Active causation and the origin of meaning

J.H. van Hateren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose and meaning are necessary concepts for understanding mind and culture, but appear to be absent from the physical world and are not part of the explanatory framework of the natural sciences. Understanding how meaning (in the broad sense of the term) could arise from a physical world has proven to be a tough problem. The basic scheme of Darwinian evolution produces adaptations that only represent apparent (“as if”) goals and meaning. Here I use evolutionary models to show that a slight, evolvable extension of the basic scheme is sufficient to produce genuine goals. The extension, targeted modulation of mutation rate, is known to be generally present in biological cells and gives rise to two phenomena that are absent from the non-living world: intrinsic meaning and the ability to initiate goal-directed chains of causation (active causation). The extended scheme accomplishes this by utilizing randomness modulated by a feedback loop that is itself regulated by evolutionary pressure. The mechanism can be extended to behavioural variability as well and thus shows how freedom of behaviour is possible. A further extension to communication suggests that the active exchange of intrinsic meaning between organisms may be the origin of consciousness, which in combination with active causation can provide a physical basis for the phenomenon of free will.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-46
Number of pages14
JournalBiological Cybernetics
Issue number1
Early online date24-Jul-2014
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Emergence
  • Evolution of meaning
  • Agency
  • Consciousness
  • Free will

Cite this