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Suppose there is a universe that doesn't have any conscious beings in it, but only humans and other animals that are all philosophical zombies. Now, the humans in that universe utter certain sounds with their vocal cords, and also type on keyboards and write words, just like they do in our universe. My question is, would those sounds and writing actually mean anything in that universe, since there is no mental understanding or images associated with those sounds and writing, because there is no mental phenomenon at all in that universe? Basically, would language be meaningless, if there were no conscious beings?

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    Title question asks if meaning, last sentence asks if meaningless. A bit confusing when reading answers.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 21, 2022 at 18:52
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    Yes. Formal systems still have model-theoretic semantics, regardless of humans' opinions about the matter. DNA transcription is an example process which existed prior to humanity and arguably before consciousness.
    – Corbin
    Oct 22, 2022 at 16:29
  • @Corbin So, 'meaning' in this case would be: "it predicts / controls a cause-effect loop with many stages." 'Agency' could be a similar term, depending on how you see that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 23, 2022 at 12:50
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    @ScottRowe: Meaning, or semantics (nLab), is just an interpretation of given syntax. We can embed concrete semantics as physical artifacts!
    – Corbin
    Oct 23, 2022 at 20:02
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    Ill-formed question: you presuppose that without consciousness, language would still exist (taking that for granted, which should not be, you address the problem of meaning). To start, you should consider if existence would be possible without consciousness; e.g. without humans, animals or atoms would still interact, but, is that language? when does language start to exist?
    – RodolfoAP
    Nov 2, 2022 at 8:05

9 Answers 9

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The straightforward answer is "no". Valuing and meaning, in conventional usage, require a valuer, and an agent to assign meaning. And in a P-zombie world, there is no agent, and no valuer.

There is a trick that consciousness-deniers try, of redefining conscious-requiring terms like will and free will, in NON-agent "functional" definitions. You will see this for meaning and value as well. They propose that things like will, meaning, agency, etc could exist in this redefined sense. This argument is TRUE. If we come up with a new definition for a term, then the new term may apply, even when the old one does not. But the intentions of those doing this redefinition are not pure. The purpose of these arguments is to obscure the actual magnitude of what is missing in their worldview. Using words that for most of us imply their conventional meanings, is for the purpose of applying a gloss of APPEARING to agree with conventional meanings while obscuring what they are actually claiming and thinking. Which, if they were fully straightforward, they would instead say "no", P-zombies do not have meaning or valuing.

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  • I often wonder why some people want to deny that meaning and value exist? What's in it for them?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 21, 2022 at 18:50
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    @ScottRowe -- my answer may be overly negative, as I think it is for propagandistic reasons, to try to dismiss/minimize a major flaw in their worldview, rather than accept it, and correct their views. This would therefore be as much for them, to avoid thinking about a flaw, as for others. But instead ask such an advocate. The author of the other answer on this question is doing just such redefining.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 21, 2022 at 18:59
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    „But the intentions of those … are not pure.“ What a valueless sentence. Who defines what pure is? What is the meaning of pure at all? Oct 21, 2022 at 21:16
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    Evaluating the motives of others is intrinsic to being human. Have you really never encountered motivated reasoning, ideological dogmatism, or propaganda that can be directed at oneself? Most philosophers of mind and psychologists today are embarrassed by the obvious bogus reasoning if behaviorism that dominated both subjects for a large portion of the 20th century. Impure motivated reasoning is a big part of philosophy of minds recent history.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 22, 2022 at 0:49
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    @PaulWasilewski For me, "pure" means "not self-serving" in the above context. Oct 23, 2022 at 12:26
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P-Zombies don't have a consciousness, but that doesn't mean they have NO mental processes, or don't need to communicate. In fact, the whole idea of a P-Zombie is that it's indistinguishible to an outside observer from a person with consciousness. So everything about P-Zombie world needs to be the same as in our world. P-Zombies communicate.

Consider computers, which arguably have no consciousness, yet communicate all the time through simple languages we have defined for them (think networking, think inter-process communication). These languages, though simple and very restricted, have meaning associated by those who created it. Note that, as the Chinese room, a computer doesn't need to "understand" anything about the language. It follows certain rules, we get more or less complex communication that has a meaning. The meaning might only be understood by us who created the language, but the computers can USE it just fine. IMO the main reason we haven't been so successful with teaching natural language associated with semantics is because we still don't really understand it so well, and suck as teachers.

I note that regardless of being P-Zombie or not, communication is a vital aspect of social behavior, which is an evolutionary factor. So even if we imagine that even in the past everything was P-Zombies, communication should still evolve, and have rules and meaning.

