Archive for the ‘semiotics’ Category

Semiotics: What are the implications of the Saussurian sign (signifier/signified) for a theory of meaning?

March 9, 2014 2 comments

Quora on Saussure.

In my theory of meaning, Saussurian concepts of signifier and signified are a good start, but I propose a fundamental change. In his answer, Keith Allpress offers:

here is where I think we stand:
Shannon removed content from meaning but using bits.
Saussure claimed that language creates meaning.

and points out the limitations of post-modern/relativistic/deconstructionist approaches. I would say that the computationalist approach is similarly limited, in that there is no compelling reason that ‘it from bit’ should apply to all aspects of meaning. I think that what is missing from these two approaches is the same thing, only seen from opposite sides. To understand more about that thing, we can begin by asking:

“What cares about the difference?”

I think where Saussure and modern semiotics in general went too far is in presuming representation without presentation. The error of the computationalist view is even more subtle, as it presumes presentation as an emergent property, thereby taking it outside of the realm of science, but without admitting it. To me, this is a very seductive but misguided approach which leads directly to the Emperor’s emergent clothes.

Taking the term ‘signifier’, we can crack the kernel of truth that semiotics-as-cosmology is based on. Just as it is not incorrect to call someone who is driving a car a ‘driver’, neither is driver a complete description of the role of human beings in the world. What is missing? What *cares* that something is missing? What fills the gap is what I call aesthetic participation, or sensory-motive presence. In my view, before ‘information’ (a difference that makes a difference per Bateson) or sign, there must be the raw sensitivity to detect and interpret such ‘differences’ or ‘signs’ and to *care* about those differences. What we have done, by reifing pattern as objectively real things which are recognized, or de-realizing things as subjectively constructed patterns is to void the existence of sense and sense-making itself.

Not to get too cheeky, but what I propose is that beneath Bateson’s adage is a deeper context from which information and signs emerge: an aesthetic phenomenon which likes its own likeness by making its own differences. I call this primordial pansensitivity, or ‘sense’ and the particular quality of appreciation that it cares about I call ‘significance’. Significance cannot be automated, it must be earned directly through intimate acquaintance. It may sound like I am talking about human intimacy here, but I mean nothing of the sort. By acquaintance (stealing that word from Chalmers), I mean sensory-motive encounters on a fundamental level: before humans, before biology, and before even matter. The universe has to make sense before anything can make sense of it.

The aesthetic agenda is purely hedonistic. It is to develop ever richer textures and modalities of appreciation. While the universe is replete with repeating patterns, it never seems to repeat its particular, proprietary holons. A whirlpool, hurricane, and galaxy all share the same unmistakable topology, but nobody would mistake one for the other. Not just the scale but everything that constitutes their appearance and role in the universe is different. In calling the universe signs or bits we are losing the appreciation and proprietary character. The unique and worthwhile becomes generic and inevitable. It ultimately is to make meaning meaningless.

Names  (representations) can be related to each other in ways that nature  (presentations) cannot be. The equal sign is itself a name for one of  these relations. In nature nothing can be absolutely equal to anything  else. All of nature is unrepeatably unique in a literal  sense, but will seem to be made of repetition and variation from any  particular perspective within it. In this way, the postmodernists are right. We have only the presence of our own ability to feel that can be known absolutely as it is. Everything else that exists for us, within our individually customized experience has some degree of  approximation/representation.

What makes this even more complicated and confusing is that there are different levels of sense-making whcih can contradict each other. We would like to think of signs as simply a case of dictionary definitions were signs literally signifiy what we expect they should signify. Even the identity principle of A = A is subject to a deeper degree of expectation about what A and = mean in different contexts. We can look at a surreal painting and say ‘that is a painting of  something impossible’, but it is only our expectation that the paint  shapes refer to something other than themselves which is being misled. What surrealism signifies is not ‘real’, but neither is it nothing.

Where the computationalists are right is in seeing the uniformity of arithmetic principles across all phenomena which can be measured. Reducing all transactions to bits obviously has been tremendously transformative in this century. By banishing the aesthetic qualities (qualia) to an emergent never-never land, however, we have been seduced by the representation of measure (quanta). Simulation-type theories now abound, in which the entire history of human experience (including the development of science, but shh…) is marginalized as a confabulation/illusion/model and the only true reality one which can never been contacted in any way except through theoretical abstraction. We either live in an unreal world, or the world which we now think is real is not the one that we actually live in. We are being asked to believe that meaning is meaningless and that the only alternative to solipsism is a kind of ‘nilipsism’* in which even our ennui is yet another meaningless function of the program.

