Roots of Meaning

Abstract: This identifies a major cause of misunderstanding and conflict between people and groups, then proposes a method that can assist in overcoming these confusions. In a nutshell, the meanings that we experience in relation to symbols or phenomena are a product of prior associative learning and are not inherent in the symbols or phenomena themselves. Because of this, no communication can be truly literal and to some degree every communication is metaphorical. It requires subtlety to discern the intended meaning rather than simply respond to our own experienced meaning. There are methods and technologies that can assist us in this endeavour and these can eventually lead us towards mutual understanding even regarding issues that have been sources of entrenched misunderstanding and conflict throughout human history.


Why is it that there is so much confusion and conflict between and within societies? Why is it that regardless of what you believe is happening and what you believe needs to be done, there are millions of others who believe totally different and contradictory things? Why is it that even when things are stated clearly, as far as you are concerned, many people simply dismiss it as nonsense? Why is it that so much of what is adamantly stated by others seems like total nonsense to you? Why is it that throughout history there has been so much misunderstanding, prejudice, conflict and oppression?

Can we simply put this down to “human nature”? Are we inherently doomed to this fate? This work claims that we are not and here are some initial hints as to why.

Conditioned Responses

Consider an important factor in associative learning called classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning, which was first studied by Ivan Pavlov.

In the case of Pavlov's experiments [ref] a bell was rung every time that a dog was fed. After much repetition the ringing of the bell resulted in the cognitive state of anticipating being fed; one sign of this was that they salivated. Hence the dogs came to associate a meaning with the previously neutral stimulus of a ringing bell. In more detail:

“The typical procedure for inducing classical conditioning involves presentations of a neutral stimulus along with a stimulus of some significance. The neutral stimulus could be any event that does not result in an overt behavioral response from the organism under investigation. Pavlov referred to this as a Conditioned Stimulus (CS). Conversely, presentation of the significant stimulus necessarily evokes an innate, often reflexive, response. Pavlov called these the Unconditioned Stimulus (US) and Unconditioned Response (UR), respectively. If the CS and the US are repeatedly paired, eventually the two stimuli become associated and the organism begins to produce a behavioral response to the CS. Pavlov called this the Conditioned Response (CR).”[ref]

This is a general feature of how brains function. When a cognitive state is repeatedly experienced in conjunction with a sensory stimuli the brain (neural network) comes to associate the two. Once this association is formed the cognitive state can be elicited by the sensory stimuli alone because the repeated conditioning reconfigures the brain so that the stimuli automatically results in a conditioned response.

This reconfiguration occurs at a very deep level, well below the level of conscious awareness, hence at the level of conscious awareness the organism experiences the cognitive state without any awareness that it has been conditioned and artificially induced. This form of conditioning bypasses all forms of conscious awareness and rational choice – we cannot help but respond in a conditioned way.

Over the past century this technique has been intensively refined and employed throughout modern society. It is used to condition minds via education, propaganda, manipulative advertising and information warfare ("the use and management of information in pursuit of a competitive advantage over an opponent")[ref].

However classical conditioning is not a new phenomenon, it is a general principle of neurological systems and cognitive functioning. Its uses have been employed throughout history but have been transformed from an art into a science over the last century.

All forms of associative learning are related to classical conditioning. Think about how one teaches a dog to respond to voice commands or simply to its name – this too is a form of classical conditioning. Think also about how human infants learn language or how we learn anything.

If one really thinks about it it becomes clear that all learning is a form of conditioning – in this way our brains are reconfigured. In the advanced stages of learning it becomes a matter of forming complex associations between existing conditioned responses hence it is not always clear that the new knowledge is a form of classical conditioning, but in its early stages the connection is clear.

For example, we might present an infant with an apple and then sound out the word “apple” - after many repetitions they will develop a conditioned response where the sound of the word “apple” elicits the idea in their mind of an apple. Also consider teaching aids for young children. A common example is a chart of the letters of the alphabet. It is placed somewhere that the child will regularly see it and it is made eye catching and visually appealing. The letter 'a' is placed next to a picture of an apple or something else that they recognise which can be associated with the letter 'a' – and so on for all the letters.

