Finding the Systematicity of Language in the Structure of Perceptual Experience

Consider these words you are reading, arbitrary collections of sound whose connection to the actual experiences they evoke is tenuous at best. Yet working from that huge, interconnected jumble of experiences juxtaposed with bits of language that you have had over many years of life, you have been able to learn distinct words, rules of grammar, and systems for effectively communicating with language in endless novel situations. Trying to reproduce this feat of richness and flexibility, many artificial intelligence researchers today are considering neural networks, modeled after the human mind. But neural networks struggle to generalize grammatical rules and structure out of the webs of linguistic information they are trained with. I propose that artificial neural networks can face this challenge and better learn and process the systematic grammar of natural languages by drawing on the rich structure of the real world in perceptual information, because the structure we discover in our perceptual experiences is what we use during our human language learning process to build up systematic concepts around the new words we encounter.

That’s the beginning of this final thesis defense paper that I wrote for an Intro to Philosophy class in 2017. It explores some ways that computer scientists and linguists are trying to model the human mind in a computer so it can understand language, and the challenges these models have in capturing the full flexibility and structure of language. Then it outlines a new philosophical approach, where I try to combine a naturalistic view of language as useful labels for perception with a Christian dualistic view, where language can access absolute truth. Maybe computers can discover some of the structure of language by exploring the structure of the real world around us.

It’s 14 pages long and I’m trying to mash in lots of concepts in that suddenly small space, but it’s also meant to be something that any curious educated person could read and learn a few things about language, philosophy, and computer science from. If you’re up for my philosophizing, you can read a PDF of it here.

Letter to Kaladin, or a musing on the peculiarity of fiction

You should be able to understand the gist of this piece even if you haven’t read the Stormlight Archive; you just won’t get a few jokes and some of the more specific irony. But do be aware that there are some indirect and some small spoilers for The Way of Kings.

Dear Kaladin,

I would like to introduce you to somebody very important. His name is Brandon Sanderson, and he is the source of all your miseries.

Photo by Captain Demoux

Brandon was the one who killed Tien, and who made Amaram murder your spearmen. Brandon was the one who decided to bring Roshone to your hometown, and Brandon was the one to give Roshone the idea to force Tien into the army. Oh, and Brandon also killed Dunny, Maps, and Narm, and he’ll probably kill you too someday. Unfortunately, Brandon lives in an entirely different universe, so you can’t do anything about it. (But at least he’s darkeyed.)

You see, I hate to break it to you, Kaladin, but you’re actually a fictional character. You kind of don’t actually exist. Somebody made you up in his head and wrote down about it, and now little copies of you live in lots of people’s heads with slightly different physical features based on the age and gender of the person involved. (If you have trouble believing this, ask Hoid. He knows a lot of other very interesting things, too.) It’s sort of like a shared hallucination. Come on, isn’t that cool? You’re a shared hallucination! I can’t say that about myself. Anyways, so this guy Brandon Sanderson has a kind of overactive imagination, so one day he created you and decided to start making all those agonizing things happen to you because he was bored and besides, he needs to make money somehow and he didn’t want to be a surgeon.

The nice thing about being imaginary is that you’ve got an all-powerful creator watching over you who can turn your life around whenever he wants. For instance, you may be interested to know that in your original incarnation, you took the Blade and Plate of that Shardbearer you killed, and it was okay. In fact, you got to go to the Shattered Plains and have an entertaining time outdoing everyone in the army with your awesomeness while becoming best buddies with Adolin, then finally saving the Kholins from treachery in a whirlwind of magical Shardbearing coolness. But then Brandon decided that was too boring and made you an enslaved bridgeman instead. Now that particular example may not be particularly encouraging, but just think, Kaladin – if Brandon could make your life horrible just because he decided to, he could certainly make your life wonderful just as easily!

But you shouldn’t worry about it anyways, Kaladin. Your almost being driven to suicide was really all for the best. Because now you have a huge fan club over in this universe! Tens of thousands of people pay Brandon so they can watch you be “forced to forsake healing to fight in the most brutal war” and “struggle to save [your] men” as the advertisement on the back of the book says. Some of us use your woes for entertainment when we have to go on really long train rides and we can’t stand looking at the scenery and sitting on seats without nearly enough padding anymore. Others like to watch you narrowly escape death while they’re stuck in their houses because it’s raining so hard outside that they might actually get wet if they went out. I, for my part, had a lovely time reading the scene where you see Tien die while I was baking cornbread and had to sit and keep an eye on the oven temperature, because I own an awful oven that can’t even hold its temperature. (The cornbread turned out very nicely, by the way.)

