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Noam Chomsky Owns Sam Harris and Indicts Bill Clinton

2015 May 2
Picture of Noam Chomsky

Picture of Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky had a private email session with Sam Harris about Clinton’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory which Clinton allegedly believed was also manufacturing a nerve agent. I really recommend reading the entire exchange, which is hilarious and horrifying on multiple levels. First, because Harris just doesn’t get that Chomsky is smashing him flat and asks for permission to publish it. Second, because the sort of ethical reasoning Chomsky uses is so alien to so many people in the world (and, sadly, especially to Americans).

To put it simply, Clinton’s destruction of that factory meant that many people didn’t get the drugs they needed to survive. So they died. The number of people who died was much larger than the number of people who died in 9/11. Harris just doesn’t seem to get it, he thinks “intent” matters more and that Clinton deserves the benefit of the doubt. Chomsky points out that any intelligent person would have predicted the effects of bombing that factory and Clinton did it anyway.

If he did it without malice, well, that means he felt nothing even though he had to know he was killing all those people. Feeling nothing about mass murder–and that’s what it was–is arguably worse than murdering someone you acknowledge as human, as having worth.

(There is also a a brief discussion of the Iraq sanctions of the 1990s, which were a terrible crime, as well.)

The point I want to emphasize is this: If you knowingly do something which a reasonable person knows will lead to large numbers of deaths, you are on the hook for those deaths. It may be the “least worst option” in some cases (though not, I think, in either of these cases), but you are still responsible.

A reasonable man (and Clinton is a brilliant man, famed for staying up all night doing research, right down to reading all the appendices and footnotes, unlike many executives), is responsible for the effects of his actions that a reasonable man forsee.

This is Ethics 101—it is also Democracy 101. If you cannot understand this, you cannot hold your legislators and executives responsible.

Chomsky also dismisses questions of motives as irrelevant; virtually everyone says they have great motives, including the Japanese during their mid-20th century wars. At the end of the day, you can only judge with reasonable expectations and by results. Everything else is BS.

I will finally note something a lot of people don’t seem to understand, because they have been exposed more to propaganda about Chomsky rather than his own writings or his seminal work in Linguistics and Cognitive Science. Like him or hate him, Chomsky is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Even at age 86 and slowing down, getting into the intellectual ring with him is like trying to bear hug a grizzly. It is unlikely to end well for you

It sure didn’t for Sam Harris.


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47 Responses
  1. cripes permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Interesting.
    I wish you had a link for this.

    BTW, John Stewart did a commendable pimp-slapping of Judith Miller on the Daily show this week, the kind of thing we haven’t in American “journalism” seen since the days of Dick Cavett.

  2. cripes permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Speaking of links, Daily Show’s video of Judith Miller takedown here:

    http://thedailyshow.cc.com/episodes/27m3xm/april-29–2015—judith-miller

  3. jemand permalink
    May 2, 2015

    cripes: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-limits-of-discourse

    My take:

    Sam Harris wanted to play. He wanted to play intellectual games surrounded by his comfy life using the raw materials of others lives as play toys and thought experiments. As a comfortable “big thinker” he wanted to play with another “comfortable big thinker” sharing his privileges, white, male, rich, western, famous– a fair opponent for a little diverting mental play!

    Noam Chomsky didn’t want to play, didn’t really see the lives of others as little toys to mine for raw ideas while constructing thought experiments. They were real people, really living, their one lives they ever get…

    I have met this before personally, albeit at a much lower profile. There is a certain type of person who wants to sit back and “debate” and the rules of this “gentleman’s debate” are of more importance to them than the most horrible real situations people are and have and will be living through relating to that subject. More fun to play with the ideas from an “objective” point of safety. Reminders of the fact that the people involved in real situations are actual real humans of real moral worth is met with confusion– it is not sporting, not following the rules.

  4. Roman Berry permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Wow. I’m not even through the entire exchange and already I see Sam Harris playing the the black Knight in that old Monty Python sketch. (‘Tis but a scratch!”)

    Noam Chomsky’s mind is like a razor and his reasoning behind every argument shows it. How can Harris not understand that he’s just been completely dismantled? I’d thought Harris was very intelligent. Next to Chomsky though, not so much.

  5. technocratkilla permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Sam Harris is so blinded by ideology, that he doesn’t even understand elementary logic anymore. He’s so pathetic.

  6. El Guapo permalink
    May 2, 2015

    I can’t imagine why anyone would think Sam Harris is intelligent. A cursory look at some of the arguments he has made makes it very clear that the man is a simple minded moron (and also a racist).

  7. JustPlainDave permalink
    May 2, 2015

    They’re both clearly pompous windbags who have never had to make a higher stakes decision than which adjective would best burnish them in the eyes of their acolytes.

  8. john permalink
    May 2, 2015

    I didn’t notice harris being dismantled at all. it appeared Chomsky was profoundly irrational and dogmatic and unable to maintain a civil conversation. Chomsky’s age is really showing.

