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Double Booking What???

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Posted by Richard D. Stafford, Ph.D. on February 13, 2002 19:08:53 UTC


As you know, the first few pages
of Relativity by Einstein state that
in order to answer "what is truth?"
we must precisely define our terms
_in terms of other terms.

(My first try at color print!!)

When I was in the third grade, my teacher told the class that it was against the rules for the a word to be included in its own definition. I remember thinking about that! The thought which occurred to me was that, if there was a word in the definition which I did not know, I would have to look that word up too so that, to really obey the rule, that second word also could not contain the original word in its definition. Now what happens if the second word I look up also includes a word who's meaning I do not know? The process just continues! -- Sooner or later the thing has to get circular.

Now I was young and ignorant and didn't really comprehend how many words were in a dictionary and how long that cycle might be. Just out of curiosity, I went to the dictionary (it was one of those huge volumes on a stand in the front of the room) to see how far I had to go before I ran into the original word I started with. Because the actual word I looked up was unimportant, I started with the first word in the dictionary: "a"! Its definition read "The first letter of the alphabet, a pronoun …!! Now I was quite astonished by that.

At that very moment, I came to the conclusion that the teacher was well aware of the impossibility of sticking to such a rule. I decided that she had made the statement as a gullibility check. (why else would she have made an invalid statement so easy to check?)

Even as a child, you must understand that my perspective was rather strange. When I was only about 4 or 5 years old, my father had told me that anyone who believes more than 10% of what they hear or 50% of what they read or 90% of what they see with their own eyes is gullible! I remember it like it happened yesterday; I can even tell you what he was wearing. I didn't have the slightest idea what "gullible" meant but I knew if I was, I had better hide it! As a consequence I spent most of my time trying to figure out what I was supposed to believe. Particularly in school, it was very hard to tell what was Bull and what was fact. I had this world view that adults spent most of their time pulling kids legs just to see how gullible they were and it was the kids job to figure things out. I never said anything about it because that would be letting the cat out of the bag. I thought all the adults knew it.

At any rate, looking up "a" started me thinking about the problem of figuring out what words mean! Clearly the dictionary was only useable after you already knew what the words meant. It could be seen as a check system: a place where you could check if the relationships between the words which you had come to understand and the supposed significant relationships put forward by whoever wrote the dictionary. But remember, you can't always believe the dictionary; a fact which I was also able to demonstrate to myself (from an adult perspective, I now see it as adults misusing a word but that isn't the way I saw it as a child).

As I am sure you are aware, I was not a good student; but that is beside the point! How did kids learn the meanings of words? It was clear that they didn't learn them from looking them up! I decided that they listened to what the adults said and guessed what the words meant. The actual words themselves could not be important because foreign languages existed which used completely different words. The only possibility which seemed reasonable to my young mind was that there had to be patterns in the usage of the words which corresponded to important patterns in the real world and that had to be what the dictionary was all about: expressing all those patterns and relations.

All that to explain my strange perspective on meanings. "We must precisely define our terms?" We cannot! The absolute best we can do is, after examining every use of the word we are aware of, make sure that our mental concept of what the word means is consistent with that usage. If it is not then we best try and shift what we think the word means (unless you are pretty sure the usage you hear is unacceptable by others). Now, if one takes that tack towards understanding what someone else is saying, understanding is very difficult to achieve. The easiest thing to do when someone says something you don't understand is ignore it. I do that all the time. In fact, that is the reason I have never answered any of your posts. Most of the time, I have not the slightest idea what you are trying to say.

That's how I got into physics! It was the only subject where figuring out what was Bull was easy - at least until I got to graduate school when the Bull seemed to expand quite a bit.

Have fun -- Dick

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