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Conrad Johnson: on 3/22/17 at 16:08pm UTC, wrote The above comment is from George Ellis, whose excellent essay is here. ...

Anonymous: on 3/21/17 at 19:25pm UTC, wrote Hi Conrad, Thanks for your nice remarks on my essay, and I must say I...

Conrad Johnson: on 3/14/17 at 15:52pm UTC, wrote Stefan, Yes, what gets repeated in quantum measurement is not generally...

Stefan Keppeler: on 3/14/17 at 15:37pm UTC, wrote Ops, sorry! Conrad, of course.

Stefan Keppeler: on 3/14/17 at 15:32pm UTC, wrote Dear Dale, thanks for your remarks on my essay. You rightly point out the...

Conrad Johnson: on 3/13/17 at 16:16pm UTC, wrote The note above was posted by Don Foster, whose most entertaining essay I...

Vladimir Fedorov: on 3/13/17 at 11:00am UTC, wrote Dear Conrad, I estimate you essay exelent. Excellently written. You are...

Anonymous: on 3/12/17 at 18:56pm UTC, wrote Hi Conrad, I read your paper and yes, I do see the similarity between your...


leonae gonzales: "This seems to be very interesting site. Professionally i am a writer at the..." in Quantum Replicants:...

James Putnam: "Quoting Gary D. Simpson: "If you disapprove of one-bombing and wish to..." in FQXi Essay Contest 2016:...

Steven Andresen: "It might be that I have come to know where the hidden variable is, to..." in 80 Years of EPR —...

Lawrence Crowell: "The choice for anonymous commenting is a good idea. A person scoring less..." in FQXi Essay Contest 2016:...

dieu le: "The Creation of Momentum From the gigantic Milky Way Galaxy to the..." in Alternative Models of...

dieu le: "What causes Things Move in Universe? Things move when encountering a..." in Alternative Models of...

leonae gonzales: "I would like to prepare a review of this topic with the help of research..." in Quantum Replicants:...

Thewitcher: "Đến với dịch vụ chữ ký số bạn sẽ được..." in Riding the Rogue Quantum...

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Quantum Replicants: Should future androids dream of quantum sheep?
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A "retrocausal" rewrite of physics, in which influences from the future can affect the past, could solve some quantum quandaries—saving Einstein's view of reality along the way.

March 23, 2017

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Three Technologies: On the Accidental Origins of Meaning by Conrad Dale Johnson [refresh]
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This essay's rating: Community = 5.0; Public = 5.0

Author Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Feb. 27, 2017 @ 17:15 GMT
Essay Abstract

To rephrase the question more broadly: How did there get to be so much meaningful information in the world? There are three distinct dimensions of meaning in everything we experience – human, biological and physical. Each can be seen as a recursive system that repeatedly generates contexts in which things and events can make a meaningful difference, by contributing to new situations where further possibilities can arise. Currently only one of these three natural technologies is well understood – since Darwin, we’ve had deep insight into the world of living things and how they evolve, though we still struggle with exactly what it means to be “alive”. But we have no such clarity about the underlying structure of the physical world, or about the functioning of our own conscious minds. My effort here is to address this lack by emphasizing the recursive functionality of meaning as the common element in human communication, biological reproduction and quantum measurement. Though these processes operate in very different ways with very different results, they’re all able to develop finely-tuned complexity for the same reason – through natural selection, they generate meaningful information by accident.

Author Bio

I’ve lived mainly in the US, currently in Providence, Rhode Island. I have a long-standing interest in the foundations of physics, biology and humanity, going back to my graduate work many decades ago in the History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, where I focused on the evolution of Western philosophy and science. I’ve contributed essays to the FQXi contests since 2012.

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Branko L Zivlak wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 00:19 GMT
Dear Mr. Johnson

Your essay has been excellent. Part of physics is in domain of my interests. You say: any two molecules of the same type are identical. I'm not sure that even the two protons are identical. The reason is that in physics we are dealing with irrational numbers. The physical constants are all somehow related to the mathematical constants e, pi. So it is better to say that the...

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Mark Pharoah replied on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 22:24 GMT
The sentiments of Branko here echo my own - Mark Pharoah

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 13:52 GMT
Branko - I appreciate the comment. Looking at your essay on physical constants gives me an idea why you might suppose atomic particles are not identical, but of course that's far from mainstream science.

