Signs of the Times



This related group of essays is trying to provide a foundation for something, but I'm not sure what at this point.  As foundational, it is important to first lay the groundwork in philosophy.  First in general to show where our work is grounded historically, and then moving towards political philosophy as the place where innovation is critical to our collective capacity to navigate the critical path toward a vision that can be shared by all.

This groundwork will enable us to look critically at how language operates in forming consensus and public action.  The citizen leader will need to be able to receive public media critically and not be manipulated by the clever use of symbols to distract and divide the uncritical masses.  They will need to activate a critical mass of citizens who are motivated to take democracy back, and want to learn to shape their own messages and begin to lead the masses into social processes that will free them from manipulation by marketing technique.


Autopoiesis of Signs and Systems

I intend to explore the connections between the ideas drawn from many sources quite diverse in origin and era.  Although I will often refer to specific contributions from particular authors, it is critical to see these works for how they contribute to a collective and historical project.  Rather than needing to conclude that a particular philosophy has gotten it right, we see a dialog conducted throughout history that is engaged in the construction of artifacts held in commons by all mankind.  Dewey and Peirce can be contrasted in how they address the idealisms of the western tradition from Platonism and how it becomes embedded in Christian philosophy as it descends from earlier traditions that become codified in religious texts, but the difference is more one of emphasis than substance.  

John Dewey is valuable for his insistence on grounding all knowledge in experience in contrast to metaphysics and idealisms.  Peirce, on the other hand, appears as a bit of absolutist for his theory of signs and semiosis. Although Dewey is one of the few who actually acknowledge the important contributions  Peirce made, he might have disputed the way Peirce finds reality in symbolic structures.  It is clear, though, that they share a deeply pragmatic approach to and focus on the methods of developing knowledge.  In the parable of the blindfolded men describing an elephant, each only having access to parts of the whole experience, Dewey insists that we must always refer back to experience and not accept any theory as the complete truth. Peirce, however, says just that there is an elephant whether or not our partial theories succeed in capturing a significant part of it.

Our thinking is incoherent if we fail to notice that there are neither ideas nor idealisms without an organism capable of thought and thinking.  At this point we to have some understanding of the origin and structure of such organisms, and the work Maturana and Varela and their description of autopoietic systems is a key step.

Autopoiesis diagram

I see the possibility of connecting these ideas in a comprehensive systems theory, and as a way of interpreting the world.  Instead of considering the world as a pre-existing structure, we see a world that is formed by its interactions, by events that play out cyclically and gain permanence through eternal return; and by the discovery of structure and relatedness rather than as an unchanging metaphysic.  The world appears as systems nested within systems with each level defined by its internal structure and how it is coupled to its environment in maintaining that structure.

Semiotics provides a necessary piece for understanding systems function through the operations of autopoiesis.  Objects don't have any substantial character and instead are constituted as networks of processes or events; they are empty as we will discuss more below.  What gives a system substance is the way it repeats the performance of these processes in time.  The components are nested systems in their own right, and the boundaries of the system and all of its nested subsystems are made substantial by the repetitive interactions that occur between the systems and their environment: 

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of process of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. It follows that an autopoietic machine continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components under conditions of continuous perturbations and compensation of perturbations." (Maturana & Varela 1980; p.79)

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the physical systems that emerge spontaneously, and here we see why an idealistic permanence can be attributed to what are actually emergent patterns.  Peirce points out that mathematics are forms that are always true, in other words, tautologies, but their importance is in semiosis, or reflection, to use a term more common to other philosophers, including Dewey.  When an inquiry results in a model of the world, mathematics gives us reliable pathways of reflection.  This leads to ways to test our models.  The structures of mathematics exist as a possibility that can be realized in the experienced world whether they have already been discovered, are yet to be discovered or even if they are beyond our mental capacity, now or ever.

The patterns represented in the Platonic forms are also related to the patterns of group theory, and these connect directly to patterns of the smallest natural numbers which in turn  are connected to the forms that ground the latest theories in physics in the form of string theory and particle physics already confirmed.  Physics has discovered that the apparent solidity of the material world is more like point (i) in the description of autopoietic systems, based on the continuous repetition of a pattern of events emergent from a simple structure.  The simple components, that is, the various quantum particles and emergent atoms can only behave within the operational closure dictated by their simple structure with relatively few degrees of freedom.  Of course complexity, in terms of the dynamics of non-linear systems and chaotic behavior, develops in the simplest systems.

Contrasting with the depth of subtle relationships in the nesting and interactions of plants and animals in a food web, physics and chemestry is simple indeed. We don't even have that much language to draw compare relative complexities, or even to identify all the critical boundaries where structural coupling occurs. This way of looking at systems hasn't been with us long enough to be well developed; much work remains to be done.

For Dewey, science is a process grounded in experience that is designed (by experience and practice) specifically to find the permanent and repeatable features of the world.  That doesn't mean it rejects the changeable, impermanent and obscure aspects of the world, but it just filters them out for the sake of the particular inquiry taken up.  Only if we forget the ground of experience do we mistake the clarified models of science for the complete picture.  Idealists may deprecate inductive processes vs. deductive ones that can only rely on some revealed truth as a ground.  Autopoiesis provides the necessary connecting link between Peirce's triadic signs and experience as a middle term.  Both Dewey's experience and Peirce's semiosis are constituted in the internal organization of an autopoietic entity(operational closure).  If reflected experience fails to connect to the environment (structural coupling), the unity ceases to be viable and disappears from existence.

