The Second Trichotomy. Thought of the Day 120.0

Figure-2-Peirce's-triple-trichotomy

The second trichotomy (here is the first) is probably the most well-known piece of Peirce’s semiotics: it distinguishes three possible relations between the sign and its (dynamical) object. This relation may be motivated by similarity, by actual connection, or by general habit – giving rise to the sign classes icon, index, and symbol, respectively.

According to the second trichotomy, a Sign may be termed an Icon, an Index, or a Symbol.

An Icon is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses, just the same, whether any such Object actually exists or not. It is true that unless there really is such an Object, the Icon does not act as a sign; but this has nothing to do with its character as a sign. Anything whatever, be it quality, existent individual, or law, is an Icon of anything, in so far as it is like that thing and used as a sign of it.

An Index is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object. It cannot, therefore, be a Qualisign, because qualities are whatever they are independently of anything else. In so far as the Index is affected by the Object, it necessarily has some Quality in common with the Object, and it is in respect to these that it refers to the Object. It does, therefore, involve a sort of Icon, although an Icon of a peculiar kind; and it is not the mere resemblance of its Object, even in these respects which makes it a sign, but it is the actual modification of it by the Object. 

A Symbol is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to that Object. It is thus itself a general type or law, that is, a Legisign. As such it acts through a Replica. Not only is it general in itself, but the Object to which it refers is of general nature. Now that which is general has its being in the instances it will determine. There must, therefore, be existent instances of what the Symbol denotes, although we must here understand by ‘existent’, existent in the possibly imaginary universe to which the Symbol refers. The Symbol will indirectly, through the association or other law, be affected by those instances; and thus the Symbol will involve a sort of Index, although an Index of a peculiar kind. It will not, however, be by any means true that the slight effect upon the Symbol of those instances accounts for the significant character of the Symbol.

The icon refers to its object solely by means of its own properties. This implies that an icon potentially refers to an indefinite class of objects, namely all those objects which have, in some respect, a relation of similarity to it. In recent semiotics, it has often been remarked by someone like Nelson Goodman that any phenomenon can be said to be like any other phenomenon in some respect, if the criterion of similarity is chosen sufficiently general, just like the establishment of any convention immediately implies a similarity relation. If Nelson Goodman picks out two otherwise very different objects, then they are immediately similar to the extent that they now have the same relation to Nelson Goodman. Goodman and others have for this reason deemed the similarity relation insignificant – and consequently put the whole burden of semiotics on the shoulders of conventional signs only. But the counterargument against this rejection of the relevance of the icon lies close at hand. Given a tertium comparationis, a measuring stick, it is no longer possible to make anything be like anything else. This lies in Peirce’s observation that ‘It is true that unless there really is such an Object, the Icon does not act as a sign ’ The icon only functions as a sign to the extent that it is, in fact, used to refer to some object – and when it does that, some criterion for similarity, a measuring stick (or, at least, a delimited bundle of possible measuring sticks) are given in and with the comparison. In the quote just given, it is of course the immediate object Peirce refers to – it is no claim that there should in fact exist such an object as the icon refers to. Goodman and others are of course right in claiming that as ‘Anything whatever ( ) is an Icon of anything ’, then the universe is pervaded by a continuum of possible similarity relations back and forth, but as soon as some phenomenon is in fact used as an icon for an object, then a specific bundle of similarity relations are picked out: ‘ in so far as it is like that thing.’

