Survival, Success, and Significance: Part 2

So now after touching upon survival, and success, we finally come to significance. We saw that survival is almost entirely objective. Success is more of a mixture between objective and subjective. Significance, in contrast, is essentially all subjective. This is what makes the phenomena of significance, so hard to pin down in theory, and yet so powerful in reality.


I can tell you objectively if someone has survived to exist in the present moment. I can tell you to some degree of approximation, if someone who has survived to the present moment, is conventionally “successful”, based on the fame and fortune they have amassed, and other such quantities. Yet if you ask me to tell you what is significant to this person, besides guessing that their own wellbeing and that of their family is significant, I would have very little that I could say with confidence. Even then, haven’t we all seen or heard of people who actually don’t find their wellbeing, or that of their family, to be significant?

So, this is the riddle of significance. It is not something that comes from without, but rather it is generated within. Two people can witness the very same event, and one can find it to be the most moving and life altering occurrence, while the other won’t even remember it happened, one hour later.

So, what is significance, and why is it even worth paying attention to? Why waste our time on something so nebulous, so undefinable, so internal and subjective?

There is a tremendous amount that could be said regarding significance and on the nature of function, meaning, and purpose in general. Primary Scenes will delve deep into these concepts in many ways, over a wide range of content and art. With that in mind, this short format cannot even attempt to do justice, in addressing the topic of significance, properly. That said, maybe we can, at least, take a stab at getting to a very provisional understanding of significance, and why it is of the utmost importance to the human experience.

The first thing that is important to keep in mind, is that significance is entirely context-dependent, unlike survival, and external success. Further, in the case of significance, that context we speak of is dominated by the internal states of the relevant person. In the parlance of Primary Scenes, we would refer to these internal states as the “Inner Landscape”.

It would take too long in this piece, to thoroughly explain the associative mapping, fitness landscapes, and networks of correlations in time, that create significance. So, I will use a much shorter description for the sake of brevity.

To understand something fundamental about significance, it is necessary to have at least a basic conception of how unrelated elements, come to be correlated, and associated with function, meaning, and purpose. The following is an overly simplified account, but it stays true to the spirit of the topic, even without the finer details.

Evolution, in a given context, suggests the function, meaning, and purpose for surviving combinations. A key point, is that significance, which is essentially a more general way of talking about function, meaning, and purpose, is only ever suggested by the context. There are no freely floating “atoms” of significance. There is no spreadsheet that defines significance for the universe. Significance does not exist, devoid of context.

So, if significance is context-dependent, then what is a context? Effectively, you can think of a “context” as the “contest” to see what forms survive in time. Crucially, this is a contest, without willing contestants. It runs all day, all night, all the time, because in a sense it is time, at least for the human experience. It is a natural consequence of the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that we live in a world where at the human scale, entropy, i.e., the disorder of the world, expands asymmetrically from past to future. This creates the arrow of thermodynamic time that we perceive at human scale.

This apparent time asymmetry, between past and future, is not found in the laws of classical Newtonian physics. That said, quantum information approaches, such as Constructor Theory from David Deutsch and Chiara Marletto, are now finding new ways to explain the asymmetry between past and future, at a more fundamental level. This is fascinating and valuable work, but we will not need to worry about those developments, for the purposes of this discussion. I am merely mentioning them, so you can be aware of the broader picture, and do further research and reading, if you so choose.

All that you need to know for this conversation about significance, is that we live in a world where disorder tends to expand at human scale. This is why we see eggs break, but do not see broken eggs reassembling (FYI, this is where the Egg symbol in Primary Scenes comes from).

The counter, to this expansion, occurs in those structures that can effectively collect and contain, some of that natural expansion of disorder. Then because of their dynamics, that same statistical and asymmetrical expansion of disorder, actually drives an apparent, and temporary, reduction of disorder at the macro scale.

Disorder is still increasing on the microscale, but a context is an abstract way to think about a “container”, that can perform this apparent reduction of disorder, going forward in time, at least temporarily.

This is how growth happens, this is where ideas come from, this is how species emerge and proliferate. This is the basis for evolution across the cosmos, well beyond the scope of the biosphere, on our small blue planet. This is why it is possible to see any forms at all, at the human scale, rather than just a slushy soup of expanding disorder.

In the parlance of Primary Scenes, such a structure that can perform these reductions going forward in time, is referred to as an “Amazon” structure. This will be at minimum, equivalent to any “context” you choose to investigate.

Those forms that survive the contest, those forms that make it from the past to the present, become correlated with each other. This correlation does not require anything mystical, though it can seem that way at first. It happens merely because there were many parts that started in a larger uncorrelated group, and then a reduction takes place, which eliminates many parts that could have existed. Parts that remain, have become associated with each other in time because all the other forms, which did not survive, have been eliminated.

This is as simple an explanation as I can force myself to give, while still maintaining at least some integrity and connection to the true complexity involved. Let it be known that I am calling out the inadequacy of my own explanation, right here. This is an oversimplified account that is not sufficient, to explain the emergence of significance in an insignificant world. That said, I think it's the best we can do in a short format such as this.

These are not the easiest concepts to grok at first glance. What I can say is that over time, the more you learn about Primary Scenes, the more this way of thinking can become a familiar and a natural extension, of the mental models you use to understand the world.

What, I hope, is that you can at least begin to get the scent and the taste of how different people can attribute significance, in wildly different ways, to aspects of the same world. This basic dynamic of starting with a larger uncorrelated ensemble, and reducing that to a much smaller group, that survives over time, is fundamental to understanding how systems, evolve, and how correlations emerge.

So in the case of significance, when talking about the inner states of a person, their Inner Landscape, we are really asking about how some inner states of a person, are associated with external states of the world. It is the evolution of these correlations between the Inner Landscape of a person, and the external states of the world, that come to suggest significance within the relevant person.

Now we can understand something about the details of what it really means, when we say that someone finds some action or event to be significant. It is to say that there are internal states of that person, i.e., certain kinds of emotions, thoughts, body sensations etc., which have become associated with certain kinds of events, or states in the external world.

This interplay between the inner states of a person, the states of the external world, and the contest for what forms survive together, is the crux of the matter. Ultimately, this is what gives rise to the sense that some things are more significant than others, to each individual person.

To have a thorough account of the human experience, we must deepen our understanding and appreciation for significance, that most ephemeral and indispensable partner, to its more tangible siblings, of survival, and success.

Without significance, all the survival and success in the world would be, in a word, insignificant.