To turn the page on this era of de-presentation**, I suggest that we look at the roots of semiotics more deeply, and recognize that signs themselves depend upon a deeper context of sensation and sense-making which goes beyond even physics or human experience.

*a word I made up to describe the philosophy that the self (ipse) must be reduced to a non-entity.

**another neologism that I use to refer to what Raymond Tallis calls the ‘Disappearance of Appearance’…the overlooking of the phenomenon of aesthetic presence itself.

Into the Interlipse

February 8, 2014 2 comments

Flipping Nilipsism into Solipsism

MW: The world we humans create is fiction, the reality is what existed pre-human and will exist post-human and I suspect forever unknowable. Our existence is all froth.

S33: That’s only because you are viewing the universe from the perspective of an omniscient, immortal voyeur. The contrary view holds that the universe which is not experienced by humans can never exist for humans, so that all but our existence is irrelevant. It’s a fractal. All that you can ever experience is that part of the universe which relates to some aspect of your experience of it. There can never be any other universe for you, you will never experience a universe in which you are not present experiencing it, so there can be no difference between your own life and eternity, except in your imagination. Everything outside of your life is fiction, relative to your frame of reference.

Interlipsism: A View From Everywhere

The word interlipse came to me in between sleeping and waking (hypnopompic), and it appears to have no established meaning. Etymologically, ellipse and ellipsis get their meaning from ‘a falling short’. I use the word elliptical to describe the soft-boundary nature of subjects/concepts/words, as compared to the relatively discrete boundaries of objective phenomena. In this context the word interliptical could be used to define this effect more specifically. As the number of words in a language grows, the greater the potential of those words is to be more precisely defined, and more broadly associated figuratively as well.

I’m not even sure if that’s true, but it seems like it could be. The interliptical quality is the degree to which meaning develops both elliptically (metaphorically) and semphorically (digitally) at the same time. Aesthetically it reminds me of how developer solution chemically teases out clarity and contrast from the entropy of a raw photographic exposure. Instead of assuming that words originate as collections of separate sounds, or an image is built sequentially from pixels, both the irreducible gestalt and the elementary particle are aesthetic perspectives that precipitate from the interlipse. Something like a fractal of lensing lenses.


January 18, 2014 Leave a comment


Questioning the Sufficiency of Information

January 12, 2014 2 comments
Better Than The Chinese Room

Searle’s “Chinese Room” thought experiment tends to be despised by strong AI enthusiasts, who seem to take issue with Searle personally because of it. Accusing both the allegory and the author of being stupid, the Systems Reply is the one offered most often. The man in the room may not understand Chinese, but surely the whole system, including book of translation, must be considered to understand Chinese.

Here then is simpler and more familiar example of how computation can differ from natural understanding which is not susceptible to any mereological Systems argument.

If any of you have use passwords which are based on a pattern of keystrokes rather than the letters on the keys, you know that you can enter your password every day without ever knowing what it is you are typing (something with a #r5f^ in it…?).

I think this is a good analogy for machine intelligence. By storing and copying procedures, a pseudo-semantic analysis can be performed, but it is an instrumental logic that has no way to access the letters of the ‘human keyboard’. The universal machine’s keyboard is blank and consists only of theoretical x,y coordinates where keys would be. No matter how good or sophisticated the machine is, it will still have no way to understand what the particular keystrokes “mean” to a person, only how they fit in with whatever set of fixed possibilities has been defined.

Taking the analogy further, the human keyboard only applies to public communication. Privately, we have no keys to strike, and entire paragraphs or books can be represented by a single thought. Unlike computers, we do not have to build our ideas up from syntactic digits. Instead the public-facing computation follows from the experienced sense of what is to be communicated in general, from the top down, and the inside out.


The Scale of Digital

How large does a digital circle have to be before the circumference seems like a straight line?

Digital information has no scale or sense of relation. Code is code. Any rendering of that code into a visual experience of lines and curves is a question of graphic formatting and human optical interaction. With a universe that assumes information as fundamental, the proximity-dependent flatness or roundness of the Earth would have to be defined programmatically. Otherwise, it is simply “the case” that a person is standing on the round surface of the round Earth. Proximity is simply a value with no inherent geometric relevance.

