On Philosophy

September 14, 2007

An Origin Of The Meaning / What Is Meant Confusion

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Yesterday I described how we could capture change using a variation of predicate logic. There I distinguished two ways of talking about change, either by describing how the same physical stuff happens to have different properties at different times, or by describing how the thing (or things) that fall under a particular description have different properties at different times. When discussing them in this way their similarities are obvious, the first is exactly like the second except that in the case of the first the unifying description (that which holds at both times) is “made of some particular material”. I would argue that all cases are in fact best thought of as the second type, and that the “made of some particular material” property is as much a matter of the way we perceive things (in our ordinary conception of the world) as is any other. This distinction may seem trivial, and indeed it is in many circumstances. However, I would argue that the failure to understand it is one of the things that leads people to confuse the meaning of “my teapot” with what is meant (referred to) with that same description.

Consider the case of the teapot that is turned into a pot. To describe this case in terms of my second formalization of change we would have to assert that the stuff that was “the material that composed my teapot” was at one time my teapot, and at another time a pot. However, this has not removed our appeal to the stuff that the teapot is made of, and its continuity. Thus we might argue that since the pot is, at least in part, still our teapot (in virtue of the fact that our teapot has changed into the pot, and not been obliterated and replaced by the pot). And so what we mean by “teapot” must, at least in part, contain the stuff that the teapot is made out of. From this the confusion between the meaning of the word and the things meant by it may be given birth, and from it follows the idea that somehow the meaning, a mental activity, reaches out to the teapot itself, and thus that the mind is partly external, along with other absurdities. All because of some muddled thinking.

Let’s suppose, however, that tomorrow metal turns out not to be a stable substance. Rather the atoms of metal are constantly being interchanged with those in the environment (altering appropriately so that the atoms being exchanged can play each others roles). Obviously this is not a possibility under any reasonable understanding of physics, but it is certainly possible within some possible physics. In any case, this makes the teapot more like a stream, a description that persists over time, and not a stable structure of stuff. But note that in this situation we would not necessarily be aware of this property of metal, and thus would mean the same thing by “my teapot” as we do in the normal universe. And we would still think that the teapot could change into a pot by being re-forged. Clearly then what unites the teapot and the pot is not that they are made up of the same stuff (at least not necessarily). What unites them is instead the fact they are “made of the same metal”, as we understand it. But note that “made of the same metal” turns out not to have any connection to the way the particles actually work, but rather is defined by a set of mental rules we have about when metal does and doesn’t count as the same, mental rules which treat it as basically indestructible, although divisible and re-shapeable. Since what we mean by teapot and pot is the same in both worlds, and in both we understand one as being able to be changed into the other, we must grant that even though some idea of the material is part of the meaning, as evidenced by our understanding of the change as a change, this idea is as much a product of our conception as “teapot”, and if it happens to be similar to the way the material that composes actual teapots works, well that is just a happy coincidence.

Another way to drive home the idea that the matter that actually composes the teapot is not part of the meaning is simply to illustrate that it is irrelevant to our re-identification of the teapot. For example, my teapot could be instantaneously switched with an exact duplicate and I would be completely unaware of that fact. Indeed the substituted would be to me as much “my teapot” as the old one was. Now some might argue that this is simply evidence of my ignorance. After all if my teapot was replaced with an imperfect duplicate I might still believe it to be the same item. However in the case of this duplicate someone might, at least in principle, bring me to notice the differences between it and the old teapot. At which point I would concede that it was not in fact my teapot, and that my identification had been in error. And obviously this can’t happen with the exact duplicate. And given that I would identify it as my teapot in every conceivable situation we must admit that it is in fact what I mean by “my teapot”, assuming that I am the authority on what I mean by the use of my own words.* Of course someone might argue that I am simply ignorant about the meaning of the words I use. But what makes them a better authority?

In any case, to get back to the original point, it has thus been demonstrated that the “sameness of material” that often unites objects at different times in our minds, and on the basis of which we say one has changed into another, is as much a matter of our conception of things as any other property. And so, at least on these grounds, it is clear we have no reason to conclude that the meaning contains, in any way, what is meant. And thus that the two should be kept distinct (with meaning in the mind and what is meant in the world, determining truth).

