Friday, April 29, 2005

Words and meaning

A word and its meaning are inseparable in common life. Utter a word and its image, its meaning is in your brain. Well, its not always an image - it is a mental construct which has images, sound, feelings and other sensations. So, every word is associated with its mental construct in the mind.
The interesting thing about this construct is that it varies from one person to another. For example, the word "computer", could produce one or more of the following constructs in a person's mind:
1. The desktop PC, black colored monitor, dusty keyboard, mouse wheel stuck, smell of old books lying beside, black coffee while emailing, yahoo!, ...
2. Intel x86 architecture, Motorola micro-controllers, embedded systems project, boring classes, beautiful gardens outside the class,...
3. An incomprehensible box, stupid pop-up messages, mysteriously located data, pots of money for software engineers, none for me,house in a mess, unpaid bills,...

My hypothesis is that when we recall a word, all the mental constructs associated with that word are "loaded" into the current, active part of the brain. As life progresses, the number and variety of mental constructs for the same word changes continuously.
Now, the meaning of a word is very closely connected to the set of mental constructs one has for that word. And since the mental constructs differ from one person to another the meaning of the same word differs too. There are some of the mental constructs that are common among the vast majority of the people who use the word. For example, the word "bucket" conjures at least one common mental construct among the people who use the word - i.e. a kind of container with a set of shapes. (that in turn is made up of quite a complicated set of constructs)
But, what is meaning? If it is a set of mental constructs that vary from person to person, then it something much more interesting than a dictionary listing.
How does someone understand the "meaning" of a concept? When a child is shown a picture of 2 sheep in order to teach the child the concept of numbers, and in particular, the number "two"- observe the number of concepts impinging on the child's mind - the green background color of the picture, white sheep, all the various body parts of the sheep, wool, and the fact that there are "two" sheep. How does the child understand the concept of the number "two" in the mess of all the concepts presented?
I guess, it doesn't happen with just one attempt. The child is presented with a number of such examples with so many different concepts. And then - this is the wonder of the human brain - it abstracts the concept of the number "two". Probably, it recognizes that the construct corresponding to the concept "two" is the intersection of all the mental constructs derived from all the various examples.
But then, still the concept of meaning is not clear. What is meaning? Lets take a look at the computer. What is "two" for the computer? It is a binary nibble - "0010", which in turn is a a particular combination of voltages in the electronic circuitry. When you write the number "2" in a text document, the computer understands (of course, because man programmed it to) that it is the same "0010".
I noticed a splendid semblence. The meaning of "two" is merely a representation, a particular pattern, beyond which it has not esoteric "meaning". Could that be true for the human brain as well? Our concepts, meanings, understanding - they are all patterns that have been formed through evolution. The moment we encounter a concept, the associated pattern is recalled. Nothing has any meaning implicitly, its just the collection of mental constructs that are stored physically in the brain. Meaning has really no meaning!


Thursday, April 28, 2005

Motivational stories or fables

Is there any theory on how and why motivational stories and anecdotes affect human minds and why they are created at all?
They are usually an account of a specific experience. They are narrow in scope and many a time cannot be generalized easily.
(Extrapolation - the boon of engineering and the bane of science - are fables an engineering approach to moral science :)) )
There are two parts to a fable - the story and the moral. The leap from one to the next is the most interesting aspect of a fable! For example, consider the story outlined in my previous post. (See below)

I can think of the following morals that I can draw from the story alone:

For man:
- Do not decide your course of action without complete knowledge of the situation.
- Mind your own business. Leave moths alone.
- Its high time biology found the way of way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it would be ready for flight anytime during the moth's life cycle so that man can help a moth whenever he wants!
- Define "help" based on the definition of help of the person you are helping and not your own.
- Create moth simulations that allow man to help moths without harming them.
- Do not waste time gaping at moths.
- Beware of scissors!

For moth:
- Find other ways of cocoon-exit without hampering your flight.
- Its high time moths start studying the structure and physiology of moths.
- Beware of man!
- If a hole is made on one side of the cocoon, abandon exit from there and start making another hole.
- Learn artificial aviation (Create society, universities, and phd programs on artificial moth aviation which extends to artificial moth life itself. Start by experimenting with various other creatures e.g. the attempts of man to fly - frenetic algorithms,....)

Jokes apart, the leap from story to moral is indeed an absurd one (absurd as used by Albert Camus in "The Myth of Sisyphus"). The story usually has a sprinkling of pointers to the moral and thereby the story leads to the moral at the end. If the story were to be stripped to its bare-bones and then viewed distinctly from the derived moral, the absurd leap will be apparent.

A logical way to approach the fable would be to inquire whether the story really justifies or is enough proof for the moral. Indeed, in most cases I have found that it is not.
Just because a moth (a creature that is way behind in the evolutionary path and hence, if the theory of evolution is correct, inferior to us) struggles its head off to come out of a hole at its birth, why should we conclude that (even sometimes) struggle is good for human beings!!

What about morals without stories - aphorisms. Well, lets see it next time.



A man found a cocoon of an emperor moth. He took it home so that he could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. On that day a small opening appeared, he sat and watched the moth for several hours as the moth struggled to force the body through that little hole.

Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. It just seemed to be stuck. Then the man, in his kindness, decided to help the moth, so he took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the moth because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It was never able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening was the way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle. By depriving the moth of a struggle, he deprived the moth of health.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were to go through our life without any obstacles, we would be crippled. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. Give every opportunity a chance. Leave no room for regrets.

-Author Unknown


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Michaelangelo's Pieta Posted by Hello