Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Indeterminacy of Physical Symbols

Consider the following symbol:

Does this symbol represent a pie from which one piece has been eaten? Or does it represent the last piece of pie? Or does it represent 10:00? Or how about a geometry problem concerning segments? Planetary motion? A teepee? What does it represent?

Let's say that the only information you have to go on are the physical properties of the symbol. It's height and width, circumference, segment lengths. It's color wavelength, and the charge, spin, and mass of the particles that it consists of. The only information you have is physical information. But none of this information tells you what the symbol represents.

This holds true for computers as well. If we find an alien computer, we can't assume that the electrons pulsing through it's circuits represent "1" and that the lack of a pulse represents "0". Perhaps the opposite is true. Or perhaps they are using something other than binary, such as base 12, and an electron pulse means "12", the lack of a pulse means "0", two pulses together means "1" and so on. The point is, from the physical properties alone, it is indeterminate what these symbols represent.

But if one is a materialist, then all that exists are physical properties, and hence nothing has any determinate meaning, including thoughts. And hence, the thought "materialism is true" might just as well be the thought that "there is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His prophet". As with the symbol above, neither meaning is "more correct" than the other!


  1. I'm not sure there are any strict Materialists left. But I could be wrong. A lot of Atheists appear to take up Materialism when it suits them, and discard it the very minute it does not. So it's not an actual belief system so much as it is a pose they assume to refute, mock or submit to 'skepticism' anything they personally find repellent.

    Which, usually, is anything claiming to be a source of moral good, anything appearing to be more intelligent or anything asserting authority of any kind whatsoever over the Atheist.

    They don't actually *believe* in Materialism, you know. They're skeptical about everything (except their own skepticism and their assumed moral and intellectual superiority).

  2. Steven, I think this is why there are at least "naive materialists":

    "A second source may begin with a genuine delight in the achievements of science which now and then, and quite unnoticeably, spills over into a materialistic metaphysics."

  3. Martin,
    The classic example often given here is the neural wiring from the frog's retinas, via its brain, to the muscles of its tongue. These neurons fire when a small fly-like object passes across the frog's field of view and cause its tongue to snap out. Doesn't the firing of these neurons have a natural meaning?

  4. Again, amateur fumbling layman at work, here.

    I would say that, no, it doesn't have meaning. Some particles move this way, some particles bounce off it, enter the particles of the frog's eye, causes some electrons to move this way and that, and some other electrons to cause a tendon to tighten and the particles of the tongue to move out. No meaning or intentionality here at all. Just matter in motion.

  5. OK. Let me try another tack. Because of the causal connections between the fly-like object's crossing the frog's field of view and these neurons firing, doesn't the neurons firing signal to us the object's crossing, just as (Dretske's example) smoke signals fire? If so, then change 'signals' to 'signifies'.