Words Upon Words

by John Hanahoe

Words are parcels of data. But to work, that is to inform, there must be a mutual understanding between the speaker and the listener. The ability to agree on mutual understanding of random sounds only arises in humans. This is because humans have been honed by biological evolution into a set of individual organisms that are genetically predisposed through physical structure and brain capability to learn and use language; human language anyway. Language is words that mean things to sender and receiver. Words themselves consist of syllables and sounds that can be represented as letters, which in a reverse engineering process have come almost to be what we think of when we hear the words themselves, even though the sounds existed long before writing.

However, the meanings of words are not universal. In the spectrum of one mutually understood language a shovel and a spade may mean different versions of a similar tool to different people. Over time such differences coupled with varying influences from geographical location to neighbours and history may cause linguistic standards amongst isolated groups to solidify into mutually exclusive languages. An English speaker's shovel is a German speaker's schaufel for example. Furthermore, the available translation may not convey the understanding of the word in the language speaker's group. Take turnip and swede. Some people use the word turnip to refer to what others differentiate as swedes and turnips.

Wordle picture of the first paragraph of this essay

When it comes to the cross-fertilisation of languages with words, concepts and roots from other languages, the changes in meaning can be quite considerable. Many of the Latin roots of words commonly used in English meant something different in their original tongue. Take for example "define" or "definition". The root "fin" means end and the prefix "de" means to bring about, so "definition" ought to mean bring to an end. But instead it means in English to explain or give the meaning of. You can maybe do it definitively, thus bringing an end to any argument but it is one of many examples of meanings skewing albeit that speaker and listener are agreed, that is what the word means to them.

Although words have definitions, those definitions can be somewhat fluid especially over time. Take for example the tale that Charles II apparently called Wren's St Pauls Cathedral: "Awful", "Artificial" and "Amusing". By this he meant it filled him with awe (awesome we might say), clearly involved a great deal of artifice or art and was "amazing" in today's words, rather than funny.

Because we humans can react to words and give out words we can use words as a means of passing information. Dogs and other animals can of course react to some words but not generally speak. Dogs communicate information in many other ways of course but animal communication differs from the method used by humans in two ways:

The mating ritual of a bird performed in the wrong place at the wrong time has no meaning, conveys no information and achieves no result. A human can describe what a bird does during its mating ritual to another human, who understands what is said not because he or she has prior understanding of the mating ritual or what a mating ritual is but simply because of the understanding of the language being used to describe it.

Of course humans have diverse languages that have evolved separately into a Babel of different non-mutually intelligible tongues (which can nonetheless be translated) but the point is language can describe almost anything that is within the human experience. In contrast dogs or monkeys only have very limited abilities to "tell" each other stuff based on particular sets of circumstances eg there is food this way, danger that way etc by body language howls grunts etc. Even then when we consider the process of telling or informing we automatically assume that there is understanding, that a conscious being within assimilates the knowledge and reacts to it, not simply that there is a reaction as happens with another animal.

The preceding paragraphs outline several ways in which information is passed, that is the universal, digital method of human language and the other methods such as posture, pointing, grunting in particular contexts.

But word meanings, come into the discussion again in that, what do we mean by information needs to be asked. The word is another of those Latin based constructs that infect and fill English, like genetically engineered DNA, designed to make a grain produce a fish oil or something. In-form. Form means shape. To inform means to give shape to; therefore inform means to bring into shape, or view, or perception, and information is the noun arising out of that. However, the meaning of "information" is a lot more wide-ranging in its use in the English language, than its linked verb. In its ordinary sense inform or to inform or informing is simply telling. When we say the mating dance "tells" the potential mate to get ready for mating however, that might need a bit of further explanation. To say: it has the effect of causing or making the potential mate get ready for mating covers it better. Not perfect maybe, and it may still need teasing out, but we can be more certain that the mating dance of the "whatever bird" conveys information that makes the potential mate receptive to mating. If we say it "informs" the mate to get ready for mating, it may seem a little better, but it implies understanding on the part of the potential mate. The question that arises then is: does information imply understanding to qualify as information or is it simply cause and effect?

But we often use "information" more widely, in this sense of cause and effect, such as when a thing bumps into another thing, like a ship bumping into an iceberg, that information is conveyed. The ship weighs 30000t and the iceberg weighs 3000000t and it "tells" the ship in no uncertain terms: you can't move me out of the way, I'm 100 times heavier than you, it would take far more energy than you are capable of providing to shift me, therefore you are going to have to stop and oh dear now your hull is all ripped.

