Finnish Broadcasting Company, 21 November 2003

What is natural is not self-evident

A radio documentary on scientific world view

By Hannu Reime

Produced by the Radio News & Current Affairs Programs of the Finnish Broadcasting Company for the weekly series Maailmanpolitiikan arkipäivää ('everyday world politics')

Series producer: Matti Törmä

Broadcast  on November 21st, 2003, at 10.30 am, on the radio channel 1, and re-broadcast on the same day at the radio channel 3, at 10.16 pm

Persons interviewed:

- Dr. Moshé Machover, mathematician, London (MM)

- Dr. John Frampton, mathematician/linguist, Boston (JF)


"Yearnin' " from the album The Blues and the Abstract Truth by Oliver Nelson with Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet) and Bill Evans (piano) as soloists

Producer: Hannu Reime (HR)

Sound technician: Riikka Hakala

Length: 26'56"

Text read by the radio announcer:

The topic in our program series today is scientific world view with the title What is natural is not self-evident. We will present a new study on the real distribution of voting power in the draft constitution of the European Union, and take up the question of the nature of the human mind as shown by modern linguistics. The producer of the documentary is Hannu Reime, and the sound technician is Riikka Hakala.

MM: If we didn’t have science, we would still believe that the sun is going around the earth. It seems so to the naked eye. If you don’t have any scientific education or any scientific analysis, it seems that the sun is going around the earth, and it seems very counter-intuitive that it’s the other way around. And the same holds in many other cases.

JF: There was no longer a question of  sitting and introspecting, of going inside your mind, and thinking about how it works but of standing outside your mind, standing outside the brain, and treating it like scientists treat things that they don’t understand: what’s going on inside atoms, or what’s going on inside the sun, for example. You see certain things happening, you have no idea of what’s happening, you have to make a theory of what’s happening, and subject it to testing.

HR: Here we heard the views of two scientists on some essential aspects of serious scientific work. The first view was presented by  Moshé Machover, who’s also been interviewed in some earlier parts of this series of documentaries. The second voice belongs to John Frampton, who teaches mathematics at the Northeastern University in Boston but whose object of inquiry nowadays is the formal structure of natural language. Dr. Frampton tells me that he got to know Noam Chomsky, the most famous linguist of our time, in the anti-Vietnam War movement back in the 1960s and became interested in his work, the analysis of the faculty of language, a wonderful mental system that nature has given to all of us. Chomsky, who will be 75 years next month, started the program of study of the generative grammar at MIT, the most famous science and technology-based university in the United States, in the middle 1950s. When the Vietnam War was escalated in the early 60s, Chomsky became one of the best-known social critics in his country. At that time John Frampton worked as a mathematician, and it took years for him to start a serious inquiry into the structure of natural language, that is, the reasons which make it possible, for example, that I can here express my thoughts to you, dear listeners, by using different combinations of sounds, produced with the help of air that I’m breathing out, all taken from a set of some 20 to 30 elements. And that’s not all, far from it. The task is also to show why I and — I  would suppose — most of you find the following combinations of sounds and also many of the separate sounds quite weird and exotic:

[Navajo as spoken by Ken Hale …]

This is Navajo, the best preserved of the North American Indian languages that all were either violently destroyed or pushed into a small minority status during one of the most brutal conquests and settlement activities in the whole history of humankind, a process which the much abused word “genocide” aptly describes. Navajo was spoken here by the late American linguist Ken Hale, a fine and humane person who besides studying language also tried to save and preserve dying languages of North and Central America and Australia, and gave his support to corresponding activities all over the world.

Let us come back to language, linguistics, and the human mind after a moment. In addition to the mathematician/linguist John Frampton, I interview, in this documentary, the professor emeritus Moshé Machover, who’s originally a mathematical logician and who studied it more than 40 years ago in Poland, the leading European country of the field. Because our topic this time is the scientific world view, let me mention that Dr. Machover, who’s a life-long socialist, came already then, in the Poland of the year 1960, to the view that the social system prevailing there at the time had nothing to do with socialism. But otherwise, that period in Poland was culturally very lively and interesting.

Dr. Machover has in recent years moved from mathematical logic to a field that is called social choice. The object of inquiry in this field is decision-making by voting. Voting power is a quantity, it can be measured, although it is not immediately clear how to do it. The measurement of voting is neither self-evident, nor simple. Dr. Machover tells me that this study has no direct connection to logic except that they both are now a part of mathematics. However, in the history of science there have been famous persons who have studied both logic and social choice.

