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Problems with

Mentalese

BRENT SILBY
Unlimited (UPT)
Review the Language of Thought Hypothesis

Language enables productivity and systematicity in thought

Human thinking is linguistic

Fodor and Pinker claim that all thoughts are encoded in an innate,
behind the scenes brain language known as mentalese.

There is active translation between the internal language of


thought and natural language.
Problems with Mentalese

1 Where is the language of thought?

When we think in sentences, we can point to the words and see


how they connect to make meaningful sentences. But mentalese
words cannot be found.

We can’t find mentalese through introspection because it is


supposed to be “hidden” and “behind the scenes”. When we
introspect we are only aware of English.

There is a constant internal monologue chattering away. It has


syntax, but it is as removed from mentalese as words on my
computer screen are from its internal programming language.

Doesn’t the idea of mentalese being hidden make it unfalsifiable?


Problems with Mentalese

Not a problem to a mentalese supporter…lots of brain functions


are hidden from conscious awareness.
Keeping with computer analogy, we cannot look at words on
screen to discover internal language.

But wait! We can look at its hardware to discover its binary


language of thought. We can point to regularities in the hardware
to describe the way syntax is implemented in its different states.

The same is not true of the brain!

The brain is a messy collection of neurons that do not appear to


have a syntactic structure.
Problems with Mentalese

It has not been possible to identify a mechanism by which


mentalese syntax is implemented in low level neural structure of
the brain.

Mentalese supporter can reply to this…


Natural language cannot be specifically located in the neural
structure of the brain.

A good point. Mentalese is higher level, which abstracts away from


the neurological events that underpin its workings. It sits between
neural activity and higher level natural language.
Problems with Mentalese

2 Where does the meaning come from?

Problematic question…
Explanations either regressive or head in unnecessary direction

First, an explanation of mentalese meaning could appeal to some


other language, which itself needs to be explained.

Second, any non-regressive explanation of mentalese meaning


could also work for natural language, thus making mentalese
unnecessary.
Problems with Mentalese

The regress problem

Mentalese theorists claim that English sentences gain meaning


from their mentalese counterparts. But where do these mentalese
sentences get their meaning from?

Some theorists state that sentences gain meaning from the way
they are consciously used. But this can’t work for mentalese
because it is hidden from consciousness.

The solution is to suggest that mentalese sentences get their


meaning from the way they are used by something deeper.
Problems with Mentalese

Natural Language

Mentalese

Sub-Mentalese

Deep-Mentalese
Problems with Mentalese

If “deep-mentalese” has meaning, why can’t it be the case that


mentalese has meaning?

It is better to avoid the regress and state that mentalese is the


most basic language.

The “shape” of mentalese symbols determine how they interact


with each other. Just as in a computer, processes in symbol
manipulation are concerned with the “shape” of symbols, not
meaning.

There is no question of meaning, just brute force operations


on symbols…the right shaped keys open locks.
Problems with Mentalese

But couldn’t we shift up to a higher level and remove mentalese


altogether?

After all, Natural language is nothing more than symbol


manipulation.
Problems with Mentalese

3 The compatibility problem

Consider that computer designers have an end product in mind.

Their computer is designed to specification and will carry out its


tasks with no intervention from design team.

They usually include a facility to add peripherals to the system.

These peripherals are designed by to integrate into original system

Computer and peripherals can communicate through a common


language.
Problems with Mentalese

This works for computers, but the brain was not designed in this
way. It was not designed at all!

Brain originated as a smaller device—a collection of self contained


modules, each responsible for a specific task.

Over time, natural selection gave rise to new “purpose built”


modules that added to the existing brain.
These add-ons often had the ability to communicate data to other
parts of the brain.

But here’s a problem: If brain has internal language of thought,


each of its modules would need to run on the same language.

But these modules appeared through natural selection, and were


not designed to be “plugged in” to an existing system.
Problems with Mentalese

Evolution does not move towards end goals, how can it be that
all these distinct modules are compatible?

Of course, modules could arise that were compatible by chance.


Natural selection would favor these modules.

Perhaps this is not a serious challenge, but it does give us another


reason to look seriously at a theory that does not suffer the same
problem.
Powerpoint by BRENT SILBY

Produced at UPT
Christchurch, New Zealand
www.unlimited.school.nz