More of the Same

Part of an ongoing conversation. Nostreculsus writes:

Mr wrf3 is making an interesting claim.

Imagine that radio antennae pick up a series of radio signals – intervals of activity (above a certain threshold) alternating with periods of radio silence. It can be transcribed as a sequence of ones and zeroes. If the sequence is long enough, we can ascertain its statistical properties. Hence we can measure its degree of disorder (its entropy).

The information per symbol and the distribution of information throughout the sequence are therefore measurable physical properties. But Mr wrf3 goes one step further. He quotes Douglas Hofstadter approvingly and claims that we can deduce the “inherent meaning, i.e. where the symbols alone [are] enough to convey their meaning” purely from the message. We can tell if it is a message and not some natural phenomenon.

Isn’t this akin to the claim of those who believe in “intelligent design”? They assert that by measuring the complexity of DNA sequences they can decide whether or not the sequence is designed. But Mr Wright contends that “Meaningfulness is not a material property.”

Let me stipulate that the sequence is not a transmission directed from the space aliens to us. So there is no allusion to areas of common knowledge: no lists of primes or encoded star maps. If it is a message, it is an intercepted signal from one group of aliens to another, discussing some alien topic. But we can download as much of it as we wish.

So, I ask, how does the intrinsic meaning of a sequence “emerge” from its bare material description?

Mr wrf3 asked me to be rude to him when I was trying my best to be polite by being aloof from his flippant snipes and dishonest accusations. He seemed to think my courteous reserve was funny, and he mocked it by daring me to be rude to him, saying it would amuse him. I thought the rudest thing I could do was ban him, which I have. Perhaps he is amused, perhaps not.

If any reader can find a way to argue his position perhaps more clearly than he did, I am happy to reply.

Before we begin, let me state my basic thesis.

The metaphysical theory that all substances can be simplified to material hence empirical properties refutes itself, since a metaphysical theory cannot be confirmed nor denied by empirical proof. The idea that all knowledge is empirical knowledge is a non-empirical idea.

If this materialist metaphysical theory were true, then the non-physical properties of statements, such as their referent-to-referand qualities (truth value or logical validity, their beauty or goodness or utility or their ability to represent the objects they pretend to represent), could be reduced to and expressed as material properties.

Yet all macroscopic material properties can be reduced to and expressed as SI Unit quantities (mass, length, duration, current, luminosity, temperature, moles of substance).

The referent-to-referand qualities cannot even in theory be reduced to nor expressed as a SI Unit quantity. Therefore the metaphysical theory is not true.

Such reductionist materialists cannot frame their argument without express or implied reference to the very concept they claim does not exist: namely, referent-to-referand abstraction, i.e. the relation between word and object the word pretends to represent, referred to by words like “meaning” or “symbol” or “sing” or “reference” or “true” or “valid” or “accurate.”

This symbol-to-object abstraction is purely ideal, and yet the argument that no pure ideals exist because all things are matter in motion cannot be expressed without reference to it.

The basic strategy adopted unfortunately by amateur materialists arguing metaphysics is to use an ambiguous word that refers both to a physical and a mental reality, and pretend they mean it only the physical sense (such as “accurate” as a symbol for the distance between a target and a shot, not as a symbol for the aptness or appropriateness of a symbol and its referand.)

The other basic strategy is to use the passive voice, so that the actor whose actions enact the act is not mentioned, lest the nature of the act (in this case, a mental act) come to one’s attention.

That said, let me turn to Nostreculsus, address you directly, and respond to your claims in order:

“Imagine that radio antennae pick up a series of radio signals…”

Sorry, a series of radio what?

I have used the word signals all my life, but in this context, to what does the word refer? Does it refer to a physical quantity or a symbol? Or are you using the word here just to mean “radio noise”?

By “symbol” here I mean when one thing (a referent: a word, a letter, a sound, a sign, a euphemism, a cipher, the thing that points) stands in the place of or represents another thing (a referand, the thing to which the referent points) in the mind of someone who knows what the code means .

