Truth-uncertainty and meaning-uncertainty

Epistemic status: just a half-baked idea, which ought to be developed into something more complete, but since I’m probably not going to do that anytime soon I figured I’d publish it now just to get it out there.

Consider a statement such as (1) below.

(1) Cats are animals.

I’m used to interpreting statements such as (1) using a certain method which I’m going to call the “truth-functional method”. Its key characteristic is, as suggested by the name, that statements are supposed to be interpreted as truth functions, so that a hypothetical being which knew everything (had perfect information) would be able to assign a truth value—true or false—to every statement. There are two problems which prevent truth values being assigned straightforwardly to statements in practice.

The first is that nobody has perfect information. There is always some uncertainty of the sort which I’m going to call “truth-uncertainty”. Therefore, it’s often (or maybe even always) impossible to determine a statement’s truth value exactly. All one can do is have a “degree of belief” in the statement, though this degree of belief may be meaningfully said to be “close to truth” or “close to falsth1” or equally far from both. People disagree about how exactly degrees of belief should be thought about, but there’s a very influential school of thought (the Bayesian school of thought) which holds that degrees of belief are best thought about as probabilities, obeying the laws of probability theory. So, for a given statement and a given amount of available information, the goal for somebody practising the truth-functional method is to assign a degree of belief to the statement. At least inside the Bayesian school, there has been a lot of thought about how this process should work, so that truth-uncertainty is the relatively well-understood sort of uncertainty.

But there’s a second problem, which is that often (maybe even always) it’s unclear exactly what the statement means. To be more exact (the preceding sentence was an exemplification of itself), when you hear a statement, it’s often unclear exactly which truth function the statement is supposed to be interpreted as; and depended on which truth function it’s interpreted as, the degree of belief you assign to it will be different. This is the problem of meaning-uncertainty, and it seems to be rather less well-understood. Indeed, it’s probably not conventional to think about it as an uncertainty problem at all in the same way as truth-uncertainty. In the aforementioned scenario where you hear the statement carrying the meaning-uncertainty being made by somebody else, the typical reponse is to ask the statement-maker to clarify exactly what they mean (to operationalize, to use the technical term). There is of course an implicit assumption here that the statement-maker will always have a unique truth-function in their mind when they make their statement; meaning-uncertainty is a problem that exists only on the receiving end, due to imperfect linguistic encoding. If the statement-maker doesn’t have a unique truth function in mind, and they don’t care to invent one, then their statement is taken as content-free, and not engaged with.

I wonder if this is the right approach. My experience is that meaning-uncertainty exists not only on the recieving end, but also very much on the sending end too; I very often find myself saying things but not knowing quite what I would mean by them, but nevertheless feeling that they ought to be said, that making these statements does somehow contribute to the truth-seeking process. Now I could just be motivatedly deluded about the value of my utterances, but let’s run with the thought. One thing that makes me particularly inclined towards this stance is that sometimes I find myself resisting operationalizing my statements, like there’s something crucial being lost when I operationalize and restrict myself to just one truth function. If you draw the analogy with truth-uncertainty, operationalization is like just saying whether a statement is true or false, rather than giving the degree of belief. Now one of the great virtues of the Bayesian school of thought (although it would be shared by any similarly well-developed school of thought on what degrees of belief are exactly) is arguably that, by making it more clear exactly what degrees of belief are, it seems to make people a lot more comfortable with thinking about degrees of belief rather than just true vs. false, and thus dealing with truth-uncertainty. Perhaps, then, what’s needed is some sort of well-developed concept of “meaning distributions”, analogous to degrees of belief, that will allow everybody to get comfortable dealing with meaning-uncertainty. Or perhaps this analogy is a bad one; that’s a possibility.

Aside 1. Just as truth-uncertainty almost always exists to some degree, I’m fairly sure meaning-uncertainty almost always exists to some degree; operationalization is never entirely completely done. There’s a lot of meaning-uncertainty in statement (1), for example, and it doesn’t seem to completely go away no matter how much you operationalize.