MM: I can mention one very well-known figure — it  may not be well-known that he did work in social choice — the person who is generally known as Lewis Carroll, the person who wrote the Alice in Wonderland-books. That’s his pen-name. He was, in fact, a mathematician called C.L. Dodgson. He did world in logic in the 19th century, and also wrote some important contributions to social choice. A contemporary example is Michael Dummett, the philosopher who is an important logician  and who also wrote two semi-popular books about electoral procedures.

HR: Also in Finland there are some researchers who have specialized in social choice. Hannu Nurmi and Mika Widgren are names which occur very often in the publications of this field. Moshé Machover and his colleague Dan Felsenthal from the University of Haifa in Israel have together published several articles and one book-size work on social choice. Their most recent paper is a mathematical analysis of the real distribution of voting power as can be calculated from the draft constitution of the European Union. I asked Dr. Machover to tell what's the heart of the matter in this kind of research.

MM: Social choice in general is the scientific study of decision-making, especially when it is the decision-making by voting. There are, as you know for example in electing a parliament, many different systems of election, some forms of proportional representations and various other forms. Social choice, or one branch of it, is concerned with the various properties, what can go wrong for example in one election system or another. There is no ideal election system. Each one has got its own drawbacks but they are not all equally bad. So there’s the question of analysing what can go wrong, and how probable it is that it will go wrong, that is, one election system or another. The specific topic that we have been working on now for quite a few years is the measurement of voting power, for example in the case of the Council of Ministers of the European Union. A given decision-rule gives a different amount of  power to each of the member-states. The question is how to measure it, and how to achieve various standards of fairness and so on.

HR: The Council of Ministers is the most important decision-making body of the European Union. The famous democracy deficit is also due to the power of the Council, Dr. Machover says. The culprit to the deficit is not the Commission that the opponents of the EU always make their bête noire, with so many urban legends on its directives determining the shape of cucumbers and so on. The Commission only prepares the agenda, and so its influence is quite limited. Speaking about this side of the question, Moshé Machover stresses, he's speaking as a citizen, not as a scientist. The democracy deficit could be done away with by giving more power to the European Parliament. Also in earlier European history, the Parliament and the King have fought for power, and we know very well which side has represented democracy and progress, which side has been defending reaction, despite the many faults of real, historical parliaments. This was all part of the history of  the great bourgeois revolution and the formation of the modern world.

The power of the Council does not rest, of course, on totally undemocratic foundations. The governments of the member-states are responsible to their national parliaments elected by their populations. The Council of Ministers of the EU forms the upper tier of a two-tier decision-making system. The president of the United States is elected with a similar method. The citizens elect an electoral college, which, in turn, elects the president with an absolute majority system, where the voters for a winning candidate in each state get all the votes of that state, the votes being distributed  proportionally to the population of each state. The faults of this system became evident three years ago, when the younger George Bush was elected president of the United States.

MM: Even if we ignore the unclarity about the voting in Florida for the 2000 presidential election in the United States, even if we ignore that, it is the case that the candidate who was elected, did not get the majority of  the popular vote. This, in fact, can happen in any indirect decision-making process, because the mechanism for electing president in the United States is similar to what we have in the Council of Ministers. In any two-tier decision-making process — and the European Union Council of Ministers is another example of this — it can happen that the decision adopted by the council is not approved by the majority of the citizens of Europe. And that can happen even if each representative in the Council votes according to the majority opinion in his or her country.

HR: The latest work by Moshé Machover and his colleague Dan Felsenthal, an analysis of the distribution of voting power contained in the draft constitution proposed by the European Convention, shows, as do earlier studies in the field, that the agreed rules in themselves do not reveal the real power of each member state, which needs to be computed. Three years ago the same researchers analysed mathematically the concluding document of the Nice summit, where the decision-making system of the Council of Ministers was for the first time proposed to be changed significantly, in view of the enlargement of the Union. The new study compares the Convention proposals to the Nice document, and concludes that the biggest and the smallest members would get too much power. The computation has been done separately for a 25-member and a 27-member Union, the latter including Romania and Bulgaria. Dr. Machover comments the results of the study.

