Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

From the unconscious to the conscious (1)

Meaning — at least when we are not trying to camouflage it in some narrow mechanical or mathematical notion of information — derives from and expresses a qualitative inwardness. It testifies to mind, feeling, volition, consciousness. And because, in our biological descriptions, we refer meaning to organisms, it appears we are ascribing inwardness to these organisms. And so we are. But there are important distinctions to be made.

Meaning need not be thought of solely in terms of our own human consciousness. Everyone accepts that neither the bird building a nest nor the embryo “constructing” a heart is self-consciously realizing its own purposes and meanings. Likewise, the directed nature of cellular processes does not imply conscious, human-like purpose, and, more generally, the meaning I have been referring to need not involve anything like our own conscious awareness.

This is not to suggest, however, that meaning is no longer meaning...We know that it weaves throughout the psyche, conscious or otherwise, all the way down through subconscious urge and habit to biologically rooted instinct and even to physical reflex (Goldstein 1995). It is not so unexpected, then, to discover meaning-governed activities also at the molecular level, where they manifest as regulation, organization, signaling, responsiveness, and all the rest. Organisms, so far as the biologist has been able to determine, are alive and whole and engaged in activity shaped by relations of meaning — a meaning whose signature is recognizable all the way down.

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