Idealism collapses the world into a projected singularity that, if it exists at all, can only be determined inductively from our position of embodiment.  Only by understanding experience as a middle term, neither purely of an external world nor subjective, can we recover Peirce's third term. On the face of this, the spectacular success of the objective procedure is truly remarkable.  It is sometimes remarked that effectiveness of mathematics is unreasonable, and that its apparent effectiveness is an inductive proof of the mathematical nature of the world.  This might be conclusive if you forget that the process of induction is never final;  it is a process subject to revision based upon on new evidence.  The theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) produces remarkably accurate predictions that extend to eight or more decimal places, but the same group of theories also suggest that most of the universe is composed of dark matter and energy that current theories cannot begin to do justice to.  The more we know, the more that we know that we don't know.

Turtles All the Way Down

I see no reason not to expect that, with suitable contextualization, these ideas can be interpreted more generally as we look to interpret the development of humanity's social systems.  Vincent Ostrum describes our political systems as artifacts where the artisans are parts of the artifacts, and calls for a multi-disciplinary and multi-level exploration of the history and possibilities of these human developments.  For similar reasons, I have pointed to the idea of Process Architecture as a call to develop new practices in social processes; for more of us to become artisans and architects in the creation of social systems.

It seems that Niklas Luhmann had started on this track of describing social systems as autopoietic, but I am skeptical about the direction of this work.  I am more drawn to a middle way of thinking about the interpretation of any theory as discussed in Varela's book The Embodied Mind

Varela draws on the Buddhist idea of emptiness (sunyata), which asserts that in neither the self nor the world can we find a ground; calling into question any theory that seeks foundations in any absolute principle, whether it is the spirit of a singular god concept or the materialism of the physical world.  Peirce's theory of signs takes a pragmatic middle way that resolves the dualisms and conflicts of idealism vs. materialism.  Peirce is almost mystical in his insistence on the importance of three elements of the sign and his analysis of firstness, secondness and thirdness at the beginnings of his philosophy.  For Peirce, I would not think of these as absolutes or foundational, but as signs.  They refer to something, and I would claim their objects, the second term of a sign for Peirce, are forms or ideas.  That is, ideal structures in the same way that Platonic forms are ideas, and all of mathematics is about ideas, forms.  Thirdness in these Platonic forms is the process of performing math; developing mathematical ideas and working out problems and puzzles.

Emptiness is the same sort of thing. It is an sign (word) that refers to forms which are ideal.  Varela's writing states that these ideas about emptiness are not common to all the Buddhist traditions, and a late development at that.  He also suggests that the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) develops a whole tradition from this seed idea.  Peirce would call this development and evolution of thought through history semiosis, the unfolding of the meaning of a sign in the minds of interpreters; plural to signify the collective nature of this process as it unfolds in community and dialog.  This example has a lot to tell us about semiotics and what Peirce may have had in mind.  It may only take a moment of insight to clarify the meaning of a sign (e.g. emptiness, or Oneness of monotheism) in an interpretant that captures the ideal object of this sign in a deep way, but there are also whole traditions of dialog that deepens our understanding of such ideas.  And similar dialogs in other traditions; the Zohar explains the term Ein Sof as follows:

"Before He gave any shape to the world, before He produced any form, He was alone, without form and without resemblance to anything else. Who then can comprehend how He was before the Creation? Hence it is forbidden to lend Him any form or similitude, or even to call Him by His sacred name, or to indicate Him by a single letter or a single point... But after He created the form of the Heavenly Man, He used him as a chariot wherein to descend, and He wishes to be called after His form, which is the sacred name "YHWH"."

Feminine pronouns might be much more appropriate for describing an emptiness before the emergence of any form, a diffuse state of being that is pregnant with possibility as opposed to active and definite.  My intention is not to drift off into mysticism, but to point out the depth of the simplest of all ideas (nothingness or oneness).  Not to deprecate the mystical, but to point out that, at base, these are pragmatic ideas with concrete consequences.  When Dewey discusses how signs appear in experience, how ritual and practice connect directly to a spirit world for people and cultures for whom they still possess magical properties, and how they are for objectivists, I see two ways of collapsing a Peircean triad into a diad and losing contact with experience.  Magical thinking collapses the sign into its object and makes the fear of forces unseen palpable, and separation impossible.  The objectivist discounts the existence of the third term, the mind that processes the symbols into meaning.  With either collapse, only by reference to a permanent world external to the experiencer can we find a final answer to questions of meaning.

