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The Location of Meaning

A broad discussion of how meaning is split among coded message, decoder, and receiver. Examples presented include strands of DNA, undeciphered inscriptions on ancient tablets, and phonograph records sailing out in space. The relationship of intelligence to "absolute" meaning is postulated.

While you read[]


These questions are adapted from Curry and Kelleher's lecture notes. Alas, this is the end of what Curry and Kelleher could cover in time they had for their course. We'll have to come up with our own questions from here on.

  1. Is meaning the interaction of a mind (or mechanism) and a message, or is it inherent in the message?
  2. Define "information-bearer".
  3. Define "information-receiver".
  4. To what extent does your DNA "mean" you?
  5. What's the difference between an "exotic" and a "prosaic" isomorphism?
  6. What is being "pulled out" of DNA?
  7. Does all the information about a organism’s structure reside in its DNA? Why or why not?
  8. To what extent do the mathematical equations in physics "mean" the behavior of the universe?
  9. What do you think of Hofstadter’s conjecture on page 165? "Meaning is part of an object to the extent that it acts upon intelligence in a predictable way."
  10. Define the "jukebox" theory of meaning. Does DNA need a bio-jukebox?
  11. How does DRH relate the chapter to the issue of abortion?


Messages to unknown civilizations[]

The ➟ Voyager golden record is one example of a message that we have sent where we don't know who, if anyone, will receive it, nor do we know what the receiver's thought processes might be like.

A similar message in fiction is the signal in Contact, by Carl Sagan, and in the movie based on it. The highly complex message is carried in a simple frame message -- it's sent in prime-numbered pulses, intended to be recognized as a frame message by any species that understands number theory.

The U.S. government's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has held a contest to come up with the best frame message that communicates the danger of nuclear waste to whoever comes across it in the next 10,000 years, despite that we may not share a language or culture with them. The meaning of the frame message (not of the inner message, which should be much more specific about the danger) is, in part:

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
This place is a message and part of a system of messages.
Pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

You can read about the task and some of the assorted proposals on WIPP's website.

Puzzle hunts[]

Puzzle hunts -- such as the ➟ MIT Mystery Hunt, DASH, and the Black Letter Game, to name a few -- are frequently structured around puzzles that require you to find both the outer message and the inner message, in DRH's terms.

You get a puzzle with some mysterious content. All you really have to start with is the frame message -- you know that what you have is a puzzle intended to be solved, but it may not be a puzzle of a type you've seen before. To begin with, you don't know what the message is or how to extract it.

To solve it, first you have to find the outer message -- how can what you're given be solved as a puzzle? Then you use that solution to find the inner message, which is often a word or phrase that you need to use to advance in the puzzle hunt.

ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) have often been built on similar kinds of messages.

Unsolved messages[]

Look up the ➟ Voynich manuscript. This is a fascinating example of a message from the past that has an improbably strong frame message, which has resisted all attempts to reveal it as a hoax, and yet we cannot decode a single bit of its inner message -- except, of course, for the bizarre illustrations.

Consider the difference between this and the ➟ Codex Seraphinianus.


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