David Strohmaier

LLMs and Human Cognition: Shifting Arguments, Same Assumptions

Large transformer-based language models (LLMs) are performing well on a variety of tasks. This is a reason to reconsider our understanding of language and how humans process it. Especially those sceptical of neural network approaches face a challenge, such as Noam Chomsky and his followers, have come under pressure. They need to justify their scepticism about the abilities of neural networks in the light of apparent counter-evidence. Many justifications are available, a classic one being that LLMs need much more data than humans, but in this post I’ll discuss an argument by Chomsky I hadn’t heard until recently. I will follow my own progress of thought, which starts with an initial reaction of surprise to Chomsky’s argument to the dawning realisation, that it showed less of a change than I had at first suspected.

A few weeks ago I listened to a Tyler Cowen interview with Chomsky, in which the latter made the following argument (see the transcript):

[An LLM] does exactly as well with impossible systems as with languages. Therefore, in principle, it’s telling you nothing about language.

The argument seems to be that LLMs are not only able to learn actual languages,1 but also other systems of symbols that no human could learn.2 Therefore, LLMs diverge so much from human cognition as to be uninformative.

I found that argument surprising, and anyone who was arguing on Chomsky’s side in the 80s and 90s would have found it surprising back then as well. In those heydays of the battle between classical cognitive science and connectionism, philosophers/cognitive scientists like Fodor and Pylyshyn (1988) argued that connectionist models can in principle not learn language (because their representations lack structure). Back then, that was the position broadly aligned with Chomsky. Today, after the rise of LLMs, Chomsky’s argument claims that neural models are not informative because they can learn roughly every pattern of symbols for which we have sufficient data, not just human language.

It’s easy to look at this argumentative shift and think it shows that the critics of neural networks are grasping at straws. At first glance, they appear are forced to completely reverse their original position in response to the rise of LLMs. First they told you that neural networks couldn’t learn enough, and now they are telling you that they learn too much. But that interpretation is making it a little too easy. There is a consistent set of ideas underlying these superficially opposed arguments. These ideas include:

  1. Language acquisition provides core insights about language cognition: The processing of language is tied to how one can acquire language
  2. Innate skills are a core part of language acquisition: Humans do not learn language from scratch, but starting with innate skills that make human-like language cognition possible in the first place

None of these points are trivial. Consider the first point that language learning tells you something about language cognition after the learning has (largely) stopped. A person other than Chomsky might easily take the position that these processes can be treated separately. They might concede that LLMs learn language in a very different way compared to humans and therefore throw little light on language acquisition. At the same time, they might assert once the LLMs are trained they process language in a rather similar way to humans. In other words, the model might capture language processing without capturing language learning/acquisition. For someone with this view, it would be of little interest that LLMs can also learn languages humans cannot learn. As long as they process actual languages the same, why worry that LLMs are also able to process other sequence patterns, if trained on those patterns?

Chomsky’s position rules such a stance out, because the core skill of language cognition is one of hypothesis-driven explanation. In their New York Times opinion piece Chomsky et al. write:

Human-style thought is based on possible explanations and error correction, a process that gradually limits what possibilities can be rationally considered.

According to Chomsky et al., we are seeking to explain and testing conjectured explanations against limited input. Both in acquisition and processing human thought is supposedly based on this core skill.3

Hypothesis-driven rationalist inference is contrasted with mere association resulting from statistical inference. Statistical methods might help in the evaluation of a hypothesis, but the inference process is primarily turning around the symbolic hypotheses themselves, not the statistics. This matters, in Chomsky’s view, because symbolic hypotheses can rule out options, rather than make them merely unlikely, as statistical inference does.4

On this picture, language acquisition and processing relies on hypothesis-driven cognition. That is a view Chomsky has long held, probably for the majority of a century by now. This position is clearly continuous with the critiques of the 80s & 90s. In their influential paper from this period, Fodor and Pylyshyn (1988) ended on a closely related noted:

There is an alternative to Empiricist idea that all learning consists of a kind of statistical inference, realized by adjusting parameters; it’s the Rationalist idea that some learning is a kind of theory construction, effected by framing hypotheses and evaluating them against evidence. We seem to remember having been through this argument before. We find ourselves with a gnawing sense of deja vu.

A deja vu indeed! 35 years later Chomsky and his collaborators make the same point again: Symbolic hypotheses are conjectured and then tested against limited evidence. Apparently, the point never gets too old to bear repeating. On its own, however, the point has not had its intended force because the defenders of neural network approaches keeping wondering

  1. whether symbolic hypothesis formation and testing really is at the core of both language acquisition and processing, and
  2. whether neural networks cannot implement a form of this process after all?

In light of the new evidence of LLM performance, it might be sensible to review these two underlying hypotheses. Chomsky does not touch upon those reasons in the interview with Cowen, he presumes them. His reaction to LLMs does not go so far as to question these underlying assumptions.

To put my cards on the table, the performance of LLMs (and their correlation with cognitive measures, see this post and that post) have led me to believe that less of language processing relies on the kind of processes that Chomsky assumes to be the core and more on processes implemented by LLMs. Hard-coded rules or hypothesis-testing-derived rules drive fewer cognitive sub-processes and statistical matching drives more. I have come to doubt the scope of hypothesis 1. This update does not force me to accept that LLMs have sparks of AGI or implement much of human reasoning skills. It, nonetheless, has LLMs partially converge with human language processing.

Listening to the Cowen interview, I was at first struck by how different Chomsky’s rationalist argument had become, only to realise I had been mistaken. If there is a problem with Chomsky’s argument, it is not so much that he has changed his tune. The problem is that the argument continues to rest on the same core assumptions and he hasn’t conceded an inch. Pressed to discuss LLMs, Chomsky does not even discuss these assumptions.


Fodor, J. A., & Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1988). Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical analysis. Cognition, 28(1), 3–71.


  1. If you want to be specific and use the vocabulary of Chomsky, the models would learn the statistics of external or E-language, not anything about internal or I-language. 

  2. LLMs probably cannot learn to predict just any language. In fact, we know that standard Transformers have theoretical limits on learning certain languages. It is not relevant for the rest of the post, however, so I’ll gloss over it. 

  3. The New York Times opinion runs together whether something is impossible to learn or whether something can be learned to be impossible. It might be better to keep them distinct. If there are reasons to run them together, they are not obvious from the opinion piece. 

  4. This might be granting too much to Chomsky. Why can statistical processes not rule anything out? Why can they not represent with sufficient modal force? It’s not as if you cannot force a neural network to give you an output of 0 or 1 for a label that indicates rule-conformance. This counterexample presumably misses the point, but I have trouble understanding the point without making a lot of controversial assumptions that I see no reason to grant. 

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