Please tell me what the word “signal” means. While I have seen and heard many objects (such as soundwaves or ink marks on a page) used as signals, I have never seen nor heard the meaning of a signal except unless the observer knew the concept or code to which the signal referred. In other words, my only experience with the meaning of a signal is as a mental entity, such as a concept.

” – intervals of activity (above a certain threshold) alternating with periods of radio silence. It can be transcribed….”

Sorry, it can be what?

I think you used a word (transcribed) which refers to the use of one group of symbols to refer to another group of symbols.

“… as a sequence of ones and zeroes.”

Sorry, a sequence of what?

While I have used ones and zeroes all my life, I have never seen nor heard a zero. I have seen circles made of ink on paper which I have been told by intelligent beings symbolize or represent a certain concept, namely, the mathematical concept of naught, but this is not a physical property.

And who is doing the transcribing? Because we can, in English, state things in the passive voice does not mean that intellectual events can happen in reality in the absence of the intellect of a specific intelligence doing something.

The property “able to be transcribed” is not a physical property inherent in the material properties associated with the radio noise being discussed.

“If the sequence is long enough, we can ascertain its statistical properties…”

We can do what to its what?

Did you just say we could perform a nonphyiscal act of making a judgment on a conceptual level of a highly abstract mathematical concept referring to the regularity of classes of events, such as a trial, and compare that class to the theoretical (ergo abstract) class, such as a trial as it would be under counterfactual circumstances?

“… Hence we can measure its degree of disorder (its entropy).”

Are you talking about the physical property of its degree of disorder, or are you talking about the signal’s capacity to carry meaning?

Is the “capacity to carry meaning” a physical property one can quantify and measure with a yardstick and stopwatch, or is it a conclusion of a judgment about qualities, what we writers call “clarity”?

“The information per symbol and the distribution of information throughout the sequence are therefore measurable physical properties.”

The what per what and the distribution of what throughout the sequence?

Now you are using words like “information” and “symbol” which you have not used before.

Are we assuming that “order” (lack of entropy) is the same thing as symbolic value or symbolic clarity?

If that is the assumption, your enthymeme is skipping an important step to which I should like to draw your attention.

You said (1) assume radio is being heard (2) the radio noise can be measured in certain properties. You did not say, so I am assuming here we are talking about physical properties only, the frequency and strength of the radio wave, or rate of changes in the wave form. (3) Changes in the waveform can be assigned certain symbolic values, in this case, ones and zeroes. (4) The ones and zeroes can have some unspecified mathematical operation carried out upon them, so that the regularity of the noise changes can be quantified (5) Therefore the radio noise contains information and that information is a physical property of the radio wave.

The conclusion here, (5) uses terms like “information” which are not used in any of the premises. It seems at first glance to be an arbitrary assertion.

What is a physical property? What is a non-physical property?

And I simply don’t understand the example. Let us use another: let us say that I went through the phone book and underlined all the times the numbers one and zero appeared, and made this into a document. I then took, say, JRR Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, including the dates in the Appendices, and did the same: only underlining the ones and zeroes and writing them down in order in a second document. Let us say I also count each jot above any lowercase “i” or “j” and each umlat over any elfin letters using them, and assign them one and zero values also.

I now have two documents. The first is a random string of numbers since phone numbers are assigned randomly.

Is the first one a meaningless document containing no information? And is the second one a meaningful document containing information?

If so, what information does it contain?

Can I find out what happened to Frodo, and whether the One Ring was destroyed or reclaimed by Sauron the Great by a careful examination of the second document?

If I cannot, why can I not?

In other words, does the second document convey to me the information the author meant to convey?

And on what grounds do we conclude from the fact that we can write down ones and zeroes related in some unspecified way to a document, or to a radio noise, that this tells us anything about the source and nature and substance of the information in a document or in a broadcast?

