Linking the sciences and the humanities

Semantics, the investigation of linguistic meaning, draws on the traditions, methodologies, and superegos of the humanities and the social and natural sciences. As semanticists, we work in libraries and in the field, in armchairs and in labs, with grammars, corpora, consultants, and experimental data. We use logical and statistical methods. We are in a good place to connect the humanities and the social and natural sciences. We should do more to build those bridges. 


Source: Hannah Arendt Center

The humanities are in a crisis. Enrollments for classes have dropped dramatically in recent years. Here is a commentary by Deborah K. Fitzgerald, the Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. 

“As educators, we know we cannot anticipate all the forms our students’ future challenges will take, but we can provide them with some fundamentals that will be guides for the ongoing process of exploration and discovery. We can help shape their resilience, and prepare them to analyze and problem-solve in both familiar and unfamiliar situations. Calling on both STEM and humanities disciplines — as mutually informing modes of knowledge — we aim to give students a toolbox brimming over with mental and experiential levers to support them throughout their careers and lives.

Inspiration for how to design imaginative interdisciplinary undergraduate classes bridging the sciences and the humanities might come from the new magazine Nautilus, ‘a New Yorker version of Scientific American’: “Each month we choose a single topic. And each Thursday we publish a new chapter on that topic online. Each issue combines the sciences, culture and philosophy into a single story told by the world’s leading thinkers and writers.” The magazine and its website have essays, investigative reports, blogs, fiction, games, videos, and graphic stories. Another source of inspiration could be the Mapping Ignorance initiative of the Chair of Scientific Culture of the University of the Basque Country.

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What could be more interesting than how the mind works?

From the Harvard Gazette, 06 May 2014

Source: Stephanie Mitchell. Harvard Gazette, May 6, 2014

Source: Stephanie Mitchell. Harvard Gazette

“I don’t think of what I’m teaching my students as “psychology.” I think of it as teaching them “how the mind works.” They’re not the same thing. Psychology is an academic guild, and I could certainly spend a lot of time talking about schools of psychology, the history of psychology, methods in psychology, theories in psychology, and so on. But that would be about my clique, how my buddies and I spend our days, how I earn my paycheck, what peer group I want to impress. What students are interested in is not an academic field but a set of phenomena in the world — in this case the workings of the human mind. Sometimes academics seem not to appreciate the difference.”

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Automatic pilot for the garden of forking paths?

From Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence on Patrick Tucker’s The Naked Future: “Computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, and futurist Ray Kurzweil have famously painstakingly recorded every minute detail of their lives, from their diets to the keystrokes, in order to quantify and better their lives. Now, technology has made self-quantification easier than ever, allowing the “everyman” to record and study their habits just as Wolfram and Kurzweil have done, but with less hassle… So what happens in a future that anticipates your every move? The machines may have a better handle on us than ever, but we’ll live better as a result.  The naked future is upon us, and the implications for how we live and work are staggering.”


Source: The Modern Word. Borges.

“In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses— simultaneously—all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.” The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges.

From the Stanford EncyclopediaBranching time semantics: “As an explicit (or formalised) idea, branching time was first suggested to Prior in a letter from Saul Kripke in September 1958. This letter contains an initial version of the idea and a system of branching time, although it was not worked out in details. “

More on branching time semantics: Around the tree. Semantic and Metaphysical issues concerning branching and the open future.

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Trick and Treat


Source: Dick Daniels (

From Science.  Flower, Gribble & Ridley. 2014. Deception by Flexible Alarm Mimicry in an African Bird.

“Forked-tailed drongos are a particularly intelligent type of bird found in Africa. Drongos associate with many other bird and mammal species, which can learn to respond to drongo warning calls. Drongos are also exceptional mimics of the other species’ alarm calls. Though the increased vigilance across these multi-species associations is a benefit to all, drongos sometimes use these calls as ploys to scare associated species away from food, which the drongos then steal. However, without some approach to maintain the effectiveness of this deception, the drongos’ ploy would soon be detected. Flower et al. now show that drongos are able to fool their target species longer by flexibly varying the type of call they give.”

More from National Geographic Daily News. Related:The bird that cries wolf changes its lies.

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Is the man who is tall happy?


“My conversations with Professor Chomsky were lively, sometime complex, always very human. Through my illustrations, we follow the winding path of my halting and incomplete understanding. Noam is often patient, sometime less so. The trail always follows unexpected bends. The process and logic of Noam’s stream of ideas have determined the transitions and evolution of my drawings. The concept of ‘animated documentary’ finds a perfect justification here.”

Michel Gondry: Is the man who is tall happy?

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The long reach of reason

Steven Pinker & Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: The long reach of reason. Video.

Source: Ted Blog

Source: TED Blog

“Here’s a TED first: an animated Socratic dialog! In a time when irrationality seems to rule both politics and culture, has reasoned thinking finally lost its power? Watch as psychologist Steven Pinker is gradually, brilliantly persuaded by philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein that reason is actually the key driver of human moral progress, even if its effect sometimes takes generations to unfold. The dialog was recorded live at TED, and animated, in incredible, often hilarious, detail by Cognitive.”

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‘What if’ is a waste of time?

Richard Evans in the Guardian

Counterfactuals “are often claimed to open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people. But in fact they imprison the past in an even tighter web: one tiny change in the timeline – Archduke Franz Ferdinand escapes assassination in Sarajevo, the British cabinet decides not to enter the war – leads inevitably to a whole series of much larger changes, sometimes stretching over decades almost up to the present day. Yet this ignores, of course, an infinite number of chances that might have deflected the predicted course of events along the way – Franz Ferdinand might have fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet, or died in a hunting accident; Britain might have entered the war later on; the US might have come into the conflict on the side of the French; Austria-Hungary might have collapsed in the face of nationalist revolts; and so on.”

See also: What if . . . ? Konstanz Collaborative Research Group.

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A village invents a language on its own

From Australian Geographic

Credit: Carmel O'Shannessy)

Credit: Carmel O’Shannessy

“Light Warlpiri is a newly-evolved language spoken by about 300 people in the Lajamanu Aboriginal community, located at the edge of the Tanami Desert, about 890 km south of Darwin. The language combines elements of English, Kriol (an English-based creole that emerged in the late nineteenth-century) and Warlpiri, an endangered traditional language that is spoken in central Australia by about 4000 people. The Australian linguist Dr Carmel O’Shannessy, who speaks Warlpiri, discovered the existence of Light Warlpiri while working as a teacher and linguist at Lajamanu in the late 1990s. In a paper published this month in the journal Language, Carmel documents for the first time the grammatical structure of the language and discusses the social context that led to its emergence.”

How could a group of children ‘agree’ on a language that is different from that spoken by the adults around them? In his work on conventions, the philosopher David Lewis developed an analysis of tacit agreements of this kind that was inspired by the economist Thomas Schelling.  

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The multilingual classroom


A book about 20 languages that are spoken by students in German classrooms, including Turkish, Arabic, Polish, Hindi, Japanese, Italian, and English. The book is meant to help teachers understand the properties of their students’ native languages and provides materials for classroom use. The authors are prominent linguists, but the book is for the general public. The idea was conceived by the semanticist Manfred Krifka from the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The book is in German and for German classrooms, but we should all work together to produce such a book for the US, too.

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