* Of course if I could be convinced that it had been switched in such a way then I would probably change my opinion, but that is because my conception of my teapot’s material doesn’t include sudden replacement. Thus we are considering everything short of this revelation, meaning we are considering whether I will re-identify it as my teapot on the basis of its current properties, which, if done without error, should be the definitive measure of whether it is or isn’t my teapot.

July 25, 2007


Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

Not every interaction between people constitutes language. For example, splashing water on someone is not in normal circumstances a linguistic act. Language (envisioned as communication) requires, at a minimum, a speaker who is intentionally directed at some state of affairs and an interaction between the speaker and listener that is designed to intentionally direct the listener to the same state of affairs. Being splashed with water isn’t linguistic then because while it does have the tendency to direct the person being splashed to the fact that they are being splashed it is not the case that the person doing the splashing was thinking about that fact before they splashed them with the idea of communicating it.

But while this is a reasonable description of most language (meaning the use of words) it seems to fail to properly capture imperatives (and hence questions as well, since every question can be seen as an impetrative of the form “tell me the answer to: …”). It’s not clear that when an imperative is uttered that there is a shared intention, at least in any straightforward manner. It is true that the speaker is probably intentionally directed at the idea of the listener doing something, but it is not their purpose to get the listener to entertain that idea at all, they just want them to do it. Imperatives then may seem better understood as a way for one person to be controlled by another, not as communication. We could think of imperatives like a kind of linguistic remote control we have for other people. We press buttons on the remote by uttering certain sentences, and by pressing those buttons we trigger certain behaviors in other people. And if this is how imperatives should be understood then clearly they aren’t communication, any more than operating your TV is communicating with it.

This model captures the overall structure of how imperatives operate, but it sweeps under the rug the ability of people to decide for themselves whether to obey that imperative or not. People then are more like broken TVs, which don’t always obey the remote. But unlike a broken TV the choice about whether to obey an imperative is not made randomly or unconsciously. In response to imperatives people think about the choice and then choose whether to do as asked or not. And that gives us a common pattern of intentional directedness on the part of the listeners, namely that they all become intentionally directed at the choice between whether to do as asked or not to do as asked. Of course for this to count as communication the speaker must also be intentionally directed at that choice, but it is reasonable to suppose that the speaker is in fact so directed. Since the speaker realizes that the listener is in fact an intelligent being and not a TV they must also realize that potentially the listener may not do as asked. And so they must devote at least some thought to the choice they are presenting to the listener, to predict whether they will obey or not.

And if this is true then imperatives are a form of language, properly speaking, and not some form of remote control. This may seem like the intuitive result, but actually it is quite unintuitive given some modern approaches to language. Language, as I have defined it here, is simply communication. And many recent thinkers hold that our use of words often performs other functions besides that of communication, and, more importantly, that it can have one of these functions while failing to serve as means of communication. Imperatives might be thought of as an example of this because, as I mentioned above, we could think of them as a form of control and not of communication. In any case, we can test this hypothesis by seeing if we can in fact replace imperative expressions by equivalents that have the same effect but are clearly examples of communication. Given the considerations here I think the proper replacement for “do X” is “you have a choice between doing X or doing ~X, and I the speaker want you to do X”. Obviously that is a bit long winded, but I think it could serve as a replacement, thus showing that we don’t need imperatives (showing that imperatives don’t do anything above and beyond normal communication). Now at this point some may wonder why I didn’t just shorten my replacement to “I the speaker want you to do X”. While that is something that is also communicated with each imperative I think that by itself does not capture the complete meaning of the imperative. The fact that someone wants us to do something by itself may not lead to us acting. It may be something that we cannot simply choose to do (such as “to be a better person”), or it may be the case that we are already satisfying that want and thus don’t need to take action. Communicating that the listener has a choice to make thus also communicates that the listener can and should choose a particular course of action in light of that want (and in fact has to choose once presented with the choice), one that they may not have come to contemplate just because they knew that want. In a sense then communicating that the speaker wants something is simply too general, our imperative “translations” are thus included in the set of sentences that express the desires of the speaker, but not every sentence that expresses the speaker’s desire corresponds to some imperative.

