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This website is based on an unpublished paper that I originally wrote in 1994.

It is the purpose of this paper to work towards some fundamental, generalisable and universal principles of consciousness. Consistent with systems theory and the principle of self-organisation, consciousness is modelled as a dynamic, evolving entity where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The perspective that is being presented here focuses on the role of choice in personality formation and thought processes. It is perhaps a more abstract view that strives to comprehend the source of complexity, the simplicity from which all complexity and all the structures in nature arise. This is a somewhat different perspective to that which has, to date, been covered by most mainstream systems theorists. It is one that focuses on choice as the basis of the organising principle. The semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce are discussed in order to support the case for a set of fundamental principles.

Practical examples
Any theory is of little relevance if it cannot be put to practical use. Accordingly, the biosemiotic model presented here provides a powerful tool that enables us to reinterpret human (and non-human) behavior in new and insightful ways. For those who prefer to start off with practical examples, you might like to take a look at my Applied and Further Examples pages, before returning to this page to interpret the theory.

The Law of Association of Habits
There is a law in this succession of ideas. We may roughly say it is the law of habit. It is the great "Law of Association of Ideas," - the one law of all psychical action. - Charles Sanders Peirce




  1. HABIT






It is the purpose of this essay to work towards some fundamental, generalised and universal principles of consciousness. Systems theory and the principle of self-organisation are applied, to model consciousness as a dynamic, evolving entity where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Occam's razor - the notion that there is something extraordinarily simple going on - provides the inspiration for this paper. In keeping with the spirit simplicity, I have derived my ideas from first principles, which I've outlined as a list of axioms in the introduction to this website.

Complexity is impossible without simplicity. And it is this simplicity that is the objective of this essay.

The perspective that is being presented here focuses on the role of choice in personality formation and thought processes. It is perhaps a more abstract view that strives to comprehend the source of complexity, the simplicity from which all complexity and all the structures in nature arise. This is a somewhat different perspective to that which has, to date, been covered by most mainstream systems theorists, though certainly, for the most part, it does not disagree with their own work. This is a perspective that focuses on choice as the basis of the organising principle (autopoiesis).

The Semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce - Update note. My original paper (1994) was written from a memetic/systems-theoretical perspective. Since then, I have found the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce to have provided the foundations for what might be about as complete a model as is necessary.

Charles Sanders Peirce provided the foundations for an integrative, general theory of cognition in an interpretation of semiotics based on the triadic relationship - that is, a relationship that inextricably connects the observer with experience with environment. His ideas belong to a school of philosophy known as Pragmatism. My definition of "meme" is consistent with what is referred to in semiotics as "sign".

Peirce appreciated the central importance of habit and association in cognitive processes, and this is evident throughout his writings - hence, his declaration of "The Great Law of Association of Ideas". Habit and association are covered more specifically as aspects of a general law of mind in Book III, Philosophy of Mind (7.388-7.523, in the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Perice).

The role of habit and association in the process of cognition, with its relevance to the semiotics of Peirce, has featured throughout the development of my thoughts. Thus, more recently, I have been moving away from the languages of systems theory and memetics, towards that of semiotics. This is not to say that other approaches are wrong but rather, that semiotics (biosemiotics) provides a more viable framework from which to attain consistency within a context of simple, fundamental principles.


The principle of self-organisation is a model that incorporates choice as fundamental. The thing that is chosen by any organism is the “meme” - that is, the representation within the mind of the organism of those things that matter to it (refer to appendix 1 at the end of this paper, for a generalised definition of “meme”). Autopoiesis (the principle of self-organisation) is considered in this essay as being dependent on three aspects of consciousness:


All cognition arises from associating memes together to form strings of logic/awareness, to create gestalts of meaning. Narrative. Language. In the case of single-celled organisms such as neurons, neural-level memes will be basic conceptualisations such as (for neurons in the visual cortex) “longness” or “shortness” or “blackness” or “redness”;

Classical and instrumental conditioning in any organism cannot take place without the associative properties that characterise consciousness. Associative properties apply not only to higher organisms, but extend to all single-celled organisms as well.

Associative learning has been central to the work of both Andrew Barto (1985) and George Mobus (1994) in developing neural nets. The basis for this generalisation is the work of Klopf (1982), who made the observation that all neurons and unicellular organisms learn by association. Mobus' own model of a neuron incorporates a signal input representing a 'conditionable stimulus', a signal output (unconditioned response), based on its correlation with a matching input signal (unconditionable stimulus). Confirming the generally accepted importance of associative learning, Mobus (1994) writes:
'A large number of neural network applications have addressed the issues of pattern learning, classification and recognition. Their successes have led to what seems to be a general consensus that learning rules must, at their base, be associative.'

