Q&A: Meaning Symbol Sign and Mind (Part 2)

On one of my recent posts, a commentor named “psycho” asked me some very good questions. I decided I needed to respond in more detail than just a single comment reply. I respond in pieces below, so just for context, here is psycho’s entire original comment.

But if you take more meanings, and put them together to get yet another meaning. Don’t you feel like those meanings were again like symbols creating a new meaning?

In my understanding, every bit of information is a symbol – what is represented by the invididual neurons in the brain. And if you take all related bits (that is neurons, symbols), and look at it as a whole, what you get is meaning.

The sentence is a symbol, and it is made of word-symbols. And the list of word-symbols makes a meaning. Which, when given a name (or feeling), becomes a symbol, that can be further involved in other meanings.

I’ll respond to each paragraph in separate posts, in order to get all of my thoughts down in a reasonably readable fashion. Part one covered the first paragraph. Here is part two where I cover the rest of my thoughts.

Symbols in the Mind

In my understanding, every bit of information is a symbol – what is represented by the invididual neurons in the brain. And if you take all related bits (that is neurons, symbols), and look at it as a whole, what you get is meaning.

I’m not a neurologist or any kind of brain scientist by any means, so I could eventually be proven wrong on this, but what a neuron represents, to me is not a symbol and not a sign and not a specific meaning. I know I read somewhere of a brain experiment (using MRIs I think) where the image of Jennifer Aniston presented visually during a brain scan caused only a single neuron to fire. I recall that the interpretation given was that the entire concept of “Jennifer Aniston” was stored in one singular neuron.

I guess I just don’t buy it. What if the meaning of that neuron was more along the lines of “a famous person whose name I forget” or “I recognize a face I’ve seen on ‘Entertainment Tonight'”? The fact of it is, the experimenters drew a conclusion on a correlation that not even their subject would be able to explain or confirm.

Then there is some hypothesis that memories and meanings are distributed across the brain in such a pattern as to suggest more of a holographic storage mechanism (where damage in one area of the brain is overcome by stimulation and growth and retraining).

I think that memory and meaning is essentially an EXPERIENCED thing. That the physical stimuli produce a complex of sensations through re-activation of neurons that causes the brain itself to “sense” the memory. I don’t think this qualifies as a symbollic sensation, being a much more holistic, “analog” experience not unlike the original. If every bit of information were a symbol, then I think we’d be just as hard-wired as computers to recognize only one set of sensations and meanings. Our experience being more fluid, it allows us to be much more creative in the aspects and portions of sensation that we recognize and name. As an individual I have full freedom to separate the signal from the noise, the foreground from the background, as I fancy. I can “slice and dice” me experience of sensation in anyway that I find meaningful, and if I communicate it to you, then you can see what I see just like that. In other words, working with the “analog” of my sensations is a much more powerful, creative endeavor than merely encoding and decoding “digital” symbols.

That’s my two cents on that thought.

Context As Observer

Consider a context as a reflection of one point of view. As a frame or lense through which the external environment is observed. The “things” that “matter” to the context are the events or features which are both:

  • VISIBLE – or otherwise perceptible, and
  • NAMEABLE – or describable/categorizable

If something is imperceptible, then obviously there will be nothing to notice – no “referent”. In this case, imagined perceptions will be included as “perceptible”. If the thing which could be perceived is not nameable or otherwise describable within the context, then the context hasn’t noticed it and it does not exist.

That is to say, that a reality exists independent of any particular context, but in terms of the point of view of the context, that which the context has no expression for lies outside of the context. If context is the perceiver, then the indescribable reality outside of the context may as well not exist, for all the benefit the context gains from it.

Every context that exists is limited to the perception of  only a subset of reality. Is there a limit to the perception of reality if we take into account the sum total of all contexts in existence today, and all those which existed in the past? Yes, else one would expect that invention and discovery would cease.

Context is a feature of communication. It is not reality, which is the referent of the communication.

An example comes to mind from the physical world. One context may be the one in which the speed of a particle is important. Another context may be the one in which the position of the particle in space and time is important. Then there’s the context of Quantum Mechanics which is the one which first recognized that there were two other contexts (although it did not call them this) and that one interferes with the other. In QM, due to the known limitations of the physical world and our ability to perceive it at a particular level, these two contexts can never observe the same exact phenomenon. An observer in one context that observes one aspect of the particle necessarily changes the condition of the particle so that the other condition is no longer perceptible.

This seems really trivial, until we broaden the idea out to more complex contexts. The world is an analog, continuous place. Even the most complex context however can only perceive and name certain aspects, and is unaware of or finds inexpressible other aspects.

This is the place where poets and artists find creative expression and energy, between the lines of the necessarily constrained contexts of their own ability to communicate.

Out of the whole continuity of experience and phenomena which is the world about us, we are selective about the things we notice and think and speak about. Why one observation is made instead of another is based wholly on the things we find “remarkable”.

We remark on the things that are remarkable to us. By this I mean, the things we wish to convey or communicate are the things we find words to express. This “finding of words” includes inventing words and turns of phrase. After all, we each bring to the human table a uniqueness of vision commensurate to our talents, proclivities and experience.

Those to whom we successfully impart our observations, thru the act of their understanding the message, enter into the context of discourse of those observations. Once in that context, they may corroborate or elaborate on my original observations, broadening and enriching the context. Over time our collective observations become codified and regular, our terminology more richly evocative and concise, such that we may begin to speak in a shorthand.

Where a paragraph once was needed, now a sentence – where once a sentence now a single term…

As we start recognizing more and more examples of a phenomena, we invent a sublanguage which, when used within the context (and with the proper participants – see definition of context – i.e., with other people who share this context) is perfectly understandable.

An extreme example of differences in contexts would be the contrast of elementary school arithmetics versus obscure branches of mathematics research. The concepts which matter in the one are inconceivable in the other, the notation and terminology of the one are indecipherable in the other.

Consider the origin and usage of the term “ponzi scheme”. The original of the type was perpetrated by a man named “Ponzi”. Anyone who has operated a similar scheme since can now be referred to using the name of one notorious example. In recent years, the largest ponzi scheme ever perpetrated was the brainchild of Bernie Madoff. Time will tell if future outrageously immense ponzi schemes will be given a new moniker.

We might ask: “In what sense do we say that a “context” is an “observer”? There are a few ways we can use this analogy. First, a context is the product of communication among indidivual humans. It is the participation in the communication, in sending and receiving message, that creates the scope of the communication. What is communicated is the shared observations of the participant community.

Context Is:

Communication == Community == Communication

Information transfer among a group of individuals who share a common interest.

The language used is necessarily constrained, at first informally but later perhaps more rigidly as communication becomes more focused. Difficult observations require lots of talk. Once the idea has been grasped, however, less and less is needed to evoke the memory of the original idea, until a single term from the original description can be used as a stand-in.

It is not the abstract notion of a context that actually does the observing. Rather it is the community members themselves, the humans, who do the observing. The subject of communication is necessarily the things of interest to the community. But an individual who observes something is not necessarily participating in the context. Only the observations that are shared and received are part of the context.

A second sense in which the context can be described as the observer at an abstract level. While the context is formed from the collective interests and communication of the group of humans, eventually, the context becomes prescriptive. The extent and content of the shared sublanguage then defines the type and content of the observations that can be made by the members of the context. An observation that falls outside of the context’s prescriptive rules for content and structure is likely not to be understood (received). If it is not received, it may as well not have happened, hence such messages fall out of context.  The more constrained and formalized the context, the more explicit and succinct the observations that can be carried by that context, but also the fewer the variety of observations.

Successful study of the constraints and observations within a context occurs in much of the “social sciences”. Much can be deduced about what is important within a community by analysing the rules and limits of the communication that community’s context permits. In particular, a sense of the portion of existence important to the context can be deduced from the study of the observations communicated within that context.

