one of the elements

Everything complicated in our known world has a material basis. It is only through the permanence of material particles like atoms and of their arrangements that complicated structures can emerge and exist for usefully long times. Such structures invariably come with a hierarchical organization since a sequentially unfolding hierarchy is the only way they can emerge.

Since the creation of order requires energy, as described by the laws of entropy, the elements of a structural hierarchy also come with functionality that eventually contributes to the extraction of resources from the environment. This functionality is what we call the meaning of the element in the material world.

Besides their direct functionality, persistent material structures can also serve to store information of all sorts. Examples include the DNA, which typically stores genetic information, patterns of ink particles on paper, which store texts or images, or biochemical compounds, which provide long-time storage for the plethora of information in our brains. While the underlying material structures are essential for the very existence of the information they represent, their nature plays no role for the information they represent. Whether the letters on a sheet of paper consist of true Indian ink, of some chemical, of some carbon deposits, or have just been embossed, all that is completely irrelevant for storing and reading the information. This information is the meaning of the material structures in the abstract information world.

Obviously, there is a fundamental difference between material structures and their meaning. Those structures, the hierarchy of elementary building blocks with their specific arrangement and dynamics, exist per se in an absolute sense. In contrast, the meaning of those structures, whether in the material or in the abstract information world, depends on their environment. Apparently, 结构可以传达一种深刻的理解,也可以什么都不说。

Material structures exist in an absolute sense. Meaning depends on the environment.

With its dependence on the environment, meaning is naturally ephemeral, gets transformed with its environment, and vanishes with it. Still, meaning can “materialize” and thereby gain the same persistence as the corresponding material, and the same inflexibility. This may occur through modifications of the physical environment as happened with the oxygenation of system Earth and is ongoing in the current anthropocene. It may also result from incorporation into the inheritance path of evolving species through genetics and epigenetics. Hence, despite their qualitative disparity, matter and meaning are entangled, even coevolve to some extent.

the material basis of meaning

Meaning, both in the functional and in the informational sense, constitutes a huge part of my being, of humankind’s culture, of our world. It indeed is the essence of it all.

Looking at just myself, matter is of course the basis of my complicated body and its functioning. Its plethora of biochemical reactions even underly my hatred, anger, compassion, and love, my cognition of the world and of myself, my understanding, and my most lofty spiritual visions. In the highest of spheres, it fuels my endless longing, the flow of tears over my all too obvious limitations, and hopes to ultimately surpass them all, to see and be beyond. This is my essence.

Yet, despite agreeing on the ultimate material basis of my essence, it obviously is not material. My love is not a set of biochemical reactions. Nor is it the strange feeling in my heart or my stomach, nor my stammering, nor any of the myriad of further manifestations. And still, without that underlying material world, my entire non-material world vanishes and is gone.

It is a grave mistake to think that my higher spheres would exist without the material world.

This may be different for extraordinarily highly developed individuals, but certainly not for novices, not for ordinary masters, not in our known physical world, and it just may be.

Looking at our culture, indeed at any culture, we again find matter at its base: books, paintings, sculptures, buildings, and their aggregates into libraries or cites and up the material hierarchy. And again, the essence of the Bible, of the Diamond Sutra, of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, or of the Hopi’s tradition, the essence of all that is not in those books, sculptures, and tales. Indeed, that essence cannot even be accessed through those material signposts. They are just trying to point to the first steps on a very, very long road. This is illustrated by our still continuing attempts to comprehend their meaning after hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

Obviously, those layers upon layers of material artifacts are no more our culture than biochemical reactions are my love. And yet, without that material canvas the continuous re-creation of our culture is impossible. It vanishes and is gone.

Meaning is the essence of everything complicated, imponderably transcending its material base… yet vanishing with it.

Vorstellung and the material world

We can fairly easily and precisely speak about the material world, about mountains, clouds, trees, and humans, without too much room for misunderstanding. The same is virtually impossible for the immaterial world, however, for my pain and sorrow, my joy and love, my spiritual visions. This is the root of the discrepancy between humankind’s rapid unfolding in the material-technological realm and its quasi-stagnation in the spiritual realm. In the latter, we still ask the same old questions about the meaning of our life, and possibly beyond, we still read the same old books and are fascinated by the same old images. There is no advance because the lack of effective communication prevents the joint accumulation of knowledge and understanding. This lack is also the major challenge when venturing far beyond our objective world.

The ease, or virtual impossibility, of our communication in different realms is also reflected in my Vorstellung of the world, my mental image of myself and of my environment. After all, most of what we know and understand we gained from social learning, through communication with others. My Vorstellung indeed is dominated by objects, relations, and processes from the material world. I think in terms of them, and whatever perceptions I have, they are projected onto them. I even use them, have to, to express the non-expressible, more precisely its projection. That is how all those roses, sweet odors, suns and moons, and winds through long dry grass ends up in what really is, at the base, love.

It is thus not just our functionality that is rooted deeply in the material world but our entire being. The perceptions, limitations, and possibilities of our embodied mind form our Vorstellung of the World, ultimately of what we can imagine and what not.

For a larger perspective, think of your dreams. They could be completely out of bounds because they need not conform to any material reality. And yet they do conform, mostly. They do not consistently follow ordinary logic. You can fly, dive deep in the ocean, move and jump back and forth in time, through the Universe, or be a plant, all that without or, occasionally, in full wild colors. But, they use the ordinary images with often ordinary local relations, indeed often just wildly paste together segments of experienced situation. Mostly ordinary, just strangely mixed, there still are occasional glimpse that are different, with impressions that rest, maybe for a lifetime.

For a yet larger perspective, imagine the world of a bacterium in your gut, of the fly on the cake, of your cat… and drop the natural arrogance that there is nothing beyond what we see.

Matter without meaning is dust. Without matter there is no meaning. The two stiles of a ladder, neither can do without the other, a ladder unfolding into the Unformed, step by step.