“But Mr wrf3 goes one step further. He quotes Douglas Hofstadter approvingly and claims that we can deduce the “inherent meaning, i.e. where the symbols alone [are] enough to convey their meaning” purely from the message. We can tell if it is a message and not some natural phenomenon.”

What is meant here by ‘inherent meaning’? I do not know what the phrase “symbols alone” means. Does this mean what the symbols mean absent the meaning attributed to them by the author of the message, or by the consensus of the users of the language he uses?

Also, again, the phrase “convey their meaning” is in the passive voice. Who is conveying what and to whom? Does this not involve an act of intention on someone’s part? Thought? Conceptualization? Abstraction?

And what does any of this have to do with anything? Seriously, what is the argument being made here?

Suppose I meet a Hottentot in the wasteland, or someone else with whom I share no formal language, and he points with his finger at the sun, and grunts, and makes a circle with his arm once and twice and thrice, moves his feet up and down wearily, and cups his hand before his mouth and makes a slurping noise.

Now suppose further if I look at the sun (and not at his finger) and I make the mental conceptual operation where I judge that this particular grunt is a symbol and not an accidental burp caused by eating beans for breakfast, and if I furthermore judge that this particular grunt means “time” rather than another grunt that means “light” and if furthermore the Hottentot by means of meaningful gestures and pantomime manages to convey to me, that it takes three days to trek to the oasis, where in any of this is anything even remotely connected to the assertion that all symbols are physical properties and only physical properties of physical objects?

In this example, the Hottentot and I are both thinking beings. We are capable of abstractions. He uses an abstract symbol universal enough for me to guess his meaning. Call it an informal language, if you will.

His mind makes a abstraction of a pattern of events, such as sunrise and sunset, of numbers in the abstract, such as three, and of drinking water, which he mimicked well enough for me to grasp his meaning by reference to similar abstractions in my mind and memory.

Had he mimicked the same gestures to some other creatures as intelligent as am I, but without the shared experiences the Hottentot and I share, such as a mermaid who does not drink water and does not walk, or a Man from the Moon whose days are of a different length, or a Man from Larry Niven’s RINGWOLRD for whom the circling gesture would not convey the idea of a sun rising and setting (for the sun never deviates from noon on the Ringworld, nor is there a horizon for it to rise above nor set beneath) then in all such cases, little or no meaning would have been conveyed.

He used his mind and manipulated the nonphysical properties of gestures and noises, that is, the SYMBOLIC value of the gestures and noises common to all men, in order to put across his message and I used my mind to grasp and understand it.

At no point did the physical properties of the gestures and noises come into play. It makes no difference which hand he used to gesture. It makes no difference what is the diameter of the circle used in the arm gesture, nor the amplitude of the sound wave made by his throat when describing the slurping noise. The PHYSICAL properties make no difference at all. This is because the specific physical properties are indifferent. They are variables, not constants. They can be changed (within limits) without change to the meaning.

Let us not be confused: clearly some sort of physical properties are needed for pantomime gestures and mimic sounds to be carried from him to me. The physical properties exist. In an airless darkness where I could not see the Hottentot, he could not convey his gestures and sounds to my eye and ear. My claim here is that the physical properties by convention point to something, and that this act of pointing is not itself a physical property of the matter doing the pointing. If he pointed with his spear or his nod or a roll of his eyes at the sun, I would still understand (if I were quick on the uptake) that he was referring to the passage of three day’s time. The body part with which he points has physical properties which can be empirically measured. The act of pointing is a symbolic act, and it cannot be measured; it can only be understood. Measuring the physical properties will neither aid nor hinder understanding.

A wide circle, in this case, means the same thing as a small circle, and a loud slurp means the same thing as a soft slurp; and to make things worse, the sentence in spoken in Latin “in three days of hard march shall we reach the oasis” or written on stone in Egyptian hieroglyphs or written on a bar of soap in Babylonian cuneiform all mean the same thing even when all physical properties differ, for soundwaves are not stone nor soap.