Or we say in the example of the randy birds referred to above that, when they get down to business, genetic information is transferred. What really happens is that a mechanism is initiated involving chromosomes (coloured bodies in Greek) splitting and then splicing with their counterparts from another individual to make a third individual. It's only information transfer in the same sense as the iceberg/ship thing really. There is no understanding on the part of the participants or constituent parts.

Arguably though, even with humans who perceive they have a conscious understanding of what is going on, it is questionable as to whether they actually do, or whether in reality there is simply a process of neurons firing off as part of a cause and effect process. The puzzle is the process seems to inform itself.

You can use the word "information" how you like and words have mutually agreed meanings that change over time or place. But using it as part of a cause and effect process would be to lose the identity of a phenomenon that ought to be pinned down. I would argue that "information" ought to be used to label the ethereal thing that exists between things, in their interactions and mutual effects and endeavours; information ought to be seen as an ethereal thing, the stuff between stuff that can be described only by their effects really. For example in a matrix involving adenine, guanine, cytosine and thiamine (AGCT), it is not the existence of any individual component, but it's existence in conjunction with one or more of the other components in a particular order, that have the effect of making a particular protein. So when people talk about the "gene for this or that" as if say A = blue eyes, they are oversimplifying what is actually happening. The gene for a particular phenomenon is the interplay between the components, not the components themselves.

Like language the biological system for reproducing organisms is universal and digitally discrete. Thus it can be used to make virtually anything, with the restrictions that it can only use certain building materials and it can only proceed chronologically and from body to body down the generations and only using compatible bodies. This makes biological evolution slow and the systems pretty stable in ordinary circumstances.

However, if you apply thought to biological systems you can speed biological development up quite considerably. Take for example the variation in dog size and shape. That has entirely happened due to man's capability to think abstractly and mankind's universal communication system. Long before anything was known about genetics or DNA, humans were able to work out that the characteristics of appearance and behaviour of parents are passed on to offspring to breed dogs, horses and even other humans.

Like genes language and culture are capable of being passed on from generation to generation. But unlike genetics they can also be passed from person to person in the same generation. They are passed on from person to person by "show and tell" and innate copying ability. Humans have evolved to be universal copiers. So a pattern of neural impulses in one brain can be copied to another. No one knows if Neanderthals or other hominids were as capable in this regard as Homo Sapiens, but no other creature existing on the planet today is a universal copier. Some creatures are capable of mimicry and some can copy to a limited degree. However, for example, when you teach your dog a trick, you neither show it, nor tell it (or at least you may do but that is not what achieves the result). If a dog starts to perform in a desired manner eg fetching a ball, it is because you exploit an innate ability together with the application of a reward. In contrast once your child has mastered the rudiments of language you can tell it to do anything or at least, if you can't describe it you can still show it and tell it to copy you. Humans can copy virtually anything and their language can be applied to describe virtually anything.

This show and tell business may seem a simple idea but so far as we know, no other creatures have had much capability to do it apart from humans and hominids. It is a tremendously powerful ability. Before it, creatures could only do what their natures dictated with little or no evidence of what might be termed "free will".

The concept of free will itself, like the idea of genes and the importance of being able to show and tell is more subtle and wide ranging than it might first appear. Free will only exists if you can be sure that you yourself exist as an individual. "What?" I hear you say. No, hang on a minute, yes I know you can decide what to have for breakfast, when to go to the toilet and when you look in the mirror you see what you take to be an image of yourself looking back. But those thoughts leading to actions, where do they originate. If they originate with a soul or homunculus inside you, then there is your individuality and self and origin of free will. But there is no evidence for the existence of such a creature within a creature (or its possible regression ad infinitum). Therefore where is the self and free will rooted? There is no evidence that you or I are anything but a node, a coming together of stuff to behave in a certain way over the course of our lives as dictated by genetics and the interactions with our social and physical environments. You feel you are an individual because of the phenomenon of consciousness, in other words that you perceive yourself, that is all. That may be all there is to it as well.

Part of the process that makes us what we are though, apart from the genetics is the show and tell ability. You were taught how to speak and shown and told how to behave and that is what you do. The whole package makes you what you are.

Animals other than humans are almost exclusively genetically informed. Genes make their bodies and fashion how their brains work based upon what enables them to survive and reproduce. They don't think much, if at all, in the manner that we think we think, and their consciousness is limited by their inabilities in terms of abstract thought and language. A cow that is lying in the sun and feels hot gets up and goes and lies under the shade of a tree for several reasons:

A human in a similar position may vary from a human that articulates no thought whatsoever about the same actions, (unlikely), to one that is capable of describing what it feels and intends to do and possibly even encouraging other humans to do the same thing. We might not think of this as a cultural phenomenon but think for a moment about beach culture and what that entails:

The above, what you might call a "plex" of cultural strands, is just one example of the interconnectedness of culture in a biological creature that has the capability to communicate abstract thought and has a universal digital means of communication (language) leading to self-awareness.

