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The question comes out of an thought experiment which goes like this:

The question comes out of an thought experiment which goes like this: Suppose i ask you to choose a random word from English dictionary. And I tell you to find its definition. Now the definition of the word will also contains some set of words. I ask you to find the definition of all words taking one at a time. The definition of this second word will also contain some set of words, so you have to repeat this definition finding until you reach a word which has already been defined. Now you take the second word from the definition of the very first word you chose and keep repeating this process. As there are finite number of words in English dictionary, you will reach a point where there is nothing to define. Hence, if a set of definitions(in this case the English dictionary) there are finite definitions for each unknown. Accordingly, if our laws of universe are finite, then there will be finite answers to explain the entire universe. Or we can say existence of each physical process can be satisfactorily...

This is a first-rate question, if a little complicated, and deserves a longer (first-rate) answer. But it's Thanksgiving so I have to be brief! First your point about the dictionary is quite fascinating. I'm pretty sure Wittgenstein (and maybe Augustine) made roughly similar or closely related observations -- but partly in service of recognizing that ultimately for language/meaning to work we must connect (some) words not merely to other words but to 'reality' (or at least our perceptions thereof) -- we have some 'ostensive' definitions whereby we assign the meaning of a word by relating it directly to some object or object of perception ... (Not that that is problem-free itself, but it attempts to break the cycle of words-words definitions). Second, I'm not entirely clear on the analogy you make between the definition case and that of physical laws (and not clear whether the point I just made about ostensive definitions would apply in some analogous way to the laws). But apart from the analogy I can say you also have your finger on a very deep issue about explanation etc. -- and one response might be to point out that while perhaps we can explain various particular events by reference to the physical laws constitutiong the framework, that general strategy won't explain the laws themselves -- that at some point explanation of the system itself requires going outside the system (perhaps there's the analogy to ostensive definition) -- I think the great medieval thinker Maimonides made a point similar to this -- ultimately using it either as part of an argument to believe in the existence of God (as something outside the physical system that could explain the physical system), or at least to recognize that you can't apply the normal model of explanation of normal events back to explain the 'beginning' of the universe, creation ex nihilo .... Does this mean a 'theory of everything' isn't possible? Well, of course, better ask the physicists that. Pretty clearly such a theory would also have to explain itself ... (or else perhaps could a Theory of Everything include God etc.)? .... Anyway much more to say here, but many deep points are raised in your question ....

hope this is useful!

ap

This is a first-rate question, if a little complicated, and deserves a longer (first-rate) answer. But it's Thanksgiving so I have to be brief! First your point about the dictionary is quite fascinating. I'm pretty sure Wittgenstein (and maybe Augustine) made roughly similar or closely related observations -- but partly in service of recognizing that ultimately for language/meaning to work we must connect (some) words not merely to other words but to 'reality' (or at least our perceptions thereof) -- we have some 'ostensive' definitions whereby we assign the meaning of a word by relating it directly to some object or object of perception ... (Not that that is problem-free itself, but it attempts to break the cycle of words-words definitions). Second, I'm not entirely clear on the analogy you make between the definition case and that of physical laws (and not clear whether the point I just made about ostensive definitions would apply in some analogous way to the laws). But apart from the analogy I can say...

My question is about Rigid Designators. I enjoyed reading Kripke a lot, but I

My question is about Rigid Designators. I enjoyed reading Kripke a lot, but I find this concept hard to understand. According to Kripke, a rigid designator refers to, or picks up, the same thing in every possible world. But this way of defining, if it is defining at all, rigid designators is too vague for me to understand. Take 'pain' as an example. Since there are many debates over what pain is (that is, is it a illusion, is it purely physical, it is purely mental, or it is mental and physical etc.), how can it still be a rigid designator if we do not even know what it picks up in our actual world? It could be argue that even though we do not know what it picks up in this world as long as it picks up the same thing in every possible world it is still a rigid designator. But indeed, what would guarantee that it could pick up the same thing?

