LINGUIST List 6.132

Tue 31 Jan 1995

Disc: Innateness

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  1. , innateness

Message 1: innateness

Date: Fri, 27 Jan 1995 15:41:18 innateness
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Subject: innateness

I made the following claim in my 22-Dec-94 posting: "If X happens
because Y is innate, then this is a perfectly valid explanation for X's
occurrence; if X happens for some other reason, then it's not valid." I
thought that this claim, being tautologous (if we know what causes X,
then we've got an explanation for it), required no justification,
but apparently I was wrong, since David Powers (13-Jan-95) objects, on
the basis that `"innateness" amounts to saying "because it[']s a fact of
life" ... and saying that "we are born with it" is not an explanation.'
That is, apparently, even if we know that we ARE born with Y, and that X
happens because of this, we STILL haven't explained X's occurrence. Huh?
(Granted, we may now want to explain why "we are born with Y", too. But
surely we've got an explanation of some sort here, however partial it
ultimately turns out be. And it's got to be better than the relevant
alternative: X happens because we learn X on the basis of "general
learning principles".) I do think he has a legitimate objection to
SOMETHING, however, as discussed below. But first:

Perhaps I can put it another way, as I have elsewhere in the context of
a fuller discussion ("On explaining the phoneme: why (some of)
phonology {\bf is} natural", BLS 11:25-38 (1985), p. 31): a claim about
innateness (or lack thereof) `... should [be] evaluate[d] on the same
basis [as any other]: does the evidence support the claim about
innateness or does it not? It would be just as wrong to claim that
something that is innate is not, as to claim that something that is not
innate is'. It is true that making a claim about innatenes WITHOUT
EVIDENCE reveals "laziness of the mind", but so does making a claim about
lack of innateness.

Powers continues: `... the science comes when we show (a) the
sufficiency; (b) the necessity & (c) the source of the posited [innate]
constructs. UG is concentrating on (a) and there is a tendency to
deprecate those who are interested in (b) and (c) - which go beyond the
bound set by innateness.' If `UG' really is out there running around
making innateness claims solely on the basis of sufficiency arguments
(and I don't doubt that SOME folks do this, alas), then I can understand
why innateness has gotten a bad name. Translating into syllogism-ese,
such an argument would have the following form: "Y is innate" entails
X; X is true; therefore Y is innate. Logicians have a name for
arguments of this form: "affirming the consequent"; this is a
classical logical fallacy. But, while individual practicioners
may be guilty as charged, it is at least not always the case that
innateness claims are made with disregard for (b): arguments from
"the poverty of the stimulus", the unavailability of negative
(ungrammaticality) evidence, and the (alleged) lack of errors by
children that violate structure dependency are all clearly cases in
point. (See, e.g., Chomsky's _Reflections on language_.) Note further
that my requirement in the above quote is stronger than requiring just
(a) and (b): "Y causes X" entails "Y is necessary and sufficient for
X", but not vice versa (e.g., if Z causes both Y and X). And, while I
agree that deciding to pursue (c) should not be grounds for deprecation,
neither should, I would think, deciding not to pursue it. This elephant
is too big for any one "blind man" to figure out alone!

Don Churma, Dept. of English, Ball State Univeristy, Muncie, IN 47306
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