Thanks - Conrad

Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 05:01 GMT
Dear Johnson,

Thank you for the nice essay on “understanding meaning "

You are observations are excellent, like…

…There are three stages ” human communication, biological reproduction, and quantum measurement ….. In each of these processes, something that would otherwise be nearly impossible can happen over and over again, all the time. For example, ideas pass...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:09 GMT
Mr. Gupta - thank you, I wish you luck with your Model.

Mark Pharoah wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 22:28 GMT
I have enjoyed your writing before and believe your ideas share parallels with mine, which is always pleasing. This passage:

"Even gigantic molecular structures can last indefinitely, if before the molecule gets broken down by its environment, copies of it get made. But the copies must also get copied before they break, and this has to keep on happening. If somehow that can be done, the rules of the game are radically changed; complexity can increase almost without limit."

in particular has relevance to my writing.

However, while I understand much of what you say, I think that you do not really tackle the meat of the question which concerns the derivation of goal-driven agents that possess purpose and intention. What mindless physical law tells us that creatures must evolve with subjective experiences and actions driven by purpose and what might such goals be leading to in the grand scheme of the universe and its evolution?

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:24 GMT
Hi Mark - surely no physical law says that any living creatures must exist. And I don't think being "goal-driven" is really what's fundamental in human evolution. I'll have to look at your essay to see what you mean by "the grand scheme of the universe." But my goal here is only to make it understandable that physics, biology and humanity operate very differently, and to show how each of these realms of operation can have arisen by accident. The result is certainly very grand, but it's not the result of any plan.

Thanks -- Conrad

Andrew R. Scott wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 15:13 GMT
A clearer conclusion, even if just a restatement of mysteries, would have helped (or would have helped me, at least).

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:30 GMT
Andrew, you're right. I was pressed for time, and as usual tried to get too much into the essay. I hoped that restating the main idea many times in various contexts would work, but I should have left space for a better summary at the end. Thanks.

Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 20:39 GMT
Dale Conrad Johnson,

Congratulations on a first-class essay. You speak well, you explain well, and you integrate concepts. Most significantly, you qualify your statements, pointing out in several places that equations can only be solved approximately, and that aspects of the problem are too hard to define. Thus, logical proof being impossible in this situation, you weave a narrative, and...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:48 GMT
Mr. Klingman, thank you very much - I look forward to reading your essay.

I'm very far from mastery of molecular biology, but it surely is impressive that all the finely-tuned machinery of the cell can function in a "storm" of random encounters among molecules. And I think very few biologists doubt that this all came about through natural selection operating on mutations, which is to say, by accident. The fact that the process has evolved amazingly tight and complex controls does not imply that these constraints were somehow imposed by an external agency... rather, by circumstances that themselves evolved.

To me, the notion of a "primordial consciousness field" implies an extremely vague notion of "consciousness" that's hardly explanatory. I prefer to consider what's unique about human consciousness, since this is really the only context in which the term has a meaning we can explore.

Rick Searle wrote on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 00:45 GMT
Dear Conrad Dale Johnson,

I want to thank you for your wonderful essay. I found much of your essay resonated with thoughts I’ve been kicking around in my own head for quite some time, though I doubt I could have articulated them quite as well as you have.

Parts that particularly struck me:

The distinction you made between living and nonliving systems:

“The thing...

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 14:54 GMT
Rick - Your essay is high on my list to read, since I remember the excellent piece on Utopias you wrote for the 2014 contest. Many thanks for your comments.


Don Limuti wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 06:12 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I read your essay with interest.

In particular I liked "That’s how the software gets itself reseeded in each new brain, through daily emotional contact with others whose software is already highly evolved." This resonates with me. I have the notion that emotion is a key to intention and meaning.

Thanks for your essay,

Don Limuti

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 12:26 GMT
Don - thanks for your interest! I was very impressed by the writings of Colwyn Trevarthen who studies infant development... he says emotional connection is basic to sharing perspectives and intentions with others. Seems obvious, yet is rarely emphasized.

Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 22:14 GMT
Hi, Conrad, thanks for the good read! In the context of your essay, the comments you made about mine acquire even more meaning. Which, by the way, is a good way to stress that I truly valued your idea that context is crucial for meaning. Among the many interesting topics that you touched, one that has really captured me (biased by the ideas of my own essay) is to try to find a meaning (or should I say a context?) in which to understand the difference between replication and noise. Following you, and Dawkins, and Dennet and many others, I agree that self-replication plays a central role, and that so do copying mistakes. But the distinction between the two (between self replication and mistakes) requires a context. What do we mean by self replication? Specially when talking for example of ideas. What is a perfect copy of an idea? And a copy with Variations? Surely if you change too little, there is no mistake at all, otherwise nothing would be a copy. Even when DNA replicates the issue arises, though less dramatically. For example, we say there is a copying error when one base is mistaken, but not when one atom inside one base is replaced by an isotope. So before distinguishing what is a mistake and what is a perfect copy, we need a notion of equality, which is, in a sense, a context. And the context is defined not by what has happened so far, but by what is to happen next, right?

