resources_nature_txt_Chomsky, human nature

Chomsky, human nature, language and the limitations of science and a complementary proposal inspired by C. S. Lewis

Author: Marciano Escutia. School of Philology, Complutense University of Madrid.
Published in: Unpublished article

We propose in this article to summarize in part the thought of Noam Chomsky, famous scientist, Full Professor emeritus of Linguistics at high school Massachusetts Tech (Cambridge, USA), and political philosophical activist. We will focus on his ideas about human nature and its ethical-political consequences, the origin of language and the scope and limitations of experimental sciences to obtain the rare image of a great scientist without prejudices and an authentic and honest freethinker. In view of his thinking in these fields and based on another author, C. S. Lewis, we will make a proposal in the second part of this article on the possibility and emergence of a rational soul and its compatibility and complementarity with the ideas of the linguist.

First of all, we will briefly introduce him in his two main facets, that of a linguist and that of a socio-political activist.

Chomsky, linguistic scientist and socio-political activist

If a list were to be drawn up of the most notable scientists whose work has spanned the 20th and 21st centuries, it would certainly include Noam Chomsky (1928, Philadelphia, USA). The New York Times calls him "the most important intellectual today" and he is the most cited in academic publications. Chomsky is arguably responsible for the so-called "cognitive revolution" of the 1950s, with the elevation of language, understood as an innate human capacity, to a cognitive science, amenable to study using the scientific method. Its predecessors, the founders of European and American linguistic structuralism, conceived of linguistics as a taxonomic science, studying, classifying and comparing different languages, which were considered arbitrarily distinct and describable by means of formal rules at different levels (with respect to sounds, lexical units and sentences). However, they never set out to characterise that innate capacity that makes it possible for any human being to develop one (or more) language(s) and, in general, they did not consider the origin of language acquisition or assimilate it to the generic learning of a series of habits, linguistic in this case. Chomsky advanced the brilliant and ingenious proposal that language is a specific mental system, not simply a constellation of general cognitive capacities, recursively generating linguistic rules, which could explain why speakers of a language can, in theory, understand and produce an infinite number of original grammatical sentences.

Chomsky is the pioneer of the distinction between mental grammar, of subconscious content, which develops in the brain in the manner of a computational system, as result of exposure to data from the language environment; and descriptive grammar, by means of which linguists attempt to formally characterise it. The existence of a genetic component, says Chomsky, and he calls it Universal Grammar, because this is the only way to explain why a child identifies linguistic stimuli in its habitat more or less consciously and develops the ability that we all use (a task that is not easy to replicate, he points out), while other animals are not even able to recognise the specificity of the linguistic stimulus, even when exposed to the same data. He believes that this is a reality that explains why infants of any race transplanted from their place of origin to another country develop the new language without problems. The problem and research programme consists precisely in formalising what this genetic imprinting consists of, which is evolving with linguistic science, and to carry it out, all languages are used, as they are all a manifestation of the same capacity, independently of the concepts and cultural categories that they encode because they have developed in a specific physical and social space.

The activist partner-politician

Chomsky is also the author of some thirty books on issues of political philosophy from the sui generis perspective of the egalitarian left. He is considered one of the most active and committed political dissidents of our time, with a documented, exhaustive and rigorous handling of the issues he deals with. His anarcho-syndicalist tendencies make him highly critical of his country's government, which he generally believes has contributed to the maintenance and exploitation of unjust situations in many places. In fact, he is often labelled by the American right wing as "un-American" (he cannot be called a "loser"). He characterises himself as a "liberal socialist", antithetical terms in the United States, where, Chomsky notes, the concept of "liberal" has suffered a cultural drift towards the submission of power to private tyrannies such as big business and health insurance companies, of which political candidates would be nothing more than puppets. Since the beginning of his laborious activity in this regard, he has criticised virtually all of his presidents, including the current one, Barack Obama.

