Monday, April 10, 2017

The double meaning of words


The regular readers of these blogs will know that I am not a fan of Big Brother. So I am not here to draw his attention to difficulties he may come across when trying to manipulate his subjects. However, some such problems are interesting from a philosophical point of view. I think that it has no sense to ignore them, as if they don’t exist, so I feel free to talk about them. One problem that Big Brother must solve when he tries to develop the mind-reading technology as mentioned in my last blog is the problem of double meaning.
Let’s assume that Big Brother is reigning and that each newborn child gets a chip in the brain that is connected with a computer. In this way Big Brother can send thoughts to the child and he can use it also for reading the child’s thoughts. Let’s call the newborn child Subject. Then I think that it will be impossible to make that Subject will have only thoughts in her (or his) head that are acceptable to Big Brother. For no matter what Big Brother will do, it’s unavoidable that Subject sees things around her that haven’t been foreseen by Big Brother, or that Subject will get independent thoughts by talking with other subjects. Then Subject will gradually develop some thoughts of her own. If it has come that far, Big Brother is confronted with the problem of double meaning. For it is quite well possible that some words used by Big Brother for bringing thoughts to Subject’s brain have a different meaning for Subject than they have for Big Brother. The effect may be that Subject doesn’t behave any longer in the way desired by Big Brother and maybe she resists to him, too.
Here is a case of double meaning that I found on the Internet (but that actually is based on an incorrect comma):

A panda walks into a roadside cafe. He orders a bun, eats it, draws out a pistol and fires into the air and heads for the door.
"Why?" asks the confused waitress as the panda was half way out of the door. The panda produces a wild-life dictionary and shouts: "I'm a panda. Look it up!".
The waitress turns to the "P" section and reads:
"PANDA: Large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

The problem with the double meaning of the words in this joke is that they have been divorced from the context, and just the context is important for understanding the meaning of a word, as Wittgenstein has made clear when saying “The meaning of a word is its use” (Philosophical Investigations 43). However, it can be difficult to determine what the use of a certain word is, since the context is not always obvious, for it is not automatically given. Every translator can tell you. In order to show this, I’ll translate for you a Dutch sentence, that contains several words with double meanings (I have italicized these words, which are in pairs in the text, and I have explained them in a note; I hope that you will not stop going on, if you don’t know Dutch). Here is the Dutch sentence:

Toen mijn moeder aan de was was, zag ik twee vliegen vliegen. Daar was ook een bij bij. Ze vlogen onder de deur door, over de weg weg.

For a competent translator its meaning is clear:
When my mother was doing the laundry, I saw two flies passing by. They were accompanied by a bee. They passed under the door and flew away over the road.

However, when I had translated the sentence with an Internet translator, I got this incomprehensible result:
Then my mother to the wax was, saw I two flies flying. There was also at at. Them flew under the door, concerning the way gone.
(try it with your own translator or translate it into another language in this way and the result will be as incomprehensible).

The problem was that the computer translator didn’t know or understand the context of the sentence. It translated simply the single words without considering their uses in the text and the context. As this example clearly shows: What the context of a sentence is, is not obvious as such. It always needs an interpretation to get it. However, usually interpreting is an unconscious process that takes places without consciously thinking about it.
The upshot is that if you want to communicate a thought to another person, or if you want to bring over a thought literally to another mind (as Big Brother would like to do), it is possible that the other doesn’t understands you, even when she knows all the single words you used. I think that everybody has experienced this sometimes. Normally you try to solve the problem by talking with the other and explaining what you mean. But if you want to manipulate the other, it’s already more difficult to do so, since you want to hide your real intentions. And if you are Big Brother, I wonder whether this problem of double meaning can be really solved – which shows that there’ll always remain a place where you are free: In your mind (with the hope for a better future if the world would have come that far).

Note. The meaning of the italicized words in the Dutch sentence
was1=(she) was, was2=laundry – vliegen1=flies (insects), vliegen2=(to) fly – bij1=bee, bij 2=at – deur=door, onder ... door= under – weg1=road, weg2=away

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