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Thursday, July 9, 2009


In hopes of achieving fairness, we look to precedent. Whether or not the precedent was absurd it is still repeated. Its just intolerable sometimes.

So I picked up this book called Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong by Marc Hauser. He says he's attempting to do the same thing with morality that Chomsky did with language. Since I don't know what Chomsky did with language I'm hoping reading this will enlighten me on two things at once. Procedural distribution (rules of the game) versus scalar distribution (more effort, more benefit); intriguing.

Rules, eh? Weird word. Capitalism doesn't seem to have a lot of rules. Well, wait, property law is huge and I guess that fits under capitalism. Obviously, I'm rambling at this point. Hope you all are enjoying July.


SS said...


Chomsky claimed that basic grammar was innate, a biological acquisition rather than cultural - I'm not so sure but perhaps your book asserts that morality is innate.


Thai said...

Hey Dink and SS, I hope you guys are well?

Sounds like a great topic and is definitely the kind of stuff I love reading... Think of a zero sum information structure that centers around an idea something akin to "the protection of... (fill in the blank)"

Of course there are an infinite number of perspectives from which this information structure can be examined- e.g. protection of the individual, protection of a group, protection of several groups, protection of ideas, protection of the collective, etc...

Morality is very definitely hard wired (imo) AND influenced very strongly influenced by environment (of course the more we eliminate environmental variability (or genetic variability), the more the innate aspects of morality (or environment) dominate).

Let me know if it is this information structure, and its endless permutations, are the subject matter of the book?

Which reminds me, I owe you Sasha grapes so I will see if I can get that off

Thai said...

Another way of looking at "In hopes of achieving fairness, we look to precedent" (from the point of view of complexity) is another way of saying "we start with a template from which to build more structure".

Rebuilding a basic template (or kernel) for an information structure all over again tends to create a great big mess, and whatever new template/kernel you build really looks the same as the first one you had anyway (the closer you inspect) it so why bother?

In other words, if you create something new to get rid of something absurd, it will work, but you will create a new absurdity.

Remember, it is a fundamental law of information science "in order to create something useful, you make it wrong".

If it is "not wrong", it is useless (tautology).

Give it a try yourself- I have never ever known anyone who can trip this law up (admittedly weak inductive evidence).

Anyway, hope you are well

SS said...

Hi Thai,

Just curious how you came to this:

"Morality is very definitely hard wired (imo)" - also I don't know what imo is?

Do you think basic grammar is hard wired to?


Thai said...

Hey SS, good to hear from you! :-)

imo = in my opinion

At some level "yes"- I think basic concepts such as "spatial operations (.g. moving, etc...) or spacial properties such as thingness are probably hard wired or "atomic" (in the classic sense of the word) by certain neural structures which are then iterated over and over in highly fractal ways to create near infinite diversity in the human brain- Is this what you mean?

However, by saying this I do not mean to de- legitimize or minimize the influence of environment or culture on grammar either.

For my understanding of this issue is that it simply matters what level of grammar you are talking about and what level literally becomes the most atomic (or non divisible)- in truth, from everything I know about other fields of science, I am not sure there is ever a basic atomic level so I doubt this would be true in grammar but I understand the point of trying to have a "template".

So "yes" I do think there is a basic universal hard wired grammar of the brain (like a computer's 0 and 1's). Above this level there are probably higher levels of grammar that environment/culture as we classically define them can take over.

An analogy might be the language of 0s and 1s in a computer above which there is (say) machine language, and above this there is still higher level machine languages, and above this there are higher languages like COBOL or C++ and above these are still higher languages like HTML etc... all these levels of language with their own grammars exist before you ever get to the level where you and I can communicate back and forth on the internet.

The same hold true of the brain.

ButI can't personally comment on Chomsky's particular version of universal grammar (Deb, can you?). As I said before, the field of linguistics is relatively new to me- I backed into it from other disciplines.

I first started reading about it from Pinker and I learned about Pinker from still other disciplines.

Does this make sense?

Thai said...