He has often charged that the most dangerous enemy of freedom is economic exploitation and slavery partner- a policy more often perpetrated by multinational corporations than by state governments, which are at least accountable to their electorate, whereas multinational corporations have no external control and more resources than many states. Chomsky acknowledges that they sometimes provide employment and even a reasonable standard of living for their workers in the countries in which they operate, but their tendency to exploit is undeniable, as revealed by the frequent relocation of production plants to places where wages are minimal. He frequently quotes Adam Smith, whose work he knows well, and his warning to the state to avoid the human alienation of workers when they become mere links in a production chain.

In this sense, Chomsky is truly original because his critique of the capitalist economic order stems from the liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment, whose authentic ideas about the free market have been neglected, leading to a collision between the state and private interests. He often repeats that the big multinationals are the great enemy of both democracy and the market and denounces - also with Smith - that the rich preach to the poor the benefits of the market discipline while they are left with the right to be bailed out by the state when the going gets tough and so the free market ends up becoming the socialism of the rich.

He is well acquainted with the daily content of the so-called free Western press and the media in general, of which he is an avid follower, and which do not escape his criticism either. Chomsky attacks its halo of being independent, progressive, open and subversive and holds it jointly responsible for the advancement and promotion of the economic and partner political agendas of the power groups that dominate the state and civil society. It expresses a preference for more independent media, which it also knows well, including some that could be called marginalised.

At the same time, disdaining all ideological label and abhorring the prevailing political correctness, he considers himself conservative in his adherence to traditional values such as family, love and life. Although he rejects abortion as a method of contraception, he believes that this is an issue on which one cannot generalise in the abstract, which could appear inconsistent with his strong position on human nature.

Chomsky and human nature

Chomsky has always been a staunch defender of a nature derived by evolution from the genome that we have inherited and without which we would not be human. He conceives of it in purely biological terms, resulting from different life functions corresponding to a common set of mental capacities.

This conception is nourished by the ideas of the Enlightenment and its philosophical doctrines about our intuitions, hopes and experiences, and by an examination of the history of different cultures, which show us that human beings need to live freely in community, with no restrictions on their capacities. Universal aspects of this nature can be discovered, for example, in the field of morality, and he gives the example of mutual understanding when conversing with diverse members of remote peoples by assuming the same implicit idea about the right and wrong of their concrete situations.

Although in order to investigate our nature in depth we would have to be subjected to experimentation, which is not ethically viable, Chomsky rejects comparison with other animals because of our radical difference from them. He points to language as a privileged source for research in this sense, since it is an exclusively human property without parallel in the animal kingdom, unanimously recognised as such in the scientific world, and its observation does not pose ethical problems.

Chomsky criticises both Marxists like Gramsci and pragmatists like Foucault or Rorty, for whom there is no such thing as nature, but only history, in perpetual change. He is particularly surprised by their denial when referring to higher, specifically human, mental functions. He admits the variety in their realisations, but differs radically from Marxist-Leninists, who reject the idea as reactionary. He warns that this position is the panacea of the ruling class because if there is no human nature, social manipulation is more easily possible. This leaves no room for freedom and creative ability, which are implied if nature cannot be objectively and rationally investigated.

He notes that Marx was a firm believer in human nature, from which he derived the innate need to be able to exercise personal and creative labour for the good of the community and without being subject to the control of the state. In this sense, the Chomskyan conception is tributary to Rousseau and his idea of the "good savage". Social institutions, and capitalism in particular, override this natural tendency to create and cooperate selflessly with others and generate an alienation that prevents the creation of harmonious communities. In parallel, his idea of language as an endogenous system for externalising and making thought explicit is a paradigm of creativity and productivity using finite means. Chomsky does not conceive of language primarily as an instrument designed for communication, as an evolutionary advantage that is selected to be passed on to the species, but as a manifestation of an innate creative impulse.

