Varela’s Contribution to the Creation of Cybersemiotics: The calculus of self-reference
Brier S. (2002) Varela’s Contribution to the Creation of Cybersemiotics: The calculus of self-reference. Cybernetics & Human Knowing 9(2): 77–82. Available at http://cepa.info/3205
The idea of evolution of living beings did not establish a firm foothold in the thinking of our culture until the 19th century. Evolution, though a biological concept, was nevertheless basically understood as a material change in body structure and function. In such a materialistic view great problems occur when one is trying to explain how mind came into being. How is it possible that the original “dead” world consisting of “pure” matter can foster living beings or observers with a sense of their own psychic existence?
In a modern biological view, the mechanics of life is deeply connected with the birth and development of the universe. Nevertheless, this materialistic cosmogony and evolutionary theory fails to explain the observer and the observing (the entire cognitive system.) After all, it is from within the observer and through language that the origin and progress of this evolution is explained. Our explanation takes place in the “praxis of living,” as Maturana often puts it (e.g. Maturana, 1988).
In thermodynamics, cybernetics and especially in second-order cybernetics, the principle of self-organization is given the role of explaining evolution and the emergence of new qualities, such as life and mind. Even though self-organization is basic to the concept of autopoiesis, there is still a very long way from the dissipative structures of non-equilibrium thermodynamics to an understanding of living autopoietic systems. We have observed the spontaneous creation of organic molecules in experiments, we have Eigen’s simulations of hypercycles with proteins and DNA, and we have spontaneous generation of cell-membrane-like structures and the autocatalytic chemical processes of Kauffmann (1995). But even with Hoffmeyer’s further explicatory conditions for a system to be living (Hoffmeyer 1985 and 1998), we are still unable to understand how the self-organization of matter can create living systems with a mind.
To a certain extent the notion of autopoiesis breaks with mechanical materialism through specifying the ability of living systems to self-organize their own molecules and cognition. This, in my view, takes life for granted. Next to nothing is said about ontological assumptions – about the medium in which organisms self-organize, and how life manifested during the development of the universe. Further, the problem of characterizing the force or forces that drive autopoiesis, is not addressed, proposing instead a “historical drift” along an epigenic course the dynamics of which are conserved through autopoiesis and adaptation. More or less deliberately what I would consider a full philosophy is not attempted.
To a certain extent this is also the strategy of Heinz von Foerster. In some of his papers, he has nevertheless pointed out that there must be some sort of order and energy in the environment to establish an observing system and to have regular differences to observe (Brier 1996). This is a good point, but it does not penetrate into the deep connection between a living system and its environment and try to conceptualize the nature of that connection, except for his ideas of the ecological niche as a kind of “Umwelt” and objects as cognitive “eigenvalues” that seem to be purely psychological, or if not so, then he omits to declare the relevant metaphysics.
In his work on autopoiesis, Varela underlines that life and cognition are deeply connected. I take it as fundamental that the ability to make distinctions is basic to living systems, and I think that the first crucial distinction is between the system and its environment. One could say that this distinction creates the individuality of living systems. But how is this possible in a mechanistic worldview? Spencer-Brown, who is recognized as a profound mathematical philosopher contributing to second order cybernetics, instead clearly promotes an objective idealism in his book “Laws of Form”(1972). Here he speaks about how the world comes to see itself through making a distinction. Spencer-Brown, who Luhmann uses in his development of autopoiesis theory, thereby delivers an ontology based on self-organized closure that is compatible with autopoiesis and the whole idea of life and cognition, . Further, Peirce developed such an evolutionary objective idealism with the hylozoistic view, namely that matter contains rudimentary life “inside.”