Aside 2. The concept of meaning-uncertainty doesn’t seem to be as necessarily tied up with the truth-functional model to me as that of truth-uncertainty; one can imagine statements being modelled as some other sort of thing, but you’d still have to deal with exactly which example of the other sort of thing any given statement was, so there’d still be meaning-uncertainty of a sort. For example, even if you don’t see ought-statements as truth-functional, as opposed to is-statements, you can still talk about the meaning-uncertainty of an ought-statement, if not its truth-uncertainty.

Aside 3. Another way of dealing with meaning-uncertainty might be to go around the problem, and interpret statements using something other than the truth-functional method.


^ I’m inventing this word by analogy with “truth” because I get fed up with always having to decide whether to use “falsehood” or “falsity”.


2 responses to “Truth-uncertainty and meaning-uncertainty

  1. A relevent distinction is made in the first chapter of Wisdom’s “Other Minds”.

    Wisdom is talking about doubt, rather than uncertainty, but close enough. He says there are two forms of philosophical doubt, or one form with two sources, and in turn attributes the distinction to Wittgenstein. He then adds another source of “chronic doubt”, which he also calls philosophical “though I cannot here present all the excuses for stretching the word to cover all doubts of this source.”

    It’s a little different to summarise directly, because Wisdom employs an unusual structure: his threefold distinction is first described in a footnote (which lasts a page and a half) and then again in the main text (which then again gets a half-page footnote). But, regarding the question of whether S is P:

    1. “the doubt may arise from the infinity of the criteria as to whether S is P. Because of the infinity of the criteria it can never be said that all are present.” He remarks, “this is the philosophical doubt most directly connected with an anxiety doubt, ‘Are the taps turned off?'” or “‘Is this love or an infatuation? I don’t know yet. I can’t ever know. I don’t know with Annabel, I can never know with anyone, How I’ll feel tomorrow, How she’ll feel tomorrow, Whether it’s really love.” [I assume from the capitalisation and metre that he’s quoting a pop song, but I don’t know which]

    2. “the doubt may arise from conflict among the criteria for S’s being P. ‘Can you play chess without the queen?’ (W.) ‘Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? (W.). ‘Can you unintentionally keep a promise?'”

    3. “the doubt may arise from the hersitation at the jump from the criteria, even the infinite all, to S is P […] these are the doubts which may take form in the idea of an arch-deceiver whose performance always goes without a hitch.”

    He goes on to call these three doubts:
    – “doubts from infinite corrigibility”; he says that we know that s1, s2, etc, all the way to sn, and s1-sn together make a textbook case for S. So ordinarily we are happy to say we know S. But there are other possible tests, s(n+1) up to s(infinity), which we have not performed. So do we really KNOW that S? “These are requests for decision as to the use of ‘know'”.

    – “conflict doubts”. If S has the criteria s1 through to s(n), and we know that s1 through to s(n-m) are the case but that s(n-m) through to s(n) are NOT the case, have enough criteria for S been met or not? “I call this a request for a decision as to the use of ‘S'” [he actually uses greek sigma, but never mind].

    – “doubts arising from the hump from criteria to that of which they are criteria” or “requests for decision as to the use of ‘means the same'”.

    Wisdom sees conflict doubts in particular as being rife in ordinary life:
    “Just as one may hesitate as to whether annabel loves or hates bertram because in some ways she does and in some ways she doesn’t, so one may hesitate when asked whether colonel fawcett’s wife really believes he’s still alive somewhere in brazil. True, she always swears she does when you ask, and no doubt she then honestly feels she does; but it’s so many years ago now that he disappeared, as she well knows; and wouldn’t she be as astonished as anyone to see him come up the garden path? one may say “she does and she doesn’t believe it”. If someone asks of Annabel and Bertram, “Does she love him or hate him?” someone, even someone who knows them well, may answer “i can’t make out which it is.” This difficulty, this ignorance, can be removed, not by saying “you DO know”, but by saing “yes, you don’t know. But what sort of not knowing is this? It’s like not knowing whether a leopard without spots is a leopard.” But he also warns that it’s not always CLEAR which doubt is which. “The line between a man who asks ‘Does she love him?’ as an empirical question and one who asks it as an a priori question is not sharp. For a man may be induced to decide partly by giving him new information and partly by reminding him of information he has already.”