Just like the qualisign, the icon is a limit category. ‘A possibility alone is an Icon purely by virtue of its quality; and its object can only be a Firstness.’ (Charles S. PeirceThe Essential Peirce_ Selected Philosophical Writings). Strictly speaking, a pure icon may only refer one possible Firstness to another. The pure icon would be an identity relation between possibilities. Consequently, the icon must, as soon as it functions as a sign, be more than iconic. The icon is typically an aspect of a more complicated sign, even if very often a most important aspect, because providing the predicative aspect of that sign. This Peirce records by his notion of ‘hypoicon’: ‘But a sign may be iconic, that is, may represent its object mainly by its similarity, no matter what its mode of being. If a substantive is wanted, an iconic representamen may be termed a hypoicon’. Hypoicons are signs which to a large extent makes use of iconical means as meaning-givers: images, paintings, photos, diagrams, etc. But the iconic meaning realized in hypoicons have an immensely fundamental role in Peirce’s semiotics. As icons are the only signs that look-like, then they are at the same time the only signs realizing meaning. Thus any higher sign, index and symbol alike, must contain, or, by association or inference terminate in, an icon. If a symbol can not give an iconic interpretant as a result, it is empty. In that respect, Peirce’s doctrine parallels that of Husserl where merely signitive acts require fulfillment by intuitive (‘anschauliche’) acts. This is actually Peirce’s continuation of Kant’s famous claim that intuitions without concepts are blind, while concepts without intuitions are empty. When Peirce observes that ‘With the exception of knowledge, in the present instant, of the contents of consciousness in that instant (the existence of which knowledge is open to doubt) all our thought and knowledge is by signs’ (Letters to Lady Welby), then these signs necessarily involve iconic components. Peirce has often been attacked for his tendency towards a pan-semiotism which lets all mental and physical processes take place via signs – in the quote just given, he, analogous to Husserl, claims there must be a basic evidence anterior to the sign – just like Husserl this evidence before the sign must be based on a ‘metaphysics of presence’ – the ‘present instant’ provides what is not yet mediated by signs. But icons provide the connection of signs, logic and science to this foundation for Peirce’s phenomenology: the icon is the only sign providing evidence (Charles S. Peirce The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4). The icon is, through its timeless similarity, apt to communicate aspects of an experience ‘in the present instant’. Thus, the typical index contains an icon (more or less elaborated, it is true): any symbol intends an iconic interpretant. Continuity is at stake in relation to the icon to the extent that the icon, while not in itself general, is the bearer of a potential generality. The infinitesimal generality is decisive for the higher sign types’ possibility to give rise to thought: the symbol thus contains a bundle of general icons defining its meaning. A special icon providing the condition of possibility for general and rigorous thought is, of course, the diagram.

The index connects the sign directly with its object via connection in space and time; as an actual sign connected to its object, the index is turned towards the past: the action which has left the index as a mark must be located in time earlier than the sign, so that the index presupposes, at least, the continuity of time and space without which an index might occur spontaneously and without any connection to a preceding action. Maybe surprisingly, in the Peircean doctrine, the index falls in two subtypes: designators vs. reagents. Reagents are the simplest – here the sign is caused by its object in one way or another. Designators, on the other hand, are more complex: the index finger as pointing to an object or the demonstrative pronoun as the subject of a proposition are prototypical examples. Here, the index presupposes an intention – the will to point out the object for some receiver. Designators, it must be argued, presuppose reagents: it is only possible to designate an object if you have already been in reagent contact (simulated or not) with it (this forming the rational kernel of causal reference theories of meaning). The closer determination of the object of an index, however, invariably involves selection on the background of continuities.

On the level of the symbol, continuity and generality play a main role – as always when approaching issues defined by Thirdness. The symbol is, in itself a legisign, that is, it is a general object which exists only due to its actual instantiations. The symbol itself is a real and general recipe for the production of similar instantiations in the future. But apart from thus being a legisign, it is connected to its object thanks to a habit, or regularity. Sometimes, this is taken to mean ‘due to a convention’ – in an attempt to distinguish conventional as opposed to motivated sign types. This, however, rests on a misunderstanding of Peirce’s doctrine in which the trichotomies record aspects of sign, not mutually exclusive, independent classes of signs: symbols and icons do not form opposed, autonomous sign classes; rather, the content of the symbol is constructed from indices and general icons. The habit realized by a symbol connects it, as a legisign, to an object which is also general – an object which just like the symbol itself exists in instantiations, be they real or imagined. The symbol is thus a connection between two general objects, each of them being actualized through replicas, tokens – a connection between two continua, that is:

Definition 1. Any Blank is a symbol which could not be vaguer than it is (although it may be so connected with a definite symbol as to form with it, a part of another partially definite symbol), yet which has a purpose.

Axiom 1. It is the nature of every symbol to blank in part. [ ]

Definition 2. Any Sheet would be that element of an entire symbol which is the subject of whatever definiteness it may have, and any such element of an entire symbol would be a Sheet. (‘Sketch of Dichotomic Mathematics’ (The New Elements of Mathematics Vol. 4 Mathematical Philosophy)

The symbol’s generality can be described as it having always blanks having the character of being indefinite parts of its continuous sheet. Thus, the continuity of its blank parts is what grants its generality. The symbol determines its object according to some rule, granting the object satisfies that rule – but leaving the object indeterminate in all other respects. It is tempting to take the typical symbol to be a word, but it should rather be taken as the argument – the predicate and the proposition being degenerate versions of arguments with further continuous blanks inserted by erasure, so to speak, forming the third trichotomy of term, proposition, argument.

