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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Recursion, Grammar, and Science becoming Religion

A Pirahã village in the jungle of Brazil.
I watched a show on the Smithsonian (or Documentary) Channel the other day called "The Grammar of Happiness."

The premise is related to my past two posts about my philosophy in an oblique way - its also interesting in it own right.

The story documents a man named Daniel Everett.  Everett ends up being a missionary in central Brazil, South America for much of his life living with a people called the Pirahã. 

This is a tribe that lives in a few villages off of a remote (four day boat trip) river.  Everett arrives as a missionary and stays there with his family for many years over a couple of decades.

Two things happen during this time.

One is that Everett learns their language and comes to understand that these people live only in the present.  They have no numbers, cannot count, focus only on truth.  Everett is seduced by the simplicity of this and becomes an atheist in response.

The second thing is Everett learns quite a bit about their language and ends up writing a paper.  The paper describes the language as one without "recursion" (more on this below).  Linguistically recursion works along these lines: I have a sentence "Joe eats chicken."  Recursion is the principle whereby I can always take a sentence and make it part of a larger sentence, i.e., "Mary said Joe eats chicken."  Recursion is unlimited because I can always extend the sentence further: "Frank said Mary said Joe eats chicken."

(There is a readable set of slides from MIT's TedLab available here.)

The story of the Piraha changes at this point.

Everett's paper tick's off Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky is an MIT professor of linguistics and ostensibly leads the field in this area.  Chomsky and others have proposed that "recursion" is a necessary component of human language.

Everett's paper flies in the face of this and Everett begins to receive hate mail.  He is also called a racist.  All by Chomsky supporters.

This "academic debate" filters back to Brazil and Everett's visa's to study the Pirahã are revoked.

During this point in the film Everett ends up in the University of Brazil giving a talk on this.  Because many of the linguists in the world are Chomsky-ites the lecture is poorly attended.

However, they interview a couple of Brazilian linguistic professors and one, a woman, says something along these lines about the Everett/Chomsky recursion "debate:"

"In science when you lose the ability to question things science becomes religion."

The meaning here is, of course, that the "Chomsky" supporters are suppressing the questioning of Chomsky's work through harsh personal attacks designed to debilitate the attacker (as opposed to attack the arguments Everett uses).

Another group, the TedLab at MIT, takes on this debate.  The convert some 1,500 recorded Pirahã statements recorded by Everett and others into a computer code representing the grammar of the spoken language.

They then use computer program to attempt to generate a recursive grammar for those statements.

The computer fails to find such a grammar.  (This does not prove Everett's right, however.)

(As a side note: recursion is also applies to computer languages and computer architectures.  Some computer architectures, e.g., the IBM 360 did not natively support recursive constructs - typically via a stack.  Yet these computers can still be programmed to perform recursive operations.

To me the question here is not whether the Pirahã's language has recursion.  It does not have to for them to function.  But at the same time one wonders if their minds process recursion.  For example, if the Pirahã lived truly "only in the moment" could they interrupt their hunting trip to help an injured companion, i.e., stop hunting, help the companion, and continue hunting?

My guess is that mentally recursion is required for human thought, but not human language.)

In any case the paraphrased quote "In science when you lose the ability to question things science becomes religion"  was the kicker of this whole thing.

In the end the Brazilan government, while blocking Everett's access over the course of a few years, enters the jungle where the Pirahã live and install TV, running water, toilets, and so on.

One imagines this will have impact on their culture and language and probably change their way of life forever.

The larger point here is that Everett is battling dogma.  In this case the dogma of Chomsky and his "recursion" theories.

Who's right?  I don't know.

But what's more troubling is the personal attacks on Everett.

I use this as an illustration of why ethics and morality are so important in science.

Is Everett lying about the information captured on his trips to the jungle?

Are Chomsky's supports seeking to harm Everett in order to protect their status and funding?

Of course, given there is no concrete "theory of language" or "theory of the mind" here all this is merely arguing over supposition and observations.

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