Monday, July 08, 2013

Søren Brier - Cybersemiotics: A New Foundation for Transdisciplinary Theory of Information, Cognition, Meaningful Communication and the Interaction Between Nature and Culture

This ambitious article by Søren Brier on the emerging field of cybersemiotics appeared in the new issue of Integral Review, a special issue on transdisciplinary models. Brier is the author of Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough (Toronto Studies in Semiotics and Communication) [paper, 2013; Kindle, 2008].

Cybersemiotics: A New Foundation for Transdisciplinary Theory of Information, Cognition, Meaningful Communication and the Interaction Between Nature and Culture 

By Søren Brier [1]


Cybersemiotics constructs a non-reductionist framework in order to integrate third person knowledge from the exact sciences and the life sciences with first person knowledge described as the qualities of feeling in humanities and second person intersubjective knowledge of the partly linguistic communicative interactions, on which the social and cultural aspects of reality are based. The modern view of the universe as made through evolution in irreversible time, 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 the role of consciousness in nature and culture. The theory of evolution forces us to conceive the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities together in one theoretical framework of unrestricted or absolute naturalism, where consciousness as well as culture is part of nature. But the theories of the phenomenological life world and the hermeneutics of the meaning of communication 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 the development of our knowledge about evolution? Phenomenology and hermeneutics show the sciences that their prerequisites are embodied living conscious beings imbued with meaningful language and with a culture. One can see the world view that emerges from the work of the sciences as a reconstruction back into time of our present ecological and evolutionary self-understanding as semiotic intersubjective conscious cultural and historical creatures, but unable to handle the aspects of meaning and conscious awareness and therefore leaving it out of the story. Cybersemiotics proposes to solve the dualistic paradox by starting in the middle with semiotic cognition and communication as a basic sort of reality in which all our knowledge is created and then suggests that knowledge develops into four aspects of human reality: Our surrounding nature described by the physical and chemical natural sciences, our corporeality described by the life sciences such as biology and medicine, our inner world of subjective experience described by phenomenologically based investigations and our social world described by the social sciences. I call this alternative model to the positivistic hierarchy the cybersemiotic star. The article explains the new understanding of Wissenschaft that emerges from Peirce’s and Luhmann’s conceptions.
1. Søren Brier is Professor of Semiotics in the Information, Cognition and Communication Sciences  at the Department of International Business Communication at Copenhagen Business School. He is the creator of the transdisciplinary framework Cybersemiotics, founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Cybernetics & Human Knowing, co-founder of the International Association for Biosemiotic Studies and its journal Biosemiotics.

An Overview of the Flow of the Argumentation in the Article 

I begin with a brief introduction to my view of scientific thinking on deep theories and a few words about the limitation of the word ‘science’ in the English language and my proposal to use the German transdisciplinary term ‘Wissenschaft’, which includes qualitative research into meaning. I argue that it is vital to include the meaning aspect of reality when we deal with information, cognition and communication research. I will then briefly introduce my cybersemiotic visual model for organizing the exact, the life and the social science as well as the humanities in a framework shaped as a star with four different arms, a framework which I propose as an alternative to the positivistic ‘unity of science’ idea based on physics as model science and its modern version found in E. O. Wilson’s ‘consilience’ model. Cybersemiotics is a vision of how to integrate truth and meaning as well as the empirical and the experiential aspects of knowing in one pragmatic and semiotic view of the collective production of knowledge. I will then explain the phenomenological model behind Peirce’s phaneroscopically based semiotics. I briefly introduce his three categories and his idea of a philosophical foundation for a reflected cenoscopic science. I then briefly explain Maturana and Varela’s idea of autopoiesis and after that try to show how Luhmann’s triple autopoietic systems view of socio-communication has a reflected pragmatic and realistic grounding that fits in with and supplements Peirce’s philosophy. I go on to explain the development of biosemiotics as an attempt to build a semiotic link from the life sciences to the social sciences and humanities through an evolutionary and ecological semiotic view. As the pan-informational and pan-computational philosophy tends to be more and more dominating, I find it necessary to explain how Peirce’s philosophy, which he calls pragmaticism, can be seen as an alternative. As Peirce lived a hundred years ago, my argument draws on modern American philosophers like Sellers, McDowell and Brandom.

Since Plato’s philosophy of a world of ideas and universal concepts was confronted by modern empiricism’s belief in material facts, the discussion on inter- and transdisciplinarity has been about what is most real: matter, forces, form or universal concepts. The possibility of transdisciplinarity therefore rests on our ability to define a reality that includes them all. Peirce’s suggestion of a scholastic realism inspired by Duns Scotus is such an attempt and I shall try to explain what it is all about. Peirce introduces time and possibility to enlarge our view of reality. What is, and what has been only cover the part of actuality, which is based on the past. There are, however, also would be’s dealing with probabilities. Peirce – like Popper and Prigogine – views possibilities as real and includes them in his category of Firstness. But they are also the basis for habits or what Peirce calls Thirdness. Peirce distinguishes between what is real and what exists. The only form of existence as such is what he calls ‘thisness’ (haeccity), which is his category of Secondness. It is this triadic processual understanding of semiotics that distinguishes Peirce’s semiotics from Saussurian semiology and makes the idea of biosemiotics possible. I then try to visualize how we may combine biosemiotics’ idea of endosemiotics creating the biological self and its exosemiotic communication theories with Luhmann’s triadic autopoiesis model of communication. This is done in order to give a first overview of the cybersemiotic idea and to explain how the integration of semiotics and system theory offers a more plausible model of evolution that can explain the emergence of mind. The article concludes by suggesting a new model of five ontological levels and a changed view of the reality of nature.

A New Foundation for the Sciences [2] and Humanities 

Cybersemiotics proposes a new transdisciplinary framework integrating Peirce’ triadic semiotics with a cybernetic view of information on the basis of an ontology of emptiness. It is an attempt to give a transdisciplinary solution to C.P. Snow’s two-culture problem. The proposed framework offers an integrative multi- and transdisciplinary approach, which uses meaning as the overarching principle for grasping the complex area of cybernetic information science for nature and machines AND the semiotics of all living system’s cognition, communication, and culture. Cybersemiotics is an integrated transdisciplinary philosophy of science allowing us to perform our multidisciplinary research, since it is concerned not only with cybernetics and Peircean semiotics, but also with informational, biological, psychological and social sciences. In order to incorporate the sociological disciplines and contributions from multiple areas of applied research cybersemiotics draws extensively on Luhmann’s theories.

We are thus immersed in conscious and unconscious communication forms, verbal as well as non-verbal. As the linguistic turn argues, we cannot escape language, nor culture and power. Even science becomes a social construction, which is historically true, since science is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of man. Empirical and mathematically grounded science is a modern invention that started in the Renaissance. Scientific knowledge has formed our rationality and cultural outlook on the world since then and right up to the global discussion these days about the reality of global warming.

And yet science is still faced with the problem of meaning. The background of cybersemiotics is the recognition that Western philosophy of science is in a state of crisis. Western culture is at a turning point when it comes to taking the final step into a knowledge culture based on information and communication technology. Rather than basing our culture on the conception that the highest goal of knowledge is an abstract, non-embodied and globally available (artificial, impersonal) intelligence of information programs, I believe that we should ground our culture(s) on embodied human living (personal as well as interpersonal), i.e. on semiotic intelligence as part of both living nature and human culture, rather than only on the physical science and the worldview behind it.

The current dominant objectivist science, which to me includes physicalism, eliminative materialism, cognitive sciences based on the information processing paradigm, cannot encompass self-aware consciousness and social-communicative meaning as causal agents in nature. Current cognitive science attempts to explain human communication from the outside without recognizing the phenomenological and hermeneutical aspects of existence. Its conception of human (meaningful) language and communication as a sort of culturally developed program for social information processing between computational brains/ minds cannot explain the evolution of embodied consciousness and (meaningful) human language and communication. Cybersemiotics offers a new ontology that can encompass a moderate version of the ontologies of all four dimensions or spheres.

Inspired by the methodology of critical realism (Bhaskar, 1997, 1998) and Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992), I believe that our common sense only shows us the surface of reality, and that it is the task of the sciences to dig deeper and look further than our common sense assumptions. I agree with Gadamer (1989) that our cultural history is also a development of our knowledge about ourselves, society and nature forming a common knowledge horizon. Therefore I agree with Karl Popper that it is the role of scientists and philosophers to boldly invent new ways of looking at reality, knowledge and ourselves. Take for instance Einstein and Bohr, who forever changed the way we understand matter, energy, time, space and knowledge, or Norbert Wiener who introduced information as a basic ontological component in his transdisciplinary cybernetic worldview.

I see the semiotic philosopher C. S. Peirce (1839-1914, see his collected papers: Peirce 1931-1935) as such a bold inventor, one who had important and profound ideas about the development of human knowledge development long before Karl Popper (1960, 1962, 1972, 1974, and 1976) and Roy Bhaskar (1997, 1998) published their theories. Peirce created a whole structure of philosophy, science and humanities through his semiotic philosophy (inspired by Dons Scotus and Kant), which includes a transdisciplinary theory of meaning, signification and communication. In a somewhat supplementing vein Niklas Luhmann (1990, 1995) – originally inspired by Talcott Parsons’ (1902 –1979) structural functionalism – developed a social system theory that views social communication as the basic reality of society and integrates the psychic and the biological autopoietic systems. Luhmann borrows the concept of autopoiesis from the cybernetic biologists Humberto Maturana (1983, 1988a, 1988b) and Francisco Varela (1980, 1986).

It is my view that these two interdisciplinary theories may be combined into a transdisciplinary framework that I call cybersemiotics. I firmly believe that cybersemiotics constitutes a realistic foundation for a comprehensive understanding of the natural, life and social sciences as well as humanities and that it can provide a deeper understanding of the differences in the knowledge types they produce and show why each and every one is necessary. By establishing this new framework, I also hope to create a transdisciplinary approach which transcends the incommensurability between C.P. Snow's two cultures: science-technology versus the humanities and the social sciences. I am trying to draw up a map onto which a multitude of viewpoints can be plotted and their subject areas characterized and compared with other approaches. In doing so, I hope to expand the dialogue between the exact sciences, the humanities, the social sciences and philosophy. A more comprehensive and further argued version of cybersemiotics can be found in the foundational book Cybersemiotics: Why Information Is Not Enough [paper edition, Kindle edition] (Brier, 2006) as well as later articles on the subject (Brier, 2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2008d, 2009a, 2009b, 2010, 2011).
2. For me the concept ‘sciences’ refer to natural, life, technical as well as social sciences. With a background in biology I consider the life sciences to assume a different ontology from that of physics and chemistry, which do not operate on the premise of life as biology does. 
 Read the whole article.
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