We can never be architects of our own future when we do not see that all of our existing social systems and the norms they rest on emerge in an evolving social process.  Vincent Ostrum's emphasis on the fact of our artisanship with respect to social systems.  This is not to say that a social architect can just design a new set of norms and install them as a new social system; the process or norming is an emergent social process.  Through the application of skill and insight, however, such processes can be guided and nurtured, and very likely this is how we come to have the systems and norms that we do.  Leaders in a given time and place show a way, and when they are successful it grows and reproduces an emergent set of practices that people will engage in, teach to their children and codify in books and oral traditions.  The concluding parts of Ostrum's paper has a substantial review of the work of Alexis de Tocqueville and his constructive use of multiple levels and foci of analysis in Democracy in America.  His observations of how race relations and the way the habits of racism can become part of how the social environment is structured seems prescient given the current political context.  We need to keep finding ways of openning up the psychological structures that maintain separations if we want to create an environment where being different doesn't mean otherness.

The Kabalistic quote above comes from a tradition of magical thinking and for many who hold do it, this is another metaphysic of a given idealist world, but I find it more productive and interesting to consider it aesthetically and as a map of the archetypes of the psyche.  Some may reject much of Jung's work on grounds that they are not objective or scientific, but I think the study and treatment of psychic malady lends itself to a more accepting filter and the admission of imaginal realms (to use Fred Alan Wolf's term).  Although I don't mix my math or philosophy with numerology, mystical ideas are part of what these signs may refer to and potentially within the scope of inquiry, depending on the nature of the question.  Clearly, they are part of what Peirce calls the phaneron:

Phaneroscopy is the description of the phaneron; and by the phaneron I mean the collective total of all that is in any way or in any sense present to the mind, quite regardless of whether it corresponds to any real thing or not.

As an amatuer mathematician, it doesn't surprise me at all that ideas about emptiness and nothingness are late breaking idea in humanity.  We are counting somethings long before we count nothing.  The natural numbers begin with one, and only later do Islamic mathematicians invent the cypher to revolutionize mathematics.  I also note that a space of zero dimensions is different than no space at all and the empty set is different than nothingness.  I see Peirce as creating a deeper philosophical connection to the forms of the small numbers.

Maturana and Varela developed these ideas to describe complex living systems with complex internal organizations, but Peirce thought that his theory of signs didn't just start with conscious or even sentient beings.  Take water for example.  The atoms are generated in historic processes of the Universe.  The Big-Bang, the galaxy and star formation produce environments where many solar systems like our own can form, run their course and central star explodes producing a new cloud of molecular and atomic dust.  Hydrogen forms early and directly out of the nuclear soup that is the condensate of the expanding and cooling of the pure energy of the Big Bang.  Oxygen is generated by atomic fusion in the late phases of stars.  In fact, fusion proceeds up the the element Iron (Fe) before the star explodes, and how it explodes depends on its mass.

The rule for all of these interactions seem to just emerge from spontaneous symmetries and geometry of space-time.  Theorists are still arguing about why these rules are as they are, and there is some considerable speculation that are either a pure mathematical form that simply emerges because it is the only consistent pattern, or maybe the only pattern consistent with the emergence of intelligent forms (i.e. us, this is often called the anthropic principle).  It may be that there are processes beyond our limits of perception that generate these conditions, and speculatively they may regenerate them in an autopoietic sense at the universal scale.  Beyond some scale, we can only speculate, but what we can see tells us that energy, mostly in the form of electromagnetic radiation (light in all its forms) and gravity are what drives all of the processes.  Without sufficient energy, interactions cannot occur.

That brings us back around to water.  Nuclear interactions generally need the gravitational energy of sufficient mass to start a fusion fire, so that generally only occurs in stars.  We already discussed that stars form and reform out of interstellar dust clouds.  Gravity is the driving force that forms the system, but fusion itself is about kinetic energy from the high temperatures caused by the compression of a gas/plasma, but it is the confinement by gravity that makes it possible.  Whenever there is sufficient concentration of dust, it will condense and if there is enough material, a star is born and maybe some planets form around it and it burns until it runs through its fuel by making heavier elements and when it explodes it can make even heavier elements.  These elements accumulated from previous cycles of star formation and death are the source of the constituent elements of the planets, and Earth in particular, but the development of life on Earth depends on a long stable period where Hydrogen burns slowly forming Helium and bathes the Earth in solar radiation.  It is largely the solar radiation in the form of light that provides the free energy input to keep the networks of chemical processes going long enough for self-organization to occur and for living systems to form.  Is any of this understanding of how and why necessary to an understanding of the importance of the Sun to life and humans on this planet?

Once made, most atomic nuclei are stable, except for a few of the heavy ones.  There is atomic Hydrogen and Oxygen in the dust clouds, and when these mix at sufficient density they will interact chemically.  We can read the electromagnetic signatures of interstellar dust clouds and see these elements gaining and losing electrons, but unless there's a lot of high energy light around the electrons will join with these atoms and make them stable, and the atoms will pair up as H2 and O2 if given a chance, and if these H2's and O2's get together they form H20's and that's water.  Add more energy and they can break up (again we can read this in the spectrum of a dust cloud).  The form of each of these molecules is dictated by the lower level symmetries.

