Steven Pinker - Linguistics as a Window to Understand the Brain

One of the things I first enjoyed when I was introduced to philosophy was its recursive nature: we could use thought to investigate the nature, the rules, the structure and the limits of thought itself (and what that could tell us about the human mind). For a very similar reason I have a certain appreciation and fondness for linguistics. Most of our communication takes place through language, and linguists are hard at work trying to understand what they can about human cognition, nature and culture, by paying close attention to the way in which we use language.

In the following lecture, Steven Pinker provides a fascinating introduction to questions such as how syntax (the study of linguistic structure), phonology (the study of sound), semantics (the study of meaning) and pragmatics (the study of the social and cultural role and context of language), all help us to understand how language works. He also provides a lesson on the nature of the various rules of grammar and sound production, how language is first acquired, how it's processed and how it's encoded in the brain, the difference between language and thought, the ambiguity inherent in our use of language and the interesting and humorous consequences to which it can lead, and why it is so difficult for computers to understand language while it seems so easy and automatic for us.

Importantly, Pinker also touches on the major influence that Noam Chomsky has had on the field, especially his hypothesis of an innate, hard-wired universal grammar as an explanation for language acquisition in children, the open-ended creativity inherent in language, and the nature of syntax as separate from content and meaning, all of which can provide a window to understand certain key aspects of the human mind and human nature more generally.





Don't forget to check out a fascinating and delightful meditation on language by Stephen Fry.

Plato - Apology

In ancient Greece, when visitors went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the very first thing they encountered there was an inscription chiseled on the entrance: "know thyself." While many people today think of this as an invitation to meditative self-reflection, this was simply a warning for humans to know their place, to understand that they are mortal, and that any pretension to wisdom, power or hubris would be swiftly punished by the gods.

Perhaps one of the contributing factors to the more introspective meaning of this phrase comes from the fact that Socrates argued, most famously in Plato's celebrated dialogue Apology, that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Human beings have the unique ability of contemplating their beliefs, values and choices, and of questioning the established order and trying to come up with novel solutions and alternatives to the reality and the tragedy of existence. Taking this maxim seriously, however, is no easy task. As you can hear in the wonderful dramatization of Plato's Apology below, when Socrates admonished his fellow citizens to wake up from their dogmatic slumber (to borrow a phrase from Kant), they decided it would be easier to kill him than to start thinking for themselves...



Will you dare to know yourself? To live the examined life? To question the status quo and risk ridicule, threat and loneliness?

Beyond Freakonomics: Musings on the Economics of Everyday Life

For most of its history, economics has been an esoteric discipline concerned with abstract concepts and trends about which only highly-trained experts could (or wanted to) discuss. But then in 2003, Stephen Dubner, from the New York Times, published a profile of Steven Levitt, a rising star in economics who was using the analytic tools of economics to answer strange questions, many of them having nothing to do with economics per se.

The profile was something of a sensation, and it led to a collaboration between Dubner and Levitt. Together they wrote Freakonomics, and the rest, as they say, is history. In the following highly entertaining presentation, Levitt discusses some of his background, his work, and a series of hilarious anecdotes, including one regarding his professional and embarrassing relationship with a prostitute, which eventually inspired one of the chapters of SuperFreakonomics.




Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies!

With unprecedented access to the vast accumulation of knowledge of the world at our fingertips, it is disappointing to see that even though we are living in the midst of the information age, this is not an age of wisdom.

We seem to be surrounded by pseudo-scientific reasoning and even increasingly anti-scientific attitudes; by irrational and self-serving ideologies, whether political, religious or economic; by the exploitation and manipulation of our naturally occurring cognitive biases on behalf of corporate interests that distort our values, perceptions, attitudes and preferences; and by bullshit-peddling quacks and charlatans bent on making an easy buck at our expense.

And with our growing celebrity culture and our ever-growing need for instant gratification (and our deteriorating work ethic), it is an uphill battle to improve the level of discourse in which we engage. But one of the weapons at our disposal is the ability to think critically and analyze the quality of the ideas that confront us daily. Having the proper background information to argue intelligently on a given topic is great, but even without that knowledge, with the following short introduction to some of the most prominent logical fallacies and reasoning mistakes people make, you can at least spot and identify claims and arguments that may seem reasonable on the surface but that are ultimately dubious once you start thinking about them a little more deeply.



And if you want a meatier treatment of fallacies (with lots of hilarious examples to guide you along), you might want to check out our previous introduction to logical fallacies.

Pawel Kuczynski's Thought-Provoking Illustrations

As you've seen in this fascinating lecture by Slavoj Žižek, the logic of the reigning corporatist hegemony requires that people become mindless, selfish, individualistic consumers and automata in a zero-sum game rather than thoughtful citizens who question the status quo, and who work to make the world a better, more just and equitable place in which everyone contributes to create the conditions under which everyone can flourish.

Of course, to the extent that they can distract you with mind-numbing and petty entertainment, and to the extent that they can appeal to your basest and most shallow instincts, they have the upper hand. Luckily, though, there are people like artist Pawel Kuczynski, who manage to peer beneath the surface and expose, in powerfully visual ways, the cultural, institutional and structural framework under which this entire system operates and the basic hidden presuppositions that fuel its exploitative success.

How many of the following drawings reflect your life, your culture, your world?

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I bet complacency doesn't look all that comfortable now...
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