Feel the Meaning

When I hear some­one say, “Oh, look, a but­terfly,” the spo­ken phonemes “but­terfly” en­ter my ear and vibrate on my ear drum, be­ing trans­mit­ted to the cochlea, tick­ling au­di­tory nerves that trans­mit ac­ti­va­tion spikes to the au­di­tory cor­tex, where phoneme pro­cess­ing be­gins, along with recog­ni­tion of words, and re­con­struc­tion of syn­tax (a by no means se­rial pro­cess), and all man­ner of other com­pli­ca­tions.

But at the end of the day, or rather, at the end of the sec­ond, I am primed to look where my friend is point­ing and see a vi­sual pat­tern that I will rec­og­nize as a but­terfly; and I would be quite sur­prised to see a wolf in­stead.

My friend looks at a but­terfly, his throat vibrates and lips move, the pres­sure waves travel in­visi­bly through the air, my ear hears and my nerves trans­duce and my brain re­con­structs, and lo and be­hold, I know what my friend is look­ing at. Isn’t that mar­velous? If we didn’t know about the pres­sure waves in the air, it would be a tremen­dous dis­cov­ery in all the news­pa­pers: Hu­mans are tele­pathic! Hu­man brains can trans­fer thoughts to each other!

Well, we are tele­pathic, in fact; but magic isn’t ex­cit­ing when it’s merely real, and all your friends can do it too.

Think telepa­thy is sim­ple? Try build­ing a com­puter that will be tele­pathic with you. Telepa­thy, or “lan­guage”, or what­ever you want to call our par­tial thought trans­fer abil­ity, is more com­pli­cated than it looks.

But it would be quite in­con­ve­nient to go around think­ing, “Now I shall par­tially trans­duce some fea­tures of my thoughts into a lin­ear se­quence of phonemes which will in­voke similar thoughts in my con­ver­sa­tional part­ner...”

So the brain hides the com­plex­ity—or rather, never rep­re­sents it in the first place—which leads peo­ple to think some pe­cu­liar thoughts about words.

As I re­marked ear­lier, when a large yel­low striped ob­ject leaps at me, I think “Yikes! A tiger!” not “Hm… ob­jects with the prop­er­ties of lar­ge­ness, yel­low­ness, and striped­ness have pre­vi­ously of­ten pos­sessed the prop­er­ties ‘hun­gry’ and ‘dan­ger­ous’, and there­fore, al­though it is not log­i­cally nec­es­sary, au­ugh­hhh CRUNCH CRUNCH GULP.”

Similarly, when some­one shouts “Yikes! A tiger!”, nat­u­ral se­lec­tion would not fa­vor an or­ganism that thought, “Hm… I have just heard the syl­la­bles ‘Tie’ and ‘Grr’ which my fel­low tribe mem­bers as­so­ci­ate with their in­ter­nal analogues of my own tiger con­cept, and which they are more likely to ut­ter if they see an ob­ject they cat­e­go­rize as aiiieeee CRUNCH CRUNCH help it’s got my arm CRUNCH GULP”.

Con­sid­er­ing this as a de­sign con­straint on the hu­man cog­ni­tive ar­chi­tec­ture, you wouldn’t want any ex­tra steps be­tween when your au­di­tory cor­tex rec­og­nizes the syl­la­bles “tiger”, and when the tiger con­cept gets ac­ti­vated.

Go­ing back to the parable of bleggs and rubes, and the cen­tral­ized net­work that cat­e­go­rizes quickly and cheaply, you might vi­su­al­ize a di­rect con­nec­tion run­ning from the unit that rec­og­nizes the syl­la­ble “blegg”, to the unit at the cen­ter of the blegg net­work. The cen­tral unit, the blegg con­cept, gets ac­ti­vated al­most as soon as you hear Su­san the Se­nior Sorter say “Blegg!”

Or, for pur­poses of talk­ing—which also shouldn’t take eons—as soon as you see a blue egg-shaped thing and the cen­tral blegg unit fires, you hol­ler “Blegg!” to Su­san.

And what that al­gorithm feels like from in­side is that the la­bel, and the con­cept, are very nearly iden­ti­fied; the mean­ing feels like an in­trin­sic prop­erty of the word it­self.

The cognoscenti will rec­og­nize this as yet an­other case of E. T. Jaynes’s “Mind Pro­jec­tion Fal­lacy”. It feels like a word has a mean­ing, as a prop­erty of the word it­self; just like how red­ness is a prop­erty of a red ap­ple, or mys­te­ri­ous­ness is a prop­erty of a mys­te­ri­ous phe­nomenon.

In­deed, on most oc­ca­sions, the brain will not dis­t­in­guish at all be­tween the word and the mean­ing—only both­er­ing to sep­a­rate the two while learn­ing a new lan­guage, per­haps. And even then, you’ll see Su­san point­ing to a blue egg-shaped thing and say­ing “Blegg!”, and you’ll think, I won­der what “blegg” means, and not, I won­der what men­tal cat­e­gory Su­san as­so­ci­ates to the au­di­tory la­bel “blegg”.

Con­sider, in this light, the part of the Stan­dard Dis­pute of Defi­ni­tions where the two par­ties ar­gue about what the word “sound” re­ally means—the same way they might ar­gue whether a par­tic­u­lar ap­ple is re­ally red or green:

Albert: “My com­puter’s micro­phone can record a sound with­out any­one be­ing around to hear it, store it as a file, and it’s called a ‘sound file’. And what’s stored in the file is the pat­tern of vibra­tions in air, not the pat­tern of neu­ral firings in any­one’s brain. ‘Sound’ means a pat­tern of vibra­tions.”

Barry: “Oh, yeah? Let’s just see if the dic­tio­nary agrees with you.”

Albert feels in­tu­itively that the word “sound” has a mean­ing and that the mean­ing is acous­tic vibra­tions. Just as Albert feels that a tree fal­ling in the for­est makes a sound (rather than caus­ing an event that matches the sound cat­e­gory).

Barry like­wise feels that:

sound.mean­ing == au­di­tory ex­pe­riences­
for­est.sound == false

Rather than:

myBrain.FindCon­cept(“sound”) == con­cept_Au­di­to­ryEx­pe­rience
con­cept_Au­di­to­ryEx­pe­rience.match(for­est) == false

Which is closer to what’s re­ally go­ing on; but hu­mans have not evolved to know this, any­more than hu­mans in­stinc­tively know the brain is made of neu­rons.

Albert and Barry’s con­flict­ing in­tu­itions provide the fuel for con­tin­u­ing the ar­gu­ment in the phase of ar­gu­ing over what the word “sound” means—which feels like ar­gu­ing over a fact like any other fact, like ar­gu­ing over whether the sky is blue or green.

You may not even no­tice that any­thing has gone astray, un­til you try to perform the ra­tio­nal­ist rit­ual of stat­ing a testable ex­per­i­ment whose re­sult de­pends on the facts you’re so heat­edly dis­put­ing...