THE REALITY OF MEANING
KNOWLEDGE, VALUE, AND COMPLEXITY
To be presented and defended at the 2023 Consilience conference, March 17, 2023. Register here: https://tinyurl.com/utokconf
The philosophical assumptions about ontology, normativity, and semiotics that have come to institutional dominance over the last half century (e.g., anti-realism, social constructivism, moral relativism, poststructuralism) have revealed themselves to be deeply dysfunctional and ultimately quite limited. As this “postmodern” paradigm declines, a novel set of ideas are being advocated by various “metamodern” philosophers, scientists, and metatheorists that can constructively reframe our thinking about such matters. In this article, I will synthesize some of these perspectives in an attempt to show how notions of meaning are being re-anchored to reality within this emerging paradigm. Specifically, through a consideration of how and why our Universe is complexifying via information processing in agent–arena relationships, I will present an argument for why we can indeed have real knowledge about the world, justifiably normative values, and genuinely communicative language. A convergence of multiple metamodern theoretical frameworks brings coherence and support to such claims, such as Bobby Azarian’s integrated evolutionary synthesis, John Vervaeke’s recursive relevance realization, Gregg Henriques’s Unified Theory of Knowledge, and Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm’s hylosemiotics. Together, these contributions invite us to see ontological, normative, and semiotic meaning in transjective terms—that is, neither as objective givens nor subjective inventions, but rather as co-informing systems emerging naturalistically out of the “entity–field” dynamics characterizing multiple levels of a complexifying Universe.
Keywords: metamodernism, complexity, thermodynamics, cognitive science, meaning in life
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
– Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
A rather pernicious error has clearly taken root in the minds of countless people the world over, from the boardroom to the newsroom, from the halls of academia to the halls of power—and one that has massive downstream consequences for how humans live in an “Anthropocene” era. What error is that?
The idea that meaning is simply “made up.”
We are deluded, we have been told, if we think our beliefs about reality actually “mean” anything relative to what actually is (ontological meaning); or that the values we hold to orient us are anything more than totally arbitrary, self-serving social biases (normative meaning); or that the words and concepts we use to express ourselves can actually communicate our truth and experience, instead of just getting lost in an endless string of deferrals (semiotic meaning).
Such claims have become axiomatic for a cluster of anti-realist, social constructivist, and poststructualist stances that have now been dominant in academia for over 40 years, and which usually get lumped together under the paradigmatic label “postmodernism” (Storm 2021). Whatever we call it, its theoretical problems have become profoundly manifest, and, I would argue, with real social consequence. As more generations have been enculturated into this mindset through our institutional systems and social discourse, we have witnessed a consequent breakdown in collective sensemaking skills, mental health, social cohesion, and general well-being (Mastropietro and Vervaeke 2020).
Given just how fundamental meaning is to individuals and societies (as will be demonstrated below), this should not come as a surprise. With the state of affairs now glaring enough to warrant alarm, reflection, and diagnosis, many are speaking of “the meaning crisis” as a real and problematic condition of Western culture in the early 21st century (Vervaeke 2019; Azarian 2022; Henriques 2023).
As the influence of postmodern hermeneutics has waned in academia, however, a new “metamodern” paradigm has been taking shape that advocates different approaches to questions of meaning. Drawing upon various metamodern thinkers, this paper will challenge the notion that ontological, normative, and semantic meaning is somehow fundamentally precluded. Instead, I will claim, a consideration of how and why our Universe is complexifying via information processing within agent–arena relationships reveals that we can indeed have authentic knowledge of the world, defensibly normative values, and genuinely communicative language.
Specifically, I will show that:
meaningful knowledge arises out of an agent-arena relationship that links entities to the world;
the information feedback between organism and environment is the basis of value;
value is the basis of consciousness itself;
consciousness gives birth to language, which arises out of the world and therefore has genuine referents within it;
such linguistically mediated knowledge is continually complexifying, which is a crucial component of cultural evolution.
By making this case, I hope to reveal that many ideas commonly dismissed or derided today as mere social fictions are in fact part of core naturalistic processes that connect our entire human experience to the more-than-human world and even weave it into the very fabric of reality.
2. INFORMATION VS. KNOWLEDGE
There is a fundamental property of the Universe that literally informs (i.e., gives form to) the behavior of all known phenomena. This is the famous 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. According to this Law, nature tends toward equilibrium and the homogenization of all differences in the cosmos.
Now, if this were the only dynamic operating in the Universe, no structures or complex phenomena would ever form; there would only be chaotic equilibrium—forever. Fortunately, this is not the case. Instead, structures can arise, but only if they are able to leverage available free energy in their environment to push back against the draw of entropy and maintain their order (Schrödinger 1944).
This creates a foundational necessity for any entity that would exist in the Universe: it must utilize available energy to maintain itself in the face of entropy. That is the veritable “Prime Directive” for any thing to be. That is, for anything to exist, it must resist annihilation.
This tautology is actually quite profound, as it provides a minimal explanation for the existence of everything in the Universe. It is the basic logic that informs all the increasingly complex phenomena we see in the Universe (Chaisson 2001).
All things that exist, then, exist in relationship to the energy dynamics of their environment. In this way, all “things” are actually processes—flows of energy informing enduring structures that exist by adapting to given energetic conditions. The patterns of relationship allowing something’s existence to continue constitute the information of that system.
In the 20th century, the foundations of information theory were laid by thinkers like Claude Shannon (1948) to support the budding communications industry and offered a way of conceptualizing information in terms of uncertainty reduction. Messages, too, face entropy, and Shannon’s framework helped provide methods for ensuring accuracy of transmission. But Shannon’s theory of information only deals with informational accuracy, not meaning. It can tell you that a message has been faithfully conveyed, but says nothing about whether this message has any significance or relevance to the receiver.
There is, it turns out, a theoretically infinite amount of information that can be conveyed; what determines its relevance is adjudicated by the “agent–arena relationship” and how its dynamics influence the agent’s continued existence. That is, at the most fundamental level, information is meaningful only if it informs the specific existential requirements of a thing-in-context. Only when information contributes to the capacity of something to continue existing in the face of entropy does it acquire genuine semantic meaning to that thing. When it does, says says Bobby Azarian, it is no longer simply “information,” but “knowledge.”
In his 2022 book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity, Azarian writes eloquently about the importance of such knowledge for the agent–arena dynamic, which lies at the basis of all meaning in a complexifying Universe:
“What Shannon’s method fails to capture by ignoring meaning is knowledge—that is, information with causal power. Fortunately, complexity science has come to the rescue. Using the mathematical tools provided by non-equilibrium statistical mechanics and information theory, researchers are developing information measures that can capture meaning and biological relevance. For example, scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, such as Artemy Kolchinsky and distinguished physicist David Wolpert, are working on semantic information measures based on an approach known as teleosemantics, which assumes that the system being analyzed pursues some objective. For living systems, that objective is based on the goal of staying far from equilibrium, otherwise known as survival. Wolpert and Kolchinsky formally define semantic information as ‘the syntactic information between a physical system and its environment that is causally necessary for maintaining the system’s existence…’ Semantic information of this kind is … knowledge, since it reduces environmental uncertainty, and therefore the ignorance, of the complex system.” (Azarian 2021, p. 69)
In sum, information can be useful or useless; information is useful if it gives an entity causal power to maintain itself in its environment. Such information is then called “knowledge,” which emerges through the impinging of reality on agent behavior, which must adapt to its conditions to maintain its continued existence. Through this continual contact, both are transformed.
This idea lies at the heart of Azarian’s “integrated evolutionary synthesis,” a metamodern unifying theory of reality linking Universal Darwinism, Universal Bayesianism, evolutionary theory, and evolutionary epistemology into a single metatheory. According to this metatheory, the complexification of the Universe can best be understood as a cosmic learning process whereby more and more knowledge is generated:
“What is the foundation for a non-reductionist theory of everything? To understand the nature of life, and the nature of reality, we must begin with what many scientists consider to be the law of all physical laws, the second law of thermodynamics. …The natural tendency toward decay and disorder described by Boltzmann’s statistical version of the second law—which can be summed up as “things fall apart”—gives any conceivable adaptive or sentient system an eternal existential challenge. Biologists call it survival, cyberneticists call it persistence, and physicists call it staying far from thermodynamic equilibrium. To stay far from equilibrium, in other words, to continue to exist, a system must be able to extract free energy…from a noisy, fluctuating, ever-changing environment. This is no trivial task. In fact, it absolutely requires that life acquire information about the world it inhabits. This information has intrinsic meaning to a system because it is causally necessary for its continued existence. Due to its inherent meaningfulness, this kind of information has been called … adaptive information… Because adaptive information reduces environmental uncertainty—or Shannon entropy, which is a technical term for ignorance—we also call it knowledge.” (Azarian 2021, p. 127; italics original)
Or, expressed in the most concise terms: “life’s thermodynamic imperative necessitates knowledge accumulation” (p. 139).
John Vervaeke, a professor of psychology and cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto and prominent theorizer of the ‘meaning crisis’ in metamodern discourse (Vervaeke 2019), has developed a theory he calls “recursive relevance realization” (Vervaeke et al. 2012, Vervaeke and Ferraro 2013; Vervaeke 2019, esp. episodes 28-33; Henriques 2023, pp. 392-401) that speaks to the cognitive dynamics of entities in just such a “transjective” agent–arena relationship. Because reality poses countless challenges, whose number of potential solutions are “combinatorially explosive,” there is an absolute need for an agent to be able to accurately identify only the relevant information in its “salience landscape.” To meet this challenge, the mind has evolved neurocognitive mechanisms that assist in “relevance realization” to filter out probably unmeaningful information and home in on potentially meaningful information (i.e., “knowledge”).
If information “in general” can be framed according to Shannon information theory, we see that it is “combinatorially explosive.” That is, any message of any kind can be considered “information” in Shannon’s sense. But only a very small subset of that will be meaningful to a given agent—and this will be determined in reference to the specific context of its arena of action. Organisms have evolved increasingly sophisticated ways to filter information for relevance, allowing them to find an “optimal grip” on the world in varying contexts. Such is information with causal power, or meaningful knowledge. As Vervaeke puts it: “Relevance ultimately has to be relevant to an autopoetic thing” (Vervaeke 2019, episode 30, 26:47). Information with relevance to an entity in its environment is meaningful knowledge.
Synthesizing the above insights, we conclude:
1) Meaningful knowledge arises out of an agent-arena relationship that links organism to the world.
To be more precise, this is where meaning begins. For, as I will argue, the very nature and depth of meaning itself expands as entities complexify. We must be careful, then, not to reduce all meaning to the simple dynamics of material continuation and energy investment. Indeed, it is through information processing that complexity itself increases (Azarian 2021), and complexity brings entirely new emergent levels of reality online. Within these irreducibly complex information dynamics, new levels of meaning appear. Appreciating the role that information with causal power plays in the Universe is absolutely crucial for avoiding the pitfalls of reductionism, then, and embracing instead an emergent naturalism as the framework for understanding how meaning itself complexifies over time.
Arguably the best metatheoretical mapping of the Universal complexification process to date is Gregg Henriques’s Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK), a contribution to the “metamodern project” that aims to map the complexification dynamics of the Universe so as to help clarify the nature of mind and consciousness for the field of academic psychology (Henriques 2023, p. 2). Two components specifically—the “Tree of Knowledge” (ToK) diagram and the “Periodic Table of Behavior” (PTB) chart—bring very helpful clarity to the way information processing by thermodynamic entities in their respective environments has led to a Universe of stratified behavioral patterns constituting genuinely novel planes of existence, leading to novel kinds of meaning.
As Henriques notes in his 2023 book A New Synthesis for Solving the Problem of Psychology, an ambitious effort to articulate a non-reductionist “descriptive metaphysics” for the sciences as well as an epistemological framing of knowledge based thereon:
“The emergence of information theory, information science, chaos and complexity sciences, and philosophical analyses of living and mental creatures (Deacon, 2012) all show why a strong physical reductionism or eliminative materialism is a fallacious frame for scientific knowledge. The ToK and PTB show how the natural world is singular and monistic in the sense that the foundational ground of existence is an Energy Information Field, out of which the dimensions of behavioral complexification called Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture emerge. …The latter three all give rise to complex adaptive dynamic systems, whose patterns of behavior are not just matter and energy on a field of space and time but include dynamically self-organizing complex adaptive systems that engage in information processing and communication behaviors that require different metaphysical concepts above and beyond efficient causation.” (Henriques 2023, p. 282)
The stacked cones in the ToK represent these four great dimensional emergences: Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. The Tree of Knowledge
Each plane emerges out of novel information processing systems. As Henriques puts it in his 2011 book A New Unified Theory of Psychology:
“According to the ToK system, genetic information processing gives rise to the dimension of Life, neuronal information processing gives rise to the dimension of Mind, and symbolic information processing gives rise to the dimension of Culture.” (Henriques 2011, p. 14; emphasis added)
More specifically, I posit, we should say that these are the novel kinds of meaningful knowledge that punctuate the stack, since, as Henriques himself notes in A New Synthesis, “it is the cause-effect sequences of information processing and communication networks that result in the new complex adaptive plane of existence” (Henriques 2023, p. 124).
The point to emphasize here is that each information processing system (genetics, neuronal cognition, and language) are not just engaging “information” in the Shannon sense, but knowledge in the Azarian sense that the information is being processed by entities in adaptive relationship to their environments, such that it has meaning to the entity in its transjective context (contexts which span the Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture planes).
The UTOK’s Periodic Table of Behavior diagram provides a concise map of the increasingly complex kinds of “Object-Field Relations” (i.e., agent–arena relationships") that arise within these emergent planes. As Henriques summarizes it: “The [Periodic Table of Behavior] affords us a new epistemological lens that creates an ontological taxonomy of entity–field relations across the levels and dimensions of analysis that make up the stratification of behavioral complexification in nature” (Henriques 2023, p. 278). We thus see how unique kinds of agent–arena dynamics evolve and complexify across the material, biological, psychological, and cultural planes, entailing novel kinds of meaningful information processing.
Figure 2. The Periodic Table of Behavior
Here we see that the agent–arena relationship unfolding through the planes of complexification can be identified as: 1) the object–field relationship of the Matter plane, 2) the organism–environment relationship of the Life plane, 2) the animal–ecology relationship of the Mind plane, and 4) the human–socio-ecology of the Culture plane. Such are the transjective relational dynamics that play out across the complexification hierarchy (cf. upper quadrants vs. lower in Wilber 1995).
Actually, I would suggest that each entity up the stack must in fact engage with all of the arenas below it. That is, humans must navigate their socio-ecological culture, yes, but also the ecologies of animals, the environments of organisms, the fields of objects, as well as all of the permutations of their interactions. That is, a human must have meaningful relationships with/knowledge of all these domains if they are to continue existing effectively in the world.
I am endeavoring to show that such relationships are not meaningful only in subjective ways, i.e., purely “in the eye of the beholder,” but rather in a manner that is intricately tied up with objective and transjective reality going all the way down to thermodynamic necessity. To misinterpret the meaning of a grizzly bear (animal–environment), or of E. coli (organism–ecology), or of a steep cliff (object–field) is to face entropic annihilation. To say it again, meaning of this kind has causal power; to know a thing is to integrate its information in an adaptive way.
However, the more complex an entity is, the more complex information it must process across the numerous planes of reality. While all semantic information ultimately “cashes out” at the thermodynamic level, there are, in fact, novel layers to meaning introduced as complexity unfolds. These novel layers emerge as more complex information is processed through the Universe’s bootstrapping learning process, such that meaningful information (i.e., knowledge) gets generated differently as you move up the complexity planes. Henriques’s Tree of Knowledge maps these planes clearly, and Bobby Azarian’s integrated evolutionary synthesis articulates the driving logic that anchors all knowledge in the most fundamental law of reality itself.
3. COMPLEXIFICATION AND LEARNING
If this is true, then, I posit, entities at all levels can be understood as engaging in a learning process across a spectrum of complexity. If for anything to exist means it has navigated its environment successfully enough to have not succumbed to entropy, then there is meaningful information linking that entity to its conditions, and so “knowledge”—even at the most basic level, Matter.
While this may sound preposterous at first (“Rocks don’t learn! Minerals don’t have knowledge!”), it is crucial to appreciate that 1) consciousness is not required for learning so conceived, and 2) the anthropocentric associations with the experience of learning obviously shade into a more technical sense of “learning” the further down the complexity stack we go.
The learning process of entities in the Universe, then, can be understood as extending from the most complex adaptive organisms like human beings on the Culture plane, down to animals in their environments on the Mind plane, down still further to biological entities like single celled organisms and plants on the Life plane, and, I would argue, even shades down into the plane of Matter, where inanimate objects can complexify through proto-Darwinian adaptation processes such as “dissipative adaptation” (a basic kind of information processing), and whose very existence as objects may, perhaps, arise from the quantum decoherence into classical reality owing to similar agent–arena dynamics.
To delineate these distinct kinds of learning relative to complexity level (and thus their relative kinds of meaning), I will speak of:
structural learning (Matter),
genetic learning (Life),
cognitive learning (Mind), and
conceptual learning (Culture).
Through these complexity planes, meaning and value emerge to grow more rich, comprehensive, and integrated.
3.1 STRUCTURAL LEARNING (MATTER)
Starting with the most speculative (as we must, if we’re to follow the continuum from the simplest forms of information processing to the most complex), we can very provisionally suggest that subatomic particles emerge out of the “implicate order” of the Energy Information Field when they become “determined” (the mechanics of which are still uncertain, but may indeed be governed by simple probability and chance events).
Once such entities have indeed entered the classical plane of deterministic Matter, however, we can see how interactions among them unfold in a sort of agent–arena context (“Object–Field” according to the PTB). A particle’s activities become impinged upon by other particles and forces in its environment. Employing a ‘Universal Darwinism’ lens, we can see that particles that formed into stable atoms out-competed particles that did not. Amongst the vast variation, atomic stability was selected for by the environment. And though the particles were not in any way animate agents—let alone volitional ones—in this process, the end result is the endurance of structure against entropy through adaptation to environmental pressures: the basis of the agent–arena relationship, and thus the generation of meaningful information.
Whether this stresses the idea of “learning” to the breaking point is debatable, but it is the continuity with later forms of learning that, I posit, renders such an interpretation eminently valid. Indeed, one need not even rise all the way to the level of Life to see this. The “dissipative structures” identified by chemist Ilya Prigogine (1984) represent a much clearer instance of purely material objects harnessing free energy from their environment to structure themselves against entropy in order to persist—the essence of “learning” as defined above. From there, one can track this process into genuine “dissipative adaptation” such as Jeremy England and others are exploring, whereby the specific environmental conditions of the energy itself select for what structures emerge (Horowitz and England 2017).
All of this unfolds entirely on the plane of Matter. And while the details of abiogenesis out of dissipative adaptation remain to be filled in, there are promising signs that the evident continuity between material dissipative structures and biological organisms (which are clearly a subset of the former) will offer new revelations about the origins of Life. At the very least, it shows us that an entity need not be a full-blown biological organism to exist in an agent–arena relationship determining meaningful information; rather, a very crude, simplistic form of “meaning” exists even for a whirlpool!
While this may seem at first to diminish the very idea of meaning, I posit that it actually does the opposite. For, by showing that meaning connects down into the very fabric of reality, we can see the error of understanding it as merely something humans “make up” as just a “social construction.” Meaning, in fact, along with a related word, “teleology,” are both quite real—something complexity scientists are increasingly recognizing as they endeavor to explain material phenomena like dissipative structures (see, e.g., Deacon 2012). As Azarian concludes, with dissipative structures:
“…a natural pressure to minimize free energy and produce entropy spontaneously creates an ordered structure with an objective function. With the emergence of dissipative structures, we see the emergence of purpose in nature…” (Azarian 2021, p. 38)
3.2. GENETIC LEARNING (LIFE)
Admittedly, the Universal learning process becomes appreciably clearer to recognize by the time we reach the plane of Life—a particular kind of dissipative structure that can also reproduce itself through meaningful information, that is, the knowledge contained in the genetic “code.”
For Life, the code that in-forms organisms is subject to the filtering processes of Darwinian natural selection. This means that the code that perpetuates is the code best paired with its environment. Through the sculpting pressures of the agent–arena relationship, genetic information is updated. As meaningful information, genetic knowledge is refined. In this way, evolution acts as a clear learning process at the level of Life.
That is the essence of Bobby Azarian’s integrated evolutionary synthesis, which recognizes a process of knowledge creation running through the entire complexification of the Universe:
“Looking at the bigger picture, we see that biological evolution, adaptive learning, and scientific progress all reflect an accumulation of uncertainty-reducing information encoded in genetic, neural, and cultural memory. The integrated evolutionary synthesis—based on the evolutionary epistemology–universal Darwinism–universal Bayesianism framework—recognizes that life, mind, society, culture, science, art, and technology are all manifestations of one evolutionary process, one thermodynamic process, one computational process, unified by the concept of knowledge—adaptive complexity’s solution to the eternal problem of uncertainty and disorder.” (Azarian 2021, p. 132)
It may also be implicit in Henriques’s work, though it only comes to the surface in statements like the following:
“…Life, Mind, and Culture can be framed as kinds of knowing processes that engender new kinds of causal properties that cannot be reduced to mere aggregations of parts that generate new features.” (Henriques 2023, pp. 180-181)
As noted earlier, consciousness is not required for learning. Indeed, the contemporary emergentist consensus regarding the evolution of consciousness would imply the opposite: learning does not arise from consciousness but consciousness from learning. From the thermodynamic imperative, structure arose, perpetuated, adapted, and ultimately evolved into biological entities in an “organism–ecology” field; these then evolved within that field according to Darwinian processes, leading eventually to the rise of animate beings with nervous systems and brains evolved to better navigate their world in search of free energy. So we enter the plane of Mind and the “animal–environment” field.
3.3. COGNITIVE LEARNING (MIND)
The proliferation of networked systems of nerve endings (i.e., nervous systems) with a central processing center (i.e., brains) that we see marking the “Cambrian explosion” (c. 500 million years ago) occasioned a new dimension of emergent complexity that Henriques calls Mind.
As a psychologist uniquely dedicated to resolving “the problem of psychology”—which is, simply put, that the academic field of Psychology has multiple and conflicting definitions for “the mind” and how it should be studied—Henriques is especially careful and precise in the terminology he uses for this plane. While a bit cumbersome at first, laying it all out will be essential for fully elucidating the kind of learning performed at the complexity level of Mind, and thus its emergent kinds of meaning.
One framework Henriques introduces as part of the UTOK model to make these crucial distinctions is the “Map of Mind1,2,3.” According to this helpful terminology, Mind1, Mind2, and Mind3 each represent different mental functionalities that came online in the evolutionary process, but which we do well to keep separate if we wish to avoid the endemic confusion that has hitherto plagued the field of psychology. Henriques summarizes each this way:
“The solution generated by UTOK is a new map of the domains of mental processes called the Map of Mind1,2,3. It identifies the first domain of mental processes as Mind1, which is defined as mental behaviors exhibited by animals that are mediated by neurocognitive processes. These can be framed by a scientific exterior epistemology in a relatively straightforward manner. In contrast, the domain of Mind2 refers to subjective conscious experience, which is available only from the interior epistemological perspective and is much more difficult to frame via a scientific view of the world, which is behavioral and exterior in nature. Finally, there is the domain of Mind3. This refers to human self-conscious narrative reflection and reason-giving. Interestingly, here the referent is intersubjective in nature. That is, it is based on a language that must be learned in a socialized context, and its content seamlessly moves across the interior subjective and exterior objective epistemological frames.” (Henriques 2023, p. 82; italics added)
That is, Mind1 refers to the basic, unconscious cognitive computation performed by the nervous system; Mind2 refers to subjective consciousness; and Mind3 refers to the narrational ego that only comes online with language. (Technically, then, Mind3 is the part of human mental behavior that only shows up with the next complexity level, the Culture plane, which emerged with the advent of language as a novel information processing mechanism.)
Below I have outlined the Map of Mind1,2,3 in relation to each layer’s specific functionality, as well as adding the stage of behavioral complexity it exhibits according to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity—a set of relationships I will unpack below.
Table 1. The Map of Mind1,2,3 and Corresponding Complexity Levels
The kinds of mental functions performed by these three specific layers of the mind, says Henriques, relate to the development of cognition from simple reacting, to learning, to thinking, to talking. These four increasingly complex forms of cognition can be described as the “(1) sensory-motor and procedural level (i.e., reactive); (2) perceptual-motivational-emotional level (i.e., learning); (3) mental manipulation, simulation, and planning (i.e., thinking) level; and (4) linguistic comprehension and expression level (i.e., talking)” (Henriques 2023, p. 345).
Figure 3. Architecture of the Human Mind
3.3.1. Meaning for the Reacting Mind
Purely reflex-based reaction cognition describes the workings of Mind1. This kind of cognition can occur without any subjective consciousness whatsoever, the way your body is currently pumping blood through your arteries and regulating your breathing and other vital functions without any conscious awareness or intention on your part. The nervous system simply takes in information, processes it, and generates a suitable output behavior in response. Even without any conscious awareness, let alone linguistic-conceptual knowledge, Mind1 identifies the information that is relevant for the functioning of the animal and hones its reflexive responses in a meaningful way. As Henriques puts it:
“One way to conceive of cognition…in functional terms is that it is the semantic meaning the neurocognitive system generates to frame the animal–environment relation and identify what is relevant in the landscape of affordances that might guide its path of behavioral investment.” (Henriques 2023, pp. 291-292)
A meaningful assessment of mental behavior that Henriques does not make, but which I posit here, is the range of behavioral complexity level as measured according to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (Commons 2008, Commons and Chen 2014), a neo-Piagetian model for considering such behavior through the lens of complexity. Specifically, reactive Mind1 cognition appears to correspond to Stage 2 Automatic and Stage 3 Sensory and Motor, which are defined by reflex behavior and mixtures of reflex schemas. We will have more to say about the increase in behavioral complexity below.
With the next transition, however, from reacting to learning, a truly profound development occurs: we enter the domain of Mind2, or subjective conscious experience.
However, before moving to consider the implications of the emergence of consciousness, let us pause to make note of a fact that should by now be clear, and which will only become clearer as we progress: namely, that nature’s learning process we have been describing so far produces knowledge that is meaningful only to the degree that it assists the entities producing it to better navigate their agent–arena relationship. That is to say, information gets its causal power to the degree it is of value to the existence of the entity.
In this sense, “value” is hardly just a “subjective” impression or invention, since 1) the value of information lies ultimately in its ability to perpetuate and advance the existence of the entity in the objective world, and 2) we have not yet even encountered the subjective realm of Mind2, but can clearly distinguish between information of value to (i.e., relevant to) an entity vs. the infinite, combinatorially vast noise of irrelevant (i.e., meaningless). information. As Vervaeke puts it:
“Relevance realization is not cold calculation. It is always about…how your body is making risky, affect-laden choices [about] what to do with its precious but limited cognitive and…metabolic and temporal resources. Relevance realization is deeply, deeply…always, always an aspect of caring.” (Vervaeke 2019, episode 32 51:36)
Value, then, is produced specifically in the agent–arena relationship, in the transjective interplay between entity and field. Value does not exist in and of itself, but in the dynamic adaptive contexts relating organism to ecology, animal to environment, etc.—that is, in the process of energy informing structures adapted to specific environments (see Figure 2).
With this, I hope to have demonstrated my second claim, namely:
2) The information feedback between organism and environment is the basis of value.
Another way to express this is that value (in its crudest forms, “good vs. bad”) must be understood as deriving from the agent–arena relationship, wherein there is a relative “good for” an entity, as well as a relative “bad for” that entity.
For a bacterium on the Life plane, navigating via chemotaxis towards a collection of nutrients is good for its continued existence, aiding its efforts to obtain free energy to maintain itself in the face of entropy and so persist. Conversely, navigating into an area flooded by alcohol is bad for the bacterium, threatening its basic integrity as an organism. Even though the single-celled organism is among the most primitive of entities on the Life plane, we can still identify values for the organism which have meaning for it as information with causal power relative to its flourishing or annihilation.
On the Mind plane, an organism possessing only unconscious Mind1 cognitive functionalities will have its own values, which are relatively more complex than the bacterium’s. Startle a centipede, and it will react with a reflex mechanism built into its genetic code that is triggered by the stimulus and will curl into a ball to preserve itself. Give a worm some nutrient-rich dung, and it will orient toward its “good.”
Value, then, extends in a graded continuum throughout the learning process of complexification. Surely Ludwig Feuerbach glimpsed the essence of this when he wrote:
“If the plants had eyes, taste, and judgment, each plant would declare its own flower the most beautiful; for its comprehension, its taste, would reach no farther than its natural power of production. What the productive power of its nature has brought forth as the highest, that must also its taste, its judgment, recognise and affirm as the highest.” (Feuerbach 1841, p. 8)
3.3.2. Meaning for the Learning Mind
I have endeavored to show that a basic sense of value, as relative good or bad for an entity, pervades the complexification process writ large as inherent to the agent–arena relationship that characterizes all scales of reality. In this process so far, consciousness is required neither for learning nor for value. However, according to the emergentist framing of consciousness Henriques articulates, at some point subjectivity does come online, and the basis of this development lies in the integration of valence qualia.
Henriques suggests that this basis of sentience occurs as animals move from reflex reacting to relational learning: that is, “Responding to other animals is what likely gives rise to a new kind of mental behavior and what we can call the learning animals” (Henriques 2023, p. 337) and “learning animals are the likely place where Mind2 has its roots” (Henriques 2023, p. 340). As he puts it:
“[Subjective conscious experience (SCE)] is likely not present in the reacting, reflexive, fixed action level of animal mentation, such as seen in a sea slug. The argument here is that the beginnings of SCE emerge with the learning level, such that pleasure and pain can be thought of as nature’s first qualia that integrate and coordinate flexible learning patterns based on association and consequence. These ‘mental flashes’ model the animal–environment relationship and orient approach or avoidance behaviors.” (Henriques 2023, pp. 373-374)
In this way, the meaningful information processed as good for or bad for form the basis of nature’s first subjective qualia experiences, whose valences reflect the binary response patterns of what I would call attraction or repulsion. Valence arises when this value-laden knowledge is networked in reference to the organism as a whole, to be broadcast coherently throughout the body in order to perform the requisite response as a unit and orient it towards ideal goal states. Through this integration of information, the organism acquires a new functionality (the primitive subjectivity of Mind2), now interpreted as an experience of “pleasure” (good for) or “pain” (bad for). As Henriques says:
“A key aspect of consciousness is that it integrates information and broadcasts it to allow for dynamic coordination in a world that is not easy to predict. In emphasizing these notions, we can suggest that what is emerging at the core of consciousness is a system that yokes together the external and internal worlds to energize movement toward anticipated affordances and away from anticipated stressors.” (Henriques 2023, p. 370)
And, in more detail later:
“SCE begins as an alignment and integration between the senses that tracks the exterior world, maps the interior world, and broadcasts affective evaluations of the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of the situation, which serves as a basic guidance system to motorically approach affordances or avoid stressors. This base of sentience is the first evolutionary step and is associated with flexible learning. However, this is not a fully integrated, conscious, or ‘experiential self,’ but rather a minimally sentient entity (see Godfrey-Smith, 2016).” (Henriques 2023, p. 371)
In short, what characterizes the transition from mere reflexive reacting to qualitative learning and thus the dawn of subjectivity in Mind2 is the coherence of value-laden knowledge in such a way that it becomes integrated and thus experienced as the valence qualia of a unique whole, which motivate the organism in a new way toward its own normative ends (cf. Koch 2019). In sum:
3) Value is the basis of consciousness itself.
Consciousness is meaningful, value-oriented knowledge. And it is from this networked integration of valence qualia that the “self” will arise.
I note that this account does not resolve the “neurobiological binding problem,” so considerable work remains on the problem of the origins of consciousness. Bracketing that philosophical problem, however, and simply working with the “emergentist consensus” of consciousness’s origins (Ginsburg and Jablonka 2019), we are left with the view that consciousness emerges from integrated valence states. In sum, consciousness is inherently informed by values.
3.3.3. Meaning for the Thinking Mind
With the move from learning towards thinking, we begin to see profound overlap with the (neo-)Piagetian models of learning, which map a “genetic epistemology” for human knowledge that tracks the development of abstract thought out of entirely embodied action (Piaget 1970, 1972).
Though Henriques never mentions Piaget, it is clear that the functionalities of Mind2 here named correspond directly with the development of schemas about as Piaget theorized. For, as Henriques expresses the developments of the thinking stage (the “mental manipulation, simulation, and planning (i.e., thinking) level”):
“Perception is a consequence of both bottom-up processing, which refers to the pattern of sensory inputs, and top-down processing, which refers to the individual’s knowledge, memory, and expectations. The basic outline of how perception works is this: Through lived experience, the mind/brain builds perceptual categories of objects and events. These categories emerge from interaction with the object and events and affordances that form templates or schema that enable the animal to determine the situation it is in and make predictions about what might happen next.” (Henriques 2023, p. 338)
Such a characterization of “thinking” corresponds directly to Piaget’s notions of action-derived categorical schemata, according to which experience is either assimilated or accommodated (a cognitive dynamic that Vervaeke says lies at the heart of relevance realization). In sum, the materials Henriques is synthesizing all concur with Piaget’s constructivist insight that thinking emerges from doing, knowledge emerges from action—“the mind” emerges from matter.
This connection allows us to appreciate the way (neo-)Piagetian epistemological frameworks can be overlaid onto thermodynamically-informed work on cognition like Karl Friston’s (2010) “free energy principle” and “active inference,” giving us a robust model of how exactly humans acquire knowledge about the world and, more importantly, why it can be justified—since it is ultimately rooted in and emerges from the very world it describes.
Crucially, this last point can and should be made about the final domain of knowledge creation to have emerged: language. For it is from conscious agents that language arises to better map the agent–arena reality from which it springs.
3.4. CONCEPTUAL LEARNING (CULTURE)
3.4.1. Meaning for the Talking Mind
So far, we have tracked the way the agent–arena relationship subjects information to a relevance filter such that entities evolve by learning to identify only meaningful information—i.e., knowledge. This begins from a thermodynamic imperative to stay far from equilibrium, which can be understood as the crudest form of “value” an entity might possess. Thus, at the utmost root of existence, we can locate a very real basis for both knowledge (ontological meaning) and value (normative meaning).
Through cosmic evolutionary processes, these develop into more complex and sophisticated forms. At the level of Mind, ontological meaning is being computed by advanced nervous systems connecting countless input sensors to a brain generating a detailed mental model of both the agent and their environment. Normative meaning has converged into an emergent subjectivity, wherein guidance protocols around attraction and repulsion now manifest as valence qualia like “pleasure” and “pain.” Out of this rich neuro-biological architecture of knowledge creation and relevance realization, whose assessments of meaning have been honed through eons of evolutionary sculpting, another system of information processing emerges: language, the basis of semiotic meaning.
In the UTOK Map of Mind1,2,3, this corresponds to the move from thinking minds to talking minds, which constitutes an emergent evolutionary leap to a new complexity plane, Culture, where the linguistic human Mind3 operates (see Table 1). The claim I wish to emphasize here is that this new linguistic medium for information processing is fundamentally based on the other well-honed evolutionary mechanisms tying organism to world (i.e., knower to reality), arising out of and extending its logic and cognitive machinery. The upshot of this is that language is not just some system of airy abstractions untethered to reality (as postmodern theories of semiotics suggested), but rather an extension of reality itself, and thus justified in making ontic claims about reality.
As Henriques notes, linking language to the basic mechanics of cognition:
“[T]he human mind is a neurocognitive behavioral investment system that symbolically tags objects and changes in the form of nouns and verbs. We will see that, via Behavioral Investment Theory, the neurocognitive architecture of the preverbal human mind (i.e., both Mind1 and Mind2) is structured to: (a) attend to relevant objects in the environment; (b) identify changes that are happening in predictable and unpredictable ways; (c) determine what are desirable and undesirable outcomes; and (d) direct subsequent work effort (i.e., behavioral investment) in an attempt to realize desirable outcomes and avoid undesired ones based on probabilistic expectations. In short, evolution built our primate phenomenology to see the world in behavioral terms. In addition, nature added a language acquisition device (Pinker, 1994) that allowed us humans to generate a symbolic-syntactical representation of our phenomenological experience.” (Henriques 2023, p. 246)
In Vervaeke’s terms, propositional knowledge emerges out of participatory, perspectival, and procedural knowing.
So language itself emerges directly out of our pre-existing knowledge creation cognition, which, we have seen, emerged out of our genetic knowledge’s encoding of the world, which emerged out of our thermodynamic imperative to exist. Because of this unbroken causal chain, I believe we are warranted in seeing language as a highly sophisticated tool for extending genuine knowledge creation into the semiotic register, since it emerges, along with all the rest of us, from continual evolutionary refinement via interface with that reality. And so we conclude:
4) Consciousness gives birth to language, which arises out of the world, and therefore has genuine referents within it.
This understanding of language allows us to dispense with misguided and dysfunctional semiotic theories that have long underpinned much of the postmodern academic discourse. In his 2021 book Metamodernism: The Future of Theory, philosopher and historian Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm proposes just such a “metamodern semiotics,” dubbed hylosemiotics, as a productive alternative to the postmodern semiotic tradition, which he thoroughly critiques and refutes.
The term hylo refers to the Greek word for “matter” (ὕλη), hylosemiotics being a semiotics that emerges directly out of the material world and our engagement with it. “Meaning is of the world,” writes Storm, “not separate from it” (pp. 182-183; emphasis original). Far from being some mere social construction untethered to actual referents, then, language is part of a much broader process of organisms interpreting their world. Indeed, key to Storm’s argument is that “all animals, not just humans, interpret the world” (p. 171), which, consonant with the theories above, pushes the origins of semantic meaning out of the Culture plane of social construction and into the evolutionary process more broadly.
In fact, Storm bases his hylosemiotics on the same agent–arena relationship we have been describing as the source of genuine knowledge and meaning. Whereas postmodern semiotics could only see the combinatorially explosive possibilities of meaning (“all interpretations are valid”), Storm’s metamodern semiotics rightly (and independently) recognizes the role that recursive relevance realization plays in meaning-making. “Sign-consumers,” he writes, “both tend to focus on the parts of their environment that are the most relevant to them and they tend to assume the interpretation of voluntary signs that maximizes relevance” (p. 182). While there are seemingly infinite possible interpretations available, writes Storm,
“[t]here are myriad limitations on interpretation, too. In the vocabulary of environmental psychology, perception is about producing an agent–world ‘coupling’ with the purpose of discovering ‘affordances,’ namely, ‘the possibilities for action that a particular object permits a particular agent.’ (Storm 2021, p. 199)
Storm’s metamodern semiotics returns the possibility of semiotic meaning to language in a way directly aligned with the arguments of other metamodern thinkers laid out above.
All of this allows us to see knowledge creation, including human linguistic knowledge, as part of a continuous Universal learning process characterizing every level of complexity. The continuity of this process, which carries throughout the various emergent dimensions of complexity, identifies meaning as arising out of direct engagement with reality and not just something subjectively invented or arbitrarily constructed. Meaning is what ties us to the world—not just by our subjective framings of it, but also in how our very subjectivity emerges from it and is formed by it. As Storm concludes:
“In summary, hylosemiotics permits us to turn the mind inside out, and in so doing to see … broad and concrete ways in which what has previously been understood as private mental life is externally realized. First, knowledge does not come primarily from introspection, nor is the mind like some kind of homunculus looking outward from the windows of the eyes; rather, knowledge emerges from the exploratory manipulation of the physical world. Body and mind co-arise interdependently. We learn by going into the world and interacting with it.” (pp. 202-203)
Now, as should be clear (but which bears foregrounding): none of this is to suggest that meaning, linguistic or otherwise, must be objective (as modern thinkers tended to conclude). Meaning does not exist without reference to something it is meaningful to. That said, this does not entail that the radical subjectivist view espoused by some forms of postmodern semiotics—that meaning is entirely subjective or has no real referents in the world—is correct. Rather, meaning is transjective, arising from the dynamic interplay between agent and arena, which literally inform one another.
The upshot of this is that the linguistic concepts we use to navigate the world can be both “mind-dependent” and “real”; both a social construction and ontologically meaningful—and in multiple ways. “Atoms” are a social construct in the sense that the word was invented by humans and the concept is dependent upon human minds. But none of that means that atoms do not therefore exist, that they are not real. Rather, language (a social construction) can symbolically tag referents that have actual causal power. As Henriques notes, science itself is a language game that arises out of Culture—but one that aims to render all the ontic complexity levels knowable as best it can. Science arises out of complexification and returns to describe complexification. As Azarian (drawing on philosopher Karl Popper) notes, science is actually an extension of the Universal learning process, following the same cosmic pattern of variation and selective retention that guides the generation of all meaningful information (Azarian 2021, pp. 127-150).
Conceptual social constructs emerge from cognitive constructs which emerge from biological constructs which emerge from material constructs. Linguistic abstraction arises out of material manipulation (just as Piaget also discovered through his studies). Mind emerges from matter; the abstract emerges from the concrete.
Language, then, can be genuinely meaningful in terms of expressing an individual’s knowledge of a shared reality (semiotic meaning by Mind3); an individual’s knowledge of reality can (with relative accuracy) map to that reality (ontological meaning by Mind1); and the causal power the relative accuracy of this mapping affords an agent is valuable to that agent (normative meaning—which in humans is subjectively felt by Mind2). In sum, language reflects reality, and the relationship of an agent to that reality has normative implications.
In his chapter “The Revaluation of Values,” Storm reveals such normative implications for his vision of metamodernism, observing that “the whole idea that one cannot legitimately move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ is fundamentally mistaken in ways that are easy to reconstruct” (Storm 2021, p. 247). Here (once more, independently) he captures the essence of this connection linking semiotic claims, ontological reality, and normative value:
“For instance, the statement ‘this glass contains arsenic’ is the epitome of a non-normative descriptive statement of fact. But if ‘this glass contains arsenic,’ then it would also seem that I ought to believe ‘this glass contains arsenic,’ especially if I am feeling thirsty. This could be extended to most statements about the world. If ‘it is snowing,’ then I ought to believe it is snowing (especially when picking a jacket); if ‘smoking causes cancer,’ then I ought to believe that smoking causes cancer, and so on. These examples pose problems for the conventional account of the relationship between fact and value because they all represent a direct movement from a description (fact or ‘is’) to an ought. Restated, they all provide clear evidence that non-normative descriptions can reasonably lead to normative conclusions. Indeed, all this suggests that correct belief itself is a value-laden or normative concept, and we should have accurate beliefs about facts or non-normative aspects of the world, and for very functional purposes.” (Storm 2021, p. 248)
Put in thermodynamic terms, because our ideas about reality have bearing on whether we continue to successfully remain in our goal-state of being far from equilibrium, the descriptive linguistic information we process from our environment is also inherently prescriptive. Knowledge of what ‘is’ necessarily shapes actions for what ‘ought.’
