Presentations based on this paper:
Meaningful information is present everywhere in our environment, as
well as within ourselves (language, signs, symbols, thoughts, ...).
Theories have been proposed concerning meaning associated to language
or to signs. But little has been done to address meaning as a concept,
independently of the information carrying it.
KEYWORDS: Meaning, information, system, constraint, generation, efficiency, knowledge, Peirce, Shannon, Sharov, Varela, Maturana.
Information and Meaning. Definition of Meaning. Meaning Generator
Chapter II (under preparation)
Information and meanings are important part of the world surrounding us, as well as part of ourselves. It is quite obvious to consider that there are some relations between information and meaning.
When looking at newspapers, we pay attention to the articles that have
some meaning versus our subjects of interests. These meanings may be different
from the ones that have motivated the authors of the articles.
These few examples show that questions relative to the nature and the content of meaning attached to information can come up in many circumstances of our everyday life. Be they relative to ourselves or to our environment.
Important work has been done by philosophers and scientists on questions
relative to the meaning of words, sentences or signs.
studies are devoted to rather well defined types of information or systems
managing information and meaning.
and meaning cover a huge amount of subjects in our environment as well
as within ourselves.
This essay is organized in five chapters, and present paper covers the first chapter:
I) In the first chapter, we introduce the basic elements of a systemic
theory of meaning. (definitions and properties).
II) As we are willing to analyse the nature and the manifestations
of this "meaning" in the fields of matter, life, human and machines,
we will have to characterize these four domains with their corresponding
borders. It will be the content of the second chapter.
The third chapter will be about the application of the systemic modelization
of meaning generation to the three first domains of evolution we are interested
with (matter, life, mankind).
V) The last chapter will offer a summing up of what has been established as a systemic theory of meaning in the previous chapters. Additional studies will also be proposed.
Information and Meaning. Meaning Generator System. Efficiency of Meaning.
purpose of this essay being to build up a systemic theory of meaning,
we need to begin by clear enough an understanding of the field covered
by the notion of meaning. And this field is immense, as meaning can be
linked to any type of information. Information carried by physical or
chemical signals (noise, light, odour, presence of an object), or nervous
information regulating the functioning of a living organism, or also psychic
information populating our mental life (thoughts, ideas, reasoning, fears,...)
word "meaning" can be used in many different ways. Let's begin by analyzing
what is generally put under this word.
could be done in order to clarify and simplify this subject ?
Human mind is something which is mysterious. At current level of the development of science, the nature of mind is still to be discoverd. Studies on mind are however numerous. Their main characteristic being their diversity (philosophy, neurology, artificial intelligence, psychology, science of knowledge, cognisciences, ...). The results achieved so far by these many fields of research are alas far from delivering an acceptable understanding of the nature of mind. The nature of mind is currently out the field of scientific knowledge. Consequently, we can say that the current linking of the notion of meaning to the nature of human imposes to the notion of meaning a lot of elements that are today out of the field of scientific knowledge.
one of the reasons making difficult the study of the notion of meaning
is that we closely relate it to the domain of human mind which is unknown.
this context, we feel that the domain of non human living elements looks
interesting as a starting point for the study of the notion of meaning.
And this for several reasons.
are going in this chapter to disconnect the notion of meaning from human
and come down the ladder of complexity by linking the notion of meaning
to information as processed by non human living elements. As the nature
of life is better understood by science than the nature of human, we can
legitimately hope that such an analysis of the notion of meaning will
provide more factual elements, more acceptable on a scientific base.
But disconnecting "meaning" from human at this stage should not be looked at as puting "meaning" apart from human in our approach. Such a disconnection is temporary. It is done because meaning in human is too complex to be taken as a base on which a modelization of meaning generation can be built directly. Once this modelization established using simpler grounds, we will work on applying it to human and analyse how the meaning generation system can be used in such a case (chp III).
The choice of the living element that will be used to analyse the generation of meaning is important. Indeed, some animals display characteristics that are close to the behavior of human, and the simplification we are looking for may be an illusion if our choice is too close to human (we may introduce some characteristics of human mind that we precisely want to avoid). This would invalidate our reference based on well understood living elements. As an example, some pets can display and probably live emotive states that we cannot explain without reference to some components of human mind.