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    But the question is not "Would language exist if there was no consciousness?" but "Would language have meaning if there was no consciousness?" You consider computers that communicate all the time through simple languages, but "These languages have meaning associated by those who created it." So, meaning is for us and not for the computers... Oct 21, 2022 at 7:26
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA Some plants emit certain chemicals when they sense being eaten that warn other plants to release toxins. Or something like that. This is an evolved behavior, let's say completely based on reflexes with no conscious experience involved. But still communication. Would you consider this communication to have "meaning"? Depending on your answer to that, you get your answer.
    – kutschkem
    Oct 21, 2022 at 8:13
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA: Yet humans arose from non-conscious processes, so we know there is a level of complexity & interaction even of non-conscious subsystems that we call conscious, & consider able to have meaning (eg by having a self-model & dispositional states/intentions). If a system of p-zombies is indistinguishable from conscious humans, that is stating that non-conscious things can use meaning in the same way as conscious beings.
    – CriglCragl
    Oct 21, 2022 at 16:46
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    @CriglCragl At a certain point, "if p-zombies can do XYZ then" is just the principle of explosion. Just because we think we can imagine non-conscious beings with certain properties, that doesn't mean those beings could or would actually exist or arise. (A non-conscious conscious being is a contradiction, and a non-conscious rock is not; there's some point between the two where the contradictions start and our conclusions about the hypothetical cease to be meaningful.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 21, 2022 at 21:12
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    "Consider computers" - this is related to the Chinese room and is basically the P-zombie version applied to the AI. Then again, the question is if P-zombies are even possible: if a device operates like a clock on the outside, it must operate like a clock inside (yes, there are different ways to build a clock). Apply the same to consciousness.
    – rus9384
    Oct 22, 2022 at 12:16
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For example, Bacteria have own languages [1] (including different dialects [2]) and communicates by chemical signals. Are these languages and communication consciousness? Definitely not¹. Would these languages exist without consciousness? Yes definitely. According to latest scientific knowledge bacteria existed thousand of million years before (what many of us define as) consciousness (life) on earth. Does it have value and meaning (even without consciousness)? Yes absolutely. Otherwise life (as we know) would not have been evolved the way it is.

Consciousness is not necessary for value and meaning in language nor for the presence of it. Consciousness gives us as individuals the possibility of self-reflection, self-knowledge and self-transcending. Hence, the ability to recognize and form (us as conscious individuals in relation to) a language and the ability to change and extend the value and meaning of a language (consciously for us as individuals).

Furthermore, (from a linguistic perspective) Language is only a (loose) reference through a concept we have in our mind to the things in the world [3]. And even that we share the same symbols (Language) for reference, the concepts in our minds of the things in the world are individual (and incomplete).

The only case were language without consciousness wouldn’t exist and would be valueless and meaningless, is when the world and everything in and around it wouldn’t exist without (your) consciousness.

Cogito, ergo sum [Rene Descartes]


¹ I am referring here to the traditional philosophy of mind view on (self-) consciousness starting from Descartes over Kant, Husserl, Heidegger to Satre. As pointed out in the comments by @Dcleve there are other philosophers who argued that bacteria might be consciousness.

[1] Schauder S, Bassler BL. The languages of bacteria. Genes Dev. 2001 Jun 15;15(12):1468-80. doi: 10.1101/gad.899601. PMID: 11410527.

[2] Languages and dialects: bacterial communication beyond homoserine lactones Brameyer, Sophie et al. Trends in Microbiology, Volume 23, Issue 9, 521 - 523

[3] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_of_reference

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  • "Bacteria have an own language" Citation needed. Not all communication is language. Oct 22, 2022 at 0:40
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    @curiousdannii citiation added. Oct 22, 2022 at 7:51
  • It seems that we could tentatively agree that meaning comes before consciousness. It feels like someone needs to be aware of it, but maybe not. When AI systems soon are automatically doing things for us that they determined we would probably want, the question will come up again.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 23, 2022 at 12:56
  • Your claim that bacteria are "obviously" not conscious is disputed, so no, it is not obvious. Karl Popper, Nicholas Humphries, and Lynn Margulis are three significant researchers and philosophers who explicitly hold that bacteria are conscious.
    – Dcleve
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:13
  • @Dcleve, interesting. What was their argumentation? Nov 6, 2022 at 17:38
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Suppose there was a name without meaning, and a meaningless form to which it was assigned. This is precisely the case of place-holders; syntactical markers suited for a semantic frame or model, such as the propositional variables in quantified theories of logic. The propositional variable P stands for any proposition whatsoever, and is a generic sign, which has no rigorous meaning in itself outside of the formal system. A fully-desemantified sign is meaningful precisely as a type or token; but the interpretation of the meaning of the name of a type, producing a cognitive model predicting the formal role of tokens of that type, can have validity only for actual users of the formal system; at the limit a sign need not be meaningful beyond a desemantified residue to any entity at all, but only interpretable — ie it may exist as an instruction or code.

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  • The good old "Execute In Any Order" instruction.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 23, 2022 at 13:07
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There are certain processes in this world that necessarily require "sentient beings" (not necessarily only humans) in order to take place as they do, produce the effects that they do and thus have the meaning that they do.

Leaving aside if bacteria and the like can have some basic awareness, let's focus on humans.

