Empiricism, God and language

I started reading a really good book a couple of days ago called Simpler Syntax, by Culicover & Jackendoff (2005). In it, the authors outline considerable problems with the way the Minimalist Program has been progressing in recent years. But that’s the stuff of another post sometime. I thought I’d google a couple of reviews to see how much of an impact the book had had on the linguistic community. I came across this review, which interestingly (to me) compared the way in which Culicover & Jackendoff perceive Universal Grammar with a ‘God of the gaps theory’. One sentence particularly got my goat, however:

Fortunately, unlike the issue of the existence of God, in which one side views empirical evidence as simply irrelevant, there is a good chance for the UG/constructionalist debate to be resolved along empirical lines.

I stopped thinking about Linguistics for a while and pondered the opinion expressed by the reviewer. I’m sure you’ve all come across it many times: science = empiricist, existence of God = not empiricist/stupid (delete as appropriate). Is the reviewer right when he says that people who argue for the existence of God view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’?

Something else that caught my attention this week was a comment on a friend’s Facebook status which read:

You don’t need to be a theologian if your argument is with the fundamentals, not the fiddly little details. If someone tells you there’s a unicorn in your bedroom, you know there isn’t. You don’t ask what colour it is and which way it’s [sic] horn twists first.

Not being an epistemologist by trade, I have only dabbled a little in the theories of knowledge, caught up in the debate between rationalism (e.g. Chomsky) and empiricism (e.g. Quirk), along with a couple of other books and articles about theology which I’ve read. As far as I understand it, empiricism refers to the kind of knowledge that comes via ‘sensory experience’. The Wikipedia article on the subject (ever to be trusted!) defines it in this way:

Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.

I wouldn’t quibble with that. What strikes me, however, is the apparent hypocrisy of some in the ‘science’ camp concerning the existence of God, such as those I’ve quoted above. Empiricism dictates that one doesn’t make one’s judgment based on a priori reasoning, but that is exactly what the Facebook commentator has done! He starts off with the view that unicorns do not exist, therefore he needn’t concern himself with the finer details. That’s not empirical, at least according to wikipedia’s definition of it, and thus isn’t ‘scientific’ (by his own logic).

That’s all well and good, you say, but unicorns don’t exist. This, however, isn’t really the point. I’ve no problem with a priori reasoning: there are many kinds of knowledge, not just empirical knowledge, and everyone lives their lives according to these different kinds of knowledge, whether they care to admit it or not. In many circumstances, a priori knowledge makes a lot of sense (such as this one). I just find it curious how often it’s the case that ‘scientists’ (whoever that refers to) sometimes don’t stick to the ‘rules’ of their own game.

It is not my intention to start spinning out the usual arguments in the Science vs God debate. Many others devote their life to this, and this is a good place to start. John Lennox, a Professor of Maths at Oxford University, also has an excellent website which is worth looking at. Nor is it my wish to bring forth the (historical) evidence for the God I  trust in, though I believe this to be profuse.

Instead, I want to think about language. It’s certainly true that language can be investigated according to empirical methodology, and Linguistics has undergone a bit of a shake-up over the years as scholars from other disciplines (notably Psychology) pick holes in its bad research practice. But I wonder whether empiricist methods can really illuminate our understanding of the meaning of  ‘language’ as a concept. Let me be absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that empirical linguistic evidence does not shed light on the nature of language. But let’s think a bit about what language actually is.

You can’t touch language. It isn’t physical. Sure, you can observe it, for example, in the utterance you spoke when you ordered a coffee this morning, or the words you’re reading on this page. But that’s not actually all we mean by language. These words I’m writing are part of what we call the English language, but they’re not synonymous with it. In fact, they’re just symbols on the page that represent the phonetic noises we emit when we exhale air. Sound waves even. But there’s more to language than that, everyone knows that. There’s that meaning part to it. Oh, and grammar.

Some have argued (notably Chomsky!) that what language really is is I-language, that is, the ‘internal language’ in your brain made up of a lexicon and a grammar, which is heavily dependent on Universal Grammar, which is something all babies are born with. But we’re about as close to finding out what constitutes this I-language, or where it is in the brain, as we are to drawing square circles. It may be the case that we’ll know everything about I-language one day, but this ‘science-conquers-all’ mentality requires a (blind?) faith in science that I find difficult to share.

Nevertheless, people do argue that we know language is in our heads, so it is ‘tangible’ in some abstract sense. However, when we refer to the English language, we refer to the language through the ages, as well as the language used by different geographical and social groups, and not simply to the I-language in your or my head. To be a native speaker of English today, you don’t have to know that the English passive used to be formed with weorþan (‘to become’) rather than ‘to be’. But this and similar phenomena are still part of what we understand when people refer to ‘language’ as a concept.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that we happily get on in life with knowledge that is not ’empirical’, in the purest sense: while language is observable and can be empirically tested, it isn’t something ‘physical’ when we refer to it on a day-to-day basis. It’s not made up of atoms. Our concept of it can’t even be reduced to neurons flying round our brain. And yet no one denies that it exists or is real, even though we don’t really know much about how and where it’s stored in the brain, how words are associated with meaning, and so on. This is, of course, true of other abstract nouns such as hope, or love, etc. It’s just that Linguistics prides itself on being ‘scientific’. Oh, and I happen to have a vested interest.

Obviously, in answer to my (rhetorical) question above, no theologian worth his salt would view empirical evidence as ‘simply irrelevant’. How many books arguing for the existence of God have you read which do this?

I’d welcome comments!