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The Table Video

Mark Baker& Gregg Ten Elshof

Language, the Brain, and the Soul

Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, Rutgers University
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
November 16, 2012

Mark Baker (Rutgers University) points out the uniqueness of human language, how it makes a difference in human thought and the role of the soul in our capacity for language.


Yeah, now your questions in particular, the questions of your field have to do with language, you’re a linguist. And now what kinds of questions does that field bring you into in connection with this, what does the science of language have to do with whether or not we’ve got immaterial souls?

Ah huh, well you know, it just happens to be what I am, so that’s my background so that’s where I’ve got to start and I know a little more than some people maybe, so I don’t know that language is there, but one of the interesting things about language is it is something uniquely human. So it’s something that only human beings do in the way that we do.

You never find, you know, otherwise intelligent chimpanzees interviewing one another for video interviews, or anything like that. So it’s something that’s distinctively human. And if you look at from religious point of view, Christian or other ones you know, we see say, in the Bible, in Genesis Chapter 1 God speaking.

So you could think from a religious point of view that our language behavior is something we share in common say, with God and the angels, rather than something that we share with the rocks and the trees and even the monkeys. So it is a distinctive part of human life, as opposed to other kinds of life, and it might be our best window into how humans think and how human beings think differently from other kinds of creatures.

Right, still one might think that our capacity for language is ultimately explainable by the functioning of the brain, that we’ve got these various capacities that make language possible for us, and as we study the brain, we’ll find correlates in the brain for each of those capacities. You’ve argued otherwise, you’ve argued that there are capacities required for language use that can’t be explained by appeal to the brain. What are they and why think that?

Yeah, well this is one of the things that I did get interested in when I read some of my colleagues in neuroscience and they were saying things like every aspect of the mind is totally dependent on the brain. And so I started thinking about, well, what different aspects are there of language? What’s the checklist that we could look at to see if that’s true or not. And there is a classic analysis of language that says that it comes in three parts.

So there’s vocabulary, that’s kinda obvious you know, English has a whole bunch of words and we list those in a dictionary. Then there’s the rules of grammar, how you can put those words together and how you can’t. But then the third more subtle part of it is kinda the capacity to put those things together to put the words together using the rules of grammar, to make and understand new sentences. It’s a classic analysis of the famous linguist Noam Chompsky, that language has the vocabulary, the grammar, and the capacity to use those resources to form new sentences.

And so then what I did was I looked at the literature from studies of brain damage and so on, to see if any of those things were affected by damage of the brain. And you got an interesting result, I think, that does brain damage affect people’s vocabulary, absolutely yes, there are famous aphasias that if you have a problem in this area of your brain, you lose your understanding of words. Are there damages to the brain which lose the capacity to form grammatical sentences, to put words together in the right way? Again yes, a different part of the brain is injured and you lose that capacity, your vocabulary’s okay, but you can’t put the words together. But then what about that third part?

That third part of can you just have a brain damage that will leave the vocabulary okay, it will leave the grammar okay, but it will knock out your ability to use them to form new and understand new sentences, and the answer is no, 150 years of research in different kinds of aphasia hasn’t found an aphasia that specifically knocks out that capacity.

So thinking of this from a Christian point of view, I think okay, maybe the vocabulary is in the brain, the grammar is in the brain, but the ability to use those to say interesting new things is not in the brain.

So some might hear this and think there’s something going on here like the God-of-the-gaps argument for the existence of God, whereas we used to explain a lot of things by appeal to the existence of God, the more science teaches us, the less we need God to explain the things we find around us. Is this a soul-of-the-gaps argument? Is there less reason for believing in the soul than there was say, 50 years ago, but there’s still these features of cognitive life that hang on?

Well, I don’t know, I wasn’t doing this 50 years ago, so I don’t know what the shift might have been. Is it a God-of-the-gaps argument, I think sort of, I don’t think all of the ways that belief in God and souls is relevant, are God-of-the-gaps arguments. This one might be to some extend. But I’m not totally embarrassed about that, of course, science might prove otherwise, that’s fine, I have no problem with that.

But you know, you’d think if there was something important like God at work in the world, or if God gave people souls, those souls should make a difference. So there should be something we can do because we have a soul that we wouldn’t be able to do if we didn’t have a soul. And that’s gonna be a God-of-the-gaps sort of argument, it’s gonna look like that to people coming from a different perspective. So I’m not necessarily embarrassed about that, a little bit humble, maybe, but not necessarily embarrassed about it. And again, we can make a comparison, I mentioned brain injury, but if you look at what chimpanzees can do about language, you can teach a chimpanzee a certain vocabulary of about 150 words.

You can teach a chimpanzee a simple grammar, where it will put its 50 verbs in front of its 50 nouns. But no chimpanzee, even the most talented, have started using these in creative ways to make new sentences. If you look at the most talented apes, their average length of utterance, it’s called the average size of a sentence that they’ll spontaneously make is one point one words, that’s one word sentences. That’s not what we’re doing here, anything close.

And similarly with computers, you can program computers to have a large vocabulary, they’ll understand lots of words, they could look it up, you know, Google Dictionary will do that. There’s no problem teaching them the words, but we still don’t have computers that can talk freely about novel stuff. So it really seems like if you look at computers, if you look at comparison with animals, if you look at brain damage, there seems to be something special about this capacity to form and understand novel sentences.