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Society of Mind

20.2 negotiating ambiguity

Many common words are ambiguous enough that even simple sentences can be understood in several ways.

The astronomer married the star.

It probably was a movie star — though the listener may have experienced a moment of confusion. The trouble is that the word star is linked to different polynemes for a celestial body, a theatrical celebrity, or an object with a certain shape. The momentary confusion comes because the word astronomer gives us an initial bias toward the celestial sense of star. But that inhuman meaning causes conflict in our marriage-agent, and this soon leads to another, more consistent interpretation. The problem is harder when a sentence contains two or more ambiguous words.

John shot two bucks.

Alone, the word shot could refer either to shooting a gun or, in American slang, to making a bet. By itself, the word buck could mean either a dollar or a male deer. These alternatives permit at least four conceivable interpretations. Two of them are quite implausible, because people rarely shoot bullets at dollars or bet deer. But the other two are possible, since, unfortunately, people do bet dollars and shoot at deer. Without more clues, we have no way to choose between these interpretations. Yet we wouldn't have the slightest doubt that buck means dollar if the previous context gave a hint that money or gambling was involved — rather than hunting, forestry, or outdoor life.

How do contexts work to clarify such ambiguities? The activity of an outdoors polyneme would start by producing a small bias for arousing deer rather than dollar and gun instead of bet. Then the ring-closing effect would swiftly make that preference sharp. Other polynemes like those for hunting and killing will soon be engaged and will combine to activate the recognizers for yet other, related polynemes like those for forest and animal. Soon this will produce a collection of mutually supporting polynemes that establish a single, consistent interpretation.

One might fear that this would lead, instead, to an avalanche that arouses all the agents of the mind. That would be less likely to happen if the different possible senses of each word are made to compete, by being assembled into cross-exclusion groups. Then, as the polynemes for deer and gun gain strength, they will weaken and suppress the competing nemes for money and for wagering — and that will weaken, in turn, the other polynemes that support the alternative context of making bets. The end effect of this will be almost instantaneous. In only a few cycles of the meaning ring, the agents associated with deer and gun will completely suppress their competitors.