.” (ibid p.121)

Of course as Fodor emphasizes again and again since selection is not an intentional process it cannot use counterfactuals to decide whether the fly is selected for fly snapping or ABN snapping. So Fodor thinks that this reveals that there is a problem with the TNS, and causal theories of content.

Now the obvious reply to Fodor is that there is no fact of the matter as to whether the Frog is snapping at flies of ABNs. Once we accept this fact we dissolve the problem that Fodor thinks is so perplexing. If the selective environment doesn’t distinguish between ABN’s and Flies then there is no fact of the matter as to whether the fly intends to snap either so there is nothing that TNS is missing out on in this case. Fodor, of course disagrees with the claim that there is no fact of the matter about what frogs intends. He argues that it is plausible that Frogs intend to snap at flies, but says that if you don’t agree on this you can move up the phylogenetic ladder until you are satisfied that the creature intends/believes that x is the case.

Dennett correctly notes that that the problem with this suggestion of Fodor’s is that it assumes that there is a clear fact of the matter for creatures a step up the phylogenetic ladder from frogs either they have concept x or they don’t. However there is little reason to think that this is true. Evolution doesn’t work in the clear cut way that Fodor’s intuitions would like, this is not a black mark about evolution, it is a black mark against Fodor’s pre-theoretic intuitions.

My primary point here isn’t to critique Fodor’s views on evolution (I have already done so in an earlier blog), nor is it to say that Dennett is 100% correct in his views on what a frog’s eye tells its brain. Rather I want to point out that Hurford passes over the topic of Frog percepts too quickly and uses language which is ambiguous as to whether he was using personal or sub-personal levels of explanations. I think he could have at least referenced some of the literature on this topic in a foot note. That said overall his book was one of the better popular explanations of language evolution out there. Now that I have discussed his views on proto-concepts I plan a review of the entire book later.


In discussing certain scientific topics, despite the best of intentions, people cannot reach agreement. Intelligent honest people interpret the same data differently, they sometimes have different data from each other, and because of the theoretical commitments they make, they are blind to certain facts. In these situations there is little to be done but to have open debate, to formulate the respective theories in as clear a manner as possible, and to decide where theoretical commitments lie and where there are differences of fact. Once this is done it may be possible to determine what experimental and empirical data can decide these matters. But underdetermination being what it is it is not typically possible to have a demonstrative proof that a particular theory is correct and its rival is incorrect. In practical situations underdetermination is not a problem, established scientific theories, like for example, the theory of evolution have such massive predictive and explanatory power over their rivals that they don’t have realistic rivals.

In some cases when theorists do not agree with each other both sides may feel that the evidence clearly favours their theory. They may feel that their theory is more consistent with known facts, that their theory makes more accurate predictions, etc.  In this case the temptation is to accuse the person you disagree with of having some ideological commitment which blinds them to the obvious facts.  This conspiracy theory approach is quiet common in the history of academic discourse. Historically when Marx’s theories were criticised it was pointed out that those criticising Marx probably had some material interest they were trying to defend, so their criticisms could be dismissed on those grounds. Freudian’s likewise sometimes responded to criticisms of psychoanalysis by psychoanalyzing the critics of Freud. The critic of Freud was analysed as having issues with authority figures stemming from childhood experiences. With the supposed motive of the critic of psychoanalysis exposed the criticisms could be dismissed. When critics of Behaviourism complained about the method they were interpreted being closet Cartesians who desperately wanted the soul to exist. Obviously not all Behaviourists, Marxists, and Psychoanalysts behaved in this manner, but a lot of them did use this approach and unfortunately it did stifle legitimate criticism of the various disciplines.

Of late I have noted this manner of dealing with disagreement has emerged in evolutionary psychology. So, for example, in evolutionary psychology forums when various issues are discussed, people are quiet frequently accused of adopting a particular position because of some supposed psychological motivation. So if a person mentions something to do with sexual harassment they are accused of unconsciously signalling to potential mates that they are nice guys. Or if people are debating about the degree to which humans are innately violent or innately cooperative they will be accused of doing so because of unconscious political motivations. Thus if a person thinks that the evidence shows that humans are by nature more cooperative than violent (obviously I am simplifying here) they are accused of defending a Rousseau view of human nature, and of being a left wing extremist who is denying obvious fact to support a political belief. On the other hand if a person thinks that the evidence supports violence as opposed to cooperation being dominant they will be accused of doing so because they are Hobbes supporter who are defending a right wing world view despite the obvious facts. In these various debates mountains of evidence is presented by both sides of the debate. However quiet a lot people don’t read the counter evidence and merely attack the motivations of the person presenting the evidence.

What is strange in all of this questioning of people’s motivations is the fact that we all have motivations (some of which we are not aware of), we are subject to unconscious biases, blind spots etc. As human beings we need to be constantly aware of the fact that we do not reason perfectly, hence the importance of empirical checks on our theories, and clear rational debate with those we disagree with. When we dismiss those we disagree with as being ideologically motivated and think that this is justification for ignoring the data they present we forego the possibility of learning.

