What does it mean to have meaning, for something to bear meaning?
It feels safe to say that meaning is not inherent in the thing, but rather that it’s (with)in the meaning-maker. But then, what arises within that gives meaning, what inside ascribes to something meaning? What or whom is doing the meaning-making?
My keys are cold, metal objects unless I or another know them to be keys.
(If this doesn’t drive you nuts, nothing will.)
Yet it is at this level that we must wonder/wander if we are to solve the “hard” problem of consciousness. Awareness is one thing, but how will we know if, say, an artificial intelligence understands (? Is understands even the right word?), has the capacity for meaning? Would the claims of an AI to have understood something or ascribed meaning to something be any different than those of a person? How could we tell? Is there a shared, felt sense that accompanies meaning, indicates it to the being doing the meaning, that makes meaning something more than stimulus? Hardcore behaviorists would argue that there is no such thing as meaning beyond stimulus, but there they run into a problem—several, really.
One of those problems is where the chain of stimulus begins. Is it inherent in evolution, or is it a product or byproduct of it? That is to say, we know animals can create stimuli as well as react to them, and that means animals have an effect on the overall environment in which stimuli occur.
And so, also, of instinct, which we know can both be slavishly followed and, also, through a force we used to call will not followed. We also know, problematically, that many of these things human animals ascribe to instinct are actually cultural—they vary by culture and include concepts of attractiveness, gender presentation, and insanity. So the context of contact with other, similar beings helps create what we experience as spontaneous and, further complicating things, can be influenced and changed by beings exerting what they experience as willful action. (Noting for the time being that hardcore behaviorists and hardcore materialists would deny such a thing as will to begin with.)
But most of these things are experienced/felt as meaningful, significant, both in action and in attribution. Hardcore materialists might say “Fine. These things you experience as meaningful are mere epiphenomena of the physical processes of your body. They are the meat that is you doing the things you experience to you.”
But this “merely” sidesteps the issue. It only explains things in one direction and not the other, which is to say it fails to address how meaning changes our experiences and guides our actions, thus changing the meat doing the experiencing. The hardcore materialists can’t make their argument without the epiphenomena, and in making it they fail to acknowledge that the epiphenomena have to turn into phenomena for the being they’re trying to convince.
And in arguing, we acknowledge that meaning can be encoded: in its most commonplace sense (and maybe this is the difference between meaning and significance), an object or event (keys, a can of cat food opening) can have meaning, but a piece of writing about a set of keys or a can of cat food being opened can have meaning when the objects or events referenced aren’t present. My cat, for sure, understands the meaning of the cat food can being opened, but I do not know if he would be able to communicate that meaning. He certainly can communicate that he wants me to open a can of cat food, even when I am upstairs and the cat food is downstairs. Keys, of course, have meaning not only beyond themselves as objects but within the larger contexts of a physical culture in which there are locks, metallurgy, complex engineering and production processes, and in a culture in which there is theft and therefore a need for locks.
|My cat, contemplating cat food.|
Further, I can read about a lock in a piece written centuries ago and understand what that means, even when the author of the words is long dead, the locks long stuck, the keys long lost.
Meaning, then, surpasses meat, even though the meat may need to be there to decode the meaning.
Is the meaning, then, carried in the code or in the beings doing the encoding and decoding—or in the relationship(s) between?
Our AI from above may both be able to claim meaning and to create a situation in which its actions impact its environment; it may respond to decoded instructions. But we don’t know if it decides how to act based on those instructions, if it deliberates and chooses among options, if its sense of meaning can lead to different interpretations of the same stimulus, interpretations it could (or maybe couldn’t) defend. All of those things, in turn, require not only a sense of meaning, but an awareness of meaning, which can lead us to, perhaps, another aspect of this whole thing: meaning is meta, which allows this very essay to exist.
We have not gotten to the essence (even with all its baggage, I’m using the word anyway) of meaning. The limitations, though, of different approaches maybe we have outlined: how those who deny meaning as anything other than reactions to stimuli or meat doing meat-stuff or able to be easily created through artificial means are missing pieces of what we know meaning to be, sidestepping the origins of meaning, or failing to fully explain how meaning could arise. Linear or materialist approaches have a hard time accounting for in-betweenness; spiritual or non-materialist approaches have a hard time accounting for how things end up being.
If we cannot immediately solve the problem of meaning, maybe we can use it to glue together some of the pieces.