How is “To be or not to be?” different from Bow wow wow!?
Both animals and humans use signs. A sign points to something other than itself. For example, when you point with your finger at a tree, you are making a sign. You want people to look at the tree, not at your finger. A lion’s roar (to scare off an intruder) is also a sign. It’s a warning sign for the intruder, not just noise the animal happens to be making. A bird’s song to attract a mate or establish territory is a sign in the same way. So is a written or spoken word. Both animals and humans use signs.
There are (for our purposes) two kinds of signs—signals and designators. A signal is a concrete sign that has a physical relationship with the object it signifies. Pointing at a tree is a signal (direction). Making a noise to ward off an intruder is a signal (warning). It is the concreteness that characterizes the communication as a signal. A signal points to or represents, in a physical way, what it signifies. That can include aiming (with a gesture) and implying (by a frightening noise). Other signals might include imitation (for example, saying “meow” to a cat, to indicate friendliness by sounding like a cat). Both animals and humans use signals. A paw or hand motion, a grunt, a shout or a roar, are all signals. Signals can be quite complex—consider the complex songs of birds or the dance of insects in a hive.
A designator, however, is a kind of sign that differs in a very important way from a signal. A designator points to an object, but it does so abstractly, not concretely. The spoken or written word “cat” has nothing physically to do with a cat. Unlike a gesture (pointing to a cat) or making the sound “meow”, the letters C-A-T feature nothing that concretely links the word to the animal. You only know what “cat” designates if you understand the word as used in English. By contrast, you could understand a signal like pointing to a cat or saying “meow” even if you spoke no English. Designators differ from signals in that they point to objects—things or concepts—abstractly.
Language is the systematic use of designators—the rule-based use of abstract signs. More. Michael Egnor, “ How is human language different from animal signals?” at Mind Matters
Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine
See also: Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? If we can be forced to want something, is the will still free? (Michael Egnor)
Is free will a dangerous myth? (Michael Egnor)