Philosopher uses game theory to understand how words, actions acquire meaning

Jul 21, 2014
The latest work from Elliott Wagner, Kansas State University assistant professor of philosophy, appears in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a rarity for philosophy research. Credit: Kansas State University

Why does the word "dog" have meaning? If you say "dog" to a friend, why does your friend understand you?

Kansas State University philosopher Elliott Wagner aims to address these types of questions in his latest research, which focuses on long-standing philosophical questions about semantic . Wagner, assistant professor of philosophy, and two other philosophers and a mathematician are collaborating to use to analyze communication and how it acquires meaning.

"If I order a cappuccino at a coffee shop, I usually don't think about why it is that my language can help me communicate my desire for a cappuccino," Wagner said. "This sort of research allows us to understand a very basic aspect of the world."

The ' latest work appears in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, in the article "Some dynamics of signaling games." It is rare for philosophy research to appear in the , Wagner said. Collaborators include two other philosophers—Simon Hutteggar and Brian Skyrms—from the University of California, Irvine, as well as mathematician Pierre Tarres of the University of Toulouse in France.

The researchers are using evolutionary game theory models to understand how words and actions acquire meaning through natural processes, whether through biological evolution, social learning or other adaptive processes.

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that creates mathematical abstractions of social interactions and communication. Communication involves two agents—a sender and a receiver. The sender shares a message with the receiver through a sign or signal and the receiver uses the signal to act in the world. This interaction is called a signaling game.

The researchers used signaling games to study information flow in the natural world, which happens at all levels of biological organization, Wagner said. For example, bacteria such as those in the genus Pseudomonas communicate through chemical signals to attack the human immune system. Monkeys use vocalization to talk with each other. A peacock uses the size of his tail to signal his attractiveness to a female. People use gestures and language to communicate.

While these types of models have existed since the 1970s, Wagner and collaborators studied the dynamics of signaling games. The researchers incorporated evolution and individual learning to overturn other preconceived notions from previous models.

Through these models, the researchers start with a signaling game in which the sender's message does not have any prebuilt meaning. As the signaling system evolves, the sender's message may reflect the state of the world and the receiver may respond in a way that is appropriate for the state of the world.

"Through this process an arbitrary signal with no prebuilt meaning has come to mean something," Wagner said. "It appears that the meaning of a word has almost magically arisen out of this natural process."

If the researchers can show that this process occurs across a wide variety of models, then they may be able to explain how a word or action gains meaning.

"I think it's important for us to think carefully about features of our lives that we take for granted," Wagner said. "This research is one way for us to think carefully about why it is that words have meaning and how it is that words can acquire meaning through a natural process."

Explore further: Robust systems persist in response to mutations

More information: Some dynamics of signaling games, www.pnas.org/content/early/201… /1400838111.abstract

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User comments : 7

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kochevnik
5 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2014
Meaning is the entire point of the brain's reward system: To enforce adaptive behavior or at least reinforce pleasure pathways stimulated by behavior or meth
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2014
It is rare for philosophy research to appear in the scientific journal, Wagner said.
Well this is because theyre not scientists and therefore do not do science. Heres the gentlemans CV

https://c8f2d6fd-a-62cb3a1a-s-sites.googlegroups.com/site/elliottwagner/CV.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7creh-eampECewbpW26TF-AKqkHdN6UCxVGtFUHGj0t0tkITWQjOdwDVShDccSqb4Pu__ttW_utvYocya_P0_n_j-Jp3ubk2O918zo1mqYlZUpqijDz7h2DNP3fAvgDZF-v9FPplRv3bcEIzmRzJNLVG3AG4YhWqS043-5H_E3JbIKN60yqYmoY6SwYKcFmQmmYyC35aghxwGoCwizCEpV5jlLptCw%3D%3D&attredirects=0

-No training in anything brain- or cognition-related.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2014
Sorry about the link I dont know how to fix it and dont care. When I read titles like this

"Deterministic chaos and the evolution of meaning." The British Journal for the Philosophy
of Science. (2012).
"Communication and structured correlation." Erkenntnis. 71 (2009): 377–393

-I get suspicious.

"Game theory is a branch of mathematics that creates mathematical abstractions of social interactions and communication."

-Translation: a theory that words can be used as numbers in mathematical calculations. Of course someone with an M.A. Mathematical Behavioral Sciences specializing in Formal Epistemology has a lot of time and cred invested in believing that this could be true.
RMQ
4 / 5 (1) Jul 21, 2014
The reason why we know the meanings of words goes along the line of developmental psychology. Relevant adults teach the meanings of words, by pointing, rewarding, sharing eye contact and so on. Of course other fields contribute like neuroscience, biochemistry, sociology and so on. But yes, it feels like weak science this game theory approach.
Rute
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 21, 2014

-Translation: a theory that words can be used as numbers in mathematical calculations. Of course someone with an M.A. Mathematical Behavioral Sciences specializing in Formal Epistemology has a lot of time and cred invested in believing that this could be true.

I'm studying on a game theory course now and the way i understand is that different choice combinations can be assigned with ordinal preference values. And what is meant by that is that they aren't fixed numbers per se, but only indicative of preference. For example if A prefers z to y then z, y could be marked as, for example, 1000, 1 or 4, 3.
Dr_toad
Jul 21, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Rute
5 / 5 (1) Jul 22, 2014
Perhaps I should have refrained from posting as I'm only beginning to understand game theory. But I still maintain that words (or rather signals) aren't represented by numbers in signaling games. The payoffs are. For example, take a look at this Wikipedia page on signaling games: http://en.wikiped...ing_game In the top right of the page is a visualization of a game where the payoffs have ordinal assignations (0,1). The numbers aren't important, they just stand for undesirable and desirable payoffs in this case. The math itself is done with symbols.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 22, 2014
"It appears that the meaning of a word has almost magically arisen out of this natural process."

Here's a hypothesis: We do actions because they are easiest to achieve desired outcomes (where 'desired outcomes' can be anything as simple as an immediate effect or as complex as a future dynamic which may even including psychological/emotional states of other, affected people). The only difference is: game theory works with constant cost actions and maximum payoff wheras humans work with highest payoff to effort ratio. (though the one can be mapped to the other in most cases)

Simlarly language/meaning pairs are an economical way of getting what you want. (Note: it need not be the _optimal_ way, as the very act of further simplifying language could take more effort than sticking with a slightly less optimal, but established, MO. This is a part that game theory does not capture)