7. Linguistic Processes
At the higher levels of an internal linguistic process it might prove difficult to separate semantics from syntactics. Word selection may be connected to word order in the grammar of a language. Any particular element of linguistic behavior involves a complex information stream involving cognitive components, timing elements (syntax) and feedback from the neuromuscular system. Separating out the cognitive elements from the mechanical or formal syntactical requirements would probably prove to be extremely difficult in practice even with the most elaborate and precise neural information extraction devices imaginable. Nevertheless, an epistemological approach to neurolinguistic processes is possible.
Consider this generic diagram for epistemic behavior:
Block diagrams are far too simple to adequately represent any intelligent system but they can be useful to help organize our thoughts. Here we have various types of subsystems all providing information for an output system. The subsystems include various sensory units as well as memory and control units. We could imagine for example that the “Visual“ unit represents the visual cortex in human beings and the “Syntactic-Motor” (SM) unit represents the motor and pre-motor cortex. The first question we might like to consider is “how many different kinds of information are sent to the SM unit”? We might suppose that in addition to sensory information there are many other types of information being relayed to the SM unit. Some of this must originate in internal systems and be generated by internal states alone, with no dependency on external sources of information; other types would perhaps represent combinations of information streams originating from processes involving both internal and external information sources. For example if someone says: “This apple is crisp and delicious….” this behavior is the result of various sensory streams of information including taste, smell and tactile sensations as well as information or at least influences from the pleasure and motivational systems of the brain. (We have to at least suspect that some activity of the CNS produces non-specific information, represented above by dashed arrows, i.e., just excitatory or inhibitive influences that control overall CNS operations.)
We know next to nothing about the processes that generate certain types of linguistic behavior, statements about what is known, understood, or believed etc. The internal processes that generate epistemological discourse are obscure in their most elementary aspects. Some might follow the linguistic rules outlined by philosophical analysis; some might be based on internalized rules or procedures like the ones incorporated in formal sciences. Deconstructing the internals of epistemological concepts might be possible with some careful introspection perhaps augmented by some neuro-information extraction technologies, but significant results can be obtained by considering the information theoretic limitations on system behavior alone.
While very little is known about large scale neural network operations, i.e., the kind of operations that produce complicated patterns of behavior like speech, we know a fair amount about the types of information these networks have available for processing. If we know the types of information these networks have available then we can type the kinds of activity and the resultant behavior that these network operations can produce. We know that neural networks can be driven by sensory information, information relating the emotional and motivational systems and by information produced by other internal processes. But is their anything else that is of fundamental epistemic importance, e.g., the kind of thing that would make metaphysics possible?
Any argument for the possibility of non- empirical knowledge of the external world must answer a simple yet essential question: “how does the brain do it?” or perhaps “where does the internal information come from”? Unless we suppose that there are miracles occurring in our nervous systems, information inputs from beyond the material world, then we are limited to biology and specifically to information driven neurological processes for the production of thought and cognitive behavior of any sort. Those who think that behavior represents anything more than the results of complicated physical processes owe us an explanation of just how this can be the case. Pleas to ignorance will not help their cause. Just because we may not know what some areas of the brain are doing and we have very little understanding of how the brain works in general doesn’t mean their epistemic problems has a non-magical solution, something we can hope to discover or explain later. The fundamental problem is this: whatever the brain is doing and however it is doing it, if the nervous system is only a physical system then the processes involved are exclusively physical, i.e., neurological, and dependent only on internal information produced by biological and biochemical processes.
Pleas to ignorance do not help the metaphysician because we do not have to understand the details of an information based process to evaluate the results of the process if we know the input and the output. Linguistic processes are biological information in and biological information out – to motor centers. The details of the processes are irrelevant because the source of the information cannot be changed by the processes. The type of information is determined by the phenomenon that produces it. This is not changed by operating on or with it.