Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Minor Case for Existentialism in Biosemiotics

By Matthew Cuffaro

“Existentialism protests the rationalism and idealism who would see man creatures only as a subject—that is, as having reality as a thinking being.” p. 12 Angel, Ellenberger, May, Existence: A New Dimension in Psychiatry in Psychology.

The following argument advocates existentialism in biosemiotics to the reader of this blog—presumably up-and-coming bioethicists—to mull over how an existentialist understanding of biosemiotics is relevant to considering the ethics of medicine and health, environment, etc.

What biosemiotics is, how it can integrate existential thought, and how it relates to the bioethicist is a major concern: the predisposition to think of animal cognition and decision-making as purely genetic impedes our attempts, as organisms “creative past our genes”, to identify with animals, if not the biological world. In fact, you can derive the entire motivation and most of the points from the first page of the preface in J. Hoffmeyer’s Biosemiotics. Hoffmeyer’s writing is beautifully lucid and recommended to the readers, but it will be kept short so the existential argument may be covered.

To begin, the crux of contemporary biosemiotics can be understood as the disbelief that organic communication is merely “mechanical.”

What J. Hoffmeyer, Biosemiotician, offers:

With the current outlook, other organisms remain empathetically inaccessible—they are separated by a gulch of misunderstanding or anthropocentrism. We are still surprised when new research reveals “human” emotions (grieving) in animals. Perhaps the difficulty of stationing “complex” emotions in cultural terms—terms not patently equivalent to a notion of a general animal cultureperpetuates this idea.

Partially the mechanical explanation is to blame from theoretical biology’s honest expedition to resolve the problem.[1] The complete genome is an enticing structure; it is not hard to imagine that a reductive appetency towards a promise of rich structural coding creates a tendency to “delegate to [the animal’s] genetic apparatus” the complete spectrum of their ethology as well. This continually denies the creature the evolutionary merit of having an intellectual middle-man. Hoffmeyer uses this example to describe the creative semiotic faculty of the animal:

“When a brown hare spots a fox approaching in the open landscape, the hare stands bolt upright and signals its presence instead of fleeing…ethologist A. Holley [claims that the] hare can easily scape a fox simply by running – a fact that the fox seems to ‘know.’”.

The hare signals the fox that it has been spotted, and so subverting the actual use of its physiological advantages. The quick legs of the hare begin to have a more symbolic importance to the hare that tries to remove the need of their use.

Perhaps we can assume that a being capable of understanding not just their asset’s advantage, but what the asset means for it, is to imply that the genetic body of the hare is interpreted and communicated to other animals by a being that can experience itself.

The hare capable of interpreting and communicating itself must recognize the significance of itself in sustaining its life. We suppose that the hare has not just experienced life but is capable of commuting its interpretations into actions fundamentally significant to its survival, e.g. signaling the fox. The hare is striving to exist, and so it is exercising a creative faculty to mediate itself with the environment.

To account for the experiential and concomitant existential[2] questions that would crop up if Hoffmeyer and Co.[3] had their way, I sketch in the sand existential biosemiotics (EBS) to take up the burden.
What Existential Biosemiotics offers:

The overt task for existential biosemiotics is to extend semiotic theory, or the study of signs—“things that refer to something else”—into the domain of experience. We may formulate this project to coincide Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology with scientific knowledge under a common metalanguage. Hoffmeyer lobs us a notion of biological referentiality to organize the analyses of the organism’s relation to itself. In the case of the hare above, the hare’s reference to itself is tickled by a suppression of its internal or bodily ability to run (which it is genetically equipped to do well) in light of an external threat.

If we take seriously a creative faculty in the animal, then there is, in the fabric of experience, certain semiotic weights that give it shape. The EBStian would deal with identifying the significant[4] structure underlying shaped experience. In other words, how a bundle of signs (e.g. a predator, a potential mate, a hare’s leg, the arrangement of a room) designs the world of the experiencing organism, or á la Hoffmeyer, how the “ubiquitous intentionality of communicative behavior” is articulated, and how these decisions that govern the total and embodied experience of the creature (e.g. run very fast, a sense of peace in a clean room) have a conjugate physical response (e.g. mad adrenaline rushes through the prairie, muscular relaxation etc.) and vice versa (how does a particular space become associated with my impressions of it, my gut feeling, etc.?).

The biosemiotician in this scope hopes to demonstrate that communicative and behavioral similarities between organisms enriches approaches to interact, understand, and imagine the biological sciences.

Matthew Cuffaro is a philosophy student at the University of South Florida with a concentration in the philosophies of mathematics and religious studies. 

[1] Conway’s Game of Life, for instance, illustrates evolutionary “life” as a series of small-order recursive processes that, with special initial states and a sufficient run-time, can construct superstructures that remind us of genetic transcriptions. Check it out here.
[2] Mind you, “existential” here brackets the organism’s self-consciousness of mortality; “There, organisms never ‘try to survive’–for the simple reason that they cannot know they are going to die.” Instead, viz. generalize “existential” to the organism by its own presumed agency making decisions not to avoid death but to continue life.
[3] Biosemioticians such as Emmeche, Merrill, Rigby, Seboek, Uexkill, &c.
[4] Pertaining to signs. Semiotics may be argued as a science that identifies the significant aspects in a scene caveat emptor, tread lightly.

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