    Conflict doubts are behind a lot of philosophical arguments (particularly among laypeople), where ultimately the problem is that the terms have not been adequately defined and shared. Anxiety doubts provide the age-old problem of skepticism – when is our evidence enough evidence? And criterion doubts underpin things like doubts about other minds (that is, Wisdom thinks that when we doubt that the external evidence we see is sufficient to say we know the internal mental state of another person, we’re not really having a normal anxiety doubt (because there’s no counterevidence that could prove the case the other way), but rather this sort of criterion doubt that external things can EVER be evidence of internal things.).

    But all these doubts, he says, come doubt to questions about meanings, or more specifically “requests”: “all philosophical question register conflict… all philosophical doubts are requests for decision.”


    So anyway. Your ‘meaning-uncertainty’ is usually Wisdom’s conflict doubt (perhaps sometimes his inner-outer doubt). And to use one of his examples, “does she love him?”, we may struggle to answer, or at least to be confident in our answer, because:

    1. there is evidence that she loves him. But is it enough evidence? Might she be a spy, a conman, a skilled actress only pretending to love him? At first we assume, yes, she loves him… but what if life and death are riding on our answer? The higher the stakes, the more we hesitate (an anxiety doubt; “truth-uncertainty” as you call it, though I think that’s too imprecise myself);

    2. there is evidence that she loves him. She smiles when she sees him, she says she loves him, sometimes, she talks about him incessantly, she has made sacrifices for him. But there is also evidence that she doesn’t love him. Sometimes she shouts “I hate you!” and throws things at him. She sleeps with other people behind his back. She seems miserable now that they’re together and was much happier single. She surreptitiously does things that subtly sabotage his happiness, seemingly just to make him unhappy. Does she love him? It’s not that we’re waiting for more information to come in, it’s that the existing information… confuses us. A conflict doubt. Is it or is it not love? Well, what does ‘love’ mean exactly?

    [3. there is evidence that she loves him. so much evidence! We’re sure we will never find any evidence to the contrary, because this is really a textbook case of love. But… are the textbooks right? Is any external behaviour really evidence for the contents of her soul – if she even has one? Maybe what she’s really feeling is hate, but for her hate manifests as what looks to us like love – not because she’s being duplicitous, but just because she’s, as it were, wired differently, the same way maybe she experiences yellow when we experience purple. We’d never be able to know, would we? There’d be no evidence of that. Or maybe she has no mind, but just acts like she has. It’s not that we’re waiting for more evidence to come in – we’re completely confident that it won’t, we’d be astonished if it did – but we’re not sure that the evidence we have is really ‘evidence’ at all…]

    You’re right I think that we’re often reluctant to operationalise (remove conflict doubts). Someone asks you: “Do you love me?” – you ask back “well, define PRECISELY what you mean by love…?” – chances are they’ll show at least a little reluctance to finely operationalise their inquiry… even where they recognise the issue, they may find the response fails to fulfill their hopes. Or, they may be happy for you to discuss exactly how you do and don’t love them, but find themselves at the end of your elucidation still not sure whether you love them by their own standards, because they had no definite standards in mind. Going back to Wisdom’s idea of doubt as a request for a decision, sometimes a question is a request for a decision, or an attempt to see how you would make a decision. They may ask “do you love me?” to get you to commit yourself… or they may ask it because they want to see what YOU mean by ‘love’. Likewise with, say, “can cats think?” – you might ask “what do you mean by ‘think’ exactly? Because there is evidence that they can ‘think’ in some respects but not in others.” But often the question is asked because they want to see whether you answer “yes – although not quite as we do” or “no – although they do do things that are quite like thinking in some ways”. These are two different ways of saying the same thing, in a ‘factual’ sense – but which answer you give may give them a better idea of whether you are likely to torture their cat!

