Monday, June 19, 2006

Meaning: Complexity, Directness and Possibility

Recently, I wrote about the way that meaning is connected to a set of relevant experiences. I also claimed that those relevant experiences are always properly subdivided by any meaningful claim into consistent and inconsistent experiences.

In the comments, Franklin Mason questioned whether my criteria for meaning meant that meaning was infinitely complex:
The set of possible experiences that might serve as verification of some existential proposition is infinite. Thus if an existential proposition means that set of possible experiences, that proposition is infinitely complex. But if it is infinitely complex, it cannot be grasped by minds such as ours. We do however grasp many simple existential propositions. Thus . . .
The problem with this critique is that an infinite enumeration of cases does not make a proposition infinitely complex.

If I say that X is greater than 3 and less than 4, there are an infinite number of points I could enumerate that would satisfy (or violate) my proposition, but the proposition is not infinitely complex. This is because it is simple to execute the test of the proposition's veracity. The proposition would only be infinitely complex if the execution of the verification test for the proposition were infinitely complex.

Franklin also echoed Bob's earlier comment on what constituted detectability:
When you say 'detectable', to whom do you mean? Only humans? Surely not. What organs of sense can be put to use? Only those we have? Again, surely not. I don't see clearly what a good account of 'detectable' would come to.
As with Bob's criticism, the answer is that detectability does not have to be direct, but must at least be indirect.

I have never seen my friend's girlfriend, but she has been described to me. Thus, I have no direct experience of her, but I have indirect experiences such that propositions about her are verifiable, by other indirect or indirect experiences.

Finally, Franklin asks whether possible experiences are themselves undetectable:
You speak at times of possible experiences. What sense can an empiricist such as yourself make of that talk? Are there possible nonactual things? You seem to assume that there are. But surely such things are undetectable . . .
This critique is more subtle, and it illustrates the way in which meaning can get lost when we try to generalize away from verifiability.

Suppose I say that "Roses are red." I making this claim, I am contemplating several possible experiences. These possible experiences are experienced by me now. Possibilities are themselves actualities in thought. I have created real, mental images of roses of different colors that I will compare with physical roses at a future time. These possible roses exist as models now, before I ever observe a rose in color. So it would be incorrect to claim that, for the purposes of making meaning for propositions, possible experiences are undetectable. Rather, they are the vital actualities upon which meaning is based.


unenlightened said...

Almost, you convince me that "...meaning is connected to a set of relevant experiences." But could you just point out for me the relevant experiences that led you to decide that? My own experience is that people say all sorts of things which I find very hard to categorise according to relevant experiences; things like 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' or 'Arbeit macht frei.' or God is love.' or 'Meaning is connected to a set of relevant experiences.' Perhaps I'm not very good at sorting relevant experiences, and perhaps some of these propositions only appear to have meaning. You are very clear, and yet I remain confused.

Doctor Logic said...


Let's take your example: "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

This says that two people might disagree on what they consider to be beautiful, and it seems to define quite clearly what experiences might satisfy or violate the claim. For example, experiences that don't involve multiple agents (or a single agent at sufficiently different times) are irrelevant. Also, experiences or experiences of claims that are not about beauty are irrelevant.

In the case of "God is love," I have to agree with you. I have no idea what this proposition means because I cannot say what experiences are relevant or consistent with it. I know what experiences relate to love, but not which experiences relate to God. Is God a synonym for love? I presume not, but then what is God in this context?

As for my statement about meaning being connected to a set of relevant experiences, I think that's pretty straightforward.

Suppose I have a proposition, P. Suppose first that you know what P means to you. In that case, you would know how to tell whether a given experience would be denied if P were true, and how to tell whether a given experience would be denied if P were false. Any experience which isn't one of these two kinds isn't relevant to P.

Suppose you do not know the meaning of P. Then, in order for me to convey the meaning of P to you, I must explain how to test experiences against P to see if they are denied by P's truth or falsity. If I cannot tell you how to test experiences against P, then I cannot convey the meaning of P (or, far more likely, even I don't know what P means).

Franklin Mason said...

If possibilities are actualities in thought, then there is no possibility at a time that is not thought then. But this, it seems, succumbs to counter-example.

If a thing is true at a time, it is possible then. (It is not, as it were, merely possible. It is both possible and true.) At all past time, the fine structure of our universe is that described by quantum dynamics. Thus at all past time, quantum dynamics was possibly true. But if all possibilities at a time are then actualities in thought, then at all past times some intellect contemplated the possibility of the truth of quantum dynamics. But of course quantum dynamics is a new arrival on the scene. For most of past time, no one anywhere was in any way cognizant of either its truth or even of its possibility.

Thus possibilities are not actualities in thought.

(Of course one might respond that possibilities are actualities in the mind of God. But I assume you are not a theist.)

Doctor Logic said...

Hi Franklin,

The only way to access any thing or idea is through experience. I wrote about this a few weeks ago. What it means is that everything we know of comes through this "filter" of experience. Filter might not even be the appropriate word because there is no way to get around the filter. The word filter suggests that there is something unfiltered out there, which is not what I mean to say. As soon as we open the door to talking about things outside the filter, we let in all sorts of unreasonable ideas, like solipsism.

So, let's apply this to the concept of possibility.

First, we have premonitions about classes of future events. For example, I might have a premonition about England winning the World Cup. This premonition spans many different future experiences like England winning 1-0, or 2-0, or winning on sudden-death penalty kicks vs. winning during regular play.

Mutually exclusive premonitions (e.g. England winning vs. Brazil winning) are called possibilities.

Thus, possibility is a description of a set of experiences. It is not a word that refers to external states beyond exprience.

Consider the possibility of cosmic inflation. Inflation would have occurred long before humans existed. However, the possibility of inflation exists today because we can formulate inflationary and non-inflationary models and validate those models against future experiences, e.g., microwave anisotropies, galaxy distribution, etc. Yet, it would be an error to speak of possibilities without there ever being any intelligent agents to experience those conceptual possibilities. After all, there would be no speaking at all without such agents!

So, just to be clear, my perspective does not rule out discussions of possible events that occurred before there were conscious beings. However, it remains senseless to speak about possibilities that, by definition, cannot be validated by experience. Speaking is itself an experience.

I'm going to write a full post on this topic. I think that a better notation would make this idea much more accessible.