Metaphysics of the Semantics of HoTT. Thought of the Day 73.0

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Types and tokens are interpreted as concepts (rather than spaces, as in the homotopy interpretation). In particular, a type is interpreted as a general mathematical concept, while a token of a given type is interpreted as a more specific mathematical concept qua instance of the general concept. This accords with the fact that each token belongs to exactly one type. Since ‘concept’ is a pre-mathematical notion, this interpretation is admissible as part of an autonomous foundation for mathematics.

Expressions in the language are the names of types and tokens. Those naming types correspond to propositions. A proposition is ‘true’ just if the corresponding type is inhabited (i.e. there is a token of that type, which we call a ‘certificate’ to the proposition). There is no way in the language of HoTT to express the absence or non-existence of a token. The negation of a proposition P is represented by the type P → 0, where P is the type corresponding to proposition P and 0 is a type that by definition has no token constructors (corresponding to a contradiction). The logic of HoTT is not bivalent, since the inability to construct a token of P does not guarantee that a token of P → 0 can be constructed, and vice versa.

The rules governing the formation of types are understood as ways of composing concepts to form more complex concepts, or as ways of combining propositions to form more complex propositions. They follow from the Curry-Howard correspondence between logical operations and operations on types. However, we depart slightly from the standard presentation of the Curry-Howard correspondence, in that the tokens of types are not to be thought of as ‘proofs’ of the corresponding propositions but rather as certificates to their truth. A proof of a proposition is the construction of a certificate to that proposition by a sequence of applications of the token construction rules. Two different such processes can result in construction of the same token, and so proofs and tokens are not in one-to-one correspondence.

When we work formally in HoTT we construct expressions in the language according to the formal rules. These expressions are taken to be the names of tokens and types of the theory. The rules are chosen such that if a construction process begins with non-contradictory expressions that all name tokens (i.e. none of the expressions are ‘empty names’) then the result will also name a token (i.e. the rules preserve non-emptiness of names).

Since we interpret tokens and types as concepts, the only metaphysical commitment required is to the existence of concepts. That human thought involves concepts is an uncontroversial position, and our interpretation does not require that concepts have any greater metaphysical status than is commonly attributed to them. Just as the existence of a concept such as ‘unicorn’ does not require the existence of actual unicorns, likewise our interpretation of tokens and types as mathematical concepts does not require the existence of mathematical objects. However, it is compatible with such beliefs. Thus a Platonist can take the concept, say, ‘equilateral triangle’ to be the concept corresponding to the abstract equilateral triangle (after filling in some account of how we come to know about these abstract objects in a way that lets us form the corresponding concepts). Even without invoking mathematical objects to be the ‘targets’ of mathematical concepts, one could still maintain that concepts have a mind-independent status, i.e. that the concept ‘triangle’ continues to exist even while no-one is thinking about triangles, and that the concept ‘elliptic curve’ did not come into existence at the moment someone first gave the definition. However, this is not a necessary part of the interpretation, and we could instead take concepts to be mind-dependent, with corresponding implications for the status of mathematics itself.

|, ||, |||, ||||| . The Non-Metaphysics of Unprediction. Thought of the day 67.1

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The cornerstone of Hilbert’s philosophy of mathematics was the so-called finitary standpoint. This methodological standpoint consists in a restriction of mathematical thought to objects which are “intuitively present as immediate experience prior to all thought,” and to those operations on and methods of reasoning about such objects which do not require the introduction of abstract concepts, in particular, require no appeal to completed infinite totalities.

Hilbert characterized the domain of finitary reasoning in a well-known paragraph:

[A]s a condition for the use of logical inferences and the performance of logical operations, something must already be given to our faculty of representation, certain extra-logical concrete objects that are intuitively present as immediate experience prior to all thought. If logical inference is to be reliable, it must be possible to survey these objects completely in all their parts, and the fact that they occur, that they differ from one another, and that they follow each other, or are concatenated, is immediately given intuitively, together with the objects, as something that can neither be reduced to anything else nor requires reduction. This is the basic philosophical position that I consider requisite for mathematics and, in general, for all scientific thinking, understanding, and communication. [Hilbert in German + DJVU link here in English]

These objects are, for Hilbert, the signs. For the domain of contentual number theory, the signs in question are sequences of strokes (“numerals”) such as

|, ||, |||, ||||| .

