Labour’s New Internationalism and Tory Foreign Policy

Jeremy Corbyn announced last Tuesday that under a Labour government schoolchildren would be taught about the injustice and violence of the British Empire. Labour also promised to promote a “new internationalism” and a progressive foreign policy, as outlined in its recent manifesto. In response, the Conservatives claimed it was “staggering” to hear Labour “lecture people” about foreign affairs. And yet, the Conservatives have not been remotely clear about foreign policy or defence when outlining their own election pledges.

New articles of mine in Jacobin, Tribune and CounterPunch review the Conservative’s recent foreign policy record and how Labour aim to forge a new path.

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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
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

Disarm UCL 2.0

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that University College London received £3.6m from the arms trade from 2010-15, being funded by firms such as Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Thales.
Reported in the Morning Star
The American political activist and journalist Chris Hedges believes that corporate executives, and the ‘armies of bureaucrats’ and ‘careerists’ which serve them, are ‘cold and disconnected’, ‘docile’, ‘compliant’, and ‘assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers … It is moral schizophrenia. They erect the walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible’.[i] Erich Fromm’s classic 1956 study The Art of Loving argued that capitalism – and, we might add, the arms trade – ‘needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – expect the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead’.[ii]
Joining one of many such armies, University College London Provost Malcolm Grant visited the Arab Spring nations with David Cameron in 2011 to (primarily) sell arms during the ongoing forms of state terror. Grant’s decision followed an interesting and remarkable history, little-known on UCL’s campus today and rarely discussed at the time.
After a two year student campaign, on January 1st 2009 UCL implemented an ethical investment policy, ensuring divestment from the arms firm Cobham PLC, a major supplier of Israeli arms and whose Hellfire missiles were regularly used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cobham also manufactured parts of weapons system used by Israel in its bombing raids in Lebanon in 2006. After a freedom of information request revealed that UCL had £900,000 invested in Cobham (total assets invested: £92.3m; arms shares as percentage of total investments: 0.9) and £746,000 invested in Smiths Group (which contributed to the manufacturing of Apaches and F16s), the ‘Disarm UCL’ campaign was formed, which rapidly became extremely popular on campus, both with students and later with the university’s ethical investment review committee.[iii] The university even ran a unique, exciting degree course for students to take, an MSc in Systems Engineering Management, ‘a joint development between BAE SYSTEMS and University College London to produce a programme which combines academic rigour and practical experience in the Aerospace and Defence Industry’.[iv] Extracting this from the standardised and scrupulously misleading rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and so forth, this translates into ‘a course which funnels resources and ingenuity straight into the coffers of a private arms manufacturer’. UCL soon became known as ‘the Gower Street gunrunners’, and Disarm UCL campaigners were often seen in the Main Quad on campus. Around the same time, St Andrews, Goldsmiths and SOAS all made steps towards cutting ties with the arms trade. With UCL’s admirable history of opposing discrimination, its strong funding of human rights abuses came as something of a surprise to students and faculty. The university also seems to be regressing on a number of other fronts, failing to take action to stop modern-day slavery conditions in its international campus in Qatar, where migrant workers are paid less than £180 a month for 12-15-hour shifts and endure persistent human rights violations.[v]