  9. V. Arnold permalink
    May 2, 2015

    JustPlainDave
    May 2, 2015
    They’re both clearly pompous windbags who have never had to make a higher stakes decision than which adjective would best burnish them in the eyes of their acolytes.

    Oh my, Ive just had another WTF moment.
    As to Harris; I have no idea, nor do I care to formulate one.
    Chomsky? Another oh my!
    With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Chomsky was the only one who accurately predicted the ultimate out come; with no counter, the U.S. would step to the fore as the #1 super power and thereby; fuck the rest of the planet.
    He (Chomsky) called it exactly!
    Pompous windbag? Is this the kettle calling the pot black?

  10. JustPlainDave permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Neither one of them has a fucking clue what happened or didn’t in Sudan. There’s a huge amount of assertion and ostentatious marshalling, with varying degrees of deftness, of Internet insta-facts combined with rhetoric designed to show how smart and important the two of them are. It’s entirely of a piece with most of the irrelevant twaddle that people devote their time to rather than doing something more meaningful with it, including this discussion.

  11. V. Arnold permalink
    May 2, 2015

    JustPlainDave PERMALINK
    May 2, 2015
    Neither one of them has a fucking clue what happened or didn’t in Sudan.

    And that’s your reply? Lame in the extreme!
    Major fail by you and a prescient break by me, from your posts, both past and future…
    Bye…

  12. May 2, 2015

    I think the most important takeaway from this exchange is the apparent certainty by Harris that he “won” the argument by appealing to proprieties of communication.

  13. JustPlainDave permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Arnold, you have no idea how your accusation that my participation in a pointless conversation about a pointless conversation fall short of the mark wounds me.

    I shall weep hot, meta-tears.

  14. mike permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Comment Reading Tip #278: JPDave’s comments are much more enjoyable if you picture him sitting in his cigarette jacket on a high-backed, velvet chair, snifter of brandy on the round table with the ornate lamp beside him, and just putting the pipe back into his mouth and sounding like Gore Vidal. I’ve been using this method for a couple of weeks now and it really is entertaining.

  15. JustPlainDave permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Closer than one might think. The big difference is that I chose not to stay there, but have instead been actively trying to move things in directions that the talkers *say* they want. I’m bitchy because it seems like about 98% of folks seem to think that if they opine earnestly enough, change will simply occur—without any work or messy compromises.

  16. DStein permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Chomsky is far too gracious, in my view.

    The exchange (and most criticism of Chomsky) is driven by this fundamental difference of moral perspective: Chomsky first holds himself as citizen accountable to an objective moral standard, before seeking monsters abroad, but still applying the same standard; Harris (and most Chomsky critics) start, and effectively end, with condemning the enemy, adapting the standard and the argument as needed to come out on top.

    It’s hardly an accident that Harris uniformly finds American “intent” morally superior. As Chomsky points out, we all do it. That’s why motives cannot count. And that’s why Harris clings to them so desperately, concocting fantastical “thought experiments” rather than discussing obvious factual cases. Harris tries to win by controlling the description of the parties’ respective motives or intents. Our enemies would describe our motives differently than we do. And we should be able to see their motives as they do, at least hypothetically.

    Chomsky is surely right to discount “intent” in favor of reasonable foreknowledge of consequences, for these are far more easily discussed objectively. It’s not even terribly clear that “intent” exists apart from an agent’s “endorsement” or “self-attribution” of what was intended. And this is known to change with the circumstances.

  17. Hairhead permalink
    May 2, 2015

    I have watched Chomsky dismantle intellectual components for decades, most of whom lie around after the debate pompously declaring victory while the arms and legs of their arguments lie about them.

    I’m also afraid for Chomsky; I am surprised that he hasn’t been tax-audited, jailed, killed, or gotten into a small-plane accident.

  18. Hairhead permalink
    May 2, 2015

    AArgg! “components” = “opponents”

  19. May 2, 2015

    For Sam Harris, (I think Chomsky understands): The road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions. Or frequently stated as Hell is paved with Good Intentions.

    That has been a bit of wisdom for at least the past 1000 years in western culture, far too unknown in the Americana ignorantia of today.

    There are sins (and not just for Catholics) of commission and omission. Americana ignorantia has committed and omitted promiscuously in Afghanistan since the first special ops went in with their hard-on for the Russkies. Totally without concern for blowback or collateral damage.

    Sam Harris should contemplate Americana ignorantia and the consequences of all the blowback and collateral damage.

    Chain of causation, Sam Harris. Gets you to Hell pretty fast if you ain’t paying attention.

  20. Jeff W permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Like him or hate him, Chomsky is one of the great geniuses of the 20th century.

    Well, I’ve never been all that impressed with Noam Chomsky’s “seminal work” in linguistics and cognitive science—it’s difficult to say what, exactly, he’s been right about and, if anything, he set those fields back by about half a century.

