From politics to science, Chomsky motivates us to make the world more livable

Noam Chomsky has been relentlessly demystifying and exposing political BS since the 1960s. He did it almost alone for decades though lately the torch passed to TV satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Reading Chomsky on politics, someone said, is like a purge. You may not recall all the disgusting propaganda he catalogued but you feel your system has been flushed out and you can start again. What a contribution. He's still doing it, at 87, with detail and high moral outrage, during this U.S. election.

But there's always been an alternate Chomsky: the pioneer of generative linguistics, a philosopher and historian of science. His recent book, What Kind of Creatures Are We?, is by Chomsky Two, the one who plumbs the mysteries of human thought and speech.

In this book he takes on a perilous human obsession: the mind-body split, dualism between spirit and matter. Via the history of science, he finds a way out of those false dilemmas and in the process makes the world a more intriguing place, exploring the nature of experience, speech, bodies -- what range. If he's not the most interesting man in the world, he's probably the most interested.

Long ago, when I studied philosophy, we learned that the chasm between human consciousness and the natural world was opened up by early modern science, especially Isaac Newton, who mathematized the laws of physics. Yet for Chomsky, Newton is actually the key to the solution, not the problem.

Early scientists like Copernicus and Galileo did their best to see the world as a big machine: solid, clunky bodies, banging into each other and imparting motion, along with levers that connected them, and math formulas that stated the results of the connections. Nature was basically like clocks, watches or the intricate automata that those societies built and adored. This vision included no place for thoughts or minds, so those were located in a separate realm.

Yet Newton himself, science's great success story, brought this image of nature as a big connected machine, crashing down. How? His theory of gravity -- of "action at a distance" -- involved no levers or contact between bodies -- yet was clearly correct in its predictions. This led Newton to despair. Instead of "understanding" nature -- i.e., forming an intuitively comprehensible picture of it -- he'd merely concocted math formulas that worked. He was like a blind man with a perfect knowledge of the laws of optics, but no clue what he was talking about. Newton struggled to escape this result but eventually surrendered to a more "modest" notion of science which still rules: it offers no real understanding of what reality is like, but is totally successful at describing rules operating in it.

Chomsky however sees this as an opportunity and a liberation -- from the mind-body split. By pulverizing the "body" side of the mind-body split, Newton made the split itself irrelevant and unnecessary. If nature, the world or matter aren't solid bodies, then whatever they are, could well include "mental" or "psychic" effects. Darwin said the brain produces thoughts the way matter produces gravity. Why not? We might never fully grasp the nature of nature or matter, but whatever it is, it's far more mysterious and interesting than early materialist science pictured. Chomsky calls this "the thesis of thinking matter."

Let me digress to politics for a moment. It seems to me that early leftists, especially Marxists, made a dreadful mistake by embracing "historical materialism," which they saw on the model of Newtonian physics. If you could identify the "laws" of history you could get on its right side and never go wrong -- excusing some hideous excesses in the 20th century. They felt inspired by the natural sciences but it was Newton himself who'd collapsed that very model. As for Chomsky, he's always been a leftist but never that kind of leftist.

What I adore about the "science" incarnation of Chomsky is how much more intriguing and puzzling he makes the world -- versus demystifying and unmasking it as he does in his political writing. I'm grateful for that but even more grateful to him for revealing how complicated, delightful and perplexing human experience continues to be. There's a contrast between the two Chomskys, but one that motivates you to continue trying to make the world a more livable place, in part because it's so endlessly rich and fascinating.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: jeanbaptisteparis/flickr

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