It is a simple logical point that it is a fallacy to assume that the origin and motivation a person’s reasons determine the truth or falsity of the reasons the person presents. It may be possible to tell a Freudian or Marxist or Evolutionary Psychology story about some unconscious motivation for me believing that X is true. But my motivation is strictly speaking irrelevant to the evidence I present. The evidence is good or bad evidence and should be judged on its own merits. This is a truism that all first year philosophy students are aware of. Yet this truism is constantly flouted when people have disagreements particularly in areas to do with human nature.

I myself have been just of guilty of questioning the motives of those I disagree with, and engaging in ad-hominem attacks. But I think that this approach is seriously misguided. Focusing on the evidence, is what is important, not ad-hominem attacks on those who disagree with one. You may not always be able to convince others that you are correct, and may learn that despite what you thought the evidence doesn’t support your position (this should be a good thing). But if you use a person’s supposed questionable motives as an excuse to ignore data you are no longer playing the game of science.

Androids, Persons, Electric Sheep and Empathy

I have just finished reading Philip K Dick’s 1968 classic: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Prior to this I have never read any of Dick’s work, though I have seen three films based on his work: ‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’ and ‘The Adjustment Bureau’. I wasn’t a big fan of any of the films; all of them raised interesting philosophical issues but somehow left me cold. So I wasn’t expecting much when I picked up ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Henceforth referred to as Androids). ‘Androids’ also had a film based on it; the famous ‘Blade Runner’ starring Harrison Ford. But I have not seen the film so really went into book in the dark and expecting nothing. I also have an unread copy of ‘Philip K Dick and Philosophy’ a popular culture series designed to explore the philosophical implications of various cultural Icons; in this case Philip K Dick. A former professor of mine Peter Simons wrote an essay for the collection. However, I want to read a few of Dick’s books before reading any of the essays in that particular collection; with that in mind I started with ‘Androids’.

‘Androids’ is set in post apocalyptic earth, where the aftermath of a nuclear war has resulted in a situation where virtually the entire non-human population has died out. The remaining animals that have not died out are seen as status symbols which people desperately want to obtain. Having a live animal is considered as sign of empathy. And having empathy is supposedly what separates humans from androids. Those who cannot afford a live animal will buy an electric animal that is hard to distinguish from a real one. These animals even require a certain amount of care from their owners.  However, the owners of these animals are ashamed of not having a real animal and hide it from their neighbours.

Because of the polluted state of the earth most people are seeking to immigrate from Earth to the colonies in Mars. Immigration is easy to achieve as long as one has not been designated a special. A special is a person who due to radiation poison is has an IQ below a certain point, typically as a result of the poisoning the person’s IQ will continue to deteriorate over time. The specials are known by their peers by the derogatory term ‘Chicken-heads’.

Rick Deckard is the main protagonist of the book he is a bounty hunter who is charged with ‘Retiring’ (killing) Androids who are illegally on earth. Rick’s previous animal died so he has to make do with an electronic sheep. This fact really bothers Rick and part of his motivation to kill as many androids as possible is the 1000 dollars he receives every time he retires an Android. One of the difficulties that Rick has in ‘retiring’ the Androids is that the new ‘Nexus-6’ type Androids are virtually indistinguishable from humans. The only way to tell them apart is to administer a Voight-Kampff test. The Voight-Kampff test is designed to test the capacity of the person/android being interviewed for empathy. The test measures physiological reactions to various stimuli involving sex, animals, murder etc.  One of the difficulties of the test is that the schizoid people who suffer from flatness of affect will fail the test and be confused for an android and killed. So Rick has to be very careful that the test is administered correctly.

The novel culminates in Rick chasing down three androids that he intends to retire which are housed by a ‘special’ John Isodore. The novel is enjoyable and raises real philosophical issues. It doesn’t reach the heights of a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky but it does the job of any good novel; as well as being gripping and entertaining, it invites the reader to think.

The novel really makes one think of what it means to be a human. In the world of the novel the key criterion is empathy. Androids while surpassing the humans in terms of general intelligence are incapable of feeling true empathy. Rick muses that evolving in packs over millions of years is what made us emphatic towards our fellow creatures, while Androids created in a factory do not have this essential feature. Very early in the novel one is faced with a contradiction. Androids are not viewed as people because they fail the empathy test; yet Rick and the establishment worry about ‘retiring’ schizoid humans who fail the test. Yet if the criterion for being a person is passing the test then surely schizoid people who fail the test should be deemed non-persons as-well.  This however is not the case. The reason being that the empathy test is a pretext for getting rid of creatures that are not human[1]; creatures not built using the same material as all other humans. The establishment doesn’t want a human to be killed; because they are human, this is independent of whether they pass the test. Furthermore one gets the impression that if the android passed the empathy test but was shown (through the bone marrow test) to be an android Rick would still be licensed to kill him.

Using empathy as a criterion of what it is to be a person is strange. The specials are human beings who through no fault of their own have suffered a form of brain damage. They are shunned by other humans, denied the opportunity to leave the polluted earth, and generally treated with contempt. When John Isodore a ‘special’ helps the three fugitive Androids, they treat him with utter contempt, as sub-human. However this situation is mirrored when John’s boss refers to him as a chicken head and treats him with utter contempt. The lack of empathy here is spread out evenly between the humans and the androids (though it could be argued that at least a human is capable of empathy while the android is not).

