OASIS Conference Part II

The OASIS network was set up to foster connections between those thinking about the primitives of meaning composition across disciplines. From my own perspective, it means linguistic semantics reaching outwards to learn from scientists thinking about meaning from  psychology and neuroscience, from computer science and lexicography, and from philosophy.  It also involves trying to think about the problem in new and innovative ways and finding ways to close the commensurability gap between our formal semantic computational theories of meaning and the algorithmic and implementational realities of mind and brain.  In this second report from the kickoff network conference, I concentrate on panels and talks that were not given from the primary perspective of either formal syntax or semantics (there were great talks of that flavour  too at OASIS, but a psychology blogger should talk about them).

There were two invited talks from Alastair Knott  (University of Otago, New Zealand) and Friederike Moltmann  (CNRS) who spoke from the lands of neuroscience/psychology and philosophy respectively.  What are these strange lands, and do they speak a language we can understand? Knott is an expert on embodied cognition and the deconstructing of the logic of action, as in what it takes for a person to reach out and grab a cup.  His idea was that the deictic routines necessary for executing a simple motor event such as `grabbing a cup´ are of the same granularity, time wise and  with respect to the primitives involved, as the symbolic elements themselves required to represent an event of `grabbing a cup´ in  linguistic terms.

So here was an explicit attempt to close the commensurability gap (cf.  Embick and Poeppel (2015))  by essentially denying it—– the basic building blocks of the one can be directly identified with the building blocks of the other.  The position of these embodied cognition guys is that you get to move up a grain size from neuronal firings to motor plans, and in doing so you get to a level where the two types of language actually do translate each other.   It was a fascinating talk, and a brave attempt, but I simply wasn´t buying it.   Still, exactly the kind of thing that I come to OASIS conferences to hear. Check out his book here (http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/sensorimotor-cognition-and-natural-language-syntax)

Moltmann was a completely different kettle of fish. She comes from a heretical position both from the point of view of philosophical metaphysics and  from the point of view of standard formal semantics.  Classical formal semantics invites us to take truth values and objects in the world as the basic ontological types— even subsorts within the type e category need to be justified in terms of extensional identity conditions and independently justifiable real world distinctions.  Philosophical metaphysical ontology is similarly concerned with discovering what actually exists  in the world.  Moltmann outlined what she argued was an emerging field of natural language ontology, whereby what we should be engaged in is a kind of descriptive metaphysics. In other other words, in the particular case of language, we as scientists of meaning should be interested in discovering the ontological primitives that are required for a successful description of the natural language system of meaning construction, i.e. natural language ontology (http://friederike-moltmann.com/uploads/Natural%20Language%20Ontology-2016(3).pdf). What we should seek to discover are  the ingredients that are necessary and implicitly relied on in natural language systems, rather than those required for cognition in general, or those that underpin some objective external reality (see also the work of the philosopher Kit Fine).  In laying out this programme, Moltmann I believe is exactly correct, although of course many of the actual details remain to be worked out.  Her talk represented an attempt to clarify the terms, define the object of inquiry, and set the agenda for the whole enterprise in philosophical terms. In doing so, I think she, and Fine, myself and a growing number of like minded people are still definitively in the minority even though I believe this is the only way forward to genuine communication with psychology.

The panel on the acquisition of counterfactuality was an example of work where OASIS as a network is actively experimenting with bringing psychologists, psycholinguists and theoretical linguists together to help sharpen the questions and issues relevant to all.  Counterfactual reasoning, and language expressing counterfactual reasoning statements have long been fascinating for formal semanticists raising a number of interesting crosslinguistic  issues concerning the elements required to encode such ideas, and questions concerning the interaction of structural semantics and pragmatic reasoning.  The panel started with a clear and pointed theoretical overview from Fabienne Martin (Humboldt, Berlin), and was followed by more experimental talks from Sarah Beck (University of Birmingham) and Nina Kazanina (University of Bristol).

Beck points out that very small children engage in pretending games, pretending to be cats or princesses or dinosaurs. They are fully aware that they are not in fact dinosaurs, but does this entail that they are actually engaging in some form of counterfactual thinking?  Are there simpler versions of counterfactual thinking in which there could be a basic easy version and then a scaled-up adult version?

In Theory of Mind tasks, children start to give correct answers between ages 3 and 4. But recent work suggests that they behave correctly much earlier, as long as the understanding of what someone else might be thinking is not mediated by an explicitly verbal task.

Is this evidence that what is hard is language?  Or that the kids have a baby version that is not as complex as the one that is required by language?  Or maybe even that language allows kids to scale up their instinctive cognitive awareness of the reality of other minds to an automated sophisticated reasoning process using that information?  How could we know , and how would we test that?

Interestingly, in tests conducted by Beck and her team 3-4 year olds found it significantly more difficult to perform at adult levels when the question was `What if he had gone the other way,  where would he be now?´, as opposed to `What if next time he goes the other way, where would he be?´ Quite generally, kids found future hypotheticals easier than past counterfactual reasoning raising the possibility that what they find difficult is reasoning with an alternative to something they know for sure is a fact, as a opposed to just reasoning about two different live options.  Beck speculates, following Hoerl and McCormack, that children only get good at tracking events in a mature temporal updating system at about age 5. Maybe it is this ability that is necessary for the more complicated counterfactual reasoning question.

So, what´s the problem? Is it temporal tracking? Is it contradicting a past known event? OR, is it the linguistic complexity of the counterfactual reading that is getting in the way?

Nina Kazanina from the University of Bristol had been pushing hard on this very question.  If you compare the two conditionals in (a) and (b), it is clear that there is something quite linguistically unusual about (b) from the point of view of English.

  • If Amy eats an apple, she will get a medal.
  • If Amy had eaten an apple, she would have won the medal.

Kazanina set up an experiment with children involving puppets and different things to eat, and medals being awarded and tested them in various conditions. She first tested children on whether they had good control of the if — then  construction in English, and only those who performed close to ceiling on that pre-test were further tested on the counterfactual conditionals.  The scenario is the following: one animal eats the watermelon and gets a medal; the other animal eats the ice cream and gets a cross. A puppet then makes a statement like  `If he had eaten a watermelon, he would have got a medal´  and the kid has to say which animal the puppet is referring to.

The finding is that kids  get it right at age 4 but not at age 3. Further, this failure does not  correlate with performance on the false belief (theory of mind ) task administered at the same time.  Kazanina concludes that the problem is with the linguistic construction and not with the ability to entertain the possibility of false situations.

But is the problem with (b) a kind of hidden `not´ in the inferential process which is not transparently indicated in the linguistic form, as Kazanina claims (since (b)   entails that Amy did not eat the apple and in fact did not win the medal)?

Or is the problem with time tracking as Hoerl and McCormack suggest?

Or is the problem with the interpretation of the past tense in if-clauses, which is not interpreted like normal past tense in English but more like `remote world´  ? Come to think of it, that IS pretty weird.

Really interesting questions. Really interesting panel. I hope they will keep me posted.

Looking forward to the next OASIS conference in Nantes next year, and thanks to Bridget Copley and Isabelle Roy for organising this one.

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