How Do We Get From Noise to Meaning?

12 May 2015


How do we get from noise to meaning?

Well, however we do it, the result is a sort of a miracle.  I say, “Aristotle had a mole on his back.”  I manage to refer to Aristotle, whom I never met, to put it mildly,  --- he  lived very long ago and very far away.  And I manage to get everyone else to think about Aristotle.  Damn amazing.

Not only do I refer to Aristotle, I say something about him.  My utterance – basically the noise I make ---has a property --- either being true or being false --- that is determined by the state of Aristotle’s back 2500 years ago or so. Miraculous.

And yet, if we look at it from another angle, it seems like a very natural phenomenon.  Animals use noises and dances and other behaviors to share information.   An animal sees a threat --- perhaps a deer sees a coyote.  It reacts.   The trait of reacting in the same way, even if one doesn’t see the coyote, clearly would have survival value.   Couln’t this primitive communication be the beginning of language --- the roots of human language?

I don’t see where else it could have come from, at least if we are looking for a naturalistic explanation.  Maybe in the end we’ll have to conclude that it came as a gift from God exclusively for humans.  But that would take a lot of convincing, in my case.

But there is quite a gap between a deer seeing a coyote, and you saying something about a philosopher who has been dead for a couple of thousand years.  Apart from the remoteness of the subject matter --- long dead Aristotle compared to a coyote lurking behind a tree ---- there is the whole matter of syntax.  In human language, we can put together a finite stock of words to together in different ways, to get at an infinity of sentences, and an infinity of thoughts to, that come to mind even if we have never heard the sentence before.  Not just “Aristotle had a mole on his back, “ but “Aristotle had a mother-in-law whose second husband had daughter who didn’t have a mole on her back, although she worried about it incessantly.”  I’ll wager you’ve never seen that sentence before, but you grasp immediately what things would have had to be like 2500 years ago for it to be true.

If there is a route from that primitive behavior, or even the dances of bees and other more complicated sorts of animal behavior, to what humans do, it’s long an involved.   But, look on the bright side.  IF language weren’t pretty complicated, we couldn’t have the philosophy of language.  And Ken and I would be lucky to  be sweeping floors at Stanford, instead of being the illustrious professors we try to be.   Not to mention linguists!  Many of them are perfectly charming human beings, like our producer Devon!

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Comments (10)

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

You mean, it?s not ?wired-in?

You mean, it?s not ?wired-in??
Human language is a tremendous achievement, but this doesn?t mean it is not a human creation, that it is a divine gift or a representation of some transcendent mechanics. In fact, though it is a fact requiring demonstrations too extensive to present here, it is proof that the conceit of such a divine or transcendent source is inadequate to explain its expressive power. It is, in fact, the special reality of the loss of that conceit and the special articulacy of the freedom this loss enables in its response that constitutes the dramatic completeness of time the act of being it is. The dramatic completeness of that lost conceit and that enabled freedom is the birth of language and the completest proof that all our prior theories about its emergence are wrong.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The phrase "from noise to

The phrase "from noise to meaning" brings to my mind the "noise" genre of music, which seems to be frequently questioned as to whether it is music at all. I believe that it does constitute music, and what the genre suggests to me is that there is a possibility for meaning even within noise - however paradoxical that may sound. What constitutes noise and what constitutes a meaningful signal seems to be a matter of degree to me, with the meaning getting more and more abstract or ambiguous as it becomes closer to the noise end of the spectrum. I suppose the extraordinary aspect of human language is its ability to be extremely precise on the other end of the spectrum, where meaning is much more concrete. 

MJA's picture


Wednesday, May 13, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Doesn't every noise have a

Doesn't every noise have a meaning? =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, May 14, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Sorting out "noise" from

Sorting out "noise" from "coherent sound" smacks of just that dogmatic conviction in a mechanistic explanation that precludes, or proscribes, agency. There is, in fact, something in the noise more coherent than music. Because there is something to time anomalous to what would explain it in mechanistic terms. This is, in fact, as true of material phenomena as it is of the human voice. And the difference between real fact and rational inference is the nexus of the issue. Because reason cannot close the gap between fact and validity. Only something anomalous to both can supply the needed term. Insofar as each of us brings that noise to the issue and can respond in recognition of the freedom we hear in that noise, something more lyrical than music is made.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, May 17, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

No interest? Finally, a

No interest? Finally, a properly philosophical question, and and what?..... nothing much. I suggest reading Plato's Cratylus. It covers this question rather brilliantly. More brilliantly, at least, than modern hacks on the issue.
You might as well ask how sounds intend. The formulation of the question is clumsy in this sense, for it implies the meaning is in the word rather than in the meaning we find in each other. Until you know how to look, there is no point in starting. A proper point of departure is called for. I think we have all had that eerie experience of thinking we are hearing a foreign language only to realize it is our own. And not just thence, but somehow we catch up on what has already been said. There is a kind of memory of what we thought we were not able to be conscious of, a sort of blind sight that only reveals itself in weird settings where disparities between what we suppose we perceive and what we ultimately come to perceive are made evident. If consciousness were attention only we would live like we were wearing blinders. But the blinders come off if we learn to be less narrowed in our thinking than in our perceptions's picture

