virus: Consciousness and Meaning

David McFadzean (
Fri, 19 Jan 1996 14:24:48 -0700

[Here's a reply to a reply to a message I posted to the Extropy mailing
list under the subject "Re: Zuboff's Story". Since the content is
mostly stuff I've been developing for Virus I thought I should repost
here; apologies to people who subscribe to both. -dbm]

At 02:39 PM 18/01/96 PST, Robin Hanson wrote:

>But we may very well attribute consciousness to a human who says this
>insincerely, and so doesn't mean what he/she says.

Good point. I'm going to have to back up a bit in order to clarify.
I'm suggesting that meaning is identical to effect. Words carry
meaning by virtue of the fact that within certain contexts they induce
particular brain states in the person experiencing the word (listening,
reading, or whatever). When I hear the word 'cat' it triggers neural
activation patterns associated with the sight of cats, the sound cats
make, the spelling of the word cat, etc. These patterns in turn trigger
other associated patterns (though fortunately attenuated to prevent
epileptic fits :) such as books or movies with 'cat' in the title,
cat food, catnip, my sister's kitten, etc. Primary responses can be
considered to be the denotation of the word while secondary responses
are connotations, though I think there is actually a continuum between
them. [I felt somewhat encouraged to see an allusion to this theory
in the Dec. 95 Sci. Am. p. 84 "Why Neuroscience May Be Able to Explain
Consciousness" by Francis Crick and Cristof Koch. It actually just a
sidebar on David Chalmer's thought-provoking article, "The Puzzle of
Conscious Experience", p.80]

I believe a lot of confusion arises in discussions about meaning because
in common usage the word 'meaning' is used to refer to two different types
of effects: intended and actual. Communication happens to the extent that
intended and actual effects are the same. For example, say I insult
you in a lame attempt to be witty but forget to include a smiley with
my message. You understandably misinterpret my message and demand to
know what I meant by it. That's just a shortcut for asking me to explain
my intended effect. I say I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, meaning that the
actual effect was not my intended effect.

Now finally to get back to your objection: Why do we attribute
consciousness to someone even if they are being insincere, i.e.
they don't really mean what they say? I claim that the fact they
are being deceptive is irrelevant here, their words still have
meaning (both intended and actual). They may not believe what they
say, but they intend for me to believe what they say.

It gets even more complicated with sarcasm when the actual intended
meaning is the exact opposite of the apparent intended meaning. Whether
the sarcasm works depends on the audience picking up on the usage
through signals like intonation. In any case, we still attribute
consciousness to the speaker because we believe their is an intended
effect behind the speech act.

At this point I guess I've talked myself into revising my original
claim. We attribute consciousness to agents when we believe they
are using words for an intended effect. This can probably be generalized
to behavior other than communicative acts with respect to intended
effects and control.

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Church of Virus