I'm no expert here, but my recollection is that Kripke reminds us/warns us to avoid the following picture: that we somehow glance into all the many possible worlds and have the task of figuring out which items, in those worlds, are designated by our terms. That would be impossible (for more reasons than one!), not least of all for this reason: suppose there's a possible world where Fred (a dark-haired man in the actual world) is a red-haired woman (and differs in many other traits from actual Fred too). How could we possible look at that red-haired woman (etc) and say, "Oh look there's possible Fred!" The whole point of these "possible variations" on Fred would obscure the possibility of identifying Fred by any of his (her) properties in those other worlds ... Rather, Kripke says, we stipulate possible worlds: we have whatever intuitions we have re: what's possible and we get to stipulate that we are speaking of that world which varies from this world in such and such respects. So if we believe it possible for Fred to be a red-haired woman, we may speak of the possible world in which he is a red-haired woman. We don't need to "guarantee" that our term "picks up the same thing" (i.e. Fred): we stipulate it. Things get a little more complicated re: natural kinds, and you make many good points re "pain," and I recall Kripke has an extended discussion of how we have to distinguish cases/worlds where words get used differently from cases where the natural kind itself is possibly different. But I think, ultimately, the point you make in the penultimate sentence is the right one: when we use natural kind terms our intention is to use them rigidly, even when we may not be entirely sure exactly what their actual denotation is. We don't have to worry re: "guaranteeing" cross-world denotation because we stipulate it.

But I'm sure greater experts than I will weigh in shortly too ....

best, ap

I'm no expert here, but my recollection is that Kripke reminds us/warns us to avoid the following picture: that we somehow glance into all the many possible worlds and have the task of figuring out which items, in those worlds, are designated by our terms. That would be impossible (for more reasons than one!), not least of all for this reason: suppose there's a possible world where Fred (a dark-haired man in the actual world) is a red-haired woman (and differs in many other traits from actual Fred too). How could we possible look at that red-haired woman (etc) and say, "Oh look there's possible Fred!" The whole point of these "possible variations" on Fred would obscure the possibility of identifying Fred by any of his (her) properties in those other worlds ... Rather, Kripke says, we stipulate possible worlds: we have whatever intuitions we have re: what's possible and we get to stipulate that we are speaking of that world which varies from this world in such and such respects. So if we believe it...

I just heard that, in the case of Hilary Putnam's "Twin Earth" experiment, Tyler

I just heard that, in the case of Hilary Putnam's "Twin Earth" experiment, Tyler Burge argued that Oscar and Twin Oscar had different concepts in mind when talking about "water". This seems bizarre, doubly so if neither Oscar nor Twin Oscar are familiar with the chemical composition of the stuff they call "water". If they don't know the chemical composition of the stuff, and the chemical composition is the only different between the two substances (all mesoscopic properties are identical), how can their mental concepts of the stuff possibly be different?

Suppose we individuate concepts by "reference," so two mental states/thoughts are identical if they are about the same things, otherwise different. If (arguably) one twin's thoughts 'refer to' H2O and the other's 'refer to' XYZ, then they would count as different thoughts or concepts. What you are merely presuming is that the notion of 'concept' should be narrowly individuated (ie defined only in terms of what's 'in the head', so the two twins shoudl have the same concept). But that is the very thing that is explicitly being debated in the classic papers by Putnam, Burge, and all the rest ....!

best, ap

Suppose we individuate concepts by "reference," so two mental states/thoughts are identical if they are about the same things, otherwise different. If (arguably) one twin's thoughts 'refer to' H2O and the other's 'refer to' XYZ, then they would count as different thoughts or concepts. What you are merely presuming is that the notion of 'concept' should be narrowly individuated (ie defined only in terms of what's 'in the head', so the two twins shoudl have the same concept). But that is the very thing that is explicitly being debated in the classic papers by Putnam, Burge, and all the rest ....! best, ap

If it was for an organised civilization of aliens to be discovered, could an

If it was for an organised civilization of aliens to be discovered, could an actual form of communication emerge? I mean, aside the fact that we would speak different langugages, we would have totally different habits, different way of thinking and ethics (if not different ''types'' of logic as they would have grown on a diffent planet with all the consequences this fact induces).

