Magic Words: How Language Augments Human Computation
Of course, words aren’t magic. Neither are sextants, compasses, maps, slide rules and all the other paraphenelia which have accreted around the basic biological brains of homo sapiens. In the case of these other tools and props, however, it is transparently clear that they function so as to either carry out or to facilitate computational operations important to various human projects. The slide rule transforms complex mathematical problems (ones that would baffle or tax the unaided subject) into simple tasks of perceptual recognition. The map provides geographical information in a format well-suited to aid complex planning and strategic military operations. The compass gathers and displays a kind of information that (most) unaided human subjects do not seem to command. These various tools and props thus act to generate information, or to store it, or to transform it, or some combination of the three. In so doing, they impact our individual and collective problem-solving capacities in much the same dramatic ways as various software packages impact the performance of a simple pc. Public language, I shall argue, is just such a tool -- it is a species of external artifact whose current adaptive value is partially constituted by its role in re-shaping the kinds of computational space that our biological brains must negotiate in order to solve certain types of problems, or to carry out certain complex projects. This computational role of language has been somewhat neglected (not un-noticed, but not rigorously pursued either) in recent cognitive science, due perhaps to a (quite proper) fascination with and concentration upon, that other obvious dimension: the role of language as an instrument of interpersonal communication. Work on sentence parsing, language use and story understanding has thus concentrated on the role of language in processes of information transfer between agents and on information retrieval from texts. But it has had little to say about the computational role of the linguistic formulations themselves, or about the special properties of the external media that support linguistic encodings.In this treatment, I hope to display the broad shape of such an alternative interest. I begin by discussing the views of some recent (and not-so-recent) authors, who recognize in various ways, the potential role of language and text in transforming, reshaping and simplifying the computational tasks that confront the biological brain. Section 2 pursues this broad vision across a variety of cases involving planning, coordination, learning and the construction of complex thoughts and arguments. The third section extends these last considerations to encompass the rather special class of meta-cognitive operations and tries to implicate language as a n essential part of the process of thinking about our own thoughts and cognitive profiles. The final section suggests some broader implications and raises some questions concerning the boundary between the intelligent agent and the world.