This gradually creates a set of conditioned responses, which can later be further refined and developed into conditioned responses for whole words. Then when the child sees the string of letters “apple” they associate this with their experiences of apples thus the string of letters takes on meaning for them. The words are then further refined and developed into more complex forms of knowledge. In this way we build up and weave together conditioned responses into complex cognitive states.


The reconfiguration occurs at a neurological level, well below conscious awareness, hence a sound and string of letters comes to represent an apple to us without us being conscious of the fact that they are really meaningless symbols to which we have developed a conditioned response. We cease to experience the symbol as a symbol and instead experience the conditioned response that our brains associate with the symbol. For example, as you read these words you experience the flow of meaning rather than a sequence of visual patterns, but if this was translated into an unfamiliar language you would only see the visual patterns and have no access to the flow of ideas.

The sounds and visual patterns that make up language are all inherently meaningless – just as the ringing of a bell is meaningless. As we develop conditioned responses these meaningless sensory stimuli come to elicit cognitive states so we come to experience 'meanings' that we associate with the stimuli.

Thus whenever we hear or see a word we are experiencing a meaningless sensory stimuli that elicits a conditioned cognitive state that we experience as the meaning of the sensory stimuli. All communication is therefore a matter of eliciting conditioned cognitive states within the minds of others – that is how we convey meaning. However the meanings that they experience depends on the details of their conditioning. For each of us the meanings are different, sometimes subtly and sometimes radically different.

Furthermore, it often happens that some people have direct experiences that inform their conditioned responses whilst others only have second hand experiences. For example, someone who has never seen or tasted an apple will develop a second hand conditioned response based on other conditioned responses that have been integrated to approximate some semblance of the idea of an apple. Such a person will experience a different meaning for the string “apple” compared to someone who is familiar with apples. Furthermore, someone who grew up on an apple orchard would have subtly different meanings for the word than someone who only knew them as products bought from a store.

The idea that anything can be expressed 'literally' is related to the assumption that words have the same meaning for everyone, which would only be true if we all had identical conditioning. When raised in a sheltered and heavily conditioned society, gaining much of ones experience through a homogenised mass media this can seem to be true in most cases, which makes non-conformists within ones own society and other entire societies seem alien, incoherent and deeply confused because what they say makes no literal sense to oneself.

Conditioned responses not only apply to aural and visual stimuli related to what we commonly think of as 'language' but to all forms of communication and social interaction, such as body language, dress codes and high level symbolic systems that are more commonly thought of as 'culture'. Just as we form conditioned responses to words we also form them to pop songs, images, political slogans and whole paradigms.

Ultimately, any meaning that we experience is a conditioned response to some sensory stimuli, whether simple or complex. We may develop associations to a single sound or to a whole culture.


The above mentioned factors lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, confusion, conflict and the inability to communicate coherently regarding many subjects. This occurs between individuals, societies, social strata, generations and so on. Unless great care is take to maintain the clarity of understanding, misunderstandings can accumulate over time.

As a simplistic example of this kind of misunderstanding there is an Australian pop song that goes:

“Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, in every sight and every sound.”

Knowing that it is a metaphorical expression, its meaning is quite clear but if people conditioned by materialist science tried to comprehend it in a literal manner they might infer that the people of Australia had a belief system that love was a molecule which formed a visible vapour, which they believed permeated “every sight and ever sound”. This is clearly absurd and they might then conclude that the Australian people were very naïve and beguiled by some bizarre superstition.

From our perspective this is clearly mistaken but such mistakes have occurred throughout history and have become entrenched within our understanding of other cultures. These misunderstandings either cause people to idealise the absurdity and turn it into a belief system or to dismiss the entire culture as absurd. In this way once-clear knowledge can become corrupted and devolve into nonsense.

