Archive for March, 2008

Married Bachelors: How Compositionality Doesn’t Work

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Jerry Fodor (1998, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong) does a thorough job of summarizing convincingly (to me, anyway) the arguments against the theory that concepts are constituted by definitions; so you really don’t need me to tell you that KEEP doesn’t really mean CAUSE A STATE THAT ENDURES OVER TIME or that BACHELOR doesn’t really mean UNMARRIED MAN, right?  Not convinced?  Here’s what I found over the course of a morning’s empirical research:

Put ‘elephant bachelor’ into Google and you get things like:

Bulls generally live in small bachelor groups consisting of an old bull

Males live alone or in bachelor herds.

The males will sometimes come together in bachelor herds, but these are

The adult males (bulls) stay in bachelor herds or live alone.

When they are mature, male elephants leave the herd to join bachelor herds. 

Put in ‘deer bachelor’ and you get: 

During bowhunting season (late August early September) we see mule deer in bachelor groups, as many as 15 in a bunch, feeding on bloomed canola fields

Mule deer bachelor bucks are beginning to show up in preparation for the rut.

But during October, when they’re interested mostly in proving their manhood, rattling can be deadly on bachelor bucks. 

Put in ‘“bachelor wolves”’: 

surrounded in the snow by a starving and confused pack of bachelor wolves.

You can come up with a lot of names for these youngsters: rogue males, bachelor wolves, outcasts. Some call them the Lost Boys. 

Similarly, ‘bachelor’ combined with ‘walrus’, ‘whale’, ‘dolphin’, ‘penguin’, ‘swan’ (for the birds, it helps to add the term ‘nest’ to winnow the returns).

‘ethology bachelor’ yields: 

Bachelor herds refer to gatherings of (usually) juvenile male animals who are still sexually immature, or of ‘harem’-forming animals who have been thrown out of their parent families but not yet formed a new family group. Examples include seals, lions, and horses. Bachelor herds are thought to provide useful protection for social animals against more established herd competition or aggressive dominant males. Males in bachelor herds are sometimes closely related to each other. 

So bachelors don’t need to be men.  One might try to fix this by saying a BACHELOR is an UNMARRIED MALE or even an UNMARRIED ADULT MALE (to rule out babies) instead of an UNMARRIED MAN, but I struggle with the idea of UNMARRIED whales, penguins, and elephants.  Would that also cover animals that have mates, but are living together without the benefit of clergy?  Don’t worry about this too much because even MALE won’t do the trick. 

‘“bachelor females”’ returns: 

dormitory facilities, and the 7 35 or so bachelor females residing in defense housing on Civilian Hill were transferred to the renovated dormitories.

 I feel sorry for you. And yes, this was a half-fucked attempt to gain the affection of all the bachelor females in the world. 

‘“bachelor women”’ returns: 

Today, double standards still prevail in many societies: bachelor men are envied, bachelor women are pitied.

Maggie is a composite of a number of independent, “bachelor” women who influenced my formative years.

Did you know, for example, that half–exactly 50 percent–of the 1000 bachelor women surveyed say they actively are engaged at this very moment in their

independent bachelor women that is now taking place is a permanent increase. It is probably being reinforced by a considerable number of  [H. G. Wells 1916, What is Coming? A Forecast of Things after the War. Chapter 8.] 

Of particular note is the last example, specifically the fact that it dates back to 1916, before most, if not all, discussions of BACHELOR meaning UNMARRIED MAN. 

The phrase ‘“married bachelor”’ returns lots of philosophical (and theological!) treatises on whether it is meaningless, incoherent, nonsensical, or just plain impossible (for humans or for God); but, it also returns occurrences of the phrase in the wild, where it exists and is, thus, clearly possible: 

Nevertheless, a true married bachelor, we think, would have viewed his fate philosophically. “Well, anyway,” he’d say with a touch of pride,

Ever wonder what a married bachelor does on Friday Night (that is Wednesday in Saudi)? HE GOES TO BED EARLY (and dreams about his wife).

Most Chinese men in Canada before the war were denied a conjugal family life and were forced to live in a predominantly married-bachelor society.

