# A parable: how the magnetic compass solved a linguistic, semantic, and semiotic crisis

Once upon a time, there were some nomads who stopped being nomadic, and settled in one place. They became familiar with various geographical features and landmarks in their territory. Soon they observed that the light of sunrise appeared to come from roughly the same direction every morning. The leader of the tribe announced that the direction was to be known as “east.” However, nobody in the tribe had ever seen a magnetic compass.

One day, the leader received a pair of gloves that a member of the tribe had spent many weeks making. The leader immediately noticed that both gloves were for a right hand. Cautiously questioning the person who had made the gloves, the leader discovered a gap in the person’s knowledge. No harm had been meant. The leader decided to call together the whole tribe.

The leader held the left hand of each member of the tribe, and said that it was to be called “the left hand.” The leader also held the right hand of each member of the tribe, and said that it was to be called “the right hand.” Everybody was either embarrassed or insulted, but from that day forward there were fewer misunderstandings in the tribe. Everybody tried to forget that day, and when anybody spoke of it, others cried out, “Stop! We must forget the day of the human touch.”

Eventually, the tribe had words for all of the following directions: left, right, up, down, north, east, west, and south. One day, a salesperson arrived on the tribe’s territory to sell magnetic compasses and dictionaries.

The sales pitch was the following. You can get the direction down from gravity and the direction east from where you see the sunrise. So you are given two directions. West is the opposite of east, and up is the opposite of down. We have made some progress. Now you just need to define all of the following: left, right, north, and south. Can you do it?

The members of the tribe tried to create four definitions, one for each of the words “left”, “right”, “north”, and “south.” However, they failed. They all remembered the embarrassing day when the leader took them by their hands. They knew that there had to be a better way.

The magnetic compass showed them north. The dictionary provided a definition including words and only words to explain down in terms of the pull of gravity, east in terms of the sunrise, and north in terms of the compass. The dictionary contained no pictures or diagrams, but only pure, exact, impersonal words. The dictionary also used the words “down”, “east”, and “north” to define the words “left” and “right.”

The magnetic compasses and dictionaries sold like hotcakes. In future, the operation of the magnetic compass would be explained in terms of the Earth’s magnetic field. Thus, the tribe would finally have science to explain technology, and they would have technology that allowed them to define words. With a pure, impersonal scientific foundation, they would no longer need to remember the day of the human touch.

You’re getting technology and language mixed up.

So what if the compass uses the cardinal points of north, east, west and south? These already existed in relation to the scientific fact the sun rises in the east.

In a nutshell, the four cardinal points of the compass are distortions of the use of original language, implied as follows -

East - facing the rising sun.

North - in the direction of the left if you’re facing the sun.

West - Evening (sunset) - that direction.

South - in the region of the sun - the examples given below all originated in the northern hemisphere, well north of the tropics, hence the sun was always towards the south in some sense.

All the compass did was allow these four terms to be used in a more precise, technical way. The linguistics came first.

Finally how does an Arctic Tern tern navigate over thousands of kilometres of ocean from north to south and vice versa, without any vocabulary whatsoever, without using derived technology? it wouldn’t include some element of intelligent design would it?

The definitions I have shown below come from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

*Origin of “East” - Old English east, eastan (adj., adv.) “east, easterly, eastward;” easte (n.), from Proto-Germanic aust- “east,” literally "toward the sunrise"

**Origin of “North” - **Old English norð “northern” (adj.), “northwards” (adv.), from Proto-Germanic *nurtha- (cognates: Old Norse norðr, Old Saxon north, Old Frisian north, Middle Dutch nort, Dutch noord, German nord), possibly ultimately from PIE *ner- (1) “left,” also “below,” **as north is to the left when one faces the rising sun **(cognates: Sanskrit narakah “hell,” Greek enerthen “from beneath,” Oscan-Umbrian nertrak “left”). The same notion underlies Old Irish tuath “left; northern;” Arabic shamal "left hand; north."

Origin of “West” - German west), from PIE *wes-, reduced form of *wes-pero- “evening, night” (cognates: Greek hesperos, Latin vesper “evening, west;” see vesper)

**Origin of “South” - *Old English suð “southward, to the south, southern, in the south,” from Proto-Germanic sunthaz, perhaps literally “sun-side” (**cognates: Old Saxon, Old Frisian suth “southward, in the south,” Middle Dutch suut, Dutch zuid, German Süden), and *related to base of sunnon “sun” (see sun (v.)).

That is possible. It is also possible that you misinterpreted the parable.

Can you quote where the parable draws attention to those points on a compass?