Human empathy is indeed a strange and variable thing. It is biologically determined to a degree and shared with other species (again to a degree), though it is massively culturally variable. Moral Philosopher Peter Singer; has famously described our capacity to increase those we view as members of our moral community as our expanding circle of morality. He notes how there was a time when people viewed those who were outside of a particular tribe as sub-human. There was a time when people viewed members of a different race as being sub-human. Thus black people were viewed by Europeans as being outside the circle of empathy. Through moral philosophy using reason to show that those outside the circle were just as much people as those inside it, and novels painting vivid pictures of the rich inner life of those traditionally deemed outside the moral circle, our circle expanded to include the mentally ill, people of other tribes, people of other races and people with different sexual orientation into the circle.

Peter Singer has argued that we now need to expand the circle to include animals as non-human persons. Typically people argue that the key reason that animals should not be included within the circle is because they cannot reason to the degree we can. Singer has argued that if we take reasoning ability as the key reason to include creatures within the circle then we are faced with a conundrum. People with profound intellectual disability have in general got much poorer reasoning abilities than a lot of non-human animals. So those who make reasoning ability the criterion will be forced to exclude humans with profound intellectual disabilities from the circle. It is always open for a person to say that being a human biologically defined interms of DNA is the key criterion to be included within the circle. However this criterion seems no less arbitrary than using Skin Colour or Tribe membership. Furthermore some people with severe intellectual disability have DNA damage so DNA criterion is problematic in that respect. Eva Feder Kittay a moral philosopher whose daughter has a severe intellectual disability has challenged Singer for using people with intellectual disabilities as a tool to further animal rights. The debate between them is respectful as they both recognise that each is trying to minimise suffering. But the issue is emotional and keys in on our deepest held moral intuitions.

Discussions between people like Kittay and Singer are subtle and deep; a far cry from the casual test for personhood used in ‘Androids’. Even outside of moral philosophy our everyday empathy varies from situation to situation. Sociologist Roger Yeats has written on the strange fact that in western society we are socialised as animal lovers who casually exploit animals and eat them. Facebook is chocked full of people (including me) who fill their wall with videos of cute animals. I recently posted a video of a cute baby pig. I love pigs they remind me to some degree of dogs with their intelligence and loyalty. I abhor animal cruelty. But yet I eat meat. I eat pork. So my empathy only goes so far; though reflection on animal life makes me less and less comfortable with my choosing to eat meat.

When Rick watches another bounty hunter (Phil Resch) kill an android opera singer he admires he realises he has some empathy for the android. This empathy is increased when he has sex with the android Rachel Rosen. Resch himself worries that he may be an android at one point in the novel. The boundaries blur as to who is an android and who is a human. This forces the reader to think through the issues for themselves. Just when one is thinking that maybe the Androids are misunderstood one sees an android torture an almost extinct species of spider for her own amusement, and we wonder if all androids are capable of this kind of cruelty. We know some humans are; but not all of them. So the novel constantly gets us to evaluate our moral stance as we read it.

In his most recent book ‘Intuition Pumps’ Dennett talks about the importance of intuition pumps (thought experiments) for helping us think. He reminds us that they are vital tools for philosophers to use when mulling over a problem. A lot of science fiction tales are basically long entertaining thought experiments to help us think through certain possibilities. However, Dennett correctly notes that some thought experiments result in us being directed to think in a particular direction and ignore alternatives. John Searle’s thought experiment is an example of a thought experiment that can lead us to uncritically think in certain directions if we are not careful.

I think some science fiction has this possibility inherent in it. A lot of science fiction describes mechanical intelligence as unfeeling, uncaring, calculating machines: thus we have Data, Hal, The Terminator etc. I think we need to re-think this intuition, a lot of current AI centres on social interaction, embodied cognition etc. There is no reason a-priori to think that Androids need to lack empathy (ignoring for a minute the hard problem of consciousness which effects humans just as much as androids).

Overall, I think philosophers could benefit from reading more science fiction as a way of expanding their imagination, as long as they are aware of the possibility that they may be inadvertently having certain unhealthy intuitions pumped. Dick’s ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep’, is an excellent thought experiment, but one that only works if it is used as a tool for people to switch key variables in when thinking about it. Discussion between philosophers of science fiction can only help to stretch the imagination of the philosopher and help them think outside of the narrow academic culture they have been taught how to think and reason in.

[1] Animals are not human but having lower IQ’s are no threat to the establishment and hence are viewed as valuable in the world of ‘Androids’.

