Skip navigation


Reflection upon the nature, origin and use of systems of human knowledge poses many interesting philosophical and scientific questions. Noam Chomsky in his work on cognitive science and linguistic theory elaborates on a number of what he refers to as “problems of knowledge”.

Perhaps the most celebrated is what Chomsky labels “Plato’s Problem”. Plato’s Problem is so named after one of Plato’s famous Socratic dialogues, namely the Meno. In the Meno Plato has Socrates demonstrating that a slave boy has knowledge of the underlying principles of Euclidean geometry despite never having been exposed through experience to any mathematics. This naturally leads to the hypothesis, “how is it that the slave boy has such knowledge despite the obvious lack of exposure to geometrical principles”. Plato’s answer was that the slave boy’s knowledge is innate by virtue of the fact that the slave boy had lived a previous life. One of history’s greatest thinkers, Leibniz, surmised that Plato’s supposition is correct but needs to be “purged of the error of pre-existence”.

This emphasis on innate knowledge is one of the central doctrines of rationalism. Rationalism stands in contrast to empiricism. Empirical thinking places emphasis on the role of experience in the acquisition of systems of knowledge. Usage of this type of thinking is called “the argument from the poverty of the stimulus” for innate knowledge.

If, to whatever degree, knowledge can be said to be innate it naturally leads to the question “how does this system of knowledge arise in the mind”? This question is what Chomsky refers to as “Plato’s Problem”.

It is useful to consider some of the implications of this by thinking about how this affects our understanding of what it means to know a language. A child in learning a language cannot possibly acquire knowledge of all the rules of a natural language by virtue of exposure to the wider social environment. We have here an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for innate knowledge of the rules of grammar. Given this we face “Plato’s Problem”. That is, how does knowledge of grammar arise in the mind?

One of the interesting aspects of language is that we are able to construct an infinite number of sentences from a finite number of words and rules. This is very similar to the notion of recursion in computer science where one may “generate” an infinite amount of data from a finite computer programme. Therefore in answer to “Plato’s Problem” we may surmise that the brain must contain a finite programme for generating infinite sentences. This is refereed to as “universal grammar” and much of modern linguistic theory is concerned with discovering the underlying principles of universal grammar. It leads to the notion that all human languages are essentially the same and that there must exist an innate language faculty in the mind that is based on a rich genetic endowment.

There exist a number of other arguments from the poverty of the stimulus that provide powerful reasons to suppose that the rationalist understanding of the origin and nature of human knowledge is on the right track. We can argue that David Hume’s famous “is/ought” distinction is an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of moral intuition. We may also argue that Godel’s Theorem is an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of mathematical intuition. Many, including Chomsky, have argued that our knowledge of discrete infinity arises from the language faculty although one may also suppose that there exists a separate mathematical faculty based on a “Math’s Gene”.

By the same token we may argue that a particular way of imagining the “under determination of theory by the evidence” is also an argument from the poverty of the stimulus for an innate faculty of scientific understanding. The usage of “undetermination of theory by the evidence” in this sense is my own and follows from Quine’s statement that, “the relation between the meagre input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study for somewhat the same reasons that always prompted epistemology: namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory, and in what ways one’s theory of nature transcends any available evidence”.

Notice that the point Quine makes in relation to the formulation of scientific theory from “meagre input” implies an innate faculty of scientific perception, precisely an argument from the poverty of the stimulus. This is related to Peirce’s notion of a faculty of abduction that acts as a “guessing instinct” that provides us with admissible hypotheses to test.

Science then becomes the intersection between the science faculty and the natural world.
Plato’s Problem in this context becomes “how does the science faculty arise in the mind”? This is of course a complete mystery but one very influential attempt at addressing the issue can be dismissed, namely “evolutionary epistemology”. This holds the view that the science faculty has evolved as an adaptation providing us with the capacity to form true scientific theories, which would be of high survival value. This is highly unlikely on the grounds that there is no reason to suggest that the ability to solve the Poincare Conjecture or develop ever more elaborate theories of Gravitation in any way aided the survival of early hunter-gatherers.

But there is a deeper objection to evolutionary epistemology. The astronomer Carl Sagan and the Biologist Ernst Mayr conducted a famous debate on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. Sagan of course took an optimistic view but Mayr was sceptical. Mayr observed that throughout the history of life on Earth highly adaptive features, such as bioluminescence, have evolved many times over yet higher order intelligence, of the type able to form sciences, has evolved only once. Mayr, in effect, surmises that this is due to the fact that the ability to formulate science is maladaptive. In other words, a highly intelligent species able to manipulate the natural world by virtue of gaining theoretical knowledge of the workings of the natural world would only succeed over time in destroying itself and much else besides.

Ever since the onset of the scientific revolution (it would surely be of interest to understand why the science faculty arises and thrives in certain historical periods and social settings) Homo sapiens has been providing reasons to accept such a proposition.