The existence of human nature is for Chomsky a non-negotiable starting point. It may be argued that its exact properties are not self-evident, but it is impossible to prove that there is not an intrinsic and substantial nature that constitutes the human essence. He therefore ridicules the denial of any effect of such a nature on our mental constitution and on our values and needs by much of postmodernism. It accepts that a child in New York may differ from a child in Amazonia in the concreteness of his or her mental categories. However, one must ask how both come to develop self-awareness in whatever environment they find themselves in, and to assimilate a particular culture so rich and complex by virtue of the dispersed and limited phenomena to which they are exposed. That is to say, prior to any subject of culture there must be an internal, directive and organisational component of the mind.

Against this background, not only does language appear as a brain specialisation, but behind the vast majority of human activities there is an innate basis, so that the human mind is richly structured to regulate the perception of social reality, scientific reasoning, personality analysis, and aesthetic and moral judgements. Regarding the latter, Chomsky stresses their generality, depth and subtlety as well as the great common denominator of all moral systems. Every complex and specialised system, uniformly acquired on the basis of a limited action of the environment, has behind it a strong, highly structured innate component; that is to say, in this case, there must be a biological basis that makes possible the development of a system of moral judgements and a theory of what is just. He adds that our moral schemas may be more or less complex or homogeneous, but there are objective standards that are reflected in vocabulary, as for example in the distinction between "killing" and "murder" or between "rights" and "duties". The omnipresence of such terms in all the world's languages points to a deep and genetically determined human property.

Chomsky also believes that every stance on political, social or even personal issues ultimately rests on some conception of human nature, of what is conducive to human needs and capabilities. For this reason everyone feels the need to justify one's actions on altruistic grounds, for the benefit of humanity, even in the most depraved cases, and no one admits that he or she is seeking to maximise personal gain at the expense of others.

At final, Chomsky argues for a fundamentally biological nature that identifies us as humans by configuring a set of universal mental capacities that make the acquisition of language, culture and ethics possible. This clinging to human nature, on the one hand, and his clear left-wing political vision, on the other, makes Chomsky a controversial and uncomfortable figure, for while American academia, especially in the social sciences, is clearly left-leaning, it does not generally admit the existence of a stable human nature.

The limitations of science

Despite his naturalistic view, which he himself recognises as a child of the educational tradition he has received, Chomsky is not a fundamentalist scientist. He has frequently stated that there are many questions that science is far from being able to explain or will never be able to explain, particularly those that are most interesting from a humanistic perspective of life.

For example, Chomsky points out that all the visual possibilities of examining brain activity cannot explain the content and reason for our decisions. We do not even understand the neurophysiology of the most ordinary activities of nature, such as explaining the neural mechanisms of perception or the exercise of free, conscious and creative will, the variety of languages or love.

Chomsky points out that science hardly resolves the questions that make us truly human and the hypotheses and answers of evolutionary psychology are very limited. He has often stated that one learns more about human life and personality from great novels than from scientific psychology, since the latter remains on the periphery of a deep understanding of the world.

Aligning himself with Newton or Locke, Chomsky accepts that there are real "mysteries", questions that are intellectually insurmountable or even unanswerable, as distinct from "problems", which remain within the limits of our understanding, even if they remain unresolved. Among these he points to classical questions such as free will or our aesthetic and musical sense, aspects of human behaviour that are opaque to rationalisation. He believes that we lack an authentic apprehension of reality because our scientific-intellectual capacities are limited, probably due to a lack of genetic specification.

Our own knowledge of the use of language to refer to the world is very limited. According to Chomsky, the study of what he calls intentionality, the reference of mental processes to the external world, may constitute a mystery that surpasses us intellectually. That is, the fact that a word like rat designates rats in the external world, rather than dogs or rivers, is because there is a causal link between instances of a word and copies of the corresponding animal. However, to say that rat selects rats does nothing to clarify the nature of the meaning, which is something dependent on our perception, on our nature, and taken for granted by dictionaries, not derived from the external physical world, which is largely irrelevant to linguistic description.

