Saturday, February 27, 2016

Language, Concepts, and Neurons (Llinas)

Rodolfo R. Llinas (author of I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self) claims that language simpliciter, but particularly human language, "arose as an extension of premotor conditions, namely, those of the increasing complexities of intentionality as abstract thinking grew richer" (242). Llinas defines intentionality as "the premotor detail of the desired result of movement through which a particular emotional state is expressed: the choice of what to do before the doing of it" (228). Notice that intentionality, as opposed to being primarily mentalistic is associated with "a motor representation of what is happening inside our heads" (ibid).

Intentionality expressed in premotor activity adumbrates motor patterns (according to Llinas). He insists that language arose because premotor activity increasingly grew more complex while abstract cerebration became richer. Llinas thus provides the following account to explain the origins of abstract thinking: "Abstraction, or the collection of neural processes that generate abstraction, is a fundamental principle of nervous system function." In other words, abstraction is a natural feature of biological organisms that are equipped with neural machinery and nervous systems like we possess.

However we explain abstract thought, I believe it can be accounted for naturalistically. I have read most of Jerome M. Adler's book on the subject--as a colleague suggested I do--but it seems that anytime we're talking about linguistic phenomena, we're dealing with things that possibly yield to naturalistic explanations ex toto.

On the other hand, by "naturalistic explanations," I do not mean to exclude God (Jehovah). It just appears that a soul is unnecesary to explain speech and conceptual thought.


Duncan said...

It does make me wonder about what fundamental alterations Jehovah must have made at the time of Babel to divide language groups.

Edgar Foster said...

Good question. I believe Insight explores some possibilities, but I forget which entry it's under. Read it in another life (a long time ago). :)

Miloš said...

If intentional if separated from its mental reference it is easy explained in naturalistic terms - as anything else. But how to separate it from its mental reference is fundamental question in philosophy of mind? When we say, for example, that something in the brain represent something we already use intentional notion which we want to explain and it make it circular. It is not strange that hard core naturalist exclude intentional notions from their philosophical views (or they at least said that they do it).

Edgar Foster said...

Dear Milos:

Some (like Fred Dretske) have tied to locate qualia "out there" (somehow external to the mind). The suggestion interests me, but it's not found wide acceptance and seems difficult to justify.

After writing this post, I watched David Chalmers' videos on consciousness and read some papers that illustrate the challenge of reducing mental states to brain states. Owen Flanagan has tried to ward off criticisms similar to those made by Chalmers by appealing to the central nervous system to explain subjectivity (if I'm representing him correctly). I find Flanagan's suggestion plausible, but it might not be totally correct either.

At any rate, two other good sources are Antonio Damasio and Joseph Ledoux. We're still working on these questions.