The question of how exactly Hilbert understood the numerals is difficult to answer. What is clear in any case is that they are logically primitive, i.e., they are neither concepts (as Frege’s numbers are) nor sets. For Hilbert, the important issue is not primarily their metaphysical status (abstract versus concrete in the current sense of these terms), but that they do not enter into logical relations, e.g., they cannot be predicated of anything.

Sometimes Hilbert’s view is presented as if Hilbert claimed that the numbers are signs on paper. It is important to stress that this is a misrepresentation, that the numerals are not physical objects in the sense that truths of elementary number theory are dependent only on external physical facts or even physical possibilities. Hilbert made too much of the fact that for all we know, neither the infinitely small nor the infinitely large are actualized in physical space and time, yet he certainly held that the number of strokes in a numeral is at least potentially infinite. It is also essential to the conception that the numerals are sequences of one kind of sign, and that they are somehow dependent on being grasped as such a sequence, that they do not exist independently of our intuition of them. Only our seeing or using “||||” as a sequence of 4 strokes as opposed to a sequence of 2 symbols of the form “||” makes “||||” into the numeral that it is. This raises the question of individuation of stroke symbols. An alternative account would have numerals be mental constructions. According to Hilber, the numerals are given in our representation, but they are not merely subjective “mental cartoons”.

One version of this view would be to hold that the numerals are types of stroke-symbols as represented in intuition. At first glance, this seems to be a viable reading of Hilbert. It takes care of the difficulties that the reading of numerals-as-tokens (both physical and mental) faces, and it gives an account of how numerals can be dependent on their intuitive construction while at the same time not being created by thought.

Types are ordinarily considered to be abstract objects and not located in space or time. Taking the numerals as intuitive representations of sign types might commit us to taking these abstract objects as existing independently of their intuitive representation. That numerals are “space- and timeless” is a consequence that already thought could be drawn from Hilbert’s statements. The reason is that a view on which numerals are space- and timeless objects existing independently of us would be committed to them existing simultaneously as a completed totality, and this is exactly what Hilbert is objecting to.

It is by no means compatible, however, with Hilbert’s basic thoughts to introduce the numbers as ideal objects “with quite different determinations from those of sensible objects,” “which exist entirely independent of us.” By this we would go beyond the domain of the immediately certain. In particular, this would be evident in the fact that we would consequently have to assume the numbers as all existing simultaneously. But this would mean to assume at the outset that which Hilbert considers to be problematic.  Another open question in this regard is exactly what Hilbert meant by “concrete.” He very likely did not use it in the same sense as it is used today, i.e., as characteristic of spatio-temporal physical objects in contrast to “abstract” objects. However, sign types certainly are different from full-fledged abstracta like pure sets in that all their tokens are concrete.

Now what is the epistemological status of the finitary objects? In order to carry out the task of providing a secure foundation for infinitary mathematics, access to finitary objects must be immediate and certain. Hilbert’s philosophical background was broadly Kantian. Hilbert’s characterization of finitism often refers to Kantian intuition, and the objects of finitism as objects given intuitively. Indeed, in Kant’s epistemology, immediacy is a defining characteristic of intuitive knowledge. The question is, what kind of intuition is at play? Whereas the intuition involved in Hilbert’s early papers was a kind of perceptual intuition, in later writings it is identified as a form of pure intuition in the Kantian sense. Hilbert later sees the finite mode of thought as a separate source of a priori knowledge in addition to pure intuition (e.g., of space) and reason, claiming that he has “recognized and characterized the third source of knowledge that accompanies experience and logic.” Hilbert justifies finitary knowledge in broadly Kantian terms (without however going so far as to provide a transcendental deduction), characterizing finitary reasoning as the kind of reasoning that underlies all mathematical, and indeed, scientific, thinking, and without which such thought would be impossible.