I believe that the phenomenon of sunrise is a result of the Earth rotating on its own axis, and that the Sun appears to rise, but does not actually rise. However, I do not know what you mean by the phrase “scientific fact.” Is that like a “true fact” in contrast with a “false fact”? Well, that does not make much sense to me. If something is universally given the label “science”, shall we retroactively change the category from “science” to “non-science” when it seems to be incompatible with the most trusted and most recent science?

Perhaps; but, the notion of “not knowing north or south”, when they already knew left and right, is a pretty big logic hole in the parable. :shrug:

Can you quote where the parable draws attention to those points on a compass?

Sure!

Eventually, the tribe had words for all of the following directions: left, right, up, down, north, east, west, and south.

There ya go!

(By the way, this is another place where the parable has me scratching my head – if the people had words for directions, surely they had definitions for them! Or, are you attempting to say that they had words without meanings?

Now you just need to define all of the following: left, right, north, and south. Can you do it?

The members of the tribe tried to create four definitions, one for each of the words “left”, “right”, “north”, and “south.” However, they failed.

Yeah, this doesn’t make sense. They already knew these words. How is it that you’re asserting that they had words that they could not define?

(And, as has already been stated, ‘north’ and ‘south’ are easy when you already have ‘east’, ‘west’, ‘left’ and ‘right.’ :shrug:)

However, I do not know what you mean by the phrase “scientific fact.”

:hmmm: Is this really confusing to you? A scientific fact is a fact which science can address. It’s a fact that can be established by science. See… that wasn’t that hard…

I asked: “Can you quote where the parable draws attention to those points on a compass?”

The problem is that you quoted a list of eight items and then rely upon the list as drawing special attention to four of the items. That list does not draw special attention to four of the eight items. Bob Crowley drew special attention to four of the items.

However, it is true that four items are given special attention in the parable, but not the particular four items that Bob Crowley drew special attention to. The four items set apart in the parable are: north, south, left, and right (not necessarily in that sequence).

Quoting the parable:

The sales pitch was the following. You can get the direction down from gravity and the direction east from where you see the sunrise. So you are given two directions. West is the opposite of east, and up is the opposite of down. We have made some progress. Now you just need to define all of the following: left, right, north, and south. Can you do it?

There is a difference between meaning and definition. Two points can help support my claim that there is a difference between meaning and definition. First, any particular definition has to be created by somebody. Definitions do not create themselves, just as slogans do not create themselves. Second, just as it is important to avoid vicious circles in reasoning, it is important to avoid vicious circles in identifying meaning. Just as the attempt to deduce everything, including axioms, can lead only to confusion and nonsense, the attempt to define all words also leads to confusion and nonsense.

Umm… huh? You claimed that the parable didn’t draw attention to these terms, and when it’s shown to you that it does, you claim it doesn’t draw ‘special attention’ to them? Distinction without a difference.

There is a difference between meaning and definition.

Only inasmuch as a definition formalizes the meaning. I’m not certain your ‘point’ here helps.

Just as the attempt to deduce everything, including axioms, can lead only to confusion and nonsense, the attempt to define all words also leads to confusion and nonsense.

Pardon? How does the attempt to define north and south lead to confusion? “Stand and look in the direction of the rising sun. North is in the direction of your left hand; south is in the direction of your right hand.” (As Bob pointed out.)

Doesn’t sound confusing to me… and you don’t even need a compass. :shrug:

I didn’t intend to use the phrase “special attention” to make any distinction. I apologize for not expressing myself clearly enough.

I referred to eight distinct items. If I am not mistaken, there are 70 different subsets having exactly four members. Thus, somebody who selects one of those 70 subsets and says that I drew attention to that subset is suffering from self-deception, or misleading people, or both.

From my point of view, it is as though I referred to the seven days of the week, and then somebody selected three of those days and complained that I had drawn attention to those three days. There are 35 different options in that case for somebody who wants to make a selection and then attribute to me the making of that selection.

I think that it helps. Perhaps it is a mere random coincidence, but the train of thought that we together have pursued in this thread has brought us to precisely the point that motivated me to invent the parable.

Could you please quote something that I wrote that you took to mean that the attempt to define north and south leads to confusion?

Which is what, again, exactly? The parable seemed to be asserting that definitions get in the way of human contact. :shrug:

Could you please quote something that I wrote that you took to mean that the attempt to define north and south leads to confusion?

You talked about deduction leading to confusion, in the context of defining terms (including the terms ‘north’ and ‘south’).

One of the reasons that your parable seems not to work very well is that you assert that the villagers couldn’t define ‘left’ and ‘right’, when clearly, they already had conventions that defined these terms (presuming standard definitions, ‘left’ being on the side of one’s heart, and ‘right’ being the other side).

