with thanks to John Ringland
In general, a symbol is an imperfect representation of some underlying pattern. For example, knowledge is an imperfect symbolic representation of the truth of some situation or perception is an imperfect symbolic representation of the appearance of some situation.
A ‘symbol’ can be encoded within any information medium such as neural activity, ink on paper, sound modulations, binary data, words in a language, etc, depending on which system is under consideration.
Only in ‘formal’ systems such as mathematics, logic or software can an underlying pattern be fully revealed by a symbol. For example, lossless encoding of a digital file, e.g. zip compression where the full original can be perfectly recreated.
For general systems information is dissipated as entropy during the encoding, transmission and decoding of the pattern.
The underlying pattern has Kolmogorov complexity (inherent structure). The encoding captures some of this complexity and transmits it in the form of Shannon information, which is subject to noise and is then decoded into an internal pattern, which is a symbolic representation of the underlying pattern.
Information is lost during encoding. For example, lossy encoding of a digital file, e.g. jpg or mp3 where only some information is selected and encoded thus the original pattern cannot be fully revealed.
Information is also dissipated during transmission due to noise, which introduces new signals that reduce the accuracy of the symbolic representation.
Information is also dissipated during decoding due to imperfect codecs. For example, decoding a zip file using the jpg codec results in nonsense (all Shannon information is converted to entropy) or interpreting quantum mechanics or mystic metaphysics within a naïve realist conceptual framework.
Only if the codecs match, if the transmission system is noiseless and the receiving system has the requisite variety (sufficient complexity) can they potentially convey the full underlying pattern.
Thus there is usually information from the underlying pattern which is not captured by and cannot be revealed by the symbolic representation. As well as information present in the symbolic representation that is not related to the underlying pattern, instead it is an artefact of the intervening symbolic processes and systems.
Thus each complex (non-formal) symbolic process (e.g. interaction, communication, perception, interpretation, etc) dissipates information as entropy. This manifests as loss of signal power and increasing noise power. An example of this is the game of Chinese whispers. Entropy production is a universal property of all complex symbolic processes and systems.
A system of symbols can be used as a metaphor, analogy or homology, depending on the degree of correspondence between the symbol system and the underlying system.
To decode a symbol system and infer what we can about the underlying pattern (e.g. the intended meaning of a statement), one must account for all of the modulations of the signal as it propagates through the communication, perceptual and conceptual processes.
This raises the question; to what extent do symbol systems have the same meanings to different minds and to what extent do those meanings correspond to reality?
Furthermore, these symbol systems form into memes (cognitive/cultural viruses), which form into memeplexes (self-organising networks of memes). One can also think of memes as self-replicating software agents operating within a network. These memetic systems populate our minds and cultures as if these were ‘territory’.
The experienced meaning of a symbol can, in a sense, be described as the conditioned response of the population dynamics of memetic ecosystems within a cultural / cognitive environment.
By using complex symbols and symbolic processes such as a mind; with perceptions, conceptions, intuition and logic, we only glimpse the underlying pattern through particular perspectives, cognitive apparatus and memeplexes, such as cultural conditioning, conceptual frameworks, world-views, life-stories, egos and personalities.
One can only connect a symbol to the underlying pattern as clearly as it is encoded, transmited and decoded. Thus it is good to draw upon reliable sources, communicate clearly, pay attention and clarify ones mind. It is also good to consider many perspectives or paradigms and use many symbols whose underlying patterns overlap, thereby ‘resolving’ the common features of the underlying pattern; hopefully with a minimum of noise due to cultural, ideological and personal bias.