The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

 

The Meaning Of Meaning

Meaning is intuitively very important. We all assume that what matters is the meaning of something, not the something per se. But then nobody really knows how to define what "meaning" means. The symbol “LIFE” per se is not very interesting, but the thing it means is very interesting.

Before we can answer the question "what is the meaning of life?” we need to answer to the simpler question: "what is meaning?" What do we mean when we say that something means something else?

Linguistic principles are innate and universal. Everybody is born with the ability to learn language. But our language ability depends not only on symbolic utterance (on constructing grammatically-correct sentences), but also on our ability to make use of symbolic utterance, to connect the idea with some action. Spoken language is not even that essential: we can communicate with gestures and images. This happens since birth, as linguistic and nonlinguistic information (e.g., visual) are tied from the beginning. What matters is the ability to comprehend. As a matter of fact, in a baby comprehension is ahead of utterance.

Since meaning is first and foremost “about” something, an obvious component of meaning is what philosophers call “intentionality”: the ability to refer to something else.  The word “LIFE” refers to the phenomenon of life. Far from being an exclusive of the human mind, meaning in this broad sense is rather pervasive in nature. One could even claim that everything in nature refers to everything else, as it would probably not exist without the rest of the universe. Certainly, a shadow refers to the object that makes it, and a crater refers to the meteor that created it. But “meaning” in the human mind also involves being aware of it, and in this narrow sense “meaning” could be an exclusive of the human mind. There are, therefore, at least two components of meaning: intentionality and awareness. Something refers to something else, and I am aware of this being the case.

At the same time, meaning affects two complementary aspects of our mind: language (i.e., the way we communicate meaning to other thinking beings) and concepts (i.e., the way we store meaning for future reference). As the British philosopher Paul Grice noted, there are two different meanings to the word "meaning": "what did she mean" and "what does that refer to". The meaning of a speaker is what she intended to say. There is an intention to take into account. The meaning of a word relating to a natural phenomenon is what it refers to (the meaning of "LIFE" is the phenomenon of life).

There is another dimension to meaning. Think of water, a fairly innocent subject: what does the concept of "water" refer to? The substance? The chemical compound H2O? Something  liquid and transparent that is found in rivers and in the rain? Imagine that in another world there is a substance that looks and behaves just like water, but is made of a different chemical compound. When I and a person of that world think of water, are  we referring to the same thing or to two different things? What is a clock? An object whose function is that of marking the time (which could be a sundial)? Or an object whose structure is round, has two hands and 12 numbers (which could be a toy clock that does not perform any actual function)?

 


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