Boeckx, Research Programmes and Reality

Boeckx: Linguistic Minimalism

 “As Chomsky (1959) convincingly argued, no ‘blank slate’ theory relying solely on external input can account for the creative aspect of language use. Native speakers of any language are able to effortlessly produce and understand sentences in the language that they have never heard or produced before. Chomsky’s rejection of any behaviourist account helped shape what came to be known as the ‘cognitive revolution’ – a mentalistic framework in which inborn (‘innate’) mechanisms played a central role in the acquisition and use of behaviour” (ibid p.17)

Cedric Boeckx in his (2006) ‘Linguistic Minimalism’ begins in the standard way of virtually all books on Generative Grammar with a reminder of the weakness of behaviourism. Boeckx then goes on to cite Chomsky’s ‘Review of Verbal Behaviour’ as the birth of cognitive science by refuting virtually every aspect of Skinner’s project in ‘Verbal Behaviour’. In his (2010) ‘Language in Cognition’ Boeckx goes through all of Chomsky’s main arguments against Skinner and then wonders how anyone could ever accept such an absurd world view. Boeckx makes all the same misinterpretations of behaviourism that are standard in the Generative Grammar literature. I have argued at length against these misinterpretations in a series of blogs (1) Poverty of Stimulus arguments and Behaviourism, (2) Some Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate, (3) Pecs, Verbal Behaviour, and Universal Grammar. I won’t repeat the material here, interested readers can read the blogs if they want. I just want to make one point in his ‘Language and Cognition’ Boeckx claims that Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ was a collection of the best behavioural evidence on the nature of verbal behaviour. That statement is simply false. ‘Verbal Behaviour’ unlike Skinner’s other books is not chocked with experiments, rather it is was meant as a programme for possible research into Verbal Behaviour. Boeckx’s description of the book is a clear indication that he never bothered to read the book (I wonder how many generative grammarians have). Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ was meant as a research programme to guide further research. Those who haven’t read the book should at the very least read Kenneth Mac Corquodale’s reply to Chomsky which demonstrates the programmatic nature of the book.

It is also a fact that Skinner’s proposed research programme into Verbal Behaviour has lead to a lot of empirical research.  Michael (1982, 1988), Hall and Sundberg (1987) (Caroll and Hesse (1987), Yamamoto and Mochizuki (1988) all used a behaviour chain procedure to teach mand’s to children with intellectual disabilities. Rogers, Warren and Warren (1980) studied manding without using the chain procedure instead they got the children to play with preferred objects and asked the children to mand for the ones they wanted. Simic and Butcher (1980) used two different kinds of foods and trained the subject to say I want a when the analyst entered the room with a tray of food. Savage-Rumbaugh (1984) and Sundeberg (1985) trained non-human subjects to mand[1].

Sautter and LeBlanc’s  (2007) paper showed that between 1992 and 2007 the majority of Verbal Behaviour research focused on two areas (1) Mands (2) Tacts. Furthermore the majority of research in applied verbal behaviour has been with people with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. So Dixon et al, argue that more research needs to be done on people who are developmentally typical, while more research also needs to be done on more complex forms of language.

Their results showed that of the 99 articles they analysed 77percent were done atypical Members of the population. Of that number, 63 of the articles focused on children and 23 used adults.  Only 27 percent of the articles investigated typically developing members of the population, and 19 of those examined children and 10 were with just adults. Only four studies (4%) examined both AP and TP in one article. (ibid p. 202).

They conclude that the vast majority of research in this area has been with children with developmental disabilities and/or autism. And while this is important and welcomed data the scope of the research needs to be widened to include a much bigger section of typically developing people if Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ is to be championed as an adequate theory of language acquisition. Furthermore they correctly note that we need to go beyond Mands and tact’s and do experimental and empirical research into things like Autoclitics. They note that with recording devices and mountains of internet conversations taking place we are swimming in data and have the technology to record it and analyse the functions of various speech patterns. So if Verbal Behaviour research needs to takes these limitations in the research done and overcome them if the research programme is to remain alive. But they are quiet clear that if it turns out that Autoclitics etc cannot be acquired in the way Skinner specifies this refutes Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour project.

Having worked with PECS a behavioural technique inspired by Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour I would predict that further empirical research into more complex forms of verbal behaviour will indeed refute the claims made by Skinner. While I am not impressed by Chomsky’s arguments against Skinner (which are nothing more than a caricature), I am not a behaviourist, and don’t think we can do without intentional locutions in our explanations of language acquisition. But Dixon et al’s empirical research into verbal behaviour and argument that future experiments will determine the success and failure of the programme stand in stark contrast to Boeckx’s claim for the minimalist programme:

“We are still far from having a fully-fledged minimalist theory of language. This fact has important repercussions for what it means to do research in the minimalist programme, A program is open-ended, it may take a long time to mature, it allows researchers to make maximal use of their creativity as they try to move from minimalist guidelines to concrete principles, it makes room for multiple, not necessarily mutually consistent or compatible perspectives, and cannot be evaluated in terms of true or false, but in terms of fecund or sterile.” (Boeckx ‘Linguistic Minimalism’ p. 6)


He justifies this approach by appeal to the philosopher of science Lakatos. I agree that an entire research programme is not refuted when a prediction is shown to be false. And it is not falsified by a theoretical claim being refuted experimentally. It is always open to the researchers to modify their programme in light of falsified predictions. However, as more and more counter evidence mounts against a particular research programme, its adherents should suspect that the programme is false. Boeckx et al have no problem listing a series of facts that show the behaviourist research programme is a dead end with a series of refuted claims. I think they should hold themselves to the same standard. I think it is frankly a bit bizarre to start a research programme with claims that Chomsky has effectively refuted a behaviourist research programme, and a few pages later to assert that Chomsky’s research programme cannot be refuted.

