Sue Carey Friday, April 20 at 3:30

Sue Carey, Department of Psychology, Harvard, will present “Do Non-Linguistic Creatures have a Fodorian (Logic-Like/Language-Like) Language of Thought?” Friday, April 20 at 3:30pm in ILC S131.  The talk is sponsored by the Five College Cognitive Science Speaker Series and the UMass Initiative in Cognitive Science. An abstract is below.

Abstract. The adult human conceptual repertoire is a unique phenomenon earth. Human adults build hierarchical representations on the fly, distinguishing “Molecules are made of tiny atoms” (True) from “Atoms are made of tiny molecules” (False). It is unknown whether non-linguistic creatures are capable of representing structured propositions in terms of hierarchical structures formulated over abstract variables, assigning truth values to those propositions, or are capable of abstract relational thought. How abstract knowledge and abstract combinatorial thought is acquired, over both evolutionary and ontogenetic time scales, is one of the outstanding scientific mysteries in the cognitive sciences, and has been debated in the philosophical literature at least since Descartes. Many philosophers, from Descartes through Davidson, have argued that abstract combinatorial thought is absent in creatures who lack natural language; others, such as Fodor, argue that such thought must be widely available to non-linguistic creatures, including human babies and animals at least throughout the vertebrates. A priori arguments will not get us far in settling this issue, which requires both theoretical analysis and empirical work. Theoretically, those who think there is a joint in nature between the kinds of representations that underlie perception and action, on the one hand, and abstract combinatorial thought, on the other, owe us an analysis of the essential differences between the representations and computations involved in each. Empirically, then, we must develop methods that could yield data that bear on the question of whether non-human animals or human infants have representations/computations on the abstract combinatorial thought side of the putative joint in nature. I will illustrate progress on both the theoretical and empirical fronts through two case studies: logical connectives and abstract relations.

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