Therefore, your parable attempts to assert that no one could decide what ‘north’ or ‘south’ meant. That just doesn’t make sense: if they already know definitions and have conventions that define ‘east’, ‘left’, and ‘up’, then the remaining five directions follow directly from these definitions. Your parable seems to suggest that they needed a compass to help them find ‘north’; that’s illogical. There’s no confusion in that definition, given the already existing knowledge. :shrug:

I had no intention of making any such statement. My intention was to indicate that vicious circles produce confusion. In particular, two kinds of vicious circles produce confusion. One kind of vicious circle occurs in deductive reasoning. Another kind of vicious circle occurs in definitions or other attempts to describe, prescribe, or stipulate meanings of words (spoken words or written words, or perhaps some other performance or representation of language).

I find it difficult to understand how you reached that conclusion. Do you prefer to minimize the distinction between meanings and definitions, and are you reading into the parable your own personal preference? That is not intended to be an uncharitable question, and the following might help explain why I ask:

Gorgias: (By the way, this is another place where the parable has me scratching my head – if the people had words for directions, surely they had definitions for them! Or, are you attempting to say that they had words without meanings?

PseuTonym: There is a difference between meaning and definition.

Gorgias: Only inasmuch as a definition formalizes the meaning.

Do you recall that exchange?

That is an interesting presumption, and it prompts me to consider revising the parable. Perhaps it should be explicitly stated that the leader has a chest with unique anatomical and acoustic characteristics that make the sound of the heartbeat of the leader louder on the side of the leader’s chest that is – from the point of view of the leader – the right-hand side.

Because of the importance of the leader, many members of the tribe claim that their own ancestors also had a louder heartbeat on the right-hand side. Because of the tribe’s prohibition on performing dissections or autopsies of human corpses, and the expectation and hope that in future other members of the tribe will be born with louder heartbeats on their right-hand sides, the tribe considers the location of the heart to be a matter of opinion and possibly open to change. For example, it is thought that an ordinary member of the tribe, when on some day inspired with a strong sense of leadership, might experience movement of the heart from one side to the other.

:rotfl:

, and it prompts me to consider revising the parable. Perhaps it should be explicitly stated that the leader has a chest with unique anatomical and acoustic characteristics that make the sound of the heartbeat of the leader louder on the side of the leader’s chest that is – from the point of view of the leader – the right-hand side.

OK, I see the game you’re playing. nevertheless, the leader defined a convention – this is ‘left’, and that is ‘right’. By using that convention, and the definition of ‘east’, the villagers could all identify what ‘north’ means.

I used the ‘heart’ example – not the villagers – to map our meaning of ‘left’ to the term that you described in your parable. But, that’s immaterial, because…

For example, it is thought that an ordinary member of the tribe, when on some day inspired with a strong sense of leadership, might experience movement of the heart from one side to the other.

…because this, too, is immaterial. A convention had been established, and therefore, everyone knew what ‘left’ and ‘right’ refer to.

And yet, you did.

I find it difficult to understand how you reached that conclusion.

Because you, yourself, wrote it into your parable:

Eventually, the tribe had words for all of the following directions: left, right, up, down, north, east, west, and south.

The members of the tribe tried to create four definitions, one for each of the words “left”, “right”, “north”, and “south.” However, they failed.

You asserted not only that they had words, but had mapped the words to the directions. Then, you assert that they could not verbalize the definitions of the words. If it were not possible to express the meanings, then you should have said that they had words – but not that they had words that mapped to directions.

Do you prefer to minimize the distinction between meanings and definitions

PseuTonym: There is a difference between meaning and definition.

Gorgias: Only inasmuch as a definition formalizes the meaning.

Yet, your parable attempts – unreasonably – to conflate the two. After asserting that words existed, mapped (via convention) to meanings, it’s true that the words now had definitions – that is, the description of the conventions. Then, you turn around and expect the claim “they couldn’t define their terms” to be accepted as reasonable. :shrug:

Yes. It would not help the tribe to speak English language words that convey no meaning to members of the tribe, even if those words convey meaning to readers of the parable. Now, I can imagine that some people who read the parable might believe that each separate phoneme in the spoken words that we write as “left” and “right” has inherent properties that determine the meaning of the combination of sounds, and that eventually the tribe would discover those meanings after spending years speaking the sounds without knowing that the sounds convey meaning. However, it never occurred to me that such people exist until after thinking about what you wrote above.

Please quote my words you have in mind.

I do not recognize that as a claim that I would make.

