|2009-09-30, by John Ringland|
Notes from a brainstorm about symbolism and its
place in the broader context.
Firstly a mind-map that gives a high-level overview of the context
in which these thoughts take place (full size pdf), and then some brief notes.
In general, a symbol is an imperfect representation of some
underlying pattern. For example, knowledge is an imperfect symbolic
representation of the truth of some situation or perception is an
imperfect symbolic representation of the appearance of some
A 'symbol' can be encoded within any information medium such as
neural activity, ink on paper, sound modulations, binary data, words
in a language, etc, depending on which system is under consideration.
Only in 'formal' systems such as mathematics, logic or software
can an underlying pattern be fully revealed by a symbol. For example,
lossless encoding of a digital file, e.g. zip compression where the
full original can be perfectly recreated.
For general systems information is dissipated as entropy during
the encoding, transmission and decoding of the pattern.
The underlying pattern has Kolmogorov complexity (inherent
structure). The encoding captures some of this complexity and
transmits it in the form of Shannon information, which is subject to
noise and is then decoded into an internal pattern, which is a
symbolic representation of the underlying pattern.
Information is lost during encoding. For example, lossy encoding
of a digital file, e.g. jpg or mp3 where only some information is
selected and encoded thus the original pattern cannot be fully
Information is also dissipated during transmission due to noise,
which introduces new signals that reduce the accuracy of the symbolic
Information is also dissipated during decoding due to imperfect
codecs. For example, decoding a zip file using the jpg codec results
in nonsense (all Shannon information is converted to entropy) or
interpreting quantum mechanics or mystic metaphysics within a naïve
realist conceptual framework.
Only if the codecs match, if the transmission system is noiseless
and the receiving system has the requisite variety (sufficient
complexity) can they potentially convey the full underlying pattern.
Thus there is usually information from the underlying pattern
which is not captured by and cannot be revealed by the
symbolic representation. As well as information present in the
symbolic representation that is not related to the underlying
pattern, instead it is an artefact of the intervening symbolic
processes and systems.
Thus each complex (non-formal) symbolic process (e.g. interaction,
communication, perception, interpretation, etc) dissipates
information as entropy. This manifests as loss of signal power and
increasing noise power. An example of this is the game of Chinese
whispers. Entropy production is a universal property of all complex
symbolic processes and systems.
A system of symbols can be used as a metaphor, analogy or
homology, depending on the degree of correspondence between the
symbol system and the underlying system.
To decode a symbol system and infer what we can about the
underlying pattern (e.g. the intended meaning of a statement), one
must account for all of the modulations of the signal as it
propagates through the communication, perceptual and conceptual
This raises the question; to what extent do symbol systems have
the same meanings to different minds and to what extent do those
meanings correspond to reality?
Furthermore, these symbol systems form into memes
(cognitive/cultural viruses), which form into memeplexes
(self-organising networks of memes). One can also
think of memes as self-replicating software agents operating within a
network. These memetic systems populate
our minds and cultures as if these were 'territory'.
The experienced meaning of a symbol can, in a sense, be described
as the conditioned response of the population dynamics of memetic
ecosystems within a cultural / cognitive environment.
By using complex symbols and symbolic processes such as a mind;
with perceptions, conceptions, intuition and logic, we only glimpse
the underlying pattern through particular perspectives, cognitive apparatus and
memeplexes, such as cultural conditioning, conceptual frameworks,
world-views, life-stories, egos and personalities.
One can only connect a symbol to the underlying pattern as clearly
as it is encoded, transmited and decoded. Thus it is good to draw
upon reliable sources, communicate clearly, pay attention and clarify
ones mind. It is also good to consider many perspectives or paradigms
and use many symbols whose underlying patterns overlap, thereby
'resolving' the common features of the underlying pattern; hopefully
with a minimum of noise due to cultural, ideological and personal