Systemic topologies

All of science, philosophy and religion begins by supposing that the universe is intelligible, that what happens around here makes some kind of sense to somebody, or at least would make sense to an omniscient being or an ideal reader with unlimited time and energy to read it. The confirmation of this is that our anticipations often turn out to be accurate – often enough that we are surprised when they turn out to be wrong. Surprises confirm that our models are both functional and imperfect.

Thus it is not surprising that what kind of sense the universe makes to you depends on what kind of system you are. And if you belong to a symbolic species, it depends on the dynamics of the symbol system (the language) which is integrated with your guidance system. As Terrence Deacon points out, these dynamics are shaped by the ‘semantic topology that determines the way symbols modify each other’s referential functions in different combinations.’

In the study of complex systems, many researchers have recognized the critical formative influence of what might be described as topological universals. Boundary conditions of various sorts – spatial constraints, temporal parameters, connectedness of graphs and networks, recursive or re-entrant, causal or representational geometries, and mere finiteness of systems – can determine the characteristic patterns and stable attractor configurations of dynamical systems. Semiotic constraints affect the evolution of language in much the same way that boundary conditions affect the dynamics of physical systems.

— Deacon 2003, 103

This system of relationships between symbols determines a definite and distinctive topology that all operations involving those symbols must respect in order to retain referential power. The structure implicit in the symbol-symbol mapping is not present before symbolic reference, but comes into being and affects symbol combinations from the moment it is first constructed. The rules of combination that are implicit in this structure are discovered as novel combinations are progressively sampled. As a result, new rules may be discovered to be emergent requirements of encountering novel combinatorial problems, in much the same way as new mathematical laws are discovered to be implicit in novel manipulations of known operations.

Symbols do not, then, get accumulated into unstructured collections that can be arbitrarily shuffled into different combinations. The system of representational relationships, which develops between symbols as symbol systems grow, comprises an ever more complex matrix. In abstract terms, this is a kind of tangled hierarchic network of nodes and connections that defines a vast and constantly changing semantic space. … Whatever the logic of this network of symbol-symbol relationships, it is inevitable that it will be reflected in the patterns of symbol-symbol combinations in communication.… the symbolic use of tokens is constrained both by each token’s use and by the use of other tokens with respect to which it is defined. Strings of symbols used to communicate and to accomplish certain ends must inherit both the intrinsic constraints of symbol-symbol reference and the constraints imposed by external reference.… Because symbolic reference is inherently systemic, there can be no symbolization without systematic relationships.

— Deacon (1997, 99-100)

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