What Is It Like to Be a Question?

“In your house, I long to be
Room by room, patiently
I’ll wait for you there like a stone
Audioslave 

Nick Treanor in his review of Nirmalangshu Mukherji’s Reflections on Human Inquiry says that “there is less clarity and sophistication than ideal” in the book but acknowledges that “[p]erhaps this is explained by the intention to speak to a broad audience. And some unclarity is also inevitable in a work like this, given its ambitions, and that can indeed be a virtue rather than a defect.” To illustrate his point he uses this passage from the essay “Human Reality”:

what do we mean when we say that nonhuman organisms conceive of other kinds of world? If we cannot ourselves conceive of any other kind of world except what we are allowed by our design, how can we make a comment on what different-designed animals conceive of? As Chomsky suggests, Nagel’s question, “What is it like to be a bat?”, does not seem to have an answer; hence, the question could be meaningless. (pg. 17)

Let’s call Nagel’s question Q-N. Treanor finds “this passage puzzling, and puzzling because it was just unclear to me what was being said”.

What does Mukherji (or Chomsky, for that matter) mean in saying that Nagel’s question doesn’t seem to have an answer? Is it that the question seems to have no answer at all? Or no answer that humans can understand?

  1. Is the idea Mukherji is driving at that the question doesn’t have an answer, understood as a kind of semantic item akin to a sentence or proposition?
  2. Or is it rather that there is nothing it is like to be a bat, propositional or otherwise?

Although (2) is an interesting suggestion (as might have been the case if Q-N was a meaningful question – but, say a case of category error of associating “like to be” with “a bat”) I think, Mukherji subscribes to (1). Chomsky writes that

Many questions that puzzle people have an interrogative form, but it’s not clear what the question is. Take “What is it like to be a bat?” – Nagel’s (1974) question. It has an interrogative form but is it a question? If it’s a question, there have to be some possible answers to it. In fact, in formal semantics, it’s common to propose that the meaning of a question is the set of propositions that are possible answers to it. Maybe that’s too strong, but at least it’s some kind of condition of the meaning. Suppose there are no possible answers – is it a question? What’s a possible answer to “What’s it like to be me?” I can’t think of a possible answer; so is it a question? Or maybe the question is something like, “How do things work?” which has an interrogative form but is not really a question.

McGilvray: It’s precisely that kind of question – if you can call it a question – that exercises philosophers.

Chomsky: It does, but the first thing they’ve got to do is turn them into meaningful questions. (Chomsky and McGilvray, Science of Language. pg 98)

For Chomsky (also Mukherji and many others) an interrogative sentence doesn’t necessarily form a meaningful question – just as a sentence like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” doesn’t form a meaningful sentence. The formal semantics approach to the meaning of a question might be too strong but even in a weaker form, any possibility of finding an answer is a necessary condition for the interrogative to be a meaningful question. And what makes Q-N meaningless is the vagueness of the interrogative, which to me is almost of the quality as “How do things work?” And it is in this context of a discussion of vagueness the first quote from Mukherji appears in the essay.

For Chomsky, such meaningless interrogatives can (at least sometimes) be turned into meaningful questions. For example, if we ask another question,

Q-S: Is there a systemic difference between the visual perception realized by the same stimuli in two different species?

This, I believe, Chomsky would find a meaningful question and will even answer the question in affirmative. As in case of conceptual differences between humans and rats – the latter with their lack of cognitive bases for the concept of prime numbers cannot solve the maze with prime numbers.

But even the amalgam of all sensory perceptions (and emotions) doesn’t capture what is in natural language is meant by the phrase “like to be”. Cases of being “like” an inanimate object further complicates the issue. As long as there is no clear definition of this phrase and what is it like to be me or Chomsky or Nagel there is no hope to even guess what is it like to be a bat – because we do not know what to guess in the first place.

Nativism does not require”arguments from animals.”

These are some comments on Rachael L. Brown’s paper, which is a criticism of Eric Margolis and Laurence’s view of nativism. Brown claims that Margolis et al. base their  support for nativism (here meaning to be domain-specificity of inputs and process mechanisms) on the argument from animals (i.e. there is sufficient evidence to believe animals have domain-specific learning systems, humans are animals hence we must have domain-specific learning systems.) And tries to show that this is the only possible argument for nativism or modularity. This is not true.

Neither Margolis et al. in their paper base nativism solely on animal evidence but, focus also, on Poverty of Stimulus; nor in the nativist literature is the main argument based on animal evidence.  Even those who argue for domain specific cognitive systems in humans with assistance of non-human animal data do so in limited way and do not “infer” the value of nativism from it. For example, C.R. Gallistel states that, “”it is not to argue that an account of cognitive development should use animal models of learning. Rather, it is to take advantage of developments in this area that provide insights into the question of how to characterize cognitive development.” (“Lessons from animal learning for study of cognitive development”)

Brown does try to argue that there are not enough “developments in this area”  to take insights from. But provides only references to “recent empirical advances” supporting associationist domain-general characterization, while admitting these are only partial support to discard nativism in animal learning. The section on inferences from phylogenetic tree, while being interesting in its own right does not strengthen the empiricist argument because most nativist formulations do not use this kind of inferences (see Gallistel’s paper).

So, if nativism does not require argument from animals, what gives it support? As pointed out above, Poverty of Stimulus can support some formulation of domain-specificity of inputs and processes. The evidence also comes from  exceptional cases of language learning and use, notably Neil Smith’s work Christopher, a polyglot savant.

Brown’s paper is important for pointing out the challenges with phylogenetic inferences and possibility of arguments for domain-general explanations of birdsongs and filial imprinting. But, I believe it fails to establish how her case, as nativism is not dependent on factors she is focusing on.