But this might make it sound like we don’t really care about you or take you seriously. Oh, no! You can be sure that many of us care about you deeply. Some take your future welfare so seriously that they spend hours and hours thinking, writing and drawing about who you should marry. (I think you should go with Shallan, by the way.) Others are more concerned about your health, so they diagnose the exact mental and psychological disorders that you face and prescribe what you need to do to handle them. We also tend to get into arguments over these subjects, because after all, it’s extremely important to be right and to convince everyone else of what’s right so we can best help you. Who knows what terrible damage could be done to your soul if some idiots ship you with Syl!

Then there are the fans who admire your grit and determination and want to be like you, so they dress up as you and go to big meetings where they have to wait in really long lines for Brandon to write his name in copies of books he wrote about you. After all, he’s the one who gave you reasons to display your grit and determination. And then there are those of us who are so committed to you that we put Bridge Four sticker decals on our cars. Never mind that they decrease the resale value of those precious objects – as we sit and drive around the country in air conditioning, and as we stop at gas stations, rest stops with public bathrooms, and fast food chains, we are showing that we stand with Kaladin Stormblessed in his pain and suffering and his commitment to making the world a better place. Even better, we can pay Brandon to get hats with your slave brands on them so we can wear the hats and advertise our choice to be nerdy and cool whenever we want!

Kaladin, I am truly sorry for all you have gone through, and it really is a shame that Brandon had to do all that to you so he could make some money. Alas, happiness doesn’t sell. But I want you to remember, no matter what you go through – no matter who dies or who you fail, no matter who you lose or who betrays you, no matter what apocalypses, catastrophes, disasters, agonies come your way – you’ve entertained thousands of middle-class suburban nerds, not to mention a few urban ones, and they’re cheering for you. Cherish that, Kaladin. Don’t let anything get you down, because you’ve got a fan club. And after all, Brandon Sanderson’s going to die someday and leave you in peace.

Moral Dilemmas and Human Weakness

Warning: This essay brings up quite a few questions, but it doesn’t really give any clear-cut answers. So if you hate it when an author does that to you, don’t read it! Also, I’m writing to a Christian audience that already believes we should, more or less, take the Bible literally. So I’m not going to take time arguing for why to believe this; I’m just going to assume that you do already and work from there. Of course, even if you don’t believe in Biblical literalism, you might still enjoy the essay.

Imagine that you are a Christian living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. You have compassion on the Jews there that are suffering under the Nazis, so, wishing to help the poor and oppressed as the Bible charges you to, you hide a Jewish family in your home. Now imagine a group of Nazi secret police show up at your door one day and ask flat-out, “Are there any Jews in this house?” Well, yes, there are. But are you going to tell them and so compromise the safety of the people you are trying to protect? Or will you lie? You could try to avoid the question or answer it in a misleading way – for instance, you could say, “No, there are no Jews here,” reasoning to yourself that “here” doesn’t necessarily mean the whole house. But if the police are being careful, they will keep pressing until you have to give a straight answer or else reveal that you’re trying to hide something. And you may not be able to think of a cleverly misleading response in the heat of the moment. So what should you do? Lie and presumably save a life? Or tell the truth and presumably condemn a life?

The world is full of confusing moral questions like this. You might be able to somehow explain away the lying problem above – for instance, by citing the example of the Hebrew midwives that “feared God” who lied to Pharaoh when he asked why they were letting the Hebrew baby boys live. But even if you can deal with one question, there are many, many more that still remain. For instance, is it alright to kill an evil man – say, a ruler who is executing thousands of people without any justification – in order to save other people’s lives? Is it right under God’s law to abort a baby if, as far as you can see, both the mother and the baby will die if you don’t? What can you do to answer these difficult questions in a way that glorifies God and upholds His truth and law?