    Chomsky’s claim that children acquire a grammar without enough reinforcement or information (the “poverty of stimulus” argument) and therefore some underlying grammar “has to” be innate is rather like Michael Behe’s wildly wrong creationist argument that biological systems are irreducibly complex, and therefore “have to” have been intelligently designed; they assume something for which there might not be any evidence and then rule out any competing hypothesis. The assumption itself in Chomsky’s case is wrong besides—you can read linguist Geoff Pullum’s take about what is absent from experience as being crucial to learning, consistent with Bayes’ Theorem.

    Chomsky is wrong on his claims about the “universals” of language and wrong on his recent claims about how language “couldn’t have” evolved.

    In 1959, Chomsky wrote a critique of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957) which is widely credited with causing the decline of behaviorism’s influence in linguistics and other fields and, while it might have done so, the actual critique—which is often cited but, it seems, not read—does not withstand scrutiny. (Here and here are analyses of that (in)famous critique.)

    Just looking at the critique itself makes it unquestionably clear that Chomsky had no idea what Skinner was talking about. Skinner said as much about a later review of his work by Chomsky and saw no reason to respond.

    In fact, as just one example of how badly argued his claims are, in that later review, Chomsky said the following:

    Consider Skinner’s claim that “we sample and change verbal behavior, not opinions,” as, he says, behavioral analysis reveals (p. 95). Taken literally, this means that if, under a credible threat of torture, I force someone to say, repeatedly, that the earth stands still, then I have changed his opinion. Comment is unnecessary.

    Skinner says we “change verbal behavior, not opinions” and Chomsky says that, “taken literally, this means that” if I do x, “I have changed his opinion.” That’s the statement of a genius? It barely makes any sense. Aside from not making sense, what Chomsky is pointing out supports Skinner: according to Skinner, you’re changing a person’s verbal behavior—whether you call that verbal behavior a bona fide opinion or a coerced statement depends on the circumstances under which that behavior takes place. The example illustrates Skinner’s point and Chomsky doesn’t even realize it. Comment, as Chomsky would say, is unnecessary.

  21. nihil obstet permalink
    May 2, 2015

    Harris is incredibly shallow. He should read U.S. Prosecutor Robert Jackson’s opening statement at the Nuremberg Trials, where Jackson explained why the Nazis were criminals. The as Jackson stated “Any resort to war-to any kind of a war-is a resort to means that are inherently criminal. War inevitably is a course of killings, assaults, deprivations of liberty, and destruction of property.” Jackson goes on to define wars that may be just (defensive wars or wars to uphold international law), but the bald statement remains that war is a means that is inherently criminal.

    Harris’s whole “we bomb with good intentions whenever it seems like a good idea” belief is really abhorrent. And stupid.

  22. Monster from the Id permalink
    May 2, 2015

    @Hairhead: IIRC, Chomsky identifies himself as a socialist, and did so from Day One.

    Hence, the Imperial Spooks didn’t need to imprison or assassinate him, and so tip their hands. The usual Red-smearing campaign would neutralize his effectiveness sufficiently.

    Otherwise, your grim scenario might indeed have materialized.

  23. Greg T permalink
    May 3, 2015

    Fascinating interchange. Chomsky has the better argument, I think. There’s no discernible moral space between the 9-11 attacks and the destruction of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. In both cases, the perpetrators thought they were doing the right thing, while killing thousands of people in the process. Why should a head of state be excused from application of a basic moral precept: that it’s wrong to cause the death of others when those deaths could reasonably be prevented?

    Sam Harris argues that this type of killing is only wrong if jihadis do it, because they possess the requisite mens rea. However, this ignores that an American president either knew or reasonably should have known the consequences of his order to bomb a pharmaceutical factory. Thousands of Sudanese would be unable to obtain the medication needed to live. At best, Bill Clinton was massively indifferent to that outcome.

  24. Everythings Jake permalink
    May 3, 2015

    As polar the reaction to Chomsky can be (my favorite has reaction has to be Andrew Sullivan shrieking at damn near High C on Bill Maher), I generally agree with his view, and, even when I don’t, I invariably find all the facts are in evidence.

  25. May 3, 2015

    Chomsky’s claim that children acquire a grammar without enough reinforcement or information (the “poverty of stimulus” argument) and therefore some underlying grammar “has to” be innate is rather like Michael Behe’s wildly wrong creationist argument that biological systems are irreducibly complex, and therefore “have to” have been intelligently designed; they assume something for which there might not be any evidence and then rule out any competing hypothesis. The assumption itself in Chomsky’s case is wrong besides—you can read linguist Geoff Pullum’s take about what is absent from experience as being crucial to learning, consistent with Bayes’ Theorem.

    I don’t know if this is the right place to litigate the Linguistics Warz, but I cannot remain silent. This type of critique is common especially coming from a particular kind of psychologist, but Chomsky’s argument regarding the evolution of language isn’t the same as a creationist argument, and Chomsky is not a creationist. It’s really sad to see linguists like Pullum engage in…very strange logic and games of definition to dismiss the Poverty of the Stimulus argument.