None of this depends on any consciousness or sentience, but the forms and energy levels of all the systems components are critical in what forms and when.  Water is a polar molecule because the two hydrogens bond to the oxygen at a certain angle.  Water forms from the constituent elements because there is less chemical energy in the bonds, so it only needs a little push and it's like rolling down hill.  We could take advantage of that by storing hydrogen and burning it in a controlled way with oxygen and harnessing that free energy.  Plants do something like the reverse of this in photosynthesis, absorbing sunlight and freeing oxygen from C02, then using that energy stored as hydrocarbon molecules in later processes.  So far we only have the possibility of chemical interaction, and the suggestion of something more in living systems.  We have mass processes involving clouds and condensation into solid and liquid forms.  Recent research suggest that there are many solar systems with earth like planets, and we have at least one example of complex living systems evolving.  The physical and chemical processes described so far only tell us that conditions similar to the ones that allowed for life to emerge here are likely to exist in many many systems across the universe.

Although these simple systems do not exactly "specify their organization" to reproduce it, there is an organization that is produced again and again throughout space and time.  The conditions of the accumulation of chemical forms and interactions occurs repeatedly, spontaneously.  At the simplest levels of biological activity, even below that level in pure chemical forms we find repeating networks of processes.  Some of these are simple and open; the only boundaries are formed by concentrations of the constituent elements.  Instead of being problematic, this is an indicator of an emergent hierarchy of systems.  Autopoietic systems depend on the emergence of self-organizing systems as a medium of formation for the higher level of organization represented in autopoietic systems.

I read in Maurer that Luhmann favors a top down analysis of the organization of system, and note that this is completely consistent with Varela's emphasis on groundlessness.  I also note that an appreciation for a middle way is largely absent in Luhmann, and to the extent that Maurer mentions semiotics and signs in Luhmann both in reference and critique that it brings to mind the diadic thinking of Saussure in contrast to the triadic systems of Peirce.  In spite of that Maurer's critique excels in pointing to what needs further development:

To what extent can one understand language as a medium in this way? Language is not a medium in terms of the ―physical quality of its signs nor in the conscious states of its speakers and listeners, readers and writers‖ (LUHMANN 1994: 54).30 As a medium, language is neither a conglomeration of signs or thoughts, which can be articulated as words and sentences, nor can it be understood as a signifying system. The medial aspects of language consist in the autopoiesis of communication, for which the structural coupling of communication and consciousness is the precondition.

 The triadic system of signs provides a great opportunity for integrating much work in systems theory.  As someone with an already long career in systems design, architecture and engineering I can bring a great deal of practical experience to this dialog, but some insights came to stay very early in my career.  One is that to build and understand systems, you need to work both ends towards the middle.  No singular approach to design, whether top down or bottom up works very well.  If you insist at only starting from the top, you will never understand the components well enough to address global issues that emerge from the behavior of the lower levels of the systems.  These will be important issues that relate to performance, stability and the long term viability of your systems.  On the other hand, if you only start from the bottom and work upwards, you can easily get lost in the forest while working only with the trees.  You lose sight of the larger goals that need to be addressed, and it systems theory you may even come to discount any role for teleology or purpose at all.

The digression into how water emerges and becomes present as a medium for the development of life and planet Earth is about the importance of the medium of self-organizing systems as a background, an environment, for the emergence of autopoietic systems.  Similarly, in social systems there are a number of critical background capacities and subsystems that are critical for the emergence of autopoiesis of social systems.  Family and tribal units are characteristic of non-human social organization, but the development of language and related systems are critical to the emergence of social organisms that go well beyond kinship relationships.  Human language itself is much older than these later developments and functionally is a difference in degree more than in kind over communication in other social species.  We can only know speculatively whether whale-song or grief in elephants are expressions of spiritual experiences that connect with similar expressions from the depth of human prehistory, but I think our experience and our expressions of art echo truths of the matter embedded in our very beings.

The sciences of evolution point to the emergence of excess capacities that don't need to be expressed in survival oriented traits to be carried along by the processes of reproductions.  Genetic studies show that large quantities of DNA information might even be considered parasitic in that it exists only because it reproduces itself, or even replicates itself within the genome.  Initial language development may just be an offshoot of more general mamalian characteristics that fascilitate care for the young and social cohesion, and whether or not they are excess or necessary when they emerge, they fascillitate the continuation of other trends, for example the neoteny this is connected to the enlarging brain and related evolutionary trends.  We can leave open the explanation of why a particular historical path is followed, and simply point out that it is consistent with the requirement of autopoiesis throughout that history and that we know where it has arrived in the present.  The important point is the the continuity of autopoietic production and reproduction is a necessity, and that this necessary continuity constitutes an evolving historical processes.  In simpler organisms, this history is wholly represented in the genomic history, and at some point the possibility and then reality of social (cultural) history emerges.

It seems that something unique is happening with humans at the dawn of the neolythic age as humans become capable of inventing material cultures.  Before this period there is comparatively very slow change in the material culture of stone tools and related lifeways, and I think it is safe claim that there is no discontinuous break with other social species.  Writing and history come along later, but there is early evidence that symbolic artifacts become the foundation for an emergence of autopoiesis in a collective sociology.  We can see clearly in the archaeological record how emerging and evolving life ways are spreading and changing with each human generation.  The material cultures of agriculture and animal husbandry change the social environment for humans and foster the development of specialization and trade among groups that go well beyond the ties of kinship.  Counting and accounting are necessary and may evolve with, before or after written language, and these development are likely to be deeply connected.

