## The significance of meaning

• 180
Probability maths says that given infinity, a random character generator producing upper and lower case letters, spaces and punctuation marks will reproduce the complete works of Shakespeare. Think monkeys and typewriters, if you like.

Shakespeare is wheeled on for this thought experiment rather than, say, Charles Dickens because he’s the supposed apogee of literary creativity. The reductionist probabilitarians are saying: you think Shakespeare’s the greatest – well, he can be reproduced by empty randomness.

You can kind of see what they mean, and there’s probably not much point arguing with a probability mathematician (though there are valid questions about the abstract concept of infinity) – but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.

Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.

I know it sounds like I’m on a slippery slope via intelligent design to creationism, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that the crucial element in both cases is meaning.

The works of Shakespeare exist because they have meaning. That meaning comes from human consciousness and its medium, language. The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.

Wikipedia says that DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms. Most DNA molecules consist of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix. Both strands store the same biological information, which is replicated when the two strands separate.

Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other?

Perhaps DNA came into existence because the universe (or multiverse if you like) has meaning, perhaps deriving from universal consciousness. Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.

It must, of course, be admitted that random genetic mutation fueled the natural selection that led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. Nevertheless, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.

Or perhaps, rather, they’re part of a hierarchy, with randomness subject to probability, and probability subject to meaning.
Try as it may, maths and science can’t yet explain the origin of life, what consciousness is, or the ultimate nature of the universe.

I’d love maths and science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the building.
• 1.9k
"Meaning" in this sense means "significance", and that's the missing picture in your view of evolution. Evolution does not proceed by a completely random walk through possible configurations of molecules, but by randomness filtered through its significance for survival and reproduction: if a random change makes a positive difference in that change being propagated, then in the future you'll find more of it, and if it makes a negative difference, you'll find less of it. Thus over time, you'll find the world increasingly dominated by things that are good at surviving and reproducing in that world.

Likewise, it would be really really improbable for a random number generator to randomly produce exactly the complete works of Shakespeare, but if random output was filtered through its readability by humans, then you'd have much better chances of coming up with some kind of natural-sounding, sense-making text, albeit still not probably exactly the complete works of Shakespeare.
• 180
It doesn't mean significance. Its not signing for something. It's more fundamental than that.
• 180
And your account of the development of DNA only makes sense if it explains how you get from the component chemicals to self-replication - but it doesn't.
• 1.9k
"Significance" in this sense means "importance", not like semiotics.

Will write more about abiogenesis later.
• 770
I’d love maths and science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the building.

Actually non-linear dynamics goes a long way beyond what standard calculus and probability can do. It's worth a look if you like math, especially when applied to highly complex and living systems.
• 180
OK - but it doesn't mean importance either. The meaning of Shakespeare’s writing is in his mind. Mind/consciousness produces meaning. There's no agreement on how this happens.
• 180
No doubt non-linear dynanics tries to understand the tension beteeen chaos and order, nothing and something, etc. How far does it succeed, though? Do its equations explain consciousness?
• 770
That'd be for you to decide. Systems theory alters the boundaries of what we think of as 'conscious'.
• 180
Theory always tries to change boundaries!
• 180
Re abiogenesis, there are interesting and (inevitably) speculative theories but no agreed explanation.
• 180
Re altering the boundaries of consciousness, that raises the question: what boundaries?
• 1.7k
7
OK - but it doesn't mean importance either. The meaning of Shakespeare’s writing is in his mind. Mind/consciousness produces meaning. There's no agreement on how this happens.

The meaning is in the words. If they were not, we wouldnt be able to understand without Shakespeare (or his mind at least) present. Meaning ultimately comes from minds, but through words as well. A mind is the detection apparatus used, but the medium contains the meaning the mimd is detecting.
• 180
Yes - language, being the means of expresssion, is inseparable from meaning. However, it's arguably secondary to thought. We think, therefore we speak.
• 180
So meaning can't be reduced to the mechanics of language.
• 8.1k
Mind/consciousness produces meaning.

This puts the cart before the horse...

Without the attribution of meaning(thought and belief formation), there is no mind/consciousness. Mind/consciousness consists - in very large part - of meaningful thought and belief.
• 1.3k
– but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.

Not really. I mean this example is one of the least weird examples of infinity. What makes it seem wrong to you?

Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.

Perhaps what might help here is considering other very unlikely events that we know happen. Like winning the lottery. A great metaphor I have read about winning the lottery: Imagine a highway many miles long, and somewhere along that highway, there is a board stuck in the ground at the side of the road, say 1 metre wide. Playing the lottery is like driving down that highway, blindfolded, and trying to hit the board with a single shot from a pistol fired out a window of the car. Completely absurd, yet people do win the lottery.

The works of Shakespeare exist because they have meaning.

It's probably more accurate to say that "the works of Shakespeare" are the meaning of a body of text.

That meaning comes from human consciousness and its medium, language. The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.

