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Background Note: On signs, symbols and their significance

As a preliminary step to a discussion [DV, to follow] of the significance of and warrant for the design inference, let us now symbolise how we interact with and draw inferences about signs and symbols (generally following Peirce et al [Added, Feb 28: including P's thought on warrant by inference to best explanation i.e. abductive reasoning; where also warrant can be understood on Toulmin, Plantinga, Gettier and others (cf broader discussion here )]):


Signs: I observe one or more signs [in a pattern], and infer the signified object, on a warrant:

I: [si] –> O, on W

a –> Here, as I will use “sign” [as opposed to "symbol"],  the connexion is a more or less causal or natural one; e.g. a pattern of deer tracks on the ground is an index, pointing to a deer.

(NB, 02:28: Sign can be used more broadly in technical semiotics to embrace “symbol” and other complexities, but this is not needed for our purposes. I am using “sign” much as it is used in medicine, at least since Hippocrates of Cos in C5 BC, i.e. to point to a disease on an objective, warranted indicator.)

b –> If the sign is not a sufficient condition of the signified, the inference is not certain and is defeatable; though it may be inductively strong. (E.g. someone may imitate deer tracks.)

c –> The warrant for an inference may in key cases require considerable background knowledge or cues from the context.

d –> The act of inference may also be implicit or even intuitive, and I may not be able to articulate but may still be quite well-warranted to trust the inference. Especially, if it traces to senses I have good reason to accept are working well, and are acting in situations that I have no reason to believe will materially distort the inference.

e –> The process of observation may be passive, where I simply respond to effects of the sign-emitting object; or it may involve active emission of signals or interaction with the object. For instance, we may contrast passive and active sonar sensing here, noting that both modes are used by sea-animals as well as technical systems.  (NB: “Object” is here used in a very broad sense [u/d 02:17: it includes objects and credibly objective states of affairs].)

f –> A sign can also be iconic, i.e sufficiently resembling  [u/d, 02:17: or representing] the object to be recognisable as a representation, as a general class [a rock shaped like a  face] or in specific [a sculptural portrait]. [u/d 02:28: In the case of a mace in its rest in Parliament, unless an elaborate form of a former weapon sits there, Parliament is not legitimately in session.]

Symbols: I observe a {set} of one or more symbols, and infer the/a signified meaning, on a warrant:

I: {sy} –> M, on W

g –> Here, the connexion we are reflecting on is more or less conventional; involving an alphabet of defined sufficiently distinct symbols, a dictionary of meanings and rules for using symbols to convey meanings. E.g. the alphanumeric text in this post uses an alphabet of symbols, in light of the vocabulary of English [and a side-light or two from Logical/Mathematical symbols], more or less in accordance with the general rules of English language.

h –> We habitually associate the use of such symbols and rules in language-using contexts, with minds that have sufficient freedom of choice and action, that they can select symbols, string them together in accord with conventional rules, compose intentionally directed configurations, and communicate meanings.

i –> Where physical media are involved, the encoded/modulated, transmitted, received and demodulated/decoded symbols of a signal may be corrupted by noise, and the inferred meaning may not be the intended message. (Hence the concept and measure, signal to noise ratio.)

j –> The inference to a received, decoded symbolic message therefore is always an inference to intentionally and intelligently directed configuration, in the face of the possibility of a configuration triggered by noise. That is, it is an inference to design, in the context of:

k–> Thus, if a set of symbols is received and decoded as meaningful and functional in a context where at least one physical variable has been modulated according to a convention for modulation and/or a code, that implies a fairly complex set of co-adapted matching parts: encoders/decoders, modulators/demodulators, transmitters/receivers, and associated protocols, rules and procedures.

l –> In the case of a structured set of symbols expressing an argument, if it is sound, there may be a logical connexion to the meaning. E.g. that Socrates is a man, where men are mortals, means by force of logic, that Socrates is mortal.

m–> In addition, a message in a given situation may also be a sign, that a discerning observer may be able to infer additional (perhaps, inadvertent) significance from. E.g. the way of speaking of a schizophrenic may be a diagnostic sign; as, sadly, seems to be evident from the recent events in Arizona, USA.


With these points in mind, we should now be able to more precisely focus our onward discussion of the significance of the design inference on 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.

