I want to take some time to talk about the relativity of words and attributes. Everything we say. When I talk about how good a university is and how they have such a huge variety of courses I always have to relate this somehow to other universities. What is a huge variety? If all universities in the world only have 5 course that they offer, well then having 15 different courses would be a huge variety. If all universities in the world have 50 courses that they offer well then 15 courses is fairly meagre. So everything only makes sense by comparison. But of course you don’t have to explicitly think about how many courses other universities have, you just have to have unconscious expectations. When a university has only 10 courses you may be surprised or disappointed without knowing where your expectations come from. And then you might remember that this other university you were looking at had about 50 courses that it offers. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be conscious but there has to be an expectation of some kind.
Every attribute that we use to describe something has a meaning only because it differentiates things. “Fetch me a long rope”. You can only fulfill this request if you know what a normal and short rope looks like for the person making the demand. And the attribute is only meaningful because there are also short ropes or normal length ropes. Imagine there were only ropes with one kind of length, “Fetch me a long *pause* rope” would soon become “Fetch me a long-rope”. The attribute long wouldn’t be an attribute anymore but would be incorporated into the noun and be used to just determine the object.
So what’s so interesting about relativity? It’s the fact that it’s just everywhere in the world. In everything we do or perceive. Imagine if all horses in the world were white, what would be the point of saying: “Look at that white horse over there”? Again the same fact as above with the rope. The attribute is only useful, is only information, if it is a differentiation. If there are actually horses that are not white. This horse is black and not white. This bit is 0 and not 1. A signal is defined by the lack of noise and vice versa. There has to be an opposite. So is the nature of information, it’s always a comparison of what is and what is not.
Until now we’ve only been talking about adjectives, but what about nouns or verbs themselves? Just as a white horse is a differentiation of a horse, a horse itself is a differentiation of an animal. If the only animal in the world were a horse we would have no distinction between what an animal is and what a horse is, there would be no difference. Just as a white horse is a special instance of a horse, a horse itself is a special instance of an animal. In a sense horse is an attribute of animal.
What kind of an animal? A horse. What kind of a horse? A white horse. What kind of a white horse? A fast white horse. We are always talking about generalization and specialization.
But all these attributes only make sense if there is more than one special instance. Calling a white horse fast implies that there is such a thing as a slow horse. Otherwise the general category and its specific instance would be one and the same thing. A word has no meaning if you say it in every possible circumstance. The purpose of a word is to differentiate, to specify and so is the purpose of every category we make, since words are simply placeholders for categories. If we perceived everything to taste like an orange, well then what would be the point in that? No, we have categories in order to differentiate our experiences and to put them in contrast relative to other things and we give these categories names with our words.
So all we do when uttering a sentence with meaning is to differentiate further and further. Take this sentence for instance:
“I went to the supermarket and bought eggs and milk.”
We could just as well have asked this person consecutive questions:
What kind of a subject did something? “I”
What kind of a thing was this “I” doing? “Going” and “Buying”
What kind of a “Going” and “Buying” was this “I” doing? “Going to the supermarket and buying eggs and milk”
What I want to illustrate with this demonstration is that language is simply about successive differentiation (specialization) of general categories such as a subject and that every specialization can be seen as an attribute to its more general category. “I” is the attribute to subject. What kind of a subject? “I”. And when I say: “Running went to the supermarket and bought eggs and milk.”, you can still understand that sentence and probably already have expectations about what “running” means in this context. In order to make sense “running” has to fit into your general category of a subject. It’s most likely going to be a name of some person. So in order to understand any sentence you need to have defined categories of things. You have to expect some kind of subject and something that this subject is doing. Because all you get are the specific words, you already get the specializations and have to order them into their respective general categories. Just as you always get the full picture when observing the world and subsequently have to categorize things.
Now what is the exact purpose of categorizing things? As I explain more detailed in this post, it is always about making sense of new things that you experience. When you categorize a new being you have encountered as a dog then you are saying okay I haven’t seen anything exactly like this before but it looks like a dog and I know dogs are dangerous / I know dogs are really cuddly creatures and I’m going to run for my life / hug this dog till all my sorrows have vanished. So by categorizing things we are making assumptions about the current situation based on memories of the past. In the past you have made experiences with dogs, every single one of them being slightly different but all of them sharing certain characteristics. Categorization is simply a generalization, an analogy.
But every generalization comes with a price, you lose some information, you disregard some details. Racism is generalization gone bad. That’s why it’s so important to also go into depth, to differentiate. As I said above, that’s the only way words give meaning, to first start out with a general category such as an animal or a horse and then differentiate! A white horse or a fast horse or whatever. If you can’t differentiate then those things carry no information for you, you are blind to the differences. Furthermore this sheds light on the topic of how I can transmit an idea into your head. Words differentiate, which means that they pick out one case from many, this is a white horse and not black or brown or purple. So this means that in order for me to transmit to you the idea of a purple horse you must already have these concepts! The only thing I do is to differentiate your expectations, to tell you to think of a white horse and not purple or black or brown one. Words may only select expectations that are already there, but which you may not have thought of in that way before. Just as a piano has to already have all the sounds you want to play in your song but does not have the song itself. The pianist is the one who picks which sounds are to be played one after another. So when one person communicates to someone else he is evoking different categories and concepts in this persons head in a certain order so that a totally new concept is created in the end.
To get back to information and relative meaning, it’s really hard to give an objective absolute value to something. For example it is much easier to say this strawberry definitely tastes better than the broccoli I ate. And again this doesn’t have to be conscious, it can simply be a little child having eaten broccoli for all of its young existence only to taste the explosive flavour of a sweet strawberry and realize all its past life has been a lie. The thing I want to say here is that all we have going for us is contrast, information is simply relative difference. And the more different sounds, sights, smells, ideas, concepts we encounter, the richer our discriminative abilities become.
Imagine a world consisting only of two objects, a triangle and a rectangle. This is all you would know and this would be all you could differentiate. All the information you needed in this world would be: Is this a triangle or a rectangle? A 0 or a 1. Just one differentiation. The opposite of a triangle would be a rectangle in this world. That would be a very strange world indeed but a very simple one. Now look at the sentence I just wrote: “a very strange world”, you can only understand the meaning of this if you know what a normal world looks like and “a very simple one” again requires the knowledge of how complex the real world actually is. There is no meaning without relativity, without a reference point. You require an expectation, a piece of knowledge, of a normal world, the world we live in in order to understand my sentence, in order to take away any information from my statement. What I’m trying to get at here is that information does not exist without this comparison, without this relativity. You need to ask a question in order to make sense of an answer. The brain has to have expectations and make predictions about its world to gain any information. Information is simply the difference between what we expect to perceive and what our senses actually tell us. In that sense reality is just as much determined by what we believe to see as to what is truly out there.