Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind

Old friend GEM of TKI wonders why no one has challenged his post on signs and the design inference.
[T]his Jan 16 post was foundational, and the silence from objectors is interesting, especially given the significance of symbolic communication....
GEM leaves us to guess what he finds interesting in the “silence from objectors.” Perhaps he takes it as consent or befuddlement.  I rather think people simply shrugged their shoulders in apathy.

In the end, GEM justifies intelligent design creationism by arguing that "symbolic messages" and "physical media" for message encoding/transmitting/decoding appear in nature. Therefore, as these messages and tools support a "design inference" in human social contexts, so too do they warrant a design inference in biological and origins of life/universe contexts.

The central analogy that guides GEM's argument has been around long enough, at least in my experience. I don't share the opinion that it supports a strong case, and I'll have a bit more to say on this later. For now, however, I want to focus on some oddities in GEM's post, mostly as they relate to semiotics. One oddity is how GEM describes an observer’s actions with signs:
Signs: I observe one or more signs [in a pattern], and infer the signified object, on a warrant:

I: [si] –> O, on W
The oddity here is the term “infer," which is inappropriate to most signs. The usual term is “interpret,” and in Peircean semiotics--GEM states he is following Peirce--the interpretans is one of three fundamental parts of the sign: there’s the signifier (the sound or word), the signified object (the real-world thing), and the interpretans (the observer’s mental translation of how the object is represented by the signifier.

Now, Peirce did invoke a rule of inference for a special class of signs that he called delome signs, but the rule doesn't apply universally. Inference is a focused activity: to infer is to go from the known to the hidden or from the apparent to the latent. It is to reveal what’s implicit.

In the context of the sign, however, there’s typically no need for inference because by definition a sign already includes a signified object. The signified object is already “there,” not hidden or latent. The meaning of most signs is known and shared between speaker and auditor before communication takes place; indeed, it's an important condition that makes linguistic communication possible. This shared knowledge is the warrant that GEM mentions.

Thus, when one observes a sign or a set of signs, one normally does not need to infer the signified object. Rather, one understands or interprets the signified object--which is to say that one knows (of) the object to which the signifier is referring.

GEM's use of "infer" is most certainly rhetorical, a tactic to connect interpreting signs, on the one hand, with inferring design from the structure of living things, on the other hand. I don’t begrudge his attempt, but at this point the analogy does not hold. Interpreting the meaning of signs is not at all like reasoning that Thing ABC was created by a person or some other entity of person-like or above intelligence and capability.

But I should clarify some more because GEM’s argument has little concern with meaning per se. His real point rests on the premise that in interpreting signs, we infer that their ultimate source is a conscious being. This is, of course, proper and standard use of the term "infer." So too, in interpreting cells of living beings as machines (GEM equates cells with von Neumann self-replicators [VNSR]), we infer their ultimate source as a being of great skill and subtlety. For GEM, living cells have the added bonus of also being sign encoding, transmitting, and decoding machines. The genetic code and the processes of protein building are part of the larger cellular machine, adding further support to the idea that the ultimate source of life is an intelligent being, putatively the god of Christianity.

Now, GEM’s argument is obviously all sound and fury, signifying nothing. Cells are not actually machines, after all. People too are not machines. GEM is overly invested in his personal reading of the VNSR's significance for an inference to intelligent design creationism.

Let us remember that the VNSR is a human contrivance based on organic models. Human contraptions, generally, seek to emulate and simulate organic systems. And organic systems are often far more intricate and complex than their human-made counterparts. Thus, it does little good to point out banally that every watch has a watchmaker because watches are structurally and environmentally too unlike cells for a useful comparison. Make a watch that's more cell-like. Then we can talk.

The watchmaker analogy fails for another reason. Take a look at your own watch right now. Maybe it was assembled by a single person in China. Where did that person get the gears? Where did that person get the electronics? They each came, assembled by others, from elsewhere. And where did the raw materials come from? How were the metals obtained, smelted, forged, and shaped? Others did that, too. We might say more accurately, then, that every watch has many watchmakers and every watch has a history tied to those watchmakers and their particular environments and available resources.

I dare say that no Christian theologian is currently arguing that God and his Supernatural Friends are the designers of life and that they interacted over time to forge organic existence. Usually, the learned theologians postulate that there was only one Big Boss, one designer, who simply poofed life into existence at once. But if there was only one designer and one design moment, then the theologian needs a new analogy to use because in real life many different people in different contingent circumstances have a direct and indirect impact on the construction of machines.