Consequently, in order to use a simple and non ambiguous case for the analysis of connections between information and meaning in the context of non human living being, we must choose a living creature that is far enough from human in terms of performances. In order to satisfy this criteria, we choose a unicellular animal, the paramecium. A paramecium is a unicellular animal that is able to move in water. The simplicity of this organism makes us sure about its limited performances. Paramecium has no mind to which could be communicated "a word, a sentence or any other sign playing a similar role". The characteristics of the paramecium we are going to take into account are the ones shared with all living organisms: satisfy it's vital constraints. Which means the ability to subsist as an individual in the surroundings, and subsist as a species (participate to the reproduction of the species members).
are going to take as a starting point some behavior of this very simple
animal in order to introduce a definition of meaning that will be generalized
to a system. To this end, we choose a behavior of the paramecium that
can be understood as a processing of information generating some meaning.
This reaction of the paramecium can be understood by noticing that acid water is a hostile environment for paramecia. This reaction of a paramecium moving away from a hostile environment allows us to introduce the notion of meaning for a non human living entity. The acid environment represents for the paramecium an information that participates to some generation of meaning within the paramecium. A meaning that "has sense of", that "wants to say": "the environment is becoming hostile versus the satisfaction of vital constraints". And this meaning is going to trigger in the paramecium an action aimed at putting it at distance from the acid environment. It is clear that the paramecium does not possess an information processing system that allows it to have access to an inner language. But it is true also that a paramecium has usage of sensors that can participate to some measurement of the environment acidity. The information made available with the help of these sensors is part of the process that generates the move of the paramecium in the direction of less acid water.
we can say that the paramecium has created a meaning related to the acidity
of it's environment, in connection with the satisfaction of its vital
More precisely, this example brings up several characteristics relative
to the notion of meaning we are trying to conceptualize.
1) A meaning (the environment is becoming hostile versus the satisfaction of vital constraints) is associated with an information (level of acidity in water) which is incident on a system capable of processing the information (the paramecium).
2) Meaning is generated because the information processing system possesses a constraint linked to its nature (vital constraint that is to be satisfied in order to maintain a living nature).
3) A meaning is generated because the incident information has a connection with the constraint of the system (too much acid in the water impacts the satisfaction of the vital constraint of the paramecium). The content of the meaning is this connection.
4) A meaning is a meaningful information relatively to the constraint of the system (information meaning that the environment becomes hostile versus the satisfaction of the vital constraints).
5) The meaningful information is going to participate to the determination of an action that the system is to implement (move towards a less acid location) in order to satisfy it's constraint (satisfy it's vital constraint).
These five characteristics bring us to propose a definition of "meaning" in the framework of a relation between an incident information and an information processing system submitted to a constraint.
A meaning is a meaningful information that is created by a system submitted to a constraint when it receives an external information that has a connection with the constraint. The meaning is formed of the connection existing between the received information and the constraint of the system. The function of the meaningful information is to participate to the determination of an action that will be implemented in order to satisfy the constraint of the system.
Figure I.1 summarizes the relations that have been introduced between information processing system, incident information, constraint of the system, meaningful information creation, action determination.
In the following text, we will use indifferently the expressions "meaning" or "meaningful information"
above definition of meaning calls for the following precision and complements:
We name "meaningful information generator system" (or "Meaning Generator System" - MGS -) such an ensemble. A meaningful information cannot appear or exist spontaneously, with no cause. Every meaning has an origin which is the MGS that has produced it.
components of the MGS are drawn on the figure
where a system submitted to a constraint S generates a meaningful information.
When building up our definition of meaning, we have been using words of current usage without specificly precising their content. In order to be able to apply with sufficient rigour this definition of meaning to our various cases of interest, we need to specify the content of the vocabulary we are using. More precisely we have to specify what is an information, its transmission from a transmitter to a receiver, an information processing system, a constraint, and the connection that can exist between an information and the constraint of a system.
The first points to explicit are that information
can be memorized or transmitted, and that information is always carried
by a signal. A text in a closed book is memorized information (the printed
characters). The text we are reading from a book is transmitted information
(the photons reaching our eyes). In both cases, information is carried
by a signal. We call signal any variation of energy
(ex: sound vibration like noise or voice; electromagnetic field change
like light; chemical diffusion like odour; presence of an element like
ink, protein,..). The origin of the signal is the transmitter,
which is the source of the energy variation. By associating an
information to a signal, we define information as the
content of the energy variations of the signal (ex: Amplitude and
modulation of a vibration; variation of chemical concentration at a given
point; ink density; molecules in the protein,...). This definition of
information applies to all the components of the signal variation. Consequences
are that a given signal can carry several different information, and that
a signal always carries an information. The elementary information being
the signal itself.
