Basal Meaning - Part 2 - Primordial Meaning

There is meaning in life, at least in human life. Is there meaning in other life? I propose that there is but that–as is the case with consciousness–simpler organisms have simpler, prototypical features of meaning.

Basal Meaning - Part 2 - Primordial Meaning
An AI's interpretation of cells making friends

In part one, we discussed why meaning–central as it is to our experience–is overlooked by science. Central to these reasons was its apparent lack of historical grounding. Why is anything meaningful at all?

Other cognitive abilities have their own origins. We briefly highlighted language in part one. Like meaning, language is ubiquitous. Unlike meaning, it is accepted how obviously useful language is. This isn't to say that meaning is not useful–but we certainly don't think of meaning as a commodity, at least not consciously. You do not take introductory college courses on meaning, nor do you learn its ABCs on wooden blocks. Yet you do learn to make meaning. Language learning is itself an exercise is parts of the meaning-making process. The many sounds that make up the words that make up our language must first be associated with concrete objects, actions, thoughts, beliefs, and so on. This is just one aspect of meaning-making and the one I focus on the least, for good reason: the semantic sense of meaning is already widely an area of scientific inquiry. We're talking about a process that includes language learning but that also includes feelings of connectedness, being, and purpose. These we have discussed elsewhere in detail but can be summarized as follows:

Meaning, fast and slow

Immediate (fast) meaning: Meaning that is directly felt as part of perception (commonly sensorial[1]), based on past learning and immediate context for the perception. Example: My feelings towards a ceramic mug my mother made for me versus the mug I bought at Walmart. The way I read The Bible versus a manifesto from a stranger on Twitter. The Mona Lisa versus AI-generated art. This kind of meaning can be directly recognized and influenced through putting the word "just" in front of something. An otherwise beautiful sunset can be "just" the sun setting (which is in turn "just" the earth spinning, which is in turn "just" rotational inertia, which is…).

Narrative (slow) meaning: Meaning that forms the backdrop of our lives, which can be constructed into a narrative. This ability is ubiquitous in humans with language. Example: Something unfortunate happens–my dog dies. I can turn this into any number of narratives. In one, this is a mercy, as my dog was in pain. In another, it's a tragedy that's hard to reconcile–perhaps it's the result of my sinful behavior. This kind of narrative meaning serves as a backdrop for our lives. Its absence is felt as life being directionless, cold, remorseless. Its abundance is felt as life being warm, bright, full of opportunity and love.

These fast and slow meanings are bound up in each other and an abundance or absence of either leads to changes in the other.

Basal meaning

Such is the current state of things. There is meaning in life, at least in human life. Is there meaning in other life? I propose that there is but that–as is the case with consciousness–simpler organisms have simpler, prototypical features of meaning. I am far from the first person to have this thought. Michael Levin–a computer scientist turned biologist with a penchant for bringing together seemingly disparate functions (meaning) and disciplines (CS, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, Buddhism)–thinks similarly. In "How do Living Systems Create Meaning", Levin and Fields (coauthor), pose the following questions about meaning[2] (Fields and Levin 2020):

  1. How do living systems distinguish between components of their environments, considering some to be “objects” worthy of attention and others to be “background” that is safely ignored?
  2. How do living systems switch their attentional focus from one object to another?
  3. How do living systems create and maintain memories of past events, including past perceptions and actions?

These questions all presuppose an answer to a fourth question:

  1. How do living systems reference their perceptions, actions, and memories to themselves?

Notice that, though Levin and Fields are talking about a very abstract sense of meaning, we retain some structural fundamentals. Meaning requires a relation between an agent (us) and our environments, explored through senses. This meaning is also amenable to shifts in attention. It requires context (memories) and a sense of action. Lastly, there's a center, a self against which meaning is referenced.

One of our primary goals is to bridge the gap between this sense of meaning and the immediate and narrative senses we just outlined. The hope is that we can use this more primordial sense of meaning (which we'll call basal meaning) to inform our higher level models, which would let us investigate tools and methods to shape meaning-making towards whichever ends we desire. For example, if we find that attentional shifts (as in question 2 above) are costly to the meaning-making process, we can alter meaning by focusing attention. Each of these questions gives us hints for quantitatively measuring meaning, not just in humans, but in any agential system. Similarly, the absence of these abilities could suggest an absence in meaning. An organism that cannot perform each of these tasks could not be said to have a meaningful life, in a direct, predictable sense.

Another advantage of linking our meaning with basal meaning is that it lets us work within a continuum, though it might raise some questions of emergence.

Consciousness commonly runs into these emergence problems. If consciousness is what it is like to be something, we naturally follow this up by asking whether it is like something to be a bacteria or a bat or a nation or a hive or a hand. Is there any consciousness there? Classically, we'd want to point at some set of necessary functions that–once present–automatically result in consciousness being birthed. Basal meaning might be similarly magical if we bind it to something like this list (drawn from Levin and Fields' questions). Let's propose that basal meaning is the following process:

  1. Distinguishing between components of your environment, considering some to be objects worthy of attention and others to be background that is safely ignored
  2. Switching your attentional focus from one object to another
  3. Creating and maintaining memories of past events, including past perceptions and actions
  4. Referencing and self-referencing your perceptions, actions, and memories

This raises the question of missing links. Can we imagine some living system that does everything here except for attentional shifts? No, because such an organism would not survive. How about a system that cannot distinguish between objects worthy of attention and those that should be ignored. No, this too would not survive. An organism that cannot create or maintain past memories? Again, this would fail to survive. The great advantage to understanding meaning in basal terms is that death constrains behavior at this level. Emergence is avoided and the problems that plague accounts of consciousness have not yet shown themselves.