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One Response to Background Note: On signs, symbols and their significance

  1. UPDATE, Feb 18: A belated discussion of this thread in light of the objection elsewhere by LT has developed here. I have updated the post today May 20, to underscore the specific usage of “sign” I am making, and the link to the sort of usage that we see for instance in medicine since Hippocrates of Cos. The objections were on a red herring led away to a strawman caricature and used onward in an ad hominem, but this was plainly rhetorically effective, so let the corrective record stand: right form the beginning, I explicitly denoted my particular usage, and when it was objected to, I pointed out its antecedents, I also clarified the way in which the pattern of thought — inference to best explanation — traces to Peirce.

    F/N: this Jan 16 post was foundational, and the silence from objectors is interesting, especially given the significance of symbolic communication as outlined:

    k–> Thus, if a set of symbols is received and decoded as meaningful and functional in a context where at least one physical variable has been modulated according to a convention for modulation and/or a code, that implies a fairly complex set of co-adapted matching parts: encoders/decoders, modulators/demodulators, transmitters/receivers, and associated protocols, rules and procedures.

    This is of course pointing to an irreducible complexity and to an associated functionally specific highly complex organisation involving inherently mental constructs, to create and use symbolic codes that point beyond themselves on an arbitrary but meaningful convention.

    GEM of TKI


    F/N: Evolutionary Materialism advocate L Tanner, has raised several objections here, subsequent to the time when this thread seems to have automatically closed. (NB: he made an off topic comment at a personal blog, which I have removed. [NB 2: I have made a comment to Mr Tanner at his blog, pointing to the corrective remarks below, but on submitting, the comment vanished. This is similar to what happened on a previous occasion, which was worse, comments seemed to appear then vanished. U/D: subsequently LT has manually posted my brief remark.])

    I note in response on several points:

    1 –> LT knows or should know the difference between design thought and creationism, which the Creationists themselves recognise. the use of “Intelligent Design Creationism” is an uncivil slander.

    2 –> He should note as well, the material significance of the term “generally following” above, i.e. I am not claiming to exactly follow Pierce, only I acknowledge our general intellectual indebtedness to his work in this area.

    3 –> He objects to my use of “infer” in the context that Pierce speaks of interpretations. Of course, I am simply using infer in a fairly common sense of that term, whereby we use our rational faculties to move from assumptions, observations, experiences or the like to things we hold, perceive [in the broad sense] or deduce as true; without implying that the inference is a logical implication or in itself necessarily well warranted as true — cf the old fashioned unwarranted inferences test where one is presented with a picture of a scene and is invited to draw one’s conclusions then test them for conclusion-jumping. This may be quite unconscious, or even more or less automatic.

    4 –> Similarly, I drew a contrast above between signs and symbols, noting that for instance, deer tracks are an index pointing to a deer, though not certainly as they may be faked up by a clever enough person. Symbols, by contrast are more or less conventional, whether those glyphs we call letters, or the lion as a culturally based marker of courage or royal power and prestige. (In reality, the lion often simply steals the prey of the hyena; and often depends on the lionesses to do the hunting in the pride.)

    5 –> LT then twists the above contrast and examples into a projected and assumed nefarious agenda to infer to design from signs. In fact, I am simply pointing out that in scientific work as in daily life and contexts where we make momentous decisions, we routinely see patterns of things that, per reliable patterns, and on warranting contexts, we draw the conclusion [explicitly or implicitly, step by step or automatically] that the sign points to the signified:

    I: [si] –> O, on W

    (I, an observer, see a pattern of signs, and infer to a state of objective affairs or an object, on a warrant; starting with, from certain patterns detected on my retina and transmitted onward with processing to the visual cortex of my brain, I infer to the PC screen and text on it, on the warrant that my sight is trustworthy and in light of my background knowledge of certain objects such as PCs, screens and textual symbols in the alphabet; which I then go on to interpret as meaningful linguistic, coded symbols)

    6 –> this brings up the other side of my reasoning above, where instead of addressing signs, I address symbols, per the structures and rules of a code:

    I: {sy} –> M, on W

    (I recognise a [structured, on rules] set of symbols, and interpret their meaning, on a warrant; which would include knowledge of the relevant rules for such symbols, e.g. the string structure of words, spaces and punctuation marks in words and sentences in this post. I of course use warrant to imply that such may be mistaken, but is often good.)

    7 –> LT then goes well beyond the specific context, projecting a whole worldview inference as though it were a controlling question-begging assumption: His real point rests on the premise that in interpreting signs, we infer that their ultimate source is a conscious being . . . 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.