Nor does the most interesting aspect of language escape the mystery: how we are able to converse, to freely produce new and appropriate expressions for the concrete situation, or to formulate and understand ideas that have never been expressed before and that we understand as they are transmitted to us. We can study the possible computational mechanisms of language and its interface with the motor systems of language analysis and articulation, but there are many linguistic and intellectual questions that we do not even know how to ask ourselves.

In other words, Chomsky argues, along with Galileo, Descartes, Locke and Hume, to name but a few of the enlightened authors he cites most often and in whose tradition he belongs, that the most important and most interesting cognitive questions in life are taken for granted but are far from being explained, and he even distrusts that they are scientifically justifiable.

Origin of language

Chomsky's theory of the origin of language is based on the homogeneity of the human genome, which explains the linguistic development of children only by exposure to language without any subject instruction. This homogeneity is explained, according to palaeontological and comparative genetic data, by the recentness of the process of hominisation, since genetic variation has been minimal in the last two hundred thousand years. There has been no significant evolutionary change in language ability since a small group of our ancestors left Africa around fifty to sixty thousand years ago. In fact those same migrations also ended up in New Guinea and Australia, where the "primitive peoples" there are similar to us on every level, with no cognitive difference whatsoever. Prior to this there is no indirect evidence of language, so in this very short time in evolutionary terms (even if the upper limit is anticipated by a few hundred thousand years) there seems to have been a sudden explosion of creative activity, complex social organisation, symbolic and artistic activity, and notations of astronomical and meteorological events, all coeval indicators of the emergence of language.

According to Chomsky, this activity could be the result of a cognitive big bang result of a reorganisation of the neuro-brain circuits of our ancestors in which some unspecific natural principle of computational efficiency interacted with a small genetic mutation giving rise to Universal Grammar (innate capacity for language). His scientific programme investigates whether the principles of language are in fact the result of applying some general principles of computation, common even to other species, to that enabling mutation of recursive enumeration, a transition from the finite to the infinite by taking two mental objects and giving rise to a new one in an unlimited recursive process, and whose origin may also be that of mathematics. This transition cannot be reached, according to Chomsky, by means of small and progressive adaptations dictated by natural selection, but involves an abrupt leap.

According to his "leapfrog" hypothesis of language evolution, this mutation occurred in a single person with a set of mental categories that could be exploited by language. Evolution over millions of years leads to great complexity (e.g. the development of locomotor limbs), whereas a sudden leap of this style tends to result in a simple solution to the problems of design imposed by the environment and the morpho-anatomical Structures for the perception and production of language, which have not changed for hundreds of thousands of years (including the phonatory apparatus). That small change in the brain allowed language to suddenly blossom and, soon after, humans left the African continent, with a small group that developed this system with evolutionary advantage, likely new specialisation of other cognitive capacities and whose rules and constituents are not subject to psychological introspection.

Although language is unique (an extraterrestrial observer in different parts of the world would say that we all do the same thing when we speak), paradoxically for Chomsky, there is an unexpected diversification in the realisation of this mental capacity between languages, which have their own system of computational rules of externalisation, distinct from each other. His research programme over the years, which has crystallised in various linguistic models, has tried to combine the variety of languages in their externalisation and their unity in Universal Grammar, in an innate computational system.

For Chomsky, language is not at all the product of changeable cultural and socio-political circumstances, which would predict an immense variability in the languages of the world, which does not occur in the background, as scientists erroneously believed a century ago with respect to the morpho-physiology of the animal kingdom in general. In this sense, the evolution of language should not be confused with the evolution of human communication, as many authors now do.

Chomsky thus defends a theory of the evolutionary discontinuity of language, not as a capacity that originated as an evolutionary advantage in socialisation, communication and social cooperation, but as a sudden emergence that facilitates them. His thesis clashes with that of Darwinian biologists, for whom all evolution involves gradual changes, including that of language, which would appear gradually after our separation from the apes and the intermediate species with linguistic capacities would have become extinct.


