Philosophic Meaning And Game Theory
July 28, 2014

Philosophic Meaning And Game Theory

Have you ever wondered why certain words mean what they do? I am not talking about complex phrases or concepts here, just simple, everyday words. For example, when I say the word “cat,” every single one of you is able to clearly interpret my meaning as one of those furry little mammals that sometimes share our living space and seem like they own us. How? How is it that this one collection of letters has acquired so much meaning that it can be understood by everyone reading or hearing it?

Well, that is exactly what Elliot Wagner, a philosopher from Kansas State University, hopes to discover though the application of evolutionary game theory, which creates mathematical abstractions of social interaction and communication. As part of this, it is understood that all communication involves two parties, a sender who shares a message through signs or signals, and a receiver who uses those signals to act in the world. This particular form of interaction is collectively known as a signaling game. Wagner and his collaborators use these signaling games to study how information is shared in the natural world, which is something that happens on all levels of biological coordination. For example, there are bacteria that communicate through chemical signals, monkeys use vocalization to send messages to each other, male peacocks use their tails to signal how attractive they are in order to find a mate, and people use a combination of words and gestures. While this sort of understanding of communication has existed in some form or another since the 1970s, Wagner and his team – which includes Simon Hutteggar and Brian Skyrms, philosophers from the University of California, Irvine, and Pierre Tarres, a mathematician from the University of Toulouse in France – have been studying the dynamics of signaling games and incorporating evolution as well as individual learning to undermine preconceived notions from previous models.

According to Wagner, “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. This sort of research allows us to understand a very basic aspect of the world.”

In order to study this more in depth, Wagner and his collaborators start with a signaling game in which the message the sender is sending to the receiver has no prebuilt meaning. It has an idea behind it, certainly, but no meaning other than what the sender knows it to be. As the system evolves naturally, the sender’s message may start to reflect the state of the world, to which the receiver may start responding in a way that is appropriate for that same state. In this way, the most basic requirements for communication are established. Something that previously had no meaning starts to gain meaning through this very natural process. The hope for this study is to show that this process occurs across a huge selection of tests so that they can explain just how words or actions gain meaning.

“I think it’s important for us to think carefully about features of our lives that we take for granted,” said Wagner. “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.”

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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