Meaning and the Evolution of Signification and Objectivity

Meaning and the Evolution of Signification and Objectivity – Russian translation forthcoming in METOD journal


This paper is in three parts. I begin by examining the meaningful engagement between the unicellular organism and its external environment. The evolution of form and function is evident even at this level of sophistication, but I consider the role of, and importance in the qualitative biochemical assimilation of the physical. In Part 2, I broaden the discussion to include multicellular organisms and introduce the idea that meaning, at various levels, qualifies different kinds of objective and informational constructs of the world. These constructs determine the character of interactive engagement and reveal much about the way in which an agent signifies the external. I then focus my inquiry on the individual human’s meaningful relation to the world. Here, scientific disciplines, most notably physics but also biology, have a particular abstracted objective and informational view about the world that has come to undermine the primacy of meaning. In Part 3, I look specifically at the individual human perspective to explore the importance of meaning afresh where I believe we may find a new objectivity concerning the existential self and the world. Ultimately, this outlook is an important consideration in many fields where stale and abstract self-referential constructs have increasingly obscured the relevance of meaning and signification. I indicate that the physical domain is far more nuanced than the default stance that presents the binary juxtaposition of a subjective–objective worldview.

Part 1 – Meaning at the unicellular level

There is a creature that belongs to a hunter species that has lived on Earth for approximately 240 million years. It moves in a purposeful manner, first this way then that. It has sensors that ‘taste’ the water in which it swims. As it approaches a prospective prey, its single eye (which is approximately 10% of its body mass) first registers its prey’s presence in the ambient light and then, through its movements and focusing of the light, develops an increased spatial acuity of its victim (Nilsson 2013). In the great expanse of water, it propels a piston ten times its body’s length. This attaches to its prey which it engulfs whole. It then continues on its way navigating closer to the surface—perhaps now satiated by this meal. In the meantime, every now and then, there are flashes of bioluminescent light that saturate its retina and blind it momentarily as the preyed repeatedly seek to disarm the passing of this voracious hunter (Dodge & Crawford 1969; Gómez 2008; Colley & Nilsson 2016; Gómez 2017). What do we know about the meaningful nature of this creature’s experience of the world? The philosopher may well argue that its phenomenological perspective is comparable to certain other creatures and that it possesses characteristics that might be associated with consciousness. The cognitive scientist may consider how the internal mechanisms of this creature correlate with its lived experience: how do its internal features process information from its environment?

Genome studies have identified a number of photoreceptor proteins in archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes (van der Horst & Hellingwerf 2004; Spudich 2006; Jekely 2009). Organisms such as these have varying capabilities when responding to light. For instance, some are able to mitigate their exposure to ultraviolet rays, regulate circadian rhythms or detect light intensity which assists in navigation (Dodge & Crawford 1969). Indeed, some phytoplankton possess an eyespot which contains multilayered structures with photoreceptive protein and carotenoid-rich granules organised into rows. Among many other unique features, the unicellular Warnowiid dinoflagellates possess a highly complex ocelloid, or ‘eye’. Indeed, Greuetodinium has an ocelloid with multiple lenses, much like a compound eye (Gómez 2008).

Ocelloids are composed entirely of subcellular components and are much like the multi-cellular camera eyes that evolved independently in several different lineages of metazoans (e.g., cubozoans, scallops, cephalopods and vertebrates) (from Hoppenrath et al. 2009). They are comprised of two main components: a hyalosome and a melanosome (Greuet,1987; Hayakawa et al. 2015). The haylosome consists of a layered translucent structure with a lens-like inclusion set at the base by striated fibres that orient and constrict the ocelloid rings. The melanosome is a highly ordered and pigmented retina-like body situated in a cup of dark pigment. Notably, the morphology suggests that the ocelloid is capable of changing its gaze, which is a feature otherwise only found in high-resolution animal eyes (Nilsson 2013). A combination of reflective and absorptive features allows maximal contrast modulation which increases the spatial acuity of its vision (Cronin et al. 2014). And yet the ocelloid measures only 1 micron in diameter. The cognitive scientist might note that there is no neuroanatomy: the creature is but one cell. Does the philosopher still think that the previously described unicellular creature in the watery world possesses some degree of consciousness? Does the cognitive scientist still think that they should restrict their inquiries into phenomenal experience and consciousness to its neural correlates?