    The more fundamental issue in some cases is that we may not HAVE an ‘operationalisation’ of our question. If someone asks “is a foetus a living human being?”, we might say “define ‘living’ and ‘human being’.” But they may not have a particular definition in mind. And as a society it may be all but impossible to collectively define these terms – because again, the question conceals a practical decision. [And although I’m not anti-abortion, it’s actually really hard to satisfyingly create a non-anti-abortion definite answer to that question of definition – i.e. one that includes the profoundly intellectually and physically disabled as human while excluding foetuses]. One reason we have vague words may be that it enables communication between people who have subtly different definitions. And I think it’s often helpful to think of people as collectivities. I may not want to precisely define “love”, because when I ask “do you love me?”, one part of me may want to ask one question, and another part may want to ask another! [or at least, my ambivalence can concisely be described by positing myself as a collectivity of selves, although of course here we encounter uncertainty over what is and isn’t “a self”!].

    And of course even in more ‘practical’ (ie unemotional) scenarios, often we ask questions that do not actually seek a particular piece of information. We may ask vague questions precisely because we would be happy to receive responses to any of its interpretations. So when i say “how are you doing?” – sometimes I want a very particular response, “yes, the ankle’s better now, so we’re still on for Tuesday”. But often it’s intentionally open-ended and, within reason, any reasonable interpretation of the question would give me an answer that I welcome – whether that’s them telling me about their leg, or about their bereavement. When I ask “do you like sport?”, it’s not that I specifically want to know whether they play a sport or whether they watch a sport, and I may not have any specific definition in mind as to whether for the purposes of the question I’m considering golf a sport – it’s an open-ended opening for them to profer their own interpretation. Both “no, I’m a professional golfer” and “yes, I love reading about snooker” are valid responses to “do you like sport?” – and asking me to “operationalise” my question more precisely is kind of missing the point! [THEY may do so, but unless it’s part of an honest attempt to answer I’m likely to consider the response undesirable. “Well, do you count golf? Because I like golf” is a fine answer. “That’s a vague question – what on earth do you mean by ‘like’ and ‘sport?'” is usually not.]

    But at the same time, there are, as you put it, degrees of meaning. I may or may not be including golf as a sport – but if you reply by saying “yes, I love fridges”, I will be puzzled. I may or may not have meant my question to include golf, but I almost entirely did NOT mean it to be about fridges. Golf is sort of a sport; fridges are almost entirely NOT a sport.

    There may also be degrees of what sort of doubt I have. Am I asking for evidence, or for a definition? Sometimes it’s not clear, even to me. And again, I may not want to ‘operationalise’ precisely because i’m reserving the right to reassess what sort of question this was.

    There’s a notion in Wittgenstein of a ‘criterion’ vs a ‘symptom’. Both are evidence of something, but a criterion is part of the definition and a symptom is just some correlation. Having two legs is a symptom of being a human, but not a criterion. But over time, we can change what we consider a criterion and what we consider a symptom. So if “breathlessness syndrome” is associated with breathlessness, well, at first that might be a criterion – if you have breathlessness syndrome, you have breathlessness. But later we might discover all sort of things about this syndrome that we didn’t know before. We might validly come to say “well, actually now we just think that breathlessness is one common symptom of this syndrome. A minority of people with the syndrome don’t actually present with breathlessness.” So it has become a symptom rather than a criterion. To give a potential real example: can you grow out of autism? The traditional answer was that no, that was impossible. If symptoms went away with age, it was never autism to begin with. Now, when we know that “conditions that look just like autism except that symptoms go away with age” are much more common than we thought, some people, as I understand it, think that yes, that’s autism too. Rather than two syndromes, there’s just the one, but more varied than we thought. But whether that’s “true” or not isn’t really a matter of “fact”, but of definition. Or a non-medical example: can two men marry? Traditionally, the answer was ‘no’. It’s not that people thought men shouldn’t marry, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. It’s that they thought that it was by definition impossible for men to marry – a marriage between two men was not a marriage. Heterosexuality was a criterion, not just a symptom, of being married. Now, of course, most of us consider it to be a symptom, not a criterion: the overwhelming majority of marriages are between people of different sex, but that’s just a statistical coincidence, not part of the definition of marriage. [Even opponants of gay marriage now often say things like ‘it shouldn’t be legal’, which betrays that they have given up the original position of ‘it isn’t possible’]

