How we are humans

Reading The Language Instinct

Chenxiao Ma | December 17, 2016

Walking on the streets, we can see nothing but our own crafts. Skyscrapers are towering, neons are flashing, cars and aircrafts are dashing, glass curtain walls are reflecting sunlight so bright that one cannot watch directly. Whatever the word "street" means did not even came into being until humans lay their feet on the planet. What is it that enabled us, empowered us, distinguished us, human beings, from other 8.7 million of species that share the Earth? There might be an answer. We have languages.

In his historical book The Language Instinct, Professor Pinker led us through a marvellous and inspiring journey. From the children who invented Hawaiian Creole, to the deaf students in Nicaragua who improved LSN to create ISN, we saw how children couldn't help but make their language expressive and comprehensive. We explored how language is different from thought and how language is structured. We learned basic morphology and phonology. We appreciated how language is masterly received and construed. We witnessed how languages departed from their ancestors, how children learn to speak in such a talented way and how might Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are associated with language. We also mocked the pedantry rules and pretentious style guidelines proposed by language mavens and finally, imagined what a universal mind might look like.

What interests me the most is how mentalese is strikingly similar to the programming language we learn and use everyday. As a university student majoring in Computer Science and Technology, I was attracted instantly by the notion of a Turing Machine inside people’s mind. As we all know, computers are good at limited things, mainly repetitive things. Once strictly defined, the computer can carry out onerous work tirelessly. Thus we invented programming language to talk to computers. One job is usually defined as a "program". The instructions in the program are executed by the computer, so they have to be precise and unambiguous. Computers are simply Turing Machines. They have a certain set of states, they read instruction and data from memory and change states accordingly until reach a particular state called the "end state". For example, when executing the instruction "ADD [40000000], 1", the computer will locate the value stored in the 40000000th block in memory, and increase its value by one. When encounters the instruction "INT", which is short for "interruption", the computer will change to the "kernel state", which is used to print characters to the screen and accept inputs from the keyboard. The brackets are used to instruct the computer to "locate", and the space and comma are to separate the instruction name and the parameters. Computers know to find these symbols for instructions exactly like human brains know to find role players and modifiers for phrases.

There are also other high-level programming languages that are designed to make programming easier and more intuitive. For example in a program written in C, "int x" will tell the computer to associate an integer x with a block in memory. "x = 1" will tell the computer to change the value in the block associated with x to 1. "x = x + 1" will tell the computer to increase the value in the block associated with x by 1. The computer will keep track of the association between the names and the indices of their blocks (called their addresses), thus free us programmers from doing it manually. When executing programs written in C, the computer will do find-and-replace just like the example mentioned in the book. Whenever it finds a name like "x", it looks it up in the table and replace it with the address of the x stored in the table.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with Professor Pinker here. No matter how a human brain might be similar to a Turing Machine, it is much better than that. Turing Machines are capable of deducting new information from old one but it might be a little pre-mature to treat intelligence as merely that. One ability is so essential to intelligence that anything lacking this ability cannot possibly be treated as intelligent. As the old saying goes, to err is human. All intelligent things must make mistakes.

Haven't we all made mistakes? As we all know, penicillin was discovered precisely because Dr. Fleming did not clean his Petri dishes properly. Haven’t we all been struck by some totally whimsical ideas? Giving it another thought is such valuable advice because it is precisely those ideas that we can work on. No one thought Steve Jobs was being rational when he wanted a smart phone with only one button, but that is where iPhone came from. Humans are better than computers precisely because they are, at least sometimes, illogical.

Other neuroscientists are trying to make sense of this phenomenon. A new theory called Quantum Consciousness was put forward. It suggests that there is a random factor in human beings’ mind, just like in a quantum. A quantum can be in several different stages at the same time, each of which has a probability. When being observed, a quantum will "collapse" into one of those stages randomly. We randomly forget things, randomly make mistakes because each neuron acts randomly, just like quanta. That opens the door to creativity and imagination.

Despite this trivial disagreement, I am thoroughly amazed by how intricate and powerful language has turned out to be. It is more than a way of exchanging information, more than a way of amusing and attracting each other. It is profound that we can form a community and establish a state. It is profound that we can express and negotiate. It is profound that we can compromise and contribute. It is profound that our brains are connected by languages. Languages enabled us. Languages empowered us. Languages distinguished us. Having language is the reason why we built not only houses but also streets to connect our houses. We are united, thus we stand.

That is how we are humans.