And so it is logical to assume, for the purpose of deriving universal, generalisable principles, that all learning and all experience is possible by virtue of the associative properties of consciousness.

Every meme that an organism is able to conceptualise is associated with every other meme that 'defines' its consciousness. For any human organism where language constitutes a dominant part of the process of 'bringing forth a world', words are the memes that are associated with other culturally shared words/memes that the human has 'chosen' from the available cultural norms. The memes we 'choose' from our language enable us to think in narrative - to create stories in our minds, as we associate memes with memes, words with words. When we evaluate the sum "4+5=9", we are not "calculating" a result but, by association, creating a line of narrative that makes sense. Whether we speak about politics, or biology, or mathematics, or the movie we saw last night, all is conveyed in narrative, in associating memes with memes. Our performance at work depends on the associations that we string together to create lines of logic in the form of narrative.

Association provides the basis for the process of conceptualisation. And what is it that is being associated? Answer... memes (signs). Memes/signs are habits in perception/conceptualisation. And in accordance with Peirce's Law of association of habits, we regard associations as, in some basic sense, habitual. This is considered in more detail below in a group context.


The mind-body unity is inextricably linked to the associative properties of consciousness. That is, the body of any organism interacts with the environment such that all learning and all experience is associated with all bodily interactions. All learning is achieved by associating the body's interactions with all prior experience. This includes the following implications:

  • Language is made possible in human cultures because humans possess vocal chords by which words can be uttered, and hands by which a complex activities can be participated in. Our hands and the things that they are capable of, provide us with the source of the motivation for us to speak to each other and therefore, to use our vocal chords;
  • Parrots possess the means to generate speech, but do not possess hands and other physiological, human characteristics and therefore, cannot participate in the sort of cultural complexity that humans are capable of;
  • A dog's body predisposes a dog to behave in a dog-like manner. Yet, when brought up in an environment where it is encouraged to interact with humans, the dog can be domesticated. However, because of the associative properties of consciousness associating physiology with experience, its dog's body will always confine it within a limited range of dog-like behaviour. Domestication of animals represents animals' participation within human cultures, and is a dramatic example of the role of body in personality formation;
  • A neuron's dendritic synapses predispose it to sharing neural-level memes with other neurons, with electrical impulses carrying the neural-level meanings, in much the same way that vibrations carry words (memes) from human to human;
  • The most important point in this paper is that genes have nothing whatsoever to do with personality, but with the physiology that predisposes an organism to the sort of personality that is consistent with it physiological form;
  • And from the perspective of gender differences, the mind-body unity sheds light on personality differences between men and women. Physical differences between the sexes are not solely the outcome of a traditional model of Darwinian evolution that ensures the survival of the fittest but rather, systemic manifestations of the role of choice in personality formation. That is, feminine passivity is reflected in the feminine physical form and masculine aggression in the masculine physical stereotype. The mind-body unity connects gender roles with the ecology of culture, and this is discussed below.


The desire to be is the single, universal principle that motivates every living organism to conform to the predispositions determined by its body. An organism's every desire is a manifestation of its desire to be. A horse is a horse because it "desires" to be so. A horse's physiology is consistent with its desires, and it will seek out those experiences that are consistent with its horse-like form, and which will predispose it to behave in a horse-like manner. As strange as this notion might sound, the desire to be a horse is a sophisticated abstraction relating physiology to choice - what might be best understood in terms of Heidegger's "Dasein".

Experiments and examples that might conclusively prove or disprove Lamarckian adaption have been inadequate because they've failed to recognise the connection between desire and form. Circumcision of Jewish males will have no effect on the physiology of the Jewish race because an excised foreskin is in no way related to desire or choice. As a single event in the life of each and every Jewish male, it is not related to the habituation of choices. Circumcision is neither the product of culturally shared, sustained desires of those being circumcised, nor does it have any culturally significant bearing on choices that circumcised males will make. Giraffes' necks, on the other hand, might conceivably be related to habitual choice-making.

An organism “likes” being what it is. An organism will make choices from its ecology that reflect not only what it “likes”, but these choices feed back to shape what it becomes.

The desire to be places on each organism the 'responsibility' to make those choices from the environment that will most fulfil its needs - physiological needs inextricably bound within the mind-body unity and, choices that contribute to sustaining the ecological web within which it resides..

Any organism must be motivated to make choices and to conceptualize. It must desire to be.The desire to be is analogous to what Martin Heidegger refers to as "being in the world". Heidegger's Dasein bases a directionality (Angeweisenheit) towards the world as a whole, in which an observer can encounter things that "matter" to it. But how can any organism know what it is that "matters"? The mind-body unity is central to the manner in which any organism apprehends reality, and how it can know about the way the world "is". And it must learn about the world and how to be within the world through its body. Hence, the desire to be unifies mind with body with desire.