Ok, not truly sure of what I am saying, but by all means, your thoughts (replicated in my head with or without variations) are very useful to me. Thanks!


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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 10, 2017 @ 15:34 GMT
Yes… but the key distinction made in the context of “what happens next” is not between a perfect copy and a mistake. The organism’s offspring just get whatever genes they get, which may include “mistakes” and will definitely include recombinations. The distinction is whether or not this new version works to make more copies. Accurate transcription is important, but also the mistakes.

When it comes to ideas, we’re even further away from perfect copying. If my essay succeeds really well, for you, it’s not because you have an accurate copy of what I think in your head. Ultimately there’s no way to compare what some set of words means to two different people... unless we're talking in a well-defined and restricted context. So if I succeed here, it’s because fortuitously I manage to set off something that makes sense for you, in the creative context of your own ideas. Instead of comparing, we can discuss. Which, by the way, is for me a rare pleasure… so I really appreciate your taking time for this.


Ines Samengo replied on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 15:47 GMT
> The distinction is whether or not this new version works to make more copies.

Sure, but in order to decide whether something succeeded or not in producing copies, I need a notion of equality, or similarity.. don't you?

> So if I succeed here, it’s because fortuitously I manage to set off something that makes sense for you

Sure, but again, I need the notion of similarity. Imagine I read your essay, so I get delayed, miss my normal bus, and take the next one. And there I happen to find an old school friend I had not seen for many years. Your essay will have set off something that makes sense to me, but not in the way we are intending it here. Any other thing dealying me would have had the same effect. There is still a causal link between me getting caught by your ideas and me meeting my friend. But the two events are too different from one another to state that one gives meaning to the other, are they not?

So this is the issue I am still trying to work out in my head. You have a recursive definition of meaning. But when I try to make it work, I always fall back on the need to try to define "copy" and "mistake", otherwise the recursive definition seems to dilute away in "something affecting something else", which is no more than to say that in the whole universe, all particles interact with all others. I truly like the your idea that something has meaning if it can produce more meaning. But I cannot separate it from "produce more meaning *of the same kind*".

am I missing something?

Note: In spite of my example of the bus above, I think that I do carry some copy of your ideas, modified to a sufficiently modest extent as to still be recognizable as daughter ideas - at least by me!



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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 14:57 GMT

> in order to decide whether something succeeded or not in producing copies, I need a notion of equality, or similarity.. don't you?

Well, I recall there are complex error-correcting mechanisms that check on RNA and repair mistakes, as well as splicing out introns, etc. But at a basic level, in biology, I think that success means ongoing reproductive success, and accurate...

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James Lee Hoover wrote on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 22:10 GMT

I like the clear classification of the studied dimensions of meaning. Your changing context sounds somewhat like Aristotle’s perception of human goals. Recursive functionality of meaning as common element for the three categories. I noted the comments on differences in molecules, but you said "In biology, finely-tuned systems of complex molecules make near-exact copies of themselves," which I thought accurate, not saying that bonding is the same.

I like the way you separate your dimensions of meaning: in everything we experience – human, biological and physical, and compare the recursive functionality, the brain sw installed and reinstalled not like computer sw.

You clearly distinguish the varied elements of the universe but perhaps focus less on the specific function of so-called mindless laws while I emphasize the broader universal scope of such laws, especially entropy.

Well done. I would like to hear your ideas on my essay.

Jim Hoover

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 15:06 GMT
Jim -- I'll certainly take a look at your essay. Yes, my main goal was just to clarify the basic differences between the three dimensions of our existence, to try to explain why they work in such different ways. But concepts like entropy are relevant at all levels.

Thanks for reading and commenting! -- Conrad

Anonymous wrote on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 18:56 GMT
Hi Conrad,

I read your paper and yes, I do see the similarity between your use of ‘contextual meaning’ and my construct of the traveler with in a certain terrain. Interesting how that works within an iterative frame. There is also kindred thinking between your idea of ‘meaningful difference’ and Gregory Bateson’s definition of information as, “a difference that makes a difference,” or something like that.

I appreciated your section on the difficulties of creating a universe ex nihlo; that is fertile ground. How does it begin? If one thing exists only in relation to another, what is the first declarative step?