Boeckx has no problem with accepting that particular claims can be refute in science he just doesn’t seem to think that a mounting amount of refutation should be taken as a sign that a research programme has been refuted. I am not so sure. I think that if a workable poverty of stimulus argument was constructed this would refute rival programmes which relied on language being learned by domain general procedures. Unfortunately I have never seen a workable poverty of stimulus argument.

Interestingly Boeckx does discuss a poverty of stimulus argument early in his ‘Linguistic Minimalism’ book. One wonders why he does this, is it because he think he think it refutes rival research programmes? If so this attitude is wildly at odds with his attitude to The Minimalist Programme which we are told cannot be falsified.

Boeckx discusses the famous structure dependence poverty of stimulus argument. This is the standard case used by Nativists for Poverty of Stimulus Arguments. Boeckx (to his credit) does actually address the evidence that Sampson, Pullum and Scholz have put forth on the issue. He replies by making the correct point that the issue isn’t whether a child is presented with examples in their PLD which are evidence for the structure dependence rule, but it is whether there is enough evidence in the child’s PLD for him to learn the correct rule. Boeckx is correct that the question of whether the child is presented with the data in their PLD is not the primary issue. Nonetheless since Chomsky did make the following claim:

“The child could not generally determine by passive observation whether one or the other hypothesis is true, because cases of this kind rarely arise; you can easily live your whole life without ever producing a relevant example…you can go over a vast amount of data of experience without ever finding such a case… ( Chomsky 1980, 121)”

This claim has uncontroversially been refuted by the data of Pullum, and Sampson. Nonetheless, Boeckx is correct to note that the important issue is whether the child can learn from the data they experience. He appeals to Legate and Yang’s (2002) attempt to quantify how many examples need to be in the child’s PLD in order for a child to be able to learn the relevant construction.

Legate and Yang (2002) argued that if we compared the evidence a child has in his PLD for constructions that we do know they learn, with the evidence the child has for the structure dependence rule we have a good yard stick to determine whether the child has enough evidence to learn the rule for structure dependence.  Legate and Yang are to be applauded for trying to move the argument on and specify further ways of testing the issue. However as Clark and Lappin (2011) correctly note tests such as Legate and Yang’s really only make sense in terms of specified learning theory and Yang does not provide one.

Legate and Yang’s evidence of a rule that is learned is the use of null subjects in child language. The child reaches adult level at about 3 years of age. Boeckx glosses Yang’s argument as follows:

“The core examples which inform children that all English (finite) sentences require phonologically overt subjects are sentences involving pleonastic subjects (e.g. there is a man here). Such sentences amount to 1.2 per cent of the potential PLD (all sentences). Legate and Yang suggest, quiet reasonably, that the PLD relevant to fixing the Y/N question should be of roughly comparable proportion” (Boeckx 2006 p.25)

Boeckx then notes that a search of the CHILDES database reveal’s that sentences relevant to learning the auxiliary inversion rule are available to the child 0.045 and 0.068 percent of the sentences they experience. And he concludes this far is too little data for the child to learn the rule from.

Legete and Yang  (2002) even go on to argue that out of the 67,000 sentences observed in the CHILDES none of the adult interactions use sentences like (9):

Not only are those frequencies far below the magic figure of 1.2 percent required to learn the correct rule by the 36th month, it is also low enough to be considered negligible, that is, not reliably available for every human child. And interestingly, the canonical type of critical evidence, [aux [ NP … aux …] e …], appears not even once in all 66,871 adult sentences found in both the Nina and Adam corpora ñ the standard statements of the APS are not hyperbole as P&S charged. Hence the original APS stands unchallenged: the knowledge of structure dependence in syntax, as far as we can test quantitatively and comparatively, is available to children in the absence of experience. 8 And the conclusion then seems to be Chomskyís (1975: 33): ìthe childís mind … contains the instruction: Construct a structure-dependent rule, ignoring all structure independent rules. The principle of structure-dependence is not learned, but forms part of the conditions for language learning. (Legete and Yang (2002) ‘Empirical Re-Assessments of Poverty of Stimulus Arguments pp 158-159)

As I said above Legete and Yang (and Boeckx) should be applauded for their attempt to deal with Pullum et al’s data; however I think their negative conclusion is unwarranted. In their (2011) ‘Linguistic Nativism and Poverty of Stimulus Argument’ Clark and Lappin used learnability models to tackle the claims of Legete and Yang.  They noted that assessing whether such constructions can be learned by experience will require mathematical models of how learning from such few constructions is possible. Such programmes have been developed already. So, for example, Clark and Eyraud (2007), Perfors et al (2006), Reali have all developed programmes which can learn from less data than discovered by Pullum, Scholz and Sampson. Clark and Lappin:

 “In subsequent sections we consider work in computational learning theory applied to grammar in order to clarify the question of what data is needed for learning the principles governing polar interrogatives and related syntactic phenomena. The first paper (Clark and Eyraud, 2007) which we discuss in more detail in Chapter 8, shows that a very simple grammar induction algorithm based on distributional patterns acquires rule from a small data set that does not include examples like 8b (Is the student who is in the garden hungry?). The second paper (Perfors et al., 2006) indicates that learners can infer hierarchical structure in a language on the basis of a simple domain-general learning prior.