I think there is a contradiction here. If the meaning "comes from" consciousness, it cannot at the same time be "comprised" by the characters on paper.

Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.

That's a difficult statement to untangle. It would be true insofar as meaning is a mental interpretation and the mind isn't "random". But, humans are evidently capable of seeing meaning in random occurrences: the shape of clouds, the pattern tea leaves make in a cup etc.
• 180
Like the 'strange attractor' towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve? Yes, I hadn't thought of that.
• 180
Perhaps that supports the idea of a conscious universe, pregnant with meaning.
• 770
Like the 'strange attractor' towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve? Yes, I hadn't thought of that.
And linking to abiogenesis - I just read about an experiment in constructing simple cells from inorganic elements. The idea was to create a solution containing 90 elements necessary for a very simple cell, along with lipids to create the necessary cell membrane. Stochastically/statistically, it was completely improbable (impossible) that any containers would form containing all 90 elements. Nevertheless, they did form. What happened was that some containers formed with zero elements, while others formed with the requisite 90 elements. This can be explained if there is an attractor governing (representing?) a stable system state corresponding to the existence of the "cells". i.e. the elements have an "affinity" for one another in some complex, but measurable/calculable sense. Overriding stochastic behaviour.
• 180
Yes, stochastic means "random". However, it derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning not only "guess" but also "aim at a target"!
• 1.6k

Nice Op Chris. In addition to mathematics, other metaphysical probabilities from consciousness include:

1. Music
2. Wonderment
4. The Will
5. Love

And any other human abstract (axiom) that doesn't confer biological advantage.
• 180
They're all phenomena largely beyond mechanistic explanation, that's true. (Although, notions of good and bad can perhaps be attributed to the evolution of communal altruism.)
• 966
Nothing is random. Every activity is within the paradigm of "cause and effect". Random is just an idea that suggests "cause and... blah" or "blah... and effect".

Nothing is random. I would like to see a "something" that comes into existence by itself without any past, present or future connections.

Random, luck and chance are just common language for patterns beyond our understanding.
• 1.6k

Hey Brian what's your take on 'the stream of consciousness'? You know, random thought's that one has while , say, driving a car, resting, meditating, etc. etc..

I think what you might say is that randomness in consciousness, may simply be an empirical phenomena resulting from past experience ideas/imagery that one collects and enters into their database, etc.. , there's a fairly comprehensive theory of Quantum Consciousness:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-consciousness/

As it relates to the OP of Meaning though, as you suggest, maybe things like the Will, seem to remain a mystery or at least appear to be beyond our understanding...
• 966
Hey Brian what's your take on 'the stream of consciousness'?

For me, ultimately, consciousness is a connection/relation to the greater life; a link between me and everything. But our thoughts are not ultimate and neither are our memories. What we refer to as consciousness is like a hint in a story - through the hint we become aware of the possibility of a something but the hint is not the something. And yet, without the hint, we cannot infer the something. Furthermore, both the hint and the something are part of the unfolding story, each with its own place.

To me, random is an idea like 'nothing'. It is just a mental tool we use for comparative thinking.
• 180
Woh, don't be so quick to dis the random. It also plays its part, evolution being the love child of Chance and Necessity.
• 180
My point, however, is that randomness cannot have spawned DNA - or the works of Shakespeare.
• 180
The inexplicable manifestation of DNA, I’d say, poses the possibility of it being meaningful. Would such meaningfulness be the same as in Shakespeare"s writings? If so, is meaning an indivisible aspect of consciousness? And, further, is the universe/multiverse made of consciousness? Such an enquiry might be seen as metaphysical. I'd prefer it to be scientific.
• 1.6k
The inexplicable manifestation of DNA, I’d say, poses the possibility of it being meaningful. Would such meaningfulness be the same as in Shakespeare"s writings? If so, is meaning an indivisible aspect of consciousness? And, further, is the universe/multiverse made of consciousness? Such an enquiry might be seen as metaphysical. I'd prefer it to be scientific.

Or, said in another way, are abstract's in and of themselves, provide for some level of meaningful existence(?). I would say yes. Music and math would be some examples of abstract's providing for meaningful existence.

Is meaning indivisible from conscious existence, and the metaphysical Will in nature, are both good topics that Schopenhauer studied:

"Man defines as a metaphysical animal, able to marvel at his own existence and the sight of the world, aspiring to be absolute.

– The term “metaphysical animal ” has remained famous.

– As for the term metaphysical taken substantively, it means[to], Schopenhauer, a discipline which claims to be knowledge and experience beyond the given phenomena (as defined by Kant), claiming a speculative rise above lessons of experience

Hence arises the metaphysical? It is rooted in surprise and suggests that is absolute behind nature.

– But man is not only a metaphysical animal: it is a religious being, which focuses on mysteries, understood as dogmas which can not be clearly captured by thought."
• 180
If the manifestation of DNA has meaning, what might it mean? That life is an experiment? A gift?
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