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8 January 2008

A Fickle and Capricious Woman

I first heard about the Edge's Annual Question for 2008 ("What have you changed your mind about? Why?") via the Graudian Science Weekly podcast. (Previously, I missed last year's "What are you optimistic about?" - appropriately, perhaps - but did flick through 2006's "What's your dangerous idea?" in a bookshop one day.) There are so many people whom I find interesting in this year's collection that I'm tempted to buy the book although the some of the essays are available in full online on the Edge's website.

Predictably, Steve P. was in there (and his answer was also featured on the Grauniad podcast), although his answer - "Have we stopped evolving?" - didn't interest me as much as the responses of some of the other people. The list of contributors covers a broad range of disciplines and fields, although predictably, some of my favourites don't reflect this diversity, although others interest me for other reasons. My favourites were (in no particular order):

Mark Hauser - The Limits of Darwinian Reasoning
P.Z. Myers - I always change my mind about everything, and I never change my mind about anything
Irene Pepperberg (of Alex the "I can has luv" parrot fame) - The fallacy of hypothesis testing
Nick Bostrom - Everything
John Baez (of the Crackpot Index and almost the cause of me being a UC, Riverside-widow) - Should I be thinking about quantum gravity?
Simon Baron-Cohen - Equality
James Geary - Neuroeconomics really explains human economic behaviour

My favourite of all, though, was by Gary Marcus: linguist, developmental psychologist, molecular biologist, and legend. He is even the editor of the text I ordered for the Yale Intro to Psych course I am following online, partly to prove I can commit to something, partly because a lot of the articles therein seemed really interesting. Like Pinker, Bloom, Marc Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch, he is interested in the puzzle of language acquisition (particularly, like Pinker, in the acquisition of irregular verbs) and that of the evolution of language, as well as whether and how human language differs from animal communication systems - that field one might call biolinguistics, although it is more commonly just called evolutionary linguistics. Having had the pleasure of emailing him, he is also a really nice guy.

His contribution for The Edge is entitled "What's special about human language?" - the title was reminiscent of an essay along the same lines I wrote in my third year at university about the same topic (sadly, Cambridge didn't have any pyscholinguists in the house, let alone any evolutionary linguists, so I had to go on one lecture and three days shut up in the North Wing of the University Library). I wish my answer had been even a fraction as elegant. He begins:

When I was in graduate school, in the early 1990s, I learned two important things: that the human capacity for language was innate, and that the machinery that allowed human beings to learn language was "special", in the sense of being separate from the rest of the human mind [Bexquisite: Chomsky alert!].

Both ideas sounded great at the time. But (as far as I can tell know [sic]) only one of them turns out to be true.

He then goes on:

Instead, I have now come to believe, language must be, largely, a recombination of spare parts, a kind of jury-rigged kluge built largely out of cognitive machinery that evolved for other purposes, long before there was such a thing as language. If there's something special about language, it is not the parts from which it is composed, but the way in which they are put together.

So Chomsky's student (Marcus sat in on some of Chomsky's courses at grad school) sees the light. This approach is certainly worlds apart from Chomsky's "well, there's this little black language box in every one of us and we don't really know where it is stored or what's in it but it's definitely there and without it none of us can acquire a language" (later Chomsky, when pushed admitted it was composed of "princples and parameters" which is much less vague).

I always hated having Chomsky rammed down my throat at university. Some of his latest work, where he gets down with the kids and hangs out with Hauser, Fitch and some monkeys, is a lot easier to stomach but Chomsky was so verbose and so abstract, it made more sense to teach his earlier work to undergrads, although I avoided syntactic theory like the plague. Chomsky's Universal Grammar seemed to be little better than any spiritual belief - as George Michael (and later, Monsieur Exquisite) sang, "you gotta have faith" but that wasn't good enough for me and the Cambridge we-heart-Chomsky doctrine seriously disillusioned me about the world of academia until revising for finals, I read a lot of interesting experimental pragmatics and psycholinguistics papers and saw the light...too late. No black box for me, that's for sure.

Marcus's article is an interesting read, anyway, especially for me.

In a way, I wish I hadn't read P.Z. Myers's piece after thinking about how I would answer the question myself (Sainsbury's is very conducive to thought, I find, as is the walk home - anywhere where I have no access to a computer!) because parts of his article say the same things I wanted to, but more eloquently.

I have often been accused of being fickle or changeable but I had always thought of it as an insult. Fickle, of course, has many connotations: changeable, flighty, erratic, dizzy, unreliable, irresponsible, disloyal and inconsistent, to name a few. I suppose it is more the case that I am flexible - open to others' opinions and thoughts and happy to reformulate my own thoughts in the light of new evidence. I change my mind all the time about small, insignificant things; I say I want red wine, amico says white, I often cave, because I'm not usually bothered enough to stick with my original choice. At the end of the day, I don't really care - wine is wine, after all. With bigger issues, I can be surprisingly stubborn and set in my ways and although I might give the impression I am being swayed - led astray or away from an idea or person - deep down, I remain unchanged.

On the other hand, despite being inconveniently attached for more than half of my university career, I seemed to rack up a fair number of guys, and more still if I include those where if I'd had the balls to dump the boyfriend, would have received a notch on my bedpost. That said, I was relatively well-behaved with the Ex, not least because there was a time when I genuinely thought we would be together forever (I think I was just relieved to find someone who actually understood me and liked me for who I was and that crap); ultimately, though, this very thing that once gave me so much comfort and made me feel at ease with myself, turned on its head and began to scare the hell out of me.

Perhaps my biggest change of heart then is my thoughts on love. As a teenager, it was all I craved in life (true luv, not just any old luv). For a few precious years, I felt that I was in love. Then I had a crise de foi (as well as numerous consolatory crises de foie) and read Lots of Science to give me the "evidence" to refute these retarded, wishy-washy feelings I believed I had once felt. Sex was so much better, so much safer; it couldn't be denied post-hoc (Rohypnol aside); physical desires seemed to be satisfied so much more easily than emotional desires. And now? I think I'm agnostic. Don't have enough evidence either way. Willing to be flexible, if not necessarily fickle. Fortunately, there are many paths through which the answer might be sought (and maybe looking for the answer is not the solution):

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.

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