Semantics and behavior

Larry Masinter believes there is a risk in making ‘the “meaning” of [a] language depend on operational behavior‘.

In discussions like this there should be a sharp distinction between natural and computer languages. Larry says meaning ‘depends on what the speaker intends and how the listener will interpret the utterance’ – that’s a valid viewpoint for natural languages, but for markup (html, xml etc.) or programming languages it’s really stretching definitions. There is no speaker, and no direct intentions – unless software has intentions. For markup document instances, there are usually three indirect intentions: those of the language designer, the software builder and the end-user producing the instance. I’m not sure an approach based on intentions is workable for computer languages at all – whose intention does the document reflect? How do we know the intentions of end-user, software builder and language designer do not conflict? How do we know their intentions at all?

Besides, semantics in this way can be described in prose or first order logic. I don’t think first order logic is appropriate for most language design (it’s not human readable, only logician-readable), and prose may be fine but is often inexact. I spoke at length at Balisage 2008 on this issue, and discussed it with David Orchard and others, and I believe an operational approach is often appropriate for computer languages. Why? It certainly is problematic for natural language semantics. There may be an utterance, and a meaning, without any behavior – I can say ‘North Korea tested an A-bomb’, and that has a meaning, even if no-one exhibits any behavior whatsoever after my words. For computer languages, it’s different. It’s possible to describe operational behavior as testable conditions – if I send a system test message A, it should do X. And that makes operational semantics a nearly perfect fit for computer languages – the semantics can be tested with a test suite. That’s enough. No need for real-time behavior after receiving each message.

Larry writes: ‘…standards organizations are in the business of defining languages … and not in … telling organizations and participants … how they are supposed to behave’. That’s far too lenient. If I render text marked <b> as italic, and <i> as bold, I’m not following your spec. Period. If I implement a language specification, and claim conformance, I’m not free to do as I choose. This is even more true in other contexts – business, healthcare, insurance. There organizations exchanging documents sign contracts, and are legally bound to do certain things upon receiving documents – paying after ordering, for instance. Larry’s free-for-all approach to language definitions does not apply to the real world. It’s only true that behavior should not be constrained any further than necessary – but without behavioral consequences, document exchange is meaningless indeed.

Atonement and Remorse

So how does forgiveness come about? Paul van Tongeren mentions the conditions of ‘confession, remorse, atonement’. Which he then dismisses, since forgiveness is not conditional, but unconditional: we do not forgive on the condition of some act or atonement by the other,  and revoke forgiving if the condition is not met: that is bargaining, not forgiving. Paul van Tongeren rightly noted in his talk that just saying: ‘Yes, I did that terrible thing, I don’t understand why, I’m different now’ cannot bring about forgiveness.

Avishai Margalit, whose views I’ve covered in a previous post, quotes Wittgenstein on the Temple Ritual of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), where a goat was sent into the desert to atone for the sins of all. Here atonement is presented as a kind of magic, where our sins are removed by a simple trick. Margalit notes: ‘…the problem is not the actual use of magic, provided the magic … is conceived only as the expression of a wish to be cleansed of sin … but (when the action) is seen as causing purification, it becomes a superstition’ [EM, p. 187]. A codification of sin-cleansing, for the ritual contemplation of sin, is perfectly OK; the same ritual as actual sin-cleansing is not. Forgiveness is not that easily earned. From my own background: saying three Hail Marys and giving a token fee to the church parish cannot, on its own, be considered a true cleansing of sin. Margalit goes on to say ‘remorse offers us a nonmagical way to undo the past’ [EM, p. 199]. Through remorse a sinner does not deny the deed, but shows regret over it, creates a distance between deed and sinner, and this distance makes forgiving possible. Forgiveness is not an entitlement after expressing remorse, but remorse is a precondition for forgiveness, a human precondition, without magic.

I think Margalit misses a point here. Remorse is only a precondition for forgiveness if it is sincere remorse. If I’ve hurt somebody, and just say ‘Yup, I did that, oops, sorry, regret that now, please forgive’, I’m not likely to be forgiven. Remorse must be sincere; to be sincere it must be felt. Remorse must hurt the offender. If I’ve hurt someone, and I realize the pain I’ve done, and feel pain myself because of it, that is sincere remorse. And this reciprocal pain is in fact a form of atonement. Atonement in itself is a reparation of a wrong, maybe a compensation in money for a damage inflicted; or a payment in suffering, as in Ian McEwan’s famous novel, where Briony spends a lifetime trying to atone for a crime committed at thirteen. The second form of atonement, where the perpetrator feels pain, and suffers, is the form of atonement that in inherent in true remorse. So atonement and remorse are no opposites, no ‘magical’ versus ‘nonmagical’ undoing, but atonement is a necessary component of true remorse.

