SAMUEL S. MANDAL
Radical Chomskyan, Unreconstructed Rationalist, Anarchist-Feminist, Hacker
author: fodor O.S.: Ghost in the Machine (A GNU/HURD Operating System)
I’m a Ph.D candidate in Concordia University, Montreal, researching the computational nature and biological basis of Phonology as a cognitive ability. Here I’m supervised by Prof. Charles Reiss (Principal), Prof. Mark Hale and Prof. Alan Bale from Linguistics, as well as Prof. Roberto de Almeida from Psychology. My research is carried out under the umbrella of the INDI individualized doctorate program, in the form of an interdisciplinary investigation of the computational nature of our Language Faculty, specifically the sound domain, using both formal/mathematical and empirical tools. I’m supported by the Louise Dandurand Scholarship in Interdisciplinary Studies & the International Graduate Tuition Excellence Award.
From time to time I also get fresh perspectives from Veno Volenec (Concordia), and Profs. Tom Bever (U. Arizona), Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (U. Arizona), Martin Everaert (Utrecht), Bill Idsardi (UMD), Thomas Graff (Stony Brooke) and Norbert Hornstein (UMD). I strongly believe that the diversity of perspectives these experts provide leads to a very converging approach that leverages a wide variety of tools.
I studied a hodge podge mixture of Mathematics, Politics, Literature, and Formal Logic in college, and then while stumbling through graduate school, mostly taking courses in Computer Science, Linguistics and Philosophy, way back in 2008, I fell in love. Head over heels. With three different people at a time too! The enigmatic David Marr. The all-around badass Jerry Fodor. And with that recursive generator of epiphanies that is Noam Chomsky! Of course, being in love with three outrageously attractive minds is not something society approves of, and I have been dodging pitchforks and ducking from lit torches ever since! It is not easy being an unreconstructed rationalist in a field that still exudes an irrational (mostly!) empiricist bias… (sigh)
I am interested in a whole range of related things, but at their centre are the issues that Noam Chomsky raises in Things No Amount of Learning Can Teach! What kind of knowledge is encoded in our genetic make-up, and how? It is a given fact that we are animals, and like all animals we are very rigidly constrained in things that our brains can, and cannot, make sense of. What are those limits, especially with regard to our cognitive and Language abilities?
Following in the footsteps of Noam Chomsky, I treat the word “Language” as a placeholder for a complex set of computational-cognitive abilities that are functions of a biological organ (the Faculty of Language, or FL). I study Language as an organ, meaning I am uninterested in describing any specific (or every) language. As Charles Reiss puts it, 'one is as good as the others' for my purposes. But since all biological organs have internal structural and functional limitations, it follows then, so must Language— the total number of possible grammars must be finite. What is an “impossible language”? What boundaries of human-ness do they violate? What are those elusive properties that all the languages of the world, despite appearances, share? What laws constrain natural languages, and create its undeniable “fingerprint”? These are the questions that I try to pursue, bringing together penetrating insights offered by the minimalist program and recent developments in computational and neuroimaging techniques. I am particularly interested in MEG and EEG for imaging studies, but also in the prospects of TMS as a tool for exploring the independence of core linguistic computations from the sensory-motor systems.
But deep in my heart, I am still a formalist. All my research interests, including instrumental ones, ultimately converge on the computational and combinatoric complexity of Language as a natural biological phenomena, and their origin story. I do not find simplistic appeals to stochastic methods and hidden Markov models to be explanatorily adequate tools for understanding Language and the human mind. Rather, I think the task at hand is to ask truly penetrating questions of some epistemological importance. What is the nature of linguistic computations, and why are they the way they are? How do natural laws of physics and mathematics constrain the computational rules that govern higher cognition? Are linguistic computations optimal? If so, in what sense? What kind of memory architecture is required to support linguistic principles on a biological substrate?
I try to investigate FoL in three broad sub-domains: (a) its origin within the Homo Sapiens species, (b) the developmental trajectory it triggers within an individual, and (c) the manners in which it constrains the actual use of languages in communication. Traditionally, data has usually been gathered from “actual use of language”, limiting (severely) the scope of the resulting theory. In reality, though, data for linguistics comes from all three of the above mentioned domains. With the advancement of techniques for neuro-imaging research, as well as breakthroughs in bio-informatics, genetics and computational sciences, we are at a better position now to create a converging approach for a building a theory of Language that addresses it convincingly at all three levels.
Currently, I’m working on how biologically informed models of computation ought to address certain logical problems having to do with the mental representation of phonological knowledge, and the syntax of phonological computations. I approach the formal issues taking cue from the Chomskyan Biolinguistic program (specifically, Hale & Reiss' Substance-Free Phonology), while the neurobiological investigations are primarily motivated by Granularity Mismatch (GM) and Ontological Incommensurability (OIP) arguments put forth by Embick, Poeppel and colleagues (Embick & Poeppel, 2015; Krakauer et al., 2017; Poeppel & Embick, 2017). My primary motivations are (a) elaborating the computational nature of phonology (or, the syntax of phonology) and (b)creating a plausible interface theory/linking hypothesis between phonological computations and neurobiological implementation that is compatible with our understanding of the evolutionary and anatomical properties of the brain.
Ph.D (Digital Physics), Sc.D. (Computational Evolutionary Biology)
founder: Wildflowers Documentaries Co-Op.
creative head: Children of Chomsky Digital Publications
“Of Minds, Brains and Computers”, that is perhaps the best way of putting this down (and a very cheeky adorable jerk once did ). I am researching the limits and extents of the Sapien Brain as a computational device with the ability to create infinite expressions from finite symbolic contrasts, with a focus on the innate architecture of Language as a Universal marker of the Sapiens-Higher Primate species barrier. I am particularly interested in the nature and origin of the syntactic operations in the brain that underlie our ability to reason, to talk about (among an infinite other things) the aforementioned rationalisations, and in fact to engage in all sorts of abstract argumentation, including but not limited to Science. I am primarily motivated by the inherent shortcomings of the so-called “deep learning” methodologies, all of which drastically fail to approximate what a child is capable of with minimum and impoverished data. I see all such methodologies as being variations on a single learning-algorithm, and I find them utterly incompetent for providing an explanatory account of cognition. My own research is based on two simple foundational assumptions — (i) there is no learning without prior knowledge (i.e. experience is irrelevant unless we already know WHAT to experience, and HOW), and (ii) the nature of computations in the mind are reductively constrained by natural laws. I try to understand what the nature of our innate knowledge is, and how they are encoded in our genetic code and implemented in our brains. I mostly implement a mixture of theoretical evolutionary biology, evolutionary game theory and formal syntactic theory to make sense of both natural language and experimental neurobiological data.
I am a research scientist by profession and an anarcho-syndicalist and a radical feminist by vocation. I have a PhD in Digital Physics from Caltech, and a Sc.D. in Computational Science (with a focus on cognition). I come from a family with a long history in both Science and radical activism, dating back to the Civil Rights Movement. I have been a member of IWW and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) for almost fifteen years. Besides my duties as a post-doctoral scientist, I also teach and grade Graduate School courses in Computational Biology, Formal Logic and Advanced Abstract Algebra. I regularly help organise Anarchist and Feminist reading groups, and offer free classes on Political Economy, Civil Disobedience, Mutual Aid and History of Social Movements, and object-oriented programming.
At times of uncertainty, and I face quite a few of those, I simply close my eyes, take a deep breath, and ask myself: “WHAT WOULD NOAM CHOMSKY DO?”