Monday, May 31, 2010


Ok.  Maybe there is more to this Hegelian arguments idea than I had first expected.
Chomsky's argument can be outlined as follows.
1. Children uniformly and rapidly learn language, without specific reinforcement.
2. Children are presented with evidence insufficient to infer the characteristics of the grammar they attain in learning language.
3. Learning language is the attainment of a grammar, an internal deductive mechanism that allows the recognition and production of appropriate sentences.
4. Therefore, the grammar must be largely innate.
5. Therefore, any theory that does not posit such an innate grammar cannot account for language learning.
Before criticizing this argument, I should point out its reasonableness. Humans acquire a mechanism that is apparently unlearn able given the opportunities for learning, so it must be innate. This is rather plausible, and many people-nearly all linguists-are convinced by it. There is, however, a problem with this argument, and it is with the evidence for the premises. The problem with the evidence for the premises is that none is provided, and no empirical studies of language learning are cited. Chomsky relies entirely on casual observations in the case of the semiempirical premises (1 and 2). The theoretical premise (3) is derived by inference to the best explanation of the semi empirical premises. This, then, is the particular character of Chomsky's argument that I would like to focus on: it is an argument that a class of scientific approaches is doomed to fail, based on theoretical posits and little or no empirical evidence.  (Chemero, 2009, p. 7, italics added).
So, here is Timo Järvilehto making a case for the inseparability of the organism and environment, a fundamental principle of ecological psychology.
 Is it possible to establish the border between the systems? Is it possible, however, to define separately the elements of the organism and environment systems and the border between the two systems? Let us try to define the border between the two systems when looking at such behavior as drinking coffee from a cup, for example. This is certainly behavior which has physical, physiological, and mental aspects. Is it possible to separate these aspects in the description of the behavior and to determine to which system each of them belongs?  
The events in this piece of behavior may be described according to the modem psychological conception. Let us start with the cup on the table. The cup of coffee is a physical part of the environment and clearly outside the organism system. It may be thus defined as an element of the environment or as a stimulus. The human being is sitting at the table and has the need to drink coffee. This could be described as a physiological process within the organism, but there is also its mental aspect, which could correspond to some state of the brain, for example. The environmental stimulus (reflection of light from the cup) sets off a process in the organism eventually leading to the movement of the hand, one element of the organism, towards the cup. This is clearly overt behavior because there is a change in the relation of the two elements, one belonging to the environment and the other to the organism. So far, so good.
Now our subject grasps the cup; the hand holds it. Thus the hand is immobile in relation to the cup, but both the hand and cup (which contains coffee) move in relation to the environment (and mouth). Is the cup now part of the organism system or environment?   Probably we should include it in the organism system because the critical functional relation exists between the cup and coffee; it is just the environmental coffee that the subject is bringing to the mouth when "drinking coffee."  
However, the cup was earlier on the table and it was then clearly part of the environment. Now it has changed into a part of the organism. This would mean that elements of the environment could change to become elements of the organism system and vice versa. Thus, we could not unequivocally decide whether an element belongs to one of these systems simply by looking at the properties of these elements.  
But can we somehow define at any instant a clear border between the two systems? The coffee in the cup is clearly part of the environment, and when the subject is drinking it it becomes a part of the organism system---or does it? Is it possible to say when the coffee is in the organism? When it is in the mouth? Or in the intestines? Or when the chemical parts of the coffee are in the blood? In fact, it is impossible to define any exact border which should be exceeded so that we could on this basis unequivocally determine whether the coffee has moved from the environment into the organism. The same is true in general of metabolism and, especially, of breathing. When is the breathed air outside and when inside?  
Or what about spectacles? On the table they are certainly part of the environment; on I my nose they are part of the organism just in the same sense as is the lens of the eye. At . what point in the air is the "border" between the two systems exceeded when I move them '. from the table to my nose?
It is just as difficult to define the movement of one part of the environment to a part of the organism as it is to carry out the task in the reverse direction. For example, from the point of view of the visual system, certain parts of the body are "outside" just in the same sense as the coffee cup on the table. My hand is, of course, part of me, but it is not within me or inside me; from the point of view of the eye it is certainly outside. If from the point of view of perceptual activity it is outside, where is the border between the inside and the outside?
But even if we cannot define any exact border between the organism and the environment, we should be able to define unequivocally the organism itself, shouldn't we? The body consists of cells and tissues; aren't these clearly separable from the environment?  
Unfortunately not. Take, for example, tissue. It is a structure consisting of cells and interstitial spaces, the environment of the cells. But where is the end of this inner environment, and where does the outer environment start? Does sweating, for example, occur inside or outside? If we consider it to be outside, then we simultaneously extend the inner environment to outside the body. In this connection we may also ask what it actually means to have an "inner" environment. Whom or what is this environment environing? Or what about the sense organs? Are the receptors inside or outside? For a visual receptor, for example, part of its environment consists of electromagnetic radiation from outside and part of the connective tissues and fluids of the body. Is there any possibility of defining the border between these two?  
In conclusion, these considerations show that any attempt to develop an explanation of human behavior on the basis of an assumption of two systems meets considerable difficulties right at the beginning. In contrast to our common-sense impression, critical scrutiny shows that we cannot define unequivocally any of our basic concepts on this basis. We cannot simply define whether any object which we study is part of the organism or part of the environment. This follows from the fact that we are not able to show any absolute border between the organism and the environment. Consequently, we cannot define behavior as a change of the relation between the organism and environment systems and, therefore, we do not know what we are looking at when we want to explain behavior.  
How can we then maintain that, for example, information is moving from one system to the other or that it is processed within the organism? Or, how can we say that some of the events which we have described before, like mental activity, representations, maps, or models are in the organism and not in the environment? Or maybe somewhere between these two? (Järvilehto, 1998, pp. 327-9)

Chemero, A. (2009), Radical Embodied Cognitive Science.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Järvilehto, T. (1998) The theory of the organism-environment system: I. Description of the theory. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 33, 321-334

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