‘Leave the starry heavens alone’: Some old problems of mind and matter

Scientific understanding can be roughly defined – as Chomsky once said – as a convergence between properties of the mind and properties of the world. What form does this convergence take?

Heisenberg is supposed to have said to Einstein that ‘If nature leads us to mathematical forms of great simplicity and beauty … to forms that no one has previously encountered, we cannot help thinking that they are “true”, that they reveal a genuine feature of nature’. He warned in Physics and Philosophy, discussing his major brainchild, that ‘we have at first no simple guide with correlating the mathematical symbols with concepts of ordinary language; and the only thing we know from the start is the fact that our common concepts cannot be applied to the structure of the atoms’. It follows from this that any scientist, be it natural, cognitive, or social, must distinguish between concepts of ordinary discourse (thought, water, shape) and theoretical constructs (dendrite, H2O, mass).

Contemporary physicists wonder whether macroscopic ‘objects’, which appear to follow classical principles, can also follow the laws of the quantum world. Recent research suggests that wave-particle duality, tunnelling, entanglement and coherence are not restricted to subatomic structures. Oxford physicist Vlatko Vedral says: ‘The impression that quantum mechanics is limited to the microworld permeates the public understanding of science’. But this convenient division is ‘a myth’. Quantum states are prone to collapse if their complexity reaches limits beyond the reaches of entanglement, but although quantum effects may be harder to detect at higher levels of complexity, this is not a reflection on the interaction of quantum systems themselves.

One of the most prominent examples is the role quantum entanglement plays within the electromagnetic fields of plant cells during photosynthesis. Electrons inside plant cells need to reach the chemical reaction centre to deposit their energy. But in the quantum world a particle can take all possible paths at once. The electromagnetic fields within plant cells can reinforce certain paths and cancel out others, drastically increasing the chances of an electron taking the maximally efficient path. The resulting quantum entanglement would only last for a fraction of a second, involving molecules with at most 100,000 atoms.

Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden’s 2014 study Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology details how aspects of the quantum world may explain certain properties of macroscopic bodies. To illustrate, the European robin has the ability to compute the direction and strength of the earth’s magnetic field. This common magnetoreceptive navigation method is ‘an enigma’, for the authors. Earth’s weak magnetic field must set off a biochemical reaction in the robin, but the energy supplied by this process is ‘less than a billionth of the energy needed to break or make a chemical bond’. Vedral likewise argues that the avian compass depends on a quantum-entangled radical pair mechanism, since the superposition and entanglement of the radical pair compass can last for tens of microseconds, potentially long enough for the robin to be directed in a particular direction.

Al-Khalili and McFadden reject the common view that quantum mechanics only plays a trivial role in biology. They invoke quantum entanglement as the process needed to explain the robin’s magnetoreceptive capacities. Entanglement occurs when two distant particles are non-locally connected by being part of the same quantum state. These states are lost when measured. Randomising factors in macroscopic objects (scattering and vibrations, etc.) cause the wave-like properties of particles to quickly dissipate, being factored as ‘measurements’.

Quantum phenomena, including tunnelling and superpositions, have been detected in biological processes ranging from photosynthesis to the production of biomolecules, while the forty-six supermolecules that make up DNA are unusually sensitive to quantum mechanical laws. A small but increasing number of researchers are publishing papers on quantum biology (QB), but they remain a minority. Those who reject QB could arguably be indirectly promoting a form of latter-day ‘vitalism’, or the view that biology cannot be reduced to chemistry and physics, whilst QB adherents appear to be reviving a form of 1920s ‘organicism’, which held biology to be governed by the same laws as all other matter.  

Sticking to core topics in the biological sciences, it’s been noted that photosynthesis and respiration both share crucial features: humans ‘burn’ organic molecules to capture their electrons, while plants use light to ‘burn’ water to capture the electrons of H2O. The motions of particles involved in these processes is governed by quantum laws. Chlorophyll molecules have been shown to operate a search strategy term the ‘quantum walk’: a photon’s energy moves to the reaction centre through a photosynthetic complex termed the Fenna-Matthews-Olson (FMO) protein following multiple routes at the same time. Edward O’Reilly and Alexandra Olaya-Castro at UCL have shown that the exciton and its surrounding molecular vibrations share a single quantum of energy in a way which requires a quantum mechanical account, leading to ‘a role for non-trivial quantum phenomena in biology’. A recent review of QB poses a more general challenge, currently elusive: ‘[W]e must also account for how quantum subsystems at the nanoscale can depend on macroscale dynamics of organisms through evolution’.

There is also a growing consensus that QB may help discover whether there exists in nature more complex instances of persistent entanglement. Through the property of entanglement, electrons (and other particles of mass like buckyballs) interact, separate, and then behave (through spin or momentum) as if they were a single entity. Einstein termed this ‘spooky action at a distance’, regarding it as physically implausible. Yet the post-Newtonian world no longer contains a coherent notion of what physical is supposed to be; ‘physical’ just means whatever we come to understand in certain detail.

Relatedly, philosopher Galen Strawson notes that we know nothing about the physical which should lead us to doubt that experiential phenomena are wholly physical phenomena: ‘You might as well think that the efficacy of the binary system raises doubts about the validity of the decimal system’. Al-Khalili and McFadden are misguided, then, in claiming that the so-called mind-body problem ‘is surely the deepest mystery of our existence’. Newton taught us that bodies are not static, inert entities floating in space, and so we are quite within reason to conclude with Chomsky that matter ‘is no more incompatible with sensation and thought than with attraction and repulsion’.

In a discussion of physicalism and supervenience, Jeffrey Yoshimi notes that ‘physical systems aggregate into increasingly complex structures, existing at different levels of organization’. Like Heisenberg, Plato believed intelligibility was to be found only in the world of geometry and mathematics, with the world of sensation an unreal one. An effective study of astronomy, in his view, requires that ‘we shall proceed, as we do in geometry, by means of problems, and leave the starry heavens alone’.

Following the model of theoretical biology constructed by D’Arcy Thompson along with the emerging evo-devo program, an influential paper on the physical genesis of multicellular forms concludes that, ‘rather than being the result of evolutionary adaptation, much morphological plasticity reflects the influence of external physico-chemical parameters on any material system and is therefore an inherent, inevitable property of organisms’. These observations lead us to two central questions: (i) What explanatory power do basic physical laws have in accounting for biological complexity?; (ii) At what point do we need to invoke further complex process like natural selection? Traditionally, those who opted for physical law as their primary explanatory tool were termed ‘formalists’, and included such figures as D’Arcy Thompson, Richard Owen, Stuart Kauffman, Geoffroy St. Hilaire, Richard Goldschmidt, Nikolai Severtzov, Louis Agassiz and Goethe (whose plant studies led him to coin the term ‘rational morphology’). They focused on form and structural commonalities as their explanandum, leaving aside the question of adaptive effects as a secondary concern.

The modern Neo-Darwinian synthesis, heralded primarily by breakthroughs in Mendelian genetics, stands in opposition to formalism, and is typically associated with figures such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. QB, then, follows the formalist tradition without acknowledging its existence, which perhaps is to be expected considering the widespread acceptance of Neo-Darwinism, adaptationism and functionalism in mainstream evolutionary biology. It is consequently not too surprising that the formalist Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s 1928 book Critical Theory of Morphogenesis influenced the quantum physicist and early quantum biologist Pascual Jordan.

