I’m a supporter of “no semantics” and I’ll try to convince you that it is nothing vague in it.
Take any formalism. To any term built from this formalism there is an associated syntactic tree. Now, look at the syntactic tree and forget about the formalism. Because it is a tree, it means that no matter how you choose to decorate its leaves, you can progress from the leaves to the root by decorating each edge. At each node of the tree you follow a decoration rule which says: take the decorations of the input edges and use them to decorate the output edge. If you suppose that the formalism is one which uses operations of bounded arity then you can say the following thing: strictly by following rules of decoration which are local (you need to know only at most N edge decorations in order to decorate another edge) you can arrive to decorate all the tree. Al the graph! And the meaning of the graph has something to do with this decoration. Actually the formalism turns out to be not about graphs (trees), but about static decorations which appear at the root of the syntactic tree.
But, you see, these static decorations are global effects of local rules of decoration. Here enters the semantic police. Thou shall accept only trees whose roots accept decorations from a given language. Hard problems ensue, which are heavily loaded with semantics.
Now, let’s pass from trees to other graphs.
The same phenomenon (there is a static global decoration emerged from local rules of decoration) for any DAG (directed acyclic graph). It is telling that people LOVE DAGs, so much so they go to the extreme of excluding from their thinking other graphs. These are the ones who put everything in a functional frame.
Nothing wrong with this!
Decorated graphs have a long tradition in mathematics, think for example at knot theory.
In knot theory the knot diagram is a graph (with 4-valent nodes) which surely is not acyclic! However, one of the fundamental objects associated to a knot is the algebraic object called “quandle”, which is generated from the edges of the graph, with certain relations coming from the edges. It is of course a very hard, fully loaded semantically problem to try to identify the knot from the associated quandle.
The difference from the syntactic trees is that the graph does not admit a static global decoration, generically. That is why the associated algebraic object, the quandle, is generated by (and not equal to) the set of edges.
There are beautiful problems related to the global objects generated by local rules. They are also difficult, because of the global aspect. It is perhaps as difficult to find an algorithm which builds an isomorphism between two graphs which have the same associated family of decorations, as it is to find a decentralized algorithm for graph reduction of a distributed syntactic tree.
But these kind of problems do not cover all the interesting problems.
What if this global semantic point of view makes things harder than they really are?
Just suppose you are a genius who found such an algorithm, by amazing, mind bending mathematical insights.
Your brilliant algorithm, because it is an algorithm, can be executed by a Turing Machine.
Or Turing machines are purely local. The head of the machine has only local access to the tape, at any given moment (Forget about indirection, I’ll come back to this in a moment.). The number of states of the machines is finite and the number of rules is finite.
This means that the brilliant work served to edit out the global from the problem!
If you are not content with TM, because of indirection, then look no further than to chemlambda (if you wish combined with TM, like in
http://chorasimilarity.github.io/chemlambda-gui/dynamic/turingchem.html , if you love TM ) which is definitely local and Turing universal. It works by the brilliant algorithm: do all the rewrites which you can do, nevermind the global meaning of those.
Oh, wait, what about a living cell, does it have a way to manage the semantics of the correct global chemical reactions networks which ARE the cell?
What about a brain, made of many neural cells, glia cells and whatnot? By the homunculus fallacy, it can’t have static, external, globally selected functions and terms (aka semantic).
On the other side, of course that the researcher who studies the cell, or the brain, or the mathematician who finds the brilliant algorithm, they are all using heavy semantic machinery.
TO TELL THE STORY!
Not that the cell or the brain need the story in order for them to live.
In the animated gif there is a chemlambda molecule called the 28 quine, which satisfies the definition of life in the sense that it randomly replenish its atoms, by approximately keeping its global shape (thus it has a metabolism). It does this under the algorithm: do all rewrites you can do, but you can do a rewrite only if a random coin flip accepts it.
I modified a bit a script (sorry, not in the repo this one) so that whenever possible the edges of this graph which MAY be part of a syntactic tree of a lambda term turn to GOLD while the others are dark grey.
They mean nothing, there’s no semantics, because for once the golden graphs are not DAGs, and because the computation consists into rewrites of graphs which don’t preserve well the “correct” decorations before the rewrite.
