Meaning has as much to do with emotion as it has with semantics as without
an emotive sub-context language can be rendered almost meaningless.
Something can be said to have meaning for an individual if there is a neural
system in place ( whether innate or learned ) that can process the
information it contains or set in train specific responses.
Dangle a piece of wood of a particular shape (with a bulging under-surface)
in a pond and the male stickleback will go through its mating behaviour. A
female stickleback that does not have a swollen abdomen will not stimulate
the male. A bulging abdomen has meaning for the male stickleback. The
female, for her part, is stimulated by the males colouring, which reddens in
the breeding season.
We have two distinct types of meaning in this example: The swollen abdomen
has a rational meaning, in the sense that the symbol that elicits the
behaviour is directly related to the function of the behaviour. (Swollen
abdomen means eggs to be fertilised) The symbol that stimulates the female
(redness) is arbitrary, and in this sense, irrational.
The problem is that an individual´s indoctrinated systems of premises,
rules, laws, religious views, etc, may be erroneous or irrational, but this
does not prevent events and ideas that are mediated by these systems being
meaningful and evoking emotion in that particular individual.
When someone tells me that Jesus has saved me, the sentence holds little
meaning (unless I nearly drowned and someone called Jesus pulled me to
safety): but to the believer the sentence has a very clear semantic and
strongly emotive meaning.
Meaning does not only depend on the "programmes" in your brain, there is
also an area called the ventromedial cortex where emotion is experienced and
meaning bestowed on perceptions. This area is overstimulated during the
manic stage of manic depression, and also gives rise to a strange phenomenon
some of you may have experienced. Some individuals wake up in the middle of
the night with an idea in their heads that is so meaningful that they feel
it will change the world. By morning they have forgotten it. Some have had
the presence of mind to write it down before they fell back to sleep. In all
cases the idea has been nonsense, of the order: Egyptian tanks run best on
boiled cabbage. It seems that meaningful episodes, or should I say episodes
that are perceived as wonderfully coherent and full of meaning, occur when,
for what ever reason, neural traffic is directed through the ventromedial
So, the appreciation of ideas and events as meaningful depends on one´s
beliefs and knowledge, and whether or not one has a healthy flow of neural
traffic through specific areas of the brain.
This means we are all capable, to varying degrees, and at various times, of
finding meaning in almost anything. We only have to mentally attach
ourselves to something - a movement, a football team - for emotion to be
evoked when it is mentioned or we take part in its activities.
Australian Rules football was a complete mystery to me when I first came
across it, but having learned a few of the rules, the activity on the field
became more meaningful to me.
If I had started to support one team, learned all about the individual
players and their private lives, the whole thing would have become
particularly important and meaningful - although the opera lover, the
chess-player, might wonder why.