It was one of the golden principles in services that there should be a decent interaction with fair sex on all social occasions and going “stags” (married bachelor) was looked down upon as something socially derelict or “not done”.

Peterson’s days as a married bachelor. SAN QUENTIN – According to recent reports from San Quentin, Scott Peterson is adjusting nicely to prison life.

Walter Matthau is the “dirty married bachelor“, dentist Julian who lies to his girlfriend, Toni (Goldie Hawn)by pretending that he is married.

…that her love for camping was so dominant; he thought he’d better join her and they would start their own camp or else he would be a married bachelor.

Some bad choices: sisters dissin’ sisters; no-money no-honey approach; loving the married bachelor ; or using your finance to maintain his romance.

It was just four of us – three singles and a married bachelor. As I. tasted the deep fried and cooked egg plants, dhal curry and deep fried papadams,

India is the uncomplaining sweetheart whom this married bachelor flirts with and leaves behind. Every time. And she knows it all and yet smiles

There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. Of such was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She was a woman of twenty-eight,    [Somerset Maugham 1919, The Moon and Sixpence. Chapter 46.]

Two of these are of particular note:  The final example dates back to 1919; and the penultimate example uses the phrase metaphorically (or more metaphorically, if you prefer).

As a child, I’m sure I would have found all of these examples quite puzzling and would have asked, “If ‘bachelor’ means ‘unmarried man,’ then how can there be a ‘married bachelor?’”

The issue here is compositionality.  How do we understand the meaning of phrases like ‘the brown cow’ or ‘the married bachelor’?  It can’t be the way Fodor (1998, p. 99) explains it.  Here’s what Fodor says, except I have substituted throughout ‘married’ for ‘brown’ and ‘bachelor’ for ‘cow’.  You will note that what makes reasonable sense for ‘the brown cow’ is incoherent for ‘the married bachelor’. 

Compositionality argues that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out, a certain bachelor; viz. the married one.  It’s because ‘married’ means married that it’s the married bachelor that ‘the married bachelor’ picks out.  If English didn’t let you use ‘married’ context-independently to mean married and ‘bachelor’ context-independently to mean bachelor, it couldn’t let you use ‘the married bachelor’ to specify a married bachelor without naming it.

It’s clear that something that distinguishes the uses documented above from the more usual UNMARRIED MAN (more or less) uses.  I was tempted to say that the more usual uses are literal as opposed to figurative (metaphorical?).  Yes, but as has been pointed out, while it may be literally correct to say that the Pope is a bachelor, it feels like an incorrect usage.

Well, it just goes on and on.  At this point, of course, apoplectic sputtering occurs to the effect that these are metaphorical uses and should be swept under the rug where all inconvenient counterexamples are kept and need never be dealt with.  But speaking of KEEP, as Fodor (pp. 49-56) points out, Jackendoff’s program (though not in so many words) to accommodate things like this by proliferating definitions of KEEP.  Fodor characterizes this as just so much more messy than thinking that KEEP just means keep.  I agree.

For more about married bachelors, see also

Primitive Concepts and Innateness

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Fodor (1998, p.15), presenting the (his) RTM view of concepts, says, “I can’t … afford to agree that the content of the concept H2O is different from the content of the concept WATER.”  At least in part, this is a consequence of his assertion that “Concepts are public; they’re the sorts of things that lots of people can, and do, share.” (p.28, italics in original) 


If the content of concepts is public (I, for one have no problem with this view), then nobody and everybody is responsible for them and their denoters have to be learned.  It’s easy enough to argue, following Eric Baum (2004, What Is Thought?), that our genome builds us in such a way that we all acquire categories in pretty much the same way.  I’m not sure why I insisted on “categories” in the previous sentence rather than sticking with “concepts.”  I guess it’s because I have already done a lot of thinking about concepts and I’m not sure whether I’m willing to grant concepthood to categories.     


A priori, there must be a set of parameterizable functions that are built-in by the genome.  When I talk about parameterization here, I’m talking about learning processes; when I talk about parameterizing models, I’m talking about the inputs to a particular content model at a moment in time.  The former takes place during concept development; the latter during concept utilization.  Taking such a set of parameterizable functions as a basis, content models can (only) be constructed from these components.  The genome thus ensures that ceteris paribus (over a reasonable range of normal human ontogenetic experience) the structure of the content model(s) epigenetically constructed will tend to converge (dare I say they will be the same up to some threshold of difference?). 


