[Fis] Information, autopoiesis, life and semiosis (Part I)

From: by way of <sbr.lpf@cbs.dk>
Date: Thu 22 Jan 2004 - 11:29:56 CET

(Part II will be posted tomorrow ---Pedro)

For FIS discussion with start 22.Jan. 2004 by Sřren Brier, Management,
Politics and Philosophy, Copenhagen Business School, sbr.lpf@cbs.dk

Information, autopoiesis, life and semiosis

Biosemiotics allows us thus to use three types of causality:
1 Efficient, 2.Formal and 3.Final.
1. Efficient causality works through the transfer of energy and is
quantitatively measurable.
2. Formal causality works through ”pattern recognition and coding”,
and with signals of information in a dualistic protosemiotic matter.
Molecules are coded, and interact through formal causality.
3. Final causation is semiotic signification and interprertation and.
It is dependant on awareness, subjectivity and intensionality. Cells
interprete the coded molecules as signs through final causation. Cells are
the fundamental biosemiotic subjects.

Peirce’s sees mind as a basic part of reality (as qualia and pure emotion
in Firstness), existing as the inner aspect of the material aspect of
reality (in Secondness). Emotion and awarenes is the ‘inner aspect of
matter’ (a view called ‘hylozoism’) manifesting itself as awareness and
experience in animals, and, finally, as consciousness in humans.

Combining this with a general systems theory of emergence,
self-organization and closure/autopoiesis, it constitutes an explicit
theory of how the inner world of organism is constituted in evolution, and,
therefore, how first persons views, and thereby the establishment of
interpretants, is possible. No other present modern theory can do that to
my knowledge.


Today, cybernetic information science inform also by general systems theory
on one hand and one the other semiotics, are the two most transdisciplinary
paradigms offering evolutionary theories of organization,
self-organization, life, intelligence and meaning..
Semiotics begins with the process of knowledge: how signification occurs
within living systems, making perception and cognition possible. Charles
Sanders Peirce’s semiotics unites our explanatory schemes of deduction and
induction through abduction within the process of semiosis. Peirce suggests
that we consider triadic semiosis as the fundamental process of reality.
But as Wildgen (2001, p.175) writes: “If we adopt a triadic structure
underlying sign-usage, we chose the most plausible one, but a definition of
the sign cannot be used as an a priori statement from which an ontology can
be derived. We can only accumulate evolutionary, cognitive, sociological
arguments in favor of such a stratification.” This is then what Peirce and
the modern development of his theory as biosemiotics does. Biosemiotics
acknowledge that semiosis is an essential part of all living systems and
should encompass the study of sign games of all living systems. But here,
as in mechanism and pan-informationalism the problem of how far the
explanation should go arises: can we move to a pan-semiotic view without
wanting to explain too much? I believe we cannot since there are limits to
scientific explanations. I have in short form argued (Brier 2002a) that it
would be more fruitful to accept this and work with five different levels
of interaction in nature, without assuming any evolutionary causal links
between them that would indicate that one level is presumed to give rise to
the other, or presuming any linear causality. (See Johansson’s 2001
discussion of supervenience principles):
1. A non-manifest level with hypercomplex or chaotic interactions. The
concept of vacuum in Quantum field theory is one attempt by science to
describe this state, albeit without a synechistic frame.
2. An energy level with energy-based causal interaction by natural
3. An informational level with signal and/or code causality.
4. Semiotic level with sign-game-causality within and between living
5. A linguistic level with language-game-causality based on meaning
between conscious social systems.
So, 1. is a transcendental level, 2. the physical, 3. the chemical, 4. the
organic and psychological and 5 the social objective knowledge to relate
to Hartmann’s hierarchy. This is just a short preliminary statement to tell
the reader which frame of reference I am coming from. Further argumentation
can be found in Brier (2003).