Though not a formalist himself, L.T. Hobhouse (an early critic of the Boer War and the UK’s use of concentration camps in South Africa, which later inspired major Nazi figures) stressed in his 1901 study Mind in Evolution that the chaotic motion both of long grass and of ‘the white blood-corpuscle’ are ‘only very complicated results of the same set of physical laws in accordance with which the grass bows before the wind’. Newton, as Friedrich Lange explained in his classic History of Materialism, ‘had made the theory of some such universal attractive force necessary, by laying completely aside his unripe and vague conjectures as to the material cause of attraction, and kept strictly to what he could prove – the mathematical causes of the phenomena, supposing that there were some principle of approximation operation inversely as the square of the distance, let its physical nature be what it may’. In the case of Newton’s ‘occult force’ of gravity (as he conceived it), ‘the mathematical construction went ahead of the physical explanation, and on this occasion the circumstance was to attain a significance unsuspected by Newton himself’.

Since Newton, common sense understanding of space and causation have been thrown into disarray: ‘The status of causation’, John Collins points out, ‘has been moot ever since Newton’s impugnation of “hypotheses”, notwithstanding the common appeal to the notion as if it were the natural relation par excellence’. It may well be that what happened to notions like causation and space will also happen to quantum; that is, perhaps we will come to accept that the problems of quantum mechanics may be problems of the biology of language and mind.

Converging these views with a rejection of physicalism, Strawson writes: ‘I should admit, though, that I don’t fully know the nature of the physical. No one does. Nearly all of us take is that the physical is essentially spatio-temporal, for example, but no one expert in these matters claims to know for certain what space and time are, or whether they are really fundamental features of reality as we standardly conceive them’.

Chris Daly pointed out in 1998 that by lacking a concept of physical ‘no debate between physicalism and dualism can even be set up’. The post-Newtonian world simply does not entertain such ‘material’ notions. The conceptual implications are laid out by Steven Pinker: While quantum physics is infamously counterintuitive, ‘[w]hat is less appreciated is that classical Newtonian physics is also deeply counterintuitive. The theory in the history of physics that is closest to intuitive force dynamics is the medieval notion of impetus, in which a moving object has been imbued with some kind of vim or zest that pushes it along for a while and gradually dissipates’.

In 1737, Francesco Algarotti translated Newtonian physics for the unversed (specifically ‘the Ladies’, in his case) and acknowledged that ‘we are as yet but Children in this vast Universe, and are very far from having a [complete] Idea of Matter; we are utterly unable to pronounce what Properties are agreeable to it, and what are not’. For all the advances of QB, we may ultimately never be able to move beyond the situation described by Strawson: ‘I may also feel I understand – see – why this billiard ball does this when struck in this way by that billiard ball. But in this case there is already a more accessible sense in which I don’t really understand what is going on, and it is an old point that if I were to ask for and receive an explanation, in terms of impact and energy transfer, starting a series of questions and answers that would have to end with a reply that was not an explanation but rather had the form “Well, that’s just the way things are.”’

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New paper out in Glossa

New paper published in Glossa on the ancient debate of whether language is optimally designed for cognition or communication.

Language design and communicative competence: The minimalist perspective

“In the Minimalist Program, the place of linguistic communication in language evolution and design is clear: It is assumed to be secondary to internalisation. I will defend this position against its critics, and maintain that natural selection played a more crucial role in selecting features of externalization and communication than in developing the computational system of language, following some core insights of Minimalism. The lack of communicative advantages to many core syntactic processes supports the Minimalist view of language use. Alongside the computational system, human language exhibits ostensive-inferential communication via open-ended combinatorial productivity, and I will explore how this system is compatible with – and does not preclude – a Minimalist model of the language system.”

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Lenneberg and Brain Dynamics: Comments on Balari & Lorenzo (2017)

Sergio Balari and Guillermo Lorenzo have a paper in the current volume of Biolinguistics, which is dedicated to celebrating the 50th anniversary of Lenneberg’s Biological Foundations of Language. The paper includes a number of unusual claims about computational approaches to neurobiology which I want to briefly address here.
They begin their discussion of neuolinguistics by claiming that “it is our contention that most self-declared biolinguistic approaches … have systematically misapplied the [Marrian] notion of ‘level’ in their attempts at solving the unification problem [of unifying linguistic computation with neurobiology]”. They claim that the connectome (the set of neural connections) and dynome/oscillome (brain dynamics) “are clearly not levels in any possible sense” purely because there is an ongoing project (that the authors are not involved in) to map how brain regions are dynamically connected. But this project crucially is far from over, and so even though at some point direct connectome-oscillome connections should be made, at the moment they clearly are fundamentally distinct levels of description – unless Balari and Lorenzo can explain how they are unified.
The following four paragraphs proceed to repeat the claim that we do not currently understand neural computation. This is true, but only insofar as a physics paper containing four paragraphs lamenting the lack of a Grand Unified Theory is also true. It is common knowledge in the field that neural computation is not understood, yet there are in fact a number of theoretical attempts to solve this conundrum, which Balari and Lorenzo do not critically engage with but rather dismiss out of hand:
“We raise these issues hopefully not for provoking a paralyzing effect, but to caution against an excessively enthusiastic reading of certain recent proposals concerning the computational character of brain oscillations (e.g., those of Murphy 2015, 2016) which do not seem to have taken into account the complications we just alluded to. To repeat, this is not to deny the potential relevance of brain oscillations in an eventual account of neural computation, but evidence so far is only correlational, in the sense that oscillations do play some role in linguistic tasks (e.g., Lewis et al. 2015, Lewis & Bastiaansen 2015, Ding et al. 2016), but we have so far been unable to disentangle the computational role they purportedly play.”
Had they read the papers they cite, they would have found that Murphy (2016a: 16) provides precisely the kind of analysis they claim is lacking in the field, discussing recent indications that oscillations play a causal role in the perceptual segregation of sound patterns – a topic expanded on in Murphy (2016b) which explores other recent tACS experiments into the theta-gamma code for working memory lending these oscillations a causal role in explaining the physical limitations of cognition. Citing existing work into the causal role of oscillations in behaviour is not an “excessively enthusiastic” thing to do, it is simply a way of providing evidence for one’s claims, a procedure seemingly alien to the authors.
More generally, as Uriagereka has already pointed out, expecting a one-to-one mapping between higher-order computational or psycholinguistic theories and neurobiology is similar to expecting a one-to-one mapping between cosmic background radiation and the Big Bang – certainly possible, but highly unlikely, and not even the goal of the neurolinguist attempting to rebuild our understanding of linguistic computation from the bottom-up.
In short, Balari and Lorenzo claim to provide a bold critique of the oscillation literature but in fact do no such thing.
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Recursion and Oscillations: Comments on Boeckx (2016) and Goucha et al. (2016)