When we resize a circle in Photoshop, for instance, the program is not transforming a real shape, it is erasing the old digital circle and creating a new, unrelated digital circle. Like a cartoon, the relation between the before and after, between one frame and the “next” is within our own interpretation, not within the information.

MSR: Perceptual Inertial Frames

January 3, 2014 Leave a comment


Prime Spiral

November 2, 2013 Leave a comment



The Ulam Spiral

The prime spiral, also known as Ulam’s spiral, is a plot in which the positive integers are arranged in a spiral with primes indicated in some way along the spiral. Unexpected patterns of diagonal lines are apparent in such a plot. This construction was first made by Polish-American mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1986) in 1963 while doodling during a boring talk at a scientific meeting. While drawing a grid of lines, he decided to number the intersections according to a spiral pattern, and then began circling the numbers in the spiral that were primes. Surprisingly, the circled primes appeared to fall along a number of diagonal straight lines or, in Ulam’s slightly more formal prose, it “appears to exhibit a strongly nonrandom appearance”

In the above variation of the Ulam spiral, red squares represent prime numbers and white squares represent non-primesImage source.

I can’t decide if I care about prime numbers. On the one hand, the idea of indivisibility is interesting as it relates to consciousness. In some sense, I think that the universe, and each experience of it, is a one-hit-wonder. All appearances of repetition are local to some frame of reference. If someone is color blind, they may see alternating red and green dots as a repeating grey dot. If you listen to someone speaking a language that you can’t understand, it can seem, on some level, that they are saying the same kinds of sounds over and over again.

I wondered if any random constraint would appear to contain pattern when mapped as a spiral like that. This one above is yellow hex if the number spelled out contains the letter i. Writing these out I noticed how the language we use to name the numbers is isomorphic above ten. A trivial observation, I know, but I think that this logical version of onomatopoeia reveals some insights about recursive enumeration, and its foundation in an expectation of the absolutely generic.

To someone who is fascinated by prime numbers (often in a hypnotic, compulsive kind of way, as these spirals suggest), part of the appeal may be that the patterns that they seem to make defy this expectation of generic, interchangeability as the basis of counting. Three isn’t really supposed to be different from two or one, it’s just “the next one after two”. Finding these cosmic Easter eggs by poring over mathematics is, as the movie Pi dramatized, a weird kind of quasi-religious calling. Seeking to sleuth out a hidden intelligence where neither intelligence nor secrecy would seem possible. Numbers are supposed to be universal; publicly accessible. There shouldn’t be any proprietary codes lurking in there.

Maybe there aren’t? Without mapping primes into these spirals to look at with our eyes, the interesting sequences and ratios in mathematics would not be so interesting. Mathematics may provide the most neutral and bland medium possible for the projection of patterns. Like a supernatural oracle or Rorschach inkblot, an ideal medium for pareidolia and conjuring of simulacra from the subconscious.

Math is haunted alright, but by pattern recognition – sense making, rather than Platonic essences. Because math is an ideal conductor and insulator for sense, it does end up reflecting sense in a clear and concise way, however I think it is mainly a reflection. Math is not the heart of the universe, not the whole, but the hole in the whole – a divider which shaves off differences with the power of indifference.

Defining Consciousness, Life, Physics

November 2, 2013 5 comments

One of the more popular objections to any proposal for explaining consciousness is that the term consciousness is too vague, or that any explanation depends on what way the term is used. I disagree. The nature of electricity does not depend on what people think the word means, and I don’t think that consciousness does either. When someone is knocked unconscious, there is little doubt about what it means. In general terms, it means that they are not personally present. They are not personally affected by their environment, nor can they intentionally cause any effects on their environment.

Is that an agreeable place to start for everyone?

Can we agree also, in light of the physiology of the brain-stem, which consists of sensory neural pathways and motor neural pathways, that the concept of consciousness is at least closely identified with input/output?

Can we agree that it could be possible that input/output could be sufficient to describe the fundamental nature of consciousness? Does consciousness need to be something further than that?

Here is where, in my view, the whole dependency of definition comes in. The issue is that input/output can either be conceptualized from the exterior or the interior. The Western perspective, even when it tries to model the interior perspective of i/o, does so from the outside in. It assumes that the proprietary feeling of subjectivity is fundamentally inauthentic – that a system can only be built from generic conditions, laws, processes, etc, and cannot be truly original in any sense. In this way, no neuroscientific account, or cog-sci account, can really claim an inside-looking-out perspective. The Western orientation does not allow for the possibility that person as a whole could act as an irreducibly singular receiver of experience an originator of physical cause. Taking a cue from relativity, however, I suggest that perceptual integrity is identical to inertial framing, so that the frame as a whole can drive the micro-frame conditions within it, and vice versa. This is not vertical emergence from the bottom up, but parallel emergence. Multiple levels of description.

Going back to consciousness being definable in terms of its difference from unconsciousness, we can see that the difference between the two has some similarity between life and death. Can we agree that life too differs from death in that it relates to input/output for an organism and its environment?

We understand that an animal can be unconscious without being dead, but is this a difference in degree or a difference in kind? Could input/output also be sufficient to define “life”. We might say that life includes reproduction and growth, however even a single cell organism which is not reproducing or growing at any given time is considered a form of life. Does that not seem that the quality of environmental sensitivity and the ability to cause biochemical effects in response to that sensitivity are even more essential to defining life?

To sum up then, I am asking:

1) Doesn’t being conscious really just mean the ability to receive sense and project motive?

2) Doesn’t life really mean the same thing on a lower, level?

From there, I would ask

3) Isn’t sense what we really mean by a ‘field’, and motive what we mean by a ‘force’?

4) Using relativity as a intuitive guide, can’t it be said that the concept of ‘field’ or ‘force’ are really metaphors, and that the way we contribute to human society is identical to the way that any vector of sense contributes to its context? Isn’t consciousness just a form of life which is just a form of physics…which is just a form of sensory-motive interaction?

Unintentional Symbolism: * and #

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

asterisk pound

Part of my approach to making new sense of the universe involves indulging in meditations on unintentional symbolism. Any pattern that catches my attention is a potential subject for intuition voodoo. Usually it pays off eventually, even when it seems absurd at first.

In this case, I was thinking about the # and * symbols that were inserted into our visual culture obliquely, as extra buttons on the telephone which flanked the 0. Taking this as my cue to relate this to the multisense continuum, I compared the symbols graphically, etymologically, and semantically.

The pound sign (hash, hashtag, number sign) seems to me a dead ringer for the Western-mechanistic pole of the continuum, while the asterisk (star) fits quite nicely as the Oriental-animistic pole.

Here’s how it breaks down:

# – number sign, so quantitative and generic. The symbol is one of four lines crossing each other at right angles to yield nine implicit regions of space. The slant provides a suggestion of orientation – a forward lean that disambiguates spatial bias and implies, subliminally, an arrow of time.

In the age of Twitter and Instagram, the hashtag has become an important cultural influence. It is interesting with respect to mechanism in that it refers to accessing a machine’s sorting algorithms. It is a note to the network of how this term should be handled. We have appropriated this satirically so that we recapture it for our own entertainment, but also as a kind of show of affection for and familiarity with the technology.

In direct contrast, the * is am icon which is used to interrupt one level of attention to direct the reader to another level – a footnote. Instead of relating to numbers, the * is a wildcard that can be related to any string. It stands for “all that is preceded by or follows”. Contrary to the cellular modularity of #, the * is a mandala. It implies kaliedoscopic sensibility and fractal elaboration. It is a symbol of radiance, growth, life, unity, etc.

There’s some interesting threads that connect the * with mathematical terms such as Kleene closure (more commonly known as the free monoid construction). Just the words ‘free monoid construction’ ring in my ears as an echo of what I call solitrophy – the constructive progress of teleological unity…the creation and solution of problems.

Also the use of *asterisk* for heightened emphasis links it to the significance of euphoria or magnified feeling (and the euphoria that is associated with significance or magnified prestige/importance). Wikipedia mentions the use of # by editors to represent where space should be added on galley proofs. The use of * is, by contrast associated with repetition of a particular thing – a replication. This is a tenuous but deep connection to the origins of space and time in the difference between syntactic-public sense and semantic-private sense.