A special kind of meaning

Physiological adaptations, such as the ocelloid, can be interpreted as meaningful insofar as they relate to species survival. In this general sense, Darwin put reason to the immense variety of form and function to life on Earth. But what our knowledge of dinoflagellates indicates, is that outside of form and function there is another less obvious sense in which physiological adaptation is meaningful. Physiological adaptation includes the evolution of increasingly sophisticated biochemical mechanisms that qualify environmental particulars in a very special way. This special way determines an ontologically novel class of meaning that does not exist in the absence of life. There is ontological novelty in that biological evolution effects an attitude-to-action that differs significantly to the reactive processes of a merely physical and chemical ontology. Here, I refer more specifically to the notion of qualitative relevance. In Pharoah’s (2018, p.433–436) account, physiologies tend to evolve that assimilate environmental particulars in a way that ascribes to them qualitative and relevant characterisations; what were once sterile physical properties become, for the evolved organism, properties that possess qualitative and relevant meanings. It is these characterisations that inform action in an ontologically unique way. ‘Qualitative ascription’ occurs where physical properties are differentiated in terms of their actual or potential merit or value. ‘Relevance,’ refers to the notion that biochemical mechanisms tend to evolve that are relevant to the needs of the individual and to the perpetuation of the species. Those needs might include such things as nutritional, restorative, functional, replicative, intra- and inter-species demands. Consequently, specific qualitative and relevant ascriptions are unique to the subject and, therefore, do not exist in the environment. In this regard, we can consider that they are important aspects of an individual creature’s unique umwelt (von Uexküll 1982). Pharoah (2018, p.430–433) also argues that meaning evolves through discourse, broadly construed. On this account, discourse can be said to take place when there is any kind of interactive engagement where meaning evolves due to some independent process of validation—this broad definition opens the concept to the idea that there are different categories of discourse. Insofar as any given system has a meaningful relation to its environment, we can say, that it has a complex construct of the world brought about by some category of environmental discourse. It is this meaningful construct that informs action, and it is, therefore, to the construct (notably, not the environment) that we should look for the seat of information (Pharoah 2020).

When we consider the ‘field of view’ of warnowiids, it appears to be differentiated. That differentiation lends itself to qualitative description; the little organism has cause to moderate its field of view and to adjust its movement accordingly because of certain visual impressions which somehow carry differing levels, or aspects of signification. One can say that it possesses a degree of semiotic freedom (Hoffmeyer 2010, 2014). We might also consider that it has a qualitative and relevant umwelt. Its organelles have a complex dynamic intracellular function that engages a temporal processual arrangement of mechanisms. There is no clearer illustration that the qualitative assimilation of environmental particulars can take place at the cellular level and, therefore, that qualitative assimilation is not neurologically dependent (Gavelis et al. 2015; Pharoah 2018). Furthermore, it seems reasonable to conclude that phenomenal characterisation in sophisticated organisms is unlikely to be exclusively neurologically dependent. In other words, consciousness is not an exclusively computational process. Traditional computational approaches to understanding the phenomenal nature of experiencing the world are highly restrictive because qualitative assimilation is evident in Warnowiids and other unicellular organisms (Jekely 2009). Their organelles are instrumental in facilitating a meaningful engagement between the organism and its environment. And in some way, these actions are moderated by its needs as an autonomous creature; its needs include its nutritional and replicative requirements and habitat preferences, be those related to temperature, salinity or light intensities, and so on.

When considering the multicellular organism, the individual cell is no longer the locus of behavioural motivation; the cell is but an instrument, a mechanism, a component in a broader picture. In this regard, the qualitative assimilation of the environment institutes dynamic cellular interconnection due to neuronal and chemical signatures. Here, unicellular and multicellular tendencies are vying for expression, each occupying its own place within its particular environment. Indeed, one can conceive of the cell as negotiating for its own status as a stable entity, sending out chemicals into its environment that have certain levels of influence to this effect. In this respect, it becomes part of a soup of intended influences in the organism as a whole. But this talk, which seeks to extend the ideas of the unicellular to the multicellular, demands a note of caution. It is evident that there is danger in oversimplification when trying to understand the multicellular organism in relation only to its component cells. It is an oversimplification to consider the varied complexities of scale of all life-forms in purely linear term. The stance is problematic for being restricted, therefore, to reductive consideration and, more particularly, is inclined to disregard the problem of causal over–determinism (for detailed discussion, see Kim, 2006; MacDonald & MacDonald 2010; O’Connor & Wong 2020; Pharoah 2020).