Great question. I would think, though, that the onus would be on the skeptic raising the question to give solid reasons why communication would NOT be possible. Already on earth we find different cultures with different languages, different "habits," different ways of thinking and ethics, and in fact even different 'types of logic' apparently (or so some cultural psychologists have argued at various points). But why should that make some form of communication impossible? True, the process of translating between such languages might be more complicated than it would be if more were shared; and true, more miscommunication might well occur during the translations, due to all sorts of pragmatic reasons. But that seems very far removed from holding a strong claim such as "communication is impossible." Absent such an explicit argument, and given the kind of counterevidence different earth cultures already present, I would have to go with a "yes" answer to your question! (By the way, Donald Davidson famously argued, in " On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme," that the claim that there could be other conceptual schemes different from "ours" doesn't make sense -- such schemes would not be translatable into ours, but the idea of untranslatable languages also doesn't make sense ... Pretty relevant to your concerns -- check it out!)

ap

Great question. I would think, though, that the onus would be on the skeptic raising the question to give solid reasons why communication would NOT be possible. Already on earth we find different cultures with different languages, different "habits," different ways of thinking and ethics, and in fact even different 'types of logic' apparently (or so some cultural psychologists have argued at various points). But why should that make some form of communication impossible? True, the process of translating between such languages might be more complicated than it would be if more were shared; and true, more miscommunication might well occur during the translations, due to all sorts of pragmatic reasons. But that seems very far removed from holding a strong claim such as "communication is impossible." Absent such an explicit argument, and given the kind of counterevidence different earth cultures already present, I would have to go with a "yes" answer to your question! (By the way, Donald Davidson famously...

According to Wikipedia, "any definition that attempts to set out the essence of"

According to Wikipedia, "any definition that attempts to set out the essence of" a concept "specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for a thing being a member of" the set corresponding to that concept. Ok. But I wonder if it wouldn't be great if, for some more difficult concepts, we could at least specify some sufficient conditions in a way that we would pick most things that are members a the corresponding set. For instance, wouldn't it be a nice philosophical progress if we could get a "definition" (?) of beauty that would cover most beautiful things and no non-beautiful thing? I mean a definition that is not circular, of course.

I haven't looked at the wikipedia article, but the view it expresses is VERY old-fashioned. Since Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" concept, and especially since cognitive scientists such as Eleanor Rosch's work in the 1970s, it's far more fashionable to think of concepts (and categories) as constituted not by "necessary and sufficient conditions" but by prototypes and similarity relations, far more befitting "fuzzier" concepts -- for example the way we think about "dogs" is not to generate an "essence" of necy/sufficient conditions, but by having in mind some prototypical dog at the center and then linking it to less familiar, less central, other examples ... This is far more in keeping with your nice suggestion, that what we seek (as I'd put it) are some "characteristic" properties of the paradigmatic members of the set, recognizing that other creatures may share these properties to various degrees and still count as members of the set in question ... So unless the wikipedia article was specifically using the word "essence" to mean what it used to mean (necy/suffic condns), and to distinguish essences from concepts, then I'd say your view is far more on the right track than the wiki's view ....

hope that's useful--

ap

I haven't looked at the wikipedia article, but the view it expresses is VERY old-fashioned. Since Wittgenstein's "family resemblance" concept, and especially since cognitive scientists such as Eleanor Rosch's work in the 1970s, it's far more fashionable to think of concepts (and categories) as constituted not by "necessary and sufficient conditions" but by prototypes and similarity relations, far more befitting "fuzzier" concepts -- for example the way we think about "dogs" is not to generate an "essence" of necy/sufficient conditions, but by having in mind some prototypical dog at the center and then linking it to less familiar, less central, other examples ... This is far more in keeping with your nice suggestion, that what we seek (as I'd put it) are some "characteristic" properties of the paradigmatic members of the set, recognizing that other creatures may share these properties to various degrees and still count as members of the set in question ... So unless the wikipedia article was...