    First of all, a gradualist approach to linguistic evolution is hardly uncontroversial. For example, recently,

    http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00271/full

    Invoking Bayes theorem as some kind of trump card is, to put it mildly, rather tendentious. No one is claiming that there is no stimulus, not even Chomsky. And let us grant that children learn from the absence of evidence. We have rough estimates of the amount of linguistic data that children receive before the age of five, and we have a large number of quite powerful general-purpose Bayesian learning algorithms. Claiming that “Chomsky is wrong” about this problem is claiming that the “prior” is more trivial than the prior that Chomsky is claiming exists (nowadays, characteristics of Merge). Then the scientific burden is on those making the claim to construct a Bayesian learner that makes use of such more trivial priors on data akin in size and character to that of a child’s input—to learn something with the overall sophistication of the grammar of a human language. I have so far seen no such plausible model proposed. It simply “must be” the case that it exists.

    There’s just so much more that’s wrong in e.g. Pullum’s post, but it’s really OT. As I said, a lot of these arguments come from psychologists who are upset that linguistics presents a set of counterarguments to assumptions taken practically for granted within some parts of cognitive psychology, and more importantly, are built into the types of experimental methodologies psychological research often uses.

  26. philadelphialawyer permalink
    May 3, 2015

    Chomsky did fine, but I do get a sense that he gave Harris more credit than he deserves. Harris is an anti Muslim bigot. Full stop. And that informs everything that he writes, and certainly any thing having to do with 9/11, Sudan, AQ, etc.

    Harris simply has no response to the main point, and so he keeps on begging the question. Reckless killing (which is what the Sudan bombing amounted to, not merely “negligent” as Chomsky calls it) is, at law, and in common morality, usually considered to be as bad as intentional killing. If someone shoots a gun into the crowded bleachers at Yankee Stadium, without any intent that anyone be killed, or even hit with the bullet, but someone is hit and killed, that crime is just as bad, morally and legally, as shooting at and killing, intentionally, a particular person.

    Of course, all wars involve killing. But wars themselves can be judged legally and morally. Legally, Clinton had no case. He had no evidence that he was acting in self defense and he had no UNSC resolution. Morally, he had no Just War Theory backing. And, in terms of the act itself (even assuming a legal and just war), there is a notion of avoiding civilian targets, minimizing “collateral damage,” and proportionality. But, again, given that there was no real evidence that the factory was producing chemical weapons, Clinton has no case here, either. So, he was akin to a reckless murderer, as Bin Laden was akin to an intentional murderer.

    Was it “as bad” as 9/11? Well, Chomsky never does actually say that.

    And Harris gives Chomsky another opening when he brings up My Lai. He claims that it was an aberrant situation, as well as an abhorrent one, and that the US reaction to it shows some sort of “moral development” on the part of the US, putting it above mere Muslims. But the truth is that plenty of Americans approved of the crime, that little or no punishment for it was ever meted out

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre#Courts_Martial

    and that the massacre was NOT particularly aberrant in terms of the conduct of US soldiers in Vietnam. Nor is it particularly aberrant in terms of the conduct of US soldiers in subsequent wars.

    But Chomsky does not address My Lai, choosing to focus instead on the Iraq sanctions.

    I also find that Chomsky tends to get bogged down a little too much in the “you said that I said that you said that I said” stuff. Harris’ main argument is ridiculous. The US bombing in Sudan are not even remotely comparable to simply NOT providing aid when you could, as he claims. And, of course, everyone CLAIMS that they are serving a greater good, including Hitler, the Japanese militarists, Bin Laden, etc, when they commit immoral actions. But the ends can never justify the means, and, beyond that, the notion of the greater good at play is almost always self centered, self valorizing, self serving, and unexamined. I think that pretty much covers it, and could have been said more succinctly than Chomsky said it.

    But, again, Harris clearly “lost” the exchange, and did so quite badly and obviously.

  27. philadelphialawyer permalink
    May 3, 2015

    The one area where I think Chomsky’s argument comes up short is the claim that tens of thousands of people “may” have died because of a lack of medicine caused by the destruction of the factory in Sudan. It seems to me that there must have been some alternate source of supply for those medicines, and that at least some of the folks who relied on the medicine produced at the bombed factory were able to get replacement medicines. I know evidence of this kind is hard to come by, and that it is unfair to place heavy burdens of proof on folks contesting the hegemonic narrative, because the hegemon controls information along with everything else. And the factory bombing is nevertheless morally and legally indefensible. Still, the specific claim has always seem a bit overblown to me.

    Perhaps Chomsky would have been on firmer ground by simply pointing out, as he has many times elsewhere, all of the thousands if not millions killed because of US actions in Indochina and Central America and so on. Also, I do think he is on solid ground by pointing out all of the thousands who really did die from lack of medicine, and other reasons, caused by the US sanctions against Iraq.

  28. Jeff W permalink
    May 3, 2015

    I appreciate your response, Mandos.Just to clarify: I was saying that the form of Chomsky’s argument is similar to that of Behe. (It’s the argument that psychologist Andrew D.Wilson makes regarding Hegelian arguments in cognitive science.)