Part 2 – Meaning rendered objectively and informationally

What is the difference between the chemical and the biological processes that take place within Warnowiids and other unicellular organisms (by ‘difference,’ I refer to the nature of the causal dynamic)? In chemistry, we tend to understand chemical action as ‘reaction’. It is in this sense that chemical A is said to ‘act on’ chemical B and to ‘cause’ a reaction. In the unicellular organism, we might adopt a similar linear approach and say that the same principle applies. To this end, we may propose that chemical processes and sequences of reactive mechanisms are merely more complex instantiations of the same principle. In essence, this is a reductive stance where all action can be reduced to lower-level chemical causal processes. But Pharoah (2020) makes the case that the same principle does not apply. While chemicals are said to only ‘react,’ the actions of unicellular creatures are motivated by the novel principle of qualitative relevancy. This difference is maintained not by the chemistry, per sec, but by the creature’s novel construct of the world. This construct relates to the ascription of qualitative and relevant meanings to environmental particulars. It is a construct that has been validated in its capacity to mitigate survival pressure. The replicant construct institutes a novel ontological relationship between the interactive agent and the physical world. This relationship is informed, not by chemical reaction, but by the influence of selective pressures over a generational timeline. The construct that subverts the chemical domain, therefore, is the evolved physiology of the replicating lineage. In the case of Warnowiids, yes, the internal chemical processes are still happening as they always will, but in themselves, they are not the cause of Warnowiid action. The actions of Warnowiids are qualitative and relevant to the global experience of the individual’s umwelt. That world exists because the creature possesses a meaningful construct that was formed through a generational species–environment discourse that was validated over a generational timeline due to survival pressures.

It is appropriate to think very differently of the multicellular organism of which the cell is just one part. Within the organism as a whole, the cellular, bacterial, viral, fungal and chemical elements, all interplay to form the ‘ecology’ of each individual cell’s environment. These elements constitute the multicellular organism’s stable physiological construct. The individual cell’s actions can be thought of as maintaining its own biochemical balance: its needs, which happen to fulfil a function for the organism as a whole, are to maintain its own stability through feedback with its organism–environment. From this stable state, the organism as a whole, responds to its world of experience according to the qualitative and relevant meanings that are implicit in its stable physiological construct. In the case of an advanced and sophisticated multicellular organism there may be an advanced and novel relation to the world beyond the organism itself. This relation might involve a real-time spatial and temporal evaluation of the qualitative milieu, which, through a constantly changing feedback of affectation with the external environment, might necessitate a constantly adaptive spatiotemporal rendition of the external world. Its physiology becomes the tool by which the individual is able to sustain meaning regarding an external spatiotemporally experienced world. What this means, is that the internal biochemical cellular world, which relates to qualitative and relevant meanings, is entirely separated ontologically from the external meanings that qualify the actions at the multicellular level as a whole. The two constructs run parallel to one another, just as they each run parallel to the chemistry within the individual cells. And all three levels—those being the chemical, physiological and phenomenal—instigate actions that, by and large, remain unimpeded by and unrelated to the others. There is a hierarchy of differentiated actions with the world in virtue of distinct ontological constructs about the world.

Exploring further the nature of these three parallel constructs, we can consider independently the degrees and nature of the complexities that might evolve according to the sophistication of the mechanisms and interactions involved. From this, we can appreciate that the informational character of each construct about the world is differentiated, one from the other. Firstly, on the chemical level, one can consider that any given atom or compound has a meaningful relation to other chemicals which is evidenced by how it reacts with them and how compounds evolve under certain environmental conditions. Second, on the physiological level, one can hypothesise about the nature of the distinctive kinds of qualities and relevancies that might exist in unicellular and simple multicellular organisms. For example, we might think of qualities simply as negative or positive, attractive or unattractive, or we might think of them as pertaining to more subtle description (for detail, see Pharoah 2018, p.433–434). With regard to relevancies, we might think, for example, of replicative, restorative, nutritional needs and demands. In this limited way, the world is objectified in a manner that is distinct from mere chemistry: the world is objectified as constituting subtly varied categories of qualitative and relevant properties. An objectification render thus, determines the boundaries of possible actions for such creatures that possess only innately acquired behaviours. Third, for a more sophisticated organism, one can hypothesise about a world that is objectified in ways that are entirely different. We might think of the subjective world experience of the bat (Nagel, 1974), the tic (von Uexkhüll, 1982), the snake, or the bee where the world is objectified as consisting of categories of physical objects existing in a spatial and a temporal continuum and that conforms to certain ‘rules’ of physical regularity and importance.

If a human were to attempt to articulate the nature of those meaningful constructs, it would necessarily and unavoidably categorise, define, digitise, itemise or quantify. In other words, in the analysis of these meanings, a human inevitably considers the determination of formal relations between the subject and its world. In this manner, the world is made objective conceptually—the world becomes, in itself, an abstract informational and objective construct of the mind. Such impressions about the world of meaning become generalised informational interpretations concerning reality. Information is the means by which a subjective world is expressed objectively, where to be objective in this sense is to view the world as consisting of categories and quantities of kind. Physics, then, is the science of the world objectified. Insofar as the world can be categorised in this way, the world is seen as informational rather than as meaningful (a view that all too easily permeates the biological and cognitive sciences). That objective construct is typically what the world signifies to the human individual.

What I have been suggesting, is that the chemical, physiological and phenomenal are differentiated and ontologically distinct in terms of how they engage meaningfully with the world. Depending on the ontological category, the kind of meaning qualifies how each is motivated to act in response to their interactions. One could say that each category leads to an ontologically differentiated class of signification. Insofar as they do act in discrete ways, we can consider their stance with the world as an objective informational construct. For each category in the hierarchy, that construct is subject to separate and distinct evolutionary development. In this sense, it is clear that the Darwinian outlook is insensitive to these subtle differences and mute to the dynamics of signification and meaning.

Being in the World

More can be said of the human condition and its relation to the world. During the Pliocene epoch, hominid-kind possessed a worldview that responded to the spatiotemporal regularities of its existence much like any other animal. This stance constituted the character of its informational construct about a world that was understood as consisting of three-dimensional objects existing in space and in time. But a new ontologically distinct kind of meaning came into existence during this early period of hominid history. This meaning was evidenced by the abstraction of principles concerning the spatiotemporal world of experience (Pharoah 2018, p.439–442). One of the profound consequences of this thinking in the abstract, was the realisation of the existential self. When individual hominids first began to conceive that the spatiotemporal world existed in principle as a rule-bound factual and spatiotemporal certainty, they unavoidably developed the conception of their own existential identity. This came about due to an introspective non-linguistic realisation which can be articulated in the following statement: ‘if I am conceiving of an objective existence, then I too must exist as the subject of this conception’. This mental realisation amounted to a subjective self-identification that characterised the conception and belief in the individual’s own existential being within an objective spatiotemporal world. This existential state represented the boundary conditions to the meaning of human existence. All human scientific, artistic, and theological aspiration and motivation stems from this meaningful aspect of ‘being-in-the-world’ (Heidegger, 1927). The information that humans attribute to the world with which they interact, is part of its interpretation of that objective reality. Unsurprisingly, this construct—which is subtly differentiated in each individual—is defended vigorously and aggressively according to tribal and cultural allegiance because it incorporates all that a human understands the world to be.

The advent of both quantum mechanics, and special and general relativity has challenged the objective material view that the world consists of three-dimensional objects existing in time and space. These new formulations have given humankind a very different understanding of the world and an increasingly convoluted and challenging idea of what information is in terms of its connection with objectivity. Science has demonstrated that the spatiotemporal world is not as it appears from the experiential perspective. Insofar as the world remains objective for us in this new age, it is a construct by abstraction rather than by direct experience. In this respect, it is further separated from the meaning underlying human subjective experience. In this new interpretation, number holds a special role in the construction of these abstracted understandings. But it is important to remember that number is derived from phenomenal experience: number exists due to the quantisation of qualitative categories. What I mean by this, is that number is a system, firstly, of determining a category of kinds—in virtue of there being certain defining qualitative attributes—and then, of quantifying those kinds. Apples, for instance, have certain taste, smell, tactile and visual qualities, and we can label those qualities as pertaining to ‘a certain kind’. From this class of ‘a certain kind,’ we then abstract the referent, ‘Apple’. We can then quantise that referent through the abstraction of a stated quantity of ‘Apples’. Consequently, the abstraction of number as a principle of relations inevitably requires meaning through qualitative phenomenal experience. From that phenomenal foundation, physics has come to use that abstraction to formulate an objective worldview that discounts the meaning that lies at its roots—if the universe is a book, then the physicist counts the pages, the paragraphs, the words and the characters and claims, ‘I understand the universe’. This has led to the retrograde metaphysical position that number, for instance, should be able to explain meaning.

Part 3 – Looking at meaning afresh to find a new objectivity

Evolution and the existential self

One way of looking at any given person’s existence is that it is a product of evolution.[1] On this account, each individual is the product of an incredibly long line of reproducing individuals that extends back in time to the apes and beyond, eventually going back to single cell organisms and, yet further, to the very germ of life on Earth. How many generations of life might that be? A trillion? Each life-form, from the very beginning, led to the next due to some survival imperative in a long chain of replicating events until the moment of conception of the individual person. Somehow every one of those life-forms in the chain avoided a fateful accident of chance that might have killed it before it procreated. A trillion unbroken links. What are the chances of that: that every single life-form happened to live sufficiently long enough to reproduce? We can conclude that both you and I are the product of an extremely unlikely series of events.

If we consider this in relation to our own particular self, we might wonder whether we would still exist if the chain of replicating events had been broken. This is an intriguing question (consider Bradbury 1952[2]). Perhaps, a hundred thousand years ago, one of my ancestors happened to turn left instead of right and, perchance, avoided a deadly rockfall. Perhaps, five hundred million years ago, a single-celled ancestor belonging to the chain of events that would lead to me, happened to survive the scorching heat of the sun because the sun happened to become obscured by a cloud before the organism’s watery world dried up. It is difficult to comprehend the relevance of either one of these scenarios in relation to one’s own particular existence. If, for example, I am indeed a product of this replicating chain, is my existence determined specifically by the existence of the individuals that constituted the chain? It seems to be a different question the closer in time to the present one considers it. Certainly, in the more recent past, had my father not asked my mother for a dance back in 1954, I surely would not be here today. Can one place equal emphasis on the life of a unicellular ancestor that procreated five hundred million years ago?

Of the single cell in this chain, had it indeed died in the heat of the sun five hundred million years ago, it seems likely that this would not have had an impact on the evolution of the species to which that cell was a member. The evolution of life on Earth would not have been altered nor would life on Earth have changed course—even though the specific chain that led to me existing would have been broken. In relation to the influence of the individual unicellular life-form on evolutionary history, we might recall Lorenz’s (1963) ‘Butterfly Effect’ which suggests that the turbulence caused by the flap of a butterfly’s wings might be far reaching and, ultimately, have an incalculable and significant influence on the weather. But Lorenz did not account for the viscosity of air in his calculations (Wolfram 2002[3]). It is this viscosity that nullifies any exponential causal effects of the butterfly’s wings. Similarly, we can apply an equivalence to our evolutionary chain. Small perturbations in life events do not lead to an augmentation of effects that ripple up the evolutionary chain. The death of an individual organism does not lead to an evolutionary void but vacates a ‘space’ that is then taken by others. This ‘space that is then taken by others’ constitutes the friction that prevents the augmentation of influence by individual organisms to evolutionary change: organisms fill the vacated space thereby tempering the effects of the demise of the original life-form. This principle is only of statistical value of course which is not to say that there cannot be exceptional events, be they in scale or in significance, that might have the potential to alter the course of evolutionary history (consider, for instance, the effect of the meteor strike 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs). In effect, the trajectory of the evolution of a species rarely rests on the fate of individual organisms. Survival pressures are, by and large, of statistical significance whereby a large number of environmental factors and genetic variants ‘steer’ the course of species evolution. The fate of individuals and their impact on the evolution of life on Earth is diminished not augmented by life events and by time. It is also evident that the fitness parameters for a unicellular life-form have very little to do with those for a human, and accidents of fate would appear to become less statistically significant and more of direct relevance the closer one gets to the present day.

The question, then, is the extent to which the specific individual person had to be the individual that they are in this time and place irrespective of the evolution of physiological, behavioural, cultural and conceptual influences. What seems to be the case is that a human’s existence is much more about what it means to be their existential self than what evolution and fate transpired to produce.

A different category of question: WAIM–RTSE as conceivability

What if there was an answer to why it is that physical particulars have come to be characterised qualitatively by living organisms, why some creatures have individuated and privileged access to mental content and why phenomenal consciousness has evolved. What if there was an explanation for why some individuals develop contemplative and introspective analysis and a recognised and articulate self-identity or Being. In other words, what if there was an objective physical bridge to the human mind and to the qualitative phenomenon of conscious experience. Accordingly, established physical processes would indicate that all humans must have a personal and individuated subjectivity. But even supposing that this explanation was forthcoming, this in no way would include a discussion on why my mind, my Being, is mine and exists with this particular body at this particular time in existence. I might ask, ‘why am I me?’ (WAIM?)—where ‘I’ refers to my identification and acknowledgement of my existential self, and ‘me,’ refers to this existing body, here and now. I might add the extension ‘. . . rather than someone else?’ (WAIM–RTSE?). In the context of this broader inquiry, this question is not about the content of any particular individual’s identity, a first-person inquiry about self-knowledge or self-identification, or a question typically raised by those inquiring into the mind–body problem concerning ontological, causal, intentionality, consciousness, or embodiment issues. It is not even about Being. Rather, it is about the exacting transient placement, in the entirety of existence, of one’s particular self. Physics may well confirm the view that there have been and there will be a trillion unique human souls, explaining further that each will have a particular subjective view of an objective world, but in doing so, it will not address the WAIM–RTSE question: why did one’s particular subjective worldview find its home in existence where it did, and why did it do it at all?I am able to sit here and ask the WAIM–RTSE question. Most humans can. The skeptic will declare that, of course, we have to be who we are rather than someone else: clearly, ‘if we were someone else, we would still be who we are, so, the question would remain the same’. The skeptic might conclude that we would be asking the identical question and formulating identical inferences: ‘the answer is identical in all instances of its utterance’. But this skeptical stance is imagining an equivalence in the scenario where we are someone else asking, what we assume to be, the identical question? In other words, there is an assumption of equivalence in virtue of the universality of the question in order to fix the parameters of a conceivability, namely, that ‘in another identical world where I am someone other than who I am, the question is the same’. Under this conceptualisation, the question is equivalent whomever we happen to be in history, or whomever we might imagine to be. It is a view that conforms to an abstracted objective attitude to the world where there are sets of persons, where to be a member of the set of persons is to include all those that utter the WIAM-RTSE question. It thereby provokes the conclusion that there is nothing to indicate the non-identical nature of the question being posed by you as you, contra you as someone else. It is a conclusion that eliminates the meaning of the particular self. But this is a false stance: the WAIM–RTSE question, in all cases of its utterance, may well be identical in its universality, but it is not identical in reality. That it is not identical in reality should be obvious in the case of a human individual contemplating the question. Needless to say, it remains surprisingly difficult to acknowledge and articulate what it means to ask the question. It is even less obvious that the question is equally pertinent when contemplating the purely physical (i.e., where subjectivity is absent), where the concept of number has subjugated or relegated meaning to irrelevance (Josephson 2019).Let us suppose that I am wrong to draw this conclusion. Let us instead give credence to conceivability and suppose that the WAIM–RTSE question is indeed identical in all instances of its utterance. How, then, are we to say that some person is not actually identical to another person? We might start from the premise that any difference is merely a combination of physiology and experience: all that differentiates me from someone else is the quirks of my physiology and experience. But there is no escaping the realization that, in reality, I still am the particular physiological–experiential agent that I am. It remains an existential mystery why it is that I happen to be this one in particular. Nevertheless, it is possible to deny this WAIM-RTSE question by aligning with one of three unappealing positions:The first invokes solipsism and, from a metaphysical position, concludes that ‘I’ am actually the only one existing. This stance indicates why I had to be the physiological–experiential agent that I am—I could have been no other. This view says in effect that the WAIM–RTSE question has only one author in reality. The second is an eliminativist stance: I do not exist as an exception. This view denies one’s self any exceptional status above another, which makes WAIM–RTSE a question that is not genuine in any example of its utterance. Under this commonly held view, WAIM–RTSE cannot exist as a valid metaphysical question.The third is a stance that says I am, in some way, an exception to ask the question, but so is everyone else, that is, everyone is the identical same exception. On this view, all individuals are the same exception in reality but don’t realise this to be the case in virtue of their particular physiology and experience. In other words, all individuals are one and the same metaphysically if not experientially.


