The overall structure of this book is as yet formless. The goal is to provides some foundation for the cognitive structure of the universe, or rather to provide some outlines of territories to be explored toward that end.

Just about all of the ideas here are borrowed from others and maybe all that is original is how some of the dots are connected. To borrow a saying as well, I am priviledged to stand on the shoulders of giants, and to be able to transmit my small contributions into a connected world that has probably already discovered much of this itself in various corners where the new thought centers are emerging. I don't so much invent as observe and compile the collective productions of an emergent, networked collective intelligence.

With the tools provided by a revived Piercean Semiotics connected to an expanding and deepening theory of the emergence of autopoietic systems theory, we find the basis for a complete theory of cognition grounded in a semiotic interpretation of the physical world. We will find that not only are all the biological systems composed of nested (fractal) complexes of autopoietic systems all the way down to the physio-chemical substrate explored by modern science, but the human social processes of science, discovery and all of human thought are also best understood in tems of autopoiesis. As networks of self-reproducing (textual (ref)) processes. Again, it is turtles all the way down (ref).


Autopoiesis and the Emergence of Self

If we identify the Self with autopoetic entities, we find a way to ground Piercean Semiotics. The components of the autopoetic model are directly connected to the three elements of the sign. The operational closure of the entity is what generates the self and the ego, not as concrete entities but instead as emergent aspects of the interaction of the entity with its environment (structural coupling). The three aspects of signs are related directly to this structural coupling where the operationally closed self is altering its internal state in response to interactions with the environment (atomic components of the structured coupling). In terms of the signs, we say that the internal state change represents the interpretant, and the self or ego is the site or space in which interpretants and further information processing (semiosis) takes place.

Internally to the entity, the occurance of a sign generates a sequence of interpretation where the sign referring and the thing referred to are identified such that an interaction can occur. When the fish responds to a lure as if it were a fly, it finds out too late that it is mistaken;  when the hook bites, in the interaction, the internal state of the fish is identical whether striking a fly or a lure. The sign of the lure/fly is taken to be a fly for the purposes of the interaction (striking at a meal).

image/svg+xml An Autopoietic Unity Operational Closure Environment Structural Coupling The history of coupling can beinterpreted in terms of semiosiswhere signs in the environmentresult in responses by the unity,the interpretant of the sign assomething relevant to theproduction and reproduuctionof the unity.

Note that if we use this same model on physical entities like atoms and molecules we find another basis for the deep interpretation of the doctrine of signs suggested by J. Deely. If the entity is a free hydrogen radical (i.e. on proto), the presense of an electron generates a field (the interpretant from the standpoint of a particular atom or molecule, in this case a free proton), and the possibilities of interaction (structural coupling). It can resonate with that electron and create a new entity representing the bound state. The math of QED is all about how this particular structural coupling works in nearly complete detail. This is one of science's most complete and accurate theories.

My claim is that if we take Pierce's program to make the doctrine of signs into a complete theory that can connect math, science and philosophy into a unified whole, that many paradoxes of the current paradigms can be much more directly addressed. It will do a lot for the foundational clarity of the harder sciences with more complete theories, but I think it has even more to offer to workers in the cognitive sciences, and understanding living systems and in particular the emergence of mental qualities of intelligence, wisdom and consciousness.

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.