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RutgersTalk: Gil Harman

November 1, 2012 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm

“What is Cognitive Science?”

~A Lunchtime Lecture Series~

**Sponsored by the Rutgers University, Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS)** 

This lunchtime talks series is designed to introduce the University community to issues in Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science is one the the few fields where modern developments in computer science and artificial intelligence promise to shed light on classical problems in psychology and the philosophy of the mind. Ancient questions of how we see the world, understand language, and reason, and questions such as ‘how a material system can know about the outside world’, are being explored with the powerful new conceptual prosthetics of computer modeling.


 

Dr. Gil Harman
Princeton University, Department of Philosophy

“On Trying to Understand Discussion of the Evolution of Human Language, Conversation, Reasoning  and/or Argument?”


Thursday, November 1,  2012 12:00-1:00 p.m.
Psychology Building, Room 101 Rutgers University, Busch Campus

Did human language, conversation, reasoning, and/or argument evolve?  The answers to these question depend in part on how “evolution” is to be understood. Does evolution in the relevant sense involve a gradual process or can it be abrupt? Does it have to involve selection of some sort and, if so, is the relevant issue about selection an issue about biological selection, or does it include social selection, or even individual selection?

Is the question about the evolution of human language a question about the evolution of the “language faculty” or about the evolution of particular languages, dialects, idiolects, or “i-languages”?

Chomsky has argued that human languages differ from nonhuman animal systems of communication in several respects, especially including that human languages but not animal systems can exhibit a kind of “discrete infinity,” a recursive aspect so that sentences can occur in larger sentences, noun phrases in larger sentences, etc. There would seem to be no way in which a the system of discrete infinity could gradually evolve.

Chomsky speculates that a certain heritable brain modification occurred in one or a few early humans giving them a capacity for discrete infinity in their thinking which game them a advantage in coping with the environment and each other compared to proto humans lacking that capacity. Natural selection might then have favored these humans over others. Although the process leading to the capacity for discrete infinity would then not have been a gradual process, there would gradually be more and more humans with that capacity and fewer and fewer proto-humans without it. In that case the capacity did not gradually evolve, but the number of humans with that capacity did gradually evolve.

In this scenario, proto-humans would presumably have had systems of communication lacking discrete infinity, systems involving speech and gesture. A further speculation might be that the acquisition of such systems admitting of discrete infinity would have been enough to endow humans with the faculty of human language. Suppose that was the case and suppose further that the selective advantage that humans had over proto-humans was due to the capacity for more complex individual thinking and planning, rather than being due to increased communication abilities. If so, the capacity for human linguistic communication would be what Steven J. Gould called a “spandrel,” a useful byproduct of natural selection.

I am going to discuss these and other issues about the possible evolution of human language, conversation, reasoning, and argument, trying to get clearer in what sort of evolution might be relevant and what kind of evidence there might be for various views on these topics.

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For more information go to:  
Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS) homepage: http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/ruccs/
RuCCS "What Is Cognitive Science Series: http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/ruccs/index.php/talks/what-is-cognitive-science

Details

Date:
November 1, 2012
Time:
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Event Categories:
, ,

Venue

Psychology Building, Room 101 Rutgers University, Busch Campus
New Jersey, United States

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