Monday, July 31, 2006


It seems reasonable to assert "a theory of truth is itself true if and only if it fulfills its own criteria for truth" (I'll call this the "self-satisfaction principle"). If I say "x is true if God said so", this fulfills the self-satisfaction principle. However, if I say "x is true if and only if God said so", this does not (precisely because I made the claim, and God has not).

Traditional theories of truth don't fare well:

  • Correspondence: the theory is an abstraction and cannot possibly correspond to anything concrete
  • Coherence: the theory initially stands alone, and has nothing to cohere to
  • Pragmatism: is it pragmatic to be a pragmatist? Outside of an initial assumption of order and uniformity, coupled with a utility function, no.
I propose the counter-example theory of truth as a response to the self-satisfaction principle: "x is true only if there do not exist any counter-examples to x" (where counter-examples includes counter-proofs).

Unfortunately, creating "only if" theories of truth that fulfill the self-satisfaction principle is pretty easy (if I say, "x is true only if I say so", if I write "x is true only if I write it"). A real theory of truth would have to fulfill the self-satisfaction principle and describe an "if and only if" relationship.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody

From "Pragmatics as Biology or Culture" by John C. Marshall and Roget J. Wales:

'Full-song' is acquired by a white-crowned sparrow if and only if the juvenile bird is exposed to adult song during a fairly well defined 'sensitive period'; in the absence of such experience, the socially isolated (but otherwise intact) bird will produce, when mature, a simple, phrased song, lacking the full dialect complexities of its normally reared conspecifics. A juvenile exposed to any white-crowned sparrow dialect learns that dialect; but exposure to the song of another species has little or no effect — the bird sings simple song when mature, just as if it had been totally isolated from experience of song.
Some Christian musicians seem to understand a similar need for direct experience. In "Seeing You", Matt Redman sings:
No one can sing of things they have not seen...
Worship starts with seeing You,
Our hearts respond to Your revelation.
In "My Heart" from Paramore:
It's been so long...
Since I've heard the sound,
the sound of my only Hope.
This time I will be listening.
Sing us a song and we'll
sing it back to You.
We could sing our own,
but what would it be without You?
The difficulty comes in discernment — how do we know we've learned some dialect of the "full-song", and aren't naively improvising on our desire for a non-existent Hope? Maybe more people are following in the path of Pessoa than would like to admit it:
I'll always be the one who waited for the door to open in the doorless wall,
Who sang the song of Infinity in a chicken coop,
And heard the voice of God in a covered well.
(Update: Some more insight on the white-crowned sparrows here)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Extreme Pragmatism

I've been skimming through Saying and Meaning in Puerto Rico: Some Problems in the Ethnography of Discourse by Marshall Morris. The majority of the book is focused on "episodes", each documenting a common oddity of the Spanish used in Puerto Rico. It seems like language has become more of a social lubricant than a tool:

The glossing over of distinctions appears particularly in giving reasons or excuses: "A man and his wife are invited to a dinner party. They do not appear. When their would-be hosts next see them, they give their excuses, he to the man, she to the woman, separately. When the reasons are compared, they bear little or no relation to one another, though they seem genuine." Though in the end it appears that the reasons given were not literally true, being in contradiction, they were of the same value: they had the effect of saying that their failure to attend was due to things beyond their control, consideration for other people, and so on. They had the same effect as literal truth, or better. Literal answers are often more than people want or require, and they are resisted, over-looked and sometimes resented. The effect is what counts.
I'm reminded of the phrase "hung up" from Del Close's classic "How to Speak Hip".

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Evolution of Communication

From Causes of Color:

To attract the potential pollinator to that particular blossom, availability of nectar has to be advertised to the butterfly. This is displayed in the color of the petals. The color of the nectar guide of Aesculus hippocastanum [horsechestnut] changes from yellow to red when nectar is no longer in production.
I've heard of flowers having markings to attract insects, but never of those markings changing, like some organic "no vacancy". Why would they want to do that? It seems too difficult, why not always advertise "vacancy" and let the insect figure it out themselves? This must be a sign of ID, right?

The meanings of the color can only exist if they change in the first place. This change happens to be evolutionarily beneficial: imagine a bunch of horsechestnut flowers; only a few are producing nectar. If the insect visits them at random, there is a low probability of fertilization and reproduction. However, if there is some sort of signal coupled with the production, the insect will adapt to this (possibly by learning, more likely by selection over multiple generations).

The color only has meaning when it's related to some other property. Language can only evolve when there is a definite semantics; and when this is useful, it will necessarily evolve. This makes useless and ambiguous language — nonsense and poetry — the zenith of communication.

(Update: Bruce MacLennan has some done some interesting research studying the emergence of communication within artificial species, echoing these ideas. See his more recent summary or the original from 1990.)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Proof by Reminder

It's a lot harder to admit that someone doesn't love you if you're reminded of them constantly. With reminders, you have something tangible for your imagination to play with. Maybe church works the same way?