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In a Meaningless Universe, Where Does Meaning Come From?

Meaning is relational; nothing has existence or meaning in and of itself.

Key points

  • From a scientific point of view, the universe consists of matter and energy, lacking inherent meaning.
  • When life evolved on this planet, purpose and meaning emerged in their simplest forms from organisms’ rudimentary goals to survive and reproduce.
  • Organisms form internal representations of the things in their environment that have significance to their survival and reproduction.
  • No single information bit, particle, organism, or person has inherent meaning in isolation. All meaning, and maybe even existence, is relational.
Future | AdobeStock
Source: Future | AdobeStock

In the beginning, there was matter and energy.1

There was no meaning to it.

Yet, now there is plenty of meaning–at least to us, in the sense that we use the term: significance. So, where did all this meaning come from? How did meaning enter a universe that lacks inherent meaning?


Once matter and energy self-organized into the first, simplest living organisms, at least here on this planet, meaning emerged–in the sense of significance and value–albeit only in the most elementary sense, initially. Living organisms, even simple ones lacking any semblance of a nervous system, let alone a brain or consciousness, have rudimentary goals–to survive and reproduce. They are thus intentional, purpose-driven agents.


An intentional agent can interpret patterns as being about something of value to itself concerning its environment. For example, glucose is of value to a bacterium–it signifies or means energy to the bacterium.

Internal Representations

An agent forms an internal representation of a thing in its environment (glucose), enabling it to recognize, respond to, and process that thing.2 The internal representation has value and meaning to the organism in that it represents something good or bad for the organism–promoting or impeding its survival and reproduction.

Internal representations have a relational nature to the things they represent–they are built from and characterized by direct correlations to physical things. Those correspondences may be very simple, or they may be more complex.

Complex organisms have central nervous systems where complex internal representations can be stored, such as the visual images we can conjure up in our “mind’s eye.”3

Referring to Things

Internal representations may refer to "things" in the environment. They bear a relation or correlation to that thing. They signify or mean that thing.

According to a helpful definition by the evolutionary biologist Eva Jablonka and neuroscientist Simona Ginsburg, “a sign refers to, denotes, designates, implies, points to or represents, something… A sign thus ‘carries’ functional information.”4 We have now entered the realm of biosemiotics–the study of signs and meaning in living organisms and systems.

Jablonka and Ginsburg explained:

We use the term sign to denote a ‘carrier’ of functional information: a predictive, designating or representing input (e.g., predictive sensory cue such as a black cloud signaling rain, an alarm call, a welcoming gesture, a word, etc.) that requires a process of interpretation that guides the interpreter’s actions and re-actions.5

Signs serve “the goals of living organisms–survival and reproduction, felt needs and symbolically-valued goals.”6 Signs may thus have importance or significance to the organism as they refer to something about its survival and reproduction.

Signs are stored in animals’ brains in the form of internal representations (also called mental representations).

Significant Information

The neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon laid out a three-nested conception of information in which the lowest level is just a quantitative measure of the content communicated by the information, and the highest level is the significance or meaning of the information:7

  1. Shannon information (referring to the mid-20th century theory by Claude Shannon on quantitatively measuring information content)8 is the most minimal and basic conception of information.
  2. Referential information, in which information is understood to be about something, is emergent from Shannon's information.
  3. Significant–or useful–information is emergent from referential information.

Learning and Value

As discussed in two previous posts (here and here), most learning by organisms is based on establishing correlations between things–correspondences or associations. Positive and negative reinforcement (rewards and consequences) in the process of learning by association leads brains to assign value to stimuli–"good"-ness or "bad"-ness.

The mental representations that encode and store this information mean something to the animal because they are correlated with something in the environment. The meaning associated with the representation is thus relational, derived from the correlations with the thing being referred to.

All Meaning Is Relational

The meaning of all forms of information lies in the relation between things. Relational context is crucial to the meaning of information–it is meaningless in isolation. As the physicist Benjamin Schumacher puts it:

Every kind of communication, every kind of computation, happens within a context that determines its meaning […] information really lies in the relation between the part and the whole […] the meaning of all of our light pulses and electrical signals, all those symbols on stone or bits of wood, lies not within them but around them, in the context of the Universe.9

Symbols and Language

Symbols differ from simpler signs in that “the use of symbols requires analogical reasoning–the understanding that signs stand for things,” as Ginsburg and Jablonka explained. They noted that “language is the paradigmatic symbolic system, and for many, the very core of our humanity.10

The computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam noted that one of the most important and enigmatic forms of human mental activity is the investment of raw sensory information with private meaning in the form of language. Only human minds can forge a mental link between words and meanings easily, instinctively, and incessantly because only human minds have evolved resonant connectivity between our language module and other consciousness-generating modules in our brain circuitry. Bird minds, which lack connectivity between their birdsong module and other modules, are conscious of birdsong's notes, syllables, and phrases but are not conscious of their symbolic meanings.11

Exactly how symbolic meaning is encoded and processed by brain structures and neuronal circuits has been the subject of neuroimaging, neuropsychological, and neurocomputational research. Many of those mechanisms have now been elucidated, as elaborated in footnote 12.

