PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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How can linguistics benefit neurolinguistics? An Instrumentalist approach

There is an ongoing debate over the relation between linguistics and neuroscience in biolinguistics, the science of human language faculty and its biological basis. On the one hand, it is argued that collaboration between linguistics and neuroscience will advance our understanding of the faculty of language. The faculty of language, or ‘FL’, is originally hypothesized to account for the human ability of acquiring and using languages. Traditional research questions regarding such a faculty concern the nature of, the neural substrate for, and the evolution of the faculty. Because these three subject matters are closely related, interdisciplinary collaboration between linguistics, neuroscience, and biology appears to be desirable and to increase the ‘efficiency’ of investigations. For instance, it would be reinventing the wheel for neuroscientists or biologists to start their research by defining what language is. Arguing along these lines, Hauser et al. (2002) and Fitch (2010) suggest that biolinguists adopt a computational account of FL called the generative syntax. On the other hand, such collaboration between linguistics and neuroscience is thought to be precarious to the development of neurolinguistics. Poeppel and Embick (2005) argue that linguistic elements and neurobiological elements are incommensurable because they are defined for different purposes. Moreover, they argue, efforts in directly mapping between the two categories of elements yield only suggestive correlations. Thus, to avoid hindering scientific developments between disciplines, Poeppel and Embick call for an alternative research program that is based on neurobiological elements, by which neuroscientists can explore how brain mechanisms form the basis for linguistic computation. In this poster, I extend Poeppel and Embick’s criticism by examining the comparability of the core ideas in the generative syntax across the disciplines in biolinguistics. To do so, I first distinguish between reductionist and instrumentalist approaches to the accounts of the FL. I also distinguish between models that are constructed in a ‘top-down’ manner and models that are construed in a ‘bottom-up’ manner. I argue that core ideas in generative syntax form a ‘top-down’ computational model of the FL, and a neurobiologically based research program a ‘bottom-up’ model of the FL. A ‘top-down’ model, I concede, can indeed be problematic, as Poeppel and Embick suggest, when used to directly map-out its parts in the brain. However, I argue that such a direct mapping reductionist approach is not required for applying a ‘top-down’ model, and, more importantly, reductionism is not necessarily based on such ‘maps.’ Thus, what is hindering progress in neurolinguistics is not the linguistic model per se but how it is used. Contrary to Poeppel and Embick’s suggestion, I argue that a ‘top-down’ computational model of the FL is indispensible, in the instrumentalist sense, to investigations in biolinguistics including neurolinguistics. That is, the parts in a ‘top-down’ computational model are essential to neuroscientific investigation not because they are ‘real’ but because they provide a framework that helps one to see convergence where it may not have been visible before.

Author Information:

Chia-Hua Lin    
University of South Carolina


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