Both of these papers adopt the same general perspective. They grant the absence in the PLD of examples that effectively distinguish between correct and spurious rules for polar question formation. They also reject a transformational account of the relation between declarative and interrogative forms, relying instead on a context free grammar. They show that the correct interrogative form can be learned without seeing any examples in what is purportedly the set indispensible data” (Clark and Lappin ibid p.40)

A few points need to be noted here. Firstly Clark and Lappin correctly note that just because these programmes can learn from the relevant data doesn’t mean that the brain  uses the same proceedures to acquire a language. But it does mean that the Poverty of Stimulus argument as presented by Yang has been refuted. Secondly Clark and Lappin along with Yang assume that the rule is actually a rule of language. This assumption may not be warranted. Since analysis of the CHILDES corpus (actual speech and language) does not contain examples of the relevant rule then why exists? Geoffrey Sampson correctly notes that the rule is a rule of written language (which explains people’s intuitions of grammaticality), but since people don’t actually speak in ways that conform to the rule then why presume it is a rule governing how people form questions when they actually speak?

Boeckx thinks incorrectly that Legate and Yang have clinched the case for the poverty of stimulus argument. He then goes on to argue that independent of the Legate and Yang evidence opponents of the Poverty of Stimulus arguments are on even weaker grounds than they think. To support this claim he notes the following standard claims of Generative Grammarians. (1) People don’t try out false constructions like ‘Is Mary will believe that Frank is here?’* or ‘Is the man who tall will leave now?*. He cites Nakayama and Crain’s 1987 experiment as evidence people don’t try out sentences like the previous ones. He then makes the claim that even is children did try out ungrammatical constructions like the proceeding ones, since people are not-typically corrected for ungrammatical constructions, and even if they were they don’t make use of corrections, there is no way children could learn even through positive or negative data the relevant rules.

A couple of points need to be made here. Firstly Crain and Nakayama (1987), is widely cited in the literature as proof people don’t try out the relevant false constructions. But Sampson (2005) has noted that there is a real problem with interpreting this experiment. Since the corpus data indicates that people don’t form interrogatives according to the same rules of written language (the rules postulated by Chomsky et al), then it is strange that children in Crain and Nakayama’s experiment form questions in a way that never occurs in actual speech[2]. This fact indicates that there may be some element of accidental priming in the experiment. At the very least the experiment needs to be replicated before been used as conclusive proof on the issue.

Also Choinard and Clark (2002) presents experimental evidence that children are corrected for making grammatical mistakes and do make use of these corrections. At this point we have a lot of conflicting experimental data on how much corrections children make use of when are implicitly corrected. So Boeckx is wrong to present things as though the poverty of stimulus argument is proven. The fact is the argument relies on a series of unproven and disproven claims. Furthermore, other generative grammarians like John Collins have argued that the poverty of stimulus argument as presented by Pullum, Legate and Yang is not the real poverty of stimulus argument. I have dealt with Collins’s version of the argument in my earlier blog (as well as a more recent APS constructed Berwick, Chomsky et al 2011) in my ‘Poverty of Stimulus Arguments and Behaviourism’ I won’t repeat the material here.  My point is merely that as far as I can see the example of a poverty of stimulus argument Boeckx brings up does not work. However if he can construct a workable poverty of stimulus argument he has refuted his opponent, and I think he should accept the converse. Minimalism should be adopt the exact same approach.

When Boeckx notes the following:

“Minimalists endorse the belief (held by all major proponents of modern science, from Kepler to Einstein), that nature is a realisation of the simplest mathematical ideas, and a theory should be more highly valued if it gives us the sense that nothing could be changed…a sense of uniqueness,…a sense that when we understand the final answer, we will see that it could not have been any other way (Weinberg 2001).” (Boeckx p. 9)

He is pointing out that adopting similar approach to studying nature as minimalists has been very successful for physicists. Presumably he is implying that it is likely that a similar approach will yield similar success in linguistics. Maybe so; however I doubt whether the laws of physics will have similar correlates when studying the structures of creatures built by the tinkering process of natural selection. Either way the nature of cognitive structures of humans will ultimately be decided empirically. Minimalists cannot avoid this truism; if reality consistently conflicts with their beliefs then their beliefs must change.

[2] I should say that they never form questions in the manner which Chomsky et al predicate they should in the limited corpus analysis of speech interaction that has been done so far. Much more research needs to be done to say for sure.

Williams Syndrome and the language Instinct

Williams Syndrome is a rare developmental disorder that affects 1 in 20,000 people. Its genetic origin has been discovered it emerges as a result of a deletion of some 17 contiguous genes on chromosome 7q 11.23 (Gerrans: 2003). Despite working with people with intellectual disabilities of various different kinds I have only ever worked with one child with Williams Syndrome. It is not the place here to discuss the child. I will merely note that the child was friendly, fun and did indeed seem from an intuitive perspective to have a verbal IQ which far outstripped his general IQ. However, as we all know a person’s subjective impressions are not a sound basis for a scientific analysis. I merely mention my subjective impressions to indicate that I can see why Nativists were led to arguing that syntax was spared in people with Williams Syndrome. This is the subjective impression that people with Williams Syndrome give, and a lot of early tests indicated that language, in particular syntax was indeed spared in people with Williams Syndrome.