    I have a lot more respect for Geoff Pullum than I do for Noam Chomsky when it comes to, well, anything, but I am perhaps not well-versed enough in linguistics to see why Pullum might be wrong. I can see a psychologist/linguist divide here—which seems to be a large part of the problem—but, of course, Pullum is a linguist so that divide doesn’t suffice to explain their differences. But I agree—here might not be the place to relitigate the Linguistic Warz.

    My larger point, though, was with Ian saying Chomsky is a “genius.” As just one example of why I have a problem with that:

    Chomsky makes the statement

    If [you] believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit and a rock [in learning English], then [you] believe that language is innate. So people who are proposing that there is something debatable about the assumption that language is innate are just confused.

    But absolutely no one proposes that. So either Chomsky doesn’t understand what other people are, in fact, proposing or he is, unfairly, setting up some sort of exceedingly weak straw man argument. Neither is the sign of a genius—to me, anyway. (A genius would frame the issue precisely to illuminate it, not attempt to score cheap rhetorical points with straw man arguments, and would know which one was more effective.)

    Here is what David Palmer wrote in 2006 regarding Chomsky’s “On Chomsky’s Appraisal of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior: A Half Century of Misunderstanding”:

    Although Chomsky’s willingness to discuss his review of Verbal Behavior with behavior analysts is a sign of openness and confidence, the Virués-Ortega (2006) interview did not flatter him. His refusal to acknowledge errors of fact, or shrillness of tone, was narrow and defensive. Moreover, he confirmed that he does not understand the distinction between experimental analysis and interpretation, that the extrapolation of laboratory principles to domains in which experimental analysis is not yet possible is standard practice and contributes greatly to our understanding of the world. Finally, Chomsky revealed a naive understanding of the rationale for the behavioral approach, its goals, and its relation to empirical work. His imagined opponent was an extreme environmentalist cleaving to stimulus– response dogma, immune to evidence. Painting an absurd caricature of one’s opponent is an effective debating move, but the strategy pays a penalty when it is discovered.

    None of that rings of “genius.” Chomsky’s 1959 review, even given its (unfortunate) influence, is flat-out wrong in places and obtuse in others—it is, in a word, ludicrous. (I didn’t need Palmer to tell me that—it’s clear from the review on its face.) Just that statement (about torture and opinions) in his later review in 1971 that I quote above shows, yet again, how absurd his reasoning is—he’s clueless as to what he is critiquing. That, to me, is no indication of a genius.

  29. DMC permalink
    May 3, 2015

    Yeah, what PL above said.

    OT but way to good to miss on the energy front:

    http://rameznaam.com/2015/04/14/energy-storage-about-to-get-big-and-cheap/

  30. Ian Welsh permalink
    May 3, 2015

    I actually think Chomsky was unfair to Skinner.

    I also think he is a genius: there is linguistics before Chomsky, and linguistics after Chomsky. Nor is his thesis ridiculous, and I have some actual grounding in linguistics, though nowhere near what Mandos does. There are clear similarities between languages and the idea that the brain is not a tabla rasa and that it informs the structure of language is not absurd. Likewise these theses have been very productive in linguistics and cog. sci.

    The fact that some psychologists think that Chomsky got it wrong is all very nice, but a great great number of linguists do not. Chomsky may not understand psychology that well, but I see no indication that those who criticize generative grammar from the psychology side understand linguistics all that well.

    Perfection and always being fair are not the hallmarks of genius. Have you read Plato? Yet few would argue he wasn’t a genius.

  31. CMike permalink
    May 3, 2015

    [QUOTE] [8:35] …What about the principles? Where do they come from? And that’s, in fact, a choice of parameters. Where do these things come from? If they’re in universal grammar, if they’re part of the genetic endowment, then they had to evolve somehow. But not a lot could’ve evolved because it’s too recent.

    You know, you go back 100,000 years there’s, as far as we know, nothing. Humans had the same anatomy. Anything that’s preserved in the fossil records about the same, you know, hundreds of thousands of years back. So it’s some small change must have taken place in the — in the brain which somehow allowed all of this to suddenly blossom. And pretty soon after that, again, in evolutionary time — like maybe a couple 10s of thousands of years which is no time at all humans started leaving east Africa where we all come from as far as anyone knows. So some small group developed this system and then it spread all over the world and now grow essentially the same.

    But what evolved in that short period of time cannot have been very complex. You know, you wouldn’t expect a series of extensive stages like, say, development of limbs, you know, millions of years. Therefore, what you’d predict is that some other principle external to language — maybe some principle of nature, the principle of computational efficiency or something like that, which is not specific to language, interacted with a small mutation which just gave rise to the — to universal grammar…. [END QUOTE]

  32. May 3, 2015

    Yeah I’m not going to go into great detail into the wars here. There is a faction of “disillusioned” “ex-Chomskyan” linguists who basically think that Chomsky promised them something he didn’t, and are annoyed that they didn’t get what they thought they ought to get out of linguistics. I put Pullum, Postal, etc into that category. Then there is a faction of cognitive modelers who have deep methodological differences with Chomsky and think that advances in computer technology (e.g. big data) allow the testing of hypotheses that Chomsky deems implausible as models of acquisition — and they have made a lot of headway, particularly institutionally, but I don’t find their arguments overcome what Chomsky has accomplished, to say the least.

