Most people intuit that there’s a higher power, some significant force whether Godly or simply spiritual that made and moves us. They intuit a two tier-system, us down below through our good deeds representing the higher power’s significant goodness. This is a comforting intuition.

Non-believers claim that comfort is its only virtue. To them, science proves that there’s no higher supernatural tier that, we through our best efforts can try to represent. They argue that the universe is merely matter in motion moving according to physical law.  Yes, there’s representation in the form of DNA copied or re-present from parent to offspring. But minds, with the ability to represent significant things? Nope—at core, minds are merely electrical and chemical neuronal firings, nothing more.  The universe and everything in it is devoid of significance.

Back and forth the debate goes, the two-tiered version of the universe as inherently significant because we earthly creatures represent a higher power’s significance vs. the one-tiered, strictly physiochemical universe with no real representation or significance anywhere in it.

I’m one of a handful of researchers proposing an alternative interpretation, scientific, not supernatural and yet aimed at explaining where and how representation and significance really happen.

Consider a creature’s evolved paw, or for that matter your hand. A paw doesn’t look like its environment and yet it has evolved and continues to evolve to it, form-fitted in ways that have proven significant to our survival because it fits like a glove the significant shapes in our environment.

Fish don’t have paws and don’t seem to miss them much, living a hands-free existence that fits their underwater world.  Fish get by with form-fitted teeth that capture what they need to survive.

Like us, fish also have hemoglobin molecules, form-fitted to capture oxygen molecules.  Like paws, hemoglobin molecules have a glove-like fit to oxygen molecules. If oxygen molecules were shaped differently, hemoglobin would have evolved a different shape to con-form, to “form with” our environment, significant to the ongoing self-repair work a creature does to keep surviving and reproducing.

All of our adaptive traits represent what’s significant to us in our environmental conditions.  Survival of the fittest is in this sense survival of the significantly representative.  Whereas higher-power theories posit some spirit that top-down we strive to represent, evolution is bottom up representation.

The non-believers are right to start with the physiochemical realm, just wrong to claim it’s the only realm and that there’s no true representation.  The universe is 14 billion years old. Life here started roughly four billion years ago, and with it a new tier of representation, form-fitted adaptive traits that conform a creature’s traits to its environment’s significant characteristics.

In languaged creatures like us humans we find the universe’s capacity for infinitely-tiered bottom-up representation.  We have the word “hand” for example, fitted to or re-presenting our physical trait. A tier up, we have the word “word” representing the whole class of things like the word “hand.” Another tier up, have the word “sign” for the class of things that, like “words” creatures take as significant.  In a word, we can represent our representations of our representations ad infinitum and not just in individual words.  With word-pictures we can picture ourselves and then picture ourselves picturing ourselves and then up another tier picture ourselves picturing ourselves picturing ourselves, on and on. Would we? It depends on whether we think it’s worth it, or significant to do so. There’s survival of the fittest here too, our language surviving to the extent it represents what we find significant.

Yes, all words are physical things, sound vibrations through the air, ink on pages and binary bits on computers.  But obviously they’re not just that, and they don’t just copy from page to mind the way non-believers would like to believe. Non-believers think the only thing like representation is physiochemical copying like DNA to RNA to DNA, albeit copying imperfectly.  They picture representation as an elaborate version of printing. DNA prints to RNA, words print to minds, computer programs print to screens.

To non-believers a word is a physical object that makes an impression on the mind. Hear the word Chicago and your mind’s eye is imprinted with a picture of the windy city. But what about words like “effective” “as” and “piecemeal.” Only proper nouns have a one-to-one correspondence whereby you can picture them causing one-to-one impressions the way rubber stamps do.  Obviously significance doesn’t end with proper nouns.

Words don’t cause changes the same way physical or chemical interactions do.  Words are interpreted which while strictly physical (no supernatural forces involved) is a radically different source of change from physical causality.

Whereas physical causality can involve as few as two things–X and Y interacting and changing each other, interpretation can’t be reduced to less than a three-way interaction. With interpretation, an individual (X) sensing a difference in one thing (Y), responds with a different behavior (Z) which is significant to whether the individual can keep sensing and responding. For example, you sense the word “stop” on a stop sign, and respond by braking, which is significant to whether you stay alive to sense and respond to stop signs and other things.   Interpretation is “a difference that makes a difference,” a difference in the presence or absence of a stop sign, which makes a difference in the presence or absence of your braking which makes a difference to whether you stay alive.

With interpretation there’s always guesswork involved. You can for example break when there’s no stop sign or not break when there is and both errors can make a difference to your survival. In general, you can sense or respond differently yielding a better or worse outcome to your ability to keep sensing and responding.  Evolution and learning are how we hone our representations of our environment’s significant features.

All adaptive traits are interpretations too.  It’s not just words that interpret; a paw is a guess at the best way to represent what’s significant in a creature’s environment, a guess that could prove wrong, in a way that no strictly physical behavior can’t.

We talk of the minds eye as though we picture things as accurately as the eye sees.  Looks can be deceiving but words can be much more deceiving.   We don’t have a mind’s eye view, so much as a words-eye view interpretation. Picturing through words is a much more ambiguous source of interpretation, which is why we can look at the same universe and come up with radically divergent interpretations of what’s happening.

Life doesn’t represent precisely but rather interprets.  From evolved traits to learned verbal descriptions, it’s all interpretation, conjecture, guesses at the representation that fits.  We intuit that there is a higher power who through life represents His meaningful intentions precisely. But this is just such a guess and likelier than not, it’s a misrepresentation.

There is no higher power. But with life there is significance and representation, the paw that best captures the prey, the hemoglobin that best captures oxygen, the words that best capture what we find significant to our survival and thriving.

We researchers therefore don’t believe in the supernatural, but we do believe in what I’ll call here the repro-natural, the universe’s inherent potential to produce creatures that interpret, representing and then with language re-representing and re-re-re-presenting ad infinitum.

A blessing then, this Easter Sunday–not may God bless you but may your representations serve you well.