Parable of the Codebook

Regarding the discussion of materialism, and specifically the analogy with a chest of drawers containing game moves on cards, a reader writes in this comment and question. He is using his own analogy to frame the question, which he puts as follows:

Let me see if I understand your position:

A visitor at a car factory asks a worker what the manager hopes to achieve by beginning production on a more expensive model of car than what was previously being produced, despite this model being much more difficult to produce (aka what the aim of manufacturing the new model is).

The worker could give him the most detailed description of how the new car would be produced in a presentation that would take days or weeks and several skilled mechanics to fully explain all of the details and procedures that are done when making the car and there would also even before physicists to explain the precise interactions of atoms taking place while the car is begin assembled.

But you are essentially arguing that no matter how descriptive this explanation is it will not ultimately answer the simple question of why the new model is being produced?

Yes. More to the point, I am saying that since the simple question of why cannot be answered by the mechanics and the physicist, it is not an answer that can be reduced to a description of atoms in motion.

Meanwhile, materialism claims that all things are matter, that everything, such as the mind, which seems not to be matter is an epiphenomenon or side effect of matter and could be reduced to matter in theory.

Hence, the materialist must conclude that all things can be reduced to a description of matter in motion. If there is even one thing that cannot be reduced to a description of matter in motion, materialism is false.

I say the one thing that cannot be reduced to descriptions or matter in motion is symbols, on the grounds that the act of representation is not a material or mechanical act.

He writes:

I admittedly can think of one possible answer (although I believe there is a fatal flaw in it.)

The answer would be as follows:

The atoms composing the manager’s brain produce the correct chemical combination that brings him to make the decision to produce the more expensive car as he has associated wealth with the satisfaction of all his evolutionary and instinctive drives and has determined that producing the more expensive car will indeed create more wealth. 

Another good question, and you are correct there is a fatal flaw. Let me see if I can explain.

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that you have a brain-atom scanner that  can, without killing the factory owner, examine the atoms in his brain and tell  you their location, charge, and other physical properties.

If the properties are physical and not mental properties, they will be  properties like angular vector, acceleration, temperature, current, and so on.

I take the scientific community at its word when it says that all physical  properties can be reduced to expressions of standard international units. Such  as a derived value as acceleration can be expressed in terms of fundamental values length (measured in meters) and  time (measured in seconds).

I deduce that anything which cannot be expressed in these terms, a number followed by a unit measure, is not a physical property.

So let us assume the brain-atom reader is calibrated to give the brain atom  position in terms of x,y,z coordinates, measured in micrometers, with a w  coordinate expressing charge measured in microvolts.

Thus, turning the reader on  a random passer by the machine ping and you get your readings:

  • 5mm, 23mm, 11mm, -40 mV
  • 4mm, 24mm, 89mm, -90 mV

and so on, for some 10^26 number of atoms.

I think it is obvious that “5mm, 23mm, 11mm, -40 mV” does not mean anything to  anyone. So where is the intention of the factory owner? Where is the ‘why’?

Referring to the owner’s manual of the brain atom scanner, you read that there  is a codebook, laboriously compiled, expressing what the person subjectively  said his brain atoms were thinking at the time when scanned, and cross  referenced to each and every individual in the human race.

Hence the codebook says: 5mm, 23mm, 11mm, -40 mV represents the thought “Ouch! I have a brain probe  sticking in my head!”

4mm, 24mm, 89mm, -90 mV represents the thought “I will lie to the man writing  the codebook, and claim I am thinking about a cheese sandwich.”

And so on for every possible thought a human being can think. They are all in  the codebook.

The electron volt values of the brain atom measurement is in the  righthand column and the corresponding thought it represents is in on the same  rank the lefthand column.

Flipping through the codebook, you find the entry for someone with the genetics,  memory, and brain structure type of the factory manager, and look up his  reading, which, let us say, is 13mm, 31mm, 39mm, -70 mV.

This code represents  “We are hoping to open up a new market with a luxury car, which, even if more  expensive, will sell in sufficient volume, particularly overseas, to make a  profit. I also want to impress my girlfriend by being responsible for a new car  line.”

Now, here is my question: what is the meaning of that word “represents”?

The two  lines, one representing the brain atom numbers, and the other, representing the  thought the numbers represent, are written on the same row. This shows that  whatever is written in the lefthand column is a symbol or a sign of whatever is  written in the right.

But the act of assigning a symbolic value to a numerical expression is a  symbolic act, not a material one.

And there is a paradox.

For even if you were reading the brain atoms of the man  writing the codebook during the moment when he was writing it, so that you saw  which brain atoms were active when he wrote the word ‘represents’, you would  still need a codebook yourself to read it.

And your codebook would contain words  in English, which you need to give meaning to otherwise meaningless rows and  rows of numbers.

And if someone were reading your brain in turn, he would also  need a codebook to give meaning to the meaningless numbers.

And so on, in an infinite regression.

I suppose the man who wrote the first codebook could have his brother writing a codebook at the same time, and each codebook could be expressed in terms of brain atom values in the other codebook. Reading the codebook would be like a snake eating its tail: you would need to read the first before you read the second, but you would need to read the second before you read the first. No matter how you read which codebook in which order, at some point you have to translate the meaningless material marks into their qualities as symbols, and say what they mean.

Hence there must be a first codebook. Hence the first codebook itself cannot be reduced to a number value.

The thing that tells you what the meaningless numbers mean cannot itself be a meaningless number.

But if everything  mental could be reduced to its material expression, it could be.

The codebook acts as the way to climb from the meaningless material world into  the world of the mind, where the meaning is kept. If the two worlds are in  perfect lockstep, that is, if they share the same form (as they do in limited cases like mathematics, or mathematical games like chess) then the representations in the codebook will keep perfect  track one with the other.

In those cases, the material and the mental can be confused with each other by the unwary, because the material symbols representing the mental reality will always be in a one-to-one correspondence with each other. The adding machine, if the gears and wheels and keys are labeled correctly, will always come up with a correct sum, just as a mind would do, if it went through the sums one by one, and made no mental mistakes.

But whether the worlds are in lockstep or not makes no difference to the fact  that they are two different worlds. One world is meaningless, has no intentions,  and can be expressed solely in terms of numbers and unit measures. The other  world is meaningful and intentional, and cannot be expressed solely in terms of  numbers and unit measures.

“How does the cue ball strike the eight ball?” is a question that can be  answered with mechanics. You can give the angle and velocity and mass of the  balls, and predict their final positions. “Why should I knock the eight ball  into the side pocket?” cannot be expressed in those terms.

If something cannot be expressed in material terms, it is senseless to say it is  material.