The convergence we expect to find looks like this: If things that are modeled by a particular content model a in creature A are pretty much the same things that are modeled by a particular content model b in creature B, and if that is true also for particular content models c, d, e, …, etc. in C, D, E, …, etc., then those content models are the content model of a concept whose satisfaction conditions include (pretty much) those things.  Moreover, the human genome is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that in the vast majority of cases (enough to ensure the functioning of language, anyway) we can take these models to implement (represent?) by definition the same concept.  That is, sameness of concepts across individuals arises from the identity of the (shared) facilities available to construct them and the identity of the (shared, lower level) processes that construct them out of (things that turn out to be) invariants these processes extract from the real world. 


DOG means dog because the (already strongly constrained) models the human brain automatically constructs when presented with dogs are such that across individuals the models will use identical processes in identical ways (process identity is obviously level-sensitive—I can’t possibly argue that the neural circuits are isomorphic across individuals, but I can argue that the brain is sufficiently limited in the ways it can operate that there is at some level of explanation only one way a dog model can be implemented).


This is similar to the poverty of the stimulus argument that argues for much of language to be innate.


I think we’re almost there now, but it occurs to me that I have built this on the identity of things, which may itself be tendentious.  There’s no problem with saying a particdular thing is identical to itself.  But that’s not where the problem arises.  How do we know what a thing is?  A thing is presumably something that satisfies the concept THING.  But careful examination of the reasoning above shows that I have assumed some kind of standardized figure-ground system that reliably identifies the things in an environment.  Now where are we?  Suppose the things are dogs.  Do we have to suppose that we know what dogs are?


Let’s try to save this by saying by substituting environments for things and then talking about world models.  That is, if the environment that is modeled by a particular world model a in creature A is pretty much the same environment that is modeled by a particular world model b in creature B, and if that is true also for particular world models c, d, e, …, etc. in C, D, E, …, etc., then those world models are the world model of a world whose satisfaction conditions include (pretty much) those environments.  Moreover, the human genome is sufficiently restrictive to ensure that in the vast majority of cases (enough to ensure the identification of things, anyway) we can take these models to be (implement, represent?) by definition the same world model.


As a practical matter, this does not seem to be a problem for human beings.  We learn early how to parse the environment into stable categories that we share with others in the same environment.  Somewhere in this process, we acquire thingness.  Thingness is necessary for reference, for intentionality, for aboutness.  I don’t know, and I don’t think it makes much of a difference, whether thingness is innate or (as I suspect) the acquisition of thingness requires postnatal interaction with the environment as part of the brain’s boot process.


Fodor (1998, p.27) and the Relational Theory of Mind (RTM) crowd have a rather similar way around this.  “[A]ll versions of RTM hold that if a concept belongs to the primitive basis from which complex mental representations are constructed, it must ipso facto be unlearned.”  This is actually several assertions.  The most important one from my point of view is:


There are innate (unlearned) concepts. 


I take it that my use of the word innate here will seem comfortably untendentious when I tell you I am explicitly ruling out the possibility that unlearned concepts are injected into us by invisible aliens when we are small children.  The only worry I have about innate concepts is that like Baum I suspect that in reality the members of the set of such innate concepts are far removed from the concepts traditionally paraded as examples of concepts, that is, I don’t think COW is innate any more than KODOMO-DRAGON.  (Baum doesn’t talk much about concepts per se, but his central position is that everything that’s innate is in our DNA and our DNA has neither room nor reason to encode any but the most primitive and productive concepts.)  Fodor is coy about COW and HORSE, but he counterdistinguishes the status of COW from the status of BROWN COW, which “could be learned by being assembled from the previously mastered concepts BROWN and COW.”