These misunderstandings are sometimes encouraged in order to create a belief system that reinforces some behaviour or in order to portray the culture as being absurd thus suppressing other ideas that are present in that culture. This can result in a group of people who fervently believe in the absurd misunderstanding and others who fervently denounce the original culture in order to combat the absurd beliefs. Neither has actually understood the original meaning and both become trapped in a fools debate. Attempts to then discuss the original meaning potentially become bogged down by this fools debate, which makes it more difficult to work towards an accurate understanding of what the original meaning was.

Is it possible that throughout the whole of human history virtually all people in all cultures were fundamentally confused and beguiled by naïve superstitions that bore no correspondence to their experience of reality? That generation after generation remained trapped within nonsense that is so absurd that it is inconceivable how they could have believed in it? That virtually all of the greatest minds in history were some of the most trapped and beguiled? That now, in these “enlightened times” there are a minority of cultures who have escaped this delusion and must liberate all other cultures from it as well? Is this scenario plausible?

Or could it be that in the context of ancient conditioning these ancient cultures made sense to the people because they corresponded to their experience of reality, and that our culture if observed from the context of some other conditioning would seem to be equally absurd and incomprehensible?

Could it be that there is something of value to be found within these allegedly absurd cultures, but we cannot simply interpret things 'literally', that is, by assuming that our conditioning is somehow universal and can be used to decode the complex symbol systems of any culture? Could it be that we ourselves are beguiled by naivety that leads us to try to understand things only in terms of our current conditioning and therefore causing us to totally misunderstand virtually everything except the products of our own conditioning?

To answer these questions we need to comprehend how meaning arises within our minds and not simply assume that the meanings of things are somehow universal and inherent within the symbols themselves. We need to develop sophistication in regards to our own conditioning in order to be able to decode the products of other forms of conditioning. It is too simplistic to assume that everyone else is insane except for 'us' (whoever the 'us' may be). We must look beyond our own conditioning if we are to have any hope of comprehending anything other than the products of our own conditioning.

This phenomenon is also a major point of leverage in information warfare, which creates divisions and conflicts by reinforcing or manufacturing miscommunication and misunderstanding. It also allows atrocities to be perpetuated without anyone being able to object to them in any way that is coherent to a sufficient enough proportion of people for there to be effective resistance. It is central to the “divide and conquer” strategy. In this way people can be conditioned so that they remain isolated from each other or antagonistic towards each other. Each will experience the other as confused, insane or evil, which will further reinforce their prejudices against each other leading to growing misunderstanding and conflict.

In regards to entrenched conflicts, there are many different domains of understanding, such as different cultures, belief systems, paradigms and so on. Each at its core is well meaning within its domain of understanding but there is conflict at the boundaries between these domains. A major factor is the scope of the domain; the more narrow it is the more it will be in conflict with others and the broader it is the more inclusive it will be.

Consider two extreme examples, a sociopath has a domain that includes only themselves whilst a bodhisattva has a domain that includes all sentient beings. Each is well meaning within its domain but a world of sociopaths would be permeated by conflicts between domains, whilst a world of bodhisattvas world have no conflicts because each domain includes all other domains. Most people and groups fit somewhere between these two extremes and therefore experience conflict or harmony in different situations.

Furthermore, conflicts tend to reinforce the misunderstandings and create more misunderstanding, thus the domains become narrower and the boundaries more heavily defended. This in turn produces a greater likelihood of conflict and a negative spiral into fragmentation and hostility can occur.

Thus ideas such as “group x” is purely evil and destructive are part of a misunderstanding that occurs across domain boundaries and increases the likelihood for conflict, which may reinforce the belief that the other is evil. Each in their own domain are trying to do what they believe to be right, but due to entrenched confusion and misunderstanding conflicts arise and deepen into lasting conflict and hostility. The knots of confusion and conflict become so tangled that there is no simple way to see through them in order to comprehend the other's position.

There are three fundamental approaches to overcome misunderstandings that arise due to the role of conditioning in communication and social interaction. (1) We ensure that every human being has essentially identical experiences throughout their life so that we have identical conditioning. In this approach the only way to attain peace and universal understanding is to homogenise the entire human race under a single uniform culture. (2) We employ the first approach within our “own group” and then ensure that all other groups are suppressed. This is the approach of nationalist and fascist regimes. (3) We develop some means of representing the intended cognitive state (meaning) that does not rely solely on the use of conditioned responses. This last approach is the one that is being explored in the current work being undertaken here.