The simplest finitary propositions are those about equality and inequality of numerals. The finite standpoint moreover allows operations on finitary objects. Here the most basic is that of concatenation. The concatenation of the numerals || and ||| is communicated as “2 + 3,” and the statement that || concatenated with ||| results in the same numeral as ||| concatenated with || by “2 + 3 = 3 + 2.” In actual proof-theoretic practice, as well as explicitly, these basic operations are generalized to operations defined by recursion, paradigmatically, primitive recursion, e.g., multiplication and exponentiation. Roughly, a primitive recursive definition of a numerical operation is one in which the function to be defined, f , is given by two equations

f(0, m) = g(m)

f(n′, m) = h(n, m, f(n, m)),

where g and h are functions already defined, and n′ is the successor numeral to n. For instance, if we accept the function g(m) = m (the constant function) and h(n, m, k) = m + k as finitary, then the equations above define a finitary function, in this case, multiplication f (n, m) = n × m. Similarly, finitary judgments may involve not just equality or inequality but also basic decidable properties, such as “is a prime.” This is finitarily acceptable as long as the characteristic function of such a property is itself finitary: For instance, the operation which transforms a numeral to | if it is prime and to || otherwise can be defined by primitive recursion and is hence finitary. Such finitary propositions may be combined by the usual logical operations of conjunction, disjunction, negation, but also bounded quantification. The problematic finitary propositions are those that express general facts about numerals such as that 1 + n = n + 1 for any given numeral n. It is problematic because, for Hilbert it is from the finitist point of view incapable of being negated. By this he means that the contradictory proposition that there is a numeral n for which 1 + n ≠ n + 1 is not finitarily meaningful. A finitary general proposition is not to be understood as an infinite conjunction but only as a hypothetical judgment that comes to assert something when a numeral is given. Even though they are problematic in this sense, general finitary statements are of particular importance to Hilbert’s proof theory, since the statement of consistency of a formal system T is of such a general form: for any given sequence p of formulas, p is not a derivation of a contradiction in T. Even though in general existential statements are not finitarily meaningful, they may be given finitary meaning if the witness is given by a finitary function. For instance, the finitary content of Euclid’s theorem that for every prime p there is a prime > p, is that given a specific prime p one can produce, by a finitary operation, another prime > p (viz., by testing all numbers between p and p! + 1.).

Homotopies. Thought of the Day 35.0

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One of the major innovations of Homotopy Type Theory is the alternative interpretation of types and tokens it provides using ideas from homotopy theory. Homotopies can be thought of as continuous distortions between functions, or between the images of functions. Facts about homotopy theory are therefore only given ‘up to continuous distortions’, and only facts that are preserved by all such distortions are well-defined. Homotopy is usually presented by starting with topological spaces. Given two such spaces X and Y , we say that continuous maps f, g : X → Y are homotopic, written ‘f ∼ g’, just if there is a continuous map h : [0, 1] × X → Y with h(0, x) = f(x) and h(1, x) = g(x) ∀ x ∈ X. Such a map is a homotopy between f and g. For example, any two curves between the same pair of points in the Euclidean plane are homotopic to one another, because they can be continuously deformed into one another. However, in a space with a hole in it (such as an annulus) there can be paths between two points that are not homotopic, since a path going one way around the hole cannot be continuously deformed into a path going the other way around the hole.

Two spaces X and Y are homotopy equivalent if there are maps f : X → Y and f′ : Y → X such that f′◦ f ∼ idX and f ◦ f′ ∼ idY. This is an equivalence relation between topological spaces, so we can define the equivalence class [X] of all topological spaces homotopy equivalent to X, called the homotopy type of X. Homotopy theory does not distinguish between spaces that are homotopy equivalent, and thus homotopy types, rather than the topological spaces themselves, are the basic objects of study in homotopy theory.

In the homotopy interpretation of the basic language of HoTT we interpret types as homotopy types or ‘spaces’. It is then natural to interpret tokens of a type as ‘points’ in a space. The points of topological space have what we might call absolute identity, being elements of the underlying set. But a homotopy equivalence will in general map a given point x ∈ X to some other x′ ∈ X, and so when we work with homotopy types the absolute identity of the points is lost. Rather, we must say that a token belonging to a type is interpreted as a function from a one-point space into the space.

Given two points a and b in a space X, a path between them is a function γ : [0, 1] → X with γ(0) = a and γ(1) = b. However, given any such path, X can be smoothly distorted by retracting the path along its length toward a. Thus a space containing two distinct points and a path between them is homotopic to a space in which both points coincide (and the path is just a constant path at this point). We may therefore interpret a path between points as an identification of those points. Thus the identity type IdX(a,b) corresponds to the path space of paths from a to b. This also gives a straightforward justification for the principle of path induction: since any path is homotopic to a constant path (which corresponds to a trivial self-identification), any property (that respects homotopy) that holds of all trivial self-identifications must hold of all identifications.