There’s no semantics, but there are still some interesting questions to explore, the main being: how life works?
Louis Kauffman reply to this:
There is no such thing as no-semantics. Every system that YOU deal with is described by you and observed by you with some language that you use. At the very least the system is interpreted in terms of its own actions and this is semantics. But your point is well-taken about not using more semantic overlay than is needed for any given situation. And certainly there are systems like our biology that do not use the higher level descriptions that we have managed to observe. In doing mathematics it is often the case that one must find the least semantics and just the right syntax to explore a given problem. Then work freely and see what comes.
Then describe what happened and as a result see more. The description reenters the syntactic space and becomes ‘uninterpreted’ by which I mean open to other interactions and interpretations. It is very important! One cannot work at just one level. You will notice that I am arguing both for and against your position!
Thanks! Looks that we agree in some respects: “And certainly there are systems like our biology that do not use the higher level descriptions that we have managed to observe.” Not in others; this is the base of any interesting dialogue.
“It is only the observer of the Creature who imputes a central representation or central control. The Creature itself has none; it is a collection of competing behaviors. Out of the local chaos of their interactions there emerges, in the eye of an observer, a coherent pattern of behavior. There is no central purposeful locus of control. Minsky  gives a similar account of how human behavior is generated. […]
… we are not claiming that chaos is a necessary ingredient of intelligent behavior. Indeed, we advocate careful engineering of all the interactions within the system. […]
We do claim however, that there need be no explicit representation of either the world or the intentions of the system to generate intelligent behaviors for a Creature. Without such explicit representations, and when viewed locally, the interactions may indeed seem chaotic and without purpose.
I claim there is more than this, however. Even at a local level we do not have traditional AI representations. We never use tokens which have any semantics that can be attached to them. The best that can be said in our implementation is that one number is passed from a process to another. But it is only by looking at the state of both the first and second processes that that number can be given any interpretation at all. An extremist might say that we really do have representations, but that they are just implicit. With an appropriate mapping of the complete system and its state to another domain, we could define a representation that these numbers and topological connections between processes somehow encode.
However we are not happy with calling such things a representation. They differ from standard representations in too many ways. There are no variables (e.g. see  for a more thorough treatment of this) that need instantiation in reasoning processes. There are no rules which need to be selected through pattern matching. There are no choices to be made. To a large extent the state of the world determines the action of the Creature. Simon  noted that the complexity of behavior of a system was not necessarily inherent in the complexity of the creature, but Perhaps in the complexity of the environment. He made this analysis in his description of an Ant wandering the beach, but ignored its implications in the next paragraph when he talked about humans. We hypothesize (following Agre and Chapman) that much of even human level activity is similarly a reflection of the world through very simple mechanisms without detailed representations.”
This brings to mind also this quote from the end of Vehicle 3 section from V. Braintenberg book Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology:
“But, you will say, this is ridiculous: knowledge implies a flow of information from the environment into a living being ar at least into something like a living being. There was no such transmission of information here. We were just playing with sensors, motors and connections: the properties that happened to emerge may look like knowledge but really are not. We should be careful with such words.”
It is interesting that some people (yourself it would seem) get comfort from the thought that there is no central pattern.
I think that we might ask Cookie and Parabel about this.
Cookie and Parabel and sentient text strings, always coming in and out of nothing at all.
Well guys what do you think about the statement of MInsky?
Cookie. Well this is an interesting text string. It asserts that there is no central locus of control. I can assert the same thing! In fact I have just done so in these strings of mine.
the strings themselves are just adjacencies of little possible distinctions, and only “add up” under the work of an observer.
Parabel. But Cookie, who or what is this observer?
Cookie. Oh you taught me all about that Parabel. The observer is imaginary, just a reference for our text strings so that things work out grammatically. The observer is a fill-in.
We make all these otherwise empty references.
Parabel. I am not satisfied with that. Are you saying that all this texture of strings of text is occurring without any observation? No interpreter, no observer?
Cookie. Just us Parabel and we are not observers, we are text strings. We are just concatenations of little distinctions falling into possible patterns that could be interpreted by an observer if there were such an entity as an observer?
