Bouncy balls, responsibility, and language

[From Bill Powers (950318.0100 MST)]

Bruce Nevin (950217.1349) --

A little more elaboration on

     Statement A: The importance that mammals, at least, evidently
     attach to having reliable relationships with their fellows suggests
     strongly that intrinsic values of some reference perceptions are
     involved here.

     Statement B: It is worth thinking through carefully how
     perceptions of social responsibility, reliability, interdependence,
     dependability, and so on might arise. (Testing might be

     I repeated these two statements this because it seemed to me that
     you (950206.1600 MST) misunderstood the connection between them.
     You evidently thought I claimed that (B) "perceptions of social
     responsibility, reliability, interdependence, dependability, and so
     on" are examples of (A) reference perceptions with intrinsic

It occurred to me that the problem we have here is similar to the
problem of explaining behavior in terms of genes. If we have two legs,
two eyes, and so forth, it seems evident to some people that there must
be genes for eyes, legs, etc., or perhaps even a gene for each eye and
each leg, and a gene for the number of each. If we see with our eyes,
there must be a gene for seeing, and if we walk there must be a gene for
walking. From there it is only a short hop to a gene for drawing
pictures, a gene for dancing, and a gene for making movies about Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The error here is to assume that for every regularity we see there must
be a corresponding cause -- the opposite of "systems thinking." If, for
example, we observe that there is a perception of social responsibility,
the assumption is that there must be some specific reason for this
perception, some social force or inherited goal of being socially
responsible. I'm not saying that you, Bruce, are necessarily making this
mistake -- the above suggests that you are trying to avoid making it.
But any concept that describes the properties of societies as anything
but emergent is surely making it.

Another example that comes to mind is the attribution of behavior of a
bouncing ball to a natural tendency of elastic balls to bounce. This is
surely a very regular property of elastic balls; we rely on its presence
whenever we buy a tennis ball. But there is no law of physics having to
do with bounciness, nor is bounciness itself a basic physical property
of a tennis ball -- at least not as we see properties in modern science.

The bounciness of a ball is an emergent property, not a basic one. What
is basic is the response of a massive object to forces acting on it, and
the tendency of certain materials to restore themselves to a least-
energy configuration after a forcible distortion. At this level of
properties, we describe relationships among variables in a way that is
totally independent of macroscopic events. The properties of masses and
of elastic materials are indifferent to the specific circumstances under
which they are seen. The fact that there are tennis balls and that they
show a certain behavior in a gravitational field, in an atmosphere, and
in relation to a tennis racket is merely an accident, an invention,
which might not exist in a universe with a different history or even in
a different culture. There is nothing necessary about a bouncy ball,
however many millions of them may actually exist.

When we find regularities in social behavior, it may seem that there
must be some important property of societies that makes the regularities
necessarily appear. But I argue that this is not the case; that we are
seeing surface or emergent regularities as a consequence of regularities
of a completely different and deeper kind, which are indifferent to the
circumstances in which we see their consequences. If there are social
rules, for example, they exist only because people are capable of
perceiving rules and making behavior conform to them. This property is
totally independent of WHAT rules are put into effect.

Mary and I have just seen the second of a PBS series on language, an
excellent presentation full of interesting observations. But having been
through several years of wrestling with linguists on CSGnet, I was
interested in how the same themes showed up, not as arguments but as
accepted conclusions. And it struck me, after a few hours of sleep, that
we have the same kind of problem with linguistics that we have with
ideas about societies.

The series is strongly Chomskyian, with Chomsky himself offering
eloquent (what else?) arguments to the effect that language is like an
organ of the mind, with an inherited Universal Grammar that does not
need to be learned. Children learn regularities of language so easily,
and with so little by way of instruction or even examples, the argument
goes, that it simply has to be inherited. What seems not to be
considered is that these underlying abilities that seem inborn may
reflect more basic properties of the brain that are indifferent as to
whether they are used to build language or to accomplish anything else.