Is the Fundamental Nature of Reality Relational?

Fundamentally, all existence might be relational, rather than composed of independent objects.

Quantum mechanics, the fundamental physics theory that describes nature's physical properties at the scale of atoms and subatomic particles, is spectacularly successful in its practical and technological applications. But its interpretation leaves many unanswered questions about what it is really telling us about the fundamental nature of reality (encouraging a vast industry of New Age Spirituality pseudoscience).

One of several scientifically serious, credible contending theories is the “relational interpretation” of quantum mechanics proposed by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, according to which objects don't exist independently of each other; they only exist relationally, as defined by their interactions. The world is not composed of “things” that “have” properties. Rather, the properties of a system (which includes its fundamental informational properties) are determined when the system interacts with any other system–in relation to that other system.13 All aspects of the world are relational (even space and time). Rovelli explained:

We have discovered that, at the core of the physical reality, it's not particles, it's relational connections […] Each object is defined by the way it interacts with something else. So when it's not interacting, it's just not existing. An object is the ensemble of the ways in which it affects other objects around itself—an object exists reflected in everything else.14

Meaning in Life

Our brains are constantly pattern-seeking, ceaselessly making connections between things and habitually deciphering meaning from and assigning value to our experiences. As symbolic, analogical thinkers, our brains routinely create higher-level symbolic representations of the connections between various experiencesdistilling the essence of perceived correspondences between those experiences into more abstract ideas.

Our most abstract ideas include existential philosophical contemplations about what it all means.

As the social psychologist Roy Baumeister observed: “Thinking usually involves meaning, as in the use of language, symbols, and connections between concepts.”15 He suggested that:

The meaning of life is the same kind of meaning as the meaning of a sentence in several important respects: having the parts fit together into a coherent pattern, being capable of being understood by others, fitting into a broader context, and invoking implicit assumptions shared by other members of the culture.16

And so we derive our narrative, a meaningful life story that weaves together all the parts of our identity and personal history. Importantly, our narrative includes all the ways in which we have had some relational effect, however small, on the people and other sentient beings around us–hopefully leaving them just a little better than they would otherwise have been if we had not been here. We might paraphrase Rovelli’s explanation about fundamental particles:

Our life is the ensemble of the ways in which we affect other lives around ourselves–and the ways in which those lives affect us. Our life exists reflected in everyone else.

The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, who has written extensively about the challenges of coming to terms with our ultimate death, quoted a patient whose mother used to say of people who had died, “Look for her among her friends.”17

These are some of the ways in which it matters that we have lived.


[1] And before that, quantum fluctuations. And before that? (if “before” is even a meaningful word in this context; this is debated in physics)—perhaps an eternal multiverse… Of course, we are talking from a purely scientific point of view, stripped of the magical myths dreamed up by humans to explain the origin of everything.

[2] See my post Mind-Body Problem: How Consciousness Emerges from Matter for an explanation of the physical basis of internal representations in the brain and how they are formed.

[3] They are stored not as a single, unified representation in a single neuron, but rather as diffusely encoded elements of a representation—traces of information stored in distributed manner across neuronal networks that are interconnected in highly complex ways.

[Click 'More' to view footnotes 4-17].

[4] Jablonka, E., Ginsburg, S. Learning and the Evolution of Conscious Agents. Biosemiotics 15, 401–437 (2022).

[5] Jablonka and Ginsburg, Learning and the Evolution of Conscious Agents.

[6] Jablonka and Ginsburg, Learning and the Evolution of Conscious Agents.

[7]; Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011).

[8] According to Shannon, the information content in a message is a measure of the uncertainty reduced by the message. As the physicist Benjamin Schumacher explains:

“In Shannon’s theory, information is just the distinction between possible messages, not any significance those messages might possess. It’s an abstraction […] Shannon’s abstract concept of information allows us to understand how different forms of information are interchangeable and can be represented in the common currency of bits. It tells us how to measure information by entropy and how to use codes for data compression and error correction. It tells us about noise, signal, and bandwidth.”

