A few weeks ago, Josepine Fernow wrote an urgent blog post about science and language. She linked to a research debate about conceptual challenges for neuroscience, challenges that arise when ordinary words get specialized uses in science as technically defined terms.

In the case under debate, the word “sentience” had been imported into the scientific study of the brain. A research group reported that they were able to determine that in vitro neurons from humans and mice have learning abilities and that they exhibit “sentience” in a simulated game world. Of course, it caused quite a stir that some neurons grown in a laboratory could exhibit sentience! But the research team did not mean what attracted attention. They meant something very technical that only a specialist in the field can understand. The surprising thing about the finding was therefore the choice of words.

When the startling choice of words was questioned by other researchers, the research team defended themselves by saying that they defined the term “sentience” strictly scientifically, so that everyone should have understood what they meant, at least the colleagues in the field. Well, not all people are specialists in the relevant field. Thus the discovery – whatever it was that was discovered – raised a stir among people as if it were a discovery of sentience in neurons grown in a laboratory.

The research group’s attitude towards their own technical language is similar to an attitude I encountered long ago in a famous theorist of language, Noam Chomsky. This is what Chomsky said about the scientific study of the nature of language: “every serious approach to the study of language departs from the common-sense usage, replacing it by some technical concept.” Chomsky is of course right that linguistics defines its own technical concepts of language. But one can sense a certain hubris in the statement, because it sounds as if only a linguistic theorist could understand “language” in a way that is worthy of serious attention. This is untenable, because it raises the question what a technical concept of language is. In what sense is a technical concept a concept of language? Is it a technical concept of language in the common sense? Or is it a technical concept of language in the same inaccessible sense? In the latter case, the serious study of language seems to degenerate into a navel-gazing that does not access language.

For a technical concept of language to be a concept of language, our ordinary notions must be taken into account. Otherwise, the technical concept ceases to be a concept of language.

This is perhaps something to consider in neuroscience as well. Namely to the extent that one wants to shed light on phenomena such as consciousness and sentience. Of course, neuroscience will define its own technical concepts of these phenomena, as in the debated case. But if the technical concepts are to function as concepts of consciousness and sentience, then one cannot neglect our ordinary uses of words.

Science is very serious and important. But if the special significance of science goes to our heads, then our attitude risks undermining the great importance of science for humanity. Here you can read the views of three neuroethicists on these important linguistic issues: Conceptual conundrums for neuroscience.

Pär Segerdahl

Written by…

Pär Segerdahl, Associate Professor at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics and editor of the Ethics Blog.

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