  33. May 3, 2015

    But what evolved in that short period of time cannot have been very complex. You know, you wouldn’t expect a series of extensive stages like, say, development of limbs, you know, millions of years. Therefore, what you’d predict is that some other principle external to language — maybe some principle of nature, the principle of computational efficiency or something like that, which is not specific to language, interacted with a small mutation which just gave rise to the — to universal grammar….

    Can’t resist adding: yep, Chomsky is making the opposite of an “irreducible complexity” argument, but some people are so invested in gradualism that they view all alternative views as tantamount to creationist thinking. Chomsky is hypothesizing that the human linguistic capacity is enabled by a small change that reflects itself in a new way of integrating existing, more complex capacities of the human brain. So what appears like a massive change in phenotype is actually a small change is actually a small change in genotype, plus interactions with known limits on computational efficiency. Then the task of linguists wrt evolution is to find the minimum necessary element that integrates these prior capabilities. This may not be satisfying for people who are invested in language use as containing the “defining” characteristics of language, but whoever told you that it should be?

  34. Amir permalink
    May 3, 2015

    Harris is often (and here as well) mischaracterized as anti-Muslim. Agree or disagree with Harris, he is rabidly anti-Islam, but has no particular view of people who happen to be Muslims based on birth. What he takes issue with is people’s adherence to Islam and their resulting behaviors. The difference is not hard to understand. Also, Harris didn’t get mopped because he didn’t want to debate, but rather to start an interesting discussion. In this regard, Chomsky lost badly because he quickly and unkindly turned what could have been an interesting discussion into a fruitless string of emails in which he never really addressed an important question.

  35. CMike permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Speaking recursive enumeration-ally, Meet the new boss / There’s something different about this one from the old boss [LINK].

  36. Everythings Jake permalink
    May 4, 2015

    I find Harris’ “imagine if” scenarios ludicrous. Witness: Hedges and Harris.

    Harris is a bigot. And he lived awfully well as a probably Mossad sponsored graduate student.

  37. May 4, 2015

    Harris is often (and here as well) mischaracterized as anti-Muslim. Agree or disagree with Harris, he is rabidly anti-Islam, but has no particular view of people who happen to be Muslims based on birth. What he takes issue with is people’s adherence to Islam and their resulting behaviors. The difference is not hard to understand.

    Pure sophistry. “Rabidly anti-Islam” combined with his weird beliefs about intentions is a recipe for bigotry.

    In this regard, Chomsky lost badly because he quickly and unkindly turned what could have been an interesting discussion into a fruitless string of emails in which he never really addressed an important question.

    What interesting discussion, and what important question? Harris refused to answer the important questions, and instead passive-aggressively retaliates by e.g. posing what Chomsky rightly calls an “embarrassing and ludicrous” hypothetical.

    I see that Harris has published a rather whiny and petulant “postscript.” In it, he says,

    This would have been interesting terrain to explore. I consider his related claims that virtually everyone professes benign intentions, and that such professions are generally meaningless, to be false. Professions aside, there can be vast ethical differences between sincerely held beliefs about what is “good,” and these differences are often very easy to discern. To pretend otherwise is to risk destroying everything we are right to care about.

    Huh? Does he not realize that he is basically admitting that he was trying to corner Chomsky into agreeing that Clinton’s intentions were benign, when it’s plainly obvious that that is the thing that Chomsky explictly rejects? Either we have to believe that Harris cannot read or that Harris is a weasel.

  38. DMC permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Shorter Harris: “T’ain’t like it was genocide. After all they’s only camel jockeys.”

  39. DStein permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Linguistics aside, Chomsky’s genius is essentially moral: he holds himself accountable before reason for facts that cannot be rationally denied or ignored, is made deeply uncomfortable by ugly facts for which he cannot reasonably disclaim some measure of personal complicity as a citizen of a perpetrator. Harris prefers to sit in the comfort-zone of his “good intentions,” from which to cast judgments (and wars) at others – pure tribalism. He has the worst in common with the religious fanatics he despises. Chomsky threatens his/our comfort – We’re no better than that! Recognize it! Do something about it! The difference between Chomsky and most of his critics (including Harris) is at the ground floor of moral reasoning

    As for Chomsky’s well known prickliness, I can well understand at 88 years, after devoting so many of them to raising awareness of real atrocities, becoming impatient with Harris’ cringe-worthy, trivializing and narcissistic antics. Life is too short; and the topic of debate is literally life and death. Also, William James’ famous discussion of “cranks” (neurotics, psychopaths, etc.) as exceptionally receptive and effective examples of “genius” is very much to the point.

  40. Jeff W permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Ian:

    I actually think Chomsky was unfair to Skinner.

    The fact that some psychologists think that Chomsky got it wrong is all very nice, but a great great number of linguists do not. Chomsky may not understand psychology that well, but I see no indication that those who criticize generative grammar from the psychology side understand linguistics all that well.