July 24, 2007


Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

You might be curious as to what kind of thing a promise is. But that of course would be to grossly misunderstand promises. A promise is not a thing but a claim, specifically a claim about a claim regarding a person’s future behavior. The promise says that this claim about future behavior is assured to be true, so that while we normally assume that any predictions about the future are unreliable we shouldn’t in this case. The promise then serves as a kind of meta-linguistic tool, which can be used to overcome certain dilemmas involving collective action.

Many have said that you shouldn’t break your promises because it is ethically wrong. I’m not exactly sure how sound that claim is; certainly to mislead people intentionally by making a promise known in advance to be false is probably unethical, but that is true for intentionally misleading people in general. And if the promise is broken without a malicious intent then all it seems to do is make us bad predictors of our own behavior, not unethical. For example, if I incorrectly predict tomorrow’s weather then I am not a bad person. Of course a promise might be treated as more than just a claim, we could choose to see it as an implicit contract between two people. But again, unless we accord special privileges to contracts, it doesn’t seem like breaking them is necessarily immoral. Which is not do deny that we have strong intuitions against breaking promises, but these intuitions are not because breaking promises is immoral, but because there are strong practical reasons not to break them (or so I claim).

The practical reason not to break promises is that breaking a promise renders you unable to make more promises. Of course you can still say that you promise, but the people who you are promising to will treat your promise just as a simple prediction of your future behavior, and not one that is especially certain. The reason this is so is because communication rests fundamentally on reliability. A listener takes the speakers words to mean what they do in part because the listener thinks the speaker can reliably use the terms to designate what they are supposed to designate. By breaking a promise you thus indicate that you are unreliable at using “promise” to designate claims about future behavior that are certain, and hence listeners no longer take your use of that word as designating anything at all.

Of course this is not a phenomenon that is unique to promising, it could happen, in theory, with any piece of language. For example, someone could be unreliable at using color words, meaning that they randomly match color words with actual colors. Such a person would thus be effectively unable to communicate about color, because calling the color of something “red” would not be taken by the listener to indicate anything at all. The use of ethical terms is similar. It is quite possible to use ethical terms just to designate what you like and don’t like, and not what is really right or wrong. But if you do that then people simply stop taking your use of them as indicating right and wrong, and only as indicating your preferences. Communication, as I have noted above, is based on trust, the listener trusts the speaker to use words in their usual senses. When that trust is broken communication can’t happen, and that is to the disadvantage of both the listener and the speaker. Of course promises do stand out as being a situation where it is easy for listeners to lose trust in the speaker. It is quite possible to misjudge color on occasion and still be able to communicate about color, but breaking only a few promises leads people to ignore future occurrences of promising. I don’t think, however, that this is because promising is something special, rather it is just that there are fewer mitigating factors. When I misjudge color there are many possible reasons for that, not all of which involve me being a bad judge of color. Thus people may still believe me to be a generally reliable judge of color in spite of a few errors. But since promises are just about our future actions there are far fewer mitigating factors to appeal to; since we are in control of our actions it is hard to explain why we didn’t act as promised (and since we are only supposed to promise when we can be sure, the fact that something made us unable to keep our promise indicates that we couldn’t be as sure as we thought, which indicates that we are bad at judging when we can make promises). Thus even a few broken promises mark a person as an unreliable promiser.

And not only does breaking promises make it nearly impossible to promise in the future (or at least to get people to take your promises as reliable), but it makes people question your motives for promising in the future as well. As mentioned above since we control our actions any promise breaking appears intentional. And if it is intentional then people will suspect that you made the promise in order to achieve some benefit for yourself. Which means that in the future making a promise will lead people to conclude not that you will actually act in a certain way, but that you want them to believe that you will act that way. And such reasoning leads to a general suspicion about motives and about how self-serving you are. Which in turn leads to mistrust, since every action can appear self-serving upon close scrutiny. So the moral here is to keep your promises. Or, if you can’t do that, don’t be caught breaking them. Or, if you can’t do that, have at least an excuse ready that doesn’t involve selfish reasons for breaking the promise.

