I don't know how to Semantics

I missed out my daily writing practice of bad, unfinished, unedited thoughts. So why not combine it with idle thoughts on logic. The title alludes to the friendly LOGO error message, and this exchange on Twitter:

Andrej is not wrong, but axiomatic semantics is a thing in PL. So I'm collecting now the two different contexts for the word and idea of "semantics", the mathematical logic, one in programming languages. I am generally trying to embrace multitude of meanings in different contexts, but given the strong connections between PL and logic, it is worth pondering what is going on here.

Linguistic meaning: the writing on the wall

The word "semantics" comes from σῆμα "sign", "marking" and refers to the study of meaning (somewhat associated with linguistics, the study of language). Now meaning a very broad thing to study, and how we create meaning and interpret signs proper (beyond language) leads us to semiotics. I promise I am not going to spiral into ever higher level of abstractions and get back to the more mundane divergences of academic disciplines; still I want to share a story to show the depth of the question "how we make meaning of something" and what meaning really is.

Here is an example of linguistic and semiotic meaning. I believe I had heard and understood in English the idiom "the writing is on the wall" long before I heard the biblical story. It is hard to tell, since I do not remember. Maybe I looked up the German word "Menetekel" – which is the same but doesn't sound as cool and portentous – and then forgot about it. Maybe I learned and chose to forget biblical reference. English is full of references to stories that become idioms and detached from their origins (I also learned very recently that "drinking the Kool-Aid" originates from a Jonestown massacre), yet somehow they convey meaning.

Conveying meaning in written language can only happen through more written language; however, language is definitely more than what is written. I claim it's possible that even if you never heard this story from the Bible and have no access to it, you can nevertheless learn the full meaning of the saying "the writing is on the wall" when you witness it being used in some situation that discusses the terrible ending to come. Whether that is from the textual, narrative context, or rather from the faces, gestures of the participant or from your understanding of the reality of the thing it is said in reference to, that's hard to tell.

Kamus writes how many meanings each word has, then, I wondered and tried to write down a Kamus showing, to how many words a meaning corresponds. (Bediuzzaman Said Nursi)
Wisdom is a tree which sprouts in the heart and fruits on the tongue. (Ali ibn Abi Talib)

Now, back to our divergent use of "semantics" in mathematical logic and programming languages.

Semantics in mathematical logic

The predominant view in mathematical logic today is Tarski's conception of semantics and truth, adapted to model theory. This is what is taught to undergrads, and I shall like to deconstruct the assumptions that come with it:

  • Statements are either true or false, or otherwise put, there is an objective notion of truth that we try to capture with logic languages.
  • The meaning for a logical model is given by describing the interpretation of the language in a model
  • The way we communicate or describe a model and the interpretation are well understood.

All issues one may have are subdued with the last point. You cannot really question why models are given in "informal set theory" because the whole meaning exercise requires some common ground. If one ever wonders how to give meaning to those things that are supposed to provide the well-understood meaning, one finds that formal set theory is relatively disconnected from what one is trying to do (and turns to type theory).

I find it very striking that at the time Tarski formulated his original criterion for defining truth, the lingua franca was higher-order logic (which is equivalent to simple type theory), not set theory. I do feel something was lost there. Classical higher-order logic, we are concerned with mapping to truth values, but point being about the mappings (not the "sets"). So rather than being the "informal set", a grouping of objects by some property, or a formal set which described by an obscure string formal set theory, a "higher-order logic" set is defined by its mapping. A "woman" is defined by a mapping

woman: Individuals -> {true, false}

... and you can argue when it returns true. I find this closer to discussions on meaning in the linguistic sense.

Semantics in programming languages

In programming languages, "semantics" refers to the "meaning" to programming language (this is actually a surprising and confusing statement). Now, "meaning" is something a lot narrower than linguistic meaning.

  • Something does not have to be universally and objectively true to give "meaning"
  • The conventions we can rely on when giving meaning are entirely different.
  • The way we communicate or describe a model and the interpretation are well enough understood.
  • "Meaning" can be something like a specification that clarifies what statements and expressions of the language do. In practice, this is all informal. In research, there are three "styles":

    • Denotational semantics. We choose to embrace the conventions of mathematics as our medium for conveying meaning as objective truth
    • Operational semantics. The meaning is in the behavior, the execution of the programs. See what this interpreter does? That is the meaning.
    • Axiomatic semantics. The meaning of a program is properties you can state.

    This distinction is entirely standard and helpful, I learnt these as undergrad and e.g. Benjamin Pierce "Types and Programming Languages". It is also largely ignored in industry, where a natural languages specification relying on conventions is all you get for "meaning" (and stackoverflow may cover the gaps).


    Programming actually has its roots in formal logic. It is not a coincidence that the act of setting up formal languages and the burden of having to define meaning is shared by people who mathematical logic (ok, I should say formal logic to not exclude the philosophers) and programming languages, and that informaticians take an interest in proof assistants and machine-checked proof.

    Observe that all styles leave open a path to full formalization, but for axiomatic semantics it is somewhat odd since we'd have to formalize logic in logic. The boundaries are also not as clear-cut, since one can also describe an interpreter by some mathematical structure (labeled transition systems) and there is als formal methods, verification and the "theory of a program" and how it needs some semantics to build on (not necessarily "the" semantics). The taxonomy is still very useful, though, since it says something about the intention.

    My personal hobby is to study stacking systems of logic and reasoning, "compositional". Category theory is useful here, precisely because it permits to consistently ignore what is the foundation, and describe everything in terms of mappings (arrows), just like higher-order logic. I shall leave this topic for another post.

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