The Semantic Universe

This is a draft introduction to a much larger piece I’m writing that’s tentatively called “The Semantic Universe”. It argues that there are five dimensions to reality: three spatial dimensions (height, width, depth) plus time – what’s called spacetime in physics – plus semantics (which is a ten-dollar word that means ‘meaning’), all of which give form to a reality substrate of Information with a capital I. Of these, semantics is the most ‘fundamental’ dimension, more so even than spacetime. It’s what ancient Greek philosophers called the logos and what John the Apostle called the Word. It’s what Kant called transcendental schemata, what Hegel called the Geist, what Wittgenstein called propositional logic, and what Quine called ontological relativity. Wheeee!

Another way to think about semantics is that it’s the structure that gives form to unstructured information with a lowercase i, like text and pictures. In our everyday lives we use words like ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ to describe the semantic dimension of our universe, and I honestly believe that stories are just as real as the coffee mug sitting on my desk right now. Not ‘real’ in an ethereal thought experiment sense, but real in a completely physical sense, instantiated within the electrochemical activity of quadrillions of self-organizing neurons distributed across billions of human brains. And that’s the kicker. The semantic dimension of reality is not just accessible to human brains, but to any sufficiently large information processing network. Like whale brains. Or alien brains. Or ChatGPT4+. Once again … wheeee!

Here’s another way to think about it, from a note I wrote ten (!) years ago, Hollow Men, Hollow Markets, Hollow World:

I’ll close with a few selected lines from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, because I’m always happy to celebrate a time when poets wore white-tie and tails, and because I think he’s got something important to say about information and communication, authenticity and deception.

credit: Bettmann archive

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

What is the Shadow? I believe it’s the barrier that communication inevitably creates among humans, including the mental barriers that we raise in our own minds in our internal communications – our thoughts and self-awareness. Sometimes the Shadow is slight, as between two earnest and committed people speaking to each other with as much authenticity as each can muster, and sometimes the Shadow is overwhelming, as between a disembodied, mass-mediated crowd and a central banker using communication as “policy”. Wherever you find a Shadow you will find a hollowness, and right now the Shadows are spreading.

My goal in writing this … my goal in ALL of this … is to illuminate the Shadows. Not in a way that creates new Shadows but in a way that makes them smaller, that allows all of us large information processing networks, from humans to whales to aliens to Nvidia H100 clusters, to communicate more authentically about the meaning of the universe. No biggie.

How to communicate THAT? Well, I really am happy to celebrate a time when poets wore white-tie and tails. I really am happy to celebrate a time when explorers and writers would give a series of ‘lectures’ to their explorers and writers club before they wrote it up. That’s all very old-white-guy of me, but IDGAF. So over the next three months I’ll be giving three or four lectures on the Semantic Universe on Epsilon Theory subscriber-only webinars, not as a finished product but as a work product, culminating in our Epsilon Connect conference at Vanderbilt University from June 1-2.

And if you have any thoughts on all this (other than this sounds completely crazy … trust me, I know!), I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. image

    Somewhere, in the ET manifesto or similar, you made it clear that an express purpose of ET was to create the language we need to describe the world as it has become. I can’t tell you how fast I appropriated the ‘semantic universe’ after you uttered it last week, added to a list of language I use regularly that didn’t exist prior to my relationship with ET. I’m very grateful for this. I forget the relevant quote but many avenues of my thinking could not exist without the language having been created first.

    A seeming paradox here is that the shape of this idea is ancient, and yet at least in the west it seems that we never properly developed the language to express it. And many forces inhibited and discouraged this development in favor of substantivalist and reductionist modes of thinking.

    Kyla used my favorite word (her emphasis!) to describe this gap just this week.

    And this is part of the lack of language to describe the state of politics, the weirdness of it all, etc. We have no relational words for what we are going through. Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, wrote:

    “The internet is rewiring not only the media sector (as with streaming) but the public itself, which is breaking up, or being broken, into multiple — some say parallel — realities. As you can tell from my attempt to describe it, we do not have a good language for this shift.”

    Thanks again to Eric who linked to Borges A Compass, also recently (the synchronicities seem Real), and I can’t get this stanza and the phrase ‘infinite babble’ out of my head since.

    All things are words belonging to that language
    In which Someone or Something, night and day,
    Writes down the infinite babble that is, per se,
    The history of the world.

    My journey in this metaspace, prior to ET, was almost exclusively physics. So the idea of semantics as a fifth dimension hits home. More than that it is helpful as I think a few ideas become more clear as corollaries in this model.

    1. The semantic dimension is composed of relations. There can be no independently existing relata.

    2. In the semantic universe selection is a fundamental force of nature.

    From Rovelli’s Helgoland

    Everything that manifests itself does so in relation to something. A correlation between two objects is a property of the two objects - like all properties it exists only in relation to a further third object.