July 10, 2007

Linguistic Underdetermination

Filed under: Language,Logic — Peter @ 12:00 am

Consider the following five sentences:

(1) (1) is false.
(2) (3) is false.
(3) (2) is false.
(4) If (4) is true then φ
(5) If (5) is true then ~φ

All of these sentences involve self-reference, or at least some kind of loopy reference. And all involve the explicit invocation of the is true/is false predicate. Some would claim that these sentences are thus meaningless because of those facts, but I am inclined to disagree. Certainly they seem meaningful enough (for example, we can determine the truth conditions). Of course I do agree that most methods of analyzing these sentences encounter difficulties, but that should motivate us to develop better tools for dealing with them, not to give up.

But before I discuss the alternative analysis that seems most promising let me first say a bit about the standard/intuitive method of analysis. The standard method is to draw up a truth table (in the case of (2) and (3) one truth table for both) and eliminate the lines where the truth value of the whole sentence contradicts the truth value assigned to that sentence as an “input” into the truth table. The remaining “stable” lines are then taken, intuitively, to be the possibilities for the truth of the sentence. And if there is only one possible truth value then it would seem to imply that the sentence has a single determinate truth value. I assume that this process is simple enough to grasp, but I’ll do sentence (4) as an example, marking contradictory lines with an X.

(4)  φ  (4)→φ
 T   T     T
 T   F     F      X
 F   T     T      X
 F   F     T      X

In this example we would thus conclude that (4) is determinately true, and hence that φ is true as well. By this method (1) has no solution (every truth value is contradictory), (2) and (3) taken together seem to require either (2) or (3) to be true, but not both. And (4) and (5) are both determinately true. Obviously then this method of analysis doesn’t work. For (1) it fails to give an answer. For (2) and (3) it says something slightly absurd, that there is a fact of the matter about one of them being true and the other false, despite that there is no fact that could make one of them true and not the other, or pick out the true one. And (4) and (5) are obviously absurd. Not only could we use them to conclude anything we like, we can use them to conclude contradictory things. Now a solution to (1), and possibly to (2) and (3) is to introduce a third truth value (giving us a paraconsistent logic or a logic that permits truth gaps). But this doesn’t resolve the problem of (4) and (5), because we could easily modify them to say “(4) is true or (4) is X, where X is the new truth value, then φ”*. And of course we might also balk at this because it is not so much of an analysis of the truth of these sentences as a redefinition of what we mean by truth, and hence giving a new meaning to the sentences in question, not a step towards understanding them as they are.

This brings us to my proposal. There are two components to my proposal. The first is that we accept a classification of some sentences as having a truth value that is linguistically underdetermined. The property is being linguistically underdetermined is not a new truth value, it is more like the property of being syntactically ill-formed. We wouldn’t say of the sentence “Green” that it is true or false, we would say that it is syntactically ill-formed, and thus not of the right kind to have a truth value. Now saying the a sentence is linguistically underdetermined is not to say that it is not of the right kind to have a truth value, rather it is to say that some facts are missing which are required to determine its truth value. For example, “X is green” by itself is linguistically underdetermined. But if it is preceded by the sentence “X refers to grass” then it is true. Similarly the sentence “the ball is red” out of all context is linguistically underdetermined, but in a specific context it may very well have a definite truth value.

