Word and Object

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Strange Signs

April 1st, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 5 Comments

The way signs work is complex enough as it is.  Not only is there the sign, but also: that which is signified; the person responding to it; and the social conventions that give it meaning.  A “stop sign” at an intersection, for example, has no inherent or intrinsic properties.  It commands us to brake the car, and we do so, because it’s a traffic law.  Among other effects, this has social utility, because it tends to minimize the likelihood of collisions, with their attendant personal and economic cost.  So strong is this pull that most of us still come to a halt, even at 2:AM, when there are no other cars for as far as the eye can see, because we are acculturated to obey the rule. 

In principle, though, the stop sign could be almost anything else.  It could be square instead of hexagonal; green instead of red; and be inscribed with the word “go,” instead of the word “stop.”  What’s important is the semiotic relationship between these elements, their mode of signification, the behavior triggered by the sign, and the web of meaning surrounding these elements.

The power of the stop sign depends on human agreement.  As characterized by John Searle, it is an “institutional fact,” as opposed to a “brute fact,” such as the height of Mount Everest, The Construction of Social Reality 2 (1985).  It is an invisible feature of our “socially constructed reality.”  It is not functional, like a screwdriver, which needs to be a certain shape in order to accomplish its purpose.  Nor is it world-constrained, like the Hoover Dam or the Golden Gate Bridge.  Hoover Dam had to be built at the narrowest gorge in the Grand Canyon in order to effectively block the flow of the Colorado River.  The Golden Gate Bridge was built as a straight line between to promontories defining the entrance to San Francisco Bay.  It does not meander in, say, a semi-circular pattern.

Screwdrivers, dams and bridges are not signs, thought they may be incorporated into them and later acquire a signifying role, e.g., a scenic picture of the Golden Gate Bridge may come to mean, “Visit San Francisco on Holiday.” 

Signs per se, on the other hand, are arbitrary.  Their combination of symbols just as easily could mean something else.  Their meaning, as Searle says at 12, is “observer relative.”  Observer-relativity in turn depends on (1) the agreement (or imposition) of function; (2) cooperative behavior; and constitutive rules, which exist only because of the human institutions that adopt them.  These in turn comprise a set of “background capacities,” enabling us to function in the world, 129.

Unfortunately, Searle misleading calls element (2) “collective intentionality,” 23, which assumes a kind of teleology.  As economists such as Fredrich A. Hayek have observed, teleology “occurs only on the level of the individual, who has purposes planned only for the short-term future.  The entire system has a teleological structure only in so far as those individual teleologies interact to govern the dynamical behavior of the entire system.”  The long-term evolution of a biological or economic system, however, is “unpredictable and any trends which may be visible at a given time could be reversed in the future,” Barrow, J. & Tipler, F., The Anthropic Principle 140 (1986).

Whatever its provenance, the schematic of signs breaks down in the case of strange signs.  By “strange signs,” I mean signs that, because they are (or can become) ambiguous, end up not doing their job.  They either are ignored; communicate no meaning; or actually communicate a meaning that is not at all what was intended by the creator of the sign.  Three examples I will consider are: (1) the pedestrian no-crossing sign at the border checkpoint in San Onofre, California; (2) the Carl Sagan space probe plaque; and (3) the (proposed) sign at the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

 1.            The San Onofre Check-Point Sign

This sign is intended to communicate a warning to immigrants not to run across Interstate 5, which is the high-speed freeway the border check-point intercepts.  The reason why immigrants should not attempt to cross the freeway at this point is because a fast-moving automobile may strike them.  This risk is exacerbated at night.  Night-time crossings are probable because they supply a cover of darkness, which in turn minimizes the likelihood of interdiction by Border Patrol agents.  Darkness, however, considerably reduces visibility on the freeway. 

The problem with this sign is that, as a matter of historical fact, it actually has encouraged immigrants (primarily, persons of Hispanic origin) to cross at this point.  They think the sign means to run across the freeway at the spot where the sign is posted, in order to get to the other side.  This is an example of the sign potentially meaning – and having actually meant – the exact opposite of what was intended.

 2.            The Carl Sagan Space-Probe Plaque 

Carl Sagan notoriously designed a plaque that was attached to the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft.  It signifies essential aspects of life on Earth.  Supposedly, any extra-terrestrial being with sufficient intelligence to decode it thereupon would become apprised of human existence and some of its characteristics.

The decipherability of the plaque blatantly depends on an application of the anthropic principle.  As characterized by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle 1: “[O]ur location in the Universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.  The basic features of the Universe, including such properties as its shape, size, age and laws of change, must be observed to be of a type that allows the evolution of observers, for if intelligent life did not evolve in an otherwise possible universe, it is obvious that no one would be asking the reason for the observed shape, size, age and so forth of the Universe” (emphasis in original).  This mild version of the anthropic principle almost certainly is true, albeit vapid.

