possible, but not necessary

May 30, 2012

[This post has been updated for clarity.] Łukasiewicz supposed that the actual is necessary (if I have no coins in my pocket, then it is not possible that I do have a coin there) and that possible implies possibly not. I want to contest both of these. There is good reason to distinguish the actual from the necessary — the earth revolves around the sun is an actual fact, but that the sun is the center of the solar system is necessary (on the grounds that “solar” means “sun”). But if the earth does revolve around the sun, and it’s not possible therefore that it doesn’t revolve around the sun, then isn’t the earth’s revolution around the sun necessary (Łukasiewicz’ not-possibly-not)? So hasn’t he leveled a useful distinction? Read the rest of this entry »



May 30, 2012

In the latest New Yorker Steven Pinker quotes his defense of the dictionary, “it is not just a matter of opinion that there is no such word misunderestimate, that the citizens of modern Greece are Greeks and not Grecians, and that divisive policies Balkanize rather than vulcanize societies.” Given that language is always in flux, on what principled ground can these be judged? Misunderestimate is redundant, but what of it? Language is full of redundancy, and if some underestimations are benign then maybe misunderestimating is not exactly redundant. If Grecians becomes current, then Greeks will be an anachronism; same with vulcanize. Stranger things have happened to English.

So what’s the purpose of a dictionary? Shouldn’t it be a source of scholarly information — about who uses Balkanize, vulcanize, Grecians and misunderestimating and why, and how their use came to be?  When did scholarly information include prescriptions on use? Shouldn’t that be left to the newly informed reader?

Whether you choose to avoid the intensified “same exact” for fear of someone (as another letter-writer in the same exact issue of the New Yorker) thinking that you are unthinking, that’s a choice you make between using language as if it were logical and systematic (which it can and maybe should be at points) rather than expressive (which it can and should be too). Most such complaints against illogical use are little more than gotcha‘s to show ones linguistic or logical accuity, which though admirable for its accuity is at least as deplorable for its smug, nit-pickity derisiveness.

After all, aint has its place for effective use and so has “Have you finished your homework, yet?” (also from that same letter-writer J.A.F.Hopkins — note the many names). I monitor my own use, but I have garnered not a few enemies for it. Not everyone loves a pedant, and some resent them deeply.

I do not embrace loss of linguistic distinctions. I regularly hear “it begs the question” meaning the uninteresting “it leads to another question,” and it’s been years since I’ve heard anyone use “beg the question” in its old sense of “that’s not an answer but a circuitous restatement of the problem” which was always such a clever rebuttal. But before I’d conclude that English is dying, I’d want to understand better exactly why the changes occur. In this case, it is not that speakers are losing the ability to recognize empty circular reasoning. Begging the question was a rare form belonging to philosophical discourse. The change has not been a loss of the expression, but a popularization. People outside of philosophy are using it, and they use it for their purpose. Within the philosophical community, the expression still thrives exactly as it was and no doubt with the same frequency.

Language is an accommodation to communication for the interchange of information and socialization. That’s what’s interesting in language — not that the language is abused, but why, what conditions of the language system that allows for those changes, and what pressures on expression drive those changes. Same exact is the familiar case of hyperbole that gave us terribly good and awesome and the British brilliant for “very useful.” And brilliant is itself a dead metaphor.

A twenty-something friend regularly writes “could of and would of” although he had an expensive education and fancies himself a writer, no less. His excuse is, “language is always changing.” But that’s clearly not relevant: he would never write, “I could certainly of, but ofn’t, and you would definitely not of, and in fact you ofn’t.”  So his language hasn’t changed, he’s just chosen to spell the word in one grammatical position as a different word. One response is: what an idiot — can’t he see that his own usage is inconsistent? But the interesting response is: what is it that hides his inconsistency from him? It’s not that he’s incapable of thinking about the use of “have.” Anyone can do that once it’s pointed out. It’s that this “have” is not really a verb at all. That’s where it gets interesting — asking, not judging.

Now what do people think they mean when they say “I could care less”? — especially since “I couldn’t care less” is so incisive and expressive.


May 22, 2012

Hayek became something of a hero to Libertarians for presenting the strongest possible arguments against government intervention in the free market and in particular against government redistribution of wealth. But even in The Road to Serfdom he advocates for a social safety net. Recently a few bloggers have tried to make sense of this apparent contradiction, including the estimable Matt Yglesias.

Kevin Vallier thinks that there’s a difference between welfare conducted by an administration or by law, but since laws are created by administrations, it’s hard to see the line between the two, and I haven’t noticed that Hayek himself drew it. On the other hand, Vallier does object to Hayek’s frequent slippery slope arguments as running together the conceptual with the empirical. “Slippery slope” understates the character of Hayek’s approach. He doesn’t object to a mere conceptual possibility opening a possible pathway, he argues that the slopes are necessarily slippery. At several points in the Road to Serfdom he provides compelling arguments that any least gesture towards government intervention in redistribution, for example, leads inevitably to totalitarianism. There is in his responses an element of defensive alarmism evident not only in his general concern but commensurately in the extremity of his argument.

A defensive call  serves a useful purpose, even if it isn’t always a coherent program. That’s also consonant with his views on uncertainty, which undermine program. So I’m with Yglesias on this. Besides, it’s easy to accuse Hayek of inconsistency when he himself rejected consistency as a program.