I don’t think Fodor really needs COW to be innate.  I think the problem is that he doesn’t want it to have constituents.  I sympathize.  I don’t want it to have constituents.  But making COW innate is not the only alternative.  All that is needed is a mechanism that allows for cows in the world to have the ability to create a new primitive COW that is (by my argument above) the same primitive COW that Little Boy Blue has and indeed the same primitive as most everybody else familiar with cows has.  In other words, what I have proposed is a mechanism that enables concepts to be public, shareable, primitive, and learnable.  I haven’t got a good story about how one could be familiar with cows and not have the same concept COW as most everybody else.  Maybe if one’s familiarity with cows was always in the context of partially obscuring bushes one might come to acquire a concept COW that meant bushes partially obscuring a cowlike animal.  But if that were the case, I’d expect that same COW concept to be created in others familiar with cows in the same context.


The rest of the story is that this way of making COW primitive but not innate requires reexamination of the assertion that there are innate concepts.  It looks like the things I am postulating to be innate are not properly concepts, but rather concept-building processes.  So the correct statement is:


There are innate (unlearned) concept-building processes that create primitive concepts.  I’d be willing to buy the so-called “universals” of language as a special case of this.


It will work, I think, because the putative processes exist at prior to concepts.  So, we still have primitive concepts and non-primitive concepts in such a way as to keep RTM in business for a while longer.  And we can build a robust notion of concept identity on identity of primitive concepts without requiring all primitive concepts to be innate.  This does not, of course, rule out the possibility (offered by the ethology of other species, as Fodor points out) that we also possess some innate primitive concepts.



How language processing might go awry

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Re: April Benasich’s ongoing studies of Specific Language Impairment in children ( If we believe Maass, et al. (2004, “On the computational power of circuits of spiking neurons”)  with respect to the ability of a (plausible, cortical) recurrent neural network to retain in its state a usable record of (order of) the last three seconds of its inputs, we may get some insight into possible underlying mechanisms for what Benasich hypothesizes to be  “the primary deficit in … SLI … the inability to integrate and discriminate two or more sensory events which enter the nervous system in rapid succession.” 


Maass’s work suggests that in normal processing, asynchronous discriminations can be replaced by synchronous discriminations.  I interpret this to mean that as soon as the neural circuitry has enough of the stimulus to recognize, it can be pulsed out synchronously to the next stage of processing.  Looking at psychophysical results like those of Richard Warren (1970, “Perceptual Restoration of Missing Speech Sounds.”  Science 167: 392-393) could be interpreted as indicating that a later pulse can refine or override (confirm or disconfirm) the data delivered in an earlier pulse. 


So here’s what I think happens.  Suppose Stimulus A is followed in quick succession by Stimulus B.  Sometime during or after Stimulus A (because the neuro-glial circuitry doesn’t have to wait until what we think is the “end” of a stimulus before reacting) the circuitry approaches or settles into a provisional identification of an Event Pattern of, call it, Type X.  Event Pattern Type X is the pattern of activation (state) created by A in the context of mutter-mutter (unknown or irrelevant—whatever the state was when A arrived).  This provisional identification state somehow gets sent on as a synchronous pulse.  That pulse “runs out of oomph” somewhere and leaves neuro-glial elements in its trail primed with EPSPs and IPSPs.  (All I intend by that is to indicate that the pulse isn’t sufficient in and of itself to cause recognition of A tout court (as Jerry Fodor would say).


In normal processing, sometime during or after Stimulus B (which follows Stimulus A in rapid succession) the circuitry will  approach or settle into a provisional identification of an Event Pattern of Type Y (which is the state created by B in the context of immediately preceding A and whatever came before).  That information gets sent on in a pulse.  In between, there may be (there probably are) confirming or disconfirming pulses (possibly at regular intervals).  The net result is (insert hand waving here) recognition of A followed by B.


So what could be happening in SLI?  Possibilities are:


1)       Stimulus history traces decay so rapidly that at the time Stimulus B arrives, it has insufficient context information and gets sent on as an Event Pattern of Type Z (B in the context of mutter-mutter).  In later processing, this acts as disconfirmation of Pattern Type X (A in the context of mutter-mutter) rather than confirmation of the temporal evolution from A to B.  So information about A is lost.  I suppose it’s also possible that the apparent disconfirmation could be treated as spurious, so information about B could be lost.  Or the conflict could lead to no decision and loss of the distinctness of A and B.  Checkmate in all cases.