In his excellent 1994 book ‘The Language Instinct’, Steven Pinker mounted a series of arguments for his theory that people have an innate domain specific language faculty. He gave evidence from a variety of different quarters, poverty of stimulus arguments, the speed a child and apparent effortlessness that children learn their first language, the fact that children can allegedly learn language without any correction for ungrammatical mistakes etc. I have gone through all of his arguments in other blogs and have been very critical of them. I will not repeat the material here. In this paper I just want to discuss his claim that an apparent double dissociation occurs with Specific Language Impairment (SLI) and Williams Syndrome and that this is evidence for an innate domain specific language faculty.

In a nut shell Pinker (1994) argued that in SLI people have unimpaired general IQ but they constantly make specific grammatical mistakes. While in people with Williams Syndrome he argued the opposite appears to be the case. With Williams Syndrome people have a low general IQ (between 50 and 70) but have unimpaired syntax. Pinker used these two disorders as evidence that language and general intelligence were separate faculties; and in particular that there was indeed an innate domain specific language faculty.

The evidence for SLI has become increasingly under pressure in the 20 years since Pinker wrote ‘The Language Instinct’. People with SLI typically have damage to the FOXP2 gene, this fact lead people like Pinker to argue that FOXP2 was actually a gene for language.  It turns out that the FOXP2 gene which the press dubbed the language gene is shared by a number of other animals, so it isn’t specific to just humans and hence isn’t solely responsible for creating a language faculty. Experimental research into FOXP2 in other animals reveals that the gene plays a big role in motor control. It also turns out that a lot of the supposedly syntactic deficits in people with SLI are actually deficits in speech based on poor motor control. Furthermore despite Pinker’s assertions; people with SLI do not typically have a normal IQ, in fact they show a lot of non-linguistic cognitive problems, and have a general IQ of between 75 and 91 (See Plomin and Kovas ‘Generalist Genes and Learning Disabilities’ 2005). Overall despite the initial hype there is little reason to think that SLI offers any convincing evidence for a disassociation between language and general intelligence.

Pinker didn’t just speak of dissociation between language and intelligence; he spoke of a double dissociation. The case of SLI doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny, however Williams Syndrome fares a bit better. The relatively spared syntactic abilities of people with Williams Syndrome, is good evidence for the existence of a language faculty, however, the data on the disorder is not as straight forward as it may seem.

Nativists typically argue that in Williams Syndrome, language (in particular syntax) is spared despite the fact that general intelligence is badly affected. However, in Grant et al 2000 ‘A study of Relative Clauses in Williams Syndrome’ they found that in a simple elicited imitation task examining the syntax of relative clauses; older children and adults with WS only reach the level of a typical five year old. This is an important result and is badly at odds with claims that syntax is spared in people with WS. They note that despite claims to the contrary the non-verbal skills of WS children who do well on language tests are not so low as to suggest idiot savants either.  Furthermore they argue that each time an empirical study is done on people with who are clinically and genetically diagnosed the language turns out to be delayed or deviant (Grant p404) They conclude that syntactic structure poses some difficulty for people with WS. People with WS are seriously delayed in syntactic development, even into adulthood. Older children and Adults with WS are significantly impaired in their ability to correctly repeat relative clause sentences. The data suggests that WS people are dependent on overt markers in order to process multi-clause sentences.

Now Grant et al is an interesting paper which clearly shows that claiming that language and syntax are spared in people with WS while general IQ is extremely low is a bit of an exaggeration. Syntax is not entirely spared as can be seen with the difficulties children with WS have with imitating various kinds of relative clauses. While as children with WS that are more proficient with language typically have a higher IQ than less verbal WS suffers. Nonetheless, Grant et al. still indicates that syntax, while not entirely spared, is surprisingly good given the typical general intelligence of WS suffers. So the research could at a stretch be used to support a Nativist position, though this would not be a straight forward matter and a lot more work would need to be done.

The fact that syntax is not entirely spared in people with WS adds shows that the data is more complex than some Nativists assume. Another complexity about WS is that children with it actually acquire language in a different way than normally developing children.  Laing et al. (2002) ‘Atypical development of language and social communication in toddlers with Williams Syndrome’ showed that people with WS are impaired in the triadic interaction that is necessary for the referential uses of language. Their study further showed that WS children don’t show the typical correlations between socio-interactive markers and language seen in typical controls.  In WS toddlers speech preceded pointing where as it followed pointing in the typically developing and DS toddlers. This fact suggests that despite acquiring a big vocabulary people with WS acquire language in a different way than typically developing people.  In previous studies Mervis et al (1999) showed that in a free play situation, toddlers with WS did not spontaneously use the pointing gesture. Other studies indicated that children with WS did not engage in co-ordinated joint attention until well after the vocabulary spurt. Laing et al wanted to further test these claims and to test whether problems with motor control was behind the fact that children with WS typically didn’t engage in pointing. They discovered that the WS group produced much less pointing behaviour than the control group… and the data shows the WS group are less interested in objects as the control group. It was noteworthy that the WS group were more social than the control group but the control group produced more triadic eye contact (Laing et al p. 237). WS people are deficient in production and comprehension of pointing. Their motor tests showed that the lack of pointing could not be attributed to poor motor control. Despite the lack of triadic eye contact, and pointing do children with WS do use words referentially.  Over all they take their studies to show that WS language acquisition follows a different developmental trajectory than normal language acquisition.