-- Benjamin Schumacher, The Science of Information From Language to Black Holes, Great Courses (Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2015), Course Guidebook, lecture 24.

[9] Here’s a more complete version of Schumacher’s quotes:

“Every kind of communication, every kind of computation, happens within a context that determines its meaning. Thus, the information stored in DNA exists within a biochemical apparatus that expresses its base sequences as a library of protein designs—as the basic operating system of a living organism. Viewed another way, the DNA message is a record of the long history of life on Earth. Either way, DNA is not simply abstract information. It is information about something […] Ultimately, the context of every message and every program is the Universe itself. Laws of thermodynamics and quantum physics govern how information is acquired, stored, processed, and erased […] information really lies in the relation between the part and the whole, between the quantum and the cosmos. As our own information universe—the universe of humans and the machines we have made—grows exponentially more complex, we need to remember how that little universe is embedded in the far larger and richer network of nature—because the meaning of all of our light pulses and electrical signals, all those symbols on stone or bits of wood, lies not within them but around them, in the context of the Universe.”

Benjamin Schumacher, The Science of Information From Language to Black Holes, Great Courses (Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2015), Course Guidebook, lecture 24.

[10] Simona Ginsburg, Eva Jablonka, Anna Zeligowski (Illustrator), Picturing the Mind: Consciousness through the Lens of Evolution (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2022), p.117.

[11] Ogi Ogas, personal communication, January 2023, regarding his and Sai Gaddam’s book: Journey of the Mind: How Thinking Emerged from Chaos, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2022). See also my post Mind-Body Problem: How Consciousness Emerges from Matter, including the footnotes to that blog.

[12] The explanations in this footnote are from Pulvermüller F. (2013). How neurons make meaning: brain mechanisms for embodied and abstract-symbolic semantics. Trends in cognitive sciences, 17(9), 458–470.

Much of language and cognition is “embodied,” in the sense of being closely linked to sensory perception and motor action. For example, the brain circuitry activated by an action word such as “run” is closely linked to the motor circuitry that is activated by the act of running. Many words are derived from things we can perceive with our senses or are related to actions, and retain a relationship to these, albeit sometimes indirectly or metaphorically. However, there are more abstract cognitive concepts and words that are much further removed from such sensorimotor functions, and are in a sense, “disembodied”— that is, they are not embodied in perception and action. The brain circuitry involved in the semantic processing of those words is more complicated.

According to Pulvermüller, all semantic processes are grounded; only some are embodied in action and perception. He presents an integrative neurosemantic proposal that covers both embodied and (disembodied) abstract-symbolic processes, in both modality-specific and multimodal areas of the brain. He identifies four types of semantic processes (i.e., processes relating to meaning in language):

1. Referential semantics establishes links between symbols and the objects and actions they are used to speak about (these are the basic “embodied” semantic processes).

2. Combinatorial semantics enables the learning of symbolic meaning from context.

3. Emotional-affective semantics establishes links between signs and internal states of the body and account for some aspects of abstract concepts.

4. Abstract-symbolic mechanisms generalize over a range of instances of semantic meaning, in an interplay between ‘embodied’ and ‘disembodied’ semantic systems in abstract sentence processing.

These four mechanisms are complementary. They involve both modality-specific and multimodal areas of the brain. Pulvermüller delineates many of the specific brain areas in his paper from the neuroimaging, neuropsychological, and neurocomputational research.

[13] Peter Evans at The University of Queensland explains Rovelli’s theory this way: the objects of quantum theory, such as a photon, electron, or other fundamental particle, are nothing more than the properties they exhibit when interacting with—in relation to—other objects. These properties of a quantum object are determined through experiment, and include things like the object’s position, momentum, and energy. Together they make up an object’s state. According to Rovelli’s relational interpretation, these properties are all there is to the object: there is no underlying individual substance that “has” the properties. [Peter Evans, “Is reality a game of quantum mirrors? A new theory suggests it might be,” The Conversation, June 27, 2021.]

[14] Carlo Rovelli, "Do objects exist?" New Scientist, Oct 2022. Rovelli's theory, like the other credible competing theories in the interpretation of quantum mechanics, may or not turn out to be correct, but it is at least an interesting and informative way to think about and understand the most relevant questions about the fundamental nature of reality.

[15] Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2002). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 608–618). Oxford University Press.

[16] Roy Baumeister, Meanings of Life (New York: The Guilford Press, 1991), p. 16.

[17] Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), p.85.

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