Biological organisms are made, brought into existence and "informed" if you like by genetic information, which is to say the ethereal bits that come about because of the interactions between the physical components. Let me just labour this point. Say A says: make a bit 1mm long and have a fastener to your right to latch onto whatever is to your right and say G says: make a bit 1.2mm long and have a fastener to your left and so on. Both say keep on going in a particular direction churning out bits until a certain stop point and both churn out their bits at the same rate. What you will get is a structure that quickly grows, bending away from the G side, and if necessary spiralling round back over itself until the stop point. Did A do that or G? No they didn't. What did it was the interaction between A and G. And that is where information comes in, in that particular case. The gene (or genetic information) in this simple example is not A or G but the existence of them together at a particular point.

Cultural "organisms", by which I mean cultural phenomena are similar in that they exist because of the interactions of things which in themselves could not do anything. Electrical impulses in the brains of humans firing off millions of times a second are doing all sorts of things such as digesting food, beating hearts, pulling fingers out of fires etc, but they are also capable of organising the individuals behaviour in line with socially learned and acquired behaviours to the best advantage of the individual or the genetic line of individuals across countless generations. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, hominid ancestors competed with each other for food and mates, increasingly, by being more suitable mates; by improved ability to obtain food with tools, and ability to live in groups. The more successful could copy and learn and show and tell. In a relatively short period of pre-history successive generations and groups evolved because of the biological advantage conferred by bigger and more capable brains that could show and tell and copy better. Those that didn't do it as well lost advantage and were isolated in hominid groups that have now died out. I acknowledge that this is a simplification and the process is still ongoing.

We are used to thinking in terms of genes as being something solid that code for this that and the other. But really it is the interactions between the coding mechanisms that are what we are referring to when we talk about genes.

When we talk about the cultural phenomena we have no problem thinking in terms of them evolving and passing on or around. There are numerous examples from hoola-hoops to jet air travel. But just think about that for a moment. I mean jet air travel; airports, fuel, aircraft, cabin-crew, pilots, navigation. All those components, all those behaviours had to be thought about and designed. Even a little screw holding a panel onto the back of a seat had to be designed and built in a lathe or a mould both of which had to be designed and built out of complex metal alloys, and parts and power sources, and operatives and training. Someone had to think of those things; probably they were inspired by a previous generation of teacher or artisan. Whatever it is, if it wasn't created by star and planet formation, or by biological/genetic processes themselves, then it had to be thought of and built by humans. And there is information behind all that, that had to be communicated by language mostly. That information is the stuff between the processes. The screw that keeps the seatback on, made in a lathe is predicated on the idea of lathes and the idea of screws. Both of these are not simple concepts either but assuming they are for a moment, what information lies behind them? How did they come into existence in a sense analogous to the elephant or the amoeba, which came into existence through a blind process of genetic evolution?

Ideas, culture, language, universal copying ability, showing, telling - all these things originate in human brains that evolved to deal with no less complicated earlier environments and have their origins in part of the myriad electrical impulses firing through human brains from time immemorial. Those units of information again are in themselves meaningless like AGCT but in their interactions serve to create culture, language, engineering and everything else that either did not evolve biologically or has been kicking around since the last supernova. These things, these interactions (which is what genes are too) have been named by Dawkins first and others since as memes. As with many things, by naming you bring about an expectation of existence. But I've already suggested that information is ethereal. Just as a gene isn't ACGT, so a meme cannot be pinned to a particular neural impulse.

The meme is controversial because some people find it difficult to conceive of them in a way that they don't have a problem with regard to genes. But their error is in assigning too much physicality to genes rather than being unable to conceive of memes. In reality both are a bit like Anacapa analysis, that is to say, you divine them from their effects. Wholes are greater than sums of parts. Back to genes again for a moment: ACGT in existence together interacting. A affects C differently according to the presence of absence of G and T or G or T. That's 4 possible interactive states:


If order matters as well then there are 2 variants on line one, six on line two and three and, my head hurts just thinking about line four, but it maybe 16. That's a total of 30 just from four letters. Even if my maths is correct two loci of potential ACGT combinations bring about 30x30 possible variations ie 900.

That is how much greater the whole is than the sum of the parts!

A very important point about both genes and memes though is that they existed at some point in the past and they still exist at the present. This is important because it infers, unless they are themselves immortal (which in a sense they are), that they are capable of reproducing or copying and competing in a Darwinian competitive environment, whereby "successful" ones reproduce and "unsuccessful" ones don't.

