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Reflection upon the nature, origin and use of systems of human knowledge poses many interesting philosophical and scientific questions. Noam Chomsky in his work on cognitive science and linguistic theory elaborates on a number of what he refers to as “problems of knowledge”.

Perhaps the most celebrated is what Chomsky labels “Plato’s Problem”. Plato’s Problem is so named after one of Plato’s famous Socratic dialogues, namely the Meno. In the Meno Plato has Socrates demonstrating that a slave boy has knowledge of the underlying principles of Euclidean geometry despite never having been exposed through experience to any mathematics. This naturally leads to the hypothesis, “how is it that the slave boy has such knowledge despite the obvious lack of exposure to geometrical principles”. Plato’s answer was that the slave boy’s knowledge is innate by virtue of the fact that the slave boy had lived a previous life. One of history’s greatest thinkers, Leibniz, surmised that Plato’s supposition is correct but needs to be “purged of the error of pre-existence”.

This emphasis on innate knowledge is one of the central doctrines of rationalism. Rationalism stands in contrast to empiricism. Empirical thinking places emphasis on the role of experience in the acquisition of systems of knowledge. Usage of this type of thinking is called “the argument from the poverty of the stimulus” for innate knowledge.

If, to whatever degree, knowledge can be said to be innate it naturally leads to the question “how does this system of knowledge arise in the mind”? This question is what Chomsky refers to as “Plato’s Problem”.



It is useful to consider some of the implications of this by thinking about how this affects our understanding of what it means to know a language. A child in learning a language cannot possibly acquire knowledge of all the rules of a natural language by virtue of exposure to the wider social environment. We have here an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for innate knowledge of the rules of grammar. Given this we face “Plato’s Problem”. That is, how does knowledge of grammar arise in the mind?

One of the interesting aspects of language is that we are able to construct an infinite number of sentences from a finite number of words and rules. This is very similar to the notion of recursion in computer science where one may “generate” an infinite amount of data from a finite computer programme. Therefore in answer to “Plato’s Problem” we may surmise that the brain must contain a finite programme for generating infinite sentences. This is refereed to as “universal grammar” and much of modern linguistic theory is concerned with discovering the underlying principles of universal grammar. It leads to the notion that all human languages are essentially the same and that there must exist an innate language faculty in the mind that is based on a rich genetic endowment.

There exist a number of other arguments from the poverty of the stimulus that provide powerful reasons to suppose that the rationalist understanding of the origin and nature of human knowledge is on the right track. We can argue that David Hume’s famous “is/ought” distinction is an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of moral intuition. We may also argue that Godel’s Theorem is an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of mathematical intuition. Many, including Chomsky, have argued that our knowledge of discrete infinity arises from the language faculty although one may also suppose that there exists a separate mathematical faculty based on a “Math’s Gene”.

By the same token we may argue that a particular way of imagining the “under determination of theory by the evidence” is also an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for an innate faculty of scientific understanding. The usage of “undetermination of theory by the evidence” in this sense is my own and follows from Quine’s statement that, “the relation between the meagre input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence”.

Notice that the point Quine makes in relation to the formulation of scientific theory from “meagre input” implies an innate faculty of scientific perception, precisely an argument from the poverty of the stimulus. This is related to Peirce’s notion of a faculty of abduction that acts as a “guessing instinct” that provides us with admissible hypotheses to test.

Science then becomes the intersection between the science faculty and the natural world.

Plato’s Problem in this context becomes “how does the science faculty arise in the mind”? This is of course a complete mystery but one very influential attempt at addressing the issue can be dismissed, namely “evolutionary epistemology”. This holds the view that the science faculty has evolved as an adaptation providing us with the capacity to form true scientific theories, which would be of high survival value. This is highly unlikely on the grounds that there is no reason to suggest that the ability to solve the Poincare Conjecture or develop ever more elaborate theories of Gravitation in any way aided the survival of early hunter-gatherers.

But there is a deeper objection to evolutionary epistemology. The astronomer Carl Sagan and the Biologist Ernst Mayr conducted a famous debate on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Sagan of course took an optimistic view but Mayr was sceptical. Mayr observed that throughout the history of life on Earth highly adaptive features, such as bioluminescence, have evolved many times over yet higher order intelligence, of the type able to form sciences, has evolved only once. Mayr, in effect, surmises that this is due to the fact that the ability to formulate science is maladaptive. In other words, a highly intelligent species able to manipulate the natural world by virtue of gaining theoretical knowledge of the workings of the natural world would only succeed over time in destroying itself and much else besides.

Ever since the onset of the scientific revolution (it would surely be of interest to understand why the science faculty arises and thrives in certain historical periods and social settings) Homo sapiens has been providing reasons to accept such a proposition.

Although life can, has and does act as a kind of geological force never has a single species such as Man developed into a force able to affect global ecological change so much so that we may be the cause of a mass extinction (the sixth mass extinction) of life on Earth. The global ecological crisis poses a threat to the survival of the species given the laws of ecology which emphasises the tight coupling or interconnectedness of ecological systems.

Ever since the scientific revolution we have also accelerated weapons innovation now reaching a level that poses a clear threat to our indefinite survival. The philosopher Bertrand Russell in his Has Man a Future? sought to address the issue. Russell asked whether, in the nuclear age, scientific man is able to survive?

Both of these factors provide good empirical reason to suppose that Mayr was correct in supposing that higher order intelligence is maladaptive. We then have what we may term “Russell’s Problem”. That is, will the science faculty lead to the inevitable extinction of the species Homo sapiens?

Hence, “science and global security”.