Many people argue that we must just follow the law literally and trust God to work out everything for good. After all, you can’t be completely sure that telling the truth to the secret police, or letting the evil ruler live, or not aborting the baby will end badly, because God can take care of those situations and make them work out for good. And even if things do turn out badly, God won’t hold you responsible according to this way of looking at things, since you did your part and obeyed the law in faith. When you decide to take things into your own hands and lie or kill or do something else against the law, on the other hand, you are not having faith in God, one could say. Rather, you’re relying on your own prediction of what bad thing will happen and your own judgment of what wrong thing is therefore right to do, and so trying to do good by your own strength. You could see it this way: God gave us a set of laws that serve as limits to what we can righteously do. If we cannot achieve a worthy goal – such a stopping the murderous activities of an evil ruler – within those limits, then evidently God doesn’t mean for us to achieve it. So instead we should in faith leave it to God to figure out another way to further good, whether that involves accomplishing the goal some other way or not. If we rather insist on reaching that goal, even though it requires breaking God’s law, we are, according to this view, arrogantly putting our judgment of what’s important to accomplish above the limits God has established.

The problem with this response is that it tells us to ignore our God-given common sense in order to stick to a literal law – a law that we may very well be misinterpreting in an effort to have faith in God without allowing ourselves to be led astray by our fallen intellect! Now, we are indeed fallen, and so our minds are corrupted and tend towards evil. But God gave us minds back in the day before the Fall, so there must be something good about them. And even now after the Fall, God very often appeals to our sense of logic and reason in the Bible – take Paul’s careful theological arguments in his epistles, for one. And we are to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. So while we need to be careful to not let our minds get in the way of faith, we must also be careful to not let our concern with maintaining our faith to get in the way of using our minds for good. It is a delicate balance. The above response to moral dilemmas, now, encourages us to suppress our minds in an effort to have faith. Is this a time when we should be keeping our minds from obstructing our faith? It’s hard to know, for, as I said, it is a delicate balance.

Some other people fall on the opposite side of the balance and say that this business of following the law literally is ridiculous. We’ll cause much harm by taking everything literally, they say, missing the spirit of the law in order to follow the letter of the law. In this way they commendably try to prevent the foolish, empty legalism that God so often condemns in the Bible. But many of these people then throw out absolute morality altogether and say that good and evil is completely relative – sometimes killing someone is evil, and sometimes it’s good; sometimes lying is evil and sometimes it’s good; etc. – nothing is innately good or evil. And when you say that anything can be either right or wrong, it just depends on the context, eventually you have to ask, “Well, what makes something right or wrong in the first place?” But in this system there are no absolutes of rightness and wrongness…so is there really any right or wrong in the first place? If you take this relativistic morality to its natural extent, you end up having no right or wrong at all. And that definitely contradicts the Bible, which is full of moral judgments and statements of absolute truth. Relativism also puts our sinful minds in charge of what’s right and wrong, and ignores or at least sidelines what God has to say on the issue. So while the approach of following the Bible literally and blindly trusting God may be foolishly suppressing our minds, this approach elevates our reason to a point where we must dispose of absolute right and wrong altogether. Neither is fully satisfactory.

Still other people, not wanting to have the shortsightedness that seems to result from a strictly literal obedience, but also not wanting to succumb to relativism, try another route. They rank God’s commands by importance – for instance, they might rank “Do not murder” above “Speak the truth to each other” – and then say that when we are faced with a situation where two commands seem to conflict, the right thing to do is to disobey the lesser one in order to follow the higher one. But disobeying the lesser one is not wrong, since we are only obligated to pursue the greater good. Quoting Norman L. Geisler: “God does not blame us for what we could not avoid. Thus he exempts us from responsibility to follow the lower law in view of the overriding obligation to obey the higher law.” (From http://equip.org/articles/any-absolutes-absolutely-/) In this view, there are still absolutes, since there is an absolute hierarchy of laws. Others say that there is only one absolute law – the law of love – and so that always comes first.