Most words function properly because we more or less agree on what they mean. I

Most words function properly because we more or less agree on what they mean. I can say "chair" and you will most likely have a good idea of what I am talking about. There are other terms, however, where people seem to squabble quite a bit about what a term actually means - like "art", "personhood", "fairness", etc. My question is: Can such terms be useful even if there are several opposing interpretations of what they mean? How? No doubt the debate itself is informative, but if we don't have a clear understanding of what "art" means, I wonder how useful it is to talk about the qualities of art, the study of art, or whether something counts as art. So how useful are terms where people can't agree on a concrete meaning? When does a term become too vague or disputed to be useful?

Great question, though I might worry that words like "useful" are about as vague as any of those in your examples, and thus your question may suffer from the same problems! ... I like your point that "the debate itself is informative" -- assuming that's true, which seems plausible, why couldn't that be "useful" enough? We learn an awful lot about our own concepts and beliefs when we grapple over what constitutes a person, or a work of art, or fairness ... So I'm a bit curious why, after recognizing that as a value for even these vague terms, you seem to demand something significantly more. Perhaps you would like these terms to take on refined and precise meanings like those in natural science, at least paradigmatically -- but then again, these terms DO often take on such precision, at least once they're in the hands of philosophers debating the issues. Bertrand Russell has a nice bit where he observes that if scientists are entitled to develop their own terminology and refine ordinary words to make them "useful to science," then philosophers should do the same .... But then, lastly, one more point: even if the examples you mention don't have "clear" or "precise" or "agreed upon" semantic boundaries, all of them seem to display the archetypal properties of vague terms: they have central, "clear" cases, at the same time as they lack clear peripheral borders. (eg "tall" "mountain" -- Mt Everest is definitely a mountain, even if we can't say precisely when smaller things stop being mountains ...) ... So perhaps the primary "usefulness" of such expressions comes from the agreed upon "central" cases, and then the other kind of "usefulness" comes from the informative debate about the boundaries?

hope THAT is useful ... :-)

ap

Great question, though I might worry that words like "useful" are about as vague as any of those in your examples, and thus your question may suffer from the same problems! ... I like your point that "the debate itself is informative" -- assuming that's true, which seems plausible, why couldn't that be "useful" enough? We learn an awful lot about our own concepts and beliefs when we grapple over what constitutes a person, or a work of art, or fairness ... So I'm a bit curious why, after recognizing that as a value for even these vague terms, you seem to demand something significantly more. Perhaps you would like these terms to take on refined and precise meanings like those in natural science, at least paradigmatically -- but then again, these terms DO often take on such precision, at least once they're in the hands of philosophers debating the issues. Bertrand Russell has a nice bit where he observes that if scientists are entitled to develop their own terminology and refine ordinary words to make...

What is the difference between a word having two meanings and a word that has an

What is the difference between a word having two meanings and a word that has an "alternative" meaning? For intance, is MOUSE a word that has two meanings (first meaning: "a small rodent of a species found all over the world that has a brown or greyish-brown coat and a long mostly hairless tail"; second meaning: "a hand-held device for working with a computer by controlling a pointer on the screen") or does it have only one meaning ("either a small rodent of ..... or a hand-held device for ....")?

Interesting question. But I'm wondering what rides on the answer. And what is connected to the question. Of course, we begin by wanting to distinguish the meanings of the two relevant clauses you give ("small rodent," v. "hand-held device"). So, separately, you obviously hold that there are two meanings in play. Now in logic it may be true that, strictly speaking, the proposition "P or Q" is a distinct proposition from either of its disjuncts, and can happily count as a "single" proposition -- but we also recognize that it is compositional, composed of parts, so we can think of it as one compound proposition or as a disjunction of two simpler propositions. But these are perfectly consistent with each other, so we can happily accept both -- it is both one compound, and a disjunction of two simpler, proposition(s). No need to choose! Why not just say the same with respect to your example? In any case you can raise the same question even of the component meanings in your example - your 'rodent' version is implicitly a disjunction too, as is, probably, ultimately, the 'hand-held' example .....

