Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

Reflection and Description Of Meaning

After writing my last post I thought I might follow up with a bit of cognitive speculation. Since the first comment was exactly about the issue I was thinking about writing on, I might as well follow up quickly.

Jeff Snell replied:

You parse semantic markup in rich text all the time. When formatting changes, you apply a reason. RFC’s don’t capitalize MUST and SHOULD because the author is thinking in upper-case versus lower-case. They’re putting a strong emphasis on those words. As a reader, you take special notice of those words being formatted that way and immediately recognize that they contain a special importance. So I think that readers do parse writing into semantic markup inside their brains.

Emphasis not added. Wait, bold isn’t emphasis, it’s strong! So sorry, STRONG not added.

I think the reasoning here is flawed, in that it supposes that reflection on how we think is an accurate way of describing how we think.

A few years ago I got interested in cognition for a while and particularly some of the new theories on consciousness. One of the parts that really stuck with me was the difference in how we think about thinking, and how thinking really works (as revealed with timing experiments). That is, our conscious thought (the thinking-about-thinking) happened after the actual thought; we make up reasons for our actions when we’re challenged, but if we aren’t challenged to explain our actions there’s no consciousness at all (of course, you can challenge yourself to explain your reasoning — but you usually won’t). And then we revise history so that our reasoning precedes our decision, but that’s not always very accurate. This gets around the infinite-loop problem, where either there’s always another level of meta-consciousness reasoning about the lower level of consciousness, or there’s a potentially infinite sequence of whys that have to be answered for every decision. And of course sometimes we really do make rational decisions and there are several levels of why answered before we commit. But this is not the most common case, and there’s always a limit to how much reflection we can do. There are always decisions made without conscious consideration — if only to free ourselves to focus on the important decisions.

And so as both a reader and a writer, I think in terms of italic and bold. As a reader and a writer there is of course translation from one form to another. There’s some idea inside of me that I want to get out in my writing, there’s some idea outside of me that I want to understand as a reader. But just because I can describe some intermediate form of semantic meaning, it doesn’t mean that that meaning is actually there. Instead I invent things like “strong” and “emphasis” when I’m asked to decide why I chose a particular text style. But the real decision is intuitive — I map directly from my ideas to words on the page, or vice versa for reading.

Obviously this is not true for all markup. But my intuition as both a reader and a writer about bold and italic is strong enough that I feel confident there’s no intermediary representation. This is not unlike the fact I don’t consider the phonetics of most words (though admittedly I did when trying to spell “phonetics”); common words are opaque tokens that I read in their entirety without consideration of their component letters. And a good reader reads text words without consideration of their vocal equivalents (though as a writer I read my own writing out loud… is that typical? I’m guessing it is). A good reader can of course vocalize if asked, but that doesn’t mean the vocalization is an accurate representation of their original reading experience.

Though it’s kind of an aside, I think the use of MUST and SHOULD in RFCs fits with this theory. By using all caps they emphasize the word over the prose, they make the reader see the words as tokens unique from “must” and “should”, with special meanings that are related to but also much more strict than their usual English meaning. The caps are a way of disturbing our natural way of determining meaning because they need a more exact language.

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This is the personal site of Ian Bicking. The opinions expressed here are my own.