But these approaches nevertheless put an outside, human-created framework on the laws of the Bible. The system of ranking God’s commands imposes a hierarchy on His laws that Scripture never fully develops, if at all, and the “law of love” system demotes the other laws given in the Bible. They say, “Well, the Word of God seems to say this, but we smart and reasonable humans have figured out that actually you should interpret it like this.” Again we are forced to ask: how much should we use our God-given but fallen minds, and how much should we set them aside and focus on having a simple faith? And again I say: it is a delicate balance. Our arrogance constantly pushes us towards saying, “No! We can figure things out with our own minds!”, while our tendency to control and regulate ourselves in a hopeless effort to combat sin, to say “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as Paul writes in Colossians 2:21, pushes us towards restraining our minds and fearfully enslaving ourselves to worthless rules. What is tipping is the balance? What is crossing the line? Different people come to different conclusions.

To me, it seems that the relativistic approach is definitely out; taken to its logical conclusion, it flaunts the moral judgments that pervade the Bible and just does not fit with our natural sense of right and wrong, the law written on our hearts discussed in Romans 2:15. The approach of literally following the Bible and seeking faith over reason, on the other hand, appears much more Biblical. After all, there are many times in the Bible when God tells people who believe in Him to do things that seem foolish or even evil, requiring them to have faith. Consider the story in Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for instance. But this approach is still is difficult for me to accept. It seems foolish and legalistic to insist on following rules such as those to not deceive when things that seem more important are at stake, like people’s lives. Yet when I find this approach difficult to accept, is it because God has gifted me with a thoughtful mind, or is it because my sinful nature is resisting the idea of having to trust God more and trust myself less? How can I tell? Meanwhile, the approaches I discussed that try to take the middle road – the system of hierarchical commands and the “law of love” – also seem much more Scripturally tenable than relativism. But they still do not satisfy me because they, like relativism, elevate humans to a position where we can interpret the law in non-obvious ways. Is this a right position? Maybe. I don’t know.

Or maybe I’m approaching this issue in an unhelpful way in the first place; maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Perhaps there is not One Big Answer to these moral dilemmas, one all-purpose strategy for dealing with them. Perhaps we should approach each separately, studying the morality of lying to save lives apart from the morality of killing to save lives, for instance. Or maybe God meant to not give us all the answers, so we would have to rely on Him in moments of crisis instead of comfortably working out a whole ethical system beforehand. But again, I don’t know.

This brings me once more to the theme that seems to pervade this question of how to handle moral dilemmas: should we rely more on intellect or on faith? How much should we second-guess and re-interpret and explain ourselves out of literalness and build fallible human systems for understanding the Bible, and how much should we set aside logic and the principles of the world and go forth in blind faith and stubbornly stick to literalness even when it goes against common sense? How much should we qualify God’s commands and say, “Well, you don’t have to do it in this situation” and build systems of exceptions and special cases, and how much should we insist on absolute, literal obedience even when it seems downright stupid? How much should we trust in our predictions of the future and our ability to successfully avert “greater” evil by doing “lesser” evil, and how much should we just do whatever we’re sure we should be doing and leave the future entirely to God and rely on Him to work everything out? How much is arrogance and how much is foolishness? How much is indifference and how much is fanaticism? How much is eleven divided by zero?

Clearly, these questions are not easy to answer. But they can make us aware of one of our human weaknesses: our tendency to either arrogantly elevate our minds or foolishly and fearfully suppress them. And when we are aware of our weaknesses, we can more easily take them to God and say: “Look, here I am, a very messed up human being. Can You please give me the grace to deal with these weaknesses? Because I know I can’t.” Unfathomable questions like these can remind us that we can’t do everything and remind us to ultimately rely on God. And so however we choose to explore them, and however we try to answer them, we should do it in a humble manner, sensitive to what God is saying, aware of our weaknesses, eager to seek grace to compensate for them. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we can never find all the answers, God will ultimately be glorified.

The Penultimate Peril by Lemony Snicket – A brief, emotional response

The Penultimate Peril – A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 12
Author: Lemony Snicket
Pub Date: 2005
Pages: 368
Format: Audiobook

Wow.

All I can say is, I did not expect anything like this when I started A Series of Unfortunate Events.