Neither linguists nor sociologists are students of human nature. They
are students of language and social phenomena. The linguist naturally
sees the regularities of language as reflecting some inborn talent for
language; the sociologist sees other regularities as reflecting inborn
talents for social skills. A mathematician might see mathematical
abilities as reflecting inherited mathematical traits; the musician
might see basic musical skills; the sports psychologist a set of basic
physical skills. Specialty by specialty, each person who studies human
behavior sees the ability to carry out that class of behavior as
something specifically existing inside the brain, like a specialized

But a person like me who is not in any of these specialties does not
naturally see human behavior in any of these ways. I see a brain with
the capacity (I conjecture) to perceive and control in terms of
intensities, sensations, configurations, transitions, events,
relationships, categories, sequences, rule-governed processes,
principles, and system concepts. I don't see any tendency to perceive
and control any particular examples of these types of variables; just
whatever examples people happen to have come up with in their
interactions with the environment and each other. We had, of course, to
come up with _some_ set of examples, but it could have been any set. The
ones we see around us now are accidents, inventions, one alternate
universe among many possible ones.

Of course some inventions catch on and spread like wildfire, but this
does not mean that some other invention could not have caught on
instead. For example, in a longer view we will some day see that the
whole human race, in the blink of the historian's eye, suddenly began to
rely utterly on powered wheeled vehicles. Every culture everywhere on
earth will be built on, utterly depend upon, cars or some equivalent.
Once this happens, the Chomskys of the future will begin to speculate
that there is an inherent Deep Vehicular Control Structure in the human
brain, which makes learning how to drive a vehicle extraordinarily easy,
without any real need for instruction or for experiencing all the ways
that vehicles can be driven in relation to the world and to each other.
Rules of vehicle-driving, like how to start a vehicle, how to steer it,
how to make it do wheelies and slides and rooster-tails, and how to
avoid collisions with other vehicles just come naturally to the human
brain because it is built to handle vehicle-related processes.

I see language as an invention that caught on and spread like wildfire.
It is extraordinarily easy to learn and handle not because of any
particular language-related processes in the brain, but because the
capacities of the brain make language easy to learn and do, just as they
make driving a car or counting money or adding and subtracting or
playing a guitar or whittling scrimshaw or tying knots or water-skiing
easy to learn and do.

On the PBS show, there was repeated reference to the fact that
underneath all its surface complexities, language employs a strikingly
small set of basic rules and variations. To me, this is reason for
concluding that language is _not_ a specific inborn talent, but simply
an easily-learned set of rules which, as they are put into practice,
develop into a very elaborate structure, a set of emergent phenomena.
Before language can exist, the ability to perceive and follow rules must
exist. We learn rules of many other kinds, like the rules for starting a
car or raising the sails on a boat and making the vehicle behave in
various ways. But what we inherit is not any particular set of rules:
only the capacity to invent rules, perceive rules, specify rules, and
modify behavior so its consequences conform to rules. Out of that
capacity come many specific skills involving all sensory modalities and
subsets of perceptions within modalities. Only some rules are given in
the form of sentences; and even to give them in that form implies the
existence of underlying rules that are not linguistic.

I've seen only two installments of the language series, but it is
already striking how thoroughly certain questions are avoided. What is a
rule, that we can follow it? What is an object, an action, a concept,
that we can name it? What, in general, is a meaning, that we can attach
a word to it? Nobody seems to have come up with the simple answer:
meanings, like words, are perceptions. If this problem has not been
thought through any better than seems to be the case, how seriously are
we to take generalizations about language in which the most basic
questions are left dangling? I feel much the same way about discussions
of social phenomena: they seem to begin and end in the middle. Of course
that may be because I AM entering the discussion in the middle and will
leave before it is finished. But maybe the problem is more serious than
that. Maybe the problem is a preference for staying at a certain level
of analysis without asking the deeper questions.

Bruce, I don't know how any of this relates to you; you generally tend
to think about things more deeply than most. Consider this as a bit of
free association that used your words as a jumping-off place.



Bill P.