Summing up, Chomsky argues for the existence of a human and unchanging nature as long as man has existed (homo sapiens sapiens), distrusts science as the panacea for resolving the most important questions, which we can hardly conceive of, and claims that what makes us truly human is not susceptible to scientific investigation. At the same time he maintains, like all his enlightened predecessors, that the world is (limitedly) intelligible and rational, because irrationality cannot give rise to a nature susceptible to scientific analysis, and that there are indisputable presuppositions such as free will. He also argues that the world is made up of processes and entities that we cannot explain and that a purely mechanistic or physicalist view of the world is unworkable.

In the second part of this article, and based on some texts by C. S. Lewis, the famous writer and professor of comparative literature at Oxford, we will try to make proposal compatible and complementary with Noam Chomsky's humanist theses.

A liberating, rational and complementary proposal

Despite pointing out the limitations of science, Chomsky thinks that to refer the question of self-consciousness to God is to shy away from the problem because he considers the idea of a rational soul infused by God unscientific and irrelevant, which is true if it is subjected to the restrictive experimental method of the natural sciences, and in this he would seem to contradict his own criticism of the unviability of the purely scientistic view. On the other hand, and without going any further into topic, it would have to be said that if the empirical method is the only viable one, it is so out of pure faith in its authority, for it would have to be demonstrated on its own terms, i.e. experimentally, that this method is the only way to truth.

Chomsky is agnostic but not militantly anti-religious, as are the representatives of scientific fundamentalism, for although he maintains that (what he understands to be) religious belief is irrational and consciously avoids it, he recognises that many of the most effective agents of good in the world are motivated by religion, although there are also many exceptions. He is sympathetic to the fact that religion is a very important part of many people's lives because, in addition to being self-help, it creates bonds of solidarity and responds to the need for expression of very valuable elements of one's own personality. Moreover, Chomsky points out, religion has often played a very positive role: he notes, for example, that in Western civilisation, the Catholic Church has always favoured the needy. Asked specifically about the possible negative role of religion in the conflicts and human suffering of the last millennium and its responsibility for the current ones, he has flatly denied this, again contrary to scientific fundamentalists.

However, his conception of religion as irrational because it is not susceptible to empirical verification is reductionist. To resort to a concept such as the soul, which provides us with the authority of a God who reveals (the divine breath that infuses man's spirit and makes him similar to God) and which would explain this qualitative leap between man and other species, which Chomsky himself supports and has studied particularly in the case of language, does not have to be an irrational resource but is to resort to an alternative and internally logical source that inspires confidence and whose object is inscribed in human nature (as different cultures and civilisations have shown since time immemorial, at least since the beginning of homo sapiens).

This breath of the spirit could account for those inexplicable processes and entities to which he himself alludes, among which there is undoubtedly the innate categorical imperative of conscience, whose authority we consider absolute for everyone (not by scientific demonstration but by intuitive knowledge ) and which arrives at judgements about our actions that are detached from sensory stimuli; and the mystery of selfless love, inexplicable by the combination of chemical elements or mere animal instinct, which always sees the intrinsic value of people and reaches out to enemies. In the face of all this - and more - phenomena such as the illumination of the cerebral limbic system in an MRI during love episodes or certain hypotheses of evolutionary psychology that have been disseminated as proven theories, and which Chomsky himself calls "pop science", such as, for example, reciprocal altruism, mere adaptive biological solidarity for survival and reproduction, fall far short of the mark. These phenomena are possibly related to the evolution of the unconscious instincts that man possesses, like any other animal, although he is not determined by them, like the rest.

