Looking at the other people around me, I am thinking what they might be thinking right now? I am standing at a bus stop. A mother with a girl in primary school age, a man and an old lady are waiting with me. Their inner worlds of thoughts are probably totally different from my own. How do they perceive their world? What do their worlds consist of?
The mother explains to the girl how to read the bus schedule. The girl knows how to read already and she knows how to read the clock. The mother explains to her that there is one schedule for each bus line. On each schedule, she can see the arrival times for Monday to Friday, for Saturday and for Sundays and Holidays. There is also a list of all the stations after this one, with numbers indicating how long the bus will take to get there.
What was a cryptic jumble of lines, letters and numbers up to this point in the eyes of the girl now sorts itself into tables, columns, lines containing specific information. “How long will we have to wait until the bus is coming?” the mother is asking. The girl has a watch. She thinks for a time. Then she checks the time, looks at the schedule and finds the right line. She finds out, when the next bus is supposed to be coming. She looks at the watch again. She calculates the difference. “In 3 minutes” she proclaims proudly. “Exactly! Well done!”.
My thoughts are drifting away, or more specifically, they are drifting on a meta-level. The schedule tells her something about the reality. She can extract that information from the schedule and from her watch. She has knowledge about the content of the schedule, about how to interpret it, i.e. what information to derive from it about reality. That is the semantics. She also learnt something about its structure, about the different sub-sections with their rows and columns. That is the syntax of the schedule. And she is applying all this knowledge in a thought process. With practice, this will become more and more automatic and subconscious, as something like a little “schedule-reading program” will develop in her mind.
The explanation of the mother also had a syntactic structure, the structure of her sentences during the explanation and the structure of her gestures. It also had some semantics, and as a result, the perception of the girl was changed. She now recognizes the subsections of the schedule, a Monday to Friday section, columns and lines. She sees entities where there were none before. The ontology of her world has changed.
The schedule may be viewed as an extension of the girl’s language. Language, used in some situation, has been used to extend itself by explaining the structure and meaning of signs.
“The bus is late!” the girl proclaims, after four minutes have passed and no bus has been arriving. The old lady is smiling. “Are you sure your watch is correct?” she asks. Looking at my own watch and at the schedule, I find that I agree with her. If our watches are correct, the bus is late indeed.
Just like the content of what the mother said changed the ontology of the girl, extending it by schedules, the content of the schedule has changed the girl’s ontology as well. Just like the explanations of the mother turned a piece of paper with some signs on it into a schedule, the schedule now turns the coming and going of the bus into arrivals “in time” or “with a delay”. If you don’t have the schedule and the bus is stopping, you would only be able to perceive that the bus is arriving. The “late arrival” of the bus, as opposed to just its arrival, is an observable aspect of reality that is constituted by the schedule. In a similar manner, the presence of the bus-stop sign turns the stopping of the bus into an arrival. In this way, the symbolic entities (the bus stop sign and the schedule hanging there) constitute entities in the world (or project them into the world) and so shape the way you perceive these. They influence what exists in the world, from your perspective. If the bus stops somewhere along the way where there is no bus stop, you would not perceive this as an “arrival”. But at the bus stop, your knowledge and understanding of the bus system, or – more specifically – an active process in your mind applying that knowledge, is projecting entities like “arrival”, “departure” or “delay” into the physical process.
The man is looking at me. Is he asking himself what I might be thinking about? He does not have any idea about these strange philosophical musings going on in my mind. Probably his thoughts are somewhere else. He seems to be a little bit nervous.
The bus is arriving, “finally”. The doors open, I enter and take a seat. The women and the girl are also entering, but the man is staying behind. One woman is getting of the bus and the two of them great each other with a kiss and walk away. So the bus was not what he was waiting for.
The bus takes off and the bus stop sign with the attached schedule is becoming smaller in the busses rear window. The bus driver seems to be driving a bit faster than normal. She is late. I am thinking about how the reality of the bus schedule is implemented by her job description, her driving abilities and her work schedule (another table, telling her when to arrive at certain stops). Only nerdish philosophers and computer programmers like me are thinking such stuff, I think. I am thinking that my thoughts must be quite strange for the other people around me. I don’t know what they are thinking. Maybe strange things, from my perspective.
(The picture, showing a larger bus stop in Hamburg, Germany, is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hamburg-_U-Bahnhof_Horner_Rennbahn-_Bushaltestelle_in_der_Rennbahnstra%C3%9Fe_9.4.2009.jpg.)