The name ‘pound sign’ seems to be fairly mysterious. It does not seem to be related conclusively to either the English currency or the Avoirdupois weight. Both references, however, have very tempting subliminal associations to the Western pole of empirical domination. On the other side, the name asterisk means ‘little star’, from Greek and Latin. I can read into that a reference to ‘as above, so below’, as the twinkling point of light reproduces in miniature that which is the grand solar source of life on Earth.

A follow up post on my blog

Obstruction of Solitude: A Guide To Noise

October 15, 2013 Leave a comment

“And then…all the noise!  All the noise, noise, noise, noise!
If there’s one thing I hate…all the noise, noise, noise, noise!
And they’ll shriek, squeak, and squeal racing round on their wheels,
Then dance with jin-tinglers tied onto their heels!” – The Grinch

“Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths
He buzzes like a fridge
He’s like a detuned radio” – Radiohead

It might be asked, “Why should we care about noise?” Two reasons come to mind.

1) To reduce, contain, or otherwise avoid it.
2) To understand what isn’t noise, and why we prefer that.

Real Noise

The general use of the word noise refers to an unpleasant sound. Even on this most literal level, there is a sense of denial about the extent to which unpleasant qualities are subjective. The stereotypical parent, upon hearing the stereotypical teenager’s musical taste being played at high volume, may yell something like “Turn off that infernal noise!”. There is a sense that the sound demands to be labeled objectively as a terrible thing to listen to, rather than as a sound which presents itself differently according to one’s state of mind or development.

At the same time, we cannot rule out all objective, or at least pseudo-objective qualities related to signal and noise. A garage recording of a metal band or a jackhammer attacking the pavement can be uncontroversially defined as being ‘noisy’, particularly in comparison to other, more gentle sounds. ‘Real noise’, then, seems to have a range of subjective and objective qualifiers. Loud, percussive sounds are inherently noisy to us humans, and we have reason to assume the same is true for animals and even plants:

“Dorothy Retallack tried experimenting with different types of music. She played rock to one group of plants and, soothing music to another. The group that heard rock turned out to be sickly and small whereas the other group grew large and healthy. What’s more surprising is that the group of plants listening to the soothing music grew bending towards the radio just as they bend towards the sunlight.”source

Whether we enjoy loud, percussive sounds is a matter of taste and context. Even the most diehard metal fan probably does not want to hear their favorite band blasting at five o’ clock in the morning from a passing car. Being able to control what we listen to contributes to our perception of it as noise.

Obstruction, Distraction, Destruction, and Leaks

Whether a piece of music offends our personal taste, or it is simply so loud that we can’t ‘hear ourselves think’, the experience of being distracted seems central to its status as noise. In the parlance of sound engineers, and later Silicon Valley schmoozers, the ‘signal to noise ratio’ describes this feature of noise to distract or divert attention from the intended communication. Noise not only obstructs access to the signal, the disturbance that it causes also detracts from the quality of the signal itself. If the signal to noise ratio is poor enough, it may not be worth the effort for the receiver to try to interpret it, and communication is destroyed.

This sense of noise as an obstacle to communication extends beyond audio or electronic signals to any context where information is accessed, transmitted, or stored. In his influential work on telecommunications, Clause Shannon described information entropy as those features of a signal which are costly to compress.  Typically it is those patterns which cannot be easily discerned as either part of the intentional signal or part of the background noise. Despite the tremendous computational resources available for mobile communication, the signal quality on mobile devices are still generally inferior to land lines. Between microphone gating that clips off conversation instead of ambient street sounds and the loss of packets due to radio broadcast conditions or network routing conditions, it is amazing that it sounds as good as it does, but it is still a relatively leaky way to transmit voices.

Neural Noise and Withdrawal

Every sense has its own particular kind of noise. Vision has glare, blur, phosphene patterns (‘seeing stars’). Touch has non-specific tingling or itching. Olfactory and gustatory senses encounter foul odors or bad aftertastes.  Feelings like nausea and dizziness which are unrelated to food or balance conditions are a kind of noise (noise is etymologically related to nausea and noxious). Part of the effect of withdrawal from an addiction that the brain becomes overly sensitized to irritating stimuli in general. It’s almost like an allergic response in that the systems which would ordinarily protect us from threats is distracted by a false threat and turned on itself.  Our sensitivity to the environment, having been hijacked by an external supply of pleasurable signals, has built up a tolerance for those super-saturated instructions.