Oh, sorry, I didn't answer your question re: "Morality is very definitely hard wired".

The neurology literature is full of stuff like this- and I mean full of articles like this.

I am sure I needn't remind you of the data on conditions like mental retardation or temporal lobe epilepsy and prison populations.

The evolutionary biologists are writing tons of stuff like this

The psychiatry/psychology literature is full of stuff like this.

I just read some of what is out there (and there is a lot and I mean a lot) and I think a lot of it is not crazy (and of course some of it is).

Type into Google the genetic basis of morality yourself and look at what you get- you will see some is very interesting, some of it rubbish.

SS said...

@ Thai


I'm going through the stuff. I don't have trouble with genetically based grammar like your binary numbers but it comes so basic as to become trivial imo. Thanks for modernizing my grammar too lol.


Thai said...

SS, I can't comment as I said before, I know very little about linguistics.

But I do wonder if many of the conversations on this kind of stuff are a little like people on the first floor of a building talking about their view out the window vs. people on the 88th floor. I am not sure the view from either floor is trivial, it is just that they are often not useful to each other.

Here is an interesting link from 3quarksdaily (admittedly a libertarian site) on Pinker's language instinct.

My favorite part of the book is the intellectual rabbit hole Pinker creates as he describes the paradox of the locative construction which I will quoted a portion of in my next comment (since these limit the number of characters one can post).

Thai said...

one of the many fascinating stories that Pinker tells about language and what it entails for "conceptual semantics"--the concepts and schemes that we use to think--indeed, the language of thought itself. Let's jump right in: we begin by considering what one of Pinker's colleagues once jokingly referred to as one of Pinker's "little friends": the verb "to load". Take a sentence like Hal loaded hay into the wagon. [All linguistic examples used in this review are Pinker's own.] This is what linguists call a content-locative construction because it is the contents being moved that are the object of the sentence. Notice that this sentence is indistinguishable in meaning from Hal loaded the wagon with hay. This latter sentence is known as a container-locative construction, since it is the container which is the object here. One can do also perform this operation (call it the locative rule) with other transitive verbs:

Jared sprayed water on the roses.
Jared sprayed the roses with water.

Betsy splashed paint on the wall.
Betsy splashed the wall with paint.

Jeremy rubbed oil into the wood.
Jeremy rubbed the wood with oil.

Thai said...

The mind of a child might absorb such a pattern (linguists call it an alternation) as a generalization. So now, if you heard someone say brush paint onto the fence you might guess that brush the fence with paint is also fine. So far so good. But now consider a different sentence: Hal poured water into the glass. It cannot be transformed in a similar manner: Hal poured the glass with water sounds immediately wrong to a normal speaker of English. Similarly, problems arise in the other direction with other verbs like fill: while the container-locative construction Bobby filled the glass with water is fine, the content-locative Bobby filled water into the glass is not grammatical English. Why? As Pinker puts it, "How do children succeed in acquiring an infinite language when the rules they are tempted to postulate just get them into trouble by generating constructions that other speakers choke on? How do they figure out that certain verbs can't appear in perfectly good constructions?" (p. 37)

Pinker now considers and rejects three possibilities: First, maybe we have over-generalized the rule. Maybe verbs have some trait that children can sense that indicates that they resist this alternation. But if such a trait exists, it is not very obvious what it could be since load, pour, and fill are all ways of moving something to another place, but pour only allows the content-locative (pour water), fill only allows the container locative (fill the glass), and load allows both (load the hay, load the wagon).

Second, it might be that children simply memorize which constructions are allowed for which verbs, one at a time. This is unlikely because children have to master an infinite language and only have a very limited set of samples to learn from. Also consider that when new words (or new senses of words) enter the language, such as burning songs onto a CD, no one has trouble generalizing to the container-locative burning a CD with songs. Indeed children do generalize to the container locative even when they could not have heard the usage from their parents. Many examples can be found in children's speech which has been recorded by psychologists, such as "I hitted this into my neck."

