Published on ZNet, Interview conducted May 24, 2013, MIT, Cambridge, MA, by John Holder and Doug Morris, June 20, 2013.
Q: We asked some Middle School students to submit questions. We framed it around the idea that you are a philosopher. They can identify with what a philosopher does…think about the big questions. So, these are questions from kids … //
… Q: Beyond the seven year old, the questions are from Middle School students, 12, 13, 14, but I was talking with a friend’s seven year old daughter and I mentioned that we would be interviewing you, and tried to give her a little context, and I asked her, “If you were sitting down and asking Noam a question, what would you ask.” She said, “Hmmm…that is easy…I would ask ‘Why are we here?’”
- NC: There are two views about that which go back to classical Greece, maybe before. One is we are here for the same reason that rocks and trees and grass are here. That is just the way the rules of nature worked out, and they happened to lead to us just like they led to other things. The other answer, which goes back to Aristotle actually, is that everything in nature has a purpose and a function. And the purpose of rain is to let crops grow. That is its essence, and so on for everything else.
- And the purpose for humans is to be rational and thoughtful and to live “a considered life” thinking about how to do the right thing. And then Aristotle drew some pretty ugly conclusions from that. He said that is only true for educated Greeks. Others are not fully human. And for some, he said, their purpose is to be slaves. Their purpose is to serve the “real humans,” and therefore we should not deprive them from their function. So, to liberate slaves would be criminal…even the failure to enslave people, so they can fulfill their function as providing service to real humans, that would be immoral. But, we are here because the creator assigned us a function. Then there are variations of these.The modern view among educated people who pay attention to what has been discovered about the world is the first one. We are here for the same reason that other things in the universe are here. It is the way the laws of nature work.
Q: And that would be the Chomsky view?
- NC: Yes, that is my view.
Q: Along those same lines, should we assume that humans are more important than other animals on the planet?
- NC: The fact of the matter is we do assume that. There is a kind of intuitive view that almost everyone has, even for people who do not believe it in the rational side of their minds. That is a view which is traditionally called The Great Chain of Being. There is a Great Chain of Being and at the top of it is God, the creator, and right below it is angels. Right below that are humans and then you keep going down until you get to worms, and plants, and the bottom of the Great Chain of Being.
- You even see it in the sciences. For example, there is a lot of work in trying to teach apes the rudiments of language. Nobody tries to teach humans the rudiments of bee communication. It would seem ludicrous, what would be the point? It is just as ludicrous to try to teach apes bits of human language. We do it because intuitively we tend to think of the world in terms of the Great Chain of Being. So apes are kind of less evolved than humans, which is totally false. Just as bees are not less evolved apes. We’ve all evolved the same amount of time; we’ve just evolved in different ways. But this intuitive conception that somehow we are the ruling species…and then of course it differentiates further.
- So, some of us are real humans, others are not real humans, or semi-humans, and a lot of ugly things come out of that. It is all pretty deeply engrained. Something like that is true of just about every culture that has been found. Maybe not with all of this differentiation…but something like it. It is completely irrational. It is kind of like our seeing the sun go around the earth. You can’t help seeing it even if you know it is false. We all know it is false, but you just see it; or, seeing the moon illusion; so the moon looks bigger on the horizon when it comes up. OK, rationally we know it is not any bigger, but you can’t help seeing it as bigger, and we somehow can’t help it…since it is cognitive rather than perceptual we can overcome it, but only with a great effort can we overcome the conception of the universe in terms of something like the Great Chain of Being. And it shows up all the time.
Q: So, you don’t really believe in inter-species communication? … //
… Q: What about the contributions you are able to make because you are here. For example, we would not be sitting here talking today. And that would be a tragedy.
- NC: The same is true of everyone else. Everyone has contributions to make; every animal has contributions to make. OK, so the way the universe works is you have a fixed time on earth and then it is over. And it just doesn’t seem tragic to me anymore like it used to. Actually, my brother, who is a doctor, and does a lot with elderly patients, tells me that at the very end, constantly, they really fight for life, as much as they may have decided that they don’t think it matters.