This essay raises more questions than it answers, and the biggest questions are about what is the environment in which the processes of autopoiesis occur for social systems, and what are the system units.   Whole cultures are too wide and individuals or even families are too narrow.  Perhaps something like a nation, but how do you even clearly define that through history.  I would look toward something like a hermeneutic considered as a theory of knowing and being.  This would need to be considered as it relates to all the classes of the real social networks, and how individuals and families construct and assume identities.  Productive activities at the basic levels of societies, the production of food, shelter and tools (weapons) have to support the organizational structures of the whole network.  All of this is shifting over time as new ideas of right and justice emerge and disseminate along side new technologies and their deployments.

The visible history is dominated by warfare and battles, but this obscures the role of productivity at the lowest levels.  When the technology of social networks outstrips the possibility of physical control, then multiple societies and their differing hermeneutics come into contact as well.  As armies sweep across regions, they sometimes enact a genocide and replace many of the lower levels, but often they do not unless they are resisted.  Ideas and material culture spread through distinct networks of skills and practice that are often hidden as necessary to escape oppression from a dominant culture.  Empires whose elites share a common culture, at least visibly, rise and fall.

Another key environmental factor in all of this is the development of money and financial systems.  Although a system of valuation of wealth and trade based on a single world currency (the US dollar) has emerged, it certainly has not always been so.  The systems of debt finance that are now global in scope only developed over the last few hundred years, though they have their roots in systems going back to the first counting and accounting systems noted earlier as key developments.  At the base of all societies is the production and trading of basic commodities for living, and the productivity of differing material production processes will have varied greatly creating abundance and scarcity at particular times and places.  Until more recently, these commodities had to be produced and consumed locally or not at all, and the local peoples would bare hardships from scarcity, or expand in population in abundant times.  Systems of trading and control over a larger scale would have had to operate largely independently and on top of this base of productivity.


The Ontology of Signs

It is a bit surprising that contemporary Theories of Everythng (ToEs) almost never address the ontic status of signs.  I would cite this as the central problem with Tegmark's mathematical universe hypothesis.  It's a blindspot in most thinking about ToEs.

Physicists characteristically claim what is essentially philisophical territory as their own, often stating that, "Finding a ToE is one of the major Unsolved problems in physics".  The modest version of this project is about integrating theories of the large and small, of gravity and quantum mechanics, and that work is clearly within the bounds of physics.  When we get into questions of what really is so in the world, what is real vs. ideal, permanent vs. dynamic or emergent, we are no longer doing physics.  These philisophical arguments often concern the "status of un-observables" in the theory.  These are objects that appear in the mathematical theory to signify elements of the theory that may be only indirectly observable.  The observables are calculated from mathematical analysis of models in terms of idealized objects from the theory, but if the measurements closely match the calculated predictions we say the theory is (relatively) accurate.  That's what Tegmark's hypothesis is about, assigning reality to ideal objects in the theory.

Peirce is precient in his turn towards a much deeper analysis of signs, and I consider his work to be foundational to current and future work on these problems of logic and meaning.  What all of these myopic theories have in common is that they never consider the reality of the theories themselves and the signs they contain.  They are only concerned about the reality of the objects that the signs in question signify as if semiotic action were not part of the real world.  Sucinctly, the real clearly includes ideas (signs, meanings) and their beingness, their ontology, is something that must be addressed in a true ToE.  Peirce has this to say about the importance of semiotics:

When we pull thinking back from some meta-world into reality, the importance of his project become clear.  He is working to bring scientific and philisophical productions into the world and subject it to a rigorous treatment.  Arguments about the unreasonable success of mathematical science aren't careful to distinguish between the limits of mathematics and the reality of a complete and absolute mathematics.  To be sure, there is a large measure of faith involved in the leaps necessary to get from our necessarily limited experience and semiotic capacities to any ToE.  We could take Gödel's theorem to suggest that mathematical refers only to this limited space of incompleteness but I see no reason we cannot consider the existence of a complete mathematics, God's math, absolute, complete and consistent.  Consider the related Halting problem which concerns the completeness of sequential computing.  With infinite time or some sort of magic parallelism in an infinite computational capacity, there is a concrete, finite answer to all instances of the halting problem where the answer is "yes, it does halt after N steps".  Nothing says the world, or God cannot do infinite calculations, if our theory claims that this is impossible, we have to say why not.

When we considers his final interpretant, we see a description of the computation of thought and the production of true theories.  The construction of final theories by logical progression according to a rule governed process.  Pierce wouldn't have had Gödel's theorems to challenge his thinking on this, so he seems to project somethng like logical positivism in a not completely analyzed projection that the process is effective, that it will inevitably lead to a complete understanding.  It would have been interesting to see how he responds to these discoveries and the projects in fields like cognitive science to understand intelligence and thinking.  He was so far ahead of his time in so many ways, it would not be surprising if he did develop related ideas, but it also isn't a weakness in his work, just a place he didn't get to yet.

