Saturday, March 23, 2013

Shoehorning semantics into a "best model" framework

I'll just ramble on here for a second and emphasize that the method of best models (see here)  is valuable because of the way it divides the data into variant and invariant portions. [It is necessary for geometry and, I warrant, for everything else as well.] For shape congruence, position is considered a variant - to be measured away and then ignored. For shape similarity, the size is considered a variant - to be measured away and then ignored. As we strip away the variants, the invariants are left to define the true nature of the object. 
The same needs to be part of the thinking about language and sentence structure. What are the variants and invariants? I think they change while we are reading. As I think about it, it is the hierarchical, sequential, and essentially dynamic nature of best models reasoning that comes into play here. So much linguistic analysis begins after a sentence has been read, that perhaps they are throwing the baby out with the bath water by ignoring the sequential and chronological nature of text understanding.  
All I have at the moment is a sense that initial word meanings are measurements. They are used to create a framework (ideal sentence) for measuring later words. So the meaning of a sentence is to be broken up into the sentence and semantic structure, in a way that is independent of the actual contents of the words. Sure  and I am not going to dodge any issue that has been around since Plato, but it seems like "meaning" comes and goes in chronology of understanding.

Here is a (radical?) idea: we give language way too much credit for having subtle structure when it relies mostly on the pre-existing structure of the world. Bertrand Russell, as a young man in Principles of Mathematics (not the older (?)  Russell of Principia Mathematica) was puzzled by the possible ambiguity of the word "or" and the word "and". I find he gave up too quickly in the rush for mathematical simplifications. Actually the nature of "and" and "or" is the same: they are both juxtapositions which vary by the nature of the things juxtaposed (juxtaposed adjective will merge; disjoint objects will not) and vary by how we are interacting with the collection formed by the juxtaposition (take one from/ take all of)
Another example: in a course of introductory symbolic logic at BU, I balked at the statement that "but" and "and" have the same meaning. It took years to realize that "but" negates an unstated, implicit phrase and is used to alert the reader/listener to suspend their semantic expectations. For example: "there was snow on the ground but he went out barefoot." Includes an unstated expectation that snow implies reasonable foot wear. The negating of the expectation is the purpose of the "but".
Linguistics and a more correct symbolic logic must include the implicit statements that make up the semantic context of explicit language. So buckle your seat belts laddies, this trip says: boolean logic is wrong and will never come close to imitating humans. It needs to be re-written from the ground up to include the implicit and (I hope) a standardized use of best models.

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