    8 –> This is just the opposite of what I actually am doing. As a scientist and trained observer of the empirical world, I am symbolising the steps implicit in the narrow — as opposed to worldviews level — specific act of observation and inference to a signified state of affairs or object. [In fact the specific context for the above was thinking on the contrast between passive sensor arrays [hydrophones and even retinas] and active sensors such as sonar and radar. On what grounds do we move from patterns of observations to the inferred state of affairs or knowledge — in the sense of well-warranted, credibly true belief — of an object out there? (And what of spoofing, decoying etc.? Hence, deer tracks real or fake, in the context that over the past 20 or so years, deer have inadvertently been introduced into the wilds of my native land, Jamaica, but also the context that people often hunt deer.)

    9 –> Why did LT indulge in that sort of wild inflation of a narrow observation on the common empirically anchored and uncontroversial ground of looking at deer tracks on the flanks of the Blue Mountains in Portland, or in the snow somewhere in say Maine?

    10 –> Sadly, this is all too patent: the better to dismiss the above, on the prejudice that “Creationists” are inevitably ignorant, stupid, insane or wickedly deceptive. And, the better to project the unwarranted accusation of question-begging by erecting a strawman caricature of what I actually said. Sadly, as usual.

    11 –> Worse, the projection of a circular argument is designed to blunt the force of the onward context of discussion, on what best explains functionally organised complexity (in light of what we do actually experience and observe, and what we may analyse), by poisoning the atmosphere.

    12 –> So also, he attempts to poison the discussion, by invoking the canard that analogy is a fallacy. But, analogies are in fact at the heart of inductive reasoning [what gives us well warranted albeit inevitably provisional knowledge of the experienced world], especially by reasoning on significant family resemblance [e.g. how do we identify a given object as a case of life], where also the whole project of science itself is based on induction and on that related argument form just linked: abduction. That is, this is self-referentially incoherent selective hyperskepticism.

    13 –> In correction, I call a hostile witness making an admission against known interest, here Wikipedia in its article on analogy:

    Analogy plays a significant role in problem solving, decision making, perception, memory, creativity, emotion, explanation and communication. It lies behind basic tasks such as the identification of places, objects and people, for example, in face perception and facial recognition systems. It has been argued that analogy is “the core of cognition”.[3] Specific analogical language comprises exemplification, comparisons, metaphors, similes, allegories, and parables, but not metonymy. Phrases like and so on, and the like, as if, and the very word like also rely on an analogical understanding by the receiver of a message including them. Analogy is important not only in ordinary language and common sense (where proverbs and idioms give many examples of its application) but also in science, philosophy and the humanities. The concepts of association, comparison, correspondence, mathematical and morphological homology, homomorphism, iconicity, isomorphism, metaphor, resemblance, and similarity are closely related to analogy. In cognitive linguistics, the notion of conceptual metaphor may be equivalent to that of analogy.

    14 –> Soon enough, we get to the heart of LT’s contentions:

    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.

    15 –> Now this is far afield from the actual focus of the above, but the matter is sufficiently significant and loaded that it requires some correction here. For, first, in fact, the understanding that cells embed many nanomachines is a commonplace in science, indeed in 1998, a certain journal on cell biology devoted an entire issue to just that topic. In particular, the flagellum is a rotary motor, and the Ribosome is a protein assembly device that uses the code in mRNA to string together proteins brought in on tRNAs serving as “taxis” and as position-arm devices to click the AA’s together; one amino acid at a time.

    16 –> Those are basic, well-known facts of observation and direct and significant comparison to materially similar technological entities we create.

    17 –> LT would have been well advised to have examined the Am H D, before dismissing the use of the term machine in connexion with the cell (and even the human body):

    ma·chine (m-shn)n.
    1.a. A device consisting of fixed and moving parts that modifies mechanical energy and transmits it in a more useful form.
    b. A simple device, such as a lever, a pulley, or an inclined plane, that alters the magnitude or direction, or both, of an applied force; a simple machine.
    2. A system or device for doing work, as an automobile or a jackhammer, together with its power source and auxiliary equipment.
    3. A system or device, such as a computer [this of course being an information processing flexible code programmed system], that performs or assists in the performance of a human task: The machine is down.
    4. An intricate natural system or organism, such as the human body.

    18 –> In addition, the living cell both metabolises and self replicates, in so doing involving the elements of the von Neumann Self-Replicator [which was in fact conceived by the thinker of that name in the context of analysing the cell and the logical requisites of its ability to replicate itself, predicting the DNA that would be found a few years later].