With any kind of addiction, even healthy ones like exercise or washing your hands, the nature of sense is to accommodate and normalize perceptions which are present regularly. Because the addiction provides positive reinforcement regularly, there is an artificially low noise ratio which invites your senses to recalibrate to listen more closely to the noise (which would be quite adaptive evolutionarily, you would want to still hear that tiger or smell that smoke even when you enjoy a lifestyle of hedonism and decadence). When the source of positive distraction is removed, the sensitivity to negative distraction is still cranked up to 11, which of course, taps into the original motivation to escape the negative distractions of life with an addiction in the first place. We want something to soothe our nerves, to numb the sensitivity and quiet the noise.

A Recipe For Noise

There seem to be general patterns which are common to many kinds of noise. Noise can either be an obstructing presence, or a conspicuous absence (like the dropouts on a phone call). It can be a public or a private condition which clouds judgment, invites impatience, frustration, and intolerance.  Noise can be that which is incoherent, irrelevant, redundant, or inappropriate. Some signals can be temporarily irrelevant or incoherent, while others are permanently so. Besides being too loud, an audio noise can also be soft, such as a hiss or other aesthetic defect that exposes leaky conditions in the recording process. The context is important, as with withdrawal from addiction, our senses are more attuned to the relativity of sensation rather than objective measurement. Grey looks darker next to black than it does next to white.

Our ability to use our attention to pivot from foreground to background is part of what defines the difference between signal and noise, or sense and nonsense. We can all relate to the Charlie Brown effect, where the words that a teacher says are reduced to unintelligible vocalizations. As you read these words now, you may be scanning over so much tedious verbiage that looks like generic wordiness more than any particular message. Any signal can be a noise if you don’t pay attention to it in the right way, and any noise can be used as a meaningful code or symbol. Perhaps there is a way to get over our addictions a little easier if we can learn to see our irritation and cravings as a sign that we are on the right path to restoring our neurological gain.

Many Cures

The destruction of information or the suppression of noise is not as simple as it may seem. Take, for example, the difference between analgesic, anesthetic, and narcotic effects. Pain can be relieved systemically, locally, or simply by being made to seem irrelevant. It can be selectively suppressed or wiped out as part of an overall deadening of sensation. There are other ways to get pain relief besides pharmaceuticals as well. Athletes or soldiers are known to perform with severe injuries, and many people have endured astonishing hardships for the sake of their family without being fully aware of the pain they were in. While there may be endogenous pharmacology going on which accounts for the specific pain suppression, it is ultimately the context which the subject is conscious of which drives the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters.

Semiotics of Noise

Looking at noise from a Piercean perspective, it can be seen as a failure of semiosis – a broken icon, symbol, or index.  A broken index would be something like tinnitus or a phantom limb. The signal we are receiving does not correspond to the referent that we expect, and in fact corresponds only to a problem with the signaling mechanism, or some deeper problem. A signal which is broken as an index but can be understood meaningfully as a symptom of something else (maybe the tinnitus is due to a sinus infection) has reverted from a teleological index to a teleonomic* index. It coincides with a condition, but does not represent it faithfully in any way. It is noise in the sense that the expected association must be overlooked intentionally to get to the unintentional association to a symptom.

A broken index would also be one which we deem irrelevant. This type of noise, which would include the proliferation of automatic alerts, false alarms, flashing lights, spam, etc. There may be nothing wrong with what what the message is saying, but considerations of redundancy, and context inappropriateness makes it clear that what a computer thinks is important and what we think is important are very different things. This type of noise fails at the pragmatic level. It’s not that we don’t understand the message, or that its not for us, it’s that we don’t want to do anything about it.

Broken icons and symbols would similarly be made incoherent, irrelevant, or inappropriate by lacking enough syntactic integrity or semantic content to justify positive attention. Fragmented texts or degenerated signs can fail to satisfy functionally or aesthetically, either on their own, or due to intrusions from outside of the intended communication channel. The overall function of noise is to decompose. Like the odor of something that has spoiled, disorder and decay are symptoms of entropy. In the schema of cosmic metabolism, entropy is the catabolic phase of forms and functions – a kind of toll exacted by space and time which ensures that whatever rises to the threshold of existence and importance, will eventually destabilize, its differences de-tuning to indifference.