First, I observe the phrase “the definitions.” As I already said, a definition in a dictionary is like a slogan. It is composed by somebody at some time. Thus, there does not exist for a given word “the definition” that is waiting for somebody to write down.

You can attempt to reconstruct a definition that you have already seen, just as you can attempt to reconstruct an email address that you do not quite remember. However, in both cases you might fail to reconstruct it exactly. Perhaps a change seems small to you, but is actually very significant.

Is it a game?

Do you not agree with me when I say that there is a big difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia?

You gave an example of asymmetry in human anatomy, the kind of thing that one might find in an encyclopedia. However, you relied upon an assumption that variation among human beings is small enough that you do not need to consider it. You tried to take a factual detail about yourself and many others as a foundation to identify the meaning of words.

You might be interested in the following:

Symmetries have long played a crucial role in physics. The law of conservation of parity arose from the symmetry between the left and right hands.

Symmetry Destroyed: The Failure of Parity
ccreweb.org/documents/parity/parity.html

Of course, if a tribe is impressed by a magnetic compass, then it probably does not have enough sophistication in science and technology to have much use for a dictionary that makes reference to the physics of sub-atomic particles.

Gorgias, I respectfully request that you withdraw that comment. I am not requesting an apology. I am not asking you to say that you know that I was not playing a game. I am asking you to merely drop the claim that I was playing a game.

You wrote: “(presuming standard definitions, ‘left’ being on the side of one’s heart, and ‘right’ being the other side).”

Now, here is the crux of the matter.

Consider the following choices:
#1. Given the presumption that the meaning of the words “left” and “right” is already fixed, we can say that it is a fact of human anatomy that the heart is on the left side.

#2. We can actually say that the meaning of the word “left” is the side of one’s heart, and that the meaning of the word “right” is the other side.

Regarding #2, consider that if we are not dealing with idiomatic words, then the assignment of meaning to the individual words in a sentence determines the meaning of the sentence. Thus, given choice #2, it is not a fact of human anatomy that the heart is on the left side. Given choice #2, it is a fact about the meaning of the concept "left" that the heart is on the left side. In that case, “the heart is on the left side” is true for the same reason that “If I cannot hear you then I cannot listen to you” is true.

Calm down, PT. I’m not accusing you of any shady dealings.

If it makes you feel any better, I only meant that I’m starting to see what’s in play for you here, and where you’re coming from. No need to get all defensive…

Plato tried to make that case, but it seems a futile exercise.

, and that eventually the tribe would discover those meanings after spending years speaking the sounds without knowing that the sounds convey meaning. However, it never occurred to me that such people exist until after thinking about what you wrote above.

Please quote my words you have in mind. I do not recognize that as a claim that I would make.

:shrug: Sure:

The members of the tribe tried to create four definitions, one for each of the words “left”, “right”, “north”, and “south.” However, they failed.

First, I observe the phrase “the definitions.” As I already said, a definition in a dictionary is like a slogan. It is composed by somebody at some time. Thus, there does not exist for a given word “the definition” that is waiting for somebody to write down.

That’s an odd understanding of a ‘definition.’ I would assert that a word is coined in order to express a meaning, and a definition is just a standardized expression of the meaning that gives rise to the word as created. You seem to be saying that words exist independently of meanings, and a ‘definition’ of a word is somehow unrelated to the word (except inasmuch as someone attempts to provide a (more or less accurate) expression of the meaning).

You can attempt to reconstruct a definition that you have already seen, just as you can attempt to reconstruct an email address that you do not quite remember. However, in both cases you might fail to reconstruct it exactly.

Yet, is the exercise (I hesitate to use the word ‘game’ here, since it offends you, but that’s really what’s in play here) that you give me a word and I attempt to reconstruct an arbitrary definition, or that you give me a word and I attempt to convey its meaning? The latter, rather than the former, is really what’s going on here. You seem to be asserting that this is not what the issue is, and that’s confusing. In your parable, everyone understood ‘left’ and ‘right’ (based on the leader’s example), but then you say that no one was able to express the meaning (or, in this case, the convention) that the leader had mapped to the word. :shrug:

Perhaps a change seems small to you, but is actually very significant.

No; I think it’s significant only because you aren’t really giving us the rules of the game. Is the goal to reconstruct (word-for-word) an arbitrary definition, or to convey the meaning of the word? Your parable would lead us to believe it’s the latter, but the ‘dilemma’ you’ve asserted seems to point to the former – which is the (more trivial) notion of ‘exact wording’.

Wow. Confusing, illogical, ambiguous. So, clearly coming up with “parables” is not your forte. Don’t quit your day job.

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