Sunday, August 21, 2011

Baseball and Linguistic Uncertainty

In my youth I played an inordinate amount of baseball, collected baseball cards, and idolized baseball players. I've outgrown all that but when I'm in the States during baseball season I do enjoy watching a few innings on the TV.

So I was watching a baseball game recently and the commentator was talking about the art of pitching. Throwing a baseball, he said, is like shooting a shotgun. You get a spray. As a pitcher, you have to know your spray. You learn to control it, but you know that it is there. The ball won't always go where you want it. And furthermore, where you want the ball depends on the batter's style and strategy, which vary from pitch to pitch for every batter.

That's baseball talk, but it stuck in my mind. Baseball pitchers must manage uncertainty! And it is not enough to reduce it and hope for the best. Suppose you want to throw a strike. It's not a good strategy to aim directly at, say, the lower outside corner of the strike zone, because of the spray of the ball's path and because the batter's stance can shift. Especially if the spray is skewed down and out, you'll want to move up and in a bit.

This is all very similar to the ambiguity of human speech when we pitch words at each other. Words don't have precise meanings; meanings spread out like the pitcher's spray. If we want to communicate precisely we need to be aware of this uncertainty, and manage it, taking account of the listener's propensities.

Take the word "liberal" as it is used in political discussion.

For many decades, "liberals" have tended to support high taxes to provide generous welfare, public medical insurance, and low-cost housing. They advocate liberal (meaning magnanimous or abundant) government involvement for the citizens' benefit.

A "liberal" might also be someone who is open-minded and tolerant, who is not strict in applying rules to other people, or even to him or herself. Such a person might be called "liberal" (meaning advocating individual rights) for opposing extensive government involvement in private decisions. For instance, liberals (in this second sense) might oppose high taxes since they reduce individuals' ability to make independent choices. As another example, John Stuart Mill opposed laws which restricted the rights of women to work (at night, for instance), even though these laws were intended to promote the welfare of women. Women, insisted Mill, are intelligent adults and can judge for themselves what is good for them.

Returning to the first meaning of "liberal" mentioned above, people of that strain may support restrictions of trade to countries which ignore the health and safety of workers. The other type of "liberal" might tend to support unrestricted trade.

Sending out words and pitching baseballs are both like shooting a shotgun: meanings (and baseballs) spray out. You must know what meaning you wish to convey, and what other meanings the word can have. The choice of the word, and the crafting of its context, must manage the uncertainty of where the word will land in the listener's mind.

Let's go back to baseball again.

If there were no uncertainty in the pitcher's pitch and the batter's swing, then baseball would be a dreadfully boring game. If the batter knows exactly where and when the ball will arrive, and can completely control the bat, then every swing will be a homer. Or conversely, if the pitcher always knows exactly how the batter will swing, and if each throw is perfectly controlled, then every batter will strike out. But which is it? Whose certainty dominates? The batter's or the pitcher's? It can't be both. There is some deep philosophical problem here. Clearly there cannot be complete certainty in a world which has some element of free will, or surprise, or discovery. This is not just a tautology, a necessary result of what we mean by "uncertainty" and "surprise". It is an implication of limited human knowledge. Uncertainty - which makes baseball and life interesting - is inevitable in the human world.

How does this carry over to human speech?

It is said of the Wright brothers that they thought so synergistically that one brother could finish an idea or sentence begun by the other. If there is no uncertainty in what I am going to say, then you will be bored with my conversation, or at least, you won't learn anything from me. It is because you don't know what I mean by, for instance, "robustness", that my speech on this topic is enlightening (and maybe interesting). And it is because you disagree with me about what robustness means (and you tell me so), that I can perhaps extend my own understanding.

So, uncertainty is inevitable in a world that is rich enough to have surprise or free will. Furthermore, this uncertainty leads to a process - through speech - of discovery and new understanding. Uncertainty, and the use of language, leads to discovery.

Isn't baseball an interesting game?


  1. Your work is fascinating and I will spend many hours getting to grips with it as much as I can.

    One thing I have trouble getting my head around, is your seemingly avoiding to use the concept of, or the reality of, Truth.

    I know that is very debatable itself, however we have long traditions of getting as close to it as we can and NOT to maximize robustness to uncertainty of a satisfactory outcome.

    The way that e.g. science, justice and journalism traditionally exclude uncertainty, is independent confirmation. Sure there is a spray but it is not unavoidable.

    Good luck with your great work!

  2. Your comment is very apt. Truth is extremely important. However, not all statements are either true or false. Here is John Dewey's position on the relation between meaning and truth:

    "Meaning is wider in scope as well as more precious in value than truth, and philosophy is occupied with meaning rather than with truth. Making such a statement is dangerous; it is easily misconceived to signify that truth is of no great importance under any circumstances; while the fact is that truth is so infinitely important when it is important at all, namely, in records of events and descriptions of existences, that we extend its claims to regions where it has no jurisdiction. But even as respects truths, meaning is the wider category; truths are but one class of meanings, namely, those in which a claim to verifiability by their consequences is an intrinsic part of their meaning. Beyond this island of meanings which in their own nature are true or false lies the ocean of meanings to which truth and falsity are irrelevant. We do not inquire whether Greek civilization was true or false, but we are immensely concerned to penetrate its meaning." John Dewey, "Philosophy and Civilization", appearing in "Intelligence in the Modern World: John Dewey's Philosophy", Joseph Ratner, ed., Modern Library, 1939, p.247

    In addition, I would add that truth is sometimes of limited utility in making responsible decisions. Once again, as in Dewey's case, this is a dangerous statement since it might be misconstrued to mean that truth is of no importance in responsible decision making, while in fact truth is very important. But since truth is sometimes in scarce supply, one must sometimes ask the "robustness question": how wrong can we be in our understanding of the situation, and the action that we are contempting will still yield an acceptable outcome. The contemplated action is robust to our ignorance of the truth if an acceptable outcome is guaranteed even if our current understanding is quite wrong. Info-gap theory ( provides a systematic tool for robust and responsible decision making.

    So the truth is that truth is important, but it's not the whole story.

  3. Thank you very much for your reply.

    I did not intend to imply truth to be an aspect or quality of a statement. Truth to me, and I believe to more or less ancient institutions such as science, justice and journalism, is what can be independently confirmed. When that is no longer possible, it can no longer be true, and the meaning it supported can no longer count on that support.

    Suppose I want to visit some cities in the world, that would be acceptable or satisficing to me, and that the only criterion would be how many roads lead to any of those cities. Since "all roads lead to Rome", the city of Rome would be most robust to uncertainty. If I tried any road leading to any city, I would or would not be stopped by roadblocks of any kind, the absence of which all the way to any city would be my a-select, independent confirmation of reaching it. I know it would take much longer but the normative aspect would not be necessary and I would like to know it was.

    On a most basic level, I would simply sense current and know my past and future traveling. One level higher, I would realize (know what I sense) and intuit (sense what I know). Then, I would try (realize what I intuit) and value (intuit what I realize). Finally, I would act (value what I try) and react (try what I value), all from the same scratch, or supported by the community, particularly my significant other. Independent confirmation functionally structures my mind at each level in a different way. I do not maximize utility and I do not normatively satisfice.

    To me, that is the whole story (of my life) or so it seems. What you propose however, could open a door for me.