That selfless love, which Chomsky values as the most important thing in life and which he cannot explain, could be a sign of the spiritual activity of an infused rational soul, intimately linked to the body. It would also account for innate truths from which we start - that intuition of which Chomsky speaks, which condemns the use of others as means to our ends because of their intrinsic dignity derived from their rational and free condition. Although apriorist scientism causally links self-consciousness to encephalic activity, this causality can be interpreted in the other direction, from mind to body, to brain, without necessarily being a subject of hidden experience, of the "ghost of the machine", for it parallels the common and psychologically real experience of feeling the body as an instrument of our mind or a pen as an instrument of the hand, which does not cease to be alive when we let go of it. Even, Chomsky himself points out, that activity that has been detected in the brain before deciding on a particular action, as if the material brain precedes and causes the mind, does not serve at all to indicate how decisions are made, but that most occur unconsciously and are already formed when they become conscious.

This soul possesses the capacity to transcend instincts: it is not for nothing that we distinguish between instinctive feeling - related to organic elements such as hormones, pheromones, the amygdala and the cerebral basal ganglia,... - and intellective consent, a regulatory mission located in the frontal lobes of the brain. These two levels, which we can distinguish conceptually and to which correspond their own specialised terms, are intimately linked in the human being and are a manifestation of his essential unity.

The emergence of the spirit

We will now introduce a hypothesis about this infusion of the soul and its popularly known effects. We shall do so by following the informal proposal that C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, very close to the original text, in order to better maintain its narrative force, but with modifications. It is a recreation that is perfectly compatible with the insufficient data that scientific research has so far provided us with on the topic . Starting from the fact of the existence of God, a reasoned conclusion not dependent on religion or any divine revelation (which we will not develop here for lack of space and because there is no place for it), we could conceive of the scenario that we set out below, which Lewis derives from the biblical revelation by abstracting what lies behind the images.

Over a long period of time, God perfected - let us say by means of a natural evolution other than irrational chance - the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He developed hands with opposable thumbs, a speaking apparatus capable of articulatory movements, and a sufficiently complex brain responsible for the organic mechanisms that make rational thought possible.

The creature may have existed for a long time in that state, evolving, probably among others, because there are still missing links, in the different types of hominids whose remains we have found so far, before becoming a man; it may even have been intelligent enough to manufacture objects that a modern archaeologist would accept as test of its humanity. However, he would still be just another animal, because all his physical and psychic processes were directed to purely natural purposes Materials although probably more sophisticated than those of the rest of his congeners.

At a certain moment, God infuses into this organism, both in its psychology and physiology, a new form of consciousness capable of recognising itself as an object of its own knowledge, of knowing God, and of making judgements about truth, beauty and goodness, and which, without departing from temporality, perceives the passage of time.

Judging from its tools, and perhaps even from its language, this creature would be very primitive. It would not yet have acquired sufficient practice or knowledge; its stone carving would still be very clumsy and it would perhaps be incapable of expressing its experience by means of concepts. However, based on our own childhood, we will remember that before our elders thought us capable of "understanding" anything, we already had spiritual experiences as decisive as any we have had since, though not as rich, for lack of previous experience.

So much for Lewis.

We do not know how many of these creatures God made. In keeping with the possible emergence of language, coeval with the presence of a spiritual soul and the main distinguishing feature from other animals, the original mutation responsible for the presence of language in the mind, according to Chomsky, would occur in some individual within a small group, which would transmit it to its offspring. By leading to greater and more refined cooperation among those who enjoyed this advantage, the individuals who incorporated it into their genome would end up surviving.

This hypothesis is perfectly compatible with the biblical data about early humans communicating with each other, being self-aware and appreciative of their environment. In fact, Chomsky points out that language is the touchstone of explicit self-consciousness, since without it we cannot manage or realise our ideas and thoughts, nor make judgements, that very human capacity, which requires linguistic articulation to do so. In this sense, language and self-consciousness can be coeval and must have arisen at the same time. This self-consciousness separates us radically from other animals and even allows us to think cosmologically, for example, about the concept of good in general, about the extinction of our own race, about looking back at the past, or about trying to leave a better world for future generations.

