Reconsidering causation and information from a biosemiotic perspective

This presentation, which was given at the Biosemiotics Annual Gathering 2021, is about how and in what way biosemiotics demands a reappraisal of the the concepts of information and causation. Most disciplines have key terms that function as conceptual placeholders. One of the roles of philosophical inquiry, however, is to question the veracity and coherence of the concepts underpinning such terms. While it is helpful to assume conceptual coherence because continual questioning can stifle communication, it is also the case that clarification of terms is often desirable. Within a discipline, it is common to have schools of thought that have differences in conceptual ideation. Additionally, there is the problem for any given discipline of extending its concepts and terms of reference to other fields. Clarification, therefore, is often beneficial in collating divergent ideas within a discipline and in establishing a discipline’s relevance to other fields. In 2020, I published a paper in Biosemiotics entitled, Causation and Information: Where Is Biological Meaning to Be Found? The primary focus of the paper was on the problematic terms, causation and ‘information’. These concepts are central to semiotic studies. They are terms that are used with unquestioning regularity as if their meaning is a given. However, these ‘borrowed’ terms, and the concepts they imbue, fail biosemiotics. They fail because they do not adequately bind the discipline with a coherent framework of understanding that clarifies the uniqueness of the biosemiotic approach. This failure highlights an incongruence between the intuitions of the biosemiotician and the adopted conceptual baggage that comes with those borrowed terms. This incongruence, or ‘blurring,’ feels as though it undermines the disciplinary stance and, consequently, is often ignored or masked. It is my view, therefore, that careful examination is vital to extending the potency and influence of the field of biosemiotics. Biosemioticians need to understand that central to their project is the need to realign terms such as these.

In this presentation, held at the Biosemiotics Annual Gathering 2021 held at the Bateson Institute in Sweden, I examine the incongruence that lies at the heart of the concepts of causation and information. I hope that a critical reevaluation of the concepts will help illustrate a more coherent framework. To demonstrate this, I relate the framework to species, consciousness, institutions, and cultures. In doing so, the framework is seen to impact semiotic thinking and understanding particularly in relation to meaningful engagement and its transition and evolution.

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