The problem with meaning

John Ohno on 2018-07-03

The space of all possible understandable statements is composed almost exclusively of references to complex & abstract ideas with a tenuous relationship to any physical reality & unclear test conditions. Almost all actual statements encountered in daily life are untestable except in an ad-hoc & ambiguous way, because their referents don’t map well to physical reality. Even statements about physical objects, because they are about classes of objects the definitions of which have unclear borders, are almost always ambiguous as to their truth even when tested. Our senses perceive objects in collaboration with our context and memory, which chunks the world into pieces whose borders have no material referent.

We’re stuck at best making ambiguous declarative statements about ambiguous concepts about which we contradict each other and ourselves, and whose very definition is a generalization from a bunch of specific referents — specifics often not shared between people, experienced differently when the specifics are shared, and remembered differently by the same person depending on context. Human beings & their communications technologies (of which language is one) are ill-suited for expressing ideas relevant to anything except language itself, whether it physically exists or not.

This should not be surprising, because sloppy heuristics form the core of human cognition, and the sloppiness of those heuristics is what makes them useful. However, it’s important to keep in mind, because via exactly those heuristic processes human beings regularly elide the entire indeterminacy of language & communication and do stupid shit like decide that anybody who disagrees with them is lying/trolling or anyone who doesn’t understand them is stupid/wrong.

Meta statements are the only kind of statement whose truth value can be reliably evaluated, because circular logic collapses into tautologies (which are true), contradictions (false), and paradoxes (intractable), without reference to anything else. So, they can be handled from first principles.

This has worked really well for mathematics, which can be defined as the field concerned solely with internal consistency. That said, even math has issues, but they aren’t intractable ambiguity. (Incompleteness is different from ambiguity. Theorems that are provably incomplete merely have the third truth value: neither true nor false. The difference is that in common language most things that are neither true nor untrue are meaningless — because their construction is incapable of having a coherent meaning, or because the ambiguity cannot be defined away without making them meaningless. In math, because consistency and coherence is so important, the class of untrue unfalse things is dominated by meaningful statements that are intractable.)

Unfortunately, if you limit yourself to discussing that which can be discussed unambiguously, you cannot talk about things that are useful or vital at human scale. Physical objects are right out, to begin with, as are social constructions; these two categories encompass almost everything that matters to people. Another very important task is progressively and iteratively defining and redefining ideas we have only an intuitive sense of: without being able to remake our ontology in this way, we become stuck in the past in terms of personal and social progress. Engaging in collaborative meaning-making is a matter of experimenting with different lenses on incompletely-observed formless chaos — imposing forms on it that exist only in our mind.