Critique of current approaches

Descriptions of these levels did exist in different areas of modern
science, but they have never been brought together into one theoretical or
paradigmatic framework. Mainstream eliminative mechanistic science tries
to accomplish this, but it has an insufficient philosophical background.
More precisely, past and present attempts at unification have all had
problems and inconsistencies:
1. Although the classical mechanistic physics could mathematically
describe certain connections, forces, and regularities in nature, and
describe -- with the help of quantum mechanics -- the stability of matter,
it is very difficult to think of evolution from within a mechanistic
worldview with its rigid deterministic universal laws and Newtonian
reversible time (Prigogine and Stengers 1984).
2. This is resolved by the thermodynamic atomistic view, which is
based on complexity, self-organizing dissipative structures, and
irreversible time. But it is still difficult to understand how information
and cognition can arise and self-organize from pure physical matter and
energy (Brier 1992).
3. In the pan-informational paradigm, information as organizing power
is present from the beginning. This makes self-organization and the
emergence of cognition more understandable, especially when it is framed by
a general systems theory with an organismic and emergent evolutionary
worldview. But it is difficult to understand how living systems can emerge
as individual beings, how they treat information differently from
mechanical cybernetic systems, and what the special qualities of the
semiotic creativity of self-conscious linguistic embodied beings (Brier
1992, 2003) are.
4. In second-order cybernetics and autopoiesis theory, the idea of
closure on biological, psychological, and social communicative levels, as
explained by the concept of autopoiesis (self-organizing, self-maintaining,
and self-producing abilities), clarifies the special self-preserving
ability and cognition as well as an individualistic point of view. This
conception -- especially as elucidated by Maturana and Varela and also von
Foerster -- has similarities with Uexküll’s Umweltslehre. It is a type of
bio-constructivism. Unfortunately it tends to be rather idealistic, even
solipsistic in certain formulations, while at the same time insisting on
the material reality of a biological observing system. Uexküll was a
declared vitalist who saw living systems as species, stretching the Umwelt
bauplans through time eternal. He is, in short, an anti-Darwinist. But the
founding father of modern ethology Konrad Lorenz uses elements of Uexküll’s
theory to create the ethological paradigm, fits them into a neo-Darwinian
paradigm. He then struggles to integrate feeling and signification, based
on qualia and meaning, into his description, in the end failing to
establish a theory encompassing both the phenomenological and the
scientific aspects of animal cognition and communication (Brier 2001).
5. In Peircian semiotic philosophy, these levels can be bound together
by Synechism, Tychism, and Agapism, combined with an evolutionary view of
the interactions between Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness. The view of
Firstness as a blend of qualities of mind and matter containing qualia and
living feeling and a tendency to form habits, is crucial for understanding
the self-organizing capabilities of nature and how what seems to be “dead”
matter can, through evolutionary self-organization, become autopoietic and
alive with cognitive/semiotic and feeling abilities. Ever since Umberto Eco
(1976) formulated the problem of the “semiotic threshold,” semiotics --
especially Peircian semiotics -- has developed further into the realm of
biology Concepts of the closure, self-organization, and differentiation of
biological, psychological, and social systems developed in second-order
cybernetics and autopoiesis theory need to be integrated into theories of
embodiment (Brier 2001,2003).
The essential question for the current debate about the possibility of a
transdisciplinary information/signification science is whether the
biosemiotic Peircian framework that includes and reformulates Uexküll’s
theoretical biology can comprise un-interpreted “natural objects,”
autocatalytic and dissipative structures, and other spontaneous generations
of order and patterns in nature as signs. These objects were previously
described in physico-chemical terms.
Adherents of the pan-informational paradigm, such as Stonier (1997), want
to explain them in purely informational terms.From a Peircian view, these
phenomena are protosemiotic, or quasi-semiotic, when compared to the
semiosis of living systems because they are only displays of Secondness
(Nöth 2002). That is not the discussion of whether any natural thing can
become a sign when placed in a meaningful context by a living system, but
if the objects and their processes are signs per se.
A similar question, to one of objects are signs in themselves, is, what do
machines, such as computers, process when no humans are interpreting them.
Are these signs or just signals? We know that we codify these signals so
that they carry meaning for us in our context; therefore they are signs to
us, and forwarding that sign’s meaning through a pragmatic view is what
they do. But does this not have to occur in a living context where meaning
has already been introduced through the embodied mind’s existence? Relating
to the question of the semioticity of calculating machine, Nöth explains
how Peirce coined the term “quasi-semiosis” to deal with this problem:
The term quasi-sign suggests an answer to the question whether there can be
semiosis in a machine of the kind which Peirce knew. A quasi-sign is only
in certain respects like a sign, but it does not fulfill all criteria of
semiosis. While some criteria of semiosis may be present in machines,
others are missing. The concept of quasi-sign thus suggests degrees of
semioticity. Quasi-semiosis does not only begin with calculating machines.
It can be found in processes in which much simpler instruments are involved.
(Nöth 2002: 8)
Peirce did not believe in the strict dualist separation of mind and matter.
His concept of mind is extremely broad and does not necessarily include
consciousness or intentionality, only goal-directedness. Following Nöth,
the use of the term quasi-semiosis to designate “degenerated” semiosis near
the shift between Secondness in machines and Thirdness in biosemiotic sign
games stems primarily from a lack of a triadic object relation:
Evidence of the quasi-semiotic nature of data processing comes from the
dyadic nature of the signs involved. The view that sign processing in
computers is based on dyadic relationships is implicit in a widely held
theory, which states that computers can only process signals…, i.e.,
mechanical stimuli followed by automatic reactions…. What is missing for
these signs to develop from dyadic to triadic signs is an object
relationship. The dyadic relations are merely dyadic relations of
signification, but there is no denotation, no “window to the world” which
allows to relate the sign to an object of experience. … the messages
produced by a computer in the interface of humans and machines are either
messages conveyed by a human sender and mediated by the computer or they
are quasi-signs resulting from an automatic and deterministic extension of
human semiosis
(Nöth 2002: 9).
This brings us back to cybernetics, especially that of Bateson. Here,
information is a difference that makes a difference for a cybernetically
defined “mind.” This mind works primarily on differences with feedback
loops based on energy. The energy is not important for the coding process
per se but the critique of the cybernetic concept of information and
meaning has underlined that this type of system, based on information
theory, is functionalistic and not capable of encompassing meaning within a
biological, not to mention human, perspective. Even Luhmann’s idea of
meaning as an overabundance of possibilities filtered by some sort of
selective mechanism does not relate to the individual existential part of
meaning. The discrepancies between these two transdisciplinary paradigms of
information and signification stem from the fact that their theories of
messages originate on opposite ends of the continuum between science and
the humanities.
Received on Thu Jan 22 11:03:16 2004

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