Language and Thought: Are they the same?

Dr. Steven Pinker asked the question:”What sense, then, can we make of the suggestion that images, numbers, kinship relations, or logic can be represented in the brain without being couched by words?” (Language Instinct, p. 64) He credits Alan Turing as being the man responsible for making the idea of mental representation, which Pinker calls mentalese, scientifically respectable.

If anyone has seen the movie The Imitation Game, you get a good idea of what Alan Turing was all about. Brilliant, driven, he was able to build a machine capable of cracking German encryption during World War II. By looking at a Turing machine, Pinker goes on to say, “we can get a grasp of what it would mean for a human mind to think in mentalese as opposed to English.” (ibid. p. 64) 

Mentalese can be boiled down to the logic embedded in the organism or the machine. It was Charles Sanders Peirce in the late 19th century who wrote about evolutionary logic, and how biological entities embody mental laws. Mental laws which follow the form of logical inference, including hypothesis, deduction and conjecture. From mental law habits are formed, and ultimately physical law. Thus, even the protoplasm “not only feels but exercises all the functions of mind.” (Charles S. Peirce, Chance, Love, and Logic, 260-265). Mentalese can now be represented by the mechanical operations of a Turing machine. Translating this process into brain functioning, Pinker says:

In the brain, there might be three groups of neurons, one used to represent the individual that the proposition is about (Socrates, Aristotle, Rod Stewart, and so on) one to represent the logical relationship in the proposition (is a, is not, is like, and so on), and one to represent the class or type that the individual is being categorized as (men, dogs, chickens, and so on). Each concept would correspond to the firing of a particular neuron…

Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 68

Dr Pinker goes on to say that the neurons would fire off in a sequence resembling the entire syllogism. He then says the whole thing could just as well have been done on silicon chips. This is “the physical symbol system hypothesis”, or the computational theory of mind. Mentalese.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, one shudders to think that the day will come when we will not be able to differentiate between human and silicon based intelligence. This still leaves open the question of how personalities arise out of these physical symbol systems. How such networks of silicon would be able to create a symphony, or intuit the oneness of the universe.

These are philosophical questions, thank God.

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