    And the key is: we may not always know, in the moment, whether we’re treating something as a symptom or as a criterion. Rather than flicking from one state to the other, this sort of change in meaning tends to pass through a period of ambiguity – many things probably remain permanently in periods of ambiguity (love is a famously ambiguous thing!). But without knowing what is a criterion and what is a symptom, we can’t know how to operationalise our vague uncertainties. Is a bird a type of dinosaur? Depends – is incorporation in a clade a criterion of ‘being a type of’, or just a common symptom?

    Sometimes it’s that we are just waiting to see how other people are going to use the terms. We may say “look, I don’t care if you call it autism or not, the label isn’t what’s important.” – in that case, all we want to do is use the same terms as the person we’re talking with so that we can communicate well. If I ask “does he have autism?”, I don’t want to hear “well, how would you like to define autism exactly? There are several competing…” – no, I want to hear “yes in the sense that” or “no, although”. [“But Reverend, I need to know! Is God punishing me?” “Oh… short answer, ‘yes’ with an ‘if’; long answer, ‘no’ with a ‘but'”, as the Simpsons put it]. Asking ME to operationalise my question BEFORE I’ve been given the information is putting the cart before the horse! Operationalising the question for me is part of how you give me the information. And sometimes it’s just convenience. If I ask “oh, are they married?” – I don’t want to have to lead with “are they married, assuming that we are considering both heterosexual and homosexual (and indeed other) unions to potentially qualify as marriage?” – not only is that a waste of words, it may also be interpreted as me failing to fully support gay marriage (‘why would you even have to clarify that?’). So I lead with a vague question and you can answer it how you see fit.

    But other times it’s that: well, for one purpose yes but for another purpose no. Well, what is my purpose? I don’t always know! Asking for operationalisation is asking the speaker to declare their purpose in advance, but they may have many purposes, or they may be asking for future reference when who knows what purpose they may have!

    …..OK, I may have wondered off topic, mayn’t I’ve? Sorry, got caught thinking out loud. [I think I wrote a blog post relating to some of these questions myself, but it was long ago and I don’t remember; maybe you replied, I don’t remember]
    Just, your distinction reminded me of something I’d read, and thought some of it might be of interest to you.

    [which reminds me: I’ve probably asked you before, but do I know you? I mean, not personally, obviously, but do I know you by a different name on a conlanging board or something? I remember you having been around for a long time, and I know that either I used to know you by another name or I just assumed that I did, but I realise I can’t actually remember who that might be, if I ever knew… (sorry if I ought to, I don’t have a great memory for these things…)]

    Oh, and just a point on terminology. In my experience, what you’re talking about isn’t a “truth-function” but a “proposition”, or “truth-functional proposition”. A truth-function converts an input truth value to an output truth value – a proposition is what bears the truth value.

    Anyway, sorry for the ramble…

    • Thanks for the comment! It’s good to see what somebody else, especially somebody more familiar with the philosophical literature than I am, thinks about these issues.

      I’m Alces on the ZBB; I’m not a frequent poster there so I don’t know if you’ll recognize the name, but that’s where I came across your blog.

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