  2. Looking forward to this a lot! Yo-Yo Ma said “To truly understand a piece of music, one must appreciate the silence in between the notes.” The shadow, the silence. Understanding it creates light, creates music. The way I try to consume ET now … ET makes light on the shadows in our world, it’s up to me to learn how to protect myself from those shadows and then try to teach that in my own world. How do I say I must become a better cooperative player in this game of life without trivializing the word life? Life is not a game, but yet it is, or maybe life is becoming gamified? I have to explore why I think the gamification of life is turning us into NPC’s.

  3. I start most mornings doing Wordle on the NYT website.
    This shocked me today, 3/02/24:

    NIWL? I can understand that it wouldn’t be a solution to the puzzle, but why not a private step towards solving it? WTF

  4. Yep, a new word in our language, imo, has always expanded my reality, not so much by denoting something but by connoting something. Connoting is bottom up, denoting is top down.

    Not only the language we need to describe the world as it has become, but to seek out words to describe how it may become.

    In my daily morning journey down the rabbit hole I continue to recognize that the words I use are abstract at best.

    In engineering school, studying thermodynamics, I was introduced to the concept of entropy. The text book author suggested that entropy is the property that enables us to quantifiably express the second law. Energy was an accepted part of my life I used every day. He pointed out that energy like entropy are abstract concepts. One of first times in my life that one of my legs came off the ‘fly paper’.

    The emperor has no clothes.


  5. Not only the language we need to describe the world as it has become, but to seek out words to describe how it may become.

    And taking it one step further, the language we use (or do not use) to describe the world constrains our perception of it, and therefore our own (subjective) version of what reality is. In the most real sense possible.

    Obliquely related: I have been thinking recently about sci fi authors in the last century who “predicted” a lot of the technological developments we see taking place today. However, I think predicted is selling short the causality - more like they created it by unleashing those ideas into the world. So, what is the impact of today’s (increasingly fiat) media on tomorrows reality? A scary thought…

  6. Thanks Lake,

    Great question.

    A few quotes to ponder:

    In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits… In the province of connected minds, what the network believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the network’s mind there are no limits.

    • The Human Biocomputer (1974)
      -John Lilly

    “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices–just recognize them.”
    ― Edward R. Murrow

    We are deterministic thinkers living in a probabilistic universe—hilarity or tragedy often ensue.
    -Jim O’Shaughnessy

    quoter jim

  7. Speaking of new words: hyperstition - “ideas that bring themselves into actuality in the future through the forces unleashed via their expression.”

    Much the same as Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

  8. Avatar for jrs jrs says:

    All examples of Soros’ reflexivity in my understanding. How he defines it in his New Intro to Alchemy of Finance:

    In situations that have thinking participants, there is a two-way interaction between the participants’ thinking and the situation in which they participate. On the one hand, participants seek to understand reality; on the other, they seek to bring about a desired outcome. The two functions work in opposite directions: in the cognitive function reality is the given; in the participating function, the participants’ understanding is the constant. The two functions can interfere with each other by rendering what is supposed to be given [in the cognitive function at t=0], contingent [in the cognitive function at some t>0, after the participating function has come into effect]. I call the interference between the two functions “reflexivity”.

    This concept blew my mind when I read Ben’s essay about it a couple years ago. Reflexivity is fractal, and applying the concept in daily life has improved my interpersonal skills. See my weird posts from 2022.

    Another random thought I had while meditating on reflexivity last week:

    What we call “magical thinking,” in one sense, is simply reflexivity pushed too far, such that it does not align with the will of the Universe. [Or technically, magical thinking is the behavioral or functional or praxic awareness of reflexivity taken too far.]

    Is there a deeper unifying theory that explains why reflexivity should pervade so many things? Or is this just an illusion of our primitive semantics of causality without allowance for circularity? I dunno, but I’m open-minded.

  9. Now it states Friston’s free energy principle per the Bayesian brain thread. There is a relational quantum mechanics (RQM) version that I’m repeating from above:

    So I think there are multiple, emerging and converging, homeomorphic unifying theories. I feel that I am finding versions of them in every rabbit hole I look! The semantic universe itself may be one of these. ‘Deep’ is a semantically broad word that I expect depends on the perspective of the theorizer. But from my perch (as a former and recovering reductionist) the deepest I’ve found is RQM. I’ve become a ‘relationalist’ precisely because every time I look at these edges of knowledge through the lens of relationships I come away with insight and more clarity.

    In every epistemological epoch it has been taking the ideas that emerge from that epoch too far, beyond the will of the universe (love that), that spurs the eventual failure and need for a new epoch. In the pre-modern epoch this was magical thinking. In the modern epoch it was reductionism. In the post-modern it was relativism.

    Now the Meaning Crisis is about picking up the pieces and figuring out where and how we can still find consensus on meaning and the sacred in light of what we’ve experienced and learned from each of these epochs.

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