[percy-l] Re: animals, order, symbol, self-consciousness, and The Fall of Man

Parlin, Steven PARLINS at culver.org
Sun Dec 15 16:59:27 EST 2002

Jim, yes, I misstated the infinite variety out of a finite mechanism idea.
What I meant was that language is not mechanistic, not mere
stimulus-response. We don't have a library of sentences in their head to
choose from when we need to respond. We can generate an infinite variety of
expressions using a finite set of words (the opposite of what I said
earlier...I was in a hurry). Chimps can't do this. They don't. How do we
know? We taught them signs to use (the teaching is an important component;
humans do not need to be taught, but acquire language naturally). With those
signs, they've never been able to generate original "sentences",
"questions", or other new "words". 

The objective evidence was clear enough to Darwin: No other animal creates
art in any form; which also means that no other animal uses symbols. The
burden rests on them to demonstrate otherwise. (Unless you have a broader
notion of symbol than this. I think the conversation may be getting muddled
a bit by meanings of words like symbol, signs, thought, consciousness, etc.
Which is hugely ironic: There could be no misunderstanding if the meaning of
the word  was, as you suggest, the word itself.  We all have to agree on the
meaning of a word in order for it to be useful. Hence, meaning is
independent of the representation of it). 

Communities of rocks, Jim?  All is sustained in its being in the mind of
God, sure enough, but I protest. Rocks are rocks. No consciousness there. 


 -----Original Message-----
From: 	James Piat [mailto:piat1 at bellsouth.net] 
Sent:	Saturday, December 14, 2002 2:14 PM
To:	percy-l at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject:	Re: [percy-l] Re: animals, order, symbol,
self-consciousness, and The Fall of Man

> "Perhaps there can be no objective evidence of symbol se  -- that one can
> always choose to interpret behavior as either symbolic or mechanistic."
> Come, Jim, there is abundant evidence. This is the first time in the
> of the cosmos that the above sentence, your sentence, has ever been
> It is entirely new and unique. And, (unless you quote yourself again and
> again and again) it will never be repeated in exactly the same way, ever.

Or unless you quote me or unless. . .

> is that way for all of us when we use language. This fact, it seems to me,
> is objective evidence of symbol use (and, much to my delight, it is also
> evidence that your thinking preceded its use! :)). No finite mechanism
> produce an infinite variety of forms. All deference to Noam on this one.
> Steve

Dear Steve,

I don't think the infinite ways in which experience can be symbolized is
objective evidence that human gestures are symbolic and that chimpanzee
gesture like movements are not.  Seems to me that so called non symbolic
behavior of  non human animals is as infinitely varied as our symbolic
behavior.  In fact if all of nature were not itself infinitely varied how
could our symbolic representation of it be?

Also I think there are many examples of infinite variety being generated
from finite algorithms    -- pi, for example.  Indeed it's not the
unpredicable irregularies of the world that are wondrous and exceptional
but rather it's relatively rare regularities.

I'm not arguing against the notion that symoblization is a wonderous,
mysterious thing as indeed I find all of God's creation to be.  What I'm
questioning is the opinion that symbolization is a uniquely human activity.
And what I'm calling for is some way to operationally or objectively define
what we mean by symobolization so that we can agree when or when not an
instance of it has occurred.

I don't think it is a sacrilege to think non human animals (or even
communities of rocks) are capable of symbolization   -- nor do I think it is
an act of piety to think only humans can use symbols.

And, Steve  -- here's one to ponder while you repeat your mantra that
thought precedes its verbal expression.  Some folks have done some
experiments that demonstrate that the part of the brain that "lights up"
when folks are making choices (such as which button to press when given a
particular stimulus) lights up after the finger moves to press the button.
IOWs the movement occurs BEFORE  the thought!  So maybe, just maybe, you
haven't taken your speculation far enough  --- maybe mechanistic behavior
even precedes the thought!  Maybe thought is just a vehicle for making us
aware after the fact of what we are mechanically doing in the same way that
you apparently view symbolization or language use as merely or mostly a
vehicle for making others aware of our thoughts after the fact of them.  And
for all I know this might actually be the case but I've been kind of hoping
that symbolization and consciousness are something different.  That maybe
they result from  a top down (community to individual) type of causality
rather than a reductionistic bottom up kind of causality.    The trick, as I
see it, is to find a way to answer these questions that appeals to objective

Steve  -- thanks for your thoughts and insights on all this.  I'm arguing
but mostly I'm learning from you and others and enjoying all the
contributions immensely.  And, btw, I don't think you come across as one bit
arrogant and I hope I don't either.



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