LEVELS OF CONVERGENCE
by Renata Lemos, Lucia Santaella
Part 3 - Information and Meaning; Semiosis and Matter
4 Information vs. Meaning
Information pervades every level of reality, be it material, mental or emotional. It can be considered as being embodied in any type of pattern that could be perceived by, interpreted and transformed in other patterns (LIP, 2005). Patterns are only patterns in relation to an observer. While symbolists focus on the observer and on interpretation, connectionists focus on information structures, processes and dynamics. The cognitive hybrid interface between neuron and nano artifact is informational at its core. When it comes to hybrid systems of intelligence, the focus shifts toward the interface connecting the symbolic level of the first person to the material level of information processes, be they biological, cognitive or digital.
Informational Realism and the theory of LoA (Levels of Abstraction) inform us that reality might be understood in terms of information structures (Floridi, 2007a). Epistemic Structural Realism (ESR) and Ontic Structural Realism (OSR) both refer to informational structures as the main instruments of knowledge acquisition. ESR implies that only through observing the informational interfaces between structures and systems can we understand reality. OSR, by the same token, states that we can only reach the essence of a given object via its informational structure. According to OSR, all structures are informational. Therefore, reality is about structure and structure is about information.
However, Informational Realism does not account either for meaning or interpretation. The analysis made by philosophy of information is strictly constructionist, and could be aligned with the connectionist approach to mind. It is centered on the material aspects of reality: matter is information, so all information is material. According to philosophy of information, mind is an – informational – property of an – informational – system. It follows that if matter is information and all information is material – mind would also be material (?). This approach seems to fall into Dembsky´s category of soft-materialism, representing a new kind of soft-reductionism based on Informational Realism. Meaning is left out of this equation because it cannot be reduced to an object with an external independent existence. Meaning is always formulated by a first person. Meaning is always relative to a first person.
The interface between matter and mind has data, information and meaning as its main elements. Mind only achieves knowledge (meaning) through the processing of information, information only gets to mind through perception, and perception interprets data in order to deliver information to the mind. As we can observe in Nitecki´s (1993) elucidative representation on Fig. 01, what connects matter to mind is a continuous flow of data, information and knowledge (meaning): (D = Datum i = Infoscript K = Knowledge)
Continuity between Matter and Mind (NITECKI, 1993).
The flow of information, being intrinsically connected to the flow of knowledge, still is not responsible for it. So while information is intrinsic to intelligence it does not account for intelligence. While meaning is always achieved through information, it is not reducible to information. The concept of infosphere does not encompass the dimension of meaning. Theories of information, however useful to the study of information processes, are not sufficient to the study of meaning. Having thus recognized the limitations of mathematical theories of information such as Shannon´s, and also of philosophy of information in the analysis of hybrid cognitive interfaces between mind and matter, we move on to exploring wider theoretical perspectives.
5 Semiosis & Meaning
The concept of semiosis was developed by C. S. Peirce in the context of his semiotics, the general theory of signs, where it was defined as follows:
All dynamical action, or action of brute force, physical or psychical, either takes place between two subjects [whether they react equally upon each other, or one is agent and the other patient, entirely or partially] or at any rate is a resultant of such actions between pairs. But by 'semiosis' I mean, on the contrary, an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs (CP 5.484).
Semiosis, the action of the sign, is the action of being interpreted in another sign. Perception is the door through which signs reach mind, being transformed into meaning, by means of the translation of one sign into another. This movement of sign as it goes from perception to interpretation is implied in semiosis. Although it is possible to visualize the mechanisms of perception, it is not so easy to visualize semiosis. While perception is about recognizing patterns of information, semiosis is about the symbolic meaning which will be attributed to them. There is no semiosis without transformation. Pattern recognition is transformed into meaning through semiosis – however, exactly where and how does it happen?
Santaella (1998, p. 22) calls this question “the problem of perception” which goes beyond the mere reproducing and copying of patterns of information, it is mainly about continuous interpretation.
As the interpreting process does not necessarily imply its embodiment in a human mind but may be performed by any subject with the capability of translating one sign or any signal into another, the concept of semiosis was incorporated by biologists. For these, semiosis can help us to answer several questions in biology, especially those concerning interpretation and meaning with which the quantitatively oriented mathematical theory of information cannot cope (Emmeche, 1991), Emmeche and Hoffmeyer (1991), Hoffmeyer and Emmeche (1991, 1999). Hence, semiosis fills the gap between information and meaning, by encompassing the first person and also intentionality. Brier (2006) describes semiosis in living systems in the following way:
Molecules are composed of sequences of atoms and make three-dimensional shapes. They interact informationally through formal causality. Macromolecules are composed of minor molecules often put in sequences. Cells interpret the molecules as coded signs and interact with them through final causation in semiosis (Brier, 2006, p. 35).
Concerned with the relations between life and meaning and the symbolic structures of living semiotic systems, biosemiotics considers that “the evolution of life is not only based on physical, chemical and even informational processes but on the development of semiotic possibilities” (Brier, 2006, p.35). Kull (1998) states that semiosis:
...could be defined as the appearance of a connection between things, which do not have a priori anything in common, in the sense that they do not interact or convert each other through direct physical or chemical processes. However, as far as the relation between them, once established (by a subject), is nevertheless intermediated by physical or chemical processes, this infers that the relation is semiotic as long as it is established through learning (Kull, 1998, p. 6).
In sum: semiosis is the general technical term to cover the semantic field of terms such as intelligence, mind, thought – which can no longer be considered as privileges of the human kind. Whenever there may be a tendency to learn, toward self-correction processes, changes of habit, wherever there may be goal directed actions, there will be intelligence, wherever it may occur: in the pollen-grain which fertilizes the ovule of a plant, in the flight of a bird, in the immunological system, or in human reason. Thus it is that semiosis has to be understood side by side with concepts such as morphogenesis, teleonomy, autopoiesis, dissipative structures, self-organizing systems, as well as with the contemporary cybernetic concepts which have been studied by the new discipline of cybersemiotics.
In that context, hybrid mind-matter interfaces denote a progressive convergence between biosemiotics and cybersemiotics, given that biological decoding engenders AI´s binary coding. Whenever biology is the object of research, then we must decode. Living structures must be decoded in order to be understood, manipulated and replicated. Whenever digital technology is the object at hand, then we must codify. Digital structures must be codified in order to come to existence as functional systems. The deeper we decode biology and the better we codify digital technology, we move closer to a single underlying code, which gives rise to new levels of semiosis. It is possible to infer that biology is also digital in its essence:
Information technologies have been considered ... as extensions of man. However, the transformation of the human body has consequences also on the cultural human environment. Under these premises, human beings are seen as part of a complex system of natural and artificial messages that function on a digital basis. In this sense the human body can be seen as data (EGE, 2005, p.27).
It is therefore possible to understand hybrid interfaces in terms of the interplay between data, text and messages. An organism would be a genetic message composed of DNA text, which is translated into a body. A digital artifact would be a technological message composed of software text, which is translated into a functional structure. Be it digital or not, semiosis is continuous translation that travels across multiple levels of reality. Semiosis is material and symbolic at the same time. It encompasses simultaneously a material vehicle and a symbolic meaning. Semiosis carries the force of evolution, the force of movement and change. On many different levels of reality, one can find semiosis at work: it is through semiosis that trees experience growth, concepts experience development, systems experience evolution. There are layers of sign action permeating material systems.
According to Kull (1998, p. 4), semiosis is “a process of translation, which makes a copy of a text, suitable to replace the original text in some situations, but which is also so different from the original text that the original cannot be used (either spatially, or temporally, or due to the differences in text-carrier or language) for the same functions”. Semiosis is what happens at hybrid cognitive interfaces between matter and mind: a back and forth dynamics of digital translation and symbolic interpretation from one level to another.
Peirce was the first to develop the notion of a naturalist semiotics, which considers the universe to be perfused with signs. This universal nature of semiosis has a lot to say about the merger between the fields of biology, cognition and artificial intelligence (Santaella, 2004). This semiotic merger occurs around the concept of effete mind, a concept to be understood in the context of Peirce´s synechism.
6 Peirce: Continuity & Effete Mind
Synechism is defined as “that tendency of philosophical thought which insists upon the idea of continuity as of prime importance in philosophy”. The continuum, on its turn, is defined as “something whose possibilities of determination no multitude of individuals can exhaust” (CP 6.169-170). A rudimentary form of continuity is generality, since continuity is nothing but perfect generality of a law of relationship (CP 6.172). Besides the development of his synechistic ideas, Peirce also gave ample thought to tychism or absolute chance. This latter was proposed because he considered mechanistic and deterministic explanation insufficient in the light of his doctrine of categories (Santaella, 2001).
Given a choice between Cartesian dualism and some variety of monism, for Peirce, philosophy must adopt the latter. There are three possible directions in which monism can be developed.: (a) neutralism, which takes physical and psychical laws as independent of each other and steming from some third Urstoff; (b) materialism, which takes the psychical laws to be derived from the physical and (c)idealism, which take the physical as derived from the psychical. Occam’s razor guided Peirce against neutralism and the first principle of scientific thought, that is, do not resort to the ultimate and inexplicable as an explanation (CP 6.24), guided him against materialism. Objective idealism is the only rational alternative: matter is effete mind. The main interpretation of the concept of effete mind associates it to living matter (Mladenov, 2003). Peirce, however, never restricted this notion to a particular kind of matter. Universal semiosis is implicit in his principle of continuity (Rosa, 2003), which is the basis of his doctrine of synechism.
If matter is effete mind, and physical laws are derived from psychical, there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and that is mind, the great law of the universe is that of mind. What is the law of mind? It is the tendency to generalize and to form associations which is also the tendency to form habits, itself a habit (CP 6.612). What Peirce found out in nature and in thought is a general tendency of possibilities or chance events to turn into sequences of events that coalesce by taking habits. This is relational generality from which dynamism and growth generate. The prototype of this tendency is in the human mind, in the way ideas are associated in our minds which is analogous to the probabilistic laws of nature (Hulswit, 2000; Ency, p.7).
Hence, his monism on mind or objective idealism is not just an inversion of the physicalist conception of mind according to which mental states are simply physical states. What Peirce asserted is that all of reality, in an infinite series of differentiations, is governed by the law of mind. He did not mean that matter has the substance of mind, neither “substance” in the old sense of a thing nor in the modern chemical sense.
Objective idealism transcends Plato´s duality between matter and form, by interpreting matter as a product of an all-encompassing Mind (Hegel, Schelling, Fichte). The greatest objective idealist was Hegel, who saw reality as an expression of a continuous Absolute, in which there can be no true separation between levels. Hegel described the Absolute in terms of an underlying unity made of continuous movement and change. Hegel´s concept of Absolute is implied on the contemporary idea of semiosphere:
...all semiotic space may be regarded as a unified mechanism (if not organism). In this case, primacy does not lie in one or another sign, but in the “greater system”, namely the semiosphere. The semiosphere is that same semiotic space, outside of which semiosis itself cannot exist (Lotman 2005, p.208).
Lotman´s “greater system” – semiosphere - is absolute continuity from one level of reality to another. There is a certain correspondence between Peirce´s principle of continuity and the continuous state of change characterizing the Hegelian (Absolute) unity of matter and mind within a semiosphere. Peirce´s law of mind, being based on synechism – continuity - and tychism – absolute chance – also shows a clear resemblance to contemporary scientific quantum theories.
Nicolescu (2005) has pointed to striking correspondences between Peircean concepts and quantum physics: Peirce´s concept of Primacy relates to quantum events; tychism relates to non-determinism and quantum mechanics; the idea of continuity relates to bootstrap theory; Peirce´s atomic theory relates to string theory. Also, according to Nicolescu (2005), there are other correspondences between classical physics and Peircean concepts, such as time-space continuum corresponding to Peirce´s category of Secondness, and cosmic evolution corresponding to Peirce´s concepts of Thirdness and Final Causation.
Another correspondences are found on Nicolescu´s Logic of the Included Middle (Nicolescu, 2001), which unites physical levels of reality (in this context seen as data, information) to ideal levels of abstraction (symbolic meaning). According to the Logic of the Included Middle, in every relation involving two separate levels of experience, there is a hidden third that belongs simultaneously to both. If in accordance with the Logic of the Included Middle there is a converging point T between A and Non-A (Nicolescu, 2001), the point connecting info to semiosphere, digital to non digital; human intelligence to AI seems to be hidden in the third realm of continuous semiosis. Complexity is the context in which continuous semiosis takes place, enabling convergence among levels.
The Logic of Included Middle points to a principle of continuity between multiple levels of reality and to the underlying level of convergence between them. The digital fluidity of virtual worlds, where information configures multiple sensory realities through one same binary code, is a powerful metaphor to the physical fluidity of the material world, where one same dynamic polarity of quantum wave to particle configures multiple bodies, shapes and environments.
Complexity can be found in all these levels and inter-relations. Information technologies act as platform and pertinent metaphor to the Logic of the Included Middle: the perceptual dematerialization of reality is not only physical, but also digital. Perception of multiple levels of reality occurs in the quantum space as much as in cyberspace and nanospace. Peirce´s idea of continuous semiosis deeply resonates to Nicolescu´s idea of continuity among multiple levels of reality, especially concerning continuity between mind and matter.
7 Quantum Approaches
Hybrid cognitive interfaces are complex and function as non-linear systems, given that they are mediated by converging technologies. In fact, hybrid interfaces bring about a conceptual revolution (Thagard, 1992) which is very similar to complexity, because both portray matter as information flow. The unity of matter in NBIC is made possible by nanotechnology´s mapping of informational flux, which is then re-configured by nanodevices. The flow of quanta can also be interpreted as a type of information flow. This is not only a metaphor, because if a flow of information is always material in its embodiment, and if there is a quantum level in all forms of matter, then we might deduce that information lies at the very quantum heart of matter. NBIC convergence only makes it more evident.
