Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Chomsky on reason and science

5 Post author: PhilGoetz 17 April 2009 05:52PM

I came across this delightful 1995 article by Noam Chomsky while testing whether googling 'rationality' would lead people to LW (it doesn't).  It defends rational inquiry against postmodern, Kuhnian attacks1.  I was pleasantly surprised, because Chomsky is ideologically aligned with the people making the attacks.  (Also because I have reservations about Chomsky's rationality, which I will not state because I don't want this to turn into a discussion of Chomsky, socialism, American foreign policy, or universal grammar.)

Here are some choice sentences:

With regard to the second problem, since what is called "science," etc., is largely unfamiliar to me, let me replace it by "X," and see if I understand the argument against X. Let's consider several kinds of properties attributed to X, then turning to the proposals for a new direction; quotes below are from the papers criticizing X.

<long paragraph of DHMO-like attributions about X>

Conclusion: there is "something inherently wrong" with X. We must reject or transcend it, replacing it by something else; and we must instruct poor and suffering people to do so likewise. It follows that we must abandon literacy and the arts, which surely satisfy the conditions on X as well as science. More generally, we must take a vow of silence and induce the world's victims to do so likewise since language and its use typically have all these properties.


There is also at least an element of truth in the statement that the natural sciences are "disembedded from the body, from metaphorical thought, from ethical thought and from the world"--to their credit. ... Though scientists are human, and cannot get out of their skins, they certainly, if honest, try to overcome the distortions imposed by "body" (in particular, human cognitive structures, with their specific properties) as much as possible. ... It is also true that "Reason separates the `real' or knowable...and the `not real'," or at least tries to (without identifying "real" with "knowable")--again, to its credit.


It strikes me as remarkable that their left counterparts today should seek to deprive oppressed people not only of the joys of understanding and insight, but also of tools of emancipation, informing us that the "project of the Enlightenment" is dead, that we must abandon the "illusions" of science and rationality--a message that will gladden the hearts of the powerful, delighted to monopolize these instruments for their own use.


The critique of "science" and "rationality" has many merits, which I haven't discussed. But as far as I can see, where valid and useful the critique is largely devoted to the perversion of the values of rational inquiry as they are "wrongly used" in a particular institutional setting. What is presented here as a deeper critique of their nature seems to me based on beliefs about the enterprise and its guiding values that have little basis. No coherent alternative is suggested, as far as I can discern; the reason, perhaps, is that there is none. What is suggested is a path that leads directly to disaster for people who need help--which means everyone, before too long.


1  Kuhn later claimed not to have made these kinds of attacks on science.  I don't accept citations of Kuhn's interpretation of Kuhn as valid; I've concluded that my interpretation of Kuhn-1962 is more accurate than Kuhn-1977's interpretation of Kuhn-1962.  What I think happened was that Kuhn made a lot of radical claims and rode them to fame; once he was famous and part of the establishment, it was advantageous to abandon those claims and pretend not to have made them.  Anyway, Kuhn has said "I am not a Kuhnian", so I take that as license to keep using the term the way I used it.

Comments (6)

Comment author: ciphergoth 18 April 2009 01:42:00AM *  2 points [-]

I was pleasantly surprised, because Chomsky is ideologically aligned with the people making the attacks.

Remember that Alan Sokal also identifies as left-wing - he taught mathematics in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were in power:

But I'm a leftist (and feminist) because of evidence and logic, not in spite of it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 April 2009 06:23:59PM 1 point [-]

Link's broken.

Comment author: gjm 17 April 2009 07:22:50PM 0 points [-]

(It consists of two copies of the correct URL.)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 17 April 2009 07:18:24PM 0 points [-]

Fixed, thanks.

Comment author: HughRistik 17 April 2009 06:53:51PM 0 points [-]

It is just pasted twice. Removing one of them works.

Comment author: byrnema 18 April 2009 03:12:51AM *  0 points [-]

<long paragraph of DHMO-like attributions about X>

Neverthless, while DHMO can't logically be blamed for causing P, Q, and R perhaps the argument persists that DHMO is clearly not saving us from P, Q and R.

Perhaps we haven't been applying rationality, science, logic perfectly well, and that is why they're not solving our problems. But the Western world has gone at great lengths to embrace them -- if they have not been executed perfectly perhaps they are too demanding? In any case, the fact is that they are not saving us from P, Q and R.

We do require new tools, not just better, ever more perfect execution of the old ones.

(Biases and conflicts of interest: As I make this argument, the devil is standing at the door, giving me the creeps. My religion: science et al.)