Semantics and the Phenomenology of Meaning

When someone utters a word that reaches your ear, the sound gets broken down into component waves via Fourier transform which vibrate within cochlear fluid and cause the movement of mechanoreceptor hair cells at the organ of Corti to produce electrochemical signals in the form of neurotransmitter release whereby the movement of the fluid stimulates the filaments of individual cells receptor cells to become open to receive the potassium-rich endolymph, causing the cell to produce an action potential which is transmitted through the spiral ganglion to the auditory portion of the vestibulo-cochlear nerve to the the brain, which signals to the cortex with new information that is then compared to predictions based on prior experience in a Bayesian fashion to produce the phenomenology of the experience of hearing, interpreting, and understanding the word. But where (and how), in all this, does the phenomenology of meaning arise?

If we try to parse all of the assumptions, presuppositions, and silent premises that go into even the simplest thought, we will encounter an explosion of complexity. For instance, a simple statement such as “that building is big” requires us to presuppose that the intended recipient of this thought speaks English, that they have encountered each of the words in the sentence, that the combination of the words in the sentence have some meaning to the recipient, that the combination of words in the sentence have the same meaning to the recipient as what the speaker intends them to mean: when saying “that” the recipient understands which object you are referring to, when saying “building” the recipient has some idea of what a building is (which introduces a plethora of other assumptions, like what make something a building rather than anything else), when saying “is” that this acts as some particular logical connective between subject and predicate, and when saying “big” that the recipient defines bigness in the same way the speaker does.

Thus, it becomes practically impossible to parse the meaning of even a simple phrase like “that building is big” using language. Part of the meaning of this statement has to do with all of the implicit assumptions behind it. It’s like the sentence “that building is bit” occupies a single node in a gargantuan web of assumptions and propositions and uttering those particular words in that particular order activates that node, which then sends signals out into the web, propagating through all of the relevant nodes connected to it, the pattern of signals creating a network that we would call “meaning” – the meaning of the proposition “that building is big.”

But this illustration is still incomplete. Yes, of course, propositions have meaning that is contingent on the internal, analytic structure of the proposition and all of the various connections this generates between other propositions. But this gives us a semantic picture of the proposition. What there is yet any good theory, that I am aware of, is how the semantics of a proposition produce the phenomenology of understanding: that internal, first-person experience of understanding something.

To get at this, it’s probably important to note that understanding is a sort of constructivist program. In order to understand something of a certain level of complexity, we first need to understand the “simpler” components. But what makes something “simpler” than something else? Why is it that we begin learning math with 1 + 1 = 2 instead of taking integrals of a function? Or, why is addition “simpler” than multiplication? The first example might seem easier to explain: integrals use several simpler mathematical concepts, including addition and multiplication, at the same time, in addition to other concepts like continuous functions and infinitesimal changes and so forth. Multiplication, as it is normally taught, is a combination of additions: 3 x 5 = 15 is analyzed as 5 + 5 + 5 = 15 and therefore we need to know what addition is before we can understand multiplication.

But is it necessary that addition is more primitive than multiplication which is more primitive than integration? I would argue that this is only the case for us humans because addition is something we evolved to intuit: adding up objects, people, animals, etc. is something our ancestors have been doing for a long time. Indeed, when we learn addition in school, what we’re really learning is how to formalize it into the symbolic language of math: children, prior to learning addition in school, know that 2 > 1 and that if you have 1 of something and add another of it that you end up with 2 of it, even if those children could not express this in language. But, if we lived on a planet, or in a society, where our counting had always been done as a form of multiplication, then we would likely consider that more primitive than addition. The same could possibly (though not very likely) be said of integration.

All of this is somewhat of an aside, though, for the purpose of pointing out that attaining understanding, at the level of phenomenology, isn’t about putting new things into a blank slate. Instead, we are born with (or, at least, generate automatically as our brains develop as infants and children) a certain base of understanding onto which other concepts must be build onto. You can’t jump right in with integration in kindergarten, because there isn’t any connections between the primitive (informal) understanding of simple addition and integration. It’s only by connection new concepts to concepts we already understand that we can construct an expanded range of understanding. Thus, we need an already existing framework of understanding to initiate the nucleation of further conceptual understanding. The nucleation point, within the space of all possible understanding, is determined by what was important for the survival of our ancestors; if we really were a blank slate, then we could have multiple nucleation sites within the space of all possible understanding – you could conceivably learn integration before addition.