By itself that distinction doesn’t help us much here, which brings me to the second part of my proposal.** I propose that the truth value of logically complex sentences should be thought of as being determined by a “process” which determines the truth of the sentence from the truth of its components, and that before the process is complete the truth of the sentence is linguistically underdetermined. Additionally, that the truth value of the sentence at the end of the process should not be taken to have a retroactive effect and alter the truth of the sentence before the process is over, which means that in some places a sentence may be true or false and in others it may be linguistically underdetermined, and that this is not a contradiction. Remember, linguistic underdetermination is not a claim about the truth value of the sentence. And, while we may want to “redo” the process in which we determine the truth value of a sentence because of a change in the truth value of one of its components (perhaps we discover some new fact), a change from linguistically underdetermined to having a definite truth value does not prompt a “redoing” of the process, because it is not a change in the truth value. (And of course even if we do redo the process the truth value of the sentence from the last evaluation does not carry over, it is still linguistically underdetermined until the process is over.) Of course while we are carrying out the process we can treat “linguistically underdetermined” as a truth value, which works in the same way as a “neither true nor false” truth value in a logic that permits of truth gaps.

Given this analysis we can resolve the apparent problems posed by the five sentences that I began this post with. (1) obviously comes out as linguistically underdetermined. (2) and (3), taken together, also both come out as linguistically underdetermined. To evaluate them both we most engage in a single process, since each sentence incorporates the other. We start the process with the first one, following the conventions by which we understand sentences, and determine that it is linguistically underdetermined, since the truth value of the second sentence hasn’t been fixed by the process yet. Then we move on to the second, and it too comes out as linguistically underdetermined. (4) and (5) are more interesting; since they are both handled the same way I’ll just talk about (4). We can consider two cases, where φ is true and where φ is false. If φ is true then (4) is true (this is the simple case). If φ is false however then (4) remains linguistically underdetermined. Now none of these cases have revealed one of the more subtle nuances of this analysis, so let me introduce a new sentence to highlight it.
(6) (6) is linguistically underdetermined.
By the analysis here (6) is determinately true, and this may seem like a contradiction, since (6) claims that it is linguistically underdetermined. But this is not really contradictory. First of all linguistic underdetermination is not a truth value, as I cannot stress too much, and so it does not “conflict” with the sentence having a particular truth value. And, secondly, linguistic underdetermination is not something that is fixed everywhere, it can vary in different contexts. Within the context of (6) it is linguistically underdetermined, but elsewhere it is true. (6) then simply expresses the fact that within a sentence self-reference is necessarily linguistically underdetermined (although an entire sentence, such as “this sentence is true or grass is green” is not necessarily linguistically underdetermined because it involves self-reference, even though that self-reference within the context of the sentence is linguistically underdetermined).

This concludes my analysis of linguistic underdetermination, and thus of the puzzles resulting from self-reference and loopy reference. However it remains to integrate this analysis with other strong predicates (such as “is known”, which imply truth) and weak predicates (such as “is unknown” which have no implications for truth) which have their own rules for propagation.

* This of course doesn’t work if we are instead adopting a paraconsistent logic that uses double truth valuation instead of a third truth value. But such a logic doesn’t solve the original problem, because it leads us to conclude that either φ is true or φ is to be evaluated as both true and false (there is still no way that φ could be just false). And that is still absurd because it implies that every sentence is at least true, even if it is false as well, and so that there are no sentences that are just false. And that is unacceptable. Surely “I was eighty years old in 1995” is false, and just false, not true in any way.

** Although it could be useful it a context where we are thinking about whether a sentence is meaningless, and whether sentences such as “X is green” are meaningless by themselves because of the problematic nature of finding conditions for their truth. If we were thinking about that problem I would argue that the fact that they are linguistically underdetermined means that if they are meaningless they are not meaningless in the way that sentences which are syntactically ill-formed are, at the very least.

June 29, 2007

Use Without Meaning

Filed under: Language — Peter @ 12:00 am

There are some interesting cases which demonstrate that it is fully possible for a person to use a word competently in most situations but still fail to grasp its meaning, or at least all of its meaning. The example I have in mind specifically here is Putnam’s elm/beech example. Putnam points out that we my be quite competent in using the words “elm” and “beech” in many contexts, and yet be totally unaware of the features that define them as types of trees. Thus we don’t really understand what the words “elm” and “beech” mean, despite our competence in using them in many situations. (Note: What I have to say here regarding this case is not meant to be a response to Putnam. It could be a response to Putnam, but there are far better responses available. The better response is simply to point out that his opponents don’t claim that the representation completely determines what is represented, and, more importantly, that it is the representation and not what is represented that is part of consciousness.)