ap

Interesting question. But I'm wondering what rides on the answer. And what is connected to the question. Of course, we begin by wanting to distinguish the meanings of the two relevant clauses you give ("small rodent," v. "hand-held device"). So, separately, you obviously hold that there are two meanings in play. Now in logic it may be true that, strictly speaking, the proposition "P or Q" is a distinct proposition from either of its disjuncts, and can happily count as a "single" proposition -- but we also recognize that it is compositional, composed of parts, so we can think of it as one compound proposition or as a disjunction of two simpler propositions. But these are perfectly consistent with each other, so we can happily accept both -- it is both one compound, and a disjunction of two simpler, proposition(s). No need to choose! Why not just say the same with respect to your example? In any case you can raise the same question even of the component meanings in your example - your 'rodent'...

Is this sentence true:

Is this sentence true: "Miles Davis and narwhals both have horns." The word "horn" can mean a musical instrument (which only Miles Davis has) or a bony protrusion (which only narwhals have.) But is it possible to mean both things at once (which would make the sentence true). Or does the sentence only have two possible meanings, both of which are false?

This phenomenon is well-known. It's a form of zeugma that is known as "syllepsis".

I think most linguists would say that this sentence cannot mean that Miles has a trumpet and a narwhal a protrusion from the head. The reason is the obvious one: that "horn" has to be interpreted a single way. Note that, if correct, this shows that "Ms and Ns are F" is not, as we sometimes tell our introductory logic students, simply an abbreviation (or something) for "Ms are F and Ns are F", since, in the latter, "F" could be interpreted differently in its two occurrences.

When one makes a claim like the one just made, we are talking about how the sentence is immediately, unreflectively, and automatically understood by a hearer. So what I'm observing is, in effect, simply that our "language faculty" operates a certain way, and not another way that it could, in principle, have operated. And put that way, the point should be fairly uncontroversial. The humorous effect one can get from syllepsis depends the fact that syllpetic utterances strikes us in the first instance as odd.

But language-use is complex and one can, of course, reflect on what has been said and arrive at a kind of secondary interpretation. Certainly we do that will sylleptic utterances, and so one can manage to communicate something by such an utterance that it cannot literally mean.

As with all excellent questions, this one is the tip of a very large iceberg! This one nicely ties in questions of meaning and truth, of literal v. metaphorical meaning, as well as of speaker-meaning v sentence-meaning. But rather than try to answer it here, why not simply observe that there's no reason not to treat it as "true", by common sense, just because of the equivocation in meaning -- for anyone who gets the pun involved will clearly understand that this sentence is a clever way of expressing the proposition 'Davis has an instrument and narwhals have a bony protrusion', which we have no reason not to think of as true. So since the sentence in its rather ordinary use, and context, with many people, expresses a true proposition, why not treat it as true? Meanwhile people who do NOT get the pun (for whatever reason) might understand this sentence to express the proposition 'Davis has a protrusion and narwhals have a protrusion', which they would take to be straightforwardly false (assuming...

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some

With each language in the world there seems to be a set number of words, some have more it seems and some have less. My question is that in a language that has less words, is it limited in it's ability to conceptualize and describe and thus understand less about it's reality around it, or is it's simplistic view what gives a clearer view of things? Follow up: If you can't define a word without using another word, wouldn't words be subjective?

You may be referring (directly or indirectly, intentionally or not) to the infamous Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, in brief the idea that the structure of one's language constrains/determines one's conceptualization of and cognitive approach to the world. (If the Inuit genuinely have more words for snow than ordinary English speakers, then that reflects that they can make (say) visual distinctions between the kinds of snow than we can ....) I'm not particularly familiar with the literature except that I believe this hypothesis is no longer much in fashion at all -- while perhaps in some limited senses different languages (including their different vocabularies, number of words, grammatical structures) are able to express various thoughts differently, etc., far more people accept these days that the 'thoughts' themselves are roughly universally available -- and indeed the fact that languages CAN be translated into each others (even if not always perfectly) suggests that all languages are capable of expressing the same thoughts ... (and even when a translation isn't perfect we can usually describe the ways in which it is imperfect, thus more fully capturing the 'thought' expressed') ... As for your follow-up: depends what you mean by 'subjective' (or course), but you have your finger on a very deep issue: whether meaning is ultimately reducible to the relationship between a word and our conception or perception of things ... (at some point words must 'make contact' with the world ....)

