Radu Luchian(ov): Pastime: Commentary
On Terminology

Ever wondered why the word "terms" is so close to the word "germs"? I don't think there's a causal link there, but it affords an interesting parallel.

Take this quote for example. Is it only me or does the semantic content of 'colorful' change depending on its immediate context (change paradoxically facilitated by the constant presence of 'exotic')?

"Meanwhile let's share the binoculars and see if we can spot any colorful exotic natives in colorful exotic costumes singing colorful exotic songs with their colorful exotic hands out for baksheesh."
-- Robert Heinlein "The Number of the Beast" p.130

We need and use terms in order to communicate. They are supposed to cover (and convey to others), concepts (representations) that we have about the worlds around and within us. We agree on using specific sounds (phonology) and markings (caligraphy) to encode terms (morphology and phraseology) in specific structures (grammar, pragmatics) in order to convey our thoughts (semantics). Thus Linguistics is describing different levels of phenomena that terms exhibit (when it doesn't get normative), and all of its subjects are matter of convention. We need these conventions in order to communicate, but I wouldn't spend my life looking up the correlations in these conventions (as philosophers and semioticians have done and still do). Going the Fodorian way and looking for the source of these correlations at the genetic level is definitely out for me - and I consider it an endeavor dangerous for our individual freedom.

IMHO, terminology poses the greatest problem in Science nowadays. There are divergent phenomena happening both with the creation and the use of terms.
Definition: different disciplines (and even different authors within the same discipline), label the same phenomena with different names and even worse, parts of phenomena get caught at borderlines where one term is defined to end and another one is defined to begin.
Interpretation: we understand things based on our previous experience and based on what concepts are currently primed, so different people understand differently (and draw different conclusions) when they meet the same term. (this is basis for the innitiation and continuation of many conflicts - academic as well as social, cultural, political, etc.)

This is too true for relatively simple, grounded concepts, like "chair", "pleasure" or specific colors. As we consider more and more abstract concepts, the problem would expand exponentially were it not for our keen sense of contradiction on which we base rational thought.

Cognitive Science students are acutely exposed to the pitfalls of terminology since our work is specifically cross-disciplinary.

---- Andrew Brook  wrote:

(Be careful with terminology. YOu should no more expect the technical terminology of philosophy or psychology to be defined probably in Webster's than you would expect the technical terminology of physics to be. Look up 'charm' in Webster's. I bet the definitions it gives will *not* include: 'one of the charge states of certain quarks'.)

---- Radu Luchianov  wrote:

This particular example turned out to be wrong, but the point is well taken. No dictionary is large enough to encompass all of the meanings a term may be used in all the fields of study. Which is the crux of the terminology problem: why don't people pay attention to what terminology other people are using before going and naming concepts in a seemingly arbitrary manner?


---- Andrew Brook  wrote:

The term has a particular meaning in philosophy. It goes back to an idea prominent about 100 years ago that the meaning of term is its method of verification. From which many think it follows that if there is no method of verification, then there is no meaning. Apply this to zombies: if there is no detectable difference between a zombie and us, there is no difference between a zombie and us, period, and zombie thought-experiments are incoherent. I call this the 'duck' principle: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, then it is a duck.

Radu: Minor point, but worthy of notice: My cheese example included "and otherwise indistinguishable from cheese" while your duck example is limited to "likeness". I can do a shadow on the wall with my hands, that looks like a duck, and it won't be a duck.

On my example, Occam's Razor keeps undistinguishable exemplars in the same category, however you look at it.

Reminder of what you labeled verificationism: "If it tastes like cheese and looks like cheese and is otherwise indistinguishable from cheese, it's cheese."

Andy: Trouble is, there are some cases where behaving like us is *not* enough, pain for example, because a being can behave like it is in pain and yet not be in pain. So the duck principle does not work here.

Radu: It seems to me you're using a rather superficial definition of "behavior". You're not including the unconscious or metabolic processes. Nobody can fake pain behavior perfectly. There are somatic variations that can be observed by a good physiologist with the naked eye, not to talk about special equipment. And no matter how good the "faker", those symptoms (which I include in my definition of behavior) can't be faked.

Do you agree there's conscious as well as unconscious behavior? If you do, you may get my point.


(bit of discussion I had with Andy about my dissertation :)
Mon, 25 March 2002

Radu: Sure. I can work towards both goals, since they're compatible, and if the applied AI research doesn't pan out, I can spend a month writing the thesis itself in the theoretical vein, and reorienting all argumentation throughout the dissertation in that direction.

Andy: A month is wildly optimistic for writing a dissertation. Make sure that the applied AI has significant theoretical interest. Otherwise, this is all fine.

Radu: I didn't say "write the dissertation", I said "write the thesis" (which is in the abstract and a paragraph stating what I'm doing in the dissertation), and rephrase all the evidence gathered in my year (and a half, hopefully) of research, to point in the right direction.

Andy: Terminology, terminology. I think what you are talking about is the prospectus in our jargon. AB

Radu: Yes, Andy: terminology, terminology... And no, Andy, I meant the thesis. Every paper/article/chapter/dissertation has a thesis. What the paper is supposed to expand upon. The central idea. For a dissertation, it's the piece of new knowledge that is contributed to the human "repository". That idea would be present both in the prospectus and the dissertation.

Andy: OK, I understand now. Your use of the term 'thesis' was just fine. What led me astray is that the term is also used for a completed piece of work, as in honours thesis, masters thesis. A silly ambiguity but one we are stuck with.

Radu: Yep. And if you think about it, it's just right: what's important (for me at least, in a knowledge-base approach), is not all the evidence or the argumentation, but the thesis itself. The rest is only support stuff, to be checked in case one disagrees with or is surprised by the thesis.
The ambiguity comes from the bureaucratization of the actual research: committees consider the paper as a whole rather than the actual idea. They tend to put formating and evidence and argument ahead in importance than the idea. So "thesis" became ambiguous.

Cognitive Science

On Fri, 05 April 2002, Andrew Brook wrote

Andy: Schrodinger was a great physicist, an indifferent philosopher, and no cognitive scientist at all.

Radu: On the last two clauses, we disagree. Now I know for sure that we have wildly different definitions for Cognitive Science. And maybe even Philosophy. Which doesn't bode well for my dissertation. Here's the starting couple'o sentences of "Mind and Matter":

"The world is a construct made out of our sensations, perception and memories. It is convenient to consider it as existing objectively, in and of itself." [my translation from the Romanian version I have]

He spends the rest of the lecture defending that constructivist view of the world. Which view strikes me as the most balanced from all the views I met in all of my varied readings.

The first "chapter" is called "The physical foundation of consciousness." The last one is called "The mystery of qualia" (I think) Every argument in the lecture is crystal clear, every example illuminating. I can't fathom why you'd call him "an indifferent philosopher, and no cognitive scientist at all."


Andy: An indifferent philosopher because almost no professional philosophers have been sense-data phenomenonalists (which is what S was and which is a little different from constructivism in many of the forms of that hydra-headed view) since the 1920s or 1930s -- there are big problems with the view -- and not at all a cognitive scientist because he never cites a scrap of empirical evidence. Not to put a fine point on it.


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