The Science of Comprehension

How We Understand Abstract Concepts

Part III

Symbols and their Meaning

Symbols have meaning. The symbols are real, but the meaning is an abstract concept which supposedly exists apart from the material world, independent of time and space. However, Cognitive Science is telling us that abstract concepts do not exist apart from the material world. Where then are these abstract concepts? What is it that we have overlooked?

The part we haven't taken into account yet is, "Every CD needs a CD player."

It's not good enough to just have symbols physically etched into the universe. We also need a Symbol Interpreter. A CD needs a CD player to interpret the pits on the CD. Sheet music needs a musician to interpret the symbols on the sheet music. Every symbol, wherever it is physically stored, requires a Symbol Interpreter.

And these Symbol Interpreters are themselves real tangible entities that exist in the material world. A CD player is a physical tangible device. A Musician has a physical tangible brain. So, not only do symbols for an abstract concept need to be etched into the material world in order to exist, the Symbol Interpreter must also be somehow etched into the physical material world in order for it to exist.

The Symbol Interpreter is where our abstract concept of what a symbol means is stored. The CD player has within it the abstract concept of what a sound wave is and how it can be represented by pits on a CD. The musician has within her brain the abstract concept of what a musical note is and how to reproduce it.

Where is the abstract concept of the number 5 etched into our universe? The concept is physically etched in your brain. How did it get there? That's another story.

So, in review, we have:
  1. Symbols physically etched into the material universe.
  2. Symbol Interpreters also physically manifested in the material universe.

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—David Deley
Last Update: Feb. 20, 2009