It felt like we were covering much of the same ground, simply on different paths.

Regards, Don

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 16:16 GMT
The note above was posted by Don Foster, whose most entertaining essay I highly recommend.


Yes, I had Bateson in mind… having been fortunate enough to take a seminar with him many years back. And I’m glad you picked up on my creation fantasy… something that occurred to me a mere 20 years ago. Finally got a chance to use it.

As to your question, how does it begin? My thought is to start with a more radical version of the quantum vacuum of “virtual events” where there are no rules at all, and anything can happen. As in the creation scenario, the problem is that there’s no given context to define what happens. So the only kind of structure that can exist is one that’s able to define all its own rules and parameters, without referring to anything outside itself.

Now our universe is able to do that – as evidenced by the fact that we’re able to define all the known laws of physics, etc. on the basis of empirical observation. All these various kinds of information evidently have contexts that make them meaningful. So can we find simpler patterns within this very complex structure, that might represent more primitive self-determining systems, from which our universe emerged?

In an earlier FQXi essay (page 6), I suggested the electromagnetic field might be such a “fossil” system. This also discusses how emergence might work here. I also sketched the basic idea in a Physics Forums post – that was back in 2009, when they still allowed posting such stuff.

Thanks for asking! – Conrad

Vladimir Nikolaevich Fedorov wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 11:00 GMT
Dear Conrad,

I estimate you essay exelent. Excellently written.

You are one of the few who directly answers the question put by the contest.

Perhaps my essay will complement your understanding of the causality of quantum processes. Your essay allowed to consider us like-minded.

Kind regards,


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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:32 GMT
Dear Dale, thanks for your remarks on my essay. You rightly point out the importance of being able to repeat things in an almost but not exactly identical fashion, both in biological evolution and in human social interactions. I'm not sure I'm convinced that this also applies to quantum mechanics. You also rightly stress that meaning and intention depend on emerged context. Cheers, Stefan

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Stefan Keppeler replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:37 GMT
Ops, sorry! Conrad, of course.

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 15:52 GMT

Yes, what gets repeated in quantum measurement is not generally something "almost identical", as it is in biology. Of course it's possible to make repeated measurements on a system and get the same result... but in general, the result of one measurement event will contribute to contexts in which entirely different types of measurements become possible.

The same is true of human communication, though. We can of course repeat ourselves, but in general, if what I say has meaning to you, your response will be entirely different from what I've said... though hopefully not unrelated!

Where the recursive process in biological evolution is essentially about reproducing information, both in quantum physics and human connection the primary process is that of creating contexts in which information has meaning. That is, information gets defined and communicated rather than just copied. That's essentially why these process are so much harder to clarify than the biological one.

Thanks for commenting! -- Conrad

Anonymous wrote on Mar. 21, 2017 @ 19:25 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Thanks for your nice remarks on my essay, and I must say I enjoy your writing style, which is nice and clear.

I am picking up some points of concern in your argument though, particularly with respect to QM:

While these choices are random, they’re correlated with other random choices in ways that aren’t yet explained.

I'm not sure what you are talking about here - do you mean entanglement? If so, I think this is explained at a mathematical level by the operator of QM, and at the level of intuition in many-worlds and similar interpretations of QM.

any two molecules of the same type are identical, always interacting with other molecules in just the same way.

Wouldn't you agree that there is randomness in the way molecules interact - especially for example in DNA?

Best regards,

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Author Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 22, 2017 @ 16:08 GMT
The above comment is from George Ellis, whose excellent essay is here.

George – thanks very much for responding. As to the two points you mention –

1) I did have entanglement in mind, and the puzzling question of non-locality. But much more generally, what’s “unexplained” about QM is that measurement results can be individually random, and yet result in statistically precise patterns. Or in short, that indeterminacy can support a higher-level determinism. This looks like a prime example of your “top-down realization.”

But while it’s true that a great deal about this is understood mathematically, that doesn’t seem to me an explanation of how or why this occurs. Maybe such basic facts about nature aren’t explainable, of course... but I suspect there’s much more to be understood about the ability of our universe to make essentially all its information physically determinable.

2) Yes, there’s plenty of randomness at the molecular level, as well described in your essay, so my statement was not well worded. But it’s also important that atomic interaction is so precisely reliable. If there were even slight differences in the behavior of any two atoms of the same type (in the same state), there would be larger differences between two simple molecules of the same type… and there would be no possibility of replicable behavior at the level of huge biomolecules.

Hope that makes sense – Conrad

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