Obviously, we are not proposing here that the inherence of the soul caused the genetic-cognitive mutation and reorganisation of which Chomsky speaks - indeed, it would also be compatible with a continuist evolution - but that it may have been concomitant with it and with the appearance of the first representational and artistic manifestations that archaeology has discovered, coinciding with the departure of our ancestors from East Africa around a hundred thousand years ago. Nor do we think that Chomsky would endorse this proposal, but that it is compatible with his own.

On the other hand, one of the objections to Chomsky's jumping hypothesis is to explain how from a single mutation all humans possess identical linguistic ability, as there does not seem to have been enough time for such dispersal. Such a "selective sweep" is an exception in human evolution, something practically inexplicable without special intervention, but we will not pursue this line further. We will have to wait for the progress of genetic research.

The fall of the spirit

However, let us go a step further, which would lead us to contradict Chomsky's confidence in a human nature as that of the "good savage". Although we do not doubt for a moment the insight and superior intelligence of the great linguist and that he not only discovers the evil in the world, but is committed to its altruistic and public denunciation, it seems that when it comes to human nature it is only the environment that corrupts the person as if he or she were naturally good. One need only look into the playground of a high school of small children to realise that this is not the case. So, again with Lewis, we continue the story a little further to see what might have happened after we started talking.

Those forefathers of ours sooner or later fell. It was whispered to them that they could become as gods, ceasing to direct their lives towards their Creator, and delight in a creation originally ordained for the worship of God. They wished to become masters of themselves, which means to live a lie, for our souls are not in fact our own. We do not know in what act or series of acts this impossible and contradictory desire was realised. It may have been literally eating a fruit, but that is the least of it: what matters is that such stubbornness is the only sin that can be conceived in a being free from the temptations of the fallen man we know.

Self-awareness includes, from the beginning, the danger of the idolatry of the self. One has to renounce one's own will in order to live for God instead of oneself. This is the Achilles heel of the very nature of creation, the risk that God apparently chooses to take. Nevertheless, the sin was grave because the man of Paradise lacked that natural resistance to submission (this was Rousseau's "good savage"). His psychophysical organism was completely subject to an ordered, though not forced, will towards God. The withdrawal of himself which he practised before the fall was only the delightful overcoming of a tiny attachment to himself, gladly overcome and akin to the ecstatic mutual submission of lovers. There was no passion or tendency in human nature to incline him to such rebellion, except self-assertion.

From that moment on he lost his perfect self-control since his authority over his own body was delegated. God began to govern his organism more externally, not by the laws of the spirit but by those of biological nature: his organs, no longer regulated by his own will, came under the control of biochemical laws, thus experiencing pain, senescence, death and various kinds of desires caused by his own biology and interaction with the environment. The mind itself was subtracted from the laws of association and analogy, proper to the psychology of the higher anthropoids; and the will, imprisoned in the sway of mere nature, could not but reject some of the new thoughts and desires, and these restless rebels became the subconscious.

It was not merely a deterioration but a lowering of its special status, the loss of its original specific nature, so well expressed in the words of Genesis: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return". An organism which had been raised to spiritual life was degraded to its mere natural condition, and the human spirit, from being master of its nature, became a mere tenant in its own house; self-consciousness became an intermittent focus resting on a small part of the brain mechanisms. But this limitation of the powers of the spirit was a lesser evil than the corruption of the spirit itself. He had section from God, and by subtracting himself from his corresponding law he ended by obeying a lower law, as happens, for instance, when walking on slippery pavement, by neglecting the law of prudence, one ends by obeying the law of gravity.

Turned into his own idol but still capable of returning to God, he could only do so by painful effort, by overcoming his tendency towards himself. Hence pride and ambition, self-indulgence, the desire to oppress and humiliate rivals, envy and the tireless search for greater security, were now his natural attitudes. This was not only a king without sufficient command over his own nature, but a corrupt one: the spirit engendered in his psycho-physical organism desires worse than merely instinctive.

This state of things was inherited by succeeding generations, for it was not merely an acquired variation, but the emergence of a new class of man, a new species which had been re-created in sin. The change he had undergone was not like the development of a new organ or habit: it was a radical alteration of his constitution, a disorder among his constituents, and the internal perversion of one of them.