MM: Our conclusion is that it is what is known in English as a curate's egg, partly good and partly bad. There are some good aspects to it but also some quite bad.  From the point of view of fairness, we found that the proposal in the draft constitution is quite bad, quite bad in itself, and quite bad compared with the Nice proposals. According to a scientific criterion of fairness, the biggest four members, that is, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, and the six smallest members, from Latvia down to Malta, the four largest and the six smallest, get too much power, according to a scientific criterion, and all the ones in between from Spain down to Lithuania, including Finland, which is towards the bottom of this range, get too little power. According to our calculation this rule gives Finland relatively speaking…  its relative share in power is 14 % less than it should have been, and compared to Nice it is about six per cent worse. Nice also gave Finland too little power but the gap was not very great. According to this rule, the proposed one, the share of Finland is much more unfair, as is the share of all the countries from Spain to Lithuania. Finland, by the way, is not the worst case. The situation, for example, with Greece and Portugal, countries of that size, is even much worse than that. So that is from the point of view of fairness.

HR: On the other hand, if the criterion is effectiveness, then the proposal of the Convention is quite good. Moshé Machover says that he thinks that the proposal is, in fact, too good, because the power of each country to prevent a decision that it regards as negative would diminish significantly. It would be bad for the Union, because a likely consequence would be a growing anti-EU opinion in the member states, especially in the medium sized countries, and "medium sized" in this case would mean most of the members of EU, from Spain with its 39 million population down to Lithuania with three and a half million people.

MM: So there is a danger that most of the countries, that is to say, the countries in the range from Spain to Lithuania will feel eventually that too often they cannot help to block resolutions which they oppose, and this may give rise to discontent, to bitterness, to disaffection against the Union. It’s dangerous for the Union.

HR: The moral that comes from the work of Moshé Machover and his colleague Dan Felsenthal is that the world is very seldom such as it seems to be. Matters are not self-evident even in such a strictly limited field as in the study of decision-making by voting. When I asked for a telephone interview with the mathematician/linguist John Frampton, he wrote in his message that there's a "special difficulty that people have in being scientific about the mind/brain" in the same way that people think about other natural objects. He thought that it might be due to the fact that "a certain portion, probably a very small portion, of our mental processes are open to introspection". This may create "a strong tendency to think that mental processes in general are open to introspection", that the mind is like a theatre where we can watch events in the stage. "But that is simply not true." In order to understand and explain the mind we "have to force ourselves to approach the problem of understanding how the mind/brain works like we approach the problem of understanding what is happening inside the nucleus of atoms. Scientist have come up with some very weird ideas about what is happening inside nuclei. The ideas are weird, but we think they are right because they seem to offer an explanation." It seems to be "difficult for humans to bring the same attitude towards the study [of the structures] of the mind/brain."

Dr. Frampton believes that the special language faculty that the humans have offers one path through which it is possible to study the structures of the mind in an objective, scientific way, in the way that he himself very much supports.  Language is a biological faculty that nature has built into the human mind/brain.

JF: Yes, it has to be. It has to be a property of the mind. Now, the only question is how  special it is for language in humans, how much of what we use in language is just general ability or how much of it is a special ability that’s related to language. Everybody recognizes that we human beings are incredibly good at recognizing faces. Even people who are hostile to the idea of special faculties or natural explanations, will admit that humans are amazingly good at recognizing faces, and there must be some special mechanism. I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised that by now a little is known about this special mechanism. The only issue there is how much of what we bring to recognizing faces, is some special circuit, or special detectors, or special whatever, special thing for faces, and how much is just a general part of our visual system. That’s the only issue, and it’s the same with language: there are some very special things to do with language, and there are some general skills that we also use in language.

HR: The view of natural language, supported by John Frampton among others, shows also in a very interesting way where to look for an answer to the hotly debated issue of nature versus nurture: is human a product of his or her genome or environment?  Our neighbor Merfi has during his long dog's life been much longer among members of homo sapiens than among his species-fellows. His long, hanging ears have registered far more Finnish sentences than dog's barking, and yet, he doesn't know Finnish any more than any other possible human language, although he surely is a very intelligent creature. On the other hand, my grandson Roope, who is close to half a year old, will very soon learn Finnish, and probably even now already has built in his head the sound pattern of the Helsinki variant of Finnish. And if, for some reason, Roope were taken to Kuala Lumpur, he would come to speak and understand Malay as easily as he now comes to speak and understand a form of Finnish, with seemingly no extra effort in the way that adults have to make in order to learn foreign languages. In that case he would come to know the morpho-phonological process known as reduplication which John Frampton is presently working on and which he will soon publish a book about. So language is at the same time a product of the genome; without it no-one would talk or, in the case of deaf-mutes, sign. But on the other hand, which particular language system each individual builds into his or her head without any special learning, is determined by the environment, the speech community or communities into which each one of us is born.