    19 –> That the genetic code is just that, a digital, symbolic, rules based system that allows functional messages to be created, transmitted and used to produce proteins, is a basic fact of modern biology.

    20 –> the attempts to distort that basic fact are uttely revealing on the challenges faced by materialists such as LT in explaining its origins, apart form an intelligent designer. (And, by now LT KNOWS — not just should know — that the inference to design as most credible explanatory causal factor in the case of the origin of the functionally specific, complex organisation and information in the cell, is specifically not an inference to the God of the Bible as its author.

    21 –> Such a God is a candidate to be designer of the living cell, but any intelligence with sufficient technology and knowledge is also a possible designer. The selection of which of the possible candidates is the most likely suspect, is a matter at present for a much broader worldviews level discussion, which is not a specifically scientific endeavour. [That a given piece of science may have connexions to wider worldview considerations is not grounds for dismissal on motive mongering, just as I do not object to the claim that Darwinist theory is a scientific enterprise, even though many of its chief advocates from the very beginning had worldview motives and ideological agendas.]

    22 –> So, we see here the trifecta rhetorical tactic — yet again — in action: distractive red herrings led away from the track of truth, to a caricatured strawman soaked in ad hominems, and set alight the better to cloud, choke, confuse, polarise and poison the atmosphere, likely triggering a confused quarrel rather than a serious discussion on the merits.

    23 –> LT then turns to the other side of the analysis, symbols: symbols are not a different species of sign. Rather, symbols lie on a continuum that encompasses indexical, iconic, and symbolic signs.

    24 –> “Continuum” or spectrum of course indicates that there are distinct loci that we may properly distinguish with more or less precision for our purposes: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, for instance. I have simply exercised that common-sense analytical right, having already acknowledged a general debt to Pierce.

    25 –> We now find the key radically relativist subjectivism emerging:

    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.

    26 –> Nope, in many cases, the sign [as I have used the term] points to the objective, causally connected state of affairs that gave rise to it. That screeching sound and blaring horn may well be waring you of an approaching automobile that could knock you down, and the smoke smell and flickering reddish light point to smoke and perhaps a fire in the theatre.

    27 –> By contrast, the EXIT sign that now lights up and the alarm tone that sounds, tell us SYMBOLICALLY, how to respond on certain conventions.

    28 –> In the middle, certain objects like the image of a lion or that of a crown or a flag or the tune of an anthem, are obviously or culturally so strongly associated with certain things that they serve as intuitive representations, i.e icons.

    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.)

    30 –> Going further, LT asserts: 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. Yes, and so what? Without knower, we have no knowledge, but that fact of first person subjectivity in the act of knowing, does not mean that the beliefs we hold to be credible and well-warranted [however inevitably provisionally] are inevitably just a subjective mirage.

    31 –> Indeed, let us observe how confidently LT asserts certain states of affairs are accurate to the real world, in his onward dismissals, inadvertently exposing the selective hyperskepticism and self referential incoherence implied by such radical subjectivism used as objection instead of actually addressing the matter on the merits.

    32 –> That is, observe carefullY; LT nowhere shows a case where actual FSCO/I as described above per observation arises from undirected chance and necessity, rather than by the routinely observed intelligence. So, let us see:

    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.

    33 –> Let us apply this to LT himself: why is he inferring that a certain source, GEM exists, as opposed to lucky noise spontaneously creating a string of objects that are subjectively perceived to be meaningful symbols expressing a claim in English?

    34 –> And if so, wouldn’t this all be about the state of LT’s mind, not any actual possibility that a certain intelligent entity GEM has made a functional arrangement or configuration of certain contingent objects, according to rules for these objects serving as symbols of written English? Why is LT confident that such an intelligent entity as GEM even exists? Or, for that matter, a world external to his brain firing off neural networks — or is he just a simulation in somebody’s computer somewhere?

    35 –> The absurdities are patent. This comes out even more strongly in LT’s conclusion:

    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.

    36 –> But the issue is not a foundation of semiotics and the absurdities of subjectivism as just seen. It is the basic — and scientifically foundational — exercise of drawing out the fact that we exist as observers and in observing make inferences from signs and symbols to objective states of affairs, objects and meanings, as key steps in doing science. ALL SCIENCE.

    37 –> In short, LT’s selective hyperskepticism has reached reduction to absurdity and lies exposed as fundamentally anti-scientific and irrational.

    We trust LT can do better next time.

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