The self is not physical, but symbolic

The self is not physical, but symbolic

What are symbols and why are symbols meaningful to me? One answer might be “the self is not physical, it is symbolic”—Becker.

Mathematics is, I think, a useful means to start an effort for comprehending the nature of symbols.

Mathematical concepts are referred to by symbols, both written and audible. Eighty-five or quatre-vingt-cinq references the same concept as does 85. Common mathematical symbols such as 0, 1, i, pi and e are meaningful because we have become familiar with the concepts that they symbolize when we have studied mathematics in school. Our schools and colleges are interested primarily in helping us use these symbols as an algorithmic means for solving mathematical problems.

I am a retired engineer and I worked constantly for four years in college learning how to do math. Doing math is very important to engineers, understanding math is of little consequence to an engineer’s job performance. I suspect most engineers would be somewhat dumbfounded if they were to be asked ‘do your understand mathematics’.

The degree of meaning that these symbols hold for each of us is dependent upon the relationship we have with the concept. Almost all of us will find that the symbols 1, 2, 3, and 4 are meaningful even before we go to school. Those who have studied math in grade school and high school will find that the other symbols mentioned have a meaning of some dimension.

L&N, Lakoff and Nunez, co-authors of “Where Mathematics Comes From”, tell us that “to comprehend a mathematical symbol is to associate it with a concept—something meaningful in human cognition that is ultimately grounded in experience and created via neural mechanisms.”

At birth an infant has a minimal innate arithmetic ability. This ability to add and subtract small numbers is called subitizing. (I am speaking of a cardinal number—a number that specifies how many objects there are in a collection, don’t confuse this with numeral—a symbol). Many animals display this subitizing ability.

In addition to subitizing the child, while playing with objects, develops other cognitive capacities such as grouping, ordering, pairing, memory, exhaustion-detection, cardinal-number assignment, and independent order.

When a child goes to school the teacher depends upon all of these past experiences as prerequisites for a child to readily comprehend arithmetic.

It is our experience in the world that eventually gives symbols significance. As we get older we travel far from these original experiences that give our world of symbols their meaning. We are constantly adding new worldly experiences to augment this meaning we attach to symbols. I suspect that if we could examine closely one of our concepts of a particular symbol we would find that concept to be as complex and convoluted as is our DNA. If we could trace the historical sequences of the structuring of a particular concept it might be as instructive as is a similar examination of our DNA.

Concepts, i.e. symbols, i.e. abstract ideas, are like a gigantic chemical molecule that continues to grow in size and in complexity as we pass through life. The symbol gains grounding from our experiences but the concept also has a great deal that result from our imagination. I think we might say that a symbol is an abstract idea created by experience and imagination, which becomes a significant meaning in our life.

If such is the case can you comprehend why some people might ‘go bananas’ when the flag is burned?

If self is symbolic, “an abstract idea created by experience and imagination,” does that mean experience and imagination are not part of, and exist prior to, self?

I’d say both. Our physical and mental selves are inseparable, and our physical appearance has symbolic value to ourselves and others as defined by innate and cultural preferences, while the self is also defined via the actions of physical hormones, say, plus symbolic practices such as language.

The good ole totemic feeling of belonging.

Sorry for the dud answer but the middle of the OP seems pretty agreeable, rather than debateable…

First, I’m not sure what’s up for debate – that statement makes it seem like you’re staking out the position that there is no physical component of self. Yet, you clearly say that symbols depend on the physical. If every symbol can be traced to a physical root (or set of roots), isn’t a symbol simply a “placeholder” or “shortcut” that represents those physical foundations? What extra work does a symbol do beyond convenience?

This analogy is severely limited, I think. DNA is well-defined, with a very specific set of units (nucleotides, codons, proteins). Symbols, by their very definition, are the opposite – any symbol is arbitrary and can signify any concept. The study of DNA is useful exactly because it is not arbitrary. Which is also why memetics (cf Dawkins, Blackmore, etc.) isn’t a science.

