Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Some beginning Wittgenstein

It disperses the fog to study the phenomena of language in primitive kinds of application in which one can command a clear view of the aim and functioning of words.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell & Mott, Ltd., 1969, page 4e, §5.)

In April I enjoyed my first introduction to Wittgenstein by reading Wittgenstein's Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (2001). So I am a beginning student. But unless I am mistaken Wittgenstein's investigations overlap considerably with the subject of this blog. His investigations overlap that is with the fruits of the Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM).

RPM provides a structure within which we can imagine the development of answers to some important philosophical questions.  For example, in the chapter which I am now drafting for my pending book, I describe a language learning experiment. Here is a sketch of that experiment.

Language learning experiment

Two simple agents, a consumer and a producer, exist in a computer program which runs in cycles. In each cycle the consumer wants one of five commodities randomly (one of: wheat, oats, chocolate, beer, or nothing). But the consumer has no ability to get such for itself. The consumer can only act by displaying one of ten symbols (A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,J). The producer can see the consumer's symbol and can produce any one of the five commodities. But at the outset the producer has no idea what the consumer's symbol might mean.

Success is awarded to both agents when the producer delivers what the consumer wants. Each agent has an internal memory which starts out empty but which remembers all past experiences. In each cycle each agent performs these steps in sequence:
  1. notices its input (commodity wanted for the consumer, or consumer's symbol for the producer),
  2. looks in memory for previous experience with that input,
  3. decides upon an act by repeating a successful experience, avoiding an unsuccessful experience, or by acting randomly if experience offers insufficient guidance,
  4. remembers the success (or not) of this input-act combination.
Do the two agents eventually stumble onto a successful language, in which each of the five commodities is always signaled with a unique one of the ten symbols? In which both consumer and producer always succeed in every cycle? Yes, of course. This experiment was designed to achieve this outcome. So here is a puzzle for you, dear reader: Is this really an "experiment"?

So What?

I think this language-learning experiment is profound! In 1983–84, I presented it to computer science faculty members. I was hoping to line up my dissertation committee. But none of them were impressed. In retrospect I see why computer scientists were not interested:
  • the programming is elementary, and 
  • it does not advance in any present problem of science.
One helpful faculty adviser sent me over to the Psychology Department where, he guessed, I might find an interested faculty member who could cooperate. But no luck there either.

As you see, I have had difficulty getting anybody else to see the excitement which I see in this experiment. So let me outline why it seems important to me.
  • It reflects our human experience with learning and using of language.
  • It shows subjective, individual agent-based need as the foundation of semantics.
  • It shows language developing where the larger environment offers better living for those who figure out how to cooperate.
  • It opens a door into many more advanced experiments with larger vocabularies, more than two agents, more complex problems. 
  • It promises jobs for computer scientists by begging for better algorithms to speed up discovery of successful languages.
Anyhow, now that I have finally come across Wittgenstein, perhaps you will agree. I might have had more success in the early 1980s if I had gone scouting for faculty members in the Philosophy Department.