Syntax Attacks

Thanks to the ever-watchful Normblog, I encounter an article by Colin Tatz inveighing against talk about sport.  Norm is right to call Tatz to account for writing nonsense – talk about sport is just as meaningful as talk about politics, history, religion, nuclear deterrence, genocide, or any other real-world human activity.  Tatz says:

Sport is international phatic but also a crucial Australian (male) vehicle. It enables not just short, passing greetings but allows for what may seem like deep, passionate and meaningful conversations but which in the end are unmemorable, empty, producing nothing and enhancing no one.

Unmemorable?! Really?   What Australian could forget Norman May’s shouted “Gold! Gold for Australia! Gold!” commentary at the end of the men’s 400-metre swimming medley at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  Only a churlish gradgrind could fail to be enhanced by hearing this.   And what Australian of a certain age could forget the inimitable footie commentary of Rex Mossop, including, for example, such statements as,  “That’s the second consecutive time he’s done that in a row one straight after the other.” Mossop’s heat-of-the-moment sporting talk was commemorated with his many winning places in playwright Alex Buzo’s Australian Indoor Tautology Pennant, an annual competition held, as I recall,  in Wagga Wagga, Gin Gin and Woy Woy (although not in Woop Woop or in The Never Never), before moving internationally to exotic locations such as Pago Pago, Xai Xai and Baden Baden.  Unmemorable, Mr Tatz?  Enhancing no one?  Really?  To be clear, these are not memorable sporting events, but memorable sporting commentary.   And all I’ve mentioned so far is sporting talk, not the great writers on baseball, on golf, on cricket, on swimming,  . . .
But as well as misunderstanding what talk about sport is about and why it is meaningful, Tatz is wrong on another score.   He says:

But why so much natter and clatter about sport? Eco’s answer is that sport “is the maximum aberration of ‘phatic’ speech”, which is really a negation of speech.
Phatic speech is meaningless speech, as in “G’day, how’s it going?” or “have a nice day” or “catch you later” — small talk phrases intended to produce a sense of sociability, sometimes uttered in the hope that it will lead to further and more real intercourse, but human enough even if the converse goes no further.

Phatic communications are about establishing and maintaining relationships between people.  Such a purpose is the very essence of speech communication, not its negation.  Tatz, I fear, has fallen into the trap of so many computer scientists – to focus on the syntax of messages, and completely ignore their semantics and pragmatics.    The syntax of messages concerns their surface form, their logical structure, their obedience (or not) to rules which determine whether they are legal and well-formed statements (or not) in the language they purport to arise from.  The semantics of utterances concerns their truth or falsity, in so far they describe real objects in some world (perhaps the one we all live in, or some past, future or imagined world),  while their pragmatics concerns those aspects of their meaning unrelated to their truth status (for example, who has power to revoke or retract them).
I have discussed this syntax-is-all-there-is mistake before.    I believe the root causes of this mistaken view are two-fold: the mis-guided focus of philosophers these last two centuries on propositions to the exclusion of other types of utterances and statements (of which profound error Terry Eagleton has shown himself guilty), and the mis-guided view that we now live in some form of Information Society, a view which wrongly focuses attention on the information  transferred by utterances to the exclusion of any other functions that utterances may serve or any other things we agents (people and machines) may be doing and aiming to do when we talk.   If you don’t believe me about the potentially complex functionality of utterances, even when viewed as nothing more than the communication of factual propositions, then read this simple example.
If communications were only about the transfer of explicit information, then life would be immensely less interesting.  It would also not be human life, for we would be no more intelligent than desktop computers passing HTTP requests and responses to one another.

Vale: Stephen Toulmin

The Anglo-American philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, has just died, aged 87.   One of the areas to which he made major contributions was argumentation, the theory of argument, and his work found and finds application not only in philosophy but in computer science.
For instance, under the direction of John Fox, the Advanced Computation Laboratory at Europe’s largest medical research charity, Cancer Research UK (formerly, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund) applied Toulmin’s model of argument in computer systems they built and deployed in the 1990s to handle conflicting arguments in some domain.  An example was a system for advising medical practitioners with the arguments for and against prescribing a particular drug to a patient with a particular medical history and disease presentation.  One company commercializing these ideas in medicine is Infermed.    Other applications include the automated prediction of chemical properties such as toxicity (see for example, the work of Lhasa Ltd), and dynamic optimization of extraction processes in mining.
S E Toulmin
For me, Toulmin’s most influential work was was his book Cosmopolis, which identified and deconstructed the main biases evident in contemporary western culture since the work of Descartes:

  • A bias for the written over the oral
  • A bias for the universal over the local
  • A bias for the general over the particular
  • A bias for the timeless over the timely.

Formal logic as a theory of human reasoning can be seen as example of these biases at work. In contrast, argumentation theory attempts to reclaim the theory of reasoning from formal logic with an approach able to deal with conflicts and gaps, and with special cases, and less subject to such biases.    Norm’s dispute with Larry Teabag is a recent example of resistance to the puritanical, Descartian desire to impose abstract formalisms onto practical reasoning quite contrary to local and particular sense.
Another instance of Descartian autism is the widespread deletion of economic history from graduate programs in economics and the associated privileging of deductive reasoning in abstract mathematical models over other forms of argument (eg, narrative accounts, laboratory and field experiments, field samples and surveys, computer simulation, etc) in economic theory.  One consequence of this autism is the Great Moral Failure of Macroeconomics in the Great World Recession of 2008-onwards.
S. E. Toulmin [1958]:  The Uses of Argument.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
S. E. Toulmin [1990]: Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Speech acts

Thanks to Normblog, I have seen Terry Eagleton’s recent interview on matters of religion, in which he is reported as saying:

All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.

Before commenting on the substance here (ie, religion), some words on Eagleton’s evident mis-understanding of speech act theory and the philosophy of language, a mis-understanding that should have been clear if he tested his words against his own experiences of life.  His statement concerns performatives — utterances which potentially change the state of the world by their being uttered.  Examples include promises, commands, threats, entreaties, prayers, various legal declarations (eg, that a certain couple are now wed),  etc.  But mere propositional statements (that some description of the world is true) may also change the state of the world by the mere fact of being uttered.
Continue reading ‘Speech acts’

Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.