In Autopoiesis of Signs and Systems, the scope of semiotics is expanded to the point it is almost a ToE in its own right.  Although Peirce make use of his semiotics in all analytic projects as described in the quote above, I can't really find any direct evidence that he makes a similar leap.  In all cases, the semiosis is happening in the mind of a thinking being, a human being as the only true example of this, and the signifying is about the systems under inquiry and the interpretants have the character of human thought.  The claim here is that the reality of signs and signifying goes much deeper, that we can model many systems better if we can consider the semiosis in terms of any (sub)systems that have internal organizations and internal states that can be interpretants in a sign process.  In Peirce, chains of interpretants (i.e. where one interpretant is the sign for further interpretation) only lead to more interpretations.  The interpreters are not just symbol processors, they are also objects in the world and the result of many interpretants won't be yet another sign, but an action that responds to the signs present.

In the end, none of this is really a limitation in Peirce, but a reflection of his focus on the history of argument and the logic of thought.  My claim is that his work on signs is a missing element in much current work.  Some of his ideas have infiltrated science through the back door.  Few attribute Peirce as the source of their thinking, but would do well to reframe their work on his foundations.  It seems like some cyberneticists and biologists have come to related insights along their own paths, but unfortunately this foundational work isn't fully integrated with later developments.  Much current thinking denies the reality of subjective experience and splits the world into the experimenter (observer) and the experiment (world) without any thought to their relationship.  In Peirce, the scientist is in the world and does his work of thinking (semiosis) in the world, about the world.

Development of the theory signs will require the inclusion of the context of interpretation.  Where does the interpretant reside?  Scientific theories are not the possession of individual minds, they contain only what can be the shared understanding of a community.  Peirce is exploring how to think correctly, how to make valid arguments and draw confident conclusions.  He isn't as much concerned with all the automatic things that happen with perception and experience, but where the semiotic approach would be very useful.  When we recognize a face, we are involking an entire evolutionary history where a person's face is their sign in social interactions.  Emotions are expressed and read from facial expressions.  Much of this is measurably independent of culture and training, which demonstrates the instinctiual nature of it.  When the perceptual system recognizes "predetor", the organism goes into evolved automated responses.  These responses can be shared across related groups of organisms, and even share the same signalling systems, specific hormones or neurotransmitters.  The point is that all of this is best analyzed as interactions based on signs, but they aren't anything like the signs and symbols of conscious thought and shared understandings.  For a T-cell in the immune system of an organism, the proteins on the outside of cells and viruses are the signals that they extract the signs of "self" or "alien" (or "self-gone-bad" as in cancer cells).  These signs are interpreted by other immune cells to mount an immune response and defend the system.

The Great Chain of Being Inverted

The Great Chain of Being starts from God and arranges inferior beings in a hierarchy below.  If we invert this and start from the smallest most numerous existing entities and describe the stacks of emergent systems that occur in experience, we have a very different project.  This is not to say that the top down analysis isn't useful, but if it does not connect to actual bottom up structures, the lack of grounding can become a critical flaw. In terms of physical theories, the goal is to connect existential entinties at any organizational level with physical processes. The central claim of this work is that a Peircean grounding of an appropriate physical sign based interpretation of the physical theories themselves is the necessary philosophical grounding for any theory of everything that can be taken seriously. This thesis, at least up to the mathematics that is a bit beyond me much of the time, provides some key frameworks for talking about the important topics.

Turing anticipates that the question of whether intelligence is a computable function is a key question, and wants to give the automated intelligences every chance of hiding its differences in a simple teletype interface. He may or may not have anticipated that the simple tasks of conversing in natural language text would be so difficult, and then that cognitive tasks that are mastered and/or instinctual in many living systems would likewise be extremely challenging. I suggest that it may be that living systems have evolved many systems, so would it be surprising that they might take advantage of what might be catagorized as quantum computation? Can we not name the hypothesis that physical systems are constructed primarily of physical quantum information processors, and that the best way to understand inteligent organisms (i.e. the entire network of living things in whole and in parts) is as the operation of semiotic systems composed of these information processes.

The Ground of Being

It turns out that the bottom of the chain is just as mysterious as the top.  Physically the bottom end of the size scale in time and space terminates when the mathematical models break down in infinities.   Below a certain scale the energy of entire universes is available; one could say that math has broken down, that the models are no longer descriptive.  Could it be that this is a demonstration of "As Above, so Below", that the ground and the source are connected?  The chain is more of a loop, and the Hermetic maxim suggests a way out.  How is it that the different levels of reality corespond to one another?  I would suggest that the unity can be found in the way signs and signals are both part of the organization within levels, and the connection between levels.  If signs have such a central role in existence, then some kind of primordial awareness permiates the world.  From the smallest particles to living organisms and to all corners of the known universe.

There are many deep and interesting questions in cosmology and philosophy that might be better answered with semiotics more central in our thinking, but we can start with just mapping the territory as it is known from the bottom of the scale to the top.

The Four Forces

At the smallest scale, the current science is quantum mechanics.  That program has been extremely successful and we have a very accurate integrated model for three of the four forces.  The odd man out is gravity, which is most important at the largest scales because it is universally attractive.  The weak and strong nuclear forces account for what kind of matter there is.  We can sum this up as how many atomic nuclei of each type, the major types are all on the periodic table of elements, plus variations (isotopes, plus free neutrons), and then there will be enough eletrons to balance all the protons.