The third possibility is that children do make generalizations, but are corrected by their parents (or others) when the generalization leads to a construction which, like "I hitted this into my neck", is not allowed. Well, even attempts to show that parents react differently to their children's deviant sentences, much less correct them, have not come up with anything. And there is a bigger problem: Even if parents were trying their best to always correct their children, this would not be enough to explain the strong intuitions people have about what verbs can and can't do: "People sense that they would never say They festooned ribbons onto the stage or She siphoned the bottle with gasoline, yet word-frequency counts show that these verbs are literally one in a million. It is unlikely that every English speaker uttered each of the obdurate verbs in each of the offending constructions at some point in childhood (or, for that matter, adulthood), was corrected, and now finds the usage strange on account of that episode." (p. 40)

So where does that leave us? Pinker lists four apparent facts that can't be all true at the same time:

* people generalize
* they avoid some exceptions
* the exceptions are unpredictable
* children don't get corrected for every mistake

Thai said...

One of these, at least, must be false, and indeed when we examine them carefully, the one that seems weakest is that the exceptions are not predictable. What if they are somehow predictable? "Often a linguistic pattern that seems haphazard turns out to have a stipulation that divides the sheep from the goats. For example, the mystery of why you can't apply --er and --est to certain adjectives, as in specialer and beautifullest, was solved when someone noticed that the suffixes apply only to words that are monosyllabic (redder, nicer, older) or have at most an insubstantial second syllable (prettier, simpler, narrower). Perhaps there is also a subtle criterion that distinguishes the verbs enlisted into the locative construction from the draft dodgers." (p. 42)

The breakthrough came in a paper by Malka Rappaport Hovav and Beth Levin who realized that it is not just a Chomskian matter of cutting and pasting phrases, such as moving a prepositional phrase leftward into the position of a direct object (in the case of changing a content-locative into a container-locative construction) or moving the direct object rightward into a prepositional phrase (in changing from container-locative to content-locative construction), with the meanings left indistinguishable. It is something more abstract: the rule actually transforms the mental framing of events that goes into a construction. Pinker explains:

Imagine that the meaning of the content-locative construction is "A causes B to go to C," but the meaning of the container-locative construction is "A causes C to change state (by means of causing B to go to C)." In other words, loading hay onto the wagon is something you do to hay (namely, cause it to go to the wagon), whereas loading the wagon with hay is something you do to the wagon (namely, cause it to become loaded with hay). These are two different construals of the same event, a bit like the gestalt shift in the classic face-vase illusion in which the figure and ground switch places in one's consciousness.

In the sentences with the hay and the wagon, the flip between figure and ground is not in the mind's eye but in the mind itself--the interpretation of what the event is really about....
When conceived as a conceptual gestalt shift, the locative rule is no longer a matter of cutting and pasting phrases in complicated ways for no particular reason. It can now be factored into two very general and useful rules:

* A rule of semantic reconstrual (the gestalt shift): If a verb means "A causes B to move to C," it can also mean "A causes C to change state by moving B to it."
* A rule for linking meaning to form: Express the affected entity as the direct object. (p. 44)

The really interesting bit is that this gestalt-shift theory implies that the two constructions might not be completely synonymous (they are two different construals of an event, after all), and when we think about it carefully, that is indeed the case:

When one loads hay onto a wagon, it can be any amount, even a couple of pitchforkfuls. But when one loads the wagon with hay, the implication is that the wagon is full. This subtle difference, which linguists call the holism effect, can be seen with the other locative verbs: to spray the roses with water implies that they all got sprayed (as opposed to merely spraying water onto the roses), and to stuff the turkey with breadcrumbs implies that it is completely stuffed.

Thai said...

The holism effect is not an arbitrary stipulation tacked onto the rule, like a pork-barrel amendment on a spending bill. It falls out of the nature of what the rule does, namely, construe the container as the thing that is affected. And that, in turn, reveals an interesting feature of the way the mind conceives what things are and how they change. The holism effect turns out not to be restricted to the locative construction; it applies to direct objects in general. For instance, the sentence Moondog drank from the glass of beer (where the glass is an oblique object of from) is consistent with his taking a few sips. But the sentence Moondog drank the glass of beer (where the glass is a direct object) implies that he chugged down the whole thing.