Cedric Boeckx has a new paper out in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, “A conjecture about the neural basis of recursion in light of descent with modification”. The central thesis is summarised as follows: “I argue that the expansion of the parietal region associated with the globularization of the neurocranium in our species contributed to the transformation of the connection between Broca’s and Wernicke’s region via Geschwind’s territory, and enabled the pairing of evolutionary ancient networks that together became capable of constructing and processing not just sequences, but sequences of sequences”.
Boeckx writes that recursion “rests firmly on primate cognition and neural circuitry”. More precisely, the paper claims that “the neuroanatomical reconfiguration of the parietal lobe brought about by globularization extended the Broca-Wernicke connection (to be precise, its dorsal dimension) into “Geschwind’s territory”, forming a fronto-parieto-temporal circuit that provides the basis for richer representational capacities, viz. recursive capacities”.
Here, he discusses and agrees with the Friederici-inspired story that the development of the fronto-temporal dorsal stream somehow brought about a shift from single-instance concatenation operations to hierarchically organised sequences. The additional detail Boeckx provides is to claim that the expansion of the parietal lobe – a consequence of a more globularised braincase – served to bring about the strengthening of dorsal stream connections. This in turn resulted in “the pairing of two evolutionary ancient networks (one fronto-parietal, the other fronto-temporal), both of which build and process sequences”. This idea has been expressed in Berwick and Chomsky’s recent book Why Only Us, and who were themselves re-articulating the findings of primatologists from the past couple of years. However, this story says nothing about how the brain actually implements what Boeckx refers to as “the nature of the computation (and algorithm) involved”.
Boeckx goes on to claim that this pairing of two streams (each capable of finite-state computations) “could have the effect of boosting computational possibilities. Instead of operating on one-dimensional sequences, one now operates on two-dimensional, ‘tree’ representations”. Boeckx believes that if the fronto-parietal dorsal stream were to be “combined (integrated) with another sequencing machine, sequences of sequences would naturally emerge as a result”. But this appears to be something of a magic step: Pairing two finite-state machines does not produce a higher-order device, and pairing a sequence with another sequence does not necessarily produce “sequences of sequences”. While it may be true that syntactic labeling plus a form of “spell-out” provides the human-specific features of language, and that both labeling and spell-out can be loosely (but only partly) attributed to the hierarchically organised fronto-parietal structures and the fronto-temporal loop connections to externalisation, the jump from single-instance concatenation to recursion likely required more than the pairing of two sequence processors.
Still, the paper is filled with attractive ideas, such as the following: “Perhaps the fact that the parietal lobe has long been associated with numerosity … may help us understand why syntactic structures exhibit a spontaneous ‘logicality’ … intimately related to quantification, processed by the fronto-parietal network”. There is almost certainly something to this, and as Boeckx is well aware the field could certainly do with more of these sorts of multidisciplinary gestures.
There are some very concrete proposals about the neurocomputational properties of brain waves with respect to language, for instance here, here, here and here. There does, however, seem to be much confusion concerning this oscillatory approach to language. Goucha, Zaccarella and Friederici (2016), for instance, make the following claim:
“Alternative mechanisms based on brain oscillations have been proposed as a crucial element for the emergence of language (Murphy, 2015b) … However, those mechanisms seem to already be in place in other species. For example, despite the crucial brain expansion that took place in primates and especially humans compared to other mammals, the rhythmical hierarchy of oscillations is mainly kept unchanged (Buzsáki et al., 2013). As Friederici and Singer (2015) pinpoint, the basic neural mechanisms behind cognition through the hierarchical embedding of oscillations are transversal across animals.”
However, while the hierarchy of brain rhythms themselves may be preserved, it is crucially their cross-frequency coupling relations which are human-specific – a major topic for future research.
Boeckx, C. 2016. A conjecture about the neural basis of recursion in light of descent with modification. Journal of Neurolinguistics http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneuroling.2016.08.003.
Goucha, T., Zaccarella, E., & Friederici, A.D. 2016. A revival of the homo loquens as a builder of labeled structures: neurocognitive considerations. Ms. Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Germany.
Posted in Linguistics | 4 Comments

New paper on pragmatic unarticulated constituents

New paper published in Biolinguistics on the nature of pragmatic unarticulated constituents and the syntax-semantics interface.
“This paper explores the prospect that grammatical expressions are propositionally whole and psychologically plausible, leading to the explanatory burden being placed on syntax rather than pragmatic processes, with the latter crucially bearing the feature of optionality. When supposedly unarticulated constituents are added, expressions which are propositionally distinct, and not simply more specific, arise. The ad hoc nature of a number of pragmatic processes carry with them the additional problem of effectively acting as barriers to implementing language in the brain. The advantages of an anti-lexicalist biolinguistic methodology are discussed, and a bi-phasal model of linguistic interpretation is proposed, Phasal Eliminativism, carved by syntactic phases and (optionally) enriched by a restricted number of pragmatic processes. In addition, it is shown that the syntactic operation of labeling (departing from standard Merge-centric evolutionary hypotheses) is responsible for a range of semantic and pragmatic phenomena, rendering core aspects of syntax and lexical pragmatics commensurable.”
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Rhythmic Syntax, Granularity, and Future of the Interdisciplinarian


Boeckx and Theofanopoulou (2015) today produced a commentary on ‘Labels, Cognomes and Cyclic Computation: An Ethological Perspective’ (Murphy 2015a; henceforth LCC). With care and instructive insights into the life sciences they expand the discussion of the computational capacities of non-humans, and note that the discussion of brain dynamics (the ‘dynome’; Koppell et al. 2014) in LCC is insufficient to act as a serious alternative to the Chomsky Hierarchy. This general omission was down to reasons of space and focus, so I would like to take this opportunity to further explore the topic.

Firstly, it should be stressed that LCC in fact acknowledges the limits of a purely formal approach to ‘computational ethology’, citing also Murphy (2015b). In this work, the extent to which brain rhythms are the suitable neuronal processes which can capture the computational properties of the human language faculty is considered against a backdrop of existing cartographic research into the localisation of linguistic interpretation. It follows Ramirez et al. 2015 in translating into rhythmic terms the operations of the human cognome. Motivations for this approach are not obscure: The ERP community has spent a great deal of time decomposing the major components, such as the P600 and N400. It is taken for granted that the level of analysis provided by these ‘large’ components does not suffice at the electrophysiological level to describe typically generic linguistic sub-operations. The urge to seek a finer level of granularity, then, is clearly manifested in the ERP community through EEG and MEG investigations (Lau et al. 2008), but this objective is not found in the vast majority of cartographic neuroimaging research.

The applications of narrow syntax must also be regulated, as Boeckx and Benitez-Burraco (2014: 5) put it, through ‘interfacing with and being embedded inside cognitive systems responsible for interpretation and externalization’. Reinterpreting their suggestions within a Label-based framework, possible physical correlates for Concatenate and Label are generic neural coding mechanisms within a globular cortical structure, with internally generated high frequency oscillations like the gamma range being ‘embedded inside an oscillation operating at a lower frequency such as the alpha range’ (2014: 5). Such lower frequencies are known to synchronise distant cortical regions; procedures which may represent the substrates of linguistic cross-modular mental transactions (Kinzler & Spelke 2007) being implemented via concatenation and labeling. Typically sidelined in the past, cortical oscillations are now understood to play ‘a potential role’ in speech processing, according to Poeppel’s ‘temporal view’ hypothesis (Poeppel 2014: 142). Oscillations have also been linked to the timing of cortical information processing (Klimesch et al. 2007).

Boeckx and Theofanopoulou (2015) also note the inadequacy of the syntactic concept ‘labeling’ in exploring cognitive phylogenies. Their alternative suggestion is to ground the cognome in the workings of brain dynamics, specifically oscillations – as is noted in LCC. The reason LCC introduced the notion of labeling at the behavioural and computational level was purely to keep within the current – though, as noted, inadequate – pace of ethological inquiry. Dedicating more of LCC to the dynome would not have given the paper the approachability initially sought. It should also be stressed that, by introducing (in LCC) and later discussing (in Murphy 2015b) the dynome-cognome relation, computational ethology is not incommensurable with neuroethology. In addition, LCC makes clear what kind of evidence is needed to falsify the Labeling Hypothesis at the behavioural level, even if the notion of labeling requires an adequate decomposition (Murphy 2015c) for it to be explored alongside the dynome.

Boeckx and Theofanopoulou justifiably attend to the long-term goals of a cognome-dynome reconciliation. But it seems to me that the short-term goals discussed in LCC are just as important; perhaps more so, considering the current gulf between computational and behavioural studies. LCC was mainly concerned with shifting ethology towards a finer grained computational analysis, and regardless of whether labeling is formulated at an adequate level of granularity for a computational-implementational settlement to be reached (which LCC acknowledges), delivering a more computationally rigorous science of animal cognition (‘computational ethology’) is a well-motivated goal.