Nominalist or Realist? Mentalistic or Conceptualistic?

Anytime I start thinking deeply about meaning and context and communication, I begin to look about me for guidance and reassurance. A lot of really smart people have spent a long time thinking about and debating what these things are and how they work. Hoping that someone else will provide some map through this ongoing discussion, I keep looking. Unfortunately, the more broadly I search, the more I am led to the conclusion that a lot of the discussion has fallen into the trap of endless “splitting of hairs”.

This is not to say that these arguments aren’t important, and that the points being made aren’t valid. I am nowhere near being “read in” sufficiently to actually have an opinion on them. The one observation I’ll make about the larger discussion is that I think the terminology has gotten away from itself (but perhaps this is just an observation by a naive someone outside of the context).

I feel frutsrated in that I’m trying to consider the ideas of those who’ve spent more time on aspects of this than I. But because of the apparent need to differentiate one’s ideas from another’s, this invention of terminology has made large parts of the discussion nearly opaque to me, and therefore  ultimately of limited utility to my purposes. The shear volume of references to arguments and counter-arguments has intimidated me beyond measure, as I realize that to form my own opinion from the broader philosophical discussion will require years of reading.

A case in point is highlighted by this excerpt from a book I was pointed to by someone on a separate discussion page (David Blair’s book Wittgenstein, Language and Information: “Back to the Rough Ground!”). In the span of two or three paragraphs, while I got the basic drift, I find myself confronted with three competing schools of thought on meaning:

Nominalists: who appear to think all language is “names”

Realists: who appear to think there are “universal” ideas outside of anybody’s mental conception (I think I missed the point on this one)

Mentalistics/Conceptualistics: who appear to think (taking the stated criticism of the view as a valid description) that meaning is closely held and private to a person.

I have to admit, of the three (and I don’t know that these are really all mutually exclusive from this short passage), that the mentalist view is probably closer to my own opinion. However, before declaring my allegiance to any particular school of thought or philosophical category, it appears I have a lot more reading to do.

So instead of trying to align myself formally with a pre-defined family of philosophical ideas, I think I’ll just continue to state my own case here for what I think these things are.

I know software development, that’s my angle into the discussion, having been writing software for nearly three decades. Software development is in fact less of an individual philosophical endeavor, and in my mind is much more influenced by social and cultural factors. They key question and the thing I find fascination with, however, is right at the threshold between how the rigidity of the software application interacts with the fluidity of the social environment in which it is designed and used.

The reason philosophy, and in particular philosophy of language, comes into play is that the development of the software application is entirely dependent on capturing and codifying the intended user community’s shared conception of reality. This “conception” is something larger than the individual thoughts of a single person, but represents the communicaton of all members of the community, hence it really should be considered an “act of language.”

This is why I place so much focus here on what I call “context”. The creation and maintenance of context by humans, how it shapes the terminology and symbols, the projected simulation or model of reality that it constrains and enforces, these are the things that I feel drive any software development.

Placing context first, then what I consider “terminology” comes next. This is the set of key ideas or concepts within the context. The most interesting (to me) of the examples of terminology within a context fall into two categories. First are the ones that are truly idiosynchratic coins-of-phrase which, if considered by anyone outside of the context  would never invoke the concept assigned within the context.

Second are the concepts which are so idiosynchratic to the context and complex that they cannot be summed up by a single term. (See my case study regarding selection of terminology at the IRS). These are particularly difficult to accomodate when writing software due to the multitude of terms coined and lengthy descriptions necessary to differentiate and identify them. In other words, there are some concepts in some contexts that cannot be named, or which have taken on names with little obvious connection to a general (external) discussion.

While I think I am probably not in the “nominalist” camp, does this make me a “realist”? a “mentalistic”? a “conceptualistic”?  I don’t know. I guess only further reading and continuing to elucidate my own ideas here will be able to determine that.

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