Non-Conditioned Communication

In regards to this last approach much can be learnt from mathematics because it is the science of patterns of relations between meaningless symbols. When we see the variable 'x' in an equation we cannot simply use our conditioned responses to the letter 'x' and bring that meaning into the equation. We must look at the context within which the variable participates and it is only from its pattern of relations with other meaningless symbols that we can infer their meanings in relation to each other. This is the main reason why many people cannot comprehend mathematics – because they keep looking for places to attach conditioned responses but cannot find anywhere hence the equations seem meaningless to them.

Mathematics is free from prior conditioning, memory associations, assumptions and prejudices. However whenever we discuss things using words the communication is entirely dependent upon prior conditioning, memory associations, assumptions and prejudices. Thus words are not a suitable medium for expressing anything that does not resonate with our conditioned responses. If people with different conditioned responses attempt to communicate via words they will constantly misunderstand each other and often spiral into conflict.

It is not suggested that we must all become mathematicians and communicate solely via mathematical equations – what is suggested is that there are technologies that can be developed that can assist us to more effectively use language, to identify the conditioning, to translate between different conditionings, to diagnose the knots within our conditioning, to help disentangle us from confusion and conflict and to help us recover from and defend ourselves from the many abuses of conditioning such as propaganda, manipulative advertising and information warfare.

The main avenue being explored is computer assisted communication tools using web ontologies [ref], which represent logical constructs as pure patterns of relations. These are generally labelled with meaningful words but they can also be created using meaningless symbols, to which different sets of labels can be attached. To these structures we can attach words but the words themselves are not a part of the structures. In this way a concept (logical construct) can be defined in a neutral manner and then expressed using different sets of words that are appropriate for different people with different prior conditioning. Hence people will be able to better understand the intended meaning rather than just get entangled in confusions arising from their conditioned responses.

We can first express things in terms that make sense from the perspective of our own conditioning, then from this we abstract out the underlying logical constructs, which can then be re-expressed in different terms that make sense to different people. Furthermore, if various groups express their understanding as an ontology with sufficient detail and logical consistency then these can be subjected to comparative analysis to discern any underlying patterns that are common to all. These patterns can then be abstracted out and used to help translate between the different perspectives. For an example of some initial explorations in this direction see PCC ontology and Seven Steps to Unified Metaphysical Awareness.

Whilst mathematics only works on quantities ontologies work on arbitrary concepts. Within the context of quantifiable phenomena, it doesn't matter what people call those quantities and what associations they have regarding them, the mathematics can provide a perspective-neutral framework and allow for translation between different perspectives. For example, the fact that one culture uses inches and Fahrenheit and another uses centimetres and degrees Celsius, doesn't cause a problem because the mathematics is not inherently tied to either set of measures and can also be used to translate between the different measures.

However when we deal with concepts and logical arguments that cannot be quantified we have historically relied on linguistic expressions. These expressions rely on our conditioned responses in order to give them meaning but this meaning will be different for different people without these people realising these differences. This has led to constant difficulties in communicating non-quantifiable concepts and logical arguments.

This is where ontologies can help, they effectively provide a way of coherently handling non-quantifiable concepts in a manner that does not need to rely on linguistic expressions. Thus the underlying relational structure between concepts (logical argument) can be represented and manipulated without becoming bogged down in constant confusion.

For an example of these factors consider the equation z = x + y, the symbols x, y and z are meaningless in themselves and the equation describes a relation between them. This can then be applied to numbers of apples or people or to anything that can be quantified. Similarly, consider the very simple logical relation x → y, we can interpret x and y as any two concepts and '→' as any relation between these two concepts. In this way we can create complex networks of relations between concepts and assign meanings to them in different contexts without the danger of assuming that the symbols have literal meanings that are the same for all.