Friday, May 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I listened to the podcast

I listened to the podcast with John Searle, "From Noise to Meaning," and found a lot of disturbing assertions were made by him and also by Ken & John, none of whom have expertise in nonhuman animal cognition. 
Searle repeatedly described nonhuman animal vocalization in a diminishing manner as mere "reactions to stimuli." The assertion is presumptuous. If I say that Chinese is gibberish to me, nothing but noise without meaning, you'd find the statement ridiculously ignorant. You'd point out that I simply don't understand Chinese, and if I did, I would change my opinion.
I'm proposing that Searle likely doesn't know exactly what dogs mean when they bark, and that he's arrogant and presumptuous not to entertain the possibility that his knowledge might be deficient in this area.
I could go on, but one more thing: Why on earth frame the discussion of philosophy of human language in terms of its supposed superiority over other forms of animal communication, especially when the participants have little or no expertise outside of human language?
The world is a mess thanks to humans--how is human language superior in this context in the first place?
Very disturbing, provocative, but nevertheless stimulating discussion.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, May 22, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Language is thought to refer

Language is thought to refer to the form of the logical proposition, which is thought to be the very substance of eternity, which is thought to be our ticket to paradise, and no animal need apply. Arrogance? You bet!

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, May 30, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I suppose they call them word

I suppose they call them word processors because calling them writing programs would confuse the hell out of the damn geeks. By all means, ambiguity must be avoided at all costs, if we are to live in a properly killed and thoroughly embalmed dead language. But whoever would suppose for one minute that the origin of language was inhibited rather than nurtured by ambiguity needs to think again. There are many instances of vocalizations that are clearly instinctive, but these are also clearly icons of behavior, and not deliberative. But most vocalizations and gestures meant to convey meaning have qualities to them more variable than so obviously reflexive. Gestures and sounds alter in the circumstances until the hearer responds either by getting the message or by choosing to ignore it. But in order to see the engine of language in this give-and-take you have to give up on regarding ambiguity as anathema to its emergence. Ambiguity is the very life of language, where today?s geeks rely on a dead language purged of ambiguity to operate their machine minds. The living language, speech, embodies the vibrancy of unresolved ambiguity, and so it grows more complete and more completely expressive of the meaning and of the response of which it is so magnificently capable. The dead language, writing, is like the specimen pinned in wax for dissection. We should have learned centuries ago, as biologists long since have done, that we cannot understand development of species, or of language, by analyzing its dead structures.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 8, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael asked:doesn't every

Michael asked:doesn't every noise have a meaning? Probably so. But also (probably), most  meaningful noises we hear everyday just do not command much of our attention. That tree, falling in the forrest makes a noise, whether we are there to hear it or no. The sound could mean one or more of several things: the tree was old; dead; felled by a strong wind or a lumberman or undermined by an earthquake or some other geological/topographical disturbance. In any case, for our interest or the lack thereof, it was just another tree. This is a case of audible noise. There are, in the realm of humans and other higher life forms, other kinds of "noise" that might be better classified as ambient, that is, they have meaning yet are unheard. A look may be a dangerous thing if it is not followed by a meaningful dialog. Such ambient noise is an experiential phenomenon, ground into the fabric of socialization by repetition of expected action and reaction. This is one means we apply in order to distill meaning from noise without uttering one word. All of us engage in this dance everyday, and, to that extent, yes, it is hardwiring.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, June 9, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I'm confused. Is meaning an

I'm confused. Is meaning an objective fact to be discovered, or a process of negotiation?
Can we alter the dramatic moment, the context of the utterance, without consciously setting parameters of terms? How much of human speech is clarification? Rather a lot, I'd say. Which means it ain't 'hard wired' at all. Incidentally, my take on Chomsky is that he hasn't made his case at all, he just keeps reasserting his premise as proof of his conclusion. But as for animals, it is largely unlikely that specific sounds have specific significance, though this is well argued to be the case with some species. But, for the most part, I think, the sounds they make are not initially critical. It's the inflection that carries the sense of it. Dogs and cats bark and meow in an astonishing variety of cadences and pitch, and clearly make adjustments as they see how they are responded to.
"Noise" is the physics term for anomaly. It is a little sloppy to sidestep such a significance. But the qiestion is, what if meaning is anomaly? If so, we need a lot of revision before we even raise the question so clumsily asked in this thread. Also, by the way, anyone who has handled a human brain would laugh at the expression "hard-wired" as attributed to anything about it!