In late May 2016, a Freedom of Information request of mine about UCL’s connections with the arms trade was been published.[vi] Despite the university implementing an ‘ethical investment’ policy from 2009 onwards as a result of Disarm UCL’s efforts, this only relates to stocks and shares and it currently seems to apply far less stringent ethical criteria when deciding on research and consultancy contracts, enjoying links with a large number of the UK’s (and some of the US’s) arms companies. The response to the FOI request was given by Spenser Crouch, Data Protection & Freedom of Information Administrator at UCL. Crouch’s response included funds received over the last five financial years from arms organisations. In addition: ‘Non-MoD funders include overseas Governmental Defence Agencies, notably Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For example the DARPA make up 50% of the non MoD-related income reported here, however £1.25m (70%) of this is for research into brain function relating to injury recovery’. Finally: ‘The data covers 126 projects (including Mod-related), 57% of which are studentships. Studentships account for 55% of the MoD-related income overall, and 15% of the income from the other funders including the large DARPA projects’.
The files revealed that from 2010-15, UCL had received over £1.3m from the Ministry of Defence and related departments for various projects, with £340,000 coming from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, £880,000 from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), and £70,000 from the MoD.
During the same period, UCL received an astonishing £3.6m from the arms trade, bringing the total military-related funding to £4.9m. More worryingly, the amount has in fact increased annually from 2010, beginning at £623,000 in 2010-11, then rising to £881,000 in 2011-12, £1.02m in 2012-13, £1.14m in 2013-14, and £1.28m in 2014-15. The companies funding the university include Aeroflex, Airbus Defence & Space, Airbus Weapons Establishment, Babcock, BAE Systems (including BAE Systems Marine Ltd, BAE Systems Surface Ships Ltd), BMT Defence Services Limited, EADS, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce Power Engineering, Thales (including Thales Uk Ltd, Thales Netherland B.V.), and TRL Technology. From 2010-15, UCL received £195,000 from BAE Systems, £1.8m from DARPA, £67,000 from Airbus, £19,000 from Halliburton (which works closely with the arms industry), £236,000 from Lockheed Martin, and £625,000 from Thales.
The FOI request included the following statement: ‘I would wholeheartedly encourage the university to adopt an ethical investment policy that excludes the arms trade, and would appreciate it if you could tell me if this is something that the university is working towards’. UCL’s response included no comment to this effect.
As countless other examples reveal, the modern university is concerned above all else with profit, and is more than willing to align itself with abusive regimes and rogue corporations, supporting unethical firms through investment, research, recruitment and inviting representatives to give talks on campus. Universities are increasingly becoming militarised spaces. University career services – those stale and intensely unhelpful entities – promote arms companies and invite them to careers fairs, ‘advising’ students away from applying their skills in more ethical, renewal job markets. Universities invest their financial reserves and endowment funds, either by buying shares directly or investing in funds. Through either of these means, their funds are often invested in arms companies, supporting them financially while also giving the arms trade something of a ‘social license’, since universities are typically well-respected (quasi-)public bodies.
Not only does investment in the arms trade have nothing at all to do with education, but ethical investment funds have been shown to be more profitable. Throughout the 2000s, the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethical fund was the second best performers out of over 1,000 funds.
Please sign the petition calling on UCL to divest from the arms trade:
Updates can be found on Facebook:
[i] Chris Hedges, ‘The Careerists,’ 23 July 2012, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress (New York: Nation Books, 2013), pp. 372-3 (pp. 368-73).
[ii] Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (London: HarperPerennial, 1956/2006), p. 79.
[iii] See:
[iv] See:
[v] Luke James, ‘UCL ‘passive’ in face of Qatar slavery’, Morning Star, 21-08-2014.
[vi] ‘UCL and the arms trade’, FOI request:
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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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Cameron’s Syrian Strategy