Tolerance from the other side

May 15, 2012

On the religious side, there are those who manage to harmonize with the non believers, and those who respond aggressively. Naturally, I’m more sympathetic to the former. Read the rest of this entry »

My Proudest Moment (and the problem with Dawkins)

May 15, 2012

One of my proudest moments:

A religious student in one of my linguistics classes challenged Darwinian evolution as “just a theory.” For a moment I thought I’d try to explain that the theory of evolution is scientific because it could be wrong, whereas Creationism is not scientific because it can never be wrong, but I realized that even if I spent the rest of the hour explaining that conundrum of falsificationism, they’d come away thinking that science is false and Creationism is necessarily true, so I’d not only be digressing from class topic, but it would be counterproductive.

Instead I suggested that the difference between the millions of years of evolution that resulted in the complexity and usefulness of natural language, on the one hand, and on the other, the clumsy strictures of standard languages, are exactly like the difference between god-given perfection and the imperfect creations of the human hand: helicopters, extraordinary as they are, crash; dragonflies don’t. The theory of evolution is the scientific way of explaining what in religion is called the god-given.

Thereafter whenever I mentioned evolution, I’d parenthetically add, “or in the discourse of religion, the god-given.” Not only did this make her happy, it allowed her to appreciate fully the content of the course without further objection. Here were two opposing theories which now seemed to work together, harmoniously, if not perfectly. It was as if theoretical swords had been turned to plowshares. And that is a desirable result overall and in itself.

When Dawkins calls atheists “brights” he does nothing to sway his opponents, he merely insults them. The religious may be irrational, but they are not stupid. Read the rest of this entry »

third place

May 13, 2012

Is there a place for a third truth value?

There are two uses for a third truth value: one is the ontological trash bin; the other uncertainty. They are worlds apart.

The trashbin is filled with sentences like “The present king of France is bald” (Russell’s example), “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously ” (Chomsky’s), “The a book left,”  “Did you stop beating your wife?” asked of someone who never beat his wife or doesn’t have a wife. Generally, these sentences fail in some presupposition: there is no king of France, nothing can be both green and not, a thing can’t be designated as the particular and not particular,  you can’t spot beating your wife if you never did.

Dumping these sentences into a third category of neither true nor false seems harmless to me. It doesn’t have any adverse consequences for logic and has the advantage of dealing simply with presupposition failures. If such a sentence is neither true nor false, its negation with also be false. If there were an operator (like negation which takes a true sentence into the other truth value: false) that took true sentences into meaningless sentences, then logic would have to be restructured with far greater complexity. But since there is no such operator — there are too many ways for a presupposition to fail — there’s no reason to worry about this third value. It is logically inert.

The other strategy — using the third value for uncertainty — seems to me appealing in some ways, but has many adverse consequences. It levels necessary truth to mere truth. It’s also not clear whether the category of uncertainty means simply possibility or epistemic possibility. And it leaves the imagination bereft of conceptual fancy — possible worlds like ours, but different.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with conceptual possibilities — Nelson Goodman and David Lewis troubled at length about how such worlds can be consistently imagined. Bivalent modality in possibly worlds has a gross failure in that all necessary truths seem to have the same possible world meaning — true in all possible worlds. Possible worlds are too coarse-grained to distinguish those truths. (But leveling all necessary truths is not as bad as leveling all necessary truths and mere truths together.)

Looking at Kratzer’s lumping problem, or the ill fit of the material conditional with natural language, I get the impression that logic is in its infancy. Beginning with Frege there has been rapid innovation in logic. Unlike technology, which responds with increasing rapidity to a fiercely competitive market, logic hasn’t found its market value, so its progress will seem slow in comparison — unless someone can discover a logical structure that solves AI challenges better than the Aristotelean models.

possible or not

May 10, 2012

Is it possible to swim the Atlantic?
An ex neighbor points out that if “possibly” doesn’t imply also “possibly not” then how is “possibly” different from necessity? Doesn’t “Life on Mars is possible” mean “It’s also possible that there’s no life on Mars”? And doesn’t it also mean “Life on Mars isn’t necessary”?
Grice gave an answer to this question, and I’ve written about it elsewhere in this blog, but I think there’s more to be said and I want to try to sort all of them out.
Suppose Goldbach’s postulate is possibly true. Suppose someone proves it. Now it’s necessarily true. Is it no longer possibly true?
My neighbor says no. I think Lukasciewicz agreed with him. Read the rest of this entry »

Sam Harris and the middle class virtue

May 3, 2012

Sam Harris has been pushing human well-being as a universal goal of morality, without seeing the glaring weaknesses of that assumption. First, he’d have to bite the bullet that human ignorance and illusion might serve our happiness and well-being better than knowledge and understanding. Read the rest of this entry »

dismal complaint

March 2, 2012

Naked Capitalism posts an interview The New Priesthoodwith Yanis Varoufakis, a Greek economist who currently heads the Department of Economic Policy at the University of Athens, in which he criticises economics as self-reflexive and unfalsifiable because economists won’t commit to factual prediction of the economic weather.

Whatever troubles the field, his criticism can’t be it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aymara, trivalence, competing satisfaction and modality

January 6, 2012

In his monograph on the trivalent logic of Aymara, Ivan Guzman de Rojas sets out to show that a trivalent logic can reach conclusions unavailable to bivalent logic. I want to tease out the import and accuracy of this extraordinary claim, and try to understand its significance for modal logic.

Consider two circumstances: p) there’s smoke; q) there’s fire.

Read the rest of this entry »