We should return to the subject of oddities in GEM’s argument concerning signs.

I mentioned before that GEM departs from Peircean semiotics when he employs the loaded term “infer” and thereby both downplays and skews the role of the interpretans in sign operation.

GEM departs again from Peirce in another oddity: artificially separating symbolic signs from indexical and iconic signs. GEM previously had given us his analysis of signs, and in that analysis he discussed indexical (e.g., smoke as an index of fire) and iconic signs (e.g., a natural formation that resembles a human face). He then focuses on symbols specifically, and uses different language to discuss the semiotic operation:
Symbols: I observe a {set} of one or more symbols, and infer the/a signified meaning, on a warrant:

I: {sy} –> M, on W
But symbols are not a different species of sign. Rather, symbols lie on a continuum that encompasses indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs. As Albert Atkin reports, Peirce himself was aware of this continuity --
by 1903 Peirce was aware that it would be hard, if not impossible, to find any pure instances of icons and indices. Rather, he began to suspect that icons and indices were always partly symbolic or conventional.
Thus, it is not so easy to separate "naturally occurring" signs from "mind-made" signs. All signs are to some extent "mind made." The question is "Whose mind?"

The answer to this question is "The sign observer's mind." The observer of an indexical, iconic, or symbolic sign determines--through interpretation--the integrity of the sign and makes it meaningful. I cannot exaggerate the importance of this point: the observer makes meaning from the sign.

The idea that the observer’s understanding of signs is active and productive is critical to Peirce. His interpretans denotes how someone understands the signifier-signified relationship, and the interpretans is another sign. The interpretans is the observer's personal spin on the conventional association between the signifier and signified. As we discussed before, that association or meaning of signs is known and shared between speaker/writer and observer in advance of communication taking place. At the same time, individual observers translate signs in a way unique to their idiolect and to the situation. The idiosyncratic element of this translation is what made Peirce's interpretans so innovative in its time.

The point is, however, that part of making meaning from the sign includes making an idiosyncratic interpretation of the sign's "author." In other words: the author, the conscious mind that issues the sign, is partly a creation of the observer (cf. Michel Foucault). Thus, what GEM calls "an inference to intentionally and intelligently directed configuration"--whether the inference is made with regard to a text or an observation of the workings in a living cell--is always a personal mental construct of the observer.

From the observer's point of view, it's easy and helpful to assume an intelligent agency as a singular source of signs, messages, systems, and so on. But that assumption is interpretive, it's an interpretans. The assumption need not have any resemblance to the actual source(s), causes, and circumstances of transmission. We can therefore clearly see the error in GEM's concluding specification of a certain class of (biological) signs:
signs that are believed to warrant the conclusion that they are best explained on design rather than a spontaneous natural process tracing to undirected forces and circumstances of chance and/or mechanical necessity.
GEM here conflates two acts of interpretation. In the first act, an organic entity is taken as a sign or a set of signs. In the second, that sign or set of signs is taken to have a meaning bearing explanation. In both cases, we learn more about the observer making the interpretations than we do about the supposed "source" of the signs. Indeed, we never approach that "source" at all.

So, I personally am put off by GEM's "foundational" post. It abuses Peircean semiotics, and it fails to make its primary case. Quite simply, there is no inference to design that can be had--at least, not on a foundation of semiotics. At best, there's an interpretation of design, but we already knew that.


  1. Mr Tanner:

    I have noticed your objection, and have responded here at UD.

    Good day, sir

    GEM of TKI

  2. GEM,

    For some reason, your comment went directly to my spam box. I marked it as "not spam" and it was published.

    Not sure why Blogger would do that to your comment. If it continues to happen, I assure you--and all--that I will release all comments as soon as I become aware of their being "held."

    I don't have any moderation of comments until a post is 10 days old.

    Sorry for any inconvenience.

  3. GEM,

    Thanks. I read the response and don't have much to say except that it's uncompelling.

    This part made me laugh:

    29 –> But this tripartite division (and notice how I am speaking of red and blue ends, not the mushy middle in the OP!) in no wise leads to the conclusion that the inference to objective state of affairs or to object or to meaning, is an arbitrary mental process, with no proper or real connexion to the objective world. (Kant is wrong here: if he knows enough about the world to know that our senses and interpretations of our experiences in the world may be distorted, he in fact implies a profound knowledge of objective reality, the possibility and presence of error. And, that error exists is both an experience and an undeniable truth. For to try the denial instantly reduces to obvious absurdity, i.e this is a self-evident truth.)

    You're missing the point, sir.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.