Although life can, has and does act as a kind of geological force never has a single species such as Man developed into a force able to affect global ecological change so much so that we may be the cause of a mass extinction (the sixth mass extinction) of life on Earth. The global ecological crisis poses a threat to the survival of the species given the laws of ecology which emphasises the tight coupling or interconnectedness of ecological systems.

Ever since the scientific revolution we have also accelerated weapons innovation now reaching a level that poses a clear threat to our indefinite survival. The philosopher Bertrand Russell in his Has Man a Future? sought to address the issue. Russell asked whether, in the nuclear age, scientific man is able to survive?

David Raup, in his study on the biology and ecology of extinction, notes that a successful species that has spread beyond a niche ecological domain would need to be felled by a catastrophic or series of catastrophic events that is global in nature or local effects that cascade through complex interactions up toward a more global level. Nuclear war, made possible by the underlying transition in 20th century physics away from the classical certainties of the past, may well provide the catalyst for just such an event. Certainly since the possibility of n-stage radiation implosion devices employing thermonuclear reactions were demonstrated it was immediately understood that awesome destructive power existed in the hands of man such that extinction became a real prospect.

It might well be the case that the equivalent megatonnage in the world’s current nuclear arsenals either now or during the cold war was not sufficient to act as a catalyst for an extinction event. That is not the point. The point is that by going beyond fission or boosted fission weapons the theoretical prospect of explosives of the necessary explosive power to destroy man was demonstrated.

Both of these factors provide good empirical reason to suppose that Mayr was correct in supposing that higher order intelligence is maladaptive. We then have what we may term “Russell’s Problem”. That is, will the science faculty lead to the inevitable extinction of the species Homo sapiens?

Hence, “science and global security.”

Science and its Social Context

But it cannot be stated that the mere existence of a faculty of scientific cognition foreordains an extinction event. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

This is because science and technology are inherently neutral. What matters as well is the social context in which science is pursued especially the link between scientific endeavour and moral agency.
As stated above we can consider Hume’s distinction between fact and value, in conjunction with the naturalistic fallacy due to Moore, as a form of argument from the poverty of the stimulus for a faculty of moral cognition. Much interesting work in the cognitive sciences is now exploring the underlying nature of how this innate faculty of the mind operates.

We can be thankful that we posses such a faculty. A faculty of scientific cognition without an accompanying system of moral principles would be most calamitous. Without it there would be little break on scientific knowledge being used for nefarious ends and the only way to prevent destruction in the nuclear age would be an appeal to rational self-interest upon the basis of a system of stable strategic deterrence.

In other words in a world of states and scientific technique the only means of averting Armageddon would be the perpetual prospect of its unleashing. However, the mere existence of credible deterrent forces poses a small but non-zero probability of accidental nuclear warper annum. This small but non-zero value asymptotically tends to unity over time.

Survival in the nuclear age cannot be indefinitely guaranteed by an overarching prospect of Armageddon.

What is most striking about the nuclear age is that the underlying basis of the system of scientific and technical innovation lies at the core of the race to destruction. Many former scientific insiders, who turned against the arms race during the cold war, dubbed this the “technological imperative.”

The idea was neatly captured by Richard Rhodes in the third installment of his The Arsenals of Folly (p83),

In an official oral history of U.S. strategic nuclear policy produced by Sandia National Laboratories, the historian Douglas Lawson of Sandia comments that “the large growth that we saw [in nuclear weapons production] in the 1950s and 1960s was primarily driven by the capacity of the [production] complex and not truly by [military] requirements”. A designer at Sandia, Leon Smith, notes that “it was our policy at that time not to wait for requirements from the military but to find out from the technologies that were available what the art of the possible would be.” The former director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, John S. Foster Jr., adds, “we were making it up as we went along.”

Such candid sentiments confirm careful empirical research on technological innovation during the cold war. That is, developments in the nuclear age owed little to external perceptions of threat. There was an underlying internal rationality to the strategic build-up and this underlying rationality by no means has disappeared with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Think for instance of Ballistic Missile Defence and the weaponisation of space.

Though such a technological imperative exists it is possible to carry the argument too far into a crude form of technological determinism. More is needed to reach true understanding.

This can be found by virtue of what in economic theory is called a positive externality. A positive externality is an instance of market failure. Here an economic agent, most usefully a corporation, would not get the full benefits of investment but rather that the benefit to society would exceed the benefit to the firm. Outsiders would benefit more than the entity making the investment. Given this it would be irrational for the profit seeking firm to subsidize society. Scientific knowledge should properly be seen as a positive externality. In pure market system driven by perfectly rational agents the development of scientific knowledge would be irrational given the presence of positive externalities.