The centrality of labeling effects in linguistic interpretation is also evidenced, it seems to me, in recent neuroimaging work. Santi et al. (2015), for instance, show that ‘the involvement of Broca’s area in processing syntactic movement is best captured by memory mechanisms affected by agrammatically instantiated type-identity (i.e., NP) intervention’. Regarding the goals of investigations into the dynome, even though this work is important and fruitful, currently not enough is known about how oscillations relate to cognitive operations. The topic is empirical by nature, and what is needed at the moment are experimental designs which can tease apart rhythms, demonstrating a correlation with particular syntactic phenomena. And so while the dynome adds a vital biophysical perspective, traditional cartographic concerns should not be sidelined.

To illustrate, consider briefly the role of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) or Broca’s area, the traditional language region of the brain. Far from LIFG being the seat of syntax, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky and Schlesewsky (2013) provide reasons to believe that Broca’s area processes syntactic representations assembled in other brain regions. Considering that syntax is ‘a relatively basic and early information source’, and the frontal cortex ‘constitutes the point of convergence between the [dorsal and ventral] streams and is thereby essentially the furthest possible point downstream from primary auditory cortex’, the idea that LIFG is crucially involved in structure-building ‘appears somewhat surprising’ (2013: 63). Their time-(in)dependent model instead leads them to predict that syntax is ‘processed in networks that are still relatively far upstream within the processing streams and … close to primary sensory cortices’. They ultimately settle on posterior temporal regions as candidates for syntactic computation (see Bemis & Pylkkänen 2011, but also Theofanopoulou and Boeckx forthcoming for an overview of the potential role of the thalamus), while complementary research has revealed significant anterior temporal activity during compositional ‘semantic’ interpretation (Westerlund & Pylkkänen 2014).

We could say, then, that the ventral stream uses the lexical information provided by the anterior and posterior temporal lobe (Hickok & Poeppel 2007) to build sentence-level semantic representations which are ‘labeled’ (assigned projections/heads) by the dorsal stream’s parallel role of establishing syntactic (constituent) structure via what LCC terms the ‘Labeling Assembly’, lending neurobiological validity to the separation of set-formation and labeling seen in LCC.

As noted, shifting our focus from neuroimaging to more recent investigations of brain oscillations may provide a welcome (but as yet tenuous) way of translating into neural terms the operations of theoretical syntax. The brain rhythms investigated by Ramirez et al. (2015) – θ, α, β, γ – in their attempt at such a translation are generated by various cortical and subcortical structures. It has by now been well established that neural oscillations are related to a number of basic and higher cognitive functions (Buzsáki and Freeman 2015), for example speech perception (Giraud & Poeppel 2012). As Vaas notes, ‘Intrinsic oscillatory electrical activities, resonance and coherence are at the root of cognition’ (2001: 86).

Ramirez et al. also claim that the interaction of the dynome’s rhythms yields the syntactic sub-operations of lexicalisation, set-formation, labeling and cyclic Spell-Out. Set-formation, for instance, appears to be achieved by ‘a cross-frequency coupling mechanism between higher order thalamic nuclei … oscillating at α frequency … and [supragranular layers of cortical regions of the Default Mode Network (Raichle et al. 2001)] oscillating at the γ range’ (2015: 7). Labeling is achieved by one basal ganglia-thalamic-cortical loop, ‘likely crossing the dorsolateral striatum, disinhibiting the thalamic medio-dorsal nucleus, by means β of the rhythm, retaining in working memory one of the objects generated by [lexicalisation]’ (8). Related to Balari and Lorenzo’s (2013) claim that the basal ganglia is the centre of their ‘Central Computational Complex’ (the Merge capacity), Ramirez et al. propose that this region holds one of the γ-supported items before slowing it down to the β frequency as a consequence of the conduction delays resulting from the surrounding neural regions. Thus ‘the β frequency fulfils the role of non-terminal symbols’ (8); that is, labels.

In addition, the common claim that LIFG is necessary for processing hierarchical structures can now be qualified with the observations that, (i) this is only one aspect of syntactic processing (though a crucial one), and (ii) LIFG appears to be involved in ‘comprehending’ syntactic structures only insofar as it is responsible for the aspects of cognitive control which select among alternative representations. LIFG is correspondingly not the centre of syntactic comprehension, though Broca’s area does play a critical role in processing hierarchical representations. It may therefore be vital to labeling, but not set-formation.

Having evaluated the prospects for inquiry into the role of the LIFG in syntactic comprehension, it should be noted that the capacities I have claimed this region possesses are likely not unique to language (as Boeckx and Theofanopoulou 2015 also note), being instead domain-general computations found in other cognitive faculties (see the hierarchical processing found in vision (Ursini 2011) and motor planning (Fujita 2009)), and indeed other species (Schlenker et al. 2014). The exception, however, may be labeling. Finally, the operations of set-formation and labeling are not to be found ‘in LIFG’ or ‘in the left ATL’, but may rather emerge from the way brain waves synchronise the activation of pathways storing discrete featural representations. While it could be said that this simply amounts to a special kind of localisation, understanding brain rhythms could on the contrary shed light on why language is restricted to set-formation and labeling, and not some other imaginable operations which fall outside electrophysiological constraints.


Balari, S., & Lorenzo, G. (2013). Computational Phenotypes: Towards an Evolutionary Developmental Biolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bemis, D.K., & Pylkkänen, L. 2011. Simple composition: A magnetoencephalography investigation into the comprehension of minimal linguistic phrases. Journal of Neuroscience 31, 2801-2814.

Boeckx, C., & Benitez-Burraco, A. (2014). The shape of the human language-ready brain. Frontiers in Psychology 5, 282. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00282.

Boeckx, C., & Theofanopoulou, C. (2015). Language, cognomes, and the challenges of building cognitive phylogenies. Frontiers in Psychology 6:784. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00784.

Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I., & Schlesewsky, M. 2013. Reconciling time, space and function: A new dorsal-ventral stream model of sentence comprehension. Brain and Language 125, 60-76.

Buzsáki, G., & Freeman, W. 2015. Editorial overview: Brain rhythms and dynamic coordination. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 31, v-ix.

Giraud, A-L., & Poeppel, D. (2012). Cortical oscillations and speech processing: emerging computational principles and operations. Nature Neuroscience 15, 511-517.

Fujita, K. (2009). A prospect for evolutionary adequacy: merge and the evolution and development of human language. Biolinguistics 3(2), 128-153.

Hickok, G., & Poeppel, P. (2007). The cortical organization of speech processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 8, 393-402.

Kinzler, K. & Spelke, E. (2007). Core systems in human cognition. Progress in Brain Research 164, 257-264.

Klimesch, W., Sauseng, P., & Hanslmayr, S. (2007). EEG alpha oscillations: the inhibition/timing hypothesis. Brain Research Reviews 53, 63-88.

Kopell, N.J., Gritton, H.J., Whittington, M.A., & Kramer, M.A. (2014). Beyond the connectome: the dynome. Neuron 83(6), 1319-1328.

Lau, E., Phillips, C., & Poeppel, D. (2008). A cortical network for semantics: (de)constructing the N400. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9, 920-933. doi:10.1038/nrn2532.

Murphy, E. (2015a). Labels, cognomes and cyclic computation: An ethological perspective. Frontiers in Psychology 6: 715. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00715.

Murphy, E. (2015b). Labeling Effects, Rhythmic Cell Assemblies and the Brain Dynamics of Linguistic Computation: Towards an Explanatory Neurolinguistics. Ms. University College London.

Murphy, E. (2015c). Reference, phases and individuation: Topics and the labeling-interpretive interface. Opticon1826 17(5), 1-13. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/opt.cn.