I first came to this series after reading and enjoying a number of other books that reviewers said were similar – The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, and others. I read reviews of The Bad Beginning, the first book of the series, but came away thinking that it sounded rather mediocre. And besides, I thought, if I read the first book, I’d probably want to read the other twelve, and thirteen books is an awful lot to read just for one mediocre series! So I didn’t pursue getting it. But then my sister also read reviews of The Bad Beginning and decided on her own to borrow it from the library and read it. And then it was left sitting out. And, well, if a book is sitting out that I’m at least mildly interested in, and it’s entertaining, and especially if it’s short, well, I’ll end up reading it. So I did. And then my sister borrowed the next few books and left them sitting out, and I read them too. They were short, they were entertaining, they were fun, but they weren’t particularly exciting. It was only around book 6, The Ersatz Elevator, that I became really interested. And then I was the one who convinced my sister to borrow book 7, and then once we were done with that, I convinced her to borrow book 8… Well. At that point I was indeed quite curious as to what was going to happen, and I felt the books were getting more clever, but the series was still rather…well, flat. Small. It was only later on that things began to grow into something genuinely engaging. Book 9 had some wonderfully chilling moments. And then book 10, The Slippery Slope, was the first book of the series that I found truly beautiful. Book 12, The Penultimate Peril, far surpasses that.

But why do I find it beautiful? What do I find beautiful in a book, anyway? Consider this.

The fact is that the world is full of light and dirt. Love and disease. Beauty and death. In other words, wonderful things and horrible things.

The world is also full of emotions and mathematics. Whimsy and science. Randomness and fractals. In other words, messy, confusing things and neat, orderly things.

Bad books ignore this multifacetedness. They focus too much on the light and the emotions, maybe, resulting in something fluffily idealistic. Others maybe focus on the dirt and the emotions, resulting in shallow angst. Or perhaps it’s an overemphasis on dirt and mathematics, resulting in a coldly, voidly horrifying dissection of evil. Or light and mathematics, resulting in an unbelievably orderly piece of soulless theory.

Good books, on the other hand, recognize both the light and the dirt, both the emotions and the mathematics. They look them in the face. They may not look them completely in the face, or very obviously in the face. But they accept the world as it is. And then, acknowledging that huge, messy storm of light and dirt, emotions and mathematics, they say something. They find meaning; they find a theme running through the storm.

That’s why I love books that have elements of darkness in them. Yes, a book that is all sweetness can have good points in it, can have truth. But I will be far more willing to listen to a book that can see the darkness, because I feel that it actually acknowledges the world as it really is. It is not creating some idealized fantasy and then getting a message out of that, a message that the author has only proved to me will work in that idealized fantasy. No, a good book takes a real world and gets a message out of that. And by using a real world, the author has said to me, “Look, this is important for you, because you live in a real world. You need to pay attention, because this is your reality.” *

I loved The Penultimate Peril, and more than that, I found it beautiful, because it does this. It acknowledges the ugliness of the real world even as it portrays its loveliness and humor. And then, from that picture, it gets a message, it finds a meaning, it traces a theme.

Now, it’s not perfect, of course. After all, perhaps the most distinct meaning one gets out of The Penultimate Peril is that there is no meaning in the world – it’s just a terrible, chaotic conglomeration of unfathomable mysteries. And it has other flaws, too. The Penultimate Peril is not going to become my favorite book. It’s probably not even going to go on my (very informal) list of favorite books. Rather, it will join many other books I’ll read this year that I found beauty in; books that left me with a feeling, a feeling, a very powerful feeling that there’s something deep and intense inside, even if I don’t understand it quite yet. Something deep and intense under all the random funny bits and sad bits and good bits and bad bits. Much like the world itself, I’d say. And that’s what makes those books beautiful. They mirror the world. Imperfect, lovely, chaotic, hilarious, sad, happy – messy. But with something meaningful, perhaps many things meaningful, just underneath.

There. Now you’ve seen my light-and-emotions side. Hopefully once I’m actually done with the series I’ll write a more full, analytical, dirt-and-mathematics review. But for now, I’m enjoying the thrill of a book that has really made me feel something.

And so…go forth and read!

*Now, when I say “real world,” I don’t mean to say that fantasy novels or other books set in imaginary worlds can’t achieve this. Not at all! Rather consider this: A good fantasy world is realistic, no? And what does realistic mean? It mean it’s believable. It means it fits with our experience. And if it fits with our experience – well, then maybe it has relevance to our experience. It has applicability. And so if an author creates a believable fantasy world and gets a message out of that, when I see the realism of the imaginary world, I see the parallels to my own world, and I see the need for me to listen to the message.

