Archive for April, 2011

I have long admired the three great empiricist philosophers, whose times spanned the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  They set the scene of justification for the sowing of modern scientific thought.  Their thinking is also used to assess the fruits of that thought.  I suppose nearly everyone has heard of the Englishman (Locke) and the Scotsman (Hume), but not so many have heard of the Irishman, George Berkeley.  In his time his ideas were not well-received (though Hume was impressed by them) ; but since the end of the nineteenth century he has inspired much research.

A deep thinker, and an acute observer, he made some startling claims.  For example, he once said, “The eyes are but instruments for gathering light.”  The eyes alone cannot ‘see’ ; they also need the sense of ‘touch’ to get them working.

Such a claim is certainly counter-intuitive, even to most people today.  But, in the nineteen-sixties, researchers, demonstrated some of truth in Bishop Berkeley’s argument.  In brief, they raised some kittens in complete darkness for a short period after their birth, until they were able to walk ; they then proceeded to show that, unless the kittens were given the experience of walking, they were practically blind.  And, once they started walking, their eyesight began to develop normally.  Later experiments have confirmed the findings.

Berkeley claimed that the most important sense is not sight (as most people believed) but what he called touch – or, to use the more inclusive modern word, proprioception, which includes the sense of motion and balance and other bodily sensations.  Berkeley placed great importance on infants being encouraged to be physically active to ensure proper sensory development.

Another confirmation of Berkeley’s ideas came in the mid twentieth-century.  A man in his fifties, who had been blind from the age of three had his sight restored by surgery.  Of course, all the ologists pounced on him to test their theories about ‘recovered senses’ and, in all, the poor patient had a pretty miserable time from all the attention he attracted.

But some interesting findings emerged.  For example, when the newly-seeing man was taken out into the streets, he was quizzed about what he could see.  He was shown a  typical London double-decker bus, and asked to draw a sketch of it.  His drawing was good, but with some striking blanks in it : the driver’s cab was blank and the entire upper deck was missing, too.  It turned out that he had used buses when he had been blind – and his sketch showed good detail of all the parts of a bus that he had actually touched – but almost no detail of the parts that he had not.  He simply could not see those parts.

So, Berkeley showed his astuteness again.  His critics were confounded.

So, ‘touch’ or (more completely) proprioception is really the queen of senses, anterior to sight.  And not only sight.  It has been shown that young infants who are compelled to be immobile do badly in tests of intelligence ; but they make up for that once they are old enough to be allowed to walk about.

And then there is the young Einstein.  It is said that, at the age of eleven he discovered that physical exercise interfered with his thinking ; so he gave up playing sports.  Was it this withdrawal from the world of ‘touch’ that facilitated his highly abstract ideas of relativity?  And, even here, Berkeley pops up again – for the good bishop was writing his own theories of relativity nearly three centuries before Einstein.

And what happened to the blind man who had his sight restored?  Sadly, he became very depressed ; he shut himself up in the dark of his home and turned his back on the complicated world of light.  I read that he took his own life in the end.  So, suddenly springing the rich sense of seeing on someone is not the unalloyed blessing it would seem to be.


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Back in the fifties, when the world and I were young, it was quite common for the BBC to broadcast interesting and informative tv programmes.  I learned much from watching, and listening to, impossibly clever professors of this and doctors of that discussing really important subjects.  Of all the delights that came with these discussions there was one which never failed to keep me rivetted to the screen and hanging on to every word spoken ; and this was when a member of the panel was a foreigner.  In those halcyon days, of course, to be both a  foreigner and a professor meant to be either a German professor or an East European professor.  Nothing less would do.

What struck me most about these foreign professors was that, although they expressed their brilliant ideas in a style of English that was in all technical respects impeccable, they were all handicapped by having almost impenetrable accents.  “How,” I asked, “Is it possible that they have learned the English language so excellently, and yet they cannot pronounce it properly?”  I thought, in my ignorance, that the pronunciation would be the easiest part of using a language.  I was to get clues to their difficulty much later.

Psychologists and neurologists seem to agree that the new-born child is equipped with a full set of cells for its nervous system ; from the brain to the furthest toe, all the nerve cells that will ever be needed are present.  But, although present, comparatively few of them are in full working order ; and this is particularly true of the brain, where our more complex mental functions are performed.  You can get an idea of this when you see how small a baby’s head is.  And you can get an idea of brain-cell immaturity when you see the baby making laughable attempts to control and co-ordinate the movements of its limbs ; for the limbs are directed by particular sets of brain cells.  It takes time and practice for those cells to mature.