Poeppel, D. (2014). The neuroanatomic and neurophysiological infrastructure for speech and language. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 28C, 142-149.

Raichle, M.E., MacLeod, A.M., Snyder, A.Z., Powers, W.J., Gusnard, D.A., & Shulman, G.L. (2001). A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98, 676-682.

Ramirez, J., Theofanopoulou, C., & Boeckx, C. (2015). A hypothesis concerning the neurobiological basis of phrase structure building. Ms. University of Barcelona.

Santi, A., Friederici, A. D., Makuuchi, M., & Grodzinsky, Y. (2015). An fMRI study dissociating distance measures computed by Broca’s area in movement processing: clause boundary vs. identity. Frontiers in Psychology 6: 654. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00654.

Schlenker, P., Chemla, E., Arnold, K., Lemasson, A., Ouattara, K., Keenan, S., Stephan, C., Ryder, R., & Zuberbühler, K. (2014). Monkey semantics: two ‘dialects’ of Campbell’s monkey alarm calls. Linguistics and Philosophy 37(6), 439-501.

Theofanopoulou, C., & Boeckx, C. (Forthcoming). The central role of the thalamus in language and cognition. In Boeckx, C., & Fujita, K. (eds). Advances in Biolinguistics: The Human Language Faculty and its Biological Basis. London: Routledge.

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Vaas, R. (2001). It binds, therefore I am! Review of Rodolfo Llinás’ ‘I of the Vortex’. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8(4), 85-88.

Westerlund, M., & Pylkkänen, L. (2014). The role of the left anterior temporal lobe in semantic composition vs. semantic memory. Neuropsychologia 57, 59-70.

Posted in Linguistics | 2 Comments

Real Methodological Naturalism: The Problem of Naturalism and the Limits of Inquiry

Johannes Kepler's Astronomia Nova

Johannes Kepler’s Astronomia Nova

In a recent paper, ‘Naturalism without metaphysics’, philosopher John Collins notes that scientific naturalism does not have to be a metaphysical position, and in fact any serious naturalist must suppose that their metaphysics reaches only as far as their theoretical constructs. This methodological naturalism is therefore ‘an antimetaphysical doctrine’. Science proceeds on whatever course it takes, neither feigning (metaphysical) hypotheses nor establishing arbitrary ontological divisions like mind vs body. There is, in the end, only the world, with its various properties, defined by natural science as ‘optical’, ‘chemical’, ‘cosmological’, and so forth.

Indirectly supporting this naturalistic stance, Edmund Burke, like Oscar Wilde (for whom ‘to define is to limit’), proposed in his modestly entitled A Philosophy Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757: ‘When we define we seem in danger of circumscribing nature within the bounds of our own notions, which we often … form out of a limited and partial consideration of the object before us, instead of extending our ideas to take in all that nature comprehends, according to her manner of combining. … A definition may be very exact, and yet go very little way towards informing us to the nature of the thing defined.’

The deep Chomsky develops this further: ‘Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. The reason why physics can achieve such depth is that it restricts itself to extremely simple things, abstracted from the complexity of the world. As soon as an atom gets too complicated, maybe helium, they hand it over to chemists. When problems become too complicated for chemists, they hand it over to biologists. Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on. But it’s a complicated matter: Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated.’

Joseph Priestley, one of the most influential chemists of his age, thought the Cartesian theory that reasons that a man is ‘capable of thinking better when the body and brain are destroyed, seems to be the most unphilosophical and absurd of all conclusions.’ Keats, Shelley and Coleridge, along with other Romantic poets, were heavily influenced by this naturalistic account of the mind. Priestley later came to the accurate conclusion that ‘the powers of sensation or perception and thought, as belonging to man, have never been found but in conjunction with a certain organized system of matter; and therefore, that those powers necessarily exist in, and depend upon, such a system. This, as least, much be our conclusion, till it can be shown that these powers are incompatible with other known properties of the same substance; and for this I see no sort of pretence … we ought to conclude that the whole man is material unless it should appear that he has some powers or properties that are absolutely incompatible with matter.’

Hilary Putnam adds: ‘Science as we know it has been anti-metaphysical from the seventeenth century on: and not just because of ‘positivistic interpretations’. Newton was certainly no positivist; but he strongly rejected the idea that his theory of universal gravitation could or should be read as a description of metaphysically ultimate fact. (‘Hypotheses non fingo’ was a rejection of metaphysical ‘hypotheses’, not of scientific ones.).’ ‘Matter’ and ‘physical’ are simply terms which stand for whatever entities are postulated by present naturalism, with any Cartesian intuitions about mechanical causes failing to explain the possible existence of Majorana particles, which are simultaneously matter and anti-matter (even the fact that matter is mostly empty space does not deny its place amongst ‘the physical’: ‘Anti-matter’ is still ‘matter’, so to speak.).

It is important to stress, then, that ongoing science has no worldview at all, no hypotheses, just methodologies and posited entities existing within particular explanatory theories. Edward Witten agrees: ‘It’s good to bear in mind that in the nineteenth century physicists didn’t even have the aspiration to explain why glass is transparent or why grass is green, why ice melts at the temperature it does, and so on. The progress of physics has always been such that the level of understanding for which one generation aims wasn’t even dreamed of a generation or two earlier.’

Putnam also once pointed out that ‘even the simple fact that a square peg won’t fit into a round hole cannot be explained in terms of molecules and atoms but only at a higher level of analysis involving rigidity (regardless of what makes the peg rigid) and geometry.’ In addition to Chomsky’s point, Gell-Mann has said that reduction in the natural sciences as a method of unification is ‘great, but it will only take you so far in the study of complex subjects. Do you try to understand earthquakes in terms of quarks? Of course not. You use intermediate concepts, like plate tectonics and friction.’

Upon meeting his friend and student, Elizabeth Anscombe, in a corridor at Cambridge, Wittgenstein asked her: ‘Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?’ Anscombe replied: ‘Well, obviously because it just looks as though the sun is going round the Earth.’ Wittgenstein responded: ‘Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?’ If Anscombe found herself unable to reply, she had only her constrained and adapted wits to blame. Science is unavoidably directed by natural biases and proclivities, often with the boundary between scientific construct and conceptual paradox not being at all clear.

Consider the notion of time, which has largely proved itself to be an intractable problem. Common sense conceptions of time haven’t changed since Augustine wrote the Confessions: ‘It is not strictly correct to say that there are three times, past, present and future. It might be correct to say that there are three times, a present of things past, a present of present things, and a present of future things.’ When asked what his experience of time was like during a mescaline trip, Aldous Huxley replied in The Doors of Perception: ‘There seems to be plenty of it.’ String theorist Brian Greene, on other hand, might not agree with him: ‘Time is with us, every moment. I can’t even say a sentence without invoking a temporal word – moment. But what is time? When we look at the mathematics of what it is or where it came from, time is there, but there’s no deep explanation of what it is or where it came from.’

Adding to this, physicist Sean Carroll believes ‘We have no right to claim that the universe and time started at the big bang, or had some sort of prehistory.’ After the collapse of Cartesian mechanical philosophy, Leibniz, rivaling Newton, proposed that change is the fundamental property of the universe, while time emerges from our mental efforts to organise the changing world around us. Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the Centre for Theoretical Physics in Marseilles, has ‘rewritten the rules of quantum mechanics so that they make no reference to time.’ Echoing Leibniz, he claims that ‘Physics is not about “how does the moon move through the sky?” but rather “how does the moon move in the sky with respect to the sun?” Time is in our mind, not in the basic physical reality.’ For Dean Rickles, a philosopher of science at the University of Sydney, neither quantum physics nor general relativity can account for the existence of time: ‘It is highly likely that what we think of as time emerges from some deeper, more primitive non-temporal structure.’