The most useful way to deal with market failure due to positive externalities is via state subsidy. This is precisely why scientific knowledge and technological innovation, which enables the formation of high technology industry, has proceeded everywhere upon the basis of large scale state subsidisation.
In the United States subsidisation in the presence of positive externalities occurs via the Pentagon system. Technological innovation, including in the strategic sector, did not owe itself in the United States to an external threat because such innovation was a mechanism to obviate wider positive externalities.

It still is.

So long as scientific knowledge as a type of positive externality is subsidized via the Pentagon system the race to destruction brought about by scientific and technological advance will continue to have an underlying rational basis.

It must be stressed that such a rational dynamic cannot be discernable in the market system exclusively. State subsidy via the military is by no means inevitable and the Soviet Union, a command economy, displayed similar behaviour within its military-industrial complex.

The Political Science of Science and Global Security

There are a number of other factors to consider. Firstly, there exists a sort of scientific and technological security dilemma. The security dilemma is a regular staple of realist theoretical international relations and though it is real its significance should not be overestimated.

That is to say, it is real but it accounts for a very small part of actual strategic developments. The most important form of the security dilemma is not the crude numerical models often spoken of in the literature. Paarberg is correct to note that US global strategic hegemony is due to the scientific and technological edge of its armed forces (which is brought about by underlying economic power).
In a condition of anarchy and the concomitant existence of scientific technique it is possible to imagine the possibility of a sort of scientific race. Though real we should be careful not to overstate it. In fact, the arms race during the cold war was a series of moves and counter-moves in the technical sphere.

One reason why Gorbachev called off the race was because the USSR was starting to lag technologically and the Soviet system could not convert scientific advance into meaningful industrial production.

Given this dynamic we may speak of an epistemic argument against state sovereignty. It is interesting to observe that all proposals for dealing with the genie unleashed by the development of nuclear physics and technology involve the constraint of state sovereignty. Nuclear non proliferation and disarmament measures are successful to the extent that they corrode state sovereignty. Man’s innate epistemic capacity to form sciences and unfettered state power do not mix and the existence of this cognitive capacity compels the formation of post-Westphalian political forms.

It is interesting that the state system and the scientific revolution have closely tracked each other. This common origin needs to be further explored.

One very important link here is democracy. It has been noted that the strategic nuclear weapons policy in the US, but also elsewhere, has been the domain of a small policy and technocratic elite. A lot of the underlying theories of dangerous nuclear postures have been developed via fanciful game theoretic and systems analysis that served to provide ideological cover for strategic build-ups. This has led to what the noted American political scientist Robert Dahl has referred to as “guardianship”.
In other words throughout the nuclear age the big decisions governing nuclear policy have been in the hands of a small community of elite policy makers rather than the public. Dahl notes that most critiques of democracy argue that,

The average person is not sufficiently compe¬tent to govern, while, on the other hand, a minority of persons, consisting of the best qualified, are distinctly more competent to rule, and so ought to rule over the rest. This is, in essence, Plato’s argument in The Republic for a system of guardianship. Leaders who proclaim this view usually contend that they, naturally, are among the minority of exceptionally able people who ought to ex¬ercise guardianship over the rest…

…Consider a few contemporary issues in this country: What are we to do about nuclear waste disposal? Should recombinant DNA research be regulated by the government? If so, how? The problem of nuclear reactor safety and the trade offs between the risks and gains of nuclear power are much more complex than the simple solutions offered on all sides would suggest.Or consider the technical and economic issues involved in clean air. At what point do the costs of auto emissions control exceed the gains? How and to what point should industrial pollution be regulated? For example, should electric utilities be required to convert to clean burning fuels, or to install stack scrubbers? How serious a prob¬ lem is ozone depletion, and what should be done about it?

The same applies to such matters as nuclear weapons, nuclear proliferation, BMD, space weapons and so on. So long as policy is effectively out of the hands of the public it is not possible to envisage a link being drawn between science and moral agency.

The democratisation of science and technology is a necessary task to ensure further survival. It is a point made forcefully by the eminent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sir Martin Rees.

The democratisation of science would also remove the public subsidy that undergirds the Pentagon system.

Russell’s Problem

This of course brings us back to Russell’s Problem. One of the problems of knowledge that Chomsky has spoken of is “Orwell’s Problem.” This problem is the mirror opposite of Plato’s Problem which arises from the poverty of the stimulus.

Here the problem is “how is that we know so little given that the evidence is so vast?” Given guardianship one of the means by which the public is removed from decision making is by dubious reporting of the issues in the corporate media, which seeks not to undermine the solution to positive externalities given its interests, which can deceive and disarm the public.

The intellectual community can also play a role by development of notions such as nuclear deterrence theories which are in essence forms of ideology.

To bring in the public requires solving “Orwell’s Problem” and by so arguing we naturally draw a link between “Orwell’s Problem” and “Russell’s Problem”.

Hence this website. It is envisaged as a form of intellectual self-defence.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>