mind, matter, meaning and information

meaning and reference

Intentional information can be thought of as an interpretation of physical information.

The complete description of a CD-ROM includes the locations of the pits that can be interpreted by a CD-ROM drive as a stream of digits, and that in turn might ultimately be interpreted as a piece of music, for instance, or a photograph of a landscape. While the music or image is intentional information, the particular pattern of pit locations—like the coloured dots on the screen and the air pressure variations—is physical. So intentional information is not really of a different sort, but is a way of looking at, or using, physical information.

“Meaning” is sometimes used in place of “reference” or “referent” but that can be misleading. In general terms, the meaning of a word or larger fragment of language is not some thing to which it refers, but its use in a particular context. Language is a particular form of intentional information, and this applies to all forms of it. Of course, words are often used to refer to things, but that is far from being their only use: reference is just a particular kind of meaning, or use, one that is focussed on here because it is relatively straightforward.

The significance of saying that meaning is use in context is that intentional information always requires additional information for its interpretation. This is what determines how it's used. For instance, use of any piece of language minimally requires that particular language to be known—but much more will often be needed for a full understanding of its meaning—for instance, the social context in which it was uttered. In the case of the telegraph, a certain sequence of buzzes only signifies “A” if Morse code is known.

A pattern of physical information that carries intentional information in effect carries more information, in total, than the same pattern when treated as merely physical: this additional information is its meaning. It has this apparently magical capacity because the context is taken forgranted. The meaning is a function of the conjunction of the explicit information—the particular pattern concerned, such as the buzzes—and the context, which is normally implicit, or at least “sent ahead,” e.g. the complete Morse code.

Intentional information is meaning, which in turn is use in a given context—these are different ways of looking at the same thing. The meaning or use of a particular piece of physical information, i.e. the intentional information it carries, can be viewed as the relationship between it (the carrier) and its context. This is its function. Context and meaning/use are thus inextricably linked.

This deserves to be emphasised: intentional information is a function of the relationship between other pieces of information. It is a product of information processing. The intentional information is the meaning, and the other pieces of information are the carrier and the context. These, however, are interchangeable. We always have carrier, context and meaning, and given the coded message (carrier) and the code (context) we can work out the decoded form (meaning)—but it will also often be true that given the coded message and the decoded form, we can work out the code, in which case the code is the meaning, in effect, and the decoded form is the code! While of course it is also true that given the code, and the decoded form, we can work out the coded message. Regardless of reciprocity, however, intentional information always requires deduction or derivation from other pieces of information.

The meaning of a communication, for the sender, is the intended effect of the carrier at the receiver. For the receiver, it is the actual effect. (Except only where it later becomes evident that the intended and actual effects differed, in which case the intended effect then becomes the actual effect, though delayed.) The effect is determined by the interaction between the state of the receiver at the moment of reception (context), and the incoming information (carrier). For this interaction to be informative, there must be an unknown, whether that's in the carrier, or the context, or if they're both known but their interaction is too complex to be foreseeable, then in that. Information has been defined as reduced uncertainty, or increased probability. [link reqd] Where there are no unknowns, there is no intentional information, just mechanical interaction between items of physical information. Typically, in human communications, immediately before the event, the sender will have full knowledge of the carrier, but only to a limited extent of the context, and the receiver, vice versa, thus neither can be entirely certain of the effect. This is what makes it communication, rather than mere causation. Indeterminacy is what makes information meaningful—it is impossible to inform someone who is already all-knowing.

Meaning in general and reference in particular are subjective, involving intentional information, while successful communication between people requires shared context, agreement on meaning, aligned subjectivity, i.e. intersubjectivity.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .