In January of 2011, television personality Bill O’Reilly weighed in on more than one culture war with his statement “tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that,” which he proposed as an argument for the existence of God. O’Reilly was ridiculed by his detractors for not knowing that tides can be readily explained by a system of partial differential equations describing the gravitational interaction of sun, earth, and moon (a fact that was first worked out by Laplace in 1776 and has been considerably refined since; when asked by Napoleon why the creator did not enter into his calculations, Laplace said “I had no need of that hypothesis.”). (O’Reilly also seems not to know about Deimos and Phobos (two of my favorite moons in the entire solar system, along with Europa, Io, and Titan), nor that Mars and Venus orbit the sun, nor that the reason Venus has no moons is because it is so close to the sun that there is scant room for a stable lunar orbit.) But O’Reilly realizes that it doesn’t matter what his detractors think of his astronomical ignorance, because his supporters think he has gotten exactly to the key issue: why? He doesn’t care how the tides work, tell him why they work. Why is the moon at the right distance to provide a gentle tide, and exert a stabilizing effect on earth’s axis of rotation, thus protecting life here? Why does gravity work the way it does? Why does anything at all exist rather than not exist? O’Reilly is correct that these questions can only be addressed by mythmaking, religion or philosophy, not by science.
Chomsky has a philosophy based on the idea that we should focus on the deep whys and that mere explanations of reality don’t matter. In this, Chomsky is in complete agreement with O’Reilly. (I recognize that the previous sentence would have an extremely low probability in a probabilistic model trained on a newspaper or TV corpus.) Chomsky believes a theory of language should be simple and understandable, like a linear regression model where we know the underlying process is a straight line, and all we have to do is estimate the slope and intercept.
Peter Norvig, Director of Research at Google, has an article about the two cultures of statistical learning, frequentist vs probabalist, and Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist. Much to my delight in seeming paradoxes, Norvig managed to compare to Bill O’Reilly to Chomsky: