Total Posts:6|Showing Posts:1-6
Jump to topic:

On the futility of definition

Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
12/27/2015 3:47:08 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
DDO members acknowledge the absurdity of playing the semantics card in a discussion. This acknowledgement, along with other debate conventions, is codified in the standard set of rules that instigators generally employ. Even in the absence of such rules, semantics is generally regarded as poor conduct in debate, unless the contender is manipulating the resolution to turn the tables on an instigator who has deliberately chosen an unfair topic.

Our common contempt of semantic arguments notwithstanding, many of us, myself included, are predisposed to fall unwittingly into the semantic trap. This can take on several forms. The most common is asserting or denying category membership. The majority of category judgements are fuzzy at the edges. (I said 'majority' for obvious reasons, or my statement can be shown to be false with a simple reductio.) A common line of argument, following the form of modus ponens, is as follows (its modus tollens counterpart is sometimes used as well):

(1)
P1) Some definition of a category
P2) Showing that an entity, idea or whatever fits into that definition
C) The entity belongs to that category

More often than not, the writer will cite a dictionary entry for P1). This is particularly common among those with an axe to grind, since this enhances the illusion of objectivity they wish to maintain - an appeal to authority at its finest. I will use this thread as an example: http://www.debate.org.... Zombie is defined, then Jesus is said to be a zombie. I have chosen this thread because of its jocular nature. Similar lines of argument have been proposed with regards to important hot-button issues, such as the 'abortion is murder' argument.

These arguments attempt to conceal an inductive judgement in deductive veils. We acquire lexical categories - or at least a significant number of lexical categories - through ostensive definition. Thus we, as acquirers of lexical meaning, are not free from Quine's gavagai problem (in fact, this is a known driving force behind semantic change on an idiolectical level - see Fortson (2003) for a defence of this view). In simple terms, this means when somebody points to a rabbit and calls it 'gavagai', you can't immediately tell if 'gavagai' means 'rabbit', 'white furry things', 'rabbit legs' or just 'Look!'. Our knowledge of word meanings is basically inductive, and slight interpersonal differences in category judgements cannot be avoided.

The motivation behind the type of syllogism I mentioned is the flawed assumption that meaning can be decomposed into a finite set of necessary and sufficient conditions (e.g. the dictionary definitions they cite). Advocates of this theory generally fail to note that meaning is subject to much fuzziness. In addition to the gavagai problem I noted above, bear in mind that category judgements can be graded, as in Labov's famous example of the vase-cup-bowl distinctions. Before you shout that conditions can be graded, think about Wittgenstein's games argument for family resemblance. All games have something in common, but there is no single attribute - not even a gradable attribute - that is consistently found in every 'game'. Thus, a position that posits a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for category membership is basically untenable.

I will digress a little here, and point out important flaws in necessary and sufficient conditions theory, if only to strengthen my case. I lifted this argument from Jackendoff (1983). 'Kill', according to the necessary-and-sufficient-conditions camp, is famously defined as CAUSE TO BECOME NOT ALIVE. But there are problems with this. As JA Fodor observed, you can say (2a) but not (2b):

2a. John caused Mary to die on Tuesday by shooting her on Monday.
2b. *John killed Mary on Tuesday by shooting her on Monday.

The asterisk before 2b indicates that it is semantically ill-formed, i.e. the underlying semantic representation is not a WFF.

Wittgenstein's idea of family resemblance is only a philosophical idea, but substantive alternatives to necessary and sufficient conditions theory have been proposed in semantics, most of them based on the idea of 'fuzzy categories' or on typicality. Prototype theory is the most common realisation of the latter, though different theorists have different conceptions of prototypes, either an idealised, abstract bundle of attributes (as formalised in Jackendoff, 1983) or a really prototypical example. The most common example is probably that of 'bird': A robin or sparrow is a bird prototype, whereas 'penguin' and 'emu', while hyponyms of 'bird', are considerably less prototypical. Meaning is defined in terms of these prototypes. In Jackendoff's conception, if an object satisfies enough 'typicality conditions', we can come to stable judgement that the object belongs to a category.

Returning to the Jesus-is-a-zombie argument, the prototypical zombie has attributes such as threatening human life, making others into zombies, mindlessness, etc. which are not captured by the narrow lexicographical definition provided by the dictionary. Since few typicality conditions have been satisfied by Jesus, we cannot judge 'Jesus' to be a member of the 'zombie' category. This is how meaning works from a modern scientific perspective. Playing semantic games using a dictionary definition is not productive: once the dubious notion of necessary and sufficient conditions has been debunked, all these arguments fall apart.

As for 'abortion is murder', different people think of murder in slightly different ways. Some, with more tolerance for deviating from prototypical conditions (such as involving the killing of a person who's born, malicious intent...), will conclude that abortion is murder. Others, will less tolerance, will conclude that the abortion is not. Debating the truth value of the statement 'Abortion is murder' is silly, because it is not either true or false, but falling in a grey area. Instead of debating whether abortion is murder, we should be looking at deontic, utilitarian and aretaic merits of both sides of the debate.

---

These poor arguments are not my sole targets in this thread, though. Another issue I would like to point out - I am not calling out on any particular discussion or its participants, though I part of my inspiration for this paragraph did come from a recent thread - is that when we discuss topics like 'what exactly is X?', we tend to fall into the necessary and sufficient conditions trap. The result is post after post of positing and refuting previous definitions, after which we are no closer to coming to a consensus than before. Perhaps, if we shift our goals to looking for typicality conditions, we will have a better idea of what X is.

---

Prototype theory is not the only alternative to necessary and suffficient conditions, of course. The other alternative is semantic externalism, the idea put forward by Putnam (1975) that there is 'real' meaning, external of our minds. Jackendoff (2012) caricatured this view as 'Real Meaning' (in an ultra-fancy font). I argue that this view, which DDO members sometimes implicitly espouse, has also done more harm than good.

Putnam used two main arguments to substantiate his view. One of them is the elm/beech argument. He can't tell between elm and beech, so according to him, the intentions of the words 'elm' and 'beech' are identical. Yet he trusts experts in botany that the two are different, so to him, the extensions of the two terms are not the same. He accounts for this phenomenon using what he calls a linguistic division of labour: He's responsible for using these words, while botanists are responsible for knowing the difference. Searle (1983), as cited by Aerobe (2011), found the argument logically inconsistent, as did Jackendoff (1983). The general idea in both arguments is that the intentions cannot be the same if the extensions are different.

(To be continued)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
12/27/2015 3:50:06 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
As Jackendoff also pointed out, even if the argument worked for scientific terms, the position is absolutely untenable when it comes to non-scientific terms. Yet this is what we often do to ideologies, concepts and beliefs like 'animal rights', 'communism' and 'libertarianism'. Witness the number of DDO members who claim others do not know what rights, communism or libertarianism are. Sometimes, the debate turns into an argument on the semantic content of these linguistic expressions, rather than the relative merits and downsides of the different conceptions. This is especially true of discussions in the Opinions section, since there's no real OP to define the boundaries of discussion.

Conventional meaning does exist in different fields of study - 'significant', 'suburb' and 'vague' have technical definitions in statistics, geography and linguistics - and these technical definitions foster communication within the field (or, in the case of 'significant', across all the sciences). Similarly, laying out definitions in R1 is an effective way to constrain the scope of discussion and to avoid unnecessary semantic quarrels. Yet Real Meaning does not exist. To argue for such a meaning for any word is a pointless and futile exercise.

---

I'll conclude this thread with an interesting anecdote from Death23. Somebody posted a picture of a creature with a funny face on Imgur, and wrote 'This seal has a funny face!' The top comment was, 'That's not a seal - that's a sea lion'. Death got an avalanche of downvotes for pointing out that seals are a subset of sea lions (and later a bunch of votebombs in his series of 'Sea lions are seals' debates). Obviously, the folk conception (intention) of 'seal' and 'sea lion' are cohyponyms, whereas in the scientific literature, 'seal' is a superordinate of 'sea lion'.

I can imagine the backstory to this. 'Sea lion' does not satisfy many of the typicality conditions for 'seal', so it is atypical to call a creature a 'sea lion' a 'seal'. When we call a creature a 'seal', the listener assumes, by some Gricean mechanism, the creature is not a sea lion. Over time, pragmatic meaning can become semantic (as evidenced in the evolution of function words meaning 'since' in many European languages), leading to the folk separation of 'seals' and 'sea lions'. So the top commentator was not wrong, in the *folk* sense of the words" but his comment demonstrated how firmly we cling on our semantic beliefs, even elevating these beliefs as 'real meaning', when the meaning is not more real than the others, any more than the Scotsman who drinks whisky is more Scottish than the Scotsman who does not.

---

TL;DR version: Meanings expressed in terms of black-and-white, yes-or-no conditions, while useful for lexicographers, are not meaningful or conducive to productive discussion. As Pinker (1995) said, 'Plato and Diogenes were not doing biology when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped" and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken.' Let's stop arguing what words mean, and focus our time and energy on more constructive debates.

Sources
Aerobe. (2011, November 1). Putnam's elm/beech argument for semantic externalism. Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://everything2.com...
Bloom, P. (2000). How children learn the meanings of words: Learning, development and conceptual change. MIT Press.
Fodor, J. A. (1970). Three Reasons for Not Deriving "Kill" from "Cause to Die". Linguistic Inquiry, 1(4), 429-438.
Fortson, B. W. (2003). An approach to semantic change. The handbook of historical linguistics, 648.
Jackendoff, R. (1983). Semantics and cognition (Vol. 8). MIT press.
Jackendoff, R. (2012). A user's guide to thought and meaning. Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind (Vol. 7529). Penguin UK.
Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning'. K. Gunderson (ed.), 221-74.
Saeed, J. (1997). Semantics."GB: Blackwell Publishing.
Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind. Cambridge University Press.
Wittgenstein, L."(1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
skipsaweirdo
Posts: 1,864
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
12/31/2015 9:24:02 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 12/27/2015 3:50:06 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
As Jackendoff also pointed out, even if the argument worked for scientific terms, the position is absolutely untenable when it comes to non-scientific terms. Yet this is what we often do to ideologies, concepts and beliefs like 'animal rights', 'communism' and 'libertarianism'. Witness the number of DDO members who claim others do not know what rights, communism or libertarianism are. Sometimes, the debate turns into an argument on the semantic content of these linguistic expressions, rather than the relative merits and downsides of the different conceptions. This is especially true of discussions in the Opinions section, since there's no real OP to define the boundaries of discussion.

Conventional meaning does exist in different fields of study - 'significant', 'suburb' and 'vague' have technical definitions in statistics, geography and linguistics - and these technical definitions foster communication within the field (or, in the case of 'significant', across all the sciences). Similarly, laying out definitions in R1 is an effective way to constrain the scope of discussion and to avoid unnecessary semantic quarrels. Yet Real Meaning does not exist. To argue for such a meaning for any word is a pointless and futile exercise.

---

I'll conclude this thread with an interesting anecdote from Death23. Somebody posted a picture of a creature with a funny face on Imgur, and wrote 'This seal has a funny face!' The top comment was, 'That's not a seal - that's a sea lion'. Death got an avalanche of downvotes for pointing out that seals are a subset of sea lions (and later a bunch of votebombs in his series of 'Sea lions are seals' debates). Obviously, the folk conception (intention) of 'seal' and 'sea lion' are cohyponyms, whereas in the scientific literature, 'seal' is a superordinate of 'sea lion'.

I can imagine the backstory to this. 'Sea lion' does not satisfy many of the typicality conditions for 'seal', so it is atypical to call a creature a 'sea lion' a 'seal'. When we call a creature a 'seal', the listener assumes, by some Gricean mechanism, the creature is not a sea lion. Over time, pragmatic meaning can become semantic (as evidenced in the evolution of function words meaning 'since' in many European languages), leading to the folk separation of 'seals' and 'sea lions'. So the top commentator was not wrong, in the *folk* sense of the words" but his comment demonstrated how firmly we cling on our semantic beliefs, even elevating these beliefs as 'real meaning', when the meaning is not more real than the others, any more than the Scotsman who drinks whisky is more Scottish than the Scotsman who does not.

---

TL;DR version: Meanings expressed in terms of black-and-white, yes-or-no conditions, while useful for lexicographers, are not meaningful or conducive to productive discussion. As Pinker (1995) said, 'Plato and Diogenes were not doing biology when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped" and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken.' Let's stop arguing what words mean, and focus our time and energy on more constructive debates.


Sources
Aerobe. (2011, November 1). Putnam's elm/beech argument for semantic externalism. Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://everything2.com...
Bloom, P. (2000). How children learn the meanings of words: Learning, development and conceptual change. MIT Press.
Fodor, J. A. (1970). Three Reasons for Not Deriving "Kill" from "Cause to Die". Linguistic Inquiry, 1(4), 429-438.
Fortson, B. W. (2003). An approach to semantic change. The handbook of historical linguistics, 648.
Jackendoff, R. (1983). Semantics and cognition (Vol. 8). MIT press.
Jackendoff, R. (2012). A user's guide to thought and meaning. Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind (Vol. 7529). Penguin UK.
Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning'. K. Gunderson (ed.), 221-74.
Saeed, J. (1997). Semantics."GB: Blackwell Publishing.
Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind. Cambridge University Press.
Wittgenstein, L."(1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.

I enjoyed reading this. However, the semantics card isn't actually always a card, it can be a valid inquiry as you know. I think people tend to negate semantics as a possible contention for an ambiguous argument so that the exploiting of the "point" can be avoided. Here, I will use your own post to demonstrate. This brilliant thread, which I commend you for because I thoroughly enjoyed it, ended with a "constructive debate". Constructive is subjective. What an individual takes as being constructive in a debate they are involved in might actually be dissecting the semantics of the argument.
If you can expose a fallacy of ambiguity then you have shown fallacious reasoning in the wording and meaning of a claim or thought. I.e. semantics. Fallacies of ambiguity abound in this forum as I have consistently seen.
See how I'm debating the semantic of whether semantics is important, its funny....lol
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
1/1/2016 4:24:20 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 12/31/2015 9:24:02 PM, skipsaweirdo wrote:
At 12/27/2015 3:50:06 PM, Diqiucun_Cunmin wrote:
As Jackendoff also pointed out, even if the argument worked for scientific terms, the position is absolutely untenable when it comes to non-scientific terms. Yet this is what we often do to ideologies, concepts and beliefs like 'animal rights', 'communism' and 'libertarianism'. Witness the number of DDO members who claim others do not know what rights, communism or libertarianism are. Sometimes, the debate turns into an argument on the semantic content of these linguistic expressions, rather than the relative merits and downsides of the different conceptions. This is especially true of discussions in the Opinions section, since there's no real OP to define the boundaries of discussion.

Conventional meaning does exist in different fields of study - 'significant', 'suburb' and 'vague' have technical definitions in statistics, geography and linguistics - and these technical definitions foster communication within the field (or, in the case of 'significant', across all the sciences). Similarly, laying out definitions in R1 is an effective way to constrain the scope of discussion and to avoid unnecessary semantic quarrels. Yet Real Meaning does not exist. To argue for such a meaning for any word is a pointless and futile exercise.

---

I'll conclude this thread with an interesting anecdote from Death23. Somebody posted a picture of a creature with a funny face on Imgur, and wrote 'This seal has a funny face!' The top comment was, 'That's not a seal - that's a sea lion'. Death got an avalanche of downvotes for pointing out that seals are a subset of sea lions (and later a bunch of votebombs in his series of 'Sea lions are seals' debates). Obviously, the folk conception (intention) of 'seal' and 'sea lion' are cohyponyms, whereas in the scientific literature, 'seal' is a superordinate of 'sea lion'.

I can imagine the backstory to this. 'Sea lion' does not satisfy many of the typicality conditions for 'seal', so it is atypical to call a creature a 'sea lion' a 'seal'. When we call a creature a 'seal', the listener assumes, by some Gricean mechanism, the creature is not a sea lion. Over time, pragmatic meaning can become semantic (as evidenced in the evolution of function words meaning 'since' in many European languages), leading to the folk separation of 'seals' and 'sea lions'. So the top commentator was not wrong, in the *folk* sense of the words" but his comment demonstrated how firmly we cling on our semantic beliefs, even elevating these beliefs as 'real meaning', when the meaning is not more real than the others, any more than the Scotsman who drinks whisky is more Scottish than the Scotsman who does not.

---

TL;DR version: Meanings expressed in terms of black-and-white, yes-or-no conditions, while useful for lexicographers, are not meaningful or conducive to productive discussion. As Pinker (1995) said, 'Plato and Diogenes were not doing biology when Plato defined man as a "featherless biped" and Diogenes refuted him with a plucked chicken.' Let's stop arguing what words mean, and focus our time and energy on more constructive debates.


Sources
Aerobe. (2011, November 1). Putnam's elm/beech argument for semantic externalism. Retrieved December 27, 2015, from http://everything2.com...
Bloom, P. (2000). How children learn the meanings of words: Learning, development and conceptual change. MIT Press.
Fodor, J. A. (1970). Three Reasons for Not Deriving "Kill" from "Cause to Die". Linguistic Inquiry, 1(4), 429-438.
Fortson, B. W. (2003). An approach to semantic change. The handbook of historical linguistics, 648.
Jackendoff, R. (1983). Semantics and cognition (Vol. 8). MIT press.
Jackendoff, R. (2012). A user's guide to thought and meaning. Oxford University Press.
Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct: The new science of language and mind (Vol. 7529). Penguin UK.
Putnam, H. (1975). The meaning of "meaning'. K. Gunderson (ed.), 221-74.
Saeed, J. (1997). Semantics."GB: Blackwell Publishing.
Searle, J. R. (1983). Intentionality: An essay in the philosophy of mind. Cambridge University Press.
Wittgenstein, L."(1953). Philosophical Investigations. Blackwell Publishing.

I enjoyed reading this. However, the semantics card isn't actually always a card, it can be a valid inquiry as you know.
Sure, I completely agree with that.
I think people tend to negate semantics as a possible contention for an ambiguous argument so that the exploiting of the "point" can be avoided. Here, I will use your own post to demonstrate. This brilliant thread, which I commend you for because I thoroughly enjoyed it, ended with a "constructive debate". Constructive is subjective. What an individual takes as being constructive in a debate they are involved in might actually be dissecting the semantics of the argument.
If you can expose a fallacy of ambiguity then you have shown fallacious reasoning in the wording and meaning of a claim or thought. I.e. semantics. Fallacies of ambiguity abound in this forum as I have consistently seen.
I agree, in this case it's using semantic for construction argumentation, since the debater is exposing semantic manipulation (conscious or unconscious) on his opponent's part. That's not the same as the sort of argument I criticise, which ascribe sort-of truth values to definitions and category judgements.
See how I'm debating the semantic of whether semantics is important, its funny....lol
LOL :)
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...
Diqiucun_Cunmin
Posts: 2,710
Add as Friend
Challenge to a Debate
Send a Message
1/1/2016 4:24:36 PM
Posted: 11 months ago
At 1/1/2016 12:19:55 PM, Smithereens wrote:
It's a wall of text. Ohmygosh you must be right... ;)

Hey, in my defence, I wrote a TL;DR. :P
The thing is, I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate everything else, excepting, maybe, fibreglass powerboats... What it overlooks, to put it briefly and crudely, is the fixed structure of human nature. - Jerry Fodor

Don't be a stat cynic:
http://www.debate.org...

Response to conservative views on deforestation:
http://www.debate.org...

Topics I'd like to debate (not debating ATM): http://tinyurl.com...