Strings are not Meanings (edited since original posting): I just linked to a favorable review of our position paper The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data, it's only fair that I also link to a (brief) skeptical review. I agree with Matt's title, strings are not meanings. But neither are any other objects, and that's where I think we seriously disagree. More on that as I respond to his three cautions.Data may be unreasonably effective, but effective at what?
I think our paper gave enough examples of the effectiveness we had in mind, but I'll stick my neck out further here. Effective at capturing the relations that underlie meaning in language use.Despite all the ontology nay sayers, a big chunk of our world is structured due to the well organized, systematic and predictable ways in which industry, society and even biology creates stuff.
Sure the world is structured. But well before taxonomic technologies were invented with writing and spatial indexing of information (see Everything is Miscellaneous), primates including Homo sapiens were pretty well along in figuring out how to exploit that structure (see Baboon Metaphysics, The Origins of Meaning). Taxonomic technology is no more inevitable or everlasting than water or steam power.
Data with no theory is all very well, but reasoning cannot be done without a world of semantic objects.
We did not write about “data with no theory.” That's a straw man that unfortunately often substitutes for original thought whenever these issues come up, as two of us had to note previously, and others did too. As for “a world of semantic objects,” what on earth could that be? Meaning is about relations among states: the state of the computer screen when you read this, the state of my brain when I wrote it, and the state of affairs described by my writing; the state of my brain when I'm writing it, the physical state of some paper and ink involved in my reading Situations and Attitudes a couple of decades ago, and the state of affairs of semantic debate between then and now; and so on. There are no semantic objects, only semantic relations, semantic by virtue of the causal connections among the related states. Jon Barwise, who I had the privilege of discussing these matters with, is sadly no longer with us, but a good sit down with, say, Information Flow, would do wonders for one's semantic hygiene. (Via Data Mining.)