It is to be noted here that a signal is not a priori permanent. The variation of energy that has produced the signal can have a limited duration in time (thunder produced during a thunderstorm has a limited duration). But the signal will propagate, and so will continue to exist, even if the energy variation that has produced it does not exist any more (Three km away, the noise of thunder can be heard 10 seconds after its creation, which is terminated). By the same way, a meaningful information that has been produced by a system will continue to exist even if the system that has originated it does not exist any more (or is not any more a MGS). More specifically, a meaningful information as we have defined it will still be meaningful in the absence of the constraint of the system that has produced it. In other words, the meaningful information exists with the signal that carries it, and this even if the system that has created the meaningful information disappears. A meaning (S) stays meaningful in the absence of S.
precisions regarding the connections between signal and information also
show that two information can be carried by the same signal or by different
signals (a singer and the orchestra accompanying him can figure on the
same recording or on different ones). This remark applies to the incident
information and to the meaningful information that exist relatively to
the constraint of the information processing system. The meaningful information
can be carried by the same signal that the one carrying the incident information,
or be carried by another signal. Relatively to the example of the paramecium,
the incident information (level of acid in the water) is beared by the
signal that is the acid water, but the meaningful information (too much
acid) is beared by a biological signal internal to the paramecium. In
some other cases, the meaningful information will be carried by the signal
carrying the incident information.
A receiver is an element capable of extracting an information from an incident signal and transferring it on another signal (ex: hearing, sight, sensitivity to a chemical/physical element, ...).
As the transmitted signal can carry several different information, it is the nature of the receiver that will fix the choice of the received information (our eyes can detect only a given segment of wavelengths among all the light signals emitted by the elements of our environment).
Regarding processing of information, it covers all types of actions applied to information (creation, modification, storage, integration in a signal, extraction from a signal, comparison with other signals, transformation, ...)
Figure I.3 summarizes the different elements introduced about transmission, propagation and reception of a signal carrying an information.
we want to explicitly take into account a reception function heading the
system that receives the incident information, we need to complement the
drawings used to illustrate the definition of a meaning (Figures I.1 and
I.2). Indeed, we have been considering that the incident information was
feeding directly the function of identification of the connection between
information and constraint. Strictly speaking, a reception function that
will transform the incident information into a received information should
be introduced. And it is the received information that will feed the function
of identification of the connection. This reception function is placed
at the boarder between the system and it's environment. Figure
I.4 reproduces the
I.1 and the
I.2 with an explicit drawing of the reception
Regarding the constraint of a system, we regroup under this term the ensemble of automatisms, rules, laws and finalities that the system must respect to satisfy its nature. For example, as summarized above, the constraints of a living system are to survive and to reproduce itself (vital constraints). If the living element is not able to survive, it will die and loose it's nature of living element. If the living element is not capable of reproducing itself, it's nature as a species will disappear .
"constraint of the system" is one of the elements that will need the most
development in the following chapters, depending upon the type of system
taken into account. Our example with the paramecium's vital constraint
corresponds to a simple case (keeping in mind that such a choice was a
deliberate one, in order to modelize the generation of a meaning in a
domain sufficiently well known and understood. Cf I.1). But for other
systems, the contraints may be more complex. They may for instance evolve
depending upon memorized experiences, or be modified by other information.
But they still functionnaly keep their role as constraints in the MGS.
Finally, the word "connection" used in the expression "connection between incident information and constraint" is to be understood as "all the relations that can exist".
We have seen in I.1 that the meaningful information's role is to participate
to the determination of the action that will be implemented in order to
satisfy the constraint of the system. It has also been said that this
action can take place outside the system, and eventually implicate other
systems. This last case corresponds to the transmission of a meaningful
information to other systems: the formal action that will satisfy the
constraint of the system will come after the transmission of the meaningful
information and it's reception by other systems.
In order to take these cases into account, we introduce the notions of transmission and reception of meaningful information, as well as the notion of efficiency of a meaning that will characterize the possibility for a transmitted meaningful information to participate to the determination of an action.
animal world offers many examples of transmission and reception of meaningful
information. An example is the case of a male cicada calling female cicadas
by producing a specific sound. This meaningful information is transmitted
by the male cicada towards the female cicadas in order to have them come
for copulation and reproduction. This takes place in order to make possible
the satisfaction of the vital constraint of the species. Another example
is given by a bee informing other members of the hive about the location
of a new source of pollen by flying in precise patterns. This bee dance
is a meaningful information produced by the bee to indicate to other members
of the hive the direction and distance of the location where are the flowers
containing the pollen. This meaningful information will bring the bees
to fly to this new source of pollen to feed the hive, and so contribute
to the satisfaction of the vital constraints of the species.