But the holism effect has even wider applicability.

Thai said...

Sorry to cut and past this way, the 4000 character limit is annoying but probably designed to limit ranting ;-)

Thai said...

By the way, SS, I read this on Mankiw's blog the other day and it dawned on me a moment ago that the link might help you to understand the complexity of this administration issue in medicine a little better (especially as it centers around proposals for a single payor system- which again, I really am agnostic on- or in the debates of Medicare/Medicaid efficiency vs. private health insurance efficiency- remember where there might be more fraud???).

Bad administrative costs are bad, but good administrative costs are good... I really do wish it were simple but it is not.

Anyway, I hope this helps clarify the issue a little better.

And if you get a moment please do let me know what you think about Pinker and the locative construction as a window into the rabbit hole of language and the structure of grammar and the structure of the mind as I really do find this topic fascinating.

... I sometimes wonder why I did not become a neurologist but every time I remember I suddenly that it was because I find the ability to help people far more satisfying than not being able to help them and when I entered medicine there was little neurologists could actually do to help people- happily this is changing a little.

Anyway, hope you are well

Dink said...

I'm heading out for the weekend; look forward to absorbing the content and links above when I get back Sunday night.

Pinker wrote the main "ad blurb" on this book. I'm bringing the book with me this weekend. One SNAFU is that I'm also bringing along a sci fi compilation of stuff by Phillip Dick who is supposedly a legend in the genre.

Instinct is such a mind-blowing concept. Genes telling proteins to make structures and suddenly we are conscious. Honestly, why do people need to take drugs? Isn't reality wild enough?

SS said...


Thanks so much I'm trying to absorb it too. Do like you window analogy, everyone is looking at the same thing after all but wow is it different.


Dink said...

So far in the book....

Well, all of the TED people are in it (Pinker, Dawkins, Haidt). All the favorite dead people too (Hume, Adam Smith).

So Chomsky has something termed "the inaccessible". A place in our minds beyond what we can explain/reason out. There are some grammatical errors that even toddlers don't make; they seem to already know what order some words go in regardless of the language their born into. Hauser argues that morality is similar; a prepackaged system waiting for specifics to be plugged in.

A foreign moral code is as incomprehensible to us as a foreign language. We can of course learn it if we bother to study it.

I'm fascinated by this "inaccessible" concept. The author mostly compares moral philosophers Kant, Hume, and some guy named Rawls (I'll link it later). Hauser says that Kant said when we observe an act our conscious uses reason to determine if it was moral or not and then emotion follows. Hauser says that Hume said that actions we observe cause emotions and our conscious deduces the morality of the act based on which emotion was felt and then we use reason to sort of backfill. Using some data about sociopaths, the autistic, and those with brain trauma Hauser refutes Kant and Hume. Hauser likes Rawls best which is more Chomsky-like. The "inaccessible" decides whether the act was moral, reason twists to make an explanatory narrative story for our conscious, and then emotions follow.

Good fun. I'll keep reading and post later.

Thai said...

Interesting comment Dink.

One of my greatest mentors is quite find of reminding me/others: "all you are doing is justifying a position you already chose".

I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts when you are done.

SS, any comment on this "inaccessible" area?

I know people like University of Virginia's Haidt (the first person to ever introduce me to the concept that morality is strongly genetic) is quite firm in his belief that our brains are designed to trick us into believing something is not true when it is (and vice versa) when moral discussion arise.

This is an interesting video, how the red queen process goes from advantage to zero sum.

Thai said...

Also, notice how Haidt discusses "a first draft" (@11:27+)

And can you see the complexity science fractal repeating itself over and over and over.

For Haidt's "first draft" is really the same thing as my "template" is really the same thing as your "... we look to precedent".

Anyway, hope you are well.

Go back over Hell's posts and you will see this in them.

Dink said...

The "first draft" concept is interesting. Baby teeth to later be replaced with permanent teeth.