What Noise Tells Us About Signals

If we begin with the premise that signal and noise are polar opposites, then it may be useful to look at the opposite of some of the terms and concepts that have just been discussed. If noise is irrelevant, inappropriate, incoherent, and redundant, then the qualities which make something significant or important should include being relevant, appropriate, coherent, and essential. Where noise obstructs, distracts, and destroys, sense instructs, attracts, and constructs. Where noise is noxious and disgusting, signals soothe and give solace.

In the larger picture of self and consciousness, it is our solitude that is threatened by noise. Solitude, like solidity and structure are related to low entropy. It is the feeling of strong continuity and coherence, a silent background from which all moments of sound and fury are foregrounded. It is what receives all signals and insulates all noise. Integrated information? Maybe. The Philosopher’s Stone? Probably.

*teleonomy describes conditions of causality which are driven by blind statistics rather than sensible function. Evolution, for example, is a teleonomy since it does not care which species live or die, it is only those who happen to have been better suited to their ecological niche which end up reproducing most successfully.

Wittgenstein, Physics, and Free Will

October 14, 2013 1 comment

JE: My experience from talking to philosophers is that WIttgenstein’s view is certainly contentious. There seem to be two camps. There are those seduced by his writing who accept his account and there are others who, like me, feel that Wittgenstein expressed certain fairly trivial insights about perception and language that most people should have worked out for themselves and then proceeded to draw inappropriate conclusions and screw up the progress of contemporary philosophy for fifty years. This latter would be the standard view amongst philosophers working on biological problems in language as far as I can see.

Wittgenstein is right to say that words have different meanings in different situations – that should be obvious. He is right to say that contemporary philosophers waste their time using words inappropriately – any one from outside sees that straight away. But his solution – to say that the meaning of words is just how they are normally used, is no solution – it turns out to be a smoke screen to allow him to indulge his own prejudices and not engage in productive explanation of how language actually works inside brains.

The problem is a weaseling going on that, as I indicated before, leads to Wittgenstein encouraging the very crime he thought he was clever to identify. The meaning of a word may ‘lie in how it is used’ in the sense that the occurrences of words in talk is functionally connected to the roles words play in internal brain processes and relate to other brain processes but this is trivial. To say that meaning is use is, as I said, clearly a route to the W crime itself. If I ask how do you know meaning means use you will reply that a famous philosopher said so. Maybe he did but he also said that words do not have unique meanings defined by philosophers – they are used in all sorts of ways and there are all sorts of meanings of meaning that are not ‘use’, as anyone who has read Grice or Chomsky will have come to realise. Two meanings of a word may be incompatible yet it may be well nigh impossible to detect this from use – the situation I think we have here. The incompatibility only becomes clear if we rigorously explore what these meanings are. Wittgenstein is about as much help as a label on a packet of pills that says ‘to be taken as directed’.

But let’s be Wittgensteinian and play a language game of ordinary use, based on the family resemblance thesis. What does choose mean? One meaning might be to raise in the hearer the thought of having a sense of choosing. So a referent of ‘choose’ is an idea or experience that seems to be real and I think must be. But we were discussing what we think that sense of choosing relates to in terms of physics. We want to use ‘choose’ to indicate some sort of causal relation or an aspect of causation, or if we are a bit worried about physics still having causes we could frame it in terms of dynamics or maybe even just connections in a spacetime manifold. If Wheeler thinks choice is relevant to physics he must think that ‘choose’ can be used to describe something of this sort, as well as the sense of choosing.

So, as I indicated, we need to pin down what that dynamic role might be. And I identified the fact that the common presumption about this is wrong. It is commonly thought that choosing is being in a situation with several possible outcomes. However, we have no reason to think that. The brain may well not be purely deterministic in operation. Quantum indeterminacy may amplify up to the level of significant indeterminacy in such a complex system with so powerful amplification systems at work. However, this is far from established and anyway it would have nothing to do with our idea of choosing if it was just a level of random noise. So I think we should probably work on the basis that the brain is in fact as tightly deterministic as matters here. This implies that in the situation where we feel we are choosing THERE IS ONLY ONE POSSIBLE OUTCOME.

The problem, as I indicated is that there seem to be multiple possible outcomes to us because we do not know how are brain is going to respond. Because this lack of knowledge is a standard feature of our experience our idea of ‘a situation’ is better thought of as ‘an example of an ensemble of situations that are indistinguishable in terms of outcome’. If I say when I get to the main road I can turn right or left I am really saying that I predict an instance of an ensemble of situations which are indistinguishable in terms of whether I go right or left. This ensemble issue of course is central to QM and maybe we should not be so surprised about that – operationally we live in a world of ensembles, not of specific situations.

