|Objectivism is a set of philosophical assumptions about how human
language works and about how the world is. Included are the following
seemingly innocuous assumptions:
A word has one or more well-defined meanings
Each meaning corresponds directly to an object (such as a horse)
or an action (such as the action of jumping) or a quality (such
as yellowness) in the real world.
The meaning of a sentence is built up by combining the meanings
of individual words.
According to objectivism, real-world knowledge and the
situation and flow of discourse can be safely
ignored until the possible meanings of a
sentence have been computed. Then the appropriate
meaning is selected.
One problem with objectivism is that it assumes that
the world divides itself up exactly one way into categories
independently from how humans view the world, and that we
then associate words with these pre-existing categories. However,
there is not just one way to divide up the world. To take
an extremely mundane example, there is not just one
way for a butcher to divide up a beef. There are different
cuts of meat in various
countries. [Figure 8: 14k GIF] shows
how beef is butchered in the United States and in Switzerland).
But this question of categorization goes much deeper
than what you find in a grocery store. It pervades every
aspect of our thinking, and it is dynamic. A few years
ago, there was a television commercial in the United States extolling the
size of the beef patty in the hamburgers from one chain of
fast food restaurants as compared with the size of the
patties used in the hamburgers sold by a competing chain of
restaurants. In this commercial was the phrase:
Where's the beef?
This sentence took on a metaphorical meaning of challenging whether
some project had produced sufficient visible results, even if it
had nothing to do with beef or even with food. General language is
full of such dynamic metaphor. We as humans are not usually even
aware of minor shifts in meaning, because we are capable of
handling them. Indeed, they give spice to language and are necessary
to true creativity. However, dynamic metaphor is contrary to the
assumptions of objectivism, since metaphorical meanings cannot
be computed step-by-step.
All current approaches to processing language, including
all commercial machine translation systems, are based on
objectivism, whether the designers are aware of this fact
or not. Indeed, objectivism has been so entrenched in the
thinking of the Western world for hundreds of years that only
recently are philosophers becoming aware of objectivism and considering
alternatives. Unfortunately for machine translation, no one
has yet conceived of a way to program a non-objectivist approach
to language on a computer. This is why we can say that
machine translation will not deal effectively with general language
in the foreseeable future. Humans are able to deal with
language without the constraints of objectivism. However, at
this point, no one can foresee if or when computers will
be able to deal with human language in a non-objectivist way.
Think of a microworld as a tree-house. Suppose two boys
are sitting in a tree-house and suddenly are victims of
severe amnesia. They could look around the tree-house for a
long time and never be aware of an outside world even though there is
a beam of light shining in from the
outside [Figure 9: 119k GIF]. It
is one thing to look at the beam of light, but it is an entirely
different experience to look along the beam of light
and through the hole so that you can see the outside world.
The tree-house can be compared with a microworld. Currently,
computers are based on assumptions that make it impossible to
look along the beam of light and so they are restricted by
the walls of some particular microworld.
Maybe some day, computers will be built that can look along
the beam. In the meantime, computers are successful in dealing
with human language according to how successfully language can
be restricted to a microworld in which language does behave
as if objectivism were an adequate portrayal of the
nature of the world. The sublanguage used in a microworld must
be carefully controlled.