That said, both ‘is’ and ‘ought’ are continually evolving in context. Like every emergent information processing mechanism punctuating the complexification process, this information is subject to a filtering mechanism that acts to continually “update” its code. For genetic information on the Life plane, that updating mechanism has been robustly theorized via Darwinian processes. For neuronal information on the Mind plane, we see ontogenetic experiential learning as well as phylogenetic evolutionary advances of the new functionalities reacting, learning (dawning consciousness), thinking, and finally talking—which brings us to linguistic information on the Culture plane such as develops according to its own learning process we can call “conceptual learning.”
So we come to the fifth and final claim I would like to defend.
3.4.2. Society and the Evolution of Meaning
It has become a common sentiment, if not the default stance in Western intellectual society, to deny that knowledge progresses or that culture undergoes any cumulative development. One of the hallmarks of the postmodern critique of modernity, after all, was a concerted effort to undermine any such claims as inherently misguided, if not outright dangerous. A necessary corollary to postmodern anti-realism and strong social constructivism has been a radical relativism in the face of “progress” of any kind.
The problems with this position are too extensive to unpack within the limited scope of this paper. I will only mention in passing the inherent performative contradiction of prescriptively advocating against prescriptivism, saying it is better not to say anything is better, and making normative claims in support of anti-normative discourse. Indeed, since logic itself “encodes epistemic norms,” as Storm aptly summarizes it: “To assert that committing the naturalistic fallacy of moving from is to ought renders an argument invalid is itself an evaluative judgment that does the very thing it prohibits” (Storm 2021, pp. 252, 248; see also Storm’s insightful perspective on postmodern critique as negative prescriptive normativity, pp. 236-243).
We need not linger on the self-contradictory and self-defeating arguments for the alternative, however, since the case for knowledge creation in the social world is so obviously an extension of the integrative evolutionary synthesis that describes cumulative learning at pre-cultural levels of reality. It but remains to follow the trajectory into the plane of Culture to see that human intellectual history is just the linguistic version of a knowledge generation mechanism driving the entire complexification of the cosmos.
Here we enter the domain of Mind3, which, says Henriques, is “intersubjective in nature. That is, it is based on a language that must be learned in a socialized context” (Henriques 2023, p. 82). Linguistic justification is the basis of the ego, or interior narrator (Henriques 2011, pp. 118-127; 2011, pp. 100-104); yet language itself is a collective product. This, we should appreciate, generates a recursive feedback loop: Individuals are socialized into linguistic structures, out of which the ego is constructed; individual egos then create novel linguistic cultural production that goes back into society, which in turn serves to socialize future individuals.
Mind3, I claim, thus emerges from a linguistic individual/collective feedback cycle, which presents us with a familiar pattern of variation and selective retention, as new concepts are developed (i.e. variation), and some of those concepts get retained and incorporated into the future socialization (i.e., replication) process itself. Through this recursive process, socio-linguistic Culture undergoes its own evolutionary filtration or “updating” process. If we hypothesize that a crucial selective pressure for linguistic concepts is their perceived relevance (e.g., relative accuracy, utility, etc.), we can even frame cultural evolution itself as a form of collective recursive relevance realization.
Because the linguistic structures that are identifiable as organizing individual egos (Loevinger 1976; Cook-Greuter 1999) also serve to organize collective representations that inform the socialization process, we can observe this complexification unfolding at both the micro and macro scales of society.
This feedback loop has its own implications for metamodern semiotics. As Storm observes in a different context:
Perception can be thought of as interactive, dynamical feedback that results in the coupling of agent and environment. …By producing public representations—which necessitate their materialization if only in terms of sound waves—individuals can engage in ‘dialogical coupling.’ Succinctly put, we learn to ‘think together.’” (Storm 2021, pp. 200-201)
This “thinking together” is the essence of Culture. Not only does it assure that semiotic meaning is restored to the picture, allowing human beings the promise of authentic communication through shared “public representations,” it also allows us to feel together, as our subjective Mind2 forms intersubjective relationships as meaningful interactions in our agent–arena navigation. Semiotic meaning not only allows us to attune our ontological meanings with those of others, we also attune our normative meanings with others. In this way, I believe, both reason and morality get “updated” through relationship at both the individual and collective level.
Henriques quotes Michael Tomasello from his 2019 book Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny, who seems to intimate something of the logic of this progression:
“Reason and responsibility are normative notions: they involve standards one ‘ought’ to meet. In our view, the origin of normative force lies in the individual agent’s sense of instrumental pressure—the sense that I ought to do x in order to obtain y—as a self-regulatory process. Then, in first entering into joint agency, the young child transforms this individual self-regulation into social self-regulation, in which ‘we’ self-regulate ‘me’ and ‘you’ interchangeably. So now the question is what ‘I’ and ‘you’ as a part of ‘we’ ought to do. Then by six or seven years of age, the child starts to identify in addition with a cultural ‘we,’ which, upon internalization, executively self-regulates her and her compatriots’ beliefs and actions normatively in the direction of collectively accepted group standards of rationality (reason) and morality (responsibility).” (Quoted in Henriques 2023, p. 419)
Such is the stuff of human development, which the field of developmental psychology has been exploring for the last 125 years. Though the normative implications of this field are frequently questioned, the foregoing analysis linking ontological, normative, and semantic meaning via evolutionary pressures of the agent–arena relationship hopefully provides a broader context for at least a subset of such claims. As Vervaeke concludes: “Not only is relevance realization inherently dynamic, it is inherently developmental” (Vervaeke 2019, episode 31, 43:34).
The agent–arena relationship is inherently normative, with knowledge of reality and valued goal-states intimately intertwined. It seems entirely justified, then, to see human reason and morality as manifestations of genuine meaning complexifying through the Culture plane. When we recognize that Culture is a process of both “learning together” and “feeling together”—an intersubjective agent–arena attunement of both semiotic and normative meaning—we can appreciate the true normative nature of human cognitive and moral development.
Moreover, the intersubjective field opened up by Mind3’s ability to conceptualize (i.e., render in increasingly complex semiotic terms) individuals’ Mind2 experiences of value creates the ability for public representations that can socialize individuals into more richly conceptualized moral visions. In this way, morality can also be said to “complexify” if mediated through semiotic translation.
Indeed, the developmental shift Tomasello describes above—from a self-regulating normativity, to one framed by increasingly wider spheres of concern and responsibility (interpersonal relationship, collective culture, and so forth)—signals such a complexification of care and investment the more the individual comes to conceptualize the webs of interaction informing their agent–arena relationship. The more our knowledge grows about the complexity of the world, then, the more the arena is conceptually expanded, revealing increasingly nuanced dynamics with their own degrees of causal power. Knowledge of these dynamics enhances the agent’s own causal power, putting them into transjectively meaningful relationship to more and more of the cosmos. In this way, we can clearly imagine the Universal learning process playing out on the Culture plane to be one of complexifying reasoning and widening moral responsibility when optimally adaptive.