By looking at a dictionary, which is a catalogue of common uses of words, it is clear that many words have numerous meanings. Once we also take into account the roots of meaning in our subconscious conditioning the plethora of possible meanings becomes even greater and more nuanced. Using ontologies in situations where there is enormous misunderstanding can help us use such terms more accurately. Rather than just state words which have radically different meanings to different minds, instead we can work with pure conceptual structures and then carefully attach words whilst also identifying exactly which meanings are intended.

Whenever a word is attached as a label to a concept in the conceptual structure its many meanings first need to be explicitly represented, perhaps using prefixes or postfixes or a numbering system or some such method to clearly distinguish between the different variations in meaning. Furthermore, the context in which it is used and the perspective from which it is defined must also be made explicit, because when we shift perspective the meanings of words can radically change. This underlies many apparent paradoxes, because people are communicating using the same words but from different perspectives.

Making all of these nuances explicit may be laborious at times but can help us avoid misunderstandings that pose serious obstacles to communication on many subjects.

Non-Literal Communication

The approach proposed here is related to analogy, metaphor and mythology, all of which do not attempt to state anything literally, but instead use a set of conditioned responses to reveal an underlying pattern of relations which must then be freed from the conditioned responses and re-cast into a different set of meanings; only then does understanding arise. If one takes these literally it immediately results in misunderstanding and confusion, hence in the case of mythology it is generally made so absurd that no rational person could possibly take them literally and they must therefore look for the deeper meaning. However many people have tried to take these literally, thus resulting in superstitious beliefs or complete rejection of all mythologically expressed concepts.

The fact that meaning is dependent on prior conditioning need not be an intractable obstacle to mutual understanding, the problem arises when we are oblivious to this fact and we assume that our personal perspective is 'the' universal perspective that everyone has and therefore that things have 'literal' meanings that correspond with our conditioned meanings. We need to keep in mind that the meaning that we experience is a product of our subconscious conditioning. We can also utilise techniques that allow us to comprehend the structure and context of things in order to infer the underlying meanings that may have been intended. Nothing is truly 'literal' because everyone, to varying degrees, has different conditioning hence they experience different meanings, hence everything that is stated is to some degree metaphorical, analogical or mythological.

We need to develop subtlety and sophistication in our use of these communicative techniques if we are to truly understand each other. However analogy, metaphor and mythology are prone to creating confusion because they still rely on using meaningful symbols to provide an entry point into the underlying structure, but these symbols can be misunderstood from the start thus preventing us from gaining an understanding of the underlying structure.

The approach being proposed here does not rely on any recognisable stimuli to which one can attach any conditioned responses, hence in its pure form it is totally meaningless and cannot be misunderstood in the way that mythology has been misunderstood. Only once we explicitly attach labels to the meaningless symbols will we be able to interpret any meaning from it within some context. Just as with a mathematical equation – in its pure form it has no meaning to us but once we associate the variables with familiar quantities it takes on meaning within some context. The fact that the equation itself is meaningless means that we cannot make the mistake of assuming that the meaning we give it in one context is its 'literal' and only meaning. Such mistakes lead to deep confusion and this confusion can be avoided if the assignment of meaning within a context is made explicit.

This approach will eventually allow for the growth of mutual understanding between different perspectives that have throughout history been entangled in mutual misunderstanding, confusion, prejudice and conflict. This will help alleviate many of the tensions and atrocities that are endemic throughout civilisation. It will help us understand each other, learn from each other and to channel our energy away from mutual hostility and towards cooperation for mutual benefit. This will liberate vast amounts of energy and provide a cooperative context in which our collective potential will be vastly enhanced.

There are countless situations in which misunderstandings and conflicts arise. These occur between individuals, between individuals and organisations, between societies and corporate / governmental institutions, between nations, between cultures, between generations, between species, between humans and the environment and so on. However this work will primarily focus on the deepest, most long-term, most entrenched and most debilitating confusion that has plagued humanity throughout history; the interplay of the empirical and introspective sciences. As we unravel that knot it will liberate energy and wisdom that will assist us to unravel the many other knots.