Q: Do you think that has something to do with human consciousness?
- NC: Have you ever seen a fly in a spider web? It is really fighting to get out. I don’t think flies are thinking about it much.
Q: Let us extend it a bit because this question came out of the context of young people looking out at a world that is constantly immersed in human tragedy. So I think in the background of this question, for young people, is “how do we make sense of a world in which we are constantly bombarded with tragedy?” For example, for most of human history, it seems, if a tragic event happened even fifty miles away you would never hear about it. Now, you turn on the radio in the morning and it is one tragedy after another…constant bombardment…
- NC: Well, that is selection. I mean, you don’t see in the front pages of the newspaper that there is a happy couple fifty miles away who just had a lovely baby and they are just overjoyed because this wonderful creature just entered their lives and changed them totally, but that is not a news item. But that doesn’t mean it is not happening.
- So, the world is full of all sorts of things. What it should do, I think, is impel you to try to do what you can to mitigate the tragedies and pay attention to what we may have to do with the tragedies, which is often a lot, and see if we can do something about them so there will be more happiness and joy and promise for the future and less suffering and less tragedy.
- We happen to be in a position where we can do a lot. Right here we are citizens of the most powerful state in human history. It has enormous potential for good and for harm and we can shift the balance if we try and we can make a lot of difference.
- There are a lot of tragedies you don’t read about. So, for example, we read about the genocide in Rwanda. 800 days, 10,000 people killed every day. We don’t read about the fact that in Southern Africa alone, forget the rest of the world, just Southern Africa alone, about the same number of children are dying every day from easily preventable disease or malnutrition. They could be saved for pennies per day from the rich countries. But we don’t read about that because if we read about it we would have to do something about it, and we could. And that is only one case. That is Rwanda every day, and just in Southern Africa, and just children. We could do something about it. And that is only one case.
Q: In a way this points to the tragedy of last evening because if Noam Chomsky perished last night that would be one less voice in the world willing to have the courage to address what most people are unwilling to address.
- NC: Then others should do it. It doesn’t take any special skill or talent or even courage. It doesn’t take any courage to say this.
Q: With all due respect, I think you are being overly modest.
- NC: Well, I’ve got a lot to be modest about (laughter).
Q: We will slightly modify a question from a student. If we are the only sentient creatures on this planet, why are we destroying the environment? … //
… Q: What you are describing sounds like the worst aspects of a Philip K. Dick novel.
- NC: Of?
Q: Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer.
- NC: I don’t know him. But this is worse than any science fiction I know of, and it is real, straight out of the technology journals. It is not science fiction.
Q: What about the psychic effect of knowing that you are living in a society where you understand that you are under constant surveillance, even in terms of the impact on the activist community?
- NC: What I think is most worrisome is what I’ve been told at least about children and Facebook, that they are accepting it as legitimate, that you should expose everything to the public.
Q: So, in other words, from our perspective, based on our age, we see that there should be limits, there should be some privacy, but these kids are not seeing that?
- NC: That is the impression I get. As I say, I don’t investigate it myself, but I have friends who basically try to monitor their children on Facebook and a lot of them are just appalled by what they see. Things that you and I would never have dreamed of making public. This idea that you somehow have to be in touch with anything that is happening in the world shows up in all kinds of ways.
- You may have seen over the winter, there were reports in the press, maybe the Boston Globe, a strange epidemic that was spreading among teenage girls in Boston, and they could not figure out what it was, but there was a lot of illness. They finally traced it. It was fatigue. It was fatigue because the kids were going to bed with their cell phones in their hands so that in case, at three o’clock in the morning, somebody you know had a sandwich you have to know about it, and you can’t let it go so therefore they were not sleeping.
Q: You have got to be joking?
- NC: I don’t think it is a joke.
Q: This applies to another question a student asked. On the one hand life is sort of a hyper-spectacle, but then the student asks “Why is school so boring?” … //