The first thing to notice is that the elm/beech case is in a way compatible with use determining meaning. Obviously someone who doesn’t know the defining features of elms and beeches will be unable to pick them out from other trees when they come across them. Thus a complete understanding of the meaning of a word could be identified with the ability to use that word correctly in all circumstances. But this still leaves us with a problem; in most circumstances understanding elms as just “a kind of tree” is sufficient to use the word correctly. Thus it would seem that by knowing that definition we must have grasped most of the meaning of the word, since we are able to use it correctly in most situations, when it seems pretty obvious that we have only grasped a part of the meaning of the word, certainly not most of it. We can justify that claim by noting what the purpose of the word is. The purpose of the word elm is to distinguish one kind of tree from others. Thus the meaning of the word elm is tied most closely to the parts of it that allow it to fulfill its purpose, namely the distinguishing physical features of the elm. And so by not capturing those features someone who understands elm only as “a kind of tree” has not grasped most of the meaning (or at least not the core meaning) of the word.

This naturally leads to a more pressing problem: how do we now determine what a word means in the context of a community that shares a common language. Normally we simply appeal to the average or majority understanding of the word. “dog” means dog, we say, because most people in that community have associated with that word in their minds a representation that represents dogs. But, as cases such as “elm” show, it may very well be the case that the majority of the community does not in fact grasp what we are accustomed to thinking of as the meaning of the word. There are basically two ways to deal with this situation. One is to concede that the meaning of “elm” just is “a kind of tree” within that community, and that it only acquires its useful meaning, as picking out a particular kind of tree, within a sub-community who grasps the fuller meaning of “elm”. Although technically flawless I think this is not a very useful move to make. First of all it is hard to identify the sub-community, except by their understanding of the meaning of “elm”. And secondly the sub-community and the larger community have no problems talking with each other, even about elms (most of the time). So it seems unnatural to pick this sub-community out as distinct when they seem anything but. (In contrast to a sub-community who understands certain technical terms, which they are unable to use in communication with the larger community.) I propose then that we instead re-define how we determine what a word means in the context of a community from “the average meaning” to “the most common meaning that most would accept as a suitable meaning”. This definition completely avoids the problem because even if most people understand “elm” only as meaning “a kind of tree” they don’t accept “a kind of tree” as an acceptable meaning for “elm”. By understanding an elm as a kind of tree they understand it as being distinct from other trees in certain ways, because that is what being a kind of tree entails. Thus by understanding that it is a kind of tree it becomes impossible to accept as a meaning for elm simply “a kind of tree” because it doesn’t say what kind of tree the elm is.

Finally we come to the question of how complicated, exactly, is the partial meaning that most people associate with “elm” and “beech”. In his original example Putnam implies that it must be fairly complex, because people would deny that a beech is an elm. This implies that for “beech” most people also associate with it “not an elm”, “not a fig tree”, and so on. But I do not actually thing this is the case. You see most people would probably also deny that a “beech” is a “fagus grandifolia”. This is not because they have some understanding of the terms that motivates them to reject the identification, because “fagus grandifolia” is the scientific name of the beech. Rather it is because people have some intuitive rules about how meaning works, and one of those is that different words usually don’t mean the same thing. Thus they deny that elms are beeches not because the meaning they associate with the terms distinguishes them, but because they have never heard the two kinds of tree explicitly identified, and thus the default assumption that they are different stands. This kind of process is also at work when the meaning of a word is best captured by “the kind of …” or “the thing that …”. In both cases people have assumptions about what kinds of things are (defined by being fundamentally similar in some way) and what things are (have a certain unity) that govern how the word is used without such rules ever making it into the meaning itself. The meaning then remains relatively simple, but some of the concepts involved with it may be complex.

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