So even granting your example in the light most favorable to your case, it does not prove, NOR EVEN ADDRESS THE ISSUE on which your case rests. A radio signal from Mars which recites the value of pi or the square root of two or the Pythagorean Theorem is the same mental act as the Hottentot mimicking the noise of drinking water, but in this case using mathematical abstractions perhaps common to Earth and Mars in the same way the abstraction (the noise without the water) of drinking water is common to all men.

The Martian is doing the same thing as the Hottentot, namely, using the symbolic and nonphysical properties of the patterns (that is, the meanings) of sounds and silences to form an abstract symbol, which is meant to convey meaning to an audience whose similar experiences allow them to understand to which concrete thing the abstract symbol refers. All these things, symbols, references, abstractions, representation, are the fundamental nonphysical acts of the conceptual dimension of reality, namely, that part of our lives which cannot be expressed as numbers.

“Isn’t this akin to the claim of those who believe in “intelligent design”? They assert that by measuring the complexity of DNA sequences they can decide whether or not the sequence is designed. But Mr Wright contends that “Meaningfulness is not a material property.””

I am not sure what claim you mean. A judgment about whether an object is natural or manmade, or whether the universe is made by a supernatural intelligent creator or an unintentional natural sequence of events, is a judgment call. It is the same judgment used when deciding whether the Hottentot’s burp is deliberate, a word in his language, or is a eructation because he ate beans for breakfast. The argument rests on the assumption that the statistical frequency of certain things would be higher or lower for deliberate intelligent acts than for non-deliberate natural processes.

That assumption is one I have never understood. I can think of examples when a non-deliberate noise is more regular than a deliberate one (the beat of a bird’s wing as opposed to the beat of a drummer changing tempo) and I can thing of examples when a deliberate noise is more regular than a non-deliberate (a drummer with a stead tempo versus the drips of rain on the roof).

So, no, the intelligent design argument does not rest on the assumption that the regularity in nature is a physical property. For my money, even if it were, that has nothing to do with the argument about whether non-physical reality exists, or whether all non-physical properties can be expressed in terms of SI Units (which is what the argument is really about).

“Let me stipulate that the sequence is not a transmission directed from the space aliens to us. So there is no allusion to areas of common knowledge: no lists of primes or encoded star maps. If it is a message, it is an intercepted signal from one group of aliens to another, discussing some alien topic. But we can download as much of it as we wish. So, I ask, how does the intrinsic meaning of a sequence “emerge” from its bare material description?”

I don’t understand the question. What do you mean by emerge and why did you put that word in quotes? Since when is meaning something that emerges like a chick from an egg? Why should anyone grant the assumption that a message from one alien mind to another would have any regularity to it at all, or that the signals would contain the symbols where we look for them?

If I agree with my fellow spy to send him a message, and I write the letter M on a bar of Irish Spring soap, and then another M on Ivory soap, and then a third M on the bottom of a mustard jar, is my message “M…M…M” which means I like Marylin Monroe and M&M’s, or is my message the Colonel Mustard is moving three thousand troops from Ireland to the Ivory Coast?

If I decide to look at the letters and ignore the substance on which they are written, or if I decide to look at the finger of the Hottentot and ignore the sun at which he points, I miss the message.

All the physical properties are there, but I have failed to grasp with abstraction being used. I have failed to understand what the abstraction is being connected in the mind of the author of the message: what represents what.

Your question, if I understand it, is: assume that a message is overheard which has the property that the meaning of the message is held in the physical properties of the matter used by someone to be his symbols, and in the physical properties alone.  Assume an intrinsic meaning emerges despite there being no nonphyiscal properties (such as the meaning of the message) present. If an intrinsic meaning can emerge despite the absence of nonphysical properties, therefore meaning can be expressed just in terms of material properties.

The argument makes no sense even on its own terms. There is no reason to assume the physical rather than the symbolic properties of the message is where the meaning of the message inheres. There is no reason to assume that the message can convey any meaning whatsoever to an audience whose experiences do not include those things like lists of primes or encoded star maps that the audience and the message makers have in common.

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