So this has nothing to do with ‘metaphysical connotations’ which is Wittgenstein’s way of blocking out any arguments that upset him – where did we bring metaphysics in here? We have two meanings of choose. 1. Being in a situation that may be reported as being one of feeling one has choice (to be purely behaviourist) and 2. A dynamic account of that situation that turns out not to agree with what 99.9% of the population assume it is when they feel they are choosing. People use choose in a discussion of dynamics as if it meant what it feels like in 1 but the reality is that this use is useless. It is a bit like making burnt offerings to the Gods. That may be a use for goats but not a very productive one. It turns out that the ‘family resemblance’ is a fake. Cousin Susan who has pitched up to claim her inheritance is an impostor. That is why I say that although to ‘feel I am choosing’ is unproblematic the word ‘choice’ has no useful meaning in physics. It is based on the same sort of error as thinking a wavefunction describes a ‘particle’ rather than an ensemble of particles. The problem with Wittgenstein is that he never thought through where his idea of use takes you if you take a careful scientific approach. Basically I think he was lazy. The common reason why philosophers get tied in knots with words is this one – that a word has several meanings that do not in fact have the ‘family relations’ we assume they have – this is true for knowledge, perceiving, self, mind, consciousness – all the big words in this field. Wittgenstein’s solution of going back to using words the way they are ‘usually’ used is nothing more than an ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

So would you not agree that in Wheeler’s experiments the experimenter does not have a choice in the sense that she probably feels she has? She is not able to perform two alternative manoeuvres on the measuring set up. She will perform a manoeuvre, and she may not yet know which, but there are no alternatives possible in this particular instance of the situation ensemble. She is no different from a computer programmed to set the experiment up a particular way before particle went through the slits, contingent on a meteorite not shaking the apparatus after it went through the slits (causality is just as much an issue of what did not happen as what did). So if we think this sort of choosing tells us something important about physics we have misunderstood physics, I beleive.

Nice response. I agree almost down the line.

As far as the meaning of words go, I think that no word can have only one meaning because meaning, like all sense, is not assembled from fragments in isolation, but rather isolated temporarily from the totality of experience. Every word is a metaphor, and metaphor can be dialed in and out of context as dictated by the preference of the interpreter. Even when we are looking at something which has been written, we can argue over whether a chapter means this or that, whether or not the author intended to mean it. We accept that some meanings arise unintentionally within metaphor, and when creating art or writing a book, it is not uncommon to glimpse and develop meanings which were not planned.

To choose has a lower limit, between the personal and the sub-personal which deals with the difference between accidents and ‘on purpose’ where accidents are assumed to demand correction, and there is an upper limit on choice between the personal and the super-personal in which we can calibrate our tolerance toward accidents, possibly choosing to let them be defined as artistic or intuitive and even pursuing them to be developed.

I think that this lensing of choice into upper and lower limits, is, like red and blue shift, a property of physics – of private physics. All experiences, feelings, words, etc can explode into associations if examined closely. All matter can appear as fluctuations of energy, and all energy can appear as changes in the behavior of matter. Reversing the figure-ground relation is a subjective preference. So too is reversing the figure-ground relation of choice and determinism a subjective preference. If we say that our choices are determined, then we must explain why there is a such thing as having a feeling that we choose. Why would there be a difference, for example, in the way that we breathe and the way that we intentionally control our breathing? Why would different areas of the brain be involved in voluntary control, and why would voluntary muscle tissue be different from smooth muscle tissue if there were no role for choice in physics? We have misunderstood physics in that we have misinterpreted the role of our involvement in that understanding.

We see physics as a collection of rules from which experiences follow, but I think that it can only be the other way around. Rules follow from experiences. Physics lags behind awareness. In the case of humans, our personal awareness lags behind our sub-personal awareness (as shown by Libet, etc) but that does not mean that our sub-personal awareness follows microphysical measurables. If you are going to look at the personal level of physics, you only have to recognize that you can intend to stand up before you stand up, or that you can create an opinion intentionally which is a compromise between select personal preferences and the expectations of a social group.

Previous Wittgenstein post here.

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