When you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.
Nuclear physics reveals the basic structure of reality as vibrational currents of quantum energy – nothing so much ‘here’ or ‘there’ but a reality inherently chaotic and unstable, predictable only in terms of probability. These ‘strings’ flash in and out of existence and somehow constitute a matrix out of which subatomic matter crystallizes, only to dissolve back again into mystery. We need to be reminded that we’re not only talking about the ‘first three seconds’ of our present universe, way back in the very beginning. Even now, below the apparent foundation of things as we know them, existence is vibrant, indeterminate, and weird.
This is also the dimension of reality where your body lives, by the way. A living body is an organic system with the ability to surf the waves of energy twining and unraveling all around you. And let’s not forget that the physical makeup of your body is only apparently solid, with its fixed and stationary disposition concealing an oscillating undercurrent of genesis and extinction.
As an energy system, the ‘economy’ of your body is measured in calories to determine how much metabolic work is required in keeping you alive. The metabolism transpiring in your cells right now is how an organic system breaks apart the bonds of solid matter in order to acquire the energy locked inside, which is then used to power its living processes, or else bundled and stored away for later.
Now that we have moved our attention from the current of energy to its manifestation as the universe, let’s meditate briefly on its more or less solid and stable forms. A form, whether static or dynamic, is a channel of information. Its architecture provides a path (or channel) for energy to flow. The two types of channels are open and closed, where open channels allow energy to flow through and closed channels are energetic cul-de-sacs.
Open channels are dynamic and exemplified in all living systems, like your body. Conversely, closed channels are static: they keep their form constant until either more energy surges into them than they can hold and they burst apart, or their internal energy bonds weaken and they crumble into more stable states (a process known as entropy, or the Second Law of thermodynamics).
Whether dynamic or static, information channels are how energy takes shape. It might seem odd at first to speak of a plant or a rock as information, rather than as a “thing” or “object,” but that’s really all it is: a code of instructions for converting energy into form, and thus in-forming it. Your body, again, is an immensely complex system of bio-architecture produced by the conversion of energy into mass according to a deeper genetic code.
As a dynamic form, your body is not fixed and closed, but is rather in constant communication with the environment (what’s around you, in the air you breathe, in the food and water you ingest) which turns ‘on’ and ‘off’ certain genes. As a consequence, dynamic and open channels are more vulnerable to environmental assaults and mutations in their code than are rocks, for instance. But they are also capable of new adaptations and ‘self improvements’ that no rock has a chance at.
With a simple thought, such as anxious fixation on the prospect of failure and social embarrassment, your body switches ‘on’ the genes that synthesize stress hormones, and when these are released into your bloodstream major changes will ensue in the function and structure of your cells and organs. Unchecked, this process can lead to hypertension, mitochondrial exhaustion, inflammation, gastric ulcers, and even cancer. Of course, let’s not forget that you can produce a very different result by taking a more realistic and responsible approach to that imagined future event.
This last step, as we consider what’s going on inside your mind as you look out on reality, shifts our perspective up one more level, to the construction of meaning. What something means is not merely a matter of how it channels energy into form. Information is only data (codes, mathematical ratios, signals and instructions) while meaning adds interpretation. Human beings are unique (though not alone) in their ability to construct a mental model of reality that assigns it identity, value, and significance. Whereas information consists in a pattern of data, meaning must be extracted from, or ‘read into’, what’s there in the code. This is why we say that meaning is “constructed,” and that the world of human beings is a social construction.
We need to spend a little more time with this idea, if only because it represents a rather radical departure from our common sense view of things. We are accustomed to thinking of meaning as something we find, discover, or search for in reality. But what we actually find is nothing but facts, energy flowing into form and manifesting as the universe we can sense and measure. If we find meaning, it’s because someone else (or we ourselves, previously) put it there. (And this is one of the reasons why it’s been so important in our religions to conceive of the universe as a creation of an intentional being, whose meaning is now already there for us to search out and understand.)
The theory of constructivism holds that meaning is made in our minds and then used as an interpretive lens for making sense of reality. We perceive or imagine patterns of information, and then we sift, spin, and embellish those patterns in an effort to make them mean something. A radical version of constructivism (to which I happen to subscribe) regards the reality outside our minds as inherently meaningless, as simply ‘what is’. The meaning (or meanings) we project onto it serves as a sacred canopy (Peter Berger) inside of which we find orientation and purpose for our lives.
Our constructions of meaning fall into two general types, adaptive or absolute, corresponding to the channels of information deeper in the structure of reality. Adaptive meaning refers to mental models that are regularly updated for maximal relevance. As reality changes and our human situation shifts accordingly, our interpretation of how it all works together, where it’s going, and what it means needs to keep up. An adaptive worldview is responsive and flexible, capable of adjusting to the dynamic nature of reality.
Absolute constructions of meaning, on the other hand, are by definition unchanging, which is to say unresponsive to reality and inflexible in their interpretation. Indeed, absolute mental models protect themselves by insisting that they are not interpretations at all, but straightforward presentations of the way things really are. Characteristically they get to this point by a longer history of falling out of touch with reality, losing their ability to adapt, and eventually becoming so set in a script of cross-referencing self-validation that no criticism from outside is even allowed. (And again we can find ready examples in religion today, where once-relevant narrative constructions of reality, or myths, have become a system of frozen metaphysical ‘truths’ beyond all doubt.)
We are at a point in history when absolute constructions of meaning are threatening global security and our human future. This is certainly true in the case of sectarian religion. But even more devastating is the worldview associated with rampant consumerism and its utter lack of regard for the living systems that make up the consilient biosphere of our planet. The same grasping-and-gulping, tossing-and-trashing mode of life that was sustained on the promise of breakthrough technology and unlimited resources has been exposed for the fallacy it really was.
Yet the construction of meaning that inspired our consumer ambitions is still driving much of our behavior today. If it were truly adaptive, the consumeristic worldview and its myth of salvation through material prosperity would be willing to acknowledge the catastrophic effect it is having on our planet, our communities, our health and well-being, and proceed to update itself so as to be more grounded, realistic, and ethically responsible.
But we don’t have to keep our reflections safely preoccupied on the level of social criticism. Just consider how much of your personal behavior (choices, actions, and reactions) is driven and justified by a construction of meaning out of touch with reality. How much of what you obsess over, chase after, and hold onto today as an adult is working out ambitions that were constructed in early childhood when your security and self-esteem were developmentally appropriate concerns? Your needs weren’t fulfilled then, and you’re still trying to satisfy them now. There’s your example of an absolute construction of meaning.
So, when you look out from where you are, what do you see? Three answers: energy, information, and meaning. Which one presents itself to you as the basic structure of reality depends on what you go looking for in the first place.
What are you looking for?