For no light matter is at stake; the question concerns the very manner in which human life is to be lived.
"Outside and above the biosphere there is the noosphere"
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Seven Levels of Meaning
"The biological change of state resulting in the emergence of thought affects life itself in its organic totality, and consequently it marks a transformation affecting the state of the entire planet."
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Our Search for Meaning
From our earliest perceptions we begin to learn to sense our environment and the changes that may bring threats or opportunities. To be alive means to constantly search for meaning. From our first sensations of awareness to our last this searching continues. Every new stimulus entering our nervous system - be it from within us or from without - brings a responding analysis - Does this stimulus/change have significance? If so, what is it's significance? And how must I react appropriately for my wellbeing?
Meaning and Life
The simplest organisms do not have nervous systems, but nevertheless can detect changes in their environment and respond appropriately - a unicellular alga will respond to changes in light intensity, a motile bacterium will move up or down a concentration gradient. Only the dead or soon-to-be-dead do not respond to messages from the environment.
Life is meaning-making, and meaning making is life.
The Emergence of Alternatives and Ambiguities
As life on Earth evolved and developed, its 'vehicles' - its varied species and the organisms themselves - developed more complex mechanisms for sensing their environment and responding to it. This included the development of physiological systems, nervous systems and behaviours of ever increasing sophistication and efficacy.
Levels of Meaning
The increasing capacity to extract and process information, along with growing repertoires of response, gave rise to more complex interactions between organisms and their environments. New patterns of stimulus, analysis and response evolved. Making meaning of the environment became ever richer in terms of the information gained, its analysis, the opportunities and threats to be evaluated, and the range of responses that might be most appropriate. Meaning-making itself was evolving.
Beyond the First Level of Meaning
Growing complexity brought ambiguities and alternatives - any stimulus might have more than one meaning and might invoke more than one kind of response.
The first level of meaning - that which is instinctual, in 'the hardware', determined by a single gene or gene group, or just plain 'obvious' - is experienced by all living systems. The move to a second level constituted one of the 'great leaps forward' in the history of life. Only a small number of species have achieved this - chiefly among mammals, birds and perhaps cephalopods - the creatures we commonly describe as having 'intelligence'. Consequently the perception of more than one level of meaning is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of life, originating probably only tens of millions of years ago.
Meaning and Intelligence
Intelligence can only be understood as the ability to solve problems. To say that any given organisms has intelligence is to say that the organism displays the ability to solve problems. Greater intelligence is possessed by organisms displaying the capacity to solve problems of greater complexity or diversity.
Behaviour. Learning. Culture
Organisms tend to solve problems by doing something - and intelligent organisms tend to solve problems by doing a wider range of things - that is, through a wider range of behaviours. The more intelligent the organism the greater the complexity, variety and adaptability of their behaviours.
The most intelligent organisms have incorporated into their development sophisticated ways of expanding the range and effectiveness of their problem-solving behaviours - by acquiringnew behaviours taken from others solving similar problems - that is, they learn. Hence greater intelligence is linked with greater capacity to learn.
A set of learned behaviours constitutes a culture. Organisms displaying greater intelligence display greater capacity to learn and share - and hence demonstrate richer and more complex cultures.
The most intelligent organisms - social mammals and birds - are very good at learning from their fellows. One reason for this is that these organisms all have mirror neurons - neurons that allow their brains to 'tune in' to each other and share and understand events and actions, almost as if they too were experiencing them first hand.
A further consequence of these neurons is that they allow individuals to experience intimately the emotions and feelings of their fellows. This capacity we know as empathy.
Depth and Richness: Other Levels of Meaning
Creativity and Innovation
Emotion Adds Levels of Meaning
Empathy and Ethics as Levels of Meaning