Again, so much for that, Lewis.

This description of our nature seems closer to reality than that of the good savage because it gives a better account of the misery that we all humans sow, cause, collect and carry on a daily basis. Thus, at the origin of both the development of language and the current moral condition of man there would be a double mutation, a disorder in the state of things, respectively: the first, pointed out by Chomsky, genetic, which would reorganise the brain and allow it to connect its conceptual structure with receptive and expressive instruments formed by evolution and manifest it in the language with the limits imposed by computation itself and the means to externalise it; the second, the result of a misused freedom, which would disorganise our capacity for self-control, placing the self-conscious self ahead of everyone and everything.


Chomsky has taught us something as intuitively obvious as that it is not necessary to examine in depth many natural languages in order to study the innate capacity of language. One is enough, for they are all manifestations of the same School (excluding all those aspects of their use related to the knowledge world, culture and society, however many and however interesting), just as it is not necessary to examine eyes of different races to examine ocular vision. Nor, from a Chomskyan perspective, does it seem necessary to examine a multitude of cultures to know that there is a natural, human background to the moral law that underpins different ethical codes, even if their external manifestations are different: to use another example from Lewis, no culture admires betrayal, selfishness (although its extent may vary) or taking the first woman one meets on a whim (even if a given society accepts polygamy), to cite only the most obvious examples.

It is reasonable to think that Chomsky would agree with agreement that, just as there are restrictions on the form of human language, which have nothing to do with those of prescriptive grammar (the difference, for example, between the "mistakes" in a la escribí carta and la escribí una carta, where the former is impossible and the latter breaks a prestige rule of standard Spanish in the laísmo it exhibits), there are also restrictions on the possible forms an ethical code can take in a society, and both cases depend crucially on the existence of human nature, which our author so strongly defends.

Nothing new under the sun in our presentation. It is basically what has served so many previous generations to give them vital meaning and make them feel special, by being aware of being God's creatures, "making the most" of that tool so uneconomical in evolutionary terms that is self-awareness. As Chomsky, the honest and agnostic scientist, says, science has a lot to discover and needs a lot of humility in the face of mystery because it cannot give a reason for the questions that interest us most. A few months ago, when this great linguist was asked by a young man about the relationship between science and happiness at the end of a conference, he replied that science can only deal in depth with simple things and will never be able to answer the great questions about life, whose answers he encouraged him to look elsewhere. It was a question, stemming, at bottom, from the innate desire for the absolute and which, as such, must find its satisfaction in some concrete reality, even if it sometimes fails to find it. His answer is both a great consolation and committee for so many of us who will never become sufficiently enlightened, especially coming from someone who really is.

Works consulted

  • Chomsky, N. (1975). Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon.
  • Chomsky, N. (1992): Chronicles of Dissent. Interviews with David Barsamian. Monroe, Common Courage Press.
  • Chomsky, N. (2012): The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Cambridge. CUP. available at
  • Chomsky, N.: "Grammar, mind and body: a personal view". Lecture at the University of Maryland, College of Arts and Humanities. January 2012. available at
  • Chomsky, N.: "Language and Other Cognitive Systems: What is Special about Language?" Lecture at the University of Cologne. June 2011. available at ch?v=6i_W6Afed2k
  • Chomsky, N.: "The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding: Newton's contributions to the study of mind". Lecture at the University of Oslo. September 2011. available at
  • Chomsky, N. (2010): The Chomsky Sessions. Interview with Michael Albert (videos). Available at
  • Chomsky, N. Science, Religion and Human Nature, Part I (Chomsky Sessions II, Interview with Michael Albert, 2011). Transcript available at
  • Lewis, C. S. (1962). The Problem of Pain. The Macmillan Company. New York.
  • Smith, N. (1999, 2004): Chomsky's ideas and Ideals. Cambridge, CUP.