    Perfection and always being fair are not the hallmarks of genius.

    I feel like that’s a very fair response to my diatribe. True, but I’d say that making dopey critiques and thinking they’re game-enders (“Comment is unnecessary”) aren’t exactly hallmarks of genius, either. Obviously we differ.

    Thinking about it, my objections boil down to: (1) In criticizing psychology (and BF Skinner, in particular), Chomsky was, as I said, clueless. He didn’t understand what Skinner was talking about (and Skinner said exactly that). In my book, a genius doesn’t pontificate—and smugly at that—about what he doesn’t understand, except to give some cogent account about what he doesn’t understand about it. (2) In terms of his own field, linguistics, Chomsky might be right about some underlying “Universal Grammar” (I think he isn’t but that’s neither here nor there) but his arguments—such as his argument appealing to species specificity (“rocks and rabbits”)—don’t make a lot of sense. (And one of the reasons Chomsky makes these arguments is that he doesn’t understand psychology—which leads to a sort of “poverty of the imagination” argument: “I can’t imagine how x would occur so therefore it must be ‘universal grammar’.”) A lot of this isn’t about psychology or linguistics per se—it’s more about how someone reasons. The fact that Chomsky is unfair just makes it worse but, even if he were exceedingly magnanimous, his reasoning is still bad. (I haven’t read Plato but I’d like to think his arguments were brilliant for their time. Chomsky’s aren’t. But again, we just differ on our assessments of Chomsky.)

    Mandos:

    Chomsky is hypothesizing that the human linguistic capacity is enabled by a small change that reflects itself in a new way of integrating existing, more complex capacities of the human brain.

    Yes, I agree—I don’t have a problem with that. But none of that entails the “structure” or “internal nature” in terms of grammar (as opposed to physiology) that Chomsky says it does. I don’t have a problem with Chomsky looking—good luck to him—but I do have a problem with him insisting, in the face of valid arguments to the contrary (which might or might not be correct), that that must be the case. Neither side meets its burden of proof.

  41. Sandman permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Getting back to the foreign policy issues vis-a-vis American Ignorantia (Ignorati?), one basic principle that they and their jingo fellow-travelers often choose to overlook is this: if you will the end, you will the means.

    “I just wanted us to win in Iraq (whatever that means), I didn’t mean for all them Iraqis to get hurt!” is no kind of dodge.

  42. May 4, 2015

    I remember when bitch slap certain people was jejune.

  43. Tom W Harris permalink
    May 4, 2015

    Harris is a bigot. And he lived awfully well as a probably Mossad sponsored graduate student.

    Do they have mirrors where you’re from, Jake?

  44. guest permalink
    May 5, 2015

    First, the information of that incident came from the most vile people on earth the Sudanese government and its operatives, and most likely they were the same who gave the false information to the CIA in the first place. It most likely there was no gas production, but I am sure that the production of medicine was highly inflated. I am sure that plant would have been closed within a year hadn’t been for the bombing. If Clinton had rounded them (Sudanese government) and bombed them all he would have saved the lives of million. I would have forgiven him anything including Rowanda. It’s really sad that those 2 men wasting their time debating that and ignoring the genocide that going on there since that government took office

  45. Jonathan permalink
    May 11, 2015

    “El Guapo permalink

    May 2, 2015

    I can’t imagine why anyone would think Sam Harris is intelligent. A cursory look at some of the arguments he has made makes it very clear that the man is a simple minded moron (and also a racist).”

    He’s intelligent because he’s fairly well accomplished in his area of study. Intellectuals have their blind spots, that doesn’t make them “a simple minded moron”. There is a very good reason that the both of us are here on this website discussing Sam Harris, while he has a PhD and is doing well in his field.

    @Jemand

    Sam Harris didn’t want to play anything, he wanted answers, and I was quite frankly shocked that he didn’t get what Chomsky was telling him. You act as if they had they had treated this with the seriousness that you believe is due, it would somehow alleviate the crimes that had already taken place. If you’re not familiar with this exchange or Chomsky’s other work, you’d be surprised to find that Chomsky did want to “play” and often does construct thought experiments.

  46. Douglas McElroy permalink
    May 11, 2015

    (My take – I hesitate to weigh in, as I don’t think I’m necessarily as informed as others here. Apologies for my loose use of language – I’m not a linguist)

    They are fundamentally talking past each other, although I suspect Chomsky knew this. I’m surprised he engaged in the first place. Frankly, the whole thing reminds me of the sort of dynamic you used to see on the nascent blogosphere in the early 2000’s. On one side you’d have some long-form blogger (with whom I sympathized!) detailing in excruciating detail a butcher’s bill of wrongs, with footnotes and references and links. And the countries’ response was, ‘But 911!’

