Re: virus: Replication of Memes

Wed, 14 Aug 1996 02:42:23 -0500

David McFadzean wrote:
> At 09:54 AM 13/08/96 -0500, KMO wrote:
> >The meaning of the signal is just that. Words have assigned meanings,
> >and those meanings are not dependent on an effect they have in any one
> >instance.
> Disagree. You as a philosopher and I as a programmer often use the
> same words to mean different things (e.g. memory, semantics). And I
> as a programmer of genetic algorithms use many terms from evolutionary
> biology (e.g. phenotype, genetic operator, allele) in a related but
> different sense than a biologist would use the same words in communications
> with her colleagues.

Still, there are established conventions which determine the meanings of
the words in the various contexts in which we use them. Their meaning
is not determined from scratch with each usage.

> >I have no cat and you know that I have no cat. Now suppose I leave a
> >message on your answering machine saying, "Stephen, my cat is
> >pregnant." That sentence is meaningful. The nouns refer to things or
> >types of things with which you are familiar, and the syntax of the
> >sentece relates the words in a meaningful fashion, yet, since you know I
> >don't have a cat, the sentence does not convey the information that my
> >cat is pregnant. It might carry the information that the feds are on to
> >our little scheme and it's time to lie low for a while, but the
> >conveyance of that information would require that you know more than
> >just the content of the signal (sentence). The content of the signal is
> The meaning of "my cat is pregnant" then is it causes me to know that
> the feds are on to us and I should lay low.

You couldn't draw that inference based only on the meanings of the
words. You could only do so in light of additional knowledge which
allows you to put the sentence into the proper context. It carries the
information that the feds are onto us, but that's not what the words
mean. To dispute that is simply to refuse to recognize the distinction
Dretske is making between meaning and information.

You are welcome to make that refusal, but I'm pretty sure you see the
difference he's highlighting. True, we use the word "meaning" to
indicate special purpose intent on the part of the sender, "if you get
my meaning." In philosphical investigation, however, it is sometimes
necessary to limit the meaning of words to one context when they are
coloquially used in several contexts. This is to prevent equivocation.
I'm proposing that we limit the meaning of "meaning" and adopt Dretske's
usage in the context of this discussion. Doing so will allow us to make
distinctions that we couldn't make otherwise.

>This is also the information
> carried in the signal.

Given the standard usage of the words in the sentence "my cat is
pregnant" the content (or meaning) of the sentece involves an expectant
feline. The fact that you know what particular context in which to
interpret the sentece allows you to extract information from the signal
which is not included in the explicit content of that signal.

> Someone else listening in (and not knowing our
> previously agreed upon code phrase) would likely infer a different,
> more mundane meaning from the message.
> >what it means. The information it carries is what you can learn from
> >it. Because I don't have a cat, and so you couldn't possibly learn
> >(form a true belief) that my cat is pregnant. The signal could convey a
> >wide range of information, but it can't convey the information that my
> >cat is pregnant. The sentence is meaningful, but the information it
> >might convey (if it conveyed any information at all) is not identical
> >with its meaning.
> Given what I have said above, would you agree they are the same? Or
> at least the information causes the meaning/effects?

The effect of the signal is that you form a justified true belief that
the feds are on to our scheme and that we should desist until until
things die down a bit. You learned something from the signal, and so in
Dretske's working vocabulary, the signal must have carried information
which you extracted from it. The information a signal conveys is
related to its effects on the receiver, but the information would be
there even if you never heard the sentence.

I would not agree that the information a signal conveys in any one
instance causes the signal to have the meaning it does. The meaning is
a convention that is established over time.

> On a related note, I've been researching the notion of truth (prompted
> by the recent great "objective truth" vs. the postmoderns thread) and
> I'm beginning to think the only things (i.e. category of propositions)
> we can know are true are conditionals. Every time we say "I think X is
> true." we should translate that to mean "IF my assumptions are correct
> THEN X is true." And of course we can never know with certainty whether
> our assumptions are true, but we can apply the same transformation
> to each one along the lines of "IF an objective reality exists AND my
> sense perceptions are correlated with said reality AND etc. etc. THEN
> my <insert premise here> is true." Does this fit in with your notion
> of beliefs and knowledge?

I think we can know analytic truths with total certainty. I KNOW that
the sum of the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. I'm
also certain that that I, as a thinking mind, exist. My body may be a
halucination, but I exist. I don't think anything Descartes concluded
based on that one piece of knowledge was as indubitable as his starting

Of course, now the Buddhist in me is screaming, "No! The "I" is an
illusion which results from your ignorance!" The smart ass in me
returns with "WHOSE ignorance?"

> >Hmmm... Seeing memes as historical entities which are necessarily
> >classified by their lineage is central to the concept of memetics.
> >Information theory (or 'signal theory' as Dretske would call it) seems
> >to be an indispensible element. If there's an intractable problem with
> >identifying a meme at the stage of it's lifecycle when it is transmitted
> >from one host to the next, then there seems to be an intractible problem
> >for a science of memetics.
> Why would it be hard to identify the meme when it is transmitted?

Because memes are units of information, and we can't determine the
information a signal conveys with certainty. At best we have access to
an exhaustive account of the signal's content, but that is not
synonomous with the information the signal conveys.
> Here's a textbook example I read last night in the latest Skeptic
> (vol. 4, no. 2) in John Hartung's "Prospects for Existence" (a
> very Virian essay BTW):
[Textbook example of the transmission of the practice of infanticide

Sure, that's an easy one, but some aren't so easy. It's possible that
Egyptians crossed the Atlantic thousands of years ago, transferring the
memes responsible for pyramid building to Central and South America.
It's also possible that pyramid building arose independently on both
continents. In one case we have one memetic lineage which affected two
continents, and in the other we have a case of convergent memetic
evolution; two memetic complexes which arose independently but produced
similair effects in the world. We have access to the content of the
signal (the pyramids), but in order to extract any information from that
signal, we need to do some investigative work to discover the requistie
auxilary facts that will allow us to put the content in the right

> >> Let me ask you this then: Do bees and termites behave *as if* they
> >> have beliefs?
> >
> >They most certainly do, but so do alot of things I wouldn't be willing
> >have beliefs, e.g. industrial robots, coffee makers, and house plants.
> Why not (just out of curiosity)? Can only humans have beliefs or can
> chimps? Where do you draw the line?

Beliefs require that an agent have a relativly rich mental
representation of the world as well as being capable of counterfactual
representations. Chimps engage in deceptive behavior. This indicates
that they have beliefs about the mental states of their fellows and they
have beliefs about how they can manipulate those mental states in
advantageous ways. Bees just don't seem to have the hardware to sustain
representations which are sufficiently rich to call beliefs. I believe
that machines will hold beliefs in the future. I don't think they
curently do so.

Okay. This is absolutely my last post before the move. I'm going to
bed now, and when I get up, I'm putting this machine in it's box. See
everybody in about a week.

Take care.  -KMO
"The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable."
-Paul Broca

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike- and yet it is the most precious thing we have." Albert Einstein *******************************************************