2)       State information isn’t being read out on a rapid enough schedule, so what comes through is only Event Pattern Type V (in the context of mutter-mutter, A followed by dim intimations of B) or Event Pattern Type W (dim intimations of A followed by B followed by whatever).  In either case, one of the stimuli is represented only by dim intimations that don’t reach above whatever threshold is necessary to affect subsequent stages, so information about A or B is lost.


3)       There is a timing mismatch in later processing so that differential decay rates of EPSPs and IPSPs cause information from what should have been distinct pulses to get muddled and the pattern looks like Pattern Type U (A overlaid with B in the context of mutter-mutter overlaid with A).  So the distinctness of A and B is lost.


4)       The state attractor that has developed in the neural circuit that gets first crack at A followed by B classifies them both the same way (like /p/ and /b/, I suppose Merzenich might say).

What might ‘wanting’ be?

Friday, March 28th, 2008

I have long wondered what ‘wanting’ is from a physiological standpoint.  Antonio Damasio (1999, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness) has given me an idea that, I think, accounts for the human experience of wanting.  Homeostasis.  The argument goes like this.  In unicellular organisms, homeostasis doesn’t have a lot of ways to operate.  When an organism becomes mobile, homeostatic processes can trigger behaviors that with better than chance probability (from an evolutionary standpoint) result in internal state changes that serve to maintain homeostasis.  In effect, evolution favors behaviors that can be triggered to achieve homeostatic goals. 

In complex organisms, there are homeostatic mechanisms that work on the internal environment directly, but there are some internal environment changes for which it is not possible to compensate adequately by modifying the internal environment directly.  Thence, hunger.  Hunger is how we experience the process that is initiated when homeostatic mechanisms detect an insufficiency of fuel.  (Actually, it’s probably more sophisticated than that—more like detection of a condition in which the reserve of fuel drops below a particular threshold—and maybe there are multiple thresholds, but the broad outline is clear.) 

All organisms have phylogenetically established (built-in) processes for incorporating food.  In mammals, there is rooting reflex and a suckle reflex.  Chewing (which starts out as gumming, but who’s worrying?) and swallowing are built-ins as well.  But those only help when food is presented.  Problem: how to get food to be presented?  Well, if food is presented before hunger sets in, it’s not a homeostatic problem.  If not, homeostatic mechanisms switch the organism into “need-fuel mode”.  In “need-fuel” mode, organisms do things that tend to increase the likelihood that fuel will become available.  Babies fuss, and even cry, sometimes lots and loudly. 

Pain is another place where internal homeostatic processes intersect with the external universe.  Pain is how we experience the process that is initiated when homeostatic sensors detect deviations from internal stability that arise from a physical process (heat, cold, puncture, etc.).  Again, evolution has sophisticated the process somewhat.  The pain process arises when a threshold condition is passed.  Pain does not wait for serious damage to take place, pain is triggered when it’s time to take action to prevent serious damage.   

Pain actually has to be a bit subtle, too.  Some pain may and should be ignored.  If fight is an alternative to flight, then fight arguably ups the threshold for debilitating pain. 

There are other obvious situations in which homeostatic considerations require some action with respect to the outside world.  Urination and defecation are two.  Similarly, vomiting (with its warning homeostatic signal, nausea). 

Our wanting, then, has its origin as the experience of a process that responds to some (serious or prospectively serious) homeostatic imbalance. 

As an aside, I want to propose that one of the characteristics that distinguishes reptiles from mammals is that when a reptile is in reasonable homeostatic equilibrium, it does nothing.  When a mammal is in the same state, it does something—explores its environment, plays, writes poetry, etc.  In the most general terms, it sets out to learn something.  This characteristic arguably confers at least a marginal advantage to animals that possess it, viz. it is possible that something learned in the absence (at the time) of any pressing need will turn out to be valuable in dealing with future situations in which there will be no opportunity to learn it.  So, the concept of homeostasis has to be broadly construed. 

My central point, however, is that ultimately our wants, wishes, desires, dislikes, disgusts, and delights all refer to internal homeostatic processes.  The fact that there are so many distinguishable variants of wanting suggests to me that the many shades of our experience reflect the many kinds of homeostatic processes that have been phylogenetically established in our brains and bodies, each presumably for the most part having proved advantageous over evolutionary time.