The Medium Actually Is the Message

Meaning is not epiphenomenal to anything. It is not just some superfluity added to physical causation, or riding it, like scum on the surface of a river. By the same token, physical causation is not some raw medium suitable for the occasional, adventitious carriage of information, but dumb in itself. All being is somehow cooked – i.e., formed. And formation is always an outcome of some act, that is ordered toward, and so intends, some end. The formation of every actuality is thus teleological, an intelligence and the product of some intelligence – even if only the intelligence inherent in even simple things like electrons.[1] In no other way could things be the least bit intelligible. You can’t grasp the intelligence of a thing, can’t coherently tie it to other things, if it is not truly intelligent in the first place.[2]

There is no physical difference between the carrier and the signal it embodies, and so encodes. If there were, the output of the carrier – i.e., its character so far as we can ascertain it – could not tell us anything one way or another; we could gain no knowledge from observing it. It would be meaningless to us, and so utterly mute, no matter how much we processed its output; for, Garbage In, Garbage Out. And this would be so of the whole world disclosed to us in our sensorium – taking “sensorium” in its broadest possible construction, as including the faculties that inform us about the state of our own bodies, brains, and minds, about our own immediately past moments of experience, or about the timeless world of the forms – about metaphysics, mathematics, music, and so forth.

On the contrary, nothing physical can even begin to mean anything or inform us – or, for that matter, mislead us – unless physical causation just is meaningful, formal causation. Were it otherwise, then a complete account of the physical factors of a phenomenon would render it strictly meaningless. And this would be to strip the phenomenon in itself of any tinct even of the meanings implicit in our notions of physical causation!

Then “bare” matter, if there were such a thing, would be exempt from any Laws of Nature, and would not be amenable to scientific investigation.

McLuhan was exactly right, then; was more straightforwardly and profoundly right than perhaps he knew: the medium is the message, because the medium is the actualization of the message. But this means that in the final analysis there is no medium to the message at all, no physical substrate that carries the signal. The form of the substrate is itself the signal; and this is just to say that if it were not for the signal, the substrate would be indefinite, and so would fail of actualization. Absent a meaningful message encoded in the substrate as its form, the substrate would have no definite form, and thus no substance. It would not be anything in particular, so it wouldn’t exist at all.

This was clear to Aristotle, who realized that his prime matter, formless in itself , could not be actual.

Being then is meaningful per se . There can be no such thing as a brute fact.

St. Thomas says that everything that is in the mind is first in the senses. What this must then mean is that everything that we know or feel, that we think or intuit (either with the organs of ratiocination and discursive reason, or with the direct vision of the nous) is implicit already in the things we sense, in the actual world we treat as present to us, which is actually our immediate past: they embody all knowledge, all information. As Whitehead insists, each atom is a system of all things, so that everything is implicitly present as a factor in and of each thing. In no other way could the changes in the physical fields of our environment give rise in us to phantasms or qualia, or eventually to propositional feelings.

If meanings were not implicit in matter, then all our notions would necessarily be illusory, for the physical substrates and factors of our sensation would in and of themselves provide us no warrant at all, no basis whatsoever for any of our conclusions about them. Eliminative materialism in its fullness then is entailed by the mere supposition that there are primary and secondary qualities: that, i.e., the secondary qualities of things, their meanings to us, are not inherent to the things in themselves at least eminently, and do not therefore truly terminate in those things, but are rather nothing more than our fond and specious inventions.

So, meanings are implicit in matter. Physical causation is all, always, meaningful.[3] And vice versa: meanings are physical causes. Were it otherwise, we could not do or say anything. And this is no more than to say that, as each indicating *something or other,* events are all about – ordered toward – something other than themselves. It is to say that events are all intentional, at least to some minimal degree.

This cannot be so unless each bit of reality is comprehensively and thoroughly related to every other bit in orderly fashion.

Now, such a pervasive cosmic orderliness could not “cook up” on its own. You can’t produce order by throwing together a bunch of disordered items. Indeed, the only way to “throw together” anything at all is in the context of just such a pervasive environing order as I am suggesting must be necessary. A togetherness of any sort then must be somehow ordered, and this order must be intelligible in principle, to an intelligence great enough. Whatever the character of this or that togetherness, things can come together at all only from another prior togetherness.

For events to mean something, then – for events to have forms, and thus substantial being – mundane things must take rise from some primal, primordial conditioning event, in and by which all things have their togetherness.



[1] Electrons may not be nearly so simple to themselves and each other as they now seem to us.

[2] NB that “intelligent” does not here mean “smart” or “conscious,” but rather, and translating literally, “in itself reading as ordered to some final end.”

[3] Remembering that “no news to report” is still a news report, “nothing to see here” is a message about what there is to see here, and “never mind” is an intelligent direction. Silence is not noise.

2 thoughts on “The Medium Actually Is the Message

  1. Pingback: The Medium Actually Is the Message | Reaction Times

  2. Pingback: Creatura : Creator :: Map : Territory | The Orthosphere

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