JF: One of the very interesting facts about the study of mind is that there’s a rich internal structure but into that internal structure goes learning. The children in my neighborhood don’t grow up speaking Finnish. They grow up speaking the language that’s spoken in the neighborhood. The kids across the street grew up speaking Russian, because their parents spoke Russian. So there’s much, much in the language system that’s learned. The formal system is only the part that says, that decides how that information is organized, how that information is stored, what kind of computations can get done on that kind of information, and those kinds of question.

HR: I asked John Frampton what he thinks is the most important result in the study of language so far.

JF: That’s a hard question, that’s a very good question. What are the results achieved so far? I think probably the biggest result is that in spite of  the profound superficial differences between languages around the world — they have startling differences, so much so that they’re mutually unintelligible — there are profound structural similarities between languages. And it’s very interesting how we have come to understand that. The general principles come out of  intense studies of particular languages. Studies of particular languages reveal a kind of a formal system, and then one can take that formal system and see what it has to say about other languages, and other languages fit into the same kind of general formal systems. So there’s actually a wonderful connection between studying something that’s very particular, and it having universality, which is something that humans always enjoy. 

HR: So the study of language reveals that human languages are similar from one point of view, and from another point of view they are very different …

JF: The study of language, what it's done is reveal this core, this wonderful universal core of language that billions of people all over the world are putting to use in very different ways and filling up their lexicons with very different sounding words but they’re all doing the same thing. It’s like … it’s hard to describe … Yeah, it’s like a great novel, like War and Peace is about a particular thing but humans love it because it has universal scope. That’s what artists and scientists strive to do, and they’re right to strive for it. We see it in the science of language very directly.

HR: The scientific world view, represented by John Frampton among others, is very interesting and at the same time liberating. Some years ago I interviewed here in Helsinki the paleontologist and famous science-writer Stephen Jay Gould, who died recently. He repeated his old saying that the greatest moral lesson that nature gives to humans is that there is no lesson. Humans themselves have to solve their great moral problems without recourse to something outside of themselves, neither from the rest of nature, nor from imagined worlds. John Frampton says that that may be true. He adds that we have to be fairly humble: it can well be that nature will reveal itself to us, to the human brain, very partially. Where the boundary goes, we cannot know in advance. So are there any moral lessons to be learned from the scientific world view itself? Here's the answer of the mathematician/linguist John Frampton:

JF: I don’t think there are consequences in the strong sense of “consequences” that we can decide questions of morality and ethics on the basis of  science. We know very, very, very  little about what’s going on in the brain. There’re all kinds of grand theories that one can hear but we don’t even know the simplest things. Take the word “dog” for example. How do we put “dog” in the brain? We don’t even know that. So on the basis of this lack of understanding of what’s going on, we surely can’t draw consequences. But where we can draw consequences, I think,  is that we have found that the way to make progress in understanding things is to be rational and to give arguments and to look at the evidence. And that does have, I think, very strong moral implications. Chomsky’s politics are well-known, the fact that he has combined a brilliant career as a thinker about world affairs and as a thinker about what’s going on in the mind, but they’re not directly related at all. But they are indirectly related in the sense that the reason that he could be such a great scientist, is that he was willing to look at the mind without prejudice, look at the facts, and he looks at the world that way, too, without prejudice, and finds simple explanations for things. And the simple explanation for him of what happens in the world, is that the rich and the powerful try to run things so that they get richer and more powerful. And that’s not a very radical thesis. It’s obvious.

The persons interviewed in this documentary were the Israeli-British mathematician Moshé Machover and the American mathematician/linguist John Frampton. The music you heard was from an album by Oliver Nelson, recorded more than forty years ago. Its title fits well into our theme this time: The Blues & the Abstract Truth. The soloists were Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; and Bill Evans, piano.

See also:

Changing EU voting rules would be undemocratic by Hannu Reime

Eagle Street, October 1999

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