We humans have a genetic ability to speak and understand language. But the language you speak is a cultural or memetic phenomenon. Words in a language are analogous to cells in a complex organism but those words have their origins in mimicked neural firings to initiate vibrations and exhalations in the vocal parts of the throat and tongue. The innate desire and ability to copy and obtain a reaction and assimilate that reaction equips the young human for life in human society, to be sufficiently successful to reproduce more similar creatures in the next generation. Those neural patterns, the interactions between the individual nerve firings are the information that lies behind the phenomena of speech, language and culture. Successful patterns, that is, ones that tend towards survivability, survive, and unsuccessful ones tend to die out. The memetic information system that arises in the interactions between those neural actions, evolves, but survives and in a sense has an existence of its own, over and above the human individuals who carry it.

Sometimes it seems that memes work in a contrary direction to genes. Take family planning or religious sacrifice. Yet they are sufficiently non-harmful to the biological host community for them to not affect the genetic survival. We may do some crazy things sometimes but the fact that we exist in the present shows the system to be in balance, up to that point.

Together with other aspects of culture, language serves to create the technology and society that we have at any given moment. Personally, I like the meme analogy and point out that it is no more or less ethereal than the idea of genes.

Memes have arisen and survived in an environment (the human brain) that did not exist before humans so far as we know. All other creatures could be summed up as being analog in a way, even though they were based around a digital information system, it was one constrained by the limitations of a physical biological mechanism. The information system that exists between human brains could not exist in the previous biological creatures.

The coming about of an electronic system in a versatile hominid brain, which arose in a biological environment in response to competition for food and mates, by being able to communicate and copy good ideas, has coincidently brought about this electronic environment in which particular neural patterns or plexes are able to make more and more complicated technology and institutions and behaviours.

As a result we are now already at the third stage. Humans themselves have created more complex tools (to impress their mates and control resources) but we have reached a stage now, where the machines themselves constitute a new environment in which a third replicator is beginning to emerge. As with genes and memes it is an ethereal system of interactions between relatively simple phenomena. The term "teme" has been coined to name it into existence, you might say. Now it is possible for machines (built by us) to copy the actions and software of other machines. Mostly this is still under human direction but increasingly systems are coming into being that are automatic, stock trading, the internet and so on. In so far as the cyber environment can be considered mechanical, machines within it (software) are already capable of reproducing. We are now at the cusp of physical machines coming about that can reproduce themselves to, which if also equipped with the ability to reproduce their software will mean that a self-perpetuating environment for temes has come about.

Just as animals use genetically based chemical scents or body language and grunts to communicate and humans use memetically based language, so machines will use teme based forms of communication of which computer languages are only the most rudimentary forms.

It is hard not to view such things once again as simple cause and effect but with the incredibly complex web of interaction and potential interaction it is an information cloud of unknowable complexity. Of course at present all the world's machines are not as complicated as the human brain and there is a long way to go. Temes are very much at the "primordial soup" stage. At present for example no one would consider a machine to be conscious, would they?

Well, it depends on how confident you can be of human consciousness. That is a matter which has been long debated and no definitive conclusion reached. At best it seems a fine example of something being able to pull itself up into the air by its own bootstraps. I can't speak for you really but I will make an assumption that you think you are conscious. And you think or would think if you met me that I was conscious. But you don't know. Everyone you meet could be a complete zombie with the ability to mimic the behaviour of a conscious being. But that is a less likely scenario than the one that suggests your experience is mine and mine is yours. My guess would be that consciousness is something that arises again out of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts in the interactions between components. You have neural components that perceive all sorts of things and process them and act upon them in thought and deed and even perceive and act upon your activities in perceiving and processing. Even a small matrix of neural actions can weave an improbably large web of possible interactions.

So, I would suppose that, if a new being comes about in a machine based electronic environment, that it would be capable of perceiving its inputs and its actions and perceiving itself inputting and acting, which may be what consciousness is. If it can also articulate what it is doing, perceiving and so on and respond to similar articulations from other beings then is that so different from how we think and perceive and are?

As to what form that articulation will take? Well it could be anything couldn't it? Our own language is just a modified specialised version of animal grunts. The next generation of creature could potentially communicate as computers communicate today or some variation thereof. It could be electronic or light impulses or quantum fluctuations or whatever, I don't know. To communicate with us it would need to translate back to grunts and mumbles or letters that represent those sounds.

Then there's the question of where next? Well maybe then something that lives outside a machine, pure energy maybe, a sort of deity, unbounded by time or space, a "deme" maybe?

About the writer

John Hanahoe is the author site easyenglish.org.uk


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