Hybrid interfaces connecting nano artifacts to neural networks are open gates between mind and matter, and are platforms of complex digital interaction within biological (neural) informational processing networks. Artificial intelligence within converging technologies is mostly based on non-linear computation (Bernstein et al., 2006). Complexity is omnipresent in the semiotic integration of hybrid interfaces. Complex properties such as uncertainty are found in all levels of matter. Connectionists believe that mind is an emergent property of biological complexity (Searle, 2002; Penrose, 1994), and that all processes of evolution are a consequence of the increase of complexity among various layers of information (Kurzweil, 2005; Minsky, 1990).
Non-linear principles of computation bring about yet another approach to the mind-matter relation. We have described in this paper the perspectives of pan-informationalism (an all encompassing infosphere) and of pan-semioticism (an all encompassing semiosphere). Both of them represent new ontologies. There is yet another perspective, however, that quantum scientists such as David Deutsch (2003) and Seth Lloyd (2006) are currently developing, which is the view of pan-computationalism (Dodig-Crnkovic, 2006) - an all encompassing universal matrix. According to this view, reality is established by the continuous and complex universal processing of information.
David Deutsch states that “the world is made of qubits” (Deutsch, 2003, p.13). Deutsch´s It from Qubit hypothesis (Deutsch, 2003) is a quantum computational version of Wheeler´s It from Bit hypothesis (Wheeler, 1990). Wheeler is a pan-informationalist; Deutsch is a pan-computationalist. Seth Lloyd (2006) is also a pan-computationalist. His approach is similar to Kurzweil´s (2005), in that he stands in favor of Strong AI, and believes that, in theory, anything already is or could become a quantum computer. Quantum computation would make hybrid interfaces between mind and matter even more pervasive and porous than what any kind of nanotechnology could make. In the context of hybrid cognitive interfaces, the evolution in quantum computation would represent a shift from mediated non-linear dynamics within nano artifacts to direct quantum programming within hybrid cognitive structures.
The essence of reality lies hidden in the intersection of life and its material platform, of intelligence and its vehicle; of mind and its material embodiment. NBIC convergence begins to approach this complex interface. We are witnessing the emergence of a technontology (Lemos et al., 2007), which within the context of transdisciplinarity (Nicolescu, 2001), operates a new kind of ontic convergence.
We are unveiling the hidden codes and structures of matter; penetrating underneath the surface of what seems solid and finding out how fluid matter really is. Nature seems more and more to operate according to an ensemble of codes, much like the codes that enable computer technologies. Nature is literally a “system of systems”, and so we find ourselves as “systems within systems” (Bunge, 2003). We can only approach levels in relation to systems, be they material or conceptual. It is the nature of the code which gives structure to all systems and determines the boundaries of each level of reality.
Previous boundaries between levels of reality become permeable, thus the lines separating levels of reality begin to blur. The only line of separation which seems to remain is found in the juxtaposition of mind and matter. Mapping the interface between mind and matter is probably the greatest scientific challenge of our times. However, even the distance between cognitive levels of reality and material levels of reality becomes shorter in the context of converging technologies.
Hybrid cognitive interfaces represent a possible new level of convergence between matter and mind. Converging technologies act as a bridge between natural and artificial systems of information processing. Such cognitive integration is technological and is happening in many levels simultaneously, as it can be seen, for example, in the interactive behavioral patterns of populations in digital virtual worlds (Ascott, 2003); in the “intelligentification” of objects through RFID technologies (Floridi, 2002); in the biologically-inspired nano robotic cognitive architectures (Bernstein et al., 2006); and finally in the possibility of direct quantum computation and programming within all kinds of material structures (Lloyd, 2006).
Technological convergence is taking place at an accelerating speed (Kurzweil, 2005) and it is changing our inner and outer landscapes. The concepts of information and meaning are omnipresent in this process. Convergence happens through a process of simultaneous coding and decoding. The evolution of AI is of particular importance in this context, because through the engineering of artificial systems that can act according to rational principles, a new kind of reductionism appears. Intelligence could a priori be reduced to a computational capacity, resulting in the controversy around the possibility of Strong AI. Introducing AI elements into nano neural applications is the seed of hybrid forms of intelligence, which would be mediated or established through NBIC integration.
Intelligent artificial interference within biological systems establishes a principle of trans-interoperability between organic and digital levels of reality. Trans-interoperability between biological and non-biological systems, in order to perform a common task or function, allows communication and therefore enables active interference across levels. Trans-interoperability expresses technologically what Peirce´s principle of continuity has expressed ontologically through universal semiosis.
Peirce´s universal semiotics, together with Nicolescu´s Logic of the Included Middle, emerge as crucial theoretical standpoints in the study about the new hybrid interfaces between mind and matter. Peirce´s law of mind represents to the study of mind what quantum theories represent to the study of matter: a dramatic upheaval and serious challenge to the materialistic conceptions which are the basis of reductionism.