How I think

This was originally an essay I wrote for school, meant to be a self-portrait.

I cannot enjoy anything without creating something with it. I can’t read stories without writing stories; I can’t sing songs without making up songs; I can’t knit things without writing knitting patterns; I can’t study languages without constructing languages; I can’t learn history without creating imaginary histories for fantasy worlds. But for me, creativity is not limited to the realm of play. It is a central part of how I learn and how I think. Creating – languages, worlds, whatever it happens to be – helps me learn; the creating and the learning both feed into each other and improve each other.

For instance, perhaps I want to study some large, tricky historical question in depth. Maybe I want to explore the question of whether democracy is a good form of government. I would begin my study by looking for facts pertinent to this question – statistics and first-hand accounts that showed where and when democracy was successful or unsuccessful. But if I were being a true scholar, I would not just glance at the facts and come up with a simplistic analysis, such as “Democracy works well in America.” I would try to find all the small ways it has succeeded or failed, and more than that, the cases where one could see it either way. In other words, I would have to look for complexity, not shy away from it, in order to properly address the question. Creating things has helped me realize and appreciate the complexity of the real world, and has made me eager to search it out. For instance, when I construct languages, I do extensive research on how natural languages work so I can create realistic – but unique – structures in my own languages. I want to find all that complexity because I want to mirror it myself; I want to understand it so I can then play with it. And it is the same when I seek to answer a difficult question: I try to understand the facts so I can “play with them” – think them over, move them around, try different arrangements to find an explanation that fits them. Creating languages has given me both practice with this process and a delight in those details.

The next step in a study of something controversial would be to look for the varying opinions on the issue and how they consider it differently. But again, I could not fall back to simplistic analyses and decide that one faction’s opinion is all wrong and another’s is all right. Most likely, both have their strong and weak points. And I must suspend judgment for a time in order to fairly listen to their arguments, putting myself in their shoes and trying to perceive how they see the facts fit together. When I work on my imaginary world, I do much the same thing. I create a fanciful political issue, then imagine how different parties might respond to it. I try to think like the different segments of my imaginary populations, exploring how they could see the same issue in different lights. In this way, I can practice my ability to see what another person sees with imaginary issues that are generally not emotionally charged. Then, when I need to consider contentious questions, I am better prepared to calmly and fairly explore even offensive opinions. Again, creating has given me practice and an interest in how people can see things differently.

After this, I would judge the opinions I have seen, considering them critically now that I feel I understand how somebody could believe them. And once I have done that, I can draw a conclusion, picking and choosing among the opinions I have found to build an idea that most comfortably fits with the facts. I have found my imaginary world to be helpful for exploring the ramifications of various ideas and so coming closer to forming my opinion. For instance, I have created countries with all sorts of governments, including many different shades of democracy. Whenever I focus on one imaginary country to develop it more, I try to thoroughly investigate its government and determine what its strong and weak points would be. Then I imagine what the social consequences of these strengths and weaknesses would be. Naturally, I can never be completely right – only studying real countries will yield true results of what happens with different governmental systems. But the exercise of trying to find the positive and negative aspects of imaginary political systems has helped me to be able to better analyze real political systems, as well as ones in the real world that have so far only been proposed. So in this way my imaginary world has once more proven itself to be useful as a testing ground to explore ideas, this time critically.

Finally, once I have taken a position about a difficult question, I want to express it. Normally I will write an essay or a research paper explaining my thought process and the judgment I came to. But my imaginary world lets me additionally express my opinion in an artistic way, much like I could through a story. Even though I can’t easily show other people my imaginary worlds and let them see the ideas contained within them, it is still fulfilling to create something beautiful to myself with truth I believe I have discovered. These two forms of expression, then, academic and creative, complement each other well.

It is definitely the case that I could learn and analyze without creating in tandem. And I could also create imaginary worlds without learning and analyzing. But I find both much more rewarding and interesting when they interact. Learning often just involves ingesting facts, but when I create with what I have learned, I involve myself with it and so remember and enjoy it more. Similarly, creating worlds can be a process of pure fantasy, but when I integrate things I have learned from the real world, the final product is more believable and speaks more clearly as a work of art.