Linda Geddes adds that, ‘While we have a fairly good grasp on the millisecond timing involved in fine motor tasks and the circadian rhythms of the 24-hour cycle, how we consciously perceive the passage of seconds and minutes – so-called internal timing – remains decidedly murky.’ For humans ‘there is no dedicated sensory organ for time perception, as there are for perceiving the physical and chemical nature of our environment through touch, taste and smell. Time is also unusual in that there is no clinical condition that can be defined purely as a lack of time perception, which makes it difficult to study.’ Time is ‘so fundamental to cognition that our brains have developed several back-up systems that can kick in if the main clock is damaged, which is why it is so difficult to find anyone who cannot perceive time.’

René Magritte, an artist with an eye for the illusory, held that ‘We see [the world] as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of what we experience inside ourselves. … Time and space thus lose that unrefined meaning which is the only one everyday experience takes into account.’ But notions like time and consciousness, while attractive and intriguing, often derail serious inquiry into more empirically manageable topics. As Montaigne wrote, ‘I have always felt grateful to that girl from Miletus who, seeing the local philosopher … with his eyes staring upwards, constantly occupied in contemplating the vault of heaven, made him trip over, to warn him that there was time enough to occupy his thoughts with things above the clouds when he had accounted for everything lying before his feet.’

Relatedly, Kurt Lewin’s notion of Galilean explanations, as opposed to Aristotelian ones, is a distinction in the physical sciences which Cedric Boeckx has recently carried over to the cognitive sciences: ‘Aristotelian laws or explanation have the following characteristics: they are recurrent, that is statistically significant; they specifically (though not always) target functions, that is they have a functionalist flavor to them; they also allow for exceptions, organized exceptions or not, but at least they allow for exceptions; and finally they have to do with observables of various kinds. … [Galilean laws] are typically formal in character, and they are very abstract mathematically. They allow for no exceptions and they are hidden. That is, if you fail to find overtly the manifestation of a particular law that you happen to study, this does not mean that it is not universal. It just means that it is hidden and that we have to look at it more closely and we will eventually see that the law actually applies.’

Ernst Mayr, in his deeply-informed study What Makes Biology Unique?, wrote that in the study of the organic world ‘to have isolated all parts, even the smallest ones, is not enough for a complete explanation of most systems,’ noting further that ‘laws certainly play a rather small role in theory construction in biology’ ‘because evolutionary regularities do not deal with the basics of matter as do the laws of physics. They are invariably restricted in space and time, and they usually have numerous exceptions.’

At this point it is useful to distinguish between intuitive explanations (a form of folk science) and scientific ones. The former is reminiscent of Kepler’s astronomical theory in 1619 work The Harmonies of the World, which ‘affirmed that the planet’s elliptical orbits caused each to produce a series of rising and falling notes, radically unlike the supposed monotonous droning of the Ptolomaic spheres; together, the planets sang in a polyphony that could be heard only by the Composer.’ This added to the beliefs of other pre-Newtonian astronomers, who thought the planets of the solar system had senses. This is similar to Schopenhauer’s view of astronomy, ‘where heavenly bodies sport with each other, betray inclination, and as it were exchange amorous glances, though never driving matters so far as coarse contact, but, keeping due distance, decorously dance their minuet to the music of the spheres.’

Contrary to Quine’s view that an understanding of substances and individuals depends on an acquired quantificational syntax (such as the mass-count distinction), Soja, Carey and Spelke have shown that during the earliest stages of language acquisition, children make use of conceptual categories of ‘substance’ and ‘individual’ virtually equivalent to those used by adults, forming our ‘intuitive materials-science.’ Count nouns are unbounded and made of individuals, whereas the opposite applies to mass nouns, leading Pinker to suggest that ‘our basic ideas about matter are not the concepts “mass” and “mass” but the mini-concepts “bounded” and “made up of individuals.”’ Unlike pebbles and gravel, collective nouns like ‘committee’ are both bounded and made of individuals: but again, these are not metaphysical matters. ‘Hair’ and ‘hairs’ are respectively count and mass nouns, but a physicist would not ask with Richard Lederer ‘why a man with hair on his head has more hair than a man with hairs on his head.’

Correspondingly, ontological questions about what things ‘really are’ are left aside as a hindrance, of no more concern to cognitive science than the classical categories of ‘earth’, ‘air’, ‘fire’ and ‘water’ are to physics. We are in a similar position as the medieval scholastics, with ‘the world’ once again beyond comprehension, a feeling Plato touched on when musing on the accumulation of knowledge: ‘Every one of us is like a man who sees things in a dream and thinks that he knows them perfectly and then wakes up, as it were, to find that he knows nothing.’

As has happened in the past, it is quite possible that we are miscategorising the problems of science when we talk about time and other matters. I will call this the Problem of Naturalism, which has two complementary levels:

The Problem of Naturalism: (i) How much of physical theory can be reduced to human conceptual structure? (ii) How much of our conceptual capacities can be accounted for in physical terms?

Possible candidates for the first question are space and time, while candidates for the second question include particular (and possibly optimal) computations of the human language faculty. For instance, the operation of Concatenation simply takes two conceptual units/representations and constructs an unordered set out of them, e.g. [α, β]. Sidelining a lot of important details, we can briefly summarise that the sensorimotor system that language interfaces with naturally imposes some form of order on the externalised representations (that is, words have to be spoken in a particular order, not instantaneously). This parsing and externalisation constraint, however, doesn’t seem to apply to the conceptual interface, which recognises only hierarchical relations between words.

Returning to the above naturalistic concerns, the Problem of Naturalism is one of the reasons why Carnap and Quine’s advocation of reducing philosophy to science through introducing the ‘philosophy of science’ has been entirely misleading and damaging, since it presupposes two separate methodologies and areas of inquiry: the ‘scientific method’ and, even more obscurely, the ‘philosophical method’. Many philosophers like Quine, Carnap, Toulmin and Popper first took degrees in physics or mathematics, only later turning to philosophical questions, their love of a priori reflection presumably intact. Terms like ‘philosophy’, ‘science’, ‘matter’ and ‘mind’ are largely historical residues, and considering them in isolation by ignoring their origins only leads to confusion.

There are, of course, different kinds of theories within the sciences, some stressing the importance of natural selection (evolutionary psychology), others physical constraints (theoretical biology), others ‘elegance’ and ‘beauty’ (theoretical physics, cosmology, minimalist syntax), but none of them cohere mysteriously by following the same ‘method’ any more than artists follow the same ‘aesthetic method’ when painting portraits or crafting sculptures. As Otto Neurath explained, ‘There is no scientific method. There are only scientific methods. And each of these is fragile; replaceable, indeed destined for replacement; contested from decade to decade, from discipline to discipline, even from lab to lab.’

More generally, as Galen Strawson notes, ‘In cognition we never do more than aim or tilt our minds; the rest is up to nature, trained or not. Much bodily movement is ballistic, relative to the initiating impulse; the same goes for thought.’ We cannot we rid ourselves of the capacity for imagination and thought that the evolution of language (likely) yielded. They are, as Heinrich von Kleist understood in his short story ‘On the Marionette Theatre’, species-defining properties: ‘“Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.” “Therefore,” I said, somewhat bewildered, “we would have to eat again from the Tree of Knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?” “Quite right,” he answered. “And that’s the last chapter in the history of the world.”’

