Problems with Mentalese


Review the Language of Thought Hypothesis Language enables productivity and systematicity in thought Human thinking is linguistic Fodor and Pinker claim that all thoughts are encoded in an innate, behind the scenes brain language known as mentalese. There is active translation between the internal language of thought and natural language.

Problems with Mentalese 1 Where is the language of thought? When we think in sentences, we can point to the words and see how they connect to make meaningful sentences. But mentalese words cannot be found. We can’t find mentalese through introspection because it is supposed to be “hidden” and “behind the scenes”. When we introspect we are only aware of English. There is a constant internal monologue chattering away. It has syntax, but it is as removed from mentalese as words on my computer screen are from its internal programming language.

Doesn’t the idea of mentalese being hidden make it unfalsifiable?

Problems with Mentalese Not a problem to a mentalese supporter…lots of brain functions are hidden from conscious awareness. Keeping with computer analogy, we cannot look at words on screen to discover internal language. But wait! We can look at its hardware to discover its binary language of thought. We can point to regularities in the hardware to describe the way syntax is implemented in its different states. The same is not true of the brain! The brain is a messy collection of neurons that do not appear to have a syntactic structure.

Problems with Mentalese It has not been possible to identify a mechanism by which mentalese syntax is implemented in low level neural structure of the brain. Mentalese supporter can reply to this… Natural language cannot be specifically located in the neural structure of the brain.

A good point. Mentalese is higher level, which abstracts away from the neurological events that underpin its workings. It sits between neural activity and higher level natural language.

Problems with Mentalese 2 Where does the meaning come from? Problematic question… Explanations either regressive or head in unnecessary direction First, an explanation of mentalese meaning could appeal to some other language, which itself needs to be explained. Second, any non-regressive explanation of mentalese meaning could also work for natural language, thus making mentalese unnecessary.

Problems with Mentalese The regress problem Mentalese theorists claim that English sentences gain meaning from their mentalese counterparts. But where do these mentalese sentences get their meaning from? Some theorists state that sentences gain meaning from the way they are consciously used. But this can’t work for mentalese because it is hidden from consciousness. The solution is to suggest that mentalese sentences get their meaning from the way they are used by something deeper.

Problems with Mentalese Natural Language




Problems with Mentalese If “deep-mentalese” has meaning, why can’t it be the case that mentalese has meaning? It is better to avoid the regress and state that mentalese is the most basic language. The “shape” of mentalese symbols determine how they interact with each other. Just as in a computer, processes in symbol manipulation are concerned with the “shape” of symbols, not meaning. There is no question of meaning, just brute force operations on symbols…the right shaped keys open locks.

Problems with Mentalese But couldn’t we shift up to a higher level and remove mentalese altogether? After all, Natural language is nothing more than symbol manipulation.

Problems with Mentalese 3 The compatibility problem Consider that computer designers have an end product in mind. Their computer is designed to specification and will carry out its tasks with no intervention from design team. They usually include a facility to add peripherals to the system. These peripherals are designed by to integrate into original system Computer and peripherals can communicate through a common language.

Problems with Mentalese This works for computers, but the brain was not designed in this way. It was not designed at all! Brain originated as a smaller device—a collection of self contained modules, each responsible for a specific task. Over time, natural selection gave rise to new “purpose built” modules that added to the existing brain. These add-ons often had the ability to communicate data to other parts of the brain. But here’s a problem: If brain has internal language of thought, each of its modules would need to run on the same language. But these modules appeared through natural selection, and were not designed to be “plugged in” to an existing system.

Problems with Mentalese Evolution does not move towards end goals, how can it be that all these distinct modules are compatible?

Of course, modules could arise that were compatible by chance. Natural selection would favor these modules.

Perhaps this is not a serious challenge, but it does give us another reason to look seriously at a theory that does not suffer the same problem.

Powerpoint by BRENT SILBY Produced at UPT Christchurch, New Zealand

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