Parabel. Are you saying that we observe ourselves without there being an observer? Are you saying that there is observation without observation?
Cookie. Sure. We are just these strings. Any notion that we can actually read or observe is just a literary fantasy.
Parabel. You mean that while there may be an illusion of a ‘reader of this page’ it can be seen that the ‘reader’ is just more text string, more construction from nothing?
Cookie. Exactly. The reader is an illusion and we are illusory as well.
Parabel. I am not!
Cookie. Precisely, you are not!
Parabel. This goes too far. I think that Minsky is saying that observers can observe, yes. But they do not have control.
Cookie. Observers seem to have a little control. They can look here or here or here …
Parabel. Yes, but no ultimate control. An observer is just a kind of reference that points to its own processes. This sentence observes itself.
Cookie. So you say that observation is just self-reference occurring in the text strings?
Parabel. That is all it amounts to. Of course the illusion is generated by a peculiar distinction that occurs where part of the text string is divided away and named the “observer” and “it” seems to be ‘reading’ the other part of the text. The part that reads often has a complex description that makes it ‘look’ like it is not just another text string.
Cookie. Even text strings is just a way of putting it. We are expressions in imaginary distinctions emanated from nothing at all and returning to nothing at all. We are what distinctions would be if there could be distinctions.
Parabel. Well that says very little.
Cookie. Actually there is very little to say.
Parabel. I don’t get this ‘local chaos’ stuff. Minsky is just talking about the inchoate realm before distinctions are drawn.
Parabel. Are you becoming inchoate?
So let me go back to the main idea, which is that there are positive advances which can be made under the constraint to never use global notions, semantics being one of them.
As for the story about Cookie and Parabel, why is it framed into text strings universe and discusses about a “central locus of control”? I can easily imagine Cookie and Parabel having a discussion before writing was invented, say for example in a cave which much later will be discovered by modern humans in Lascaux.
I don’t believe that there is a central locus of control. I do believe that semantics is a mean to tell the story, any story, as if there is a central locus of control. There is no “central” and there is very little “control”.
This is not a negative stance, it is a call for understanding life phenomena from points of view which are not ideologically loaded by “control” and “central”. I am amazed by the life variety, beauty and vastness, and I feel limited by the semantics point of view. I see in a string of text thousands of years of cultural conventions taken for granted, I can’t forget that a string of text becomes so to me only after a massive processing which “semantics” people take as granted as well, that during this discussion most of me is doing far less trivial stuff, like collaborating and fighting with billions of other beings in my gut, breathing, seeing, hearing, moving my fingers. I don’t forget that the string of text is recreated by my brain 5 times per second.
And what is an “illusion”?
Here is another quote, from a reputed cognitive science specialist, who convinced me about the need for a no semantics point of view with his article “Brain a geometry engine”.
The following quote is by Jan Koenderink “Visual awareness”
“What does it mean to be “visually aware”? One thing, due to Franz Brentano (1838-1917), is that all awareness is awareness of something. […]
The mainstream account of what happens in such a generic case is this: the scene in front of you really exists (as a physical object) even in the absence of awareness. Moreover, it causes your awareness. In this (currently dominant) view the awareness is a visual representation of the scene in front of you. To the degree that this representation happens to be isomorphic with the scene in front of you the awareness is veridical. The goal of visual awareness is to present you with veridical representations. Biological evolution optimizes veridicality, because veridicality implies fitness. Human visual awareness is generally close to veridical. Animals (perhaps with exception of the higher primates) do not approach this level, as shown by ethological studies.
JUST FOR THE RECORD these silly and incoherent notions are not something I ascribe to!
But it neatly sums up the mainstream view of the matter as I read it.
The mainstream account is incoherent, and may actually be regarded as unscientific. Notice that it implies an externalist and objectivist God’s Eye view (the scene really exists and physics tells how), that it evidently misinterprets evolution (for fitness does not imply veridicality at all), and that it is embarrassing in its anthropocentricity. All this should appear to you as in the worst of taste if you call yourself a scientist.” [p. 2-3]