    For Chomsky, words have precise meaning. Without that, it all descends into meaningless hand-waving. Chomsky wants to debate (nominally verifiable) facts, and apply a uniform standard. In this case the argument then can be reduced to ‘Stupid or evil’. Harris wants to add intent into the mix. There’s no ‘hard’ way to adjudicate this, at which point it just becomes an exercise in berating the other side for not having your opinion. Harris can’t concede that intent is unreliable on three grounds: it is unverifiable; it is relative to subjective standards; it is universally invoked (thus normalizing it in a logical sense and letting it fall out of the ‘equation’). In this sort of case it mostly makes sense to say, “Your opinion differs from mine and you are entitled to it”…

    Chomsky did come on pretty aggressively, but I think it’s a bit of a response to a young-buck coming along and effectively demanding Chomsky account for himself. There’s probably a bit of arrogance involved, but it’s presumptuous to challenge someone with Chomsky’s lengthy body of work without having read it in more depth.

    I continue to be increasingly unimpressed and even disturbed by Sam Harris. As an atheist I was glad to see his first book, but he has subsequently shown himself to be an apologist for abhorrent policies. I am stunned at how fundamentally he didn’t seem to understand Chomsky. To gripe about legalistic parsing is laughable – what did he expect from Noam Chomsky?! If you are going to challenge someone, and that’s what this was, however polite, then courtesy would compel him to try to respond to Chomsky in detail, which Harris refused to do. Harris’ intent seemed to be to call-out Chomsky AND set the terms of the debate. Were I Chomsky I might be a bit cranky as well.

    Harris even states, explicitly, although apparently unknowingly, the nature of the disconnect. It wasn’t that Chomsky didn’t address these issues, it’s that Harris didn’t like the answer. That answer condemns Harris’ worldview, and Harris. In response to Harris’ plaintive “I just want to understand what you mean”, Chomsky get’s increasingly detailed, and then Harris gripes about the parsing… Harris is being willfully obtuse, most likely to protect himself.

    When you have this sort of rhetorical disconnect, it’s almost meaningless to engage. I’m an atheist and my brother is a devout Christian. Both our worldviews are internally consistent, but his involves faith and mine does not. That element creates an impassable barrier to discussing religion. I want ‘proofs’ that don’t rely on faith. He can’t honestly discuss his beliefs without faith coming into play. As such, there’s nothing to discuss…

    (As a final note, hopefully related to the discussion of how brain-structure affects language, I will offer up an interesting although much less technical book: Proust and the Squid. The author is a researcher who has spent her life studying the neurological causes of dyslexia. There is no single cause, and the causes differ depending on the language of the culture in question, although externally it presents similarly. For instance (loosely paraphrasing based on recollection from a few years ago – but the gist is correct), for reading to occur one of the neurological components that must be in place is the ability to recognize symbols in less than about 600 ms. If your brain takes more than 700 ms, then you’re just not going to learn to read. In English, because of the way the language is structured, there are about 4 0r 5 different neurological components that have to all come together seamlessly for reading to occur. The author notes that in German and Chinese (two of the other languages she cites), the neurological components for dyslexia differ from those for English.)

  47. Umm permalink
    May 21, 2015

    Harris is so comfortable displaying enormous cultural bias and bigoted assumptions he doesn’t even know he’s doing so. He clearly has a weak grip on ethics in general and apparently loves to throw up inane hypotheticals that cloud ethical questions rather than clarify them. That Chomsky doesn’t just throw up his hands and walk away half way through is his biggest mistake. In the case of the bombing of the pharma plant in Sudan, its clear that Clinton authorized the bombing with limited information and with no regard for the consequences. If the factory was a known chemcial weapons plant then why did he wait until after the Embassy bombing to destroy it? And if he wasn’t sure it was a chemical weapons plant before the Embassy bombings (and how could be sure of something that wasn’t true?), and had only initial intel informing him that it was, then it was imperative that he hold off on ordering the bombing until he had more complete information given the horror that would inevitably result from the loss of all that medicine. The fact that he went ahead with little to no evidence proves Chomsky’s main point, that Clinton didn’t really care, that he struck out with violence as blind retaliation against the wrong target and then when the consequences became apparent he did nothing to alleviate the loss of medication for the people of Sudan. Once he realized the bombing was unwarranted, and knowing the severe consequences for the people of Sudan, if his intentions were as Harris claims they were then why didn’t he immediately order the importation to Sudan of the drugs he blew up? This is all just more proof that Harris is not just out of his depth but dishonest, glib and facile in his assessment of Clinton’s intentions to begin with. He doesn’t seriously consider any of these questions, instead preferring the comfortable fiction that Clinton is a ‘good person’ who ‘wouldn’t do something evil’ ‘with intent’. One thing that is certain is that, ensconced in American privilege, arrogance and certainty, Clinton simply didn’t think about any of this in a serious way, so sure of his moral righteousness he didn’t have to engage with any moral depth at all. Harris behaves with similar insularity and arrogant misplaced confidence in the moral superiority of the west. “We don’t need to think about what we do or do anything to mitigate the negative results of our actions because we always do things from good intent” seems to be Harris’ ridiculous position. Its no wonder Chomsky is so dismissive. Harris belongs on the idiot box with Bill Maher uttering inanities and ethical obfuscations to moronic applause.

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