Friday, July 01, 2005

Mindful of Meaning

Natural language consists of arrangements of words. No particular arrangement of words should have meaningany more than any other arrangement even of the same words.

How does a string of words acquire the mystical capacity called meaning? One answer is that it acquires it by conforming to certain rules of grammar, syntax, and semantics. The word string can even violate the rules, to some extent, without losing its meaning, or at least without losing meaning per se. And even at the fringes, meaning can be coaxed forth from otherwise ambiguous word strings by context, both linguistic—adjacent word strings—and nonlinguistic—cultural contexts.

In any event, meaning resides not in any given word string. Meaning resides only in minds. A word string is meaningful only if, when it is apprehended by a mind, the mind experiences understanding.

Related to meaning is the notion of information. We talk of genetic information, but genes contain no information. "Information." What can such a thing be? Here's an email chain on this topic, courtesy of R and K:

R: I'm sure we've had conversations about Shannon. Read http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information and tell me if you recant anything you've written the professor.

K: All interesting [the wikipedia entry], and corroborates the position that information occurs only when minds are involved. The Wiki intro refers to light hitting the eye of a bee and the bee using information received thereby to navigate to flowers. This is meaningful only if we grant the bee a mind. Otherwise, if the bee were a robot, or automaton, the introduction of information to the description of events would be superfluous. There would only be chemical reactions, the making and breaking of chemical bonds, in the circuitry of the robot. To introduce the notion of information is a violation of Occam's razor.

I have to agree with Whitehead's rejection of the doctrine of simple location, but that's the doctrine of normal science. Atoms occupy positions in space. That's all there is. There's no informationonly various spatial configurations of particlesfrom which minds can extract information.

R: Do some more reading because right now you sound like a kook (but it's less charming since we've advanced in years). See http://www-mtl.mit.edu/~penfield/pubs/beacs-01.html and others. While it would have been less popular even twenty-five years ago, I think you'd find most physicists would put information on the same epistemic footing as temperature, energy and mass. As for your second paragraph, check out “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality” by Brian Greene.

K: Sounding like a kook is not necessarily a problem. (In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is a hallucinating lunatic).

What instrument, other than a mind, would you use to measure information? Normal science rests on metaphysical quicksand, that's why it needs to invent information. The concept is practically useful, but its utility doesn't necessarily mean it's more than a construct.

R: Distance can be measured in a number of ways, including meter sticks. Information can be measured in a number of ways. Most computer machinery can count well, and what it counts is bits. Like molar quantity it is a scalar.

K: I think we've reached a stalemate. But trust me, dear friend, the objects of the world contain only as much information as minds can extract from them.

R: And what if the world contained eight hydrogen atoms and nothing more(no minds)? Would that world possesses more or less information than ours?

K: Until a mind has an experience, no information exists.

More radically, read Berkeley. "To be is to be perceived" sounds crazy until quantum mechanics. What does it mean for a thing to exist, or in deference to Whiteheadfor an event to occur? If it's not an object of consciousness, it isn't. Berkeley recognizes that you can imagine a rock in faraway space with no one around to perceive itdoes it exist? It does, as an image or concept in your mindbut without the mind, the existence ceases. We're stepping from epistemology to ontologywhere things blow up. But neither is solipsism an option. Back in existential space, now. just finishing Feyerabend's Three Dialogues.

If the 8-H universe seems less informative than ours, it's because it is less complex, or has fewer parameters, or fewer variablesall of which considerations are concepts in minds and exist only in minds. I can observe and measure the parameters of the 8-H universe, and gain info about it, but the info is not in the 8 H'sit has come into being through my investigation and resides in my mind.