Abstract Details

From Biological Mechanism to Meaning  Mark Pharoah (London, United Kingdom)   C18

A principle message from Jacob von Uexkull was the importance of meaning in understanding life. Biosemiotics is the discipline whose principle challenge is to seek to understand biological meaning in all the varied ways in which meaning is characterised in the living. In biosemiotic studies, phenomenal consciousness is viewed as one particular category of meaning that exists between organisms and their environment. The broader question for the biosemiotician is what it is about the nature of biological processes that they should instantiate distinctive categories of meaningful relations to and about the world, and what it is about a biological mechanism that qualifies the specific characteristics of a particular category of meaningful engagement. There have been a number of authors that have explored the possibility that there are distinct categories of meaning in biology and that they might be classified. For instance, Vehkavaara, Emmeche, Ferriera, and Kull have all consider the concept of meaning in terms of how biological mechanisms determine various 'kinds of knowledge' about the environment, but a comprehensive theory has proved elusive. In a paper published in Biosemiotics Journal (Dec 2018), I echo Stjernfelt's sentiment that biosemiotics can qualify a formal ontology for emergence that can cater for various classes of biological meaning. The argument I make is that there is a hierarchy of discrete and distinctive biological mechanisms - a hierarchy which I categorize - that generate particular kinds of meaning about the environment which include characteristics associated with mental content. In looking into these categories of meaning, I call on the work of biosemioticians, researchers and philosophers such as O'Connor, Wong, Thomas Nagel, Chalmers, Cassirer and Merleau Ponty. I identify three distinct categories and argue that in each category, the acquisition of meaning requires a unique kind of discourse actualized by a particular class of interactive biological mechanism. Importantly, each category leads to the emergence of a unique ontological status for its members. This status is articulated in terms of the character of its meaningful relation with the world. These categories I label the physiological, the phenomenal and the conceptual. In regard to phenomenal content, the explanation does not tell us 'what it is like' to be a particular experiencing creature, but, in being a deductive-nomological account, instead allows us to understand why creatures have a 'what it is like' and why that experience phenomenon is characterized spatiotemporally and qualitatively. In a similar vein, the explanation does not address the particulars of any given subjective self-identity, but instead addresses why it is that subjective perspectives of the objective world exist. In effect, I claim to provide a model that categorizes biological meaning and mental content. This entails the explication of a hierarchy of distinct categories which qualify, 1. the qualitative attribution to the physical world, 2. the spatiotemporal delineation of that qualitative relation to the world and 3. the revelatory recognition of an individual's spatiotemporal and qualitative Being embedded within an objective world.