But beyond there simple examples, one finds the question about the becoming of the meaning attached to the transmitted information. Will this meaning always be taken into account by the receiver in order to satisfy the constraints of the transmitter ? And what if the receiver happens to be submitted to it's own constraint, different from the transmitter one ? Under which conditions will the receiver be in a position to satisfy the constraint of the transmitter ?
questions are to be looked at in order to address the cases of transmission
and reception of meaningful information.
It has been stated above that a meaningful information keeps it's meaningful characteristics even if the system that has generated it disappears. In other words, a meaningful (S) information remains meaningful (S) in a location where the constraint S does not exist. But it is obvious that no action aimed to the satisfaction of the constraint S can take place in a location where the constraint S does not exist (the paramecium cannot try to move from a place where it is not). In other words, the meaning (S) will be able to participate to the determination of an action only in the locations where the constraint S exist.
In order to clarify these points, we need to introduce the notion of "efficiency of a meaning" that characterizes the possibility for a meaningful information to participate to the determination of an action aimed at satisfying the constraint of the system. We define the efficiency of a meaning as being the aptitude of the meaningful information to participate to the determination of an action aimed at the satisfaction of the constraint of the system. We note "efficiency (S)" the efficiency of a meaning relatively to the constraint of the system S.
On the same token, we define the "domain of efficiency of a meaning" as being the domain where the meaningful information is capable to participate to the determination of an action aimed at satisfying the constraint of the system. We note "domain of efficiency (S)" the domain of efficiency of a meaning relatively to the constraint of the system S. And we state that the domain of efficiency (S) is the location where the constraint S of the system is existing. In other words, The meaningful (S) information is efficient (S) in the domain of efficiency (S).
In it's domain of efficiency, a meaningful information can participate to the determination of an action aimed at the system's constraint satisfaction. Outside of it's domain of efficiency, the meaningful information will still be meaningful but this meaning will not be usable for determining an action related to the satisfaction of the system's constraint. The information is meaningful but the meaning is not efficient.
In order to integrate this notion of efficiency to the various elements relative to meaningful information already introduced, we are going to consider a MGS attached to a transmitter that will transmit the meaningful information. We will name " transmitter system T" the global system containing the MGS and the transmitter. The transmitter system is submitted to a constraint T. We will suppose that the constraint T does not exist outside of the transmitter system. In the transmitter system, a meaningful information generated by the MGS is meaningful (T) and efficient (T).
leaving the transmitter system, the meaningful information remains meaningful
(T) but looses it's efficiency (The meaningful information transmitted
is meaningful (T) and not efficient (T)). Let's suppose that this meaningful
(T) information reaches a receiver system that is able to receive it.
And let's also suppose that this receiver system contains a MGS having
a constraint R that applies to the receiver system. The received information
will be meaningful (T) and non efficient (T) in the receiver system. But
if the received information has some connection with the constraint R,
then the receiver system will create a meaningful (R) information that
will be efficient (R) in the receiver. Two meaningful information then
exist in the receiver system: a meaningful information that is meaningful
(T) and non efficient (T), and another meaningful information that is
meaningful (R) and efficient (R). In the receiver system, the meaningful
(R) information can participate to the determination of an action in the
direction of the receiver's constraint satisfaction. But the meaningful
(T) information cannot participate in the receiver to the determination
of an action relative to the constraint T.
This formalization of meaningful information transmission shows that a given meaningful information can generate different meanings in different systems receiving it depending upon the constraints of the receivers. And the actions implemented will also depend upon the constraint of the systems receiving the information. Taking again the example of a male cicada calling female cicadas for reproduction, if we imagine that a “cicada eater” can hear the sound produced by the male cicada, he will find it and eat it. Cicadas and cicada eaters can have different constraints to satisfy.
is also a possible variation where the meaningful (T) information generated
in the transmitter system is not directly transmitted but used to trigger
the transmission of another meaningful information (T'). The participation
to the determination of the action that will satisfy the constraint (T)
begins by the triggering of the transmission of the meaning T', and will
continue by the reception of the meaningful (T') information by another
In the previous
paragraphs, we have introduced definitions and properties linking information
to meaning. Even if we want to limit this chapter to a systemic formalization
of meaning generation, we feel there is some interest to look also at
possible links with the notion of knowledge.