The strong force holds the nuclei together, so except inside stars or atomic bombs, they don't change much.  The exception for alpha and beta decay and similar processes involving the weak force.  This is the source of most nuclear radiation.  Neutrons on their own decay slowly, splitting into a proton and an electron (plus a weak force carier, some form of neutrino), and in similar ways this sort of change happening in a larger nucleus would change the atomic number and maybe emit stable 'parts', typically a hellium nucleus with two neutrons and two protons.  So, most everything in our local experience is stable at the lowest levels of organization.  The Sun is fusing hydrogen into helium and bathing us in energy, and isotopes are slowly decaring in the earth.  We've mined some of the unstable elements to exploit nuclear energy, but our main experience of the nuclear forces is in how stable the mix of elements is locally.

The force that dominates our immediate world is the electromagnetic force.  The atomic number of each atom determines the number of electrons that it will attract.  Chemistry is all about how the electron clouds of atoms interact and form more or less stable arrangements.  When atoms collide kinetically, it is their electron clouds that bounce off of each other an send them each flying in another direction, maybe with other changes to states of angular momentum or arrangement.

The Scale from the Bottom Up

Zero - Below the Planck scale, we don't really have a theory that works.  Maybe what's down there, to the extent that we can see anything, is just a reflection of the outer universe.  In any case it is all speculative, and probably science isn't going to be that much help at the current level of development.

One - The Standard Partical Model particles:

Two - The Chemical Elements

Three - Molecules and Chemical Interactions

Four - (Energy scale) Temperature and Pressure - Substances and Phases

Five - (Structure and Organization) - Processes, Information and Evolution

Six - (Context and Environment) - Planet, Solar System, Galaxy, Group, Universe, God

The Physical Sign Hypothesis

Coming back to what was hinted in the chapter introduction, we name this idea. Fundamental to this hypothesis is Peirce's irreducably triadic theory of Signs. The hypothesis is that by identifying the triadic sign relationships and elements that are already present in modern physical theories and their models of the world, we will finally be ready to found a mature theory of cognitive processes and intelligence. The conjecture is that many forms of quantum computation are involved in the realization of these processes in nature. It may, in fact, be very difficult in practice to determine the truth of this conjecture in the every-day experiences that they are necessary to. The complexity and subtlety of the systems involved may even make it impossible as any attempt to observe them destroys the coherence necessary for function. I suspect that Peirce was trying to grasp at this hypothesis, but it was too far ahead of when the other necessary ideas would emerge. It is just beyond my grasp to express it, and well beyond by ability to confirm even the smallest parts of the math required, but I just know there is a comprehensive theory that uses Semiotics and Quantum Information Theory to make sense of the Physical ToEs and ground them in philosophy.

Semiotic Realism

Philosophy's map of -isms is far too complex to trace and comprehend.  There are many unproductive cul-de-sacs that can be explored before being rejected.  Generally, a healthy dose of Pragmatism is essential to avoid the ungrounded species of Idealism and other navel gazing, but let's not throw Idealism out entirely.  What is so compelling about a geometric vision of an ideal world that is then projected onto a corrupt and imperfect reality?  Why is mathematics so effective in describing the world through the objective, empirical program of scientific discovery? Instead of making ideas and representational reality a primary element, we take the Semiotic modifier and integrate The Ontology of Signs into our conception of the real.  Pragmatic philosophers will be happy to have a way for representational thought, and for the entire discovery program of philosophy to emerge from a deeper reality of signs and semiotics.

Being realists means there is a real world that exists and changes according to an internally consistent process.  Being pragmatists, we don't expect a necessary connection between our ideas and models and this real world.  Whatever its logic is, we expect it is intelligible in some meaningful sense so that, in principle, it could be judged to be consistent.  That the world seems to be largely intelligible to us is at the very least surprising, and it would be good to find some structural reasons for it.  Science develops this expectation using the assumption of intelligibility to bootstrap primitive guesses into mature theory by using empirical testing.  Pragmatic philosophy is behind this process, and in Peirce we find a deep and thoughtful approach to a philosophical grounding of science that is also foundational in pragmatism.

Rational thought is not characteristic of human cognition, but a discovery and exploration of something more universal.  Science evolves as an historical, linguistic process where communities of cooperating individuals produce a product that is entirely constructed of signs and their relationships.  Peirce positions mathematics not as an external ideal kind of reality, but as a tool for thought; a way to characterize knowledge that is entirely about the relationships of signs with signs as signs.  Mathematical knowledge is what can be shown to be always true, so that if you can establish the truth of one group of symbolic relationships, another group of relationships follows.  If any of these relationships contradicts another, the entire enterprise fails.  Rationality is this mode of thought that judges consistency by developing and expanding the realm of intelligibility.  The ideal of Idealism is all of what might be discovered, and we can think of that as an absolute rationality.  The real is a particular story that is always incomplete, and all infinities are potential.

Given this background, is it surprising that humanity's development of mathematical knowledge is useful in finding the fundamental physical relationships based upon experimentation?  The fact that any of this works isn't because God is some sort of super-mathematician who can do math really fast in parallel to make sure the universe is consistent with God's internal logic, it's because the world actually embodies all the relationsips involved.  The world is just being according to its nature.  Its nature includes signs and semiotic processes.  Math discovers tautological relationships, so alien math might discover different things in different order and express them differently, but the available paths of discovery are there before anyone ever started doing math or being rational.

