As a hypothetical, let's imagine an extraterrestrial from a distant world travels to Earth and invisibly observes a football game. The extraterrestrial has no knowledge or background, and is merely observing the football game, having no idea it is even a game, or that human beings are even sentient.
In watching the game, the extraterrestrial observes that when certain things (offensive linemen) receive the football, they begin running toward the goal post. If the extraterrestrial assumes that the extraterrestrial is the only sentient organism in the universe, they will be convinced that they are witnessing some kind of complex mechanism. Clearly, when certain parts receive a physical signal (the football), the football causes the machine to move up the field toward the goal. The extraterrestrial notices that as the lineman moves up the field, the machine/offensive lineman seems to be repelled by the presence of defensive players approaching, moving out of the way or avoiding them. Although the motion of the machine/offensive line man is not completely determined, the offensive lineman seems to move randomly toward the end zone, even accounting for the repulsion caused by the presence of the defensive line men.
Is the extraterrestrial witnessing the behavior of sentient human beings, or is the extraterrestrial witnessing the behavior of complex organic machines? How could the extraterrestrial tell the two types of processes apart? Empirically speaking, when the offensive lineman receives the football, it is followed by movement toward the end zone. Wouldn't the extraterrestrial postulate that possession of the football causes the machine to proceed to the end zone? In addition, the proximity of the defensive linemen--does this not cause the lineman to avoid the defensive lineman? How do you distinguish a sentient process (dependent on signs and a socially created system of meaning) from a mechanical process?
In order to have a system based on meaning, we need at least two things: a system of social customs and organisms with the faculty of memory. There must be an agreed upon form for doing things, and there must be agreed upon signs that trigger certain behaviors. We can make a distinction between norms, which are manifest in synergized behavior by organism, and rules, which are formal symbols. There can obviously be a game, such as an informal game of catch, which function without explicit rules, but presuppose norms. After all, you must know to catch the ball when it is thrown to you, and you must know to throw it back. When a player deviates from the norms (in the eyes of the other players), then usually a discussion and an agreement on rules follows--for example, how hard to throw the ball, or what the agreed upon bounds of play are. This point is important, because it goes in part to demonstrate that normative transgression results in the production of formal rules. If all people shared the same sense of norms, and all people followed those norms, then there would be no rules.
We can find this distinction between norms and rules made in Romans Chapter 2 verses 12-16, where St. Paul discusses the Law, which we can equate with rules:
All who sinned apart from the Law will also perish apart from the Law, and all who sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the Law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the Law, do instinctively what the Law requires, these, though not having the Law, are a Law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bear witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, accord to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
The law written in the heart corresponds to norms, whereas the revealed Law corresponds to rules. One of the perplexities of Wittgenstein scholarship deals with Wittgenstein’s contention that there can be no moral rules. The Law does not reveal the nature of the Good to us, the Law corrects us, or chastises us when we deviate from the true Good. If we are truly Good, we need no Law, and if we possess a Law, mere possession or knowledge of the Law does not aid us, it is only if we obey the Law do we gain any benefit. It is also noteworthy that the Law is only comprehensible because we already possess the true Law in our hearts: the spoken Law only chastises us back into conformity with the inner Law of our hearts.
Will the extraterrestrial understand that the football match is a game, or will the extraterrestrial view the football match as a mechanical system, with footballs causing people to run up the field and the like? Unless the extraterrestrial has a system of intersubjective norms similar to those held by the human species, it is not clear that the extraterrestrial will ever be able to comprehend that the match is a football game, and not merely a mechanical system. But we have to ask, how do we know a football game is a football game? In some sense, because we possess a similar set of norms as our football players. What distinguishes a game of football from firing a gun?
First of all, the game depends upon memory, the memory of the players. But in addition, the game depends upon the players possessing sufficient intellect to learn the game over a certain period of time. Last, the game depends upon the will of the players, first to learn the game, second to continue to abide by the rules (and the norms) of the game during play. Without memory, intellect, and will, there can be no football. Thus, to understand the game is to possess a system of intersubjective norms, and to possess intellect, memory and will.
What are these intersubjective norms? Well, first is bears mentioning something that these norms are not: describable. Because human beings can coordinate their behavior, they can develop customs and norms. Because human beings have norms, they can coordinate their speech, and their speech is intelligible precisely on account of the existence of these norms. Thus, we can have norms without speech, but no speech without norms. Accordingly, our speech presupposes norms, and manifests our norms, but, being incapable of division from our norms, can never describe what our norms are (their form), while being capable sometimes of explicating the substance of a specific norm is (within a community).
Because we cannot really describe what our norms are, only their effects, it bears noting that we cannot describe why our norms sometimes differ. St. Paul seems to suggest that our capacity for intellection has been impaired, confused, and that this can sometimes accuse us (obfuscation), and sometimes excuse us (true ignorance). The Christian message regarding these norms is expressed in the story of the Fall: transgression, fall, and then a new form of life, characterized by pain and strife. It is a description of the effect of the Fall, but not an explanation of how our norms became corruption, because it deals in effects, not causes. The Fall is unintelligible.
Returning to our discussion of norms and rules, we can see the limits of the Law: the written Law presupposes a system of norms for it to be intelligible, and the written Law only chastises or returns us to the Law writ in our hearts. Moreover, only on account of transgression is there a written Law in the first place: the Law accuses us (the existence of Language accuses us), and disciplines us, but it does not, on its own accord, make us holy. Moreover, given the fundamental indeterminacy of meaning, it is clear that the written Law, on its own accord, cannot even properly chastise us, because its meaning is ultimately unknowable. We do not need ethical rules (because we lack the ability to interpret them consistently), we need an ethical example to imitate. If we are to be good, the Good must reveal itself to us, and we must recognize it as the Good, and follow it. In this sense, ethics is voluntary, and can never truly be compelled by another person. This is our liberty, to follow or to reject, and we cannot be forced to follow, we can only be forced to conform.
Returning to our extraterrestrial, the extraterrestrial must recognize the football players as rational agents, imitating some kind of paradigm, in order for the extraterrestrial to recognize what it is dealing with.
The question is the following: we know that human beings play games, have communication systems, follow norms, possess a collective sense of meaning. Is it possible that the sub-components of the human being also follow norms and possess a collective sense of meaning, for example, the immune system? Is it possible that life itself is really the manifestation of a system of meaning?