"justifying a position you already chose".
This is where I'm starting to get flipped out (and wondering how it didn't occur to me to flip out earlier).

To whom/what am I justifying my position to?

When my pets are relaxing they appear to have reached some sort of ultimate inner peace. Zen; no thinking, just being. No inner dialogue streaming. Is this what that neuroanatomist described when the aneurysm temporarily shut down her left hemisphere?

Do pets only have the one world model (the actual, physical one) that they can be conscious of while humans have mutations that can create infinite alternate world models so the conscious picks which one it likes best for each current situation? And why don't we remember dreams? Okay, I can sense I'm starting to drift away from my original point so I'll regroup.

The authority foundation has pros and cons. How many "European" inventions were conceived first in China, but adherence to the existing schema stopped it from taking off (including the printing press)? But anarchy won't advance a civilization, either. A balance is needed on that foundation. And I'm a little perplexed on the liberal's food purity notion. Even excluding the whole vegetarian thing, its science not morality that keeps me from wanting to eat pesticide. But overall I like the guy and his talks.

Thai said...

Re: "To whom/what am I justifying my position to?"

Personally I always thought it was to the collective- we only exist at its grace.

Dink said...

"justifying my position to?"

I didn't word that well. I meant it in the sense that I was pondering the weird concept that if we have an internal narrator telling a story then we must have an internal audience member listening to the story. Since animals don't have language they don't have this duality. Its all very strange and I really wish I understood how it works.

Thai said...


I really had never thought if that. I have thought of the internal narrator, but not how that requires a separate internal audience... Oh, yet another fractal, ugghhh...

Hmmm... Does evolution try to model this internal audience on what we think the external audience looks like?

Then wouldn't this really be the same thing as Hume's notion that there is no such thing as an individual, and that we are all just cells in a larger collective organism?


Dink said...

"Oh, yet another fractal, ugghhh..."

Rabbit hole leading to rabbit hole leading to rabbit hole. Are you going to change your name to Neo?

I'm starting to get obsessed with this perception thing. Perception is complicated and like all complicated things it must have evolved from simpler stages.

I imagine insects don't have circuitry complex enough to create "world models" so intead of perception they simply have stimulus reaction.

Mammals take advantage of access to multiple types of energy reception (smell, sight, feel), but so they don't override each other they must be synthesized into one coordinated reception (perception). No language, no ego, etc. yet.

But to take advantage of grouping together they needed a new type of reception to add to the perception: that of other agent's perception. Though some mammals have this ability to a degree, Homo Sapiens went viral by using language which lead to more memory capacity, etc.

In using language to describe one's perception we had to create at least two perception centers, one for self (which already had) and one for the other agent.

Then instead of using the OAC (other agent center) for other's perception we started using it for imagination. By imagination, I mean.......

My brain is sputtering now so I'll end soon. But regarding Hume, perhaps our original perception is the true self and is pretty much identical versus individual. But the secondary OACs vary radically depending on experience so we seem individual. And perhaps the original perception is the story listener while the OAC is the story teller. Sputtering.....

Thai said...

Very well said buddy

You have stated very succinctly how g factor intelligence works.

And just as eloquently, you have also exposed the logic flaw in people who make too much of things like g factor intelligence, IQ, etc...

Systems work when they work and they don't when they don't, just as cooperation works when it works but doesn't when it doesn't.

Thai said...

re: "I imagine insects don't have circuitry complex enough to create "world models" so intead of perception they simply have stimulus reaction."

Apparently this is not completely accurate.

Type insect perception and intelligence into Google and you get another rabbit hole.

Yet again I am reminded/stunned at the genius of AI researchers.

Thai said...

Sorry, meant this link.

Dink said...

Regarding AI/Cog Sci/Insects-
I'm going to dive in later today. I may need a flask of "courage" by the keyboard. Like genetics, I get the sense that I'm going to have to learn programming to get the top floor view. Fight or flight kicking in.....

The Most Fabulous Objects In The World

  • Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe trilogy
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Flight of the Conchords
  • Time Bandits