With the concept of autopoiesis, Maturana and Varela have taken an important step from the realm of biology in this direction, but more than a concept was needed. One of Francisco Varela’s (1975) major accomplishments was with his calculus for self-reference which takes the work with autopoiesis and Spencer- Brown’s philosophy to a deeper philosophical level. Varela is clearly aware of the possibility of establishing a new and intimate connection between epistemology, logic and ontology. He sees the limitation of a dualistic view in explaining processes of self-organization, such as cognition. He introduces a third self-referential autonomous state. He writes:
The principal idea behind this work can be stated thus: we choose to view the form of indication and the world arising from it as containing the two obvious dual domains of indicated and void states, and a third, not so obvious but distinct domain, of a self-referential autonomous state which other laws govern and which cannot be reduced by the laws of the dual domains. If we do not incorporate this third domain explicitly in our field of view, we force ourselves to find ways to avoid it (as has been traditional) and to confront it, when it appears, in paradoxic forms. (Varela 1975, p. 19)
Varela aptly sees that self-reference goes beyond the mechanical laws. Peirce would talk about the “law of mind.” “Life itself,” I think Robert Rosen would have said. Varela further underlines the importance of the connection between self-reference and time, as he incorporates an important evolutionary view into this paradigm:
True as it is that a cell is both the producer and the produced which embodies the producer, this duality can be pictured only when we represent for ourselves a sequence of processes of a circular nature in time. Apparently our cognition cannot hold both ends of a closing circle simultaneously; it must travel through the circle ceaselessly. Therefore we find a peculiar equivalence of self-reference and time, insofar as self-reference cannot be conceived outside time, and time comes in whenever self-reference is allowed.2 (Varela 1975, p. 20)
Through the formal introduction of time and self-reference, Varela introduces the connection between cognition and evolution and the arrow of time, without having to define it from the thermodynamic concept of entropy or its analogy to Shannon’s concept of information, as Bateson did (Ruech and Bateson 1987). Thereby he establishes a view of cognition, which seems compatible with Pierce’s semiotics.
Why is this important? Though leaving the objective view of information, autopoiesis theory and second order cybernetics have not yet developed a theory of meaning and signification, which connects the biological with the psychological cultural realm – Varela, Maturana, von Foerster, Glanville and Luhmann have taken steps in this direction. But C. S. Peirce, in his theory, has the same non-disciplinary, broad conceptual character as second order cybernetics and the same fundamental triadic and reflexive character that Varela has created for his autopoiesis theory, which we can now extend to second order cybernetics.
Pierce shows that a difference cannot become information before it has become so important to an observer/knower that he or she attaches a sign to it. Signs are what Varela uses to formulate and communicate his distinctions. Signs are needed for any formalized logic – as in Varela’s calculus of self-reference. Indeed, only signs can be thought and communicated, and a difference, which cannot be communicated, hardly exists. A doctrine of signs and signification is needed.
In his semiotics, C.S. Peirce dived deep into the relation between mind, matter, natural laws, and the evolution of the universe. In accordance with modern thermodynamics and, to some degree, quantum field theory, Peirce sees the basic quality of reality as randomness or chaos. However, in order to explain how law and structure comes from randomness, Peirce (1892) finds it necessary to endow chaos with a particular quality, namely the tendency to form habits: to make distinctions that may last for a while. In this minimum statement he avoids saying too much about a virtual order in the transcendental, but he also avoids denying such an order. His purpose is to maintain an open boundary between physics and metaphysics.
In this way Peirce includes the observer and thereby life and mind. He sees the universe as arising from the random sporting of a concept that seems consistent with what the physicists now call the vacuum field, where suddenly a vibration or a wave passes the quantum threshold and becomes manifest. In accordance with modern thermodynamics this aberration expands, and in this process space-time is unfolded (as relativity theory sees it) and matter is created and organized into more complicated (self-organized) systems. However, the great difference is that he does not only see the Firstness vacuum as emptiness but also as fullness, as a hypercomplex dynamic process, which includes the characteristics of mind, matter and life. Peirce calls this pure spontaneity and pure feeling. He has a hylozoic viewpoint, namely he supports the doctrine that matter and life are inseparable. This means that matter possesses a type of life and sensation.
In his creation of a basic semiotic, Peirce did some very fundamental thinking regarding the necessary relationship between the subject, the sign or representamen and the object, and the minimum qualities he had to ascribe to them in order to create a realistic model of the process of knowing and signmaking. Peirce came to a triadic process-oriented view o f t he autonomous self-organization of signification and meaning. Peirce writes:
A Sign, or Representamen, is a First which stands in such a genuine triadic relation to a Second, called its Object, as to be capable of determining a Third, called its Interpretant, to assume the same triadic relation to its Object in which it stands itself to the same Object. The triadic relation is genuine, that is its three members are bound together by it in a way that does not consist in any complexus of dyadic relations. That is the reason the Interpretant, or Third, cannot stand in a mere dyadic relation to the Object, but must stand in such a relation to it as the Representamen itself does. (Peirce 1955, p. 99)
I see Peirce’s Interpretant as the observer of second-order cybernetics, which distinguishes differences. I think Peirce would agree that all living interpreters must be autopoietic systems – although he did most of his work with interpretants on higher levels. His concept of the interpretant goes deep into society, culture and history. In the continuation of the same text Peirce points out that the interpretant is itself a kind of sign, which also needs interpretation. What Peirce says is, that signification is never just a relation between a sign and its object. The sign can only signify what it is capable of being interpretated as. Therefore the interpretant is a necessary part of the sign. In accordance with Bateson we would say that we interpret differences as signs when the difference matters to us.
Peirce’s reflexive or second-order definition of the interpretant is directed towards culture, history and the never-ending search for truth and knowledge. It underlines habits and historical drift as the social constructure of meaning, in agreement with Maturana and Varela. It is a drift, not a causally law-determined event, whose endpoint is mathematically calculable. In Perice’s thinking it is pure feeling and life that evolves through the semiotic process.
Peirce’s definition of signs is very cybernetic and self-organized. Thus it is the semiotic web that creates meaning. It is even so reflexive that it is second-order. Maturana and Varela’s description of the autopoietic system, how it organizes itself in the historical drift of interaction in the domain of living, supports and supplements Peirce’s description of the interpreter and its developmental relationship with culture – what Peirce calls unlimited semiosis.
A great part of our communication and thinking is not of our own doing; it is biological evolution and cultural history signifying through us. Therefore we will also have to accept that we have no ultimate control over thinking and communication – in short, signmaking. The human being must to a certain extent accept himself as the “place” where speech is created and a person is, in part, self-created through the social process of languaging.
The understanding of our basic situation as knowing beings without full conscious control over the creative aspects of language, and no conceptual scientific insight into any kind of timeless logic behind all language, is an entrance to understanding logic and rationality in another way. Signification, meaning, rationality and logic are not born fully-fledged but are gradually crystallized out of vague beginnings through the historical drift of praxis and the dance of languaging, the intimate development of the “life forms” and “language games” that Wittgenstein described. Furthermore, we must accept signs and concepts as just as fundamentally a part of reality as material objects. It is in accordance with evolutionary thoughts that we must realize that vagueness is first, precision is second and understanding is third. This is a view of semantics, symbols and logic that is differing from that of mainstream cognitive science and artificial intelligence (AI), the so-called “symbolism” that is often criticized by researchers within second order cybernetics and autopoiesis theory.
Varela adopted a Buddhist view of the world, and therefore his view came much closer to Peirce and Spencer-Brown’s objective idealistic view than that of Maturana. Thus, it is Varela’s work in the calculus for self-reference that is the crucial bridging step in the development of this new field where autopoiesis theory, second order cybernetics and semiotics merge into Cybersemiotics. The work is further developed in his enaction theory. Varela was a fine man and an independent thinker as well as a creative scholar.
Brier S. (1993) Cyber-Semiotics: Second order cybernetics and the Semiotics of C. S. Peirce. In Proceedings from the Second European Congress on System Science, Prague, October 5–8 1993, AFCET.
Brier S. (1996) From Second-order Cybernetics to Cybersemiotics: A Semiotic Re-entry into the Second-order Cybernetics of Heinz von Foerster. Systems Research, Vol. 13, No. 3: 229–244, 1996.
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This column has been initiated as a forum for commentaries by the Trustees of the American Society for Cybernetics. As a Trustee of the Society, Søren Brier contributes the following paper.
I am here going back and further developing a specific point in my theory of Cybersemiotics, on which I first published in a conference proceeding (Brier 1993).
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