of knowledge have been proposed: (http://www.humanlinks.com/wwwboard/topic3/messages/2.htm).
looking to the nature of both notions can also bring up some interesting
similarities. Nature of knowledge is generaly positioned on an epistemology
spectrum between two distinct positions: knowledge as a true image of
the outside world - objectivist position -, or knowledge as specific build
up of reality by the knowing element - constructivist position -. (http://www.stemnet.nf.ca/~elmurphy/emurphy/cle2.html)
The approach on meaning introduced with the MGS in the previous paragraphs is on the constructivist side: the meaning is built up by the system from it's constraint, which is internal to the system (Fig. I.4)
In this first chapter, we have established the basic elements of a systemic theory of meaning. These elements can be summarized as follows:
- A meaningful information is generated by a system made of (Fig.
information (a “meaning”) is defined as the connection existing between
the received information and the constraint of the system.
We call such a system a Meaning Generator System (MGS). It is a building block for meaning generation. A MGS and its constituants can be related to other outside functions (memory, simulation, other MGS, ...) Assuming we can get a precise identification of the elements constituting the MGS and of its relations with other function, we consider that the MGS should cover all the cases of meaning generation.
Key Properties of a meaning:
of this first chapter will be about using the MGS approach for the different
levels of comlexity (matter, life, human, machines). A key point will
be the identification of the constraints of the systems at each level
Peirce (1839 - 1914) is considered as the source of the contemporary philosophical
conception of semiotic - the science of signs -.
The Peircean concept of sign contains three components: The Object of
thought, the Sign representing the object, the Interpretant (that provides
a mental representation). The Interpretant is also a sign that can be
interpreted too. And the semiotic process goes on. These three components
cannot be separated. The Peircean sign is qualified as «Triadic». The
notion of meaning is sometime associated to the Interpretant in Peirce's
 P. Gelepithis
(Survey of Theories of Meaning. Cognitive Systems, 2, No 2, pp 141-162,
1988) classifies the current theories of meaning in four categories (philosophical,
linguistic, formal and biological). One conclusion is that these theories
of meaning have recognized that meaning does depend on us humans.
 A positioning of the notion of meaning in the history of Information Theory is available in J. Segal PhD Thesis 1998 (in French): Theorie de l’information: sciences, techniques et societe de la seconde guerre mondiale a l’aube du XXIe siècle. Text is in Chapt 11: La notion d’information dans l’emergence de l’unite du savoir. Internet version at: http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/staff/segal/thesis/
A. Sharov: Biosemiotics:functional-evolutionary approach to the analysis
of the sense of information. In: Sebeok, T.A., J. Umiker-Sebeok (eds.):
The Semiotic Web 1991: Biosemiotics. De Gruyter, Berlin-New York 1992.
pp. 345-373. Also at: http://www.ento.vt.edu/~sharov/biosem/txt/biosem.html
 We will not analyze the question about the origin and the meaning of the universe. We will consider the universe as we can know it on a scientific basis, without asking question about it's origin or about the meaning of it's presence.
 The elements relative to the notion of meaning that we have introduced in this chapter are different from the content of the Peircean theory of sign:
- Peirce's theory is a theory of sign, and the present paper is centered on meaning. With Peirce, when meaning is explicitly taken into account, it is relatively to the Interpretant. In the present paper, meaning is presented explicitly as a meaningful information. Meaning is defined as the result of a defined information processing done by a system submitted to a constraint.
- The Peircean presentations of sign are done relatively to human (the Interpretant is a human mind, with some indication towards non human minds). As based on mankind, the Peircean theory is rich, powerful and complex. Many studies are devoted to Peirce's writings and ideas. Our introduction of meaning in the present paper is done relatively to an information processing system, with no reference to human for purpose of simplicity regarding the nature of the information processing system. This starting point will be progressively widened by analysing the different constraints that are to be associated with material systems, living systems and human ones.
- The element of this essay that could be related with the Peircean theory of sign is the Meaning Generator System. This MGS can be compared to a very simplified version of the Peircean Interpretant.
 The word constraint has been chosen on purpose to regroup the cases of causes to which a system can be submitted, be these causes from the type of "efficient causes" (gravity is the cause of the fall of this stone), or from the type of "final causes" (passengers willing to go to Paris are the cause of this plane flight). We do not feel pertinent in this first chapter to subdivide the approach of the concept of meaning in different parts depending if we think we are facing efficient causes or final causes. We will see in the next chapters if it is necessary to deal separately with these different types of causes.