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Entropy, Function and Evolution: Naturalizing Peircian Semiosis

Author(s): 
Carsten Herrmann-Pillath
Abstract: 
In the biosemiotic literature there is a tension between the naturalistic reference to biological processes and the category of ‘meaning’ which is central in the concept of semiosis. A crucial term bridging the two dimensions is ‘information’. I argue that the tension can be resolved if we reconsider the relation between information and entropy and downgrade the conceptual centrality of Shannon information in the standard approach to entropy and information. Entropy comes into full play if semiosis is seen as a physical process involving causal interactions between physical systems with functions. Functions emerge from evolutionary processes, as conceived in recent philosophical contributions to teleosemantics. In this context, causal interactions can be interpreted in a dual mode, namely as standard causation and as an observation. Thus, a function appears to be the interpretant in the Peircian triadic notion of the sign. Recognizing this duality, the Gibbs/Jaynes notion of entropy is added to the picture, which shares an essential conceptual feature with the notion of function: Both concepts are part of a physicalist ontology, but are observer relative at the same time. Thus, it is possible to give an account of semiosis within the entropy framework without limiting the notion of entropy to the Shannon measure, but taking full account of the thermodynamic definition. A central feature of this approach is the conceptual linkage between the evolution of functions and maximum entropy production. I show how we can conceive of the semiosphere as a fundamental physical phenomenon. Following an early contribution by Hayek, in conclusion I argue that the category of ‘meaning’ supervenes on nested functions in semiosis, and has a function itself, namely to enable functional self-reference, which otherwise mainfests functional break-down because of standard set-theoretic paradoxes.

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