We made a move here that should not go unnoticed–that is, we treated "living systems" and "humans" equally. Making this move is only acceptable if we are comfortable with treating basal meaning as scale-invariant. That is, we must be comfortable with treating the meaning of cells, bacterial colonies, livers, bees, dogs, and humans as fundamentally the same kind of process.

Emergence and meaning

Is there anything that's unique to human meaning? Yes, and this is where we might introduce emergence. While basal meaning says nothing about what-it-is-like consciousness being present, it is certainly present at human scales–this is evinced by our own phenomenologies. We're not here to tackle the hard problem of consciousness. For the sake of this discussion, we can settle with recognizing that the what-it-is-like-ness of meaning is present at the center of meaning, fast and slow, immediately and narratively constructed. From basal meaning to human meaning, we have either introduced something that allows experience to feel a certain way, or we have increased the what-it-is-like-ness from something minimal (as in the case of a single cell) to something quite rich and complex (our appreciation of natural beauty). I favor the latter–while I appreciate emergence, applying emergence to consciousness has always come off as an unnecessary compromise[3]. So too with meaning. Life has its own meaning, simple as it is.

We could further reduce basal meaning to the physical goings on that underlie its tricks. For example, switching attentional focus can in practice be done by entirely "dumb" systems like robotic cameras programmed to follow some pattern or other. You can look at the code and find the "purpose" inscribed, clear as day. You can also do this with biological eyes, sending electricity along retinal cells, forcing the eye to move about, which in turn automatically behaves in a way that performs the act of shifting attention. It is here instead that we finally find ourselves directly confronted by emergence. Function emerges from structured, physical processes.

When did basal meaning begin? On earth, it began whenever the first organisms appeared that exhibited the four requirements we outlined: distinguishing objects (1), switching focus (2), creating/maintaining memories (3), and self-reference (4). As a non-biologist, I defer to their field on this one for specifics, but we can predict that the first multicellular organisms had very simple basal meaning (this according to Levin et al.). However, it wasn't until collections of these began to form that we saw more familiar forms of meaning take shape. In particular, forming memories and self-reference were greatly aided by the emergence of colonies, which were able to absorb the meanings of individual entities to form a singular entity with greater capacity for all four basal meaning functions. From there, you continue to scale up, eventually ending up with beings such as ourselves.

Being Legion

It may be strange to think of us as swarming colonies of colonies of cells, but that's who we are in a literal sense. Each of us began as a single cell that continued to multiply and grow into the early version of us that was born. Of course, growth did not stop there. Through language and culture and sensorial learnings, we continued to grow into larger and more complex colonies. Though we pay little heed to the legions small skin cells that we annihilate every time we scratch our heads, they are us and we are them–a giant who commands and embodies the will of trillions, a being that's callously indifferent to meanings and intentions of our own building blocks, enslaved to serve our needs.

We'll stop here for now. If we're right that basal meaning and meaning as we know it are different aspects of the same overall process, this should open doors to further examination and–more directly–real-world manipulation. At the heart of the meaning science project is an aspiration that the theoretical work can readily lead into and live alongside direct experiments, tools, mental models, therapeutic methods, cultural shifts, and policy moves centered around maximizing meaning. Though I say "maximize", I'm more squeamish than some (namely, the hedonists, who talk about infinite pleasure and an absence of all suffering) when it comes to thinking of meaning as an unbounded resource. It could well be that meaning can be more than what it is to us but because it's a complex system, we can't simply turn up, say, the attention dimension and expect a linear increase to overall meaning, let alone meaningfulness. Perturbations have the possibility of disruption in any number of directions. However, we do have some ability to realize human-level improvements to meaning, evinced by people who are full of meaning/our own references to prior times in our lives when things felt more meaningful. These ought to give us hope that we can have what they have if we learn to tap into our meaning potential.


  1. I say sensorial perception, raising the question of other kinds of perception. Briefly, I hold that perception and objects of cognition (such as concepts and ideas) are still kinds of perception, just without the clear connection between their onset and some hardware (like an eye or ear) that furnishes the structure of the perception. This view comes from an interface theory of perception, as Hoffman and others have explored (Hoffman et al. 2015). ↩︎

  2. That is, basal meaning, to be discussed. ↩︎

  3. To expand a bit, we are left with a few options when thinking about meaning and meaningfulness (feelings of meaning). One option is to do as mainstream neuroscientists and co have done and assume that consciousness (the quality of meaningfulness) pops out of its functions. That is, to behave as though one is conscious is to be conscious. David Chalmers famously identified the strangeness of this position with his philosophical zombie, which is a being that looks and acts exactly like a person but has no inner experience of being a person. Another option comes from Integrated Information Theory (IIT), which says that consciousness and integration (as they define it) are the same thing (Albantakis et al. 2023). In short, they allow for near-philosophical zombies, minimally conscious minds. This view more closely matches mine, as it provides a continuum and avoids questions of emergence at that scale. ↩︎