The Cameron government is continuing to sideline itself from mainstream public opinion, which is strongly in favour of ethical investment in green technologies and divestment from firms involved in human rights abuses. It announced earlier this month that a further £12 billion would be invested in defence through cuts to the police, business grants and welfare. Part of this investment will be in 24 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The total cost of these new jets is approximately $1.45 trillion. Perhaps an argument (admittedly a grossly ideological one) could be made in favour of this investment if the jet proved successful, reaching new frontiers of technological advancement. Yet the F-35 currently cannot even fire its own 25mm cannon until 2019 as a result of software issues. Tom Cahill from U.S. Uncut describes the investment as ‘the epitome of Pentagon waste and cronyism’, with the US having already spent over $400 billion on the jet, supporting the private profits of Lockheed Martin. Even more perverse is the fact that the cost of the useless F-35 is equivalent to providing free tuition for higher education for every student in the US until 2039. But Cameron and Obama’s priorities are clear: private profit for state-backed arms firms trumps all potential public good.
The recent spending increase moved the defence budget to a projected £178bn from 2015-2025, some of which will be spent on nine Boeing maritime surveillance aircraft to rival what the Financial Times called, with intense Second Cold War hysteria, ‘a potential Russian submarine threat’. Pluto Press’s 2016 volume The Secure and the Dispossessed edited by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes counters this kind of machismo ‘defence’ mindset by pointing to numerous cases where the military and private arms firms are having a major, devastating effect on climate change, both in terms of stirring class and economic divisions and also in the way they fuel global conflicts which ensure public money and innovation is directed away from green issues.
With the passage in October 2015 of UN resolution 2249, ‘unequivocally’ condemning Isis, Cameron’s defence and interventionist priorities are becoming much more acceptable in the Commons, despite impressive opposition from Corbyn. When Cameron announced his grand strategy for Syrian intervention today, he failed to make explicit how exactly UK bombing raids would be more effective than the existing French and US strikes. This was a particularly urgent point to address considering Airwars’s estimate in August that over 450 civilians (including over 100 children) had been killed in US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Airwars pointed to a ‘worrying gulf between public and coalition positions’, with a number of large-scale Stop the War Coalition demonstrations in the UK throughout the summer and winter months having received overwhelming public sympathy in the face of the establishment’s martial antagonism. Even Mike Flynn, a prominent US general, has claimed that ‘drone strikes have created more terrorists than they have killed’.
Even more remarkable was Cameron’s claim to have a legal case for legitimising foreign strikes against Syria. While he briefly seemed to acknowledge that last week’s UN resolution did not have Chapter 7 status (ensuring that it cannot be used in favour of foreign strikes), Cameron invoked a self-defence argument, despite the fact that self-defence can only be used against an imminent or actual threat from a foreign state, not terror group. Cameron simultaneously argued to be putting a ceasefire and intervention on the table, even though airstrikes will stymy ceasefire negotiations, not encourage them. The prime minister also failed to respond to questions about the likely effects to national security military intervention in Syria will have, no doubt forgetting that Britain’s intervention in Iraq dramatically escalated the threat of terror attacks.
The Guardian’s response to Cameron’s strategy was to mildly object to prolonged (not short-term) intervention, and to define serious objection to military involvement simply as political ‘point-scoring’, rather than a genuine objection to the prime minister’s faux humanitarianism. Owen Jones made a few of his typically bland comments about how bombing Syria would be really unfair and mean while objecting to no specifics, Mary Dejevsky gave Cameron credit for proposing ‘a wider strategy’ post-intervention, while Martin Woollacott claimed that the aim of foreign military engagement was ‘worthwhile and the motivation eminently understandable’. Rafael Behr soberly discussed the ‘complex and potentially open-ended’ nature of the conflict, before suggesting committed military engagement since it’s ‘obvious’ that ‘the UK can contribute more than goodwill in the fight’.
Not discussed by either Cameron or the bulk of the liberal media was the possibility of arming the highly successful Kurdish army in their struggle to reclaim land of theirs lost to Isis. The arms trade, as usual, also went unmentioned, despite UK sales to the Gulf dictatorships like Saudi Arabia fuelling the export of Wahhabism. There was no mention that business with the Saudis will contribute to human rights abuses or the exporting of extremist ideologies (according to David Gardiner at the Financial Times, ‘Saudi Arabia not only exports oil, but tanker-loads of quasi-totalitarian religious dogma and pipelines of jihadi volunteers’). Instead, the Cameron government claims that trade will help Saudi Arabia overcome the problems brought about by its rapidly growing population, expected to increase to 29 million in 2020 from 28 million in 2015.
Forcing Russia to end its rampant airstrikes against Syrian civilians, perhaps via some form of Magnitsky Act, is also a viable, peaceful alternative to drone strikes, as is pressurising Turkey to prevent its borders being used to supply arms to Isis. Labour’s new economic strategy, ethically investing in science, technology and green industries, will also serve to politically demonise the arms trade, as will Corbyn’s anti-interventionist, anti-imperialist foreign policy, which places heavy emphasis on engagement, dialogue and negotiation via the UN in an attempt to remove the reputation of a rogue state which Britain quickly garnered during the Iraq War. None of these options are particularly extreme or unreasonable, and all of them could be brought to the centre of parliamentary discussion – if the public pressure arrives to place them there.
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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.

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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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