Might you clarify why this question is here? To venture a guess, you’re arguing that “self is a (set of) symbol(s)”, “flag is a (consituent) symbol”, then concluding that disrespect of a component symbol is tantamount to threatening someone’s self. Is that accurate?

If you’re saying that the self is an abstraction, I can agree with that. The self is not the physical brain, its the process of what the physical brain does. A process is an abstraction.

If that’s your point, I don’t think there’s much of a debate, except that lekatt will disagree because he thinks the self, or “spirit” is something that exists independent of your material brain.

I would say that you are correct. We evolved from other animals and these animals do experience and do use imagination, at least as part of their functioning as a body in space. Some where in time the ego developed, which is consciousness of self.


I am saying that our concept of self might be compared with our concept of the numeral 4. Our concept of self is an abstract idea and not a literal concept like tree. Our experiences of self are combined with many other experiences and with imaginative structures. The self is a complex entity that does not exist like a tree but exists only as a concept, it is an idea.

You may be right that my analogy of a concept cannot be properly analogized by a physical object. It is a poor analogy. The problem is that we can talk about such things only by using metaphors.

The flag statement is meant to focus upon the relativity of importance placed upon symbols by people. Some people seem to place greater value on symbols than do others. I think this has something to do with our ideas concerning absolute truth.

I think the big difference is related to our need to be closely tied to our particular dominant ideology and to the experiences that are part of the concept of the symbol. Some of us are more dependent upon our ideologies than are others.

Karl Popper authored the book “The Open Society and Its Enemies”. The concept Popper illustrates in this book sounds much like the concept of a liberal democracy but his concept is more epistemological than political. It is based upon our imperfect comprehension of reality more than our structure of society.

Popper argues that all ideology shares a common characteristic; a belief in their infallibility. Such infallibility is an impossibility, which leads such ideological practitioners to use force to substantiate their views and such repression brings about a closed society.

Popper proposed that the open society is constructed on the recognition that our comprehension of reality is not perfect—there is realty beyond our comprehension and our will cannot compensate for that lack of comprehension. Even though the will of the power structure can manipulate the opinions of the citizens sooner or later reality will defeat the will. Truth does matter and success will not always override truth—truth being reality.

The Old Testament is an example of a tribal society and thus a closed society; the New Testament is an example of universal morality determined by universal recognition of human rights, which results in an open society.

The thread title is wrong. The world is physical, human beings are physical, the self must reduce to physical components. In fact this reduction has already been done to an extent. If you agree that gender forms a part of one’s self then you might be surprised to hear psychological gender is linked to quantity of somatostatin expressing neurons in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis.

This doesn’t mean the self can’t function by what you call symbolic avenues though. The real significance behind this is that being is a process, not a simple object. Nonetheless it is physical and objective.
Also your icon is creepy.


Boy was I confused until I saw that the smiley was a link. I was going to ask who you were and what had you done with the real Liberal.

This finally told me what mathematics had to do with self. To an extend I agree with you - the very string “self” indicates that it is a symbol for something else. On the other hand, we can say that the concept behind the symbol “4” exists independent of physical reality. Self on the other hand, does not - assuming you don’t posit a soul which exists independently of reality. Is this what this thread boils down to?

Popper could be talking about science, which always is tentative and always recognizes that its conclusions can be wrong. An ideal society would have a similar philosophy. The point of the First Amendment was the recognition by the Founding Fathers that since government will be imperfect, it is important to allow an open discussion of issues. An absolute ideology, convinced it will have the answers, will close off debate supposedly to be more efficient or to not “confuse” people who might get convinced of the wrong position. It is actually because it is easer to rule without having to justify oneself.

The OT assumes a tribal society, and establishes rules for the tribe, which don’t apply to anyone else. The NT assumes its rules apply to everyone. I wouldn’t exactly say it leads to an open society, since, as opposed to Popper’s criterion, it is convinced it is 100% correct. In fact, by that standard I’d say the OT is more open, since it allows for people to live in a society without obeying the tribal rules.