The epigenesis of meaning in human beings, and possibly in robots

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Abstract

This article addresses a classical question: Can a machine use language meaningfully and if so, how can this be achieved? The first part of the paper is mainly philosophical. Since meaning implies intentionality on the part of the language user, artificial systems which obviously lack intentionality will be `meaningless' (pace e.g. Dennett). There is, however, no good reason to assume that intentionality is an exclusively biological property (pace e.g. Searle) and thus a robot with bodily structures, interaction patterns and development similar to those of human beings would constitute a system possibly capable of meaning – a conjecture supported through a Wittgenstein-inspired thought experiment. The second part of the paper focuses on the empirical and constructive questions. Departing from the principle of epigenesis stating that during every state of development new structure arises on the basis of existing structure plus various sorts of interaction, a model of human cognitive and linguistic development is proposed according to which physical, social and linguistic interactions between the individual and the environment have their respective peaks in three consecutive stages of development: episodic, mimetic and symbolic. The transitions between these stages are qualitative, and bear a similarity to the stages in phylogenesis proposed by Donald (1991) and Deacon (1997). Following the principle of epigenetic development, robotogenesis could possibly recapitulate ontogenesis, leading to the emergence of intentionality, consciousness and meaning.

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  • Philosophy
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155-195
JournalMinds and Machines
Volume11
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2001
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes