Cybersemiotics is the attempt to provide a transdisciplinary framework for the scholarly work on information, cognition and communication coming from the natural, technical and social sciences as well as the humanities. It builds on two already generated interdisciplinary approaches: On the one hand cybernetics and systems theory including information theory and science, and on the other Peircean semiotics including phenomenology and pragmatic aspects of linguistics. Cybersemiotics attempts to make the two interdisciplinary paradigms – both going beyond mechanistic and pure constructivistic ideas - complement each other in a common framework.
1. Observers within their universe
We need to realize that a paradigm based on the view of the universe that makes irreversible time and evolution fundamental, forces us to view man as a product of evolution and therefore an observer from inside the universe. This changes the way we conceptualize the problem and role of consciousness in nature compared to what Descartes did with his dualistic paradigm. The theory of evolution forces us theoretically to conceive the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities together in one framework of unrestricted or absolute naturalism, where consciousness is part of nature. This has influenced the exact sciences to produce theories of information and self-organization in order to explain the origin of life and sense experiences, encouraged biological thinking to go into psychology and social science in the form of theories of selfish genes, socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. But these approaches have still not satisfactorily led to an understanding of why and how certain →systems have the ability to produce sense experiences, awareness and meaningful communication. The theories of the phenomenological life world and the →hermeneutics of →communication and understanding seem to defy classical scientific explanations. The humanities therefore send another insight the opposite way down the evolutionary ladder, with questions like: What is the role of consciousness, →signs and meaning in evolution? These are matters that the exact sciences are not constructed to answer in their present state. Phenomenology and hermeneutics point out to the sciences that the type of objective knowledge they produce have prerequisite conditions in embodied living conscious beings imbued with meaningful language and a culture. One can see the world view that emerges from the work of the sciences as a reconstruction back into time from our present ecological and evolutionary self-understanding as semiotic intersubjective conscious cultural, historical creatures, but unable to handle the aspects of meaning and conscious awareness. How can we integrate these two directions of explanatory efforts?
What makes Cybersemiotics different from other approaches attempting to produce a transdisciplinary theory of information, cognition and communication is its absolute naturalism, which forces us to view life, consciousness as well as cultural meaning as a part of nature and evolution. It thus wants to combine a number of different platforms from which attempts to make universal theories of perception, cognition, consciousness and communication have been made, by relativizing each of them as only a partial view: 1. The physico-chemical scientific paradigm based on third person objective empirical knowledge and mathematical theory, but with no conceptions of experiental life, meaning and first person embodied consciousness and therefore meaningful linguistic intersubjectivity; 2. The biological and natural historical science approach understood as the combination of genetic evolutionary theory with an ecological and thermodynamic view based on the evolution of experiental living systems as the ground fact and engaged in a search for empirical truth, yet doing so without a theory of meaning and first person embodied consciousness and thereby linguistic meaningful intersubjectivity; 3. The linguistic-cultural-social structuralist constructivism that sees all knowledge as constructions of meaning produced by the intersubjective web of language, cultural mentality and power, but with no concept of empirical truth, life, evolution, ecology and a very weak concept of subjective embodied first person consciousness even while taking conscious intersubjective communication and →knowledge processes as the basic fact to study (the linguistic turn); 4. Any approach which takes the qualitative distinction between subject and object as the ground fact on which all meaningful knowledge is based and considering all results of the sciences, including linguistics and embodiment of consciousness, as secondary knowledge, as opposed to a phenomenological (Husserl) or actually phaneroscopic (Peirce) first person point of view considering conscious meaningful experiences in advance of the subject/object distinction.
Figure 1. The Semiotic Star: A model of how the communicative social system of the embodied →mind produces four main areas of knowledge. Physical nature is usually explained as originating in energy and matter, living systems as emerging from the development of life processes (for instance, the first cell). Social culture is explained as founded on the development of meaning in language and practical habits, and finally our inner mental world is explained as deriving from the development of our individual life world and consciousness. But all these types of knowledge have their origin in our primary semiotic life-world and the common sense we develop here through our cultural history (horizon). In the course of this development the results of the natural and social sciences as well as humanities feed into our common sense horizon and expands it.
3. Peirce triadic semiotic process ontology as a new view of reality
Peirce’s evolutionary metaphysics has a phenomenological point of departure, but he frames the task differently from Husserl as well as from Hegel. Thus, it is most relevant to hold on to the name Peirce invented for his own stance: phaneroscopy. To me, there is a basic problem in modern European phenomenology from Husserl and onward, viz. that when we talk about phenomenology, we cannot get to the world of the others and to the world of objects as they hardly have any existence outside our own consciousness. This is because it deals with a certain view of the pre-linguistic consciousness before any distinction between object and subject. Peirce, however, tries to solve this problem by introducing his three basic categories of Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness and connecting them to the sign process, thus making a common foundation for cognition and communication that makes his theory intersubjective at the basis. First person experience then does not come from a transcendental subject, but from ’pure feeling’, or Firstness. Thus, Firstness must be the unanalyzable, inexplicable, unintellectual basis which runs in a continuous stream through our lives and therefore is the sum total of consciousness. Thus, possibility is a good word for Firstness. Existence is an abstract possibility (Firstness) which is no-thing. Peirce equates being with Firstness, as is clear from these two trichotomies: (1) being, (2) actuality, (3) reality; and (1) possibility, (2) actuality, (3) necessity. Here it is important to understand that the categories are inclusive: you cannot have Secondness without Firstness or Thirdness without Secondness.
Peirce is referring to Hegel’s dynamical dialectical thinking as a contrast to Aristotle. Where Aristotle's logic is concerned with separate, discrete phenomena in a deductive pattern, Hegel in his phenomenology dissolves this classical static view into a dynamic movement. This is caused by oppositions between the structural elements that - through their fight with each other - develop towards a new whole, which is usually the whole we have now. It is viewed as preserving the former elements (→contradiction) but now united into a new higher synthesis. This dialectics is a much more organic way of thinking than the more mechanical classical logic. Hegel's term for this overcoming of contradiction at a new level, which at the same time preserves the contradiction on a lower one, is Aufhebung. The concept is sometimes translated as "sublation”.
There is a lot of Thirdness in Hegel’s phenomenology as well as an intuitive apprehension of the total picture, or Firstness. What is missing - from a Peircean point of view - is then that healthy sense of reality that Secondness provides. It is the brute facts on which everyday consciousness and self-conscious experience confronts in that it does not flawlessly conform to our expectations. The resting of reality in Peirce’s analysis. We have to reflect on what the brute facts say about Thirdness and this is the road to science. Thus Hegel does not – in Peirce’s view – see that the difference between Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness is foundational and that there is no way in which one of them can be turned into one of the others, nor does he realize that they cannot melt together into one whole.The phaneroscopic semiotics includes an intersubjective base as Peirce considers all knowledge to be intersubjectively produced through signs and view emotions and qualia as Firstness. The integrative transdisciplinary synthesis of Cybersemiotics starts by accepting two major, but not fully explanatory, and very different transdisciplinary paradigms: 1. the second order →cybernetic and autopoietic approach united in Luhmann’s triple autopoietic system theory of social communication; 2. the Peircean phaneroscopic, triadic, pragmaticistic, evolutionary, semiotic approach to meaning which has led to modern →biosemiotics, based in a phenomenological intersubjective world of partly self-organizing triadic sign processes in an experiential meaningful world. The two are integrated by inserting the modern development of information theory and self-organizing, emergent chemico-biological phenomena as an aspect of a general semiotic evolution in the Peircean framework. This creates the Cybersemiotic framework where evolutionary experiential and intersubjective sign processes become the ground reality on which our conceptions of ourselves, action, meaning and the word are built. None of the results from exact science, biology, humanities or social sciences are considered more fundamental than the others. They contribute on an equal footing to our intersubjective, semiotic process of knowing ourselves and the world.
Thus, all four approaches: physics, biology, phenomenology (awareness and intentionality), and sociology/linguistics are all equally important and therefore have to be united into a transdisciplinary theory of information, semiotics, first person consciousness and intersubjective socio-cultural communication. The Cybersemiotic Star model illustrates this, while at the same time pointing to the fact that the discussion about transdisciplinary knowledge is conducted in a linguistic discourse with other embodied and linguistically-informed consciousnesses in both a natural and cultural Umwelt.
Looking at The Cybersemiotic Star we see that there are four forms of historical explanations going on: 1. the cosmological, 2. the biological, 3. the historical, and 4. the personal life history. The natural sciences work towards making one grand historical explanation; but so far, we have not cracked the problem of the emergence of life and consciousness in evolution, I have argued here. Thus we might have to accept that an all-encompassing explanation of the conscious meaningful human communication process cannot be provided from any of the corners of the model alone. We cannot so far reduce our scientific explanations to one grand story, but, instead, have to juggle with all four at the same time, as long as they have the present paradigmatic foundations.
Each of the four corners of the star represents different kinds of epistemologies. In science we have – as prerequisite outside the theory - several living, embodied conscious subjects linked by knowledge sharing in language confronting one or more objects. The first person living consciousnesses of the subject(s) as observers are considered to be outside the world they observe. In the biological sciences the observers share the life experience with their objects that are also living and therefore experiencing. It is sadly often forgotten in molecular definitions of life that it is a basic and common trait of all life that it senses and experiences, a fact not easily explainable from a molecular level. We can kill the life we investigate to find out the molecular structure, but then we are returned to physico-chemical approaches as the life and the agency of the living is gone. But when studying living beings in the state of being alive, sensing their surroundings and creating their own Umwelt, we are in a qualitatively new situation, as we have to accept that the living systems experience the environment in a specific manner, which will most often be partly different from ours. Thus we are in a second order situation of observing →observation.
A common view among information theorists is that information integrated with entropy in some way is a basic structure of the World. Computation is the process of the dynamic change of information. In order for anything to exist for an individual, she must get information on it by means of perception or by re-organization of the existing information into new patterns. This cybernetic-computational-informational view is based on a universal and un-embodied conception of information and computation, which is the deep foundation of “the information processing paradigm” (s. →General Theory of Information, →Info-computationalism). This paradigm is vital for most versions of cognitive science and its latest developments into brain function and linguistic research. Taken to its full metaphysical scope this paradigm views the universe as a computer, humans as dynamic systems producing and being guided by computational functioning. Language is seen as a sort of culturally developed algorithmic program for social information processing.
A theory of signification and how meaning is produced through signs is needed to connect human consciousness with a theory of nature and information. For this we need to enlarge the picture by superimposing and integrating an even broader foundation such as Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticistic semiotics in its modern development as biosemiotics. The first ground work to explain why and how such a combinatory framework of semiotics and cybernetics makes it possible to make an evolutionary based transdisciplinary theory of information, cognition, consciousness, meaning and communication can be found in Brier (2008a) and in the subsequent papers written after the book manuscript was finished (Brier 2007, 2008b, ff).
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Brier, S. (2/2011)
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