What about the first form of atonement? The payback, the scapegoat. The meaning of forgiveness is overcoming vengeance. And vengeance is certainly one of mankinds curses. Wars, vendetta’s, feuds, relational fights: the ‘I’ll get even’ mechanism can be responsible for perpetual conflict. Atonement as a payback is a codified form of remorse: I’ll pay reparations, I’ll sacrifice a goat: it shows I’m willing to suffer in response to a wrong I’ve done. If the payment is substantial, if it hurts me to give this sum or object, I’m showing that I am willing to suffer in response to the suffering inflicted. This codification of remorse makes it possible to atone, and overcome vengeance, in situations where remorse may not do: the other party is to far removed for remorse to matter. In societies without a well-established penal system, such codifications of remorse are the oil that keeps the machinery of society going, instead of stalling through perpetual reciprocal vengeance.

Immaterial atonement – grief – is a component of remorse, material atonement – sacrifice – is codified remorse. True remorse with emotional atonement is fitting between those close to us: friends, lover, relatives. Atonement as codified remorse is fitting for God, or the villagers on the next hilltop.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002

Margalit on Forgiving

Recently I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘forgiveness’. Avishai Margalit has devoted a chapter to it in his book ‘The Ethics of Memory‘. The chapter is titled ‘Forgiving and Forgetting’. In it, Margalit makes a distinction between forgiving as ‘deleting’ (text, as in a text editor) and forgiving as ‘crossing out’ (which leaves the original text visible). Forgiving as deleting means totally forgetting the original misdeed: it restores the original relationship between offender and victim, as if the misdeed had never happened. Forgiving as crossing out leaves the memory of the deed intact. Forgiving here is the intention of the victim not to act out of vengeance, i.e. the offense will be remembered, but the offended person will act as if it had not been committed.

Margalit notes aptly that forgiving as deleting is contradictory. It means forgetting the misdeed; and forgetting is something we cannot do intentionally. Margalit compares this to voluntary muscles, such as those in legs and arms, which we can exercise at will, and involuntary muscles such as the heart muscle, which we cannot stop and start at will. Like voluntary and involuntary muscles, there are voluntary and involuntary mental acts, and forgetting is not voluntary. We can strive towards it, try not to think of something, and in due time we may indeed forget it, but we cannot decide to forget.  (I skip the remarks Margalit makes on religion and forgiveness, and the special role of God in religious views on forgiveness – for this I heartily recommend his book.) Like Paul van Tongeren, Margalit notes that forgiving actually entails not forgetting: ‘…forgiveness, which is voluntary, should not be tied to forgetting, which is involuntary’ [EM, p. 203].

Margalit further distinguishes between forgiving as a decision, a policy adopted by us not to act out of vengeance, and forgiveness, as the mental state of having overcome resentment and anger: ‘…forgiveness denotes both a process and an achievement, just as the word work denotes both the process of working and the work that is accomplished’ [EM. p. 205]. This conception of forgiveness as a state of non-resentful inner calm and peace is why we forgive on behalf of ourselves as well as the other, as Margalit concludes.

Next, I’ll explore Margalit’s views on atonement and remorse.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002

Is being evil an essential property?

In the previous post on Paul van Tongeren‘s lecture at the ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam I noted that it is prefectly sensible to say that a smart person has done a dumb thing. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. This merits some more research.

First it is important to distinguish between necessary properties (which could not have been otherwise) and non-necessary, or contingent properties (which could have been otherwise). Saul Kripke noted about a wooden lectern (the one he was standing behind) that it does not make sense to say that this lectern could have been made out of ice. Not, at least, if it was in fact made of wood. His argument runs as follows: we could of course discover that the lectern was in fact made of ice, and through some cunning preparation had been made to look as if it was wood. But, if it is in fact made of wood, it makes no sense to say ‘this lectern could have been made of ice’, since it would have been a different lectern. Of course, another – ice – lectern could have stood in place of the current wooden one, but it would not have been this – wooden – lectern. If the lectern is made of wood, it is necessarily made of wood. Being made of wood is an essential property of the lectern. Standing in this room is not essential – of course this lectern could have stood in another room.

Similarly, Kripke holds that Obama (Nixon in his examples) could not have become the 44th President of the United States (which is perfectly intuitive), but that he could not have had different parents – if someone had, that would have been a different person. As in the case of the lectern, we could of course discover that Obama does in fact have different parents from the ones we believe to be his parents – but assuming that the people we believe to be his parents are indeed his parents, it makes no sense to say ‘Obama could have had different parents’ – that ‘Obama’ would have been a different man, not the man we call Obama. Being born of some parents is essential. Becoming the 44th President of the United States is not. [NN, pp. 312-314] The notion of essential properties is not unproblematic in its own right – but it is clear that there are non-essential properties. ‘Standing in this room’ is not essential for a lectern, being ‘the 44th President of the United States’ is not essential for Obama. Since ‘non-essential’ is all I need for my argument, we can disregard the complexities of essential properties. Suffice it to say that some properties at least are clearly non-essential.