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Infinite Jest: Putting the ‘a’ in ‘a priori’

David Foster WallaceThe truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.  David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

David Foster Wallace, widely considered one of the greatest American writers, hanged himself in his garage on September 12th 2008 after suffering for years from severe depression. Not caring for fame or prestigious book prizes, though he won his fair share, Wallace spent his life eager to write what he called ‘morally passionate’ fiction, which he believed at its core is ‘about what it is to be a fucking human being’, helping readers ‘become less alone inside.’ He believed with an old school teacher of his that the purpose of fiction is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ Unlike George Orwell or Arundhati Roy, Wallace wrote more with sorrow than anger, but this is by no means a bad thing. Like Wallace, James Joyce, a writer he shared much in common with, was never willing to sacrifice literary merit for a just cause (ever), unlike his contemporary Bertrand Russell. In his later years, Joyce became close friends with Samuel Beckett, as his biographer Richard Ellmann records: ‘Beckett was addicted to silences, and so was Joyce; they engaged in conversations which consisted often of silences directed towards each other, both suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself.’ Oscar Wilde, too, was described by his one-time attempted collaborator Thomas Bell as ‘too much concerned with aesthetics to concern himself with economics, too full of wit to deal seriously at any length with any social question.’ Still, these thoughts hardly detract from the importance and insight of Ulysses, De Profundis, or Wallace’s most successful and impressive novel, Infinite Jest.

Published nearly two decades ago, Wallace’s novel is set in the not-too-distant future and attempts to satirise virtually everything about American culture with malarial intensity (think Grand Theft Auto on steroids). Even the names of the years have been corporatized, with the action taking place predominantly in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. If corporations can buy obscene amounts of ad space, infiltrate schools and businesses and hospitals, what’s to stop them eliminating the weak and defenceless number ‘2014’ and replacing it with ‘Year of Microsoft’ or ‘Year of GlaxoSmithKline’? The narrative takes place partly in a distinguished tennis academy, partly in an addict’s recovery house, and its basic challenge to the reader is: Are you willing to indulge in the increasing number of pleasures your culture spoon feeds you at the risk of becoming so passive that even your fingers wander the TV remote in what the prosecution lawyer would call an intensely leisurely pace?

The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist questions some similar, deep-seated assumptions in his study The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World: ‘Although it might seem that we overvalue the body and physical existence in general, that is not what I deduce from our preoccupation with exercise, health and diet, with “lifestyles,” concerned though this is with the body and its needs and desires. Nor does it follow from the fact that the body was never so much on display, here or in cyberspace. The body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system. That mechanistic view derives from the nineteenth-century scientific world picture, which has lingered with us longer in biology and the life sciences that in physics. The body has become an object in the world like other objects, as Merleau-Ponty feared. The left hemisphere’s world is ultimately narcissistic, in the sense that is sees the world “out there” as no more than a reflection of itself: the body becomes just the first thing we see out there, and we feel impelled to shape it to our sense of how it “should” be.’

Like Joyce, Wallace combined comedy and sorrow in usually provocative ways. Infinite Jest contains some of the most carefully crafted comic lines of all American literature. Hal Incandenza, one of the novel’s central protagonists, confesses that ‘I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” ’ Hal also has ‘an almost obsessive dislike for deLint, whom he tells Mario he sometimes cannot quite believe is even real, and tries to get to the side of to see whether deLint has a true z coordinate or is just a cutout or projection.’ The face of a doll ‘looked post-coital sort of the way you’d imagine the vacuole and optica of a protozoan looking post-coital after it’s shuddered and shot its mono-cellular load into the cold waters of some really old sea.’ In school, Don Gately played American football and was ‘fullback on offense, outside linebacker on D. He was big enough for the line, but his speed would have been wasted there. Already carrying 230 pounds and bench-pressing well over that, Gately clocked a 4.4 40 in 7th grade, and the legend is that the Beverly Middle School coach ran even faster than that into the locker room to jack off over the stopwatch.’

One of the book’s major themes is the need to connect to some sort of higher power, to give oneself away to something in the service of self-fulfilment. Towards the end of the novel we find glimpses of Hal’s account of his days at the Enfield Tennis Academy: ‘It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging into. Flight from exactly what?’

Disappointment with adulthood is also a major theme in Lemony Snickett’s books. One of his most recent novels, When Did You See Her Last?, revolves around a handful of children trying to save a once thriving but now virtually abandoned seaside town. One of the children, Chloe Knight, happens to know a formula which can produce invisible ink, something which would save the town’s ink firm, if only the grown-ups weren’t so apathetic: ‘ “I’ve got to get that formula finished,” she said. “It’s a puzzle, but I’ve got to solve it. Invisible ink that actually works could make Ink Inc. a successful company again. We could save this town from all the people who want to destroy us. I’ve got to do it myself. I told my mother and father that, in my note. I love them, but my parents have given up making things better.” “So have mine,” Jake said, and the Bellerophon brothers nodded too. Even Moxie nodded in agreement.’

The culture Wallace identifies in his novel is the vaguely ‘modern consumerist’-type of the kind Bret Easton Ellis also parodied in American Psycho and Less Than Zero, which explore ‘boredom, excessive consumption, lack of certainty and lack of meaning’, as the distinguished literary scholar Thomas Ferry recently pointed out. George Monbiot painted a stark picture of this in January: ‘Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves?’

In Infinite Jest, this culture is associated not with childlike curiosity and innocence, but with the cynicism and irony and values of the corporate ‘entertainment’ empire, along with the lack of emotional maturity it encourages in its younger audiences: ‘The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability.’

Even terms like ‘atheist’, which reject something (something apparently worthy of rejection to begin with) instead of promoting something, are understood by Wallace to be in some special sense intellectually insipid: ‘[Orin Incandenza] studied for almost eighteen years at the feet of the most consummate mind-fucker I have ever met, and even now he remains so flummoxed he thinks the way to escape that person’s influence is through renunciation and hatred of that person. Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn’t it? I certainly think so. And men who believe they hate what they really fear they need are of limited interest, I find.’

Despite this, Wallace puts irony to good use throughout the novel: ‘Orin did a long impression of late pop-astronomer Carl Sagan expressing televisual awe at the cosmos’ scale. “Billions and billions,” he said. … “The universe:” – Orin continued long after the wit had worn thin – “cold, immense, incredibly universal.” ’ Wallace later pokes fun at a side character described as a Jesuit and ‘a pious and contemplative and big-hearted kid, brimming over with abstract love and an innate faith in the indwelling goodness of all men’s souls.’ One of ETA’s students, Michael Pemulis, also engages in an acerbic discussion of mathematics with his classmates: ‘Take a breather, Keith. Todd, trust math. As in Matics, Math E. First-order predicate logic. Never fail you. Quantifiers and their relation. Rates of change. The vital statistics of God or equivalent. When all else fails. When the boulder’s slid all the way back down to the bottom. When the headless are blaming. When you do not know your way about. You can fall back and regroup around math. Whose truth is deductive truth. Independent of sense of emotionality. The syllogism. The identity. Modus Tollens. Transitivity. Heaven’s theme song. The nightlight on life’s dark wall, late at night. Heaven’s recipe book. The hydrogen spiral. The methane, ammonia, H2O. Nucleic acids. A and G, T and C. The creeping inevitability. Caius is mortal. Math is not mortal. What it is is: listen: it’s true.’

For Pemulis, this smooth summary of mathematical knowledge ‘puts the a in a priori’ (a line reflecting Wallace’s philosophical interests as an undergraduate), and if the philosopher Galen Strawson is right in claiming that the most appropriate definition of a priori knowledge is when ‘you can see that it is true just lying on your couch’, the wisdom of Wallace’s novel becomes even easier to digest. Another point of ironic departure is found when Don Gately, counsellor at Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House and ex-addict, experiences ‘Memories of good old Demerol … clamouring to be Entertained. The thing in Boston AA is they try to teach you to accept occasional cravings, the sudden thoughts of the Substance; they tell you that sudden Substance-cravings will rise unbidden in a true addict’s mind like bubbles in a toddler’s bath. It’s a lifelong Disease: you can’t keep the thoughts from popping in there. The thing they try to teach you is just to Let Them Go, the thoughts. Let them come as they will, but do not Entertain them. No need to invite a Substance-thought or -memory in, offer it a tonic and your favourite chair, and chat with it about old times.’