You may be referring (directly or indirectly, intentionally or not) to the infamous Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, in brief the idea that the structure of one's language constrains/determines one's conceptualization of and cognitive approach to the world. (If the Inuit genuinely have more words for snow than ordinary English speakers, then that reflects that they can make (say) visual distinctions between the kinds of snow than we can ....) I'm not particularly familiar with the literature except that I believe this hypothesis is no longer much in fashion at all -- while perhaps in some limited senses different languages (including their different vocabularies, number of words, grammatical structures) are able to express various thoughts differently, etc., far more people accept these days that the 'thoughts' themselves are roughly universally available -- and indeed the fact that languages CAN be translated into each others (even if not always perfectly) suggests that all languages are capable of expressing...

Does anybody seriously believe that reality itself is merely a function of

Does anybody seriously believe that reality itself is merely a function of language, thought and social convention? Some postmodernists like to say this ("reality is socially constructed"), but I doubt any of them would be willing to drink arsenic that has been socially reconstructed into harmless water. Furthermore, if reality is a function of these other factors, then one could not expect anything unexpected to happen (in a reality that is a function of thought, why should a volcano suddenly erupt if nobody thought of it?); yet the unexpected clearly does happen. So why do people stick to extreme versions of anti-realism and constructivism, when more moderate positions that don't deny an external reality, yet still conserve the valuable aspects of postmodernism (understanding of culture, power structures, categorization and convention; deconstruction of beliefs & ideologies; interpretations of and assignment of meaning to natural phenomena; etc.), are perfectly reasonable and tenable?

Hm, you'd first have to specify who you mean by the proponents of "extreme versions" of anti-realism etc, and then ask them directly! (I'm not an expert here but I wonder if some very respectable philosophers (such as Goodman, Putnam, Quine etc) can often get reprsented in ways more extreme than are accurate ...) ... Even a classic idealist of the Berkeleyan variety (ie Berkeley himself), though claiming that all reality is mind-dependent perceptions (and the perceivers of those perceptions) does NOT hold that reality is arbitrary, up to us, constructed by us -- that it's in any sense 'up to us' whether a volcano erupts or whether arsenic kills us-- he holds (at least) that something external to our minds, namely God, controls all that good stuff. So, too, I imagine, contemporary anti-realists (don't know if anyone endorses Berkeleyan idealism/anti-realism any more) would hold that while everything we say about the world, everythign we think about the world, every proposition we utter, etc. is "constructed" or influenced by our cognitive structure or theory-laden etc., it needn't follow that what happens is up to us entirely and in every way -- rather the claim (as I understand it) is more that we can never perfectly reflect in our concepts and language etc. the way things are in reality, how things are in themselves, independent of our ways of conceiving them or interacting with them ... And this, I imagine is what you're calling the more "moderate" position here -- but it is, I think, much more what almost every "anti-realist" holds than the extreme position you are questioning ....

(I could be wrong on this, not being an expert on the literature; but, in short, I suspect you're attacking a straw man, as they say.)

hope that's useful--

ap

Hm, you'd first have to specify who you mean by the proponents of "extreme versions" of anti-realism etc, and then ask them directly! (I'm not an expert here but I wonder if some very respectable philosophers (such as Goodman, Putnam, Quine etc) can often get reprsented in ways more extreme than are accurate ...) ... Even a classic idealist of the Berkeleyan variety (ie Berkeley himself), though claiming that all reality is mind-dependent perceptions (and the perceivers of those perceptions) does NOT hold that reality is arbitrary, up to us, constructed by us -- that it's in any sense 'up to us' whether a volcano erupts or whether arsenic kills us-- he holds (at least) that something external to our minds, namely God, controls all that good stuff. So, too, I imagine, contemporary anti-realists (don't know if anyone endorses Berkeleyan idealism/anti-realism any more) would hold that while everything we say about the world, everythign we think about the world, every proposition we utter, etc. is ...

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