[ExI] meaning & symbols

Ben Zaiboc bbenzai at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 3 13:52:04 UTC 2010

Gordon Swobe <gts_2000 at yahoo.com> wrote:

> I do not believe there exists any such thing as
> a "sense symbol". 
> Organisms with highly developed nervous systems create and
> ponder mental abstractions, aka symbols, about sense data
> and about other abstractions. 
> Simple organisms on the order of, say, fleas have eyes and
> other sense organs, so it seems likely that they have
> awareness of sense data. But because they lack a well
> developed nervous system it seems very improbable to me that
> they can do much in the way of forming symbols to represent
> that data. 

OK obviously this word 'symbol' needs some clear definition.

I would use the word to mean any distinct pattern of neural activity that has a relationship with other such patterns.  In that sense, sensory symbols exist, as do (visual) word symbols, (auditory) word symbols, concept symbols, which are a higher-level abstraction from the above three types, and hundreds of other types of 'symbol', representing all the different patterns of neural activity that can be regarded as coherent units, like emotional states, memories, linguistic units (nouns, verbs, etc.), and their higher-level 'chunks' (birdness, the concept of fluidity, etc.), and so on.

But that's just me.  Maybe I'm overstretching the use of the word.

What do other people mean by the word 'symbol', in this context?

Gordon points out that they are all meaningless in themselves, only taking on a meaning in the context of a system that can be called a conscious mind.

I'm not sure if the 'conscious' part is necessary, though.  In any event, the 'meaning' arises as a result of the interaction of the symbols, grounded in the system's interaction with its environment.

To say that an organism's 'hunger', which results in it finding and consuming food, is meaningless unless the organism is conscious, is rather a silly statement, and calls into question what we mean by 'meaning'.

Ben Zaiboc


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