And the movements of the muscles needed to produce speech are similarly immature at birth ; they too need time and practice to mature.  And those movements are complex and delicate, which explains, perhaps, why speech is comparatively late in appearing.

Linguists, like all scientists, are forever refining their opinions on the basics of their trade.  But they used to say that there are about forty to fifty distinct sounds that the human voice can make.  No language uses all possible sounds, but most use most of them, with distinct differences between different languages.  Thus English speakers will use (say) about forty distinct sounds, while German speakers will use (say) forty-one.  But several sounds used in English do not appear in German, and vice versa.

But what has this to do with clever professors not being able to speak English clearly?  Well, it boils down to a question of their age when they first learned to speak English.

Brain cells not only mature with practice, but they also have a ‘sensitive period’ in which the maturation can occur.  Attempts to teach a month-old baby to speak are doomed to fail because the cells controlling speech are not ready even to begin to learn ; the sensitive period has yet to start.  When the child does begin to learn it naturally learns to make those sounds that are peculiar to its native language ; it imitates the sounds made by its parents, and it quite quickly becomes fluent.

But it usually does not learn the sounds that are foreign to its parents ; indeed, if makes such a sound, its parents will discourage it.  And those foreign sounds might never be learned by the child ; certainly it will not ordinarily become fluent in them.

So, does all this mean that a German child can never learn good English pronunciation (or vice versa)?  Not at all, for the sensitive period for learning speech lasts until about the eighteenth year.  After that, the learning gets harder until it is all but defunct.  So, schools are quite able to teach a foreign language, provided that sufficient time is allowed for practice.

Well, all this I learned late in life, alas.  But at least it solved a mystery for me.  I now knew why Professor X had perfect English, all bar the pronunciation.  I also learned that there seem to be sensitive periods for other skills, and that they are not the same as for language learning.  So, when I meet someone who is pretty awful at maths for example, despite being very rational, I am slow to judge on his apparent lack of intelligence.  Not everyone who fails to appreciate good music is blameworthy in any way.  And people who lack the dexterity for delicate tasks are not necessarily at personal fault.

Generally, although we are able to understand our own shortcomings a little better with a little more knowledge, we would be wise to avoid the trap of failing to appreciate the knowledge of others ; knowledge of which we have almost no understanding, through no fault of our own.

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When we were young we were told that all the essentially good things we possess are gifts.  They are talents, and are not in any way due to any powers of our own.  If I can see the beauty of a colourful garden, it is not on account of anything I did ; if I am enchanted by the sound of a symphony, it is not because I made it possible.  I did nothing to create these gifts ; they were simply given to me.

And, because the gifts were given freely, we had a duty to use them fully and wisely.  And, although we did nothing to create these gifts, we are able to fashion them so as to enhance them.  But we ourselves could do little to fashion the gifts unaided ; we needed teachers who would show us how to do it.  And we had a duty to fashion, or train, our natural gifts ; these received treasures were not for hoarding, as a miser might do, but for using.  I am reminded of the words of William Cobbett : money is like muck, no good unless it be spread.  Likewise, our talents are no good unless they be used.  Or again, from an earlier writer, “Words without deeds are an abomination.”

But where did the idea come from?  What made people first think that our talents are gifts?  Why did they imagine that we ourselves could not have brought them into being?  Clearly, such ideas come from a good deal of thinking.

And, why the insistence that we should be grateful for them?  Why the emphasis on our duty to use them wisely and for the greater, wider good?  Clearly these questions (and the answers to them) arise from the acceptance of the idea itself.  But why should we burden ourselves with a moral responsibility?  Why not just accept the gifts without any inclination to be grateful?

Or, alternatively, perhaps our talents are not gifts ; perhaps nothing was given, and nothing received, either.  Perhaps it is a question of things being just the way they are.  Perhaps things are the way they are because they could not possibly have been otherwise.  If all things in the mighty universe came about by chance, then we have no reason to be grateful for anything ; we have no duty to make ourselves useful.

It doesn’t matter which view we take, we still have a mystery.





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