UXn: The Implications of Sampson’s Proof of Universal Science
Oceanographic Institute of Nevada—Kairo
As this author has noted elsewhere, it is not uncommon in linguistics—just as in other sciences—for an observation with stunning implications for the field to go largely unnoticed; a researcher will advance an analysis to deal with a highly localized, recalcitrant problem without realizing that the analysis itself is a revolutionary advance. Some advances do draw attention, but the attention itself remains localized, and the wider significance of the advance isn’t recognized for quite some time.
This latter situation is an accurate characterization of exactly what has happened with Geoffrey Sampson’s surprising—and spirited—conversion to, and defense of, the idea of an innately specified Universal Grammar. In Educating Eve, and later, with Paul Postal, in The Language Instinct Debate, Sampson pointed out the crucial lack of negative evidence that physical scientists confront—e.g., physicists are never given wrong examples, labeled as such, by the universe. Still, physical scientists are able to formulate theories about the universe—theories that, moreover, seem to describe it quite well. Thus, Sampson proved that not only is there an innate Universal Grammar, but an innate Universal Science, as well. This came as a complete surprise to most of the community of linguists, who had thought Sampson opposed to the innatist position, and the controversy thus generated has, this author would argue, obscured some of the further implications of the discovery. Critics—doubtlessly trying to rescue the non-innatist (or to use Fleugelschtauffen’s term, exnatist) position—criticized Sampson’s argument by claiming it was a false analogy, that theorizing about the physical universe is crucially different from coming up with a grammar. The point of difference according to one such argument lies in the fact that any given language selects a tiny (though infinite) set of “ok” expressions from among a much, much larger, even more infinite, set of “not ok” (or to use Fleugelschtauffen’s term, dysacceptable) expressions, and that theorizing about the physical universe does not entail this kind of dramatic reduction.
While one can advance a limited counterargument to the claim of false analogy by pointing out cases where individuals affected by certain types of cognitive or psychiatric impairment (analogous to aphasia in this model) do indeed create the kind of malformed theories that would otherwise be ruled out by Universal Science (e.g. “things fall because the invisible aliens push downwards on them to spite me”), this author would argue that there are other examples showing just the kind of “acceptability reduction” that language does and which not only confirm Sampson’s analogy, but demonstrate that there are other innate universal “Grammar-like” mental organs as well. In other words, Sampson’s argument has not just proven that Universal Grammar is innate, but that there are potentially many such universal capacities.
As a representative domain, we can consider cuisine. There is, of course, a biological “envelope” imposed on the potential range of substances that humans can eat, just as there is a biological envelope imposed on language by the capacities of the human articulatory and auditory perception systems. We cannot hear certain sounds, and we cannot eat cubic-foot pieces of granite.i However, the cuisine of any particular culture selects a tiny subset of what is, in fact, edible, and moreover imposes on that set strict rules of combination and sequencing. There is no biologically-imposed rationale for forbidding the use of chopped onions on chocolate ice cream, but people who have grown up in the U.S. not only typically do not do so, they are likely to have never, ever, been given any negative evidence pertaining to that combination. Even a wide-scale survey of cookbooks, for example, will turn up no instances of an admonition to avoid using onions on chocolate ice cream. In fact, most cooks adhere to foods and basic combinations they have been presented with (i.e., that they have positive evidence for), even though higher-order combinations produce an infinite variety of potential meals.
We do, of course borrow and “calque” recipes from other cultures, just as we borrow language, but even here the analogy remains robust. Even if people do somewhere put onions on chocolate ice cream, Americans won’t borrow that part. When exceptions occur, as with trendy restaurants, these can be considered the equivalent of poetry, or deliberate language play. Just as Yoda’s verb-final sentences do not “count” in the description of English, the occasional serving of wasabi ice cream does not “count” in the description of American cuisine.ii In “core” cuisine, the rules remain inviolate; no one would mistake the products of Taco Bell for actual Mexican food. And cuisine, like language, is recursive. We can stuff things into a dumpling, and then use the dumpling as a filling for something else. In principle, there is no limit to the number of layers in a meta-dumpling—and since no one, even in principle, can ever observe an infinite meta-dumpling, the knowledge that it is possible must be innate.
Other analogous domains exist, of course—any area of life in which one deals with any kind of container produces recursion, since containers can go in other containers.iii There is quite probably a Universal Décor module, and a strong argument can be made for Universal Sulking. Sampson’s proof of UG hasn’t just advanced linguistics, it has opened up the possibility of an unbounded number of universal modules—and we are left with the fascinating question of why, among a potentially infinite number of universal modules, we have only those we do, especially since there is no evidence any agency has explicitly removed other ones. Beyond UG lies UXn!
i For purposes of brevity, we will not discuss fruitcake at this point.
ii Similarly, the sometimes odd food combinations that suddenly become attractive to some in certain stages of pregnancy are simply performance errors.
iii One could argue at this point that recursion could (instead) be viewed as an epiphenomenon—that the learner needs simply to master a one-step rule, and that the fact that the rule happens to be infinitely repeatable does not necessitate the learner ever being able to conceptualize an infinite set. This, however, is uninteresting.