From the perspective of the individual human agent, the physical Universe is that which is classified objectively; this abstracted classification is what the Universe signifies to the individual through their observation of interactive engagement. One can consider an equivalence to that of the unicellular organism but whose objective worldview is little more than a qualitative milieu, or the more sophisticated organism where the world might be further delineated spatiotemporally. Additionally, any given human is, itself, part of their own abstracted objective construct. From this perspective, a human can consider the human mind and body in terms of its physical influence alone. Equally, one can consider the physical influences of simpler forms of life and even matter. But these considerations miss out something important which is most clearly illustrated when contemplating the unique human self. In this respect, the authenticity of the WAIM–RTSE question is in its recognition of that which lies outside these objective classifications. This is to say that in the formulation of objective categories, there is no physical class or set of instances that can connect one’s self-identity with another. The WAIM-RTSE question, therefore, acknowledges the primacy of the unique subject of experience that is Self, and highlights the view that objectivity is the signification of the physical world by the unique subject.

Furthermore, at the various levels of relation between the agents of experience and their world—be those agents atoms, compounds, biological organisms or conscious individuals—there is an objective construct of the world that is part of an embedded layered hierarchy. Nevertheless, while each agent might be categorised accordingly, each remains a novel emergent physical state that has never previously existed. In its own realm of interactive engagement, it remains uniquely differentiated. This indicates that the binary objective–subjective model is an over-simplification. What is of note, is that there are novel ontological levels of signification where the meaning that comes from interactive engagement delineates the boundaries of potential objective exploration. This indicates why, when considering WAIM–RTSE, there is good reason to suppose that every individual self transcends the objective parameters to which physicalism is committed. This is to say no more than that the WAIM-RTSE inquiry does not come under the remit of physicalist methodology and objective understanding; it is outside the enclosure of the self-referential boundaries that classify physical objective influence.

It remains the case, that the construct of our meaningful relationship with existence indicates that there is a real world. And we can see certain value in conceptualising that world as an abstracted objectivity. Nevertheless, it is important not to attribute meaning to a process of informational construction: the sterility of objective analysis and explanation is often mistaken for being meaning-laden. At every opportunity, we should therefore seek to reaffirm our commitment to address meaning as directly and sensitively as we are able because every physical action is the consequence of meaning, not vice versa. And we need to reject causal determination and, therefore consider evolutionary theory cautiously, because it is a sterile objective worldview in which meaning is only of incidental importance.


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[1] ‘We ought to regard the present state of the Universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow.’ (Laplace 1951, p. 4)

[2] In Ray Bradbury’s vision, reality was a fabric so delicate that the crushing of a butterfly could ripple up through 65 million years to change the results of an election. The butterfly was the victim of a miss step by a big game hunter who travelled back in time in pursuit of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The dinosaur had been fated to die, but the insect’s untimely demise had haunting consequences that confronted the hunter upon his return to his departure date of 2055. Not only did he learn that a more dictatorial candidate had won a recent election, but nothing was quite the same, including written English.

[3] Wolfram models turbulence using cellular automata to shows that the energy from a butterfly wing will dissipate, rather than build. He concludes that the Lorenz equations are highly simplified and do not contain terms that represent viscous effects which would tend to damp out small perturbations. As Orrell (2007) points out, ‘If you imagine modelling a volume of air and then perturbing it with the flap of a butterfly wing, you wouldn’t expect to get an exponentially larger wave coming out of the other end.’

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