Biosemiotics: Biological Mechanism to Biological Meaning

19th Biosemiotics gathering Moscow 2019 – From biological mechanism to meaning

A principle message from Jacob von Uexküll was the importance of meaning in understanding life. But currently, naturalising biological meaning, in all the varied ways in which meaning is characterised in living organisms, remains a principle challenge for biosemiotics. What is it about the nature of biological processes that they should instantiate distinctive kinds of meaningful relations to and about the world? And what is it about a biological mechanism that qualifies the specific characteristics of a particular kind of meaning?

There have been a number of authors that have explored the possibility that there are distinct categories of meaning in biology and that they might be classified. For instance, Vehkavaara, Emmeche, Ferriera, and Kull have all consider the concept of meaning in terms of how biological mechanisms determine various ‘kinds of knowledge’ about the environment. But a comprehensive theory has proved elusive.

In a paper published in Biosemiotics (Dec 2018), I echo Stjernfelt’s sentiment that biosemiotics can qualify a formal ontology for emergence that can cater for various classes of biological meaning. The argument I make is that there is a hierarchy of discrete and distinctive biological mechanisms—a hierarchy which I categorise—that generate particular kinds of meaning about the environment which include characteristics associated with mental content.

In looking into these kinds of meaning, I call on the work of biosemioticians, researchers and philosophers such as O’Connor, Wong, Thomas Nagel, Chalmers, Cassirer and Merleau Ponty. Iidentify three distinct categories of knowledge and argue that in each category, the acquisition of knowledge requires a unique kind of discourse actualised by a particular class of interactive biological mechanism. Importantly, each category leads to the emergence of a unique ontological status for its members. This status is articulated in terms of the character of its meaningful relation with the world. These categories I label the physiological, the phenomenal and the conceptual. In regard to phenomenal content, the explanation does not tell us ‘what it is like’ to be a particular experiencing creature, but, in being a deductive-nomological account, instead allows us to understand why creatures have a ‘what it is like’ and why that experience phenomenon is characterised spatiotemporally and qualitatively. In a similar vein, the explanation does not address the particulars of any given subjective self-identity, but instead addresses why it is that subjective perspectives of the objective world exist.

In effect, I claim to provide a model that categorises biological meaning and mental content. This entails the explication of a hierarchy of distinct categories which qualify, 1. the qualitative attribution to the physical world, 2. the spatiotemporal delineation of that qualitative relation to the world and 3. the revelatory recognition of an individual’s spatiotemporal and qualitative Being embedded within an objective world.

Biological Meaning and Biosemiotics Annual Gathering 2019 in Moscow State University
Tyler James Bennett, Jeremy Sherman, Kalevi Kull, Suren Zolyan, Alexei Sharov, Timo Maran, Don Favareau, Nelly Mäekivi, Anton Sukhoverkhov, Ivan Fomin, Tommi Vehkavaara, Arran Gare, Mark Pharoah, and others

Following this presentation at Moscow State University I was invited to give a follow-on presentation at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, hosted by the National Research University and the Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

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