We noted earlier that our analysis of cosmic complexification had begun to overlap with Piagetian models of human learning. I pegged the levels of the Map of Mind1,2,3 to their respective stages in the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC), a neo-Piagetian framework for assessing relative complexity of what Henriques would call “mental behavior.” We can now follow this analysis further, using the MHC as a measure of the conceptual complexity permitting such mental behavior. This can allow us some insight into the nature of linguistic complexification—which is key to the sort of “conceptual learning” that drives cultural evolution.
As noted, it is clear that the communicative connections bridging individuals to other individuals, and thus to the collective, reveal a crucial feedback loop tying individual psychological development to collective social change. This relationship reveals a fascinating link between ontogenetic development and phylogenetic or cultural evolution. Here, the insights of Jürgen Habermas are essential, especially his 1979 work Communication and the Evolution of Society. More recently, the metamodern sociologist Hanzi Freinacht (2017) has attempted to extend this sort of analysis, specifically in reference to the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, linking the “cultural codes” Henriques identifies at the close of A New Synthesis (which he picks up from Lene Rachel Andersen’s (2019) work Metamodernity) to their associated level of socio-linguistic-conceptual complexity.
All of this can help us track the complexifying stratification of behavior, exhibited throughout the cosmic learning process generally, into the plane of Culture specifically. Such a metatheoretical framing allows us to see how human advances in learning (both conceptual-linguistic and conceptual-moral) are part and parcel of the much broader knowledge creation process guiding the complexification of the cosmos.
I hope this analysis has gone some way to supporting the fifth principal claim of this paper:
5) Linguistically mediated knowledge is continually complexifying, which is a crucial component of cultural development.
3.4.3. Meaning and Meta-Narratives
While meaning, we have shown, is real to the degree it arises out of contextual transjective relationships, there is a final framing of meaning we must consider that expands this scope to consider meaning at a more universal level.
A helpful way to think about this is through increasingly expanding scales of contextualization. If it is valuable for me to accurately map myself in relation to my immediate environment (e.g., modeling the room I am in to better navigate it), there will also be utility in mapping my room in relation to a still wider environment (e.g., knowing how the room is situated within the larger contexts of my immediate property, my town, my nation, etc.). Such information helps contextualize my immediate agent–arena dynamic in a way that informs how I navigate within it, and how I would navigate out of and beyond it.
This is a purely spatial way to frame the issue, but in fact we must consider it as metaphorical for all the increasingly abstract and comprehensive framings we might have of reality “as a whole.”
The more such a map expands away from my immediate situation, the less immediately relevant it is to me, true—but that does not make it negligible or superfluous information. Quantum mechanics is an incredibly abstract and distant terrain compared to knowing where the bathroom is. And yet, the behavior of my iPhone renders it literally at hand and pragmatically impinging, while my own ego identity has had to be constructed by means of and in relation to my culture’s dominant world model, such that ‘I’ am co-defined and enacted in relation to concepts about subatomic particles and superpositions.
As noted above, the inherently interconnected nature of a complex Universe means that information across all levels interweave and influence my existence (and my survival) in ways that would give me greater causal power if I could more accurately conceptualize them. Knowing, then, how “it all fits together” or “what it’s all about” to contextualize all the contexts I can imagine would indeed be of great utility and value.
It is, I believe, the valued goal-state of attaining such a big picture perspective that informs our normative quest for not just meaning in life (which is always contextually given by our local transjective relationship dynamics) but meaning to life (which places all such local meanings in a broader global frame and thus serves as a meta-normative guide). Such, I believe, is the function of so-called “meta-narratives,” which make meaning of our meanings by placing all knowledge within a grand teleological frame.
As we noted, knowledge and value extend in a graded continuum throughout the learning process of complexification. Feuerbach’s insight that “each plant would declare its own flower the most beautiful” captures this transjective nature of relative good matching relative understanding. But Feuerbach took the idea even further, seeing that every entity must then have its own sort of guiding ideal, its own telos, shaped by (what we can now call) the normative conditions of its agent–arena relationship.
“If God were an object to the bird,” he writes, “he would be a winged being: the bird knows nothing higher, nothing more blissful, than the winged condition” (p. 17). This line of thought leads him to posit that the God-concept itself is no other than a given entity’s intimation of ultimate knowledge:
“God is thy highest idea, the supreme effort of thy understanding, thy highest power of thought. …God is what the understanding thinks as the highest. But in what I perceive to be essential is revealed the nature of my understanding is shown the power of my thinking faculty. …As thou thinkest God, such is thy thought;—the measure of thy God is the measure of thy understanding.” (pp. 38-39)
Using the technical definition of knowledge advanced above (i.e., information granting an agent causal power in its environment to survive and flourish), interpreting the cultural concept “God” as “ultimate knowledge” is potentially quite fruitful. In a word, it captures the ultimate onto-normative ideal within a given agent–arena relationship. Such a “thermodynamic theology” could, for instance, allow us to track the evolution of God-concepts through the conceptual learning operant on the Culture plane (Dempsey, forthcoming), demonstrating continuity across the discontinuous cultural codes, while also revealing the deeper continuity with meaning in the more-than-human world. It could, moreover, assist the field of Religious Studies in identifying its object of study, while simultaneously aiding theologians (particularly of the process variety) understand and develop notions like “the sacred” (Eliade 1987) or Paul Tillich’s (1957) “ultimate concern.”
Whether using a word like “God” in this way is helpful or not is debatable. Perhaps “Meaning” (capital M) does just as well, or better, to convey the specific sort of meaning that benefits an agent in the most general imaginable arena—the meta-normative reality of the “big picture” that provides, you could say, the “cosmos” containing all possible agent–arena dynamics.
I will close near to where I started, by positing that “the meaning crisis” named at the outset is quite clearly the natural byproduct of an institutionalized cultural code that has deconstructed meaning and eschewed such meta-narratives. However, if we take the idea of cultural complexification seriously, we must admit that such deconstruction was dialectically predictable, as naïve notions of objective meaning and non-contextualized knowledge are necessary barriers to a more accurate world model that recognizes the inherently transjective nature of meaning and value.
Today, with metamodern thinkers synthesizing these insights and moving beyond deconstruction towards a project of synthesis, integration, and reconstruction, the emerging paradigm, by reframing issues of meaning within a Universal complexification and knowledge-generation narrative, can help restore a functional relationship between human agents and their lived arena. The result is suggestive of metamodern meta-narrative, a broad semantic framing of meanings that contextualizes all known phenomena as part of an unfolding learning process the Universe is undergoing as it complexifies from Matter to Life to Mind to Culture and beyond. Hopefully, such a narrative and its associated philosophical clarifications can contribute to ameliorating the observed breakdown in collective sensemaking skills, mental health, social cohesion, and general well-being plaguing early 21st century culture. Indeed, I hope this paper is a meaningful contribution to that end.
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This is fantastic! An incredibly valuable contribution to meaning-making, and ultimately healing, in our complex times. Thank you.