Skip to 0 minutes and 1 secondIf we talk about the achievement of meaning, the book to the point would be a book by the sociologist, Theodore Roszak, written in 1986, called The Cult of Information. Now this book seems not to get outdated ever-- about information systems. Now, in this book, Theodore Roszak provides an argument that all that computers are good at is information processing. Now, information processing does not lead to ideas. And instead, in terms of mind, the information processing is only a small part of what the mind does. And it is also the lowest level of complexity of what the mind does. Now information processing cannot lead to ideas. It is the other way around. It is ideas that enable information processing.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 secondsSo if I tell you to collect the information, you cannot do that. You need an idea about what I want to do with it, what it is for, how to do it, and all sorts of other things. Of course, information can describe lots of aspects of ideas. But it cannot exist without the ideas. Noam Chomsky makes a similar point from a different perspective. He talks about computers being able to handle syntactic structures, which means, basically spelling and grammar. However, they cannot deal with the semantic structures, which would mean a web of concepts organised according to the meaning of these concepts. Now, if you understand spelling and grammar, that will not help you understand the meaning of the text.

Skip to 1 minute and 41 secondsSo if you think about all these things, the Chinese room argument would be a case to the point. I would like to conclude with a quote from Theodore Roszak's book-- "The prospect of machine interpretation is not only whimsical, it is absurd. Interpretation belongs solely to a living mind in exactly the same way that birth belongs solely to a living body. Disconnecting from a mind, interpretation becomes what birth becomes when it does not refer to a body a metaphor."

The achievement of meaning

When we are thinking we do a lot of information processing. However, that is only a small part of it. What else is there? I cannot answer this question at an abstract level and I don’t think that anyone can. However, we can easily find examples where the information processing model fails.

An important part of information processing is categorising things. Since Aristotle, we create boxes, or categories, as they make it easier to make sense of the world. I will be the first to admit how useful this may be and I have created many boxes myself, such as knowledge levels, knowledge types, variants of the master-apprentice relationship etc. Creating boxes works well as long as we don’t confuse reality with the representation, that is, until we start thinking that the boxes are real. An example in point would be the curious case of the platypus. Biologists created boxes of living beings. According to these boxes, animals either lay eggs or breastfeed their children. The platypus does both. The biologists say the platypus is an exception. I say that the platypus is a perfectly normal animal and they should throw away their boxes.

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This video is from the free online course:

Understanding Information and Technology Today

University of Strathclyde