Semiotics and System Development

This post will concern the development of systems, assuming the earlier supposed ‘systems theory’ ontology. In particular it will focus on the ‘canonical development trajectory’ (CDT) and show this fact, with an ontological plurality of systems, suggests emergent dualism, and a systems-theoretic way of thinking about the development of consciousness experience.

Assume the definition of Nature previously provided. A system undergoes development, and this development can be modeled as part of Nature. Development is a process from vague beginnings toward more and more specified particulars. Each stage of development will be a ‘refinement’ of the earlier stages, via having acquired more information in its process. For example, consider how a stream may develop from a glacier or mountainous lake. As the stream descends, its path down the mountain (its development) will progress in a way supervenient on the totality (of the development) of the preceding stages (this is how the system becomes increasingly specified as it accumulates more and more information at each stage [e.g. about the ruts and ridges which further specify the trajectory of the stream]).

Few developmental tendencies are universal; one such is the ‘canonical development trajectory.’ In CDT, each stage is defined by some thermodynamic and/or some informational change. Consider the universe at its inception and assume that it is thermodynamically isolated. As the universe expands, it becomes increasingly disequilibrated. This is to say that the universe’s constituents slowly clump into vague, amorphous masses; in these masses, continued disequilibration sharpens them into having more definite forms. Through continued disequilibration these forms develop into organizations. And so on, as the universe moves further from thermodynamic equilibrium.1 So the general pattern of development looks like this: [vague \rightarrow [more definite \rightarrow [more ‘mechanistic’]]]. This pattern of development occurs at different rates for different kinds of systems (e.g. chemical, biological).

Note that things like striving and haste make work less energy efficient, and that entropy production is the way that a disequilibrated region can foster or restore (some of) the universe’s thermodynamic equilibrium. This observation leads us to an Aristotelian conception of cause qua the development of a system. Consider a developing system S — what is it that causes it to develop in the way that it does? (1) The components of the system must have a susceptibility to being changed. That is, the ontological status of the substrate of the component must be the kind of thing that can undergo some kind of change. E.g. the bronze of Aristotle’s bronze statue is the kind of material that is susceptible to being carved into a statue. This is the material cause. (2) The system must have initial and boundary conditions, organized in a definite and particular way, constraining its development. The ruts and ridges of the mountain set the conditions for the development of the water (for instance, the water will flow down a rut and cannot balance on a ridge). This will be the formal cause. (3) There is some inciting ‘force,’ ‘push,’ or ‘action’ that initiates the process. Perhaps the dam (holding the water) gives way, initiating the water’s developmental flow down the mountain. This is efficient cause. (4) There is some thing that it ‘strives’ to develop into as it gains more information. This ‘striving’ will be attributable to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The water flowing down the mountain is trying to ‘dissipate’ its energy (and increase the entropy of the universe, pushing it toward equilibrium). Put plainly it is the answer to ‘why’ the water flows down the mountain the way it does. All ‘work’ is undertaken to move the universe toward increased equilibrium (and entropy). This will be the final cause.

Each level in development represents a different ontological (or integrative) level: [physical dynamics $latex \rightarrow$ [chemistry \rightarrow [biology \rightarrow [neuropsychology (and so on)]]]] This is contrary to the ‘unity of the sciences’ perspective, which maintains that lower levels give rise to and subsume higher levels — that each higher level is supposed to be entirely supervenient on the lower level(s). But the ‘unity of the sciences’ thesis doesn’t seem to match with reality (or how we take things to be). For, prima facie, it seems that each higher level integrates and harnesses all the lower levels under its own local rules. That is, they synthesize all the lower levels in order to promote the final cause of the higher level from one moment to the next. To see this, consider a person (a biological system). Individual action comes from a person instantiating neural firings, which defines and restricts the space of biological (re)actions; the organization of the biology sets the criterion for what chemical/molecular actions can be, and so on. The highest integrative level determines the space of action for the lower levels. We say that levels are ontologically separate in that they are ‘integrative.’

In the course of development, there are two (interrelated) principles we must keep in mind, viz. total novelty denial and the principle of continuity. The former asserts that nothing ‘totally new’ appears in the course of development. The latter asserts that all emergent features at higher integrative levels would have been ‘vaguely and episodically’ present (primitively) in the lower levels. This entails that any present configuration at a high level implies that which gave rise to them (either ontologically-materially or conceptually). It’s worth noting that total novelty denial does not deny that something ‘apparently novel’ may emerge, only that it is not actually novel. If that sounds confusing, here is an example. You might think that the development of some new species or of a unique poem seems ‘new.’ But it is not ‘new’ re vera. The development of each is just a restriction on what was possible before its (that is, the species’ or poem’s) emergence. Salthe asks us to consider language. We ‘chose’ the English language and can express infinitely many things with it; however, English cannot express the ‘larger moods’ expressible in French (which may have been expressible in a common, ancestral language). So something ‘apparently’ novel can emerge in the long run,2 but in actuality it is just a restriction on the previous stage(s) of development.

And now we can reach the crux of the matter. Consider the proposed developmental pattern: [physical dynamics \rightarrow [molecular connectivities \rightarrow [biological activities \rightarrow [individual action \rightarrow [sociopolitical projects \rightarrow [culture]]]]]. Notice that as the development of this system proceeds, causation is less susceptible to material reduction (in the sense that, at higher and higher integrative levels, it becomes progressively more difficult to describe the actions at those levels in terms of the more basic systems it out of which it arose). For when we reach culture, we have not a material form (assuming we ever thought we had one) of evolution, but a purely informational form of evolution. For culture is a product of information, of written history and literature, of the behavioral customs and norms between people of the same society, the thought behind certain practices, and so on. Culture is a highly-integrative level, and is in no sense straightforwardly material. By total novelty denial and the principle of continuity, culture logically implies constituents which give rise to it. But the constituents of culture are purely information, not matter. This, then, is resistant to material reduction, for the constituents that it implies are informational, not material. That development moves toward this suggests something like semiotics being the ‘ultimate framework’ of reality, as opposed to matter. Semiotics amounts to information through isomorphisms in ‘signs.’ And this seems consistent with our earlier developed ‘systems theory’ ontology — the (onto)logical priority of systems. If what constitutes a system are (1) ‘objects’ and (2) relations between them, then a semiotic framework seems intuitive. For each ‘object’ can be taken as a token or sign, and the signs will be related in a certain way. Two discrete systems are isomorphic if we can establish some \meaningful} mapping between them.3  If the concept of a system is the most prior, then the domain of semiotics seems to follow almost immediately after.


  1. The continued development of increasingly complicated systems will, then, be dependent on the continuation of the universe’s expansion. 
  2. Here’s lookin’ at you, consciousness. 
  3. A robust account of this can be found in Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. 
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