Once it is appreciated that cultures of organisms evolve through the spread of memes, it is then a small step to envisage memetic attractors as playing a central role in how consciousness works. In human cultures, memes spread from human to human according to principles of chaos theory. Role models are strange attractors, that teach humans how they should behave. Humans know how to be human from imitating role models. It is suggested that, likewise, the replication of neural-level memes creates neural-level strange attractors and a neural culture (brain) that are central to an organism's ability to conceptualise reality.

"Englishness", "Americanness", "Japaneseness" are all high-level concepts that only have meaning in the context of the wholeness of culture. There is no such thing as "Englishness" in isolation from society. The high-level concept "Englishness" depends on English people to generate it, from the choices they make from their culture. And it is instructive to consider the analogy between societal cultures and neural cultures (brains) - that is, conceptualisation at the cultural level to create technology, tradition and fashion, as being directly analogous to conceptualization at the human level, to create skills, lifestyle and personal expression.

Extending the analogy further, if cultural level concepts emerge from the choices that people make from their culture (the process of autopoiesis), then a person's memory, character, skills, etc, might be thought of as emerging from the choices that neurons make from the personality that is ultimately responsible for their "configuration". There is such a thing as a "type" of culture, and a "type" of person. Cultures and personalities can be described in terms of "essences", or concepts. If a culture can be thought of as a concept, and if a personality can be thought of as a concept, then what we have is reality as a nesting of conceptual levels, with personality as being inseparable from culture.

The application of chaos theory to model cultural systems incorporates the mind-body unity into the Darwinian view of ecology that states that within any ecological system, there has to be a producer of variety and a filter of variety. Within the context of cultural ecologies, the aggression of the masculine role predisposes men to being the sources of variety, while the passivity of the feminine role predisposes women to being the filters of variety. Femininity is about sustaining and nurturing the known, while masculinity is about exploring options from the unknown. Thus, human societies are a dynamic interplay between the forces of continuity and the forces of chaos - a balance between feminine security and masculine uncertainty. This balance between sameness and variety is a self-correcting mechanism where, as soon as the needs of one gender are not being met, the system might oscillate a while before establishing a new equilibrium. These are the dynamics of evolution.

The ability of organisms to participate in the creation of fractal patterns within cultures depends on three fundamental principles:


The habituation of memes is what provides life with continuity and memory. Memes are not stored in any manner analogous to computer information storage. There is only one type of learning - and that is by association. Habituation is not a separate type of learning, but rather, a recursion of associations. Habituation is the means by which any association attains continuity over time. All perception/conceptualisation is habitual at some level - eg, when I am on a fast-moving train and the train stops, I continue to perceive motion. This is because those neurons specialising in motion-perception need to desist from their habitualised associations, in order for me to return to my perception of a stationary world. Perceiving a cup on a table involves habituation in the visual cortex that ceases when our gaze shifts. Habituation is consistent with Hebb's rule - that is, the more that a particular neural connection is used, the stronger that connection becomes. In terms of habit, this translates to "the more an association is practised, the more involved neurons become in the habituation of that association".

Shaking hands is a cultural custom that attains continuity rhrough time because it is practised by others. Individuals observe hand-shaking in the culture and, therefore, sustain the tradition by practising it themselves.

If memes were not habituated, living systems would very quickly degenerate into undifferentiated and plasmatic chaos. To live is to be a creature of habit.


Imitation provides living organisms with the ability to habituate memes from other organisms of the same kind, and obviates the need to 'reinvent the wheel.' Imitation is the means by which memes are replicated according to the principles of chaos theory. Humans know how to be human through imitation. Imitation, in conjunction with the mind-body unity, is the link between nothingness and infinity, the key that presents every living, 'social' organism (including neurons, bees, ants, dogs, meerkats, monkeys, ...) with the initial conditions that sensibly limits choices from an infinite array of possibilities. In memetics, the 'meme' is often defined as a cultural unit of imitation.

Association is the fundamental principle in the process of conceptualisation. Imitation is a subset of association because it is one of the ways in which organisms choose the memes that get conceptualised. But imitation is profoundly important because it is the principle manner in which humans and other organisms choose from their ecologies. It is the means by which any entity can 'know' how it should behave.

It is not the place in this article to go off on a tangent by philosophising about quantum physics. However to illustrate how important imitation might be, I suggest that the EPR effect is the 'mechanism' by which matter particles 'imitate' matter particles, thereby 'knowing' how they should behave. The EPR effect is what the fleeting, vanishing, virtual particles of the quantum void must 'acquire' before they can become the matter particles of which galaxies are made. (Putting this into a semiotic context - Pylkkanen, P. (1992) discusses the quantum physics of David Bohm, which is based in a semiotic interpretation. He describes the behavior of an electron where the quantum field is the sign, the environment is the object and the response of the electron to the quantum field is the interpretant. That is, the electron needs to be "informed" as to how it should "behave")


Motivates organisms within their culture to imitate those memes that enable both the culture and the organisms within it to survive. Brings together the three principles outlined above, concerning autopoiesis. That is, humans that 'like' being human use their physiological attributes (vocal chords, hands, etc) to participate in the creation of language and culture. Societal cultures exist because every person is a willing accomplice who, in going about their daily tasks and reaffirming their daily choices, are voters within the system that guarantees the culture's survival.


The associative properties of consciousness, the mind-body unity and the desire to be, in conjunction with the memes I habituate from my culture, enable me to function at work, to walk to the local bus stop and to participate in every aspect of my life that matters to me, as a human being with two legs, two arms and a set of vocal chords.

Birds of a feather flock together not because of genetic/biological programming, but because they know that birds that look like them and their parents will more than likely behave like them as well. In their fear of the unknown, birds of a feather flock together because they need only deal with the shared known that they are familiar with.

Non-human animals are sentient beings that also have a right to be here.

The choices we make shape all that we become. That's why artists think differently to accountants, why engineers think differently to politicians, why men think differently to women. When an accountant goes to university to study his craft, he establishes a personality attractor that will preclude him from thinking in ways inconsistent with that attractor. The lines of narrative of an accountant are different to the lines of narrative of an artist and, an accountant can no more become an artist than can an artist become an accountant.

Many religions understand the role of choice in personality formation. When prophets speak of realms beyond, they are referring to ways of thinking with which their cultures are not familiar. Notions of heaven and hell can be thought from a systems theoretical perspective as representing cultures that are healthy and unhealthy. The condemnation of materialism that is so often characteristic of religions is a condemnation of cultural attractors that diminish perspective, whilst increasing self-interest and fragmentation.

The choices we make matter.


The semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce provides the foundations for a general theory of cognition, applicable to all living entities, that can be understood in terms of a minumum number of basic principles. In this paper, I propose that habit, association and Dasein (the desire to be) go some way towards furthering that objective. In this context, we develop a vision of life not as a chance, arbitrary by-product of a lifeless universe but as a most elemental and inevitable manifestation of the phenomenological aspects of being. We can now better understand the role of choice in living entities, to provide an appreciation of life not as a progression of blindly random, happy accidents, but as the source of all there is. Accordingly, all living entities, be they individuals or societies of individuals, be they humans, ants or neurons, share cognitive processes that are characterized by the properties of:

  1. Habit;
  2. Association;
  3. The desire to be.


Barto A. G. and Anandan, P. (1985). Pattern recognizing stochastic learning automata. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, 15, 360-375.

Heidegger, Martin (1978). Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford Basil Blackwell.

Klopf, A. H. (1982). The Hedonistic Neuron: A Theory of Memory, Learning and Intelligence. Hemisphere, Washington, DC.

Mobus, George E. (1994). Toward a theory of learning and representing causal inferences in neural networks. In Neural Networks for Knowledge Representation and Inference, D. S. Levine and M. Aparicio (eds.), Chapter 13, 339-374.. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, New Jersey.

Peirce, C. S. (1960). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Volumes I & II). Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peirce, C. S. (1960). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Volumes V & VI). Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Peirce, C. S. (1966). Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Volumes VII & VIII). Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (eds.). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pylkkanen, P. (1992). Mind, matter and active information: the relevance of David Bohm's interpretation of quantum theory to cognitive science. Report 2/1992. Department of Philosophy, University of Helsinki (ISBN 951-45-6190-2)


The word 'meme' is most often used to replace the word 'concept', in order to draw attention to the replicative properties of concepts that are culturally shared. I use the word in a much more general sense, where 'meme' is defined as anything that can be conceptualised within the mind of any organism. This definition incorporates the mind-body unity and the associative properties of consciousness, to arrive at a fully generalisable model applicable for all living entities. It is consistent with the definition of "sign", in biosemiotics. Accordingly, human memes are also replicative and remain consistent with the currently accepted, mainstream definition as cultural replicator. That is, humans with vocal chords will automatically be predisposed to sharing memes to create cultures and societies. Those higher-level organisms that do not possess vocal chords will have a much more limited ability to distribute their own memes. Neurons that spread memes via synapses as electrical impulses are participants within neural cultures (brains).

Replace "userid" with "tramont":

Last updated January 2005
Stephen Springette