Where does that leave us with being evil? It seems clear that being evil is not essential – even in the case of the exemplar of evilness, Adolf Hitler, it makes perfect sense to say ‘Hitler could have died in World War I’ or ‘Hitler could have stayed a smalltime painter in Vienna’. In both cases he would have been an unremarkable man, long forgotten, and maybe not a nice person, but neither a very evil one. So being evil is not essential. And it is not essential because it makes perfect sense to assume an evil person could not have performed the acts which made him evil, and thus would not have been evil. So even the complete collection of all evil acts performed by a true villain, does not make that person necessarily evil.

If we look at lesser examples, it becomes even clearer. If my former boss, or a former love, or a trusted friend, has done me wrong, it does not make them evil. It does not make them evil, because it makes perfect sense to assume they could have avoided this evil deed. And even assuming they did do it, it is one deed amongst many. As I have shown, even if all deeds by a person had been evil, being evil would not have been an essential property of this person – we still could dissociate the person from the evil deeds. Even more so in the case of a person who has just done one, or a few, bad deeds, it is perfectly possible to dissociate the person from the deed(s).

Evil is not an essential property in the worst of cases. It certainly isn’t in the everyday variety. If someone has done me wrong, it is perfectly possible to separate the deed from the person, to know this deed has been done by the other, to still condemn the deed, but to forgive the other.

For Kripke’s views, see: ‘Naming and Necessity’, Saul Kripke, in: Semantics of Natural Language, eds. D. Davidson and G. Harman, 1972, and ‘Identity and Necessity, Saul Kripke, in: Identity and Individuation, ed. Milton K. Munitz, 1971

Is forgiveness possible?

The theme of this year’s ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam was ‘Reconciliation’ (the Dutch word, ‘Verzoening’, doesn’t translate well to English – from it is derived ‘zoen’ which is Dutch for ‘kiss’ for which we also have the more common synonym ‘kus’ – the sweet overtones are unfortunately completely lost in translation). One recurring side-theme was ‘forgiveness’, which notion I am going to explore in some posts.

Paul van Tongeren argued at the ‘Night of Philosophy’ that true forgiveness is not possible. His argument runs thus: Forgiving is not forgetting. On the contrary, forgiving presupposes remembering. So we remember an evil act done against us, but do not consider the actor as evil anymore. Thus seems only possible if the actor radically dissociates himself from the act, without denying doing the act. The actor says: ‘Yes, I did do that, it is completely wrong, I should not have done that, I would never do that anymore now’. But if the actor dissociates himself from the act so completely, forgiving becomes impossible, for the actor is not the person who committed the act anymore – he has become a different person. If this dissociation does not take place, and we still consider the act evil, and remember who did the evil act against us, how can we not still see the actor as evil? In ‘Impossible Forgiveness’, van Tongeren states: ‘… the perpretator is being remembered as linked to his evil act and thus as evil and blameworthy himself’ [IF p. 372].

Two things are wrong with van Tongeren’s exploration. First, the link between an evil act and its evil perpretator is way too strong. There is nothing contradictionary in saying ‘Joe is a smart person, but now he’s done a dumb thing’. Being smart does not preclude one from doing dumb things. Nor does doing something dumb entail being intrinsically dumb. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. In forgiving, this distinction is of the utmost importance: if we see the perpretator as intrinsically evil, forgiving seems impossible indeed. But if we regard the act as evil, but do not regard the perpretator as intrinsically evil, we have the necessary leeway for forgiveness. So we can, sometimes, forgive, because we are able to see the wrongdoer as a more complete person than just the perpretator of this single evil act: the prepretator has other sides, some maybe bad, but some good as well. It is the complete person we forgive, not the one-dimensional perpretrator of the evil act.

The second oversight is the nature of forgiving, and especially the things leading up to forgiveness. Van Tongeren rightly mentions ‘confession, remorse and atonement’ [IF p. 370] as the preconditions of forgiveness. Unfortunately, he does not give the notions much further thought, but dismisses them: since forgiving is not conditional (I cannot forgive only if some conditions are met: I either forgive or I do not), the three acts cannot be the conditions for forgiveness.

But the nature of confession, remorse and atonement is much more profound. If someone has sincere remorse, and is pained and grieved by their wrongdoing, and we perceive the sincere pain and grief they feel, forgiving becomes possible. If someone dear to me has badly hurt me through inconsiderate actions, I will probably feel anger and vengeance. If this person apologizes, and I see a sincere pain, a hurt they feel for doing me pain, and I do not see this person as intrinsically evil, forgiveness may be easy: seeing the other suffer, maybe even as much as I have, makes me feel pity towards the other, the perpretator, and may lead me too think that this pain is not deserved. So true remorse can lead to forgiving, not in a causal way, but as a precondition, leading to my decision whether to forgive or not. Sincere remorse is a precondition: without it, forgiveness seems hardly possible. With it, forgiveness is not an entitlement, but it certainly becomes a possibility. My free act of forgiving becomes possible through the sincere remorse shown by the other.

[IF] ‘Impossible forgiveness’, Paul van Tongeren, in: Ethical Perspectives 15, no. 3, Leuven 2008