LINGUIST List 6.60

Mon 16 Jan 1995

Disc: Linguistic inquiries

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  1. Mike Picone, Re: 6.44 Varia: Animals and Who, Kant and Innateness

Message 1: Re: 6.44 Varia: Animals and Who, Kant and Innateness

Date: Mon, 16 Jan 95 12:12:22 CSRe: 6.44 Varia: Animals and Who, Kant and Innateness
From: Mike Picone <MPICONEUA1VM.UA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.44 Varia: Animals and Who, Kant and Innateness

David Powers said:

)The whole point of science is
)to explain the phenomena we observe, and saying that "we are born with it" is
)not an explanation. ...
)Even given the validity of the claim, the fact begs an explanation. ...
)Linguistics has a tendency to stop at being descriptive. Science always goes
)further than mere description. Describing the commonality present across the
)full range of human language,in a neat, parsimonious way, is but a first step;
)for science demands explanations: why does language have the form it does?
)where do these universals come from? why do we have this range of parameter
)settings? what relationship does language have to thought? consciousness?

While I agree that linguistic inquiry should push the `explanatory' envelop
as far as it possibly can, let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that
`explanation', of the type David Powers speaks of, is anything more than
another level of description. In the ultimate sense, it remains true that
science can never hope to explain anything in any essential way. It can
only establish cause and effect links but cannot take these back to
ultimate origin. To do so calls for an infinite wisdom that human and
artificial intelligence are simply incapable of. It is reason itself
which tells us this is so. To pretend it is (or can be) otherwise is to
undermine the very tenets of reason on which we base our analysis of this
world and to enter the realm of faith, unreasonably turning reason into
a religion in the process. At its very best, human science can only provide
us with partial explanations, which are really descriptions in disguise.
Perhaps this is disagreeably humbling to the ambitions of the human
enterprise, but this is the conclusion that we must come to unless we
abandon empirical foundations altogether and claim, as an article of faith,
that humankind posseses infinite cognition. If we are not willing to accept
the latter proposition, then we must recognize that the very empiricism
that we adhere to in order to do science leads us to the Kantian barrier
beyond which reason will not take us. Concommitantly, like Kant, we must accept
that reason, at the point where it can go no further, points us in the
direction of a transcendent origin. Probably David Powers did not intend his
remarks to project us into the realm of absolutes. But when it is a question
of the philosophy of science, absolutes are not only fair game, they are
essential to proper reflection.

Michael D. Picone
University of Alabama
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