A technician explains measurements whilst a scientist explains observations.

New Empiricism and "meaning"

What is the empirical approach to meaning? At the simplest level I might reach out to an apple and know that it is edible, so apples can "mean" food.

This idea of an apple as something that can be moved into my mouth and consumed, along with its tart, pleasant taste is a model of a succession of events. The succession of events is spread over an interval of time but is available now, in the extended present, the whole sequence of events being present in my experience (see Time and conscious experience). My conscious experience containing the moving form of an apple forms a whole model of behaviour over a short period of time. This empirical description is not much different from Brentano's "intentionality" because it recalls an "apple" as "about" eating and sating hunger, but the empirical account differs from Brentano's materialist account because the motion of the apple and the taste occur as a whole object extended in time. We have whole ideas extended in time in the same way as we hear whole words stretched through time and not just single letter sounds.

If I analyse the idea of an apple into its components the most interesting part is the possibility of the motion of the apple to my mouth. I can see and imagine whole motions extended in time at an instant and this provides the directedness of the apple at my mouth. Having things extended in time but also "at an instant" sounds like a contradiction in terms but this is explained in 'Time and conscious experience'.

Apples can have other meanings than described above. An apple might be a metaphor for gravity, the motion of the apple from tree to ground being a model of the action of gravity. An apple might also be a standard of greenness, I can move a green thing in my mind into juxtaposition with a "Granny Smith" apple and have a conscious experience containing a comparison of green obects.

Notice that in all of the cases above the meaning of an apple is the result of a motion within my extended present, the second or so of time that is my conscious experience. The extended present allows my experience to contain objects that have a directedness towards other obects and it is this directedness (or in the language of intentionality, "aboutness") that gives objects meaning. Compare the actual experience that is your experience containing meaning with the lack of meaning exposed by the "symbol grounding problem" in a digital computer. In the symbol grounding problem there is no extended present so objects have no implicit directedness and the connection between any sets of stored information is not evident at any instant. If a computer could be constructed so that the whole process of creating relations were present at any instant then there would be no symbol grounding problem because the connections between all the parts would be continuously evident. Of course, such a computer would no longer be a digital computer because digital computers have defined, static states at the end of each clock pulse (see Time and conscious experience for an explanation of how more than one time can be present at an instant).

Another aspect of meaning in my experience relies upon the way that my experience is not just a visual field. My experience is more than just a set of forms and colours laid out in space and time that derive from optical data. It is a set of forms, colours, textures, sounds, temperatures, tastes, smells, images produced by my brain to "fill-in" zones of space and time, body image, muscle tension etc, etc. When I look at my hand, the tension in my finger muscles is at the position in the visual field occupied by my fingers. If I click my fingers together the click comes from where the rubbing sensation occurred. I have a perceptual field that is an overlay of a huge variety of obects of all different types. Nearly all of the objects in my perceptual field have meaningfulness pre-assigned; when my brain creates the field it attempts to include the relations between objects as part of the field. As an example, this text reads from left to right, it just does because my brain put that directedness into the text objects in my perceptual field.

One of the most frequent experiences of "meaning" in modern life is where we examine something and feel that we "know the meaning" of or "recognise" the object. This recognition is actually a marker that the relations of the object are stored in our memory so we don't actually know the meaning of the object but can search for the memories that contain the relations of the object and hence the meaning. Recognition is so common that it scarcely exists or is just a comfortable feeling in ordinary experience. The opposite of recognition is "surprise" and this feeling is usually followed by a searching for memories about the object. It is interesting that most of the times that we say we know the meaning of an object we only have a marker that indicates that we could probably recall the meaning of the object.

1 comment:

  1. I thought this was a philosophical site. I don't want to read about personal impressions of the word meaning in a dictionary sense, I want to hear about meaning in either of the four philosophical senses: (1) meaning in the sense of significance (or value), (2) meaning in the sense of purpose (or aim), (3) meaning in the sense of comprehension (or sense)--and not in the dictionary (or word) meaning, but in the sense of the senselessness of the all or in the incomprehensibility of the all, and (4) meaning in the sense of reason (or why). I do not believe there is any meaning in any one of these senses, which means the world is totally meaningless.