The fact that children with Williams Syndrome seem to acquire language in a different way than typically developing children is important, but not necessarily inconsistent with the Nativism hypothesis. Nativists[1] typically argue (wrongly as we have seen) that syntax is spared for people with WS. The fact that children with WS have difficulty both producing and interpreting pointing is not necessarily relevant to the issue of an innate domain specific language faculty. Chomsky, for example, restricts the ‘faculty of language narrow’ (FLN) to pure syntax (the operation of merge), and he would argue that pointing and learning the meaning of words are operations of the sensory motor system and the conceptual intentional system so have little to do with the faculty of language narrow which what is spared with WS. Theorists like Pinker who don’t divide up “Language Faculty” in Chomsky’s way, can still argue that it is syntax that Nativists argue is spared so the fact that children develop the ability to use language pragmatically differently is not that relevant.

However I think a closer look at the developmental phases children go through when acquiring language is vital. We know that their syntax is different, their semantics is different, and they acquire their language differently than typically developing subjects. It seems obvious to me that before we start talking about spared language abilities in WS subjects we need to do a lot more research. A lot of research has focused on experiments done on about 10 subjects on average. I think that more corpus analysis of the actual speech patterns of people with WS is needed and more longitudinal studies are necessary as well. We have more and more sophisticated recording data available than ever before. Using this data (assuming permission from parents of subjects and subjects themselves), we can record and analyse it; this is surely vital, and will vastly increase our knowledge. Another vital area that needs to be researched is the effects of various forms of therapy on people with WS (ABA, Speech and Language Therapy etc) in improving their linguistic skills and their general reasoning abilities. Until more research of this kind is done I think claims of spared language abilities in people with WS is irresponsible.

Martens et al (2008) ‘Research Review: Williams syndrome: a critical review of the cognitive, behavioural, and neuroanatomical phenotype’ analysed the recent studies into WS. In this meta-analysis they note that while it was originally believed that language (in particular syntax) was relatively spared in people with WS more recent studies have called this belief into question. People with Williams Syndrome use fewer gesturing skills than typically developing people. They have a vocabulary size well below the average for their age. They display atypicalities in their substitution of articles and prepositions. They also show evidence of typical but delayed, as well as atypical syntax, morphology and vocabulary (Martens et al p. 581) some recent research has revealed atypical performance in grammatical comprehension, gender agreement, morphosyntax, pragmatics, oral fluency, and semantic fluency.  They make the following important point:

“Variable findings across grammatical studies most likely reflect methodological issues such as differing sample sizes and the use of various language tests and comparison groups, as well as inconsistencies in language skills between and within WS individuals.  (Stojanovik et al. 2001 p. 37) stated that ‘any attempt to generalize from group studies should be approached with extreme caution.’ Despite this, generalisations frequently occur in secondary sources (Grant et al 2002) and findings of RELATIVE strengths evolve into claims of SPARED language skills in WS. (See Pinker, 1994 1999)”

Martens et al. (2008) ‘Research Review: Williams Syndrome: A critical review of the cognitive, behavioural, and neuroanatomical phenotype’.

I agree entirely with the above point; it is not that Nativists have been conclusively refuted on the WS issue; rather it is that the data indicates that we simply don’t know enough to decide either way on the issue. As the old cliché goes; more research is needed, as well as less extravagant claims by popular writers like Pinker. There is indeed good evidence that syntax is surprisingly good in WS subjects but there is also growing evidence that it is not entirely spared. In her ‘What’s Within’ Fiona Cowie notes that Rubba (1991) found that 19 percent of WS subject’s uses of prepositions was deviant. Clark and Lappin (2011) quote Brock (who did very large a survey of recent studies into the language of people with WS) Brock concluded “There is currently little evidence for selective preservation of linguistic skills in Williams Syndrome”. Furthermore people with WS typically have the same mental age as 5 year old children and 5 year old children have relatively fluent linguistic abilities.

I think the facts show that Nativists have not yet made their case. Nonetheless given how little we know at this stage more research is what is needed not dogmatic claims which stretch beyond the known evidence.

In this blog because of time constraints I have not described and analysed the experimental techniques used in the papers I mentioned. Furthermore I have not used enough data from meta-analysis to indicate why I think that future research needs to take the road I advocate. In my next blog on Williams Syndrome I will deal with these topics.

[1] I am being a bit vague in my use of Nativist. Obviously there are many different Nativist theories in the Generative Grammar literature. In the space limitations imposed by a blog I cannot go into the all of the different Nativist theories. I may in the future examine which different theories of Nativism are more consistent with the WS data.