Orin and Mario’s brother, Hal, ‘who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin.’ In one the novel’s hundreds of endnotes, we learn that ‘one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions’ was ‘That we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense.’

Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at UCL, has over a long career developed a sophisticated and original body of work on the history of art, with one lecture developing a connection – backed up with generous evidence – between the intensity of an individual’s concepts in their mind, the level of disappointment which results when they fail to find physical correlates of their concepts out in the world, and the heights of artistic creativity which can result. Dante, Michelangelo and Wagner all shared Romantic visions of nature, society and love, and Zeki shows how their disappointment with the world pushed them up into their attics to re-direct their conceptual powers to write, paint and compose their eventual masterpieces. Not all artistic and scientific genius springs from this disappointment, but it’s beyond doubt been a contributing factor throughout the centuries. We are all disappointed with the world to some extent, but some are more disappointed than others.

Wallace noted similar links between a rejection of selfhood and the external world on the one hand and emotional fragility on the other, and we can easily picture Wallace sitting in a Harvard Square cafe planning his novel, looking out at the passer-bys, wondering whether they existed or not. The following line from Infinite Jest seems to characterize its author well: ‘This man who was very quiet and broken-seeming and fatherly and strange. There was this kind of broken authority about him.’ Wallace writes in his short story ‘Yet Another Example of the Porousness of Certain Borders (XI)’: ‘I’m incredibly conscious of my eyesight and my eyes and how good it is to be able to see colors and people’s faces and to know exactly where I am, and of how fragile it all is, the human eye mechanism and the ability to see, how easily it could be lost, how I’m always seeing blind people around with their canes and strange-looking faces and am always just thinking of them as interesting to spend a couple of seconds looking at and never thinking they had anything to do with me or my eyes, and how it’s really just a lucky coincidence that I can see instead of being one of those blind people I see on the subway.’

Similar thoughts appear early in Infinite Jest, when Wallace goes heavy on the complementizer phrases: ‘That most Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is: Analysis-Paralysis. … That 99% of compulsive thinkers’ thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequences of are never good. Then that this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one’s mind. In short that 99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.’

At one point the novel asks, as Snickett’s young protagonists may well have asked themselves, ‘Why do many parents who seem relentlessly bent on producing children who feel they are good persons deserving of love produce children who grow to feel they are hideous persons not deserving of love who just happen to have lucked into having parents so marvelous that the parents love them even though they are hideous?’ Likewise, when Orin does an impression of his mother, Avril, ‘what he will do is assume an enormous warm and loving smile and move steadily toward you until he is in so close that his face is spread up flat against your own face and your breaths mingle. If you can get to experience it – the impression – which will seem worse to you: the smothering proximity, or the unimpeachable warmth and love with which it’s effected? For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed.’ Throughout Hal’s infancy and childhood, he had ‘continually been held and dandled and told at high volume that he was loved, and he feels like he could have told [his friend] K. Bain’s Inner Infant that getting held and told you were loved didn’t automatically seem like it rendered you emotionally whole or Substance-free. Hal finds he rather envies a man who feels he has something to explain his being fucked up, parents to blame it on.’

Wilde similarly detected in charity a vicious circle. In his essay ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ he had a hope of living not in a richly charitable world, but rather in a world in which charity was unnecessary (hence why many anarchist groups and autonomous spaces refuse to accept tips): ‘The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.’ He also wrote a perceptive essay on Chuang Tzu, assessing the ancient philosopher in the following, approving way: ‘[T]his curious thinker looked back with a sign of regret to a certain Golden Age when there were no competitive examinations, no wearisome education systems, no missionaries, no penny dinners for the people, no Established Churches, no Humanitarian Societies, no dull lectures about one’s duty to one’s neighbor, and no tedious sermons about any subject at all. In those ideal days, he tells us, people loved each other without being conscious of charity, or writing to the newspapers about it … In an evil moment the Philanthropist made his appearance, and brought with him the mischievous idea of Government.’

Infinite Jest is named after a fatally entertaining film in the novel, called simply the Entertainment, which sends the viewer into a state of bliss so overwhelming they’d die. The film ‘features Madame Psychosis [a radio show host] as some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure Death, sitting naked, corporeally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant, her hideously deformed face either veiled or blanked out by undulating computer-generated squares of color or anamorphosized into unrecognizability as any kind of face by the camera’s apparently very strange and novel lens, sitting there nude, explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal. I.e. that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother.’ Madame Psychosis is ‘explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this was why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly, and yet somehow narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember.’

To the sagely Harold’s Bloom condemnation of Wallace as an incompetent writer, there is almost too much evidence in the novel to prove Bloom wrong, but one particularly poignant scene is indicative of Wallace’s aggressively unpretentious imagination. A suicidal character ‘is knelt vomiting over the lip of the cool blue tub, gouges on the tub’s lip revealing sandy white gritty stuff below the lacquer and porcelain, vomiting muddy juice and blue smoke and dots of mercuric red into the claw-footed trough, and can hear again and seems to see, against the fire of her closed lids’ blood, bladed vessels aloft in the night to monitor flow, searchlit helicopters, fat fingers of blue light from one sky, searching.’ It’s the image of a body struggling to keep itself alive against a mind that doesn’t want to, with the novel regarding human evolution in the following terms: ‘That at some point in the first trimester we lose our gills but are now still now little more than a bladdery sac of spinal fluid and rudimentary tail and hair-follicles and little microchips of vestigial talon and horn.’ Later, as a broom handle is shoved down the throat of a video store owner, his throat produces ‘small natal cries escaping around the brown-glazed shaft, the strangled impeded sounds of absolute aphonia, the landed-fish gasps that accompany speechlessness in a dream.’

This ‘biological law vs. free choice’ dichotomy, whilst naturalistically dubious, is put to good dramatic use in the novel. Wallace writes that ‘almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of Psst that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.’ It’s for similar reasons that Wallace seems to reject the notion, so common amongst pop-psychologists and self-helpers, that we can lean over and peer directly into our emotional states whenever we please with the help of groups ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to religious prayer sessions. Such ideas fail to respect the ‘biological law’ side of the dichotomy. On the well-worn phrase ‘Getting in touch with your feelings’, the novel comments that ‘A more abstract but truer epigram that White Flaggers with a lot of sober time sometimes change this to goes something like: “Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings, they’ll get in touch with you.” ’ In summary, ‘It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.’

A final question which crops up very often in Infinite Jest, as Hal hinted at above, is ‘Why do we write and read novels in the first place?’ This question is so troublesome that not even Bertrand Russell, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, could figure it out, though in a letter to Robert Nichols on June 17th 1923 he gave it a shot: ‘As to the functions of the artist and the scientist: the scientist is concerned only with knowledge, which is valuable chiefly as a means. As an end, it has some value, but only as one among ends. As ends, the artist’s ends seem better. Blake, of course, is a moralist as well as an artist, which complicates matters. It is clear that to command an ethic successfully, artistic gifts are required; but that is outside the value of art as such. In literature, Shakespeare is almost the best instance. Why was it worth while to write “Come unto these yellow sands” or “A great while ago the world began with heigh-ho the wind and rain” or “Still through the hawthorn blows the cold wind”? I don’t know; but I find a quality of magic or enchantment which seems to flood the world with golden sunlight, and “gild pale streams with heavenly alchemy” … This is all very vague, but it is the best I can do.’

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