It has been argued by Wittgenstein that language can only exist at public domain requiring more than one sentient beings for it to take place and have meaning, thus also proving other minds.

Similarly it has been argued by Sartre that the "Look" of another creates such a response in us exactly because it objectifies us through the "Other" thus also proving other minds.

Language, the Look, and other processes (eg art), can only exist as they exist only because there are sentient beings.

When we use terms such as "language" we intentionally mean this exact way of existing. Someone may argue for existence of "language" in a zombie world, but only at the cost of stripping the concept "language" off the way of existing as it exists. In this sense, that new concept could be called anything eg "goofoos" since it is now unrelated to any concept of "language" as we know it, producing the effects that we know.

PS for a view on the zombie argument itself see my other answer

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  • Satre’s concept The Look cannot be applied to something (unconsciousness) like language. Where do you get the conclusion from? Oct 23, 2022 at 3:49
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    @PaulWasilewski it is not applied to language, it is given as an example, along "language", of processes that necessarily require sentient beings in order to take place as they do
    – Nikos M.
    Oct 23, 2022 at 6:12
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    Perhaps proof of the Look is that beings react to pictures of eyes similarly to actual eyes. Birds avoid eye-like decoys, and people behave more cautiously when posters of eyes are nearby. This had to evolve because in the actual case, it was effective. I'll be interested to hear about the very first time an AI passes the Mirror Test, or recognizes its own text style.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 23, 2022 at 13:02
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Language can still change the state of the universe. If an unconscious computer sends a signal to another unconscious computer that can still impact the physical state of the world.

But your usage of the word meaning is not well defined. If it is, for you, defined as having an impact on conscious creatures, then no, and neither could anything else.

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  • Everything has an impact on consciousness creatures like us. Consciousness is defined/shaped by the things (in the world) around it [Jean Paul Satre] Oct 22, 2022 at 20:35
  • His question is literally asking what if there is no consciousness, so not in this case. Oct 22, 2022 at 23:25
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Would language have meaning, if there was no consciousness?

(emphasis mine) The answer depends on how one defines the terms above:

No
If by meaning we mean the significance attributed to utterings/messages by humans, then without consciousness there is no one to attribute meaning to the messages. In this case the question in the title is reduced to the famous "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Yes
However, animals, lacking consciousness still exchange signals: dogs bark, wolfs howl, crows crow, frogs croak, bees dance, even bacteria emit chemical signals. All these signals/messages communicate information to the species of the same kind (but possibly also to others, like predators.) In this sense these messages are meaningful, even if they are not consciously interpreted.

But No
One could however question whether the messages of the kinds mentioned above constitute a language. E.g., modern linguistic theories often view language as a set of rules by which an infinite number of messages can be created from a finite number of elements. Most of animal communication mentioned above is reduced a finite number of hard-coded signals, the true language with its infinite possibilities of creating new meaning is limited to humans and some other closely related species - and thus arguably inseparable from consciousness.

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  • Animals are clearly conscious.
    – Dcleve
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:15
  • @Dcleve certainly not animals - I intentionally gave a list going all the way down the evolutionary tree.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:17
  • Did you leave out an "all" in that last comment? Nobody who has spent time with dogs can credibly deny they are conscious. If you are trying to claim bacteria are not conscious, they are not animals, and even then you have to argue the point. I listed prominent disputants in comment on another answer: "Your claim that bacteria are "obviously" not conscious is disputed, so no, it is not obvious. Karl Popper, Nicholas Humphries, and Lynn Margulis are three significant researchers and philosophers who explicitly hold that bacteria are conscious."
    – Dcleve
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:24
  • @Dcleve well, since you posted your own answer - what are your specific suggestions for improving this one? I remind you that, per SE policy, comments section is not for a discussion. So I don't see the point of your comment... unless you simply inform me of the reason for a downvote.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 2, 2022 at 15:27
  • I have not downvoted this answer. My comment was that the first sentence of your second paragraph contains an invalid assumption: "animals, lacking consciousness" is a false assumption. At least some animals clearly have consciousness, and possibly all do. I would recommend a rewrite of your second paragraph. You could possibly do so, even with respect to people, by noting our internal communication and processing is almost exclusively unconscious.
    – Dcleve
    Nov 2, 2022 at 16:09
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This question has many questions within it and I will answer them all with stating that first off, it is a fact that without a consciousness a being would be brain-dead.The brain cells could not function to the level of awareness that they'd require for the proposed functions to be carried out. The answer is no. "Consciousness is the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world." "Consciousness emerges from the operations of the brain"-In quotes was extracted from Google.

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Yes according to Peter Watts, as wonderfully and plausibly presented in his novel Blindsight

Sorry this is a bit of a spoiler for the book but a good summary from its Wikipedia page

The exploration of consciousness is the central thematic element of Blindsight.[6][7][8] The title of the novel refers to the condition blindsight, in which vision is non-functional in the conscious brain but remains useful to non-conscious action

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  • Ok. Please include part of the assertion in your answer?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 23, 2022 at 12:58

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