A stronger version, though, goes on to claim that “the Universe must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage,” Barrow & Tipler 6 (emphasis in original).  In other words, the Universe has to be the way it is, and we have to be in it here on the planet earth, if for no reason other than we perceive it and are capable of making the observation that we do so.  Anthropicists cite recent hypotheses from string theory in modern physics suggesting that, even though in principle there could be any number of possible multi-worlds or alternative universes, in fact very few of them have the unique combination of physical and mathematical properties necessary in order to support life. 

In fact, this hypothesis is absurd, since there are an infinite number of possible galaxies and worlds, and infinity divided by infinity, no matter how small, still is infinity.  “[T]here are other miracles which could occur and lead to anthropically acceptable worlds with a vastly larger probability than our world,” Susskind, L., “The Anthropic Landscape of String Theory,” (2003).

In principle, evidence cited in support of the anthropic principle could be entirely coincidental, Carr, B.J. & Rees, M.J., “The anthropic principle and the structure of the physical world, 278 Nature 605 (Apr. 1979).  To demonstrate its validity, one would have to “multiply reality” “to such an extent that very special events like emergence of Life become quite possible.”  This number, however, would have “to be fairly huge in order to accommodate all the unlikely events leading to modern picture of Life,” Kamenshchik, A. & Teryaev, O., “Many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory and mesoscopic anthropic principle,” (2007). 

A further problem arises from the potential number of observers resident in the many possible alternative worlds.  “The anthropic principle claims that what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.  So it is natural that the probability should not be proportional to the number of observers, rather, it is just the probability for the existence of observers.”  The “anthropic selectional effect does not become stronger just because there can be more observers … there should be an infinite number of observers. … This is more than the finite number of observers like us.  So the question is, why we are human observers, not freak observers. … But if freak observers are infinite, we can not be typical. … [I]f there are both a finite number of humans and a finite number of freak observers (or without freak observers) in our universe, then the anthropic probability for our universe should be infinitely small compared with some other universe with infinite number of freak observers, which can be self-consistently realized,” Li, M. & Wang, Y., “Typicality, Freak Observers and the Anthropic Principle of Existence,” (2007).

Sagan’s space-probe plaque assumes that extra-terrestrial life will be able to understand and decode its inscriptions.  It depicts artifacts of our world, which may not pertain, or in fact be completely different from, those found in any potential other world.  That possible world, if it exists, will be as unintelligible to us, as ours is to them.

3.            The Yucca Mountain Sign

Yucca Mountain is designed as a repository for spent uranium, fuel rods and other waste generated by nuclear power plants.  Its premise is that, rather than carefully storing this detritus at the site of the nuclear power plant where it is generated, it should be tidily packaged and then safely transported to a central location.  Yucca Mountain is located in Nevada, conveniently upwind from Las Vegas.  Las Vegas residents previously have been subjected to large doses of nuclear radiation from early above-ground atomic test experiments.  Evidently some more radiation from spent nuclear fuel rods won’t hurt them, and actually might contribute to their social and environmental well-being.

Yucca Mountain is designed as a repository for spent uranium, fuel rods and other waste generated by nuclear power plants.  Its premise is that, rather than carefully storing this detritus at the site of the nuclear power plant where it is generated, it should be tidily packaged and then safely transported to a central location.  Yucca Mountain is located in Nevada, conveniently upwind from Las Vegas.  Las Vegas residents previously have been subjected to large doses of nuclear radiation from early above-ground atomic test experiments.  Evidently some more radiation from spent nuclear fuel rods won’t hurt them, and actually might contribute to their social and environmental well-being.

The spent nuclear fuel rods will continue to be radioactive for, say, 10,000 years.  It therefore has been thought to be desirable to install some kind of a “universal warning sign” or “permanent marker” in order to designate their location.  Only with such a marker will our distant progeny be able to avoid intrusion into, or interference with, the site. 

The problem is that any sign assumes our descendants will be able to understand its semiotics and signification.  It is highly dubious whether this is so. We cannot, for example, interpret Stonehenge, or the pyramids in Egypt.  They are relics of previous cultures, and our successors surely will face the same difficulty.  This is so even if they might be able to redeploy the nuclear waste for beneficial purposes, e.g., they have devised more efficient extraction or utilization techniques.  Assuming either good or bad, the sign remains incomprehensible.

For that matter, there is no reason to believe they will have language, to begin with.  They might not have any form of communication at all.  They might not even exist as life-forms analogous to us.  And, as with the San Onofre border check-point, there is significant risk that any form of sign actually might encourage the very behavior it was designed to deter.  This could be a disastrous consequence if, as life-forms, they are vulnerable to the same proclivities, as are we.

In conclusion, the concept of the Yucca Mountain sign is futile in principle.  At best, we can rely only on the dangerous nature of the site being transmitted through the evanescent media of pop culture, such as the internet.  When these media (or their successors) expire, then so will knowledge of the site.  Any other alternative is a waste of time.  While this in and of itself is a trivial objection, the sign also is faulty in principle.  The danger of future misinterpretation of it far outweighs any plausible beneficial effect.