In the same way that physics is the lowest or fundamental level in the formation and behavior of objects as multi-level whole systems, the multi-level systems of logic, math, science, philosophy and more that constitute what we call rational thought are similarly the unfolding of something more fundamental.  That something is relationship, the semiotic triple of sign, object and the actions of interpretation that connect them.  Objective reality is constructed with signs.  Idealists make the mistake of thinking that reality is contained within this constructed objectivity, and that therefore the physical world is inferior and dependent on an ideal and therefore perfect world.  The things that actually do or do not match a particular construction of reality will do what they do whether or not they also become subject to interpretation and objectification in semiotic processes.

When the big bang cools and the particles become cold enough to form stable relationships, they discover nuclear physics and then chemistry.  They also discover stellar and galactic dynamics and the large energy structures of quazars as well.  This is not being anthropomorphic in saying "discover", it is one aspect of the time dimension of the universe.  There was a time when the fundamendal entities of quarks, leptons and bosons were not related as they are later when the higher level structures form.  It is a weaker kind of discovery, yet a kind of unavoidable discovery that occurs through the evolution of purely physical structures.

It is arguable that nature doesn't truly discover semiotics until living systems emerge through chemistry.  Here we can begin to see signs as active elements of the world.  The chemical bonds and structures are now complex enough to form networks of processes, and the products of one process stimulates the next.  If certain arangements and structures become autopoetically stable, their operations then define substrates for the action of signs.  It is hard to imagine exactly how life emerged from chemistry, but it is easy to see how life uses signs to maintain structure.  DNA structures clearly signal the embryo, cells and developing organism to do what they need to do to continue living, and of course we can find signs in nervous signals, imune response, the endocrine system and so much more.

Whether any being becomes capable of discovering the relational dynamics that gives rise to all of these structures is not important to the reality of the actual structures that embody and enact these relationships.  If a tree falls in the forest, it does make a sound whether or not it is heard.  The vibrations do not require an intelligence to interpret them to have an effect.  On the other hand, there is a reality to the fact of hearing the sound; the presence of a being that can and does hear it.  When we shout hello to the universe, is anyone hearing us?  If they do, I hope they want to be friends.


To summarize our metaphysics:

  • Objectively discoverable - The objects in the world and their relationships are discoverable by observation and experimentation.  They are the same everywhere and everywhen.
  • Signs are real - The action of signs is fundamental to the organization and dynamics of the world.
  • Objective doesn't so much get a different meaning as it ends up positioned differently.  Instead of linking objectivity and the real as is, the objective real world, as the core concept of what is ontologically, objectivity is a higher order phenomenon.  There is a real world as well as the world of things and the secondness of quantified relations in themselves.  Objects and objectivity require the thirdness of sign relationships.
  • Objectivity is the product of rational thinking.  This is an historical, linguistic and mental phenomenon that has emerged over some tens of thousands of years.
  • If our hypothesis that signs are acting down to the level of fundamental physics and the principle of intelligibility is sound, then the requirement of consistency requires a global mind of sorts.  If what is actually real are patterns of relationship (of things in secondness), then the core symetries already discovered and verified to a high degree of precision require some kind of global objectivity that is beyond the possibilities of any semiotic elements we might analyse.

The objects we have discovered are the objects of modern physics, and form the basis for building everything else.  Emergent structures at each scale will have signs, objects and interpretations with the same metaphysical status of those at any other level.  They will be a lot simpler at the lower scales, and often all the possible states and behaviors are well represented in the world accessible to observation.  At the higher scales there are a lot more possible states and paths than can be explored and potentially reached.

The Timeless Modern

What do we mean when we use the word modern?  Deely's writing on The Impact of Semiotics on Philosophy referns a lot to modern philosophy to contrast it sharply with a much more up to date view that exposes mistakes that were at the core of modern philosophy.  Whatever it is exactly, and whether it has ended, it is curious that a word that indexically points to whatever is most up to date has become iconic (symbolic) for a particular moment in the history of philosophy.  Since the linked article uses Wittgenstein to delimit the end of the modern period, a quote from him is fitting:

If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

Our collective hangover from the 19th and 20th centuries is deeply connected to the problems of modernity.  Perhaps it is an inevitable developmental crisis of emergent rationality, and probably it is even more deeply tied to particular cultural movements to completely supress the id.  Whatever the origins and what terms you might use to explain it, the basic mistake is one of interpretation.  As we have seen in exploring Semiotic Realism, there is a mistake common in the idealist tradition to project the ideal of a final interpretation that never occurs directly in the unfolding of the real, physically and in experience.

The positivism that resulted from the remarkable, if limited, success of the rational program of scientific discovery and resulting engineering successes led rational man to assume that this program would be ultimately successful and soon.  Now that mechanical minds have been built and we have begun to intellectually explore what that means for: 1) Understanding cognition and how rational thought might emerge from it, 2) Showing just how much computational work is involved in simulating anything real be it physical systems or even more critically biological systems and intelligent organisms, and 3) Our conceptions of who we are and the role of objectivity and rationality in the structure of reality.  One important early result is that all of it is a lot harder that the early enthusiasm might suggest, but that's a good thing for those of us who like the idea of an open future.