Piantadosi and MLMs again (I)

Last spring, Steven Piantadosi, professor of psychology and neuroscience, posted a paean to Modern Language Models (MLMs) entitled Modern language models refute Chomsky’s approach to language on LingBuzz. This triggered a wave of responses from linguists, including one from myself, pointing out the many ways that he was wrong. Recently, Prof. Piantadosi attached a postscript to his paper in which he responds to his critics. The responses are so shockingly bad, I felt I had to respond—at least to those that stem from my critiques—which I will do, spaced out across a few short posts.

In my critique, I brought up the problem of impossible languages, as did Moro et al. in their response. In addressing this critique, Prof. Piantadosi surprisingly begins with a brief diatribe against “poverty of the stimulus.” I say surprisingly, not because it’s surprising for an empiricist to mockingly invoke “poverty of stimulus” much in the same way as creationists mockingly ask why there are still apes if we evolved from them, but because poverty of stimulus is completely irrelevant to the problem of impossible languages and neither I nor Moro et al. even use the phrase “poverty of stimulus.”[1]For my part, I didn’t mention it because empiricists are generally quite assiduous in their refusal to understand poverty of stimulus arguments.

This irrelevancy expressed, Prof. Piantadosi moves on to a more on-point discussion. He argues that it would be wrong-headed for the constraints that would make some languages impossible to be encoded in our model from the start. Rather, if we start with an unconstrained model, we can discover the constraints naturally:

If you try to take constraints into account too early, you might have a harder time discovering the key pieces and dynamics, and could create a worse overall solution. For language specifically, what needs to be built in innately to explain the typology will interact in rich and complex ways with what can be learned, and what other pressures (e.g. communicative, social) shape the form of language. If we see a pattern and assume it is innate from the start, we may never discover these other forces because we will, mistakenly, think innateness explained everything

p36 (v6)

This makes a certain intuitive sense. The problem is that it’s refuted both by the history of generative syntax and the history of science more broadly.

In early theories, a constraint like “No mirroring transformations!” would have to be stated explicitly. Current theories, though, are much simpler with most constraints being derivable from the theory rather than tacked onto the theory.

A digression on scholarly responsibility: Your average engineer working on MLMs could be forgiven for not being up on the latest theories in generative syntax, but Piantadosi is an Associate Professor who has chosen to write a critique of generative syntax, so he really ought to know these things. In fact, he would only not know these thing by a conscious choice not to know or laziness.

Furthermore, the natural sciences have progressed thus far in precisely the opposite direction as what Piantadosi prescribes—they have started with highly constrained theories and progress has generally occurred when some constraint is questioned. Copernicus questioned the constraint that Earth stood still, Newton questioned the constraint that all action was local, Friedrich Wöhler questioned the constraint that organic and inorganic substances were inherently distinct.

None of this, of course, means that we couldn’t do science in the way that Piantadosi suggests—I think Feyerabend was correct that there is no singular Scientific Method—but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Piantadosi is effectively making a promise that if we let MLM research run its course we will find new insights[2]He seems to contradict himself later on when he asserts that the “science” of MLMs may never be intelligible to humans. More on this in a later post. that we could not find had we stuck with the old direction of scientific progress, and he may be right—just as AGI may actually be 5 years away this time—but I’ll believe it when I see it.

After expressing his methodological objections to considering impossible languages, Piantdosi expresses skepticism as to the existence of impossible languages, stating ” More troubling, the idea of “impossible languages” has never actually been empirically justified.” (p37, v6) This is a truly astounding assertion on his part considering both Moro et al. and I explicitly cite experimental studies that arguable provide exactly the empirical justification that Piantadosi claims does not exist. Both studies cited present participants with two types of made-up languages—one which follows and one which violates the rules of language as theorized by generative syntax—and observes their responses as they try to learn the rules of the particular languages. The study I cite (Smith and Tsimpli 1995) compares the behavioural responses of a linguistic savant to those of neurotypical participants, while the studies cited by Moro et al. (Tettamanti et al., 2002; Musso et al., 2003) uses neuro-imaging techniques. Instead Prof. Piantadosi refers to every empiricists favourite straw-man argument—the alleged lack of embedding structures in Pirahã.

This bears repeating. Both Moro et al. and I expressly point to experimental evidence of impossible languages, and Piantadosi’s response is that no one has ever provided evidence of impossible languages.

So, either Prof. Piantadosi commented on mine and Moro et al‘s critiques without reading them, or he read them and deliberately misrepresented them. It is difficult to see how this could be the result of laziness or even willful ignorance rather than dishonesty.

I’ll leave off here, and return to some of Prof. Piantadosi’s responses to my critiques at a later time.


1 For my part, I didn’t mention it because empiricists are generally quite assiduous in their refusal to understand poverty of stimulus arguments.
2 He seems to contradict himself later on when he asserts that the “science” of MLMs may never be intelligible to humans. More on this in a later post.
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(or Piantadosi and MLMs again (II)—continuation of this post) In my critique of Prof. Piantadosi’s manuscript “Modern language models refute Chomsky’s approach to language,” I point out that regardless of the respective empirical results of Generative Linguistics and MLMs, the latter does not supersede the former because the two have fundamentally different goals. Generative Linguistics … Continue reading The “science” of modern “AI”