Language is something extremely important in delineating nuance to our understanding and in transmitting it to others, but even language is something that must be constructed from primitive understandings. The way scientists can look at the acquisition of language, in infants, for instance, or even in other species, is by looking at the reduction of entropy in the sounds being made. If an infant or an animal is making just random noises, then making a sound at time t1 will have no influence on the sound being made at t2. But, what’s actually found is that infants, as they age, begin making sounds such that the sound at t1 will reduce the number of possible sounds they will make at t2, which will then reduce the number of sounds further that they will make at t3, and so on. This is like, if you open a book to a random page and point at a random word, it would be very difficult to guess what the next word after that will be, but if you look at the next word, knowing what word 1 and word 2 are, then word 3 will be slightly easier to guess (the number of possible words that make sense following words 1 and 2 is not all possible words, but a reduced number of words); reading words 1, 2, and 3 will then narrow the number of possible words that word 4 could be, and so on. This sort of reduction in sound entropy has been noted in dolphins, for instance, which is why scientists are quite certain that dolphins have a language.

Understanding, too, is a way of reducing entropy – of increasing information by reducing uncertainty. This is done without needing language. Children learn the layout of their house before they know what to call each room. This is done by being able to predict what sorts of objects they can interact with by performing familiar spatial translations and rotations in the form of waddling from where they are to where they understand another room to be in spatiotemporal relation to their current position. This spatiotemporal understanding, as Kant famously postulated, is a sort of underlying basis of all understanding: space and time are truly primitive. Indeed, much of our way of understanding other things is using spatial and temporal metaphors (for instance, the ‘space of all possible understanding’ I used in an earlier paragraph; or the network of connected propositions from even earlier, which make up a spatial metaphor). Spatial and temporal notions are what further understanding, such as movement and change, size, distance, and even math (1 + 1 = 2 requires that we conceive as the first “1” and the second “1” as being distinct, which uses the metaphors of spatial or temporal separation), are built onto.

Spatial and temporal relations are, therefore, the sort of primitive, a priori assumptions that underlie everything else that we understand. I would add to this, also, cause-and-effect relationships and actuality-possibility relationships. Both are things that children understand even before they can speak. Causality is the way in which we understand our own place in the world: I understand by doing x I can make y happen. This is the way we conceive of our agency. The actuality-possibility relationship is how we differentiate what we experience in the external world and what we experience in our own imagination: my room, as I sense it with all 5 senses, is actual, but I can conceive of other possible ways in which it can exist, but I do not confuse these two things.

Thus, I would say that the spatiotemporal, the causal, and the actual/possible, are those axioms of understanding onto which all other understanding nucleates. These three axioms are self-supporting: causality requires time and usually space, the actual is understood spatiotemporally and the possible (often conceived of as possible worlds, which gives it a spatial sense) is understood as that which could be caused to come into actuality, and space and time are understood as making sense in light of causes occurring prior to effects.

I would add a fourth element to this set: phenomenology itself. This is obviously primitive: in fact, more primitive than the other three. Our experience of space/time, cause/effect, and actual/possible requires that we have phenomenological experience in the first place. Which means, it might be more accurate to say that phenomenological experience is the axiom, but space/time, cause/effect, and actual/possible are the form in which phenomenology occurs; or, perhaps, that phenomenology is the content of understanding and space/time, cause/effect, and actual/possible are the way in which the content is expressed (it is the way in which evolution has shaped the way in which phenomenological experiences occur). Thus, I will continue to call space/time, cause/effect, and actual/possible the three axioms, with the understanding that they are equivalent of phenomenological experience itself.

The three axioms of space/time, cause/effect, and actual/possible can then be used like group generators to produce other sorts of understanding under what I would call the information operation. If we conceptualize understanding in a group-theoretical way, we combine these three axioms using the information operation to produce our understanding of the world when we’re confronted by novel experiences. The information operation is essentially making predictions using the three axioms with other sorts of understanding we’ve acquired by applying the three axioms under the information operation to our various experiences. But the three axioms are present in all of our understanding of the world, which means an analysis of the three axioms would be required for comprehending the form of all our understanding.

This is all well and good, but it still seems like something is missing: the actual phenomenology of understanding. What is the difference between having something memorized and having an understanding of that thing? What’s the difference, for instance, between having all of the rules for the game of Monopoly memorized, knowing what each word and each sentence in the rules means, but not understanding the game of Monopoly, and of actually understanding how Monopoly is played? What is the missing piece: both the missing information that would turn a rote memorization into something where all the words combined together having meaning above and beyond the individual words and sentences, and the missing phenomenology that differentiates the memorized rules from the understood rules?

The missing information would be easier to explain than the missing phenomenology. The missing information could be conceptualized like disconnected nodes in a network, where the missing information is the integration of the nodes into a connected network. By connecting the nodes, we can reduce uncertainty by information integration. But what of the phenomenology? At one instant, you are looking at a Monopoly board while you have the Monopoly rules memorized, and the board means one thing to you, then you have an epiphany as the information is integrated, and then the next moment you have an understanding of how Monopoly is played, and the board means something different to you than before. What is the phenomenological difference between your experience of the board prior to the epiphany and your experience of the board following the epiphany? That difference is the phenomenology of understanding, but what can we say of it?

In the end, I don’t know, but I have a sense that it’s important for how we think about consciousness, semantics, epistemology, and the human experience.

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