Molecular coupling

The structural coupling between an organism and its ecological niche is mediated by various kinds of signs. The most immediate or purely physical form of this coupling occurs at the molecular level when allosteric proteins fold into one of two possible three-dimensional structures depending on the presence of a molecular ‘partner.’ These proteins couple with complementary shapes, and this allows them to act as ‘switches’ to facilitate chemical reactions within living cells. Some of these reactions act as signals for other actions, contributing to the guidance system at the molecular level. At this level, ‘everything that gets done in an organism or by an organism is done by proteins’ (Loewenstein 1999, 72). But the system guiding the behavior of the whole organism is irreducibly semiotic.


What does it take to be well guided? One principle is this:

A good guidance system must be simple enough to be decisive, and complex enough to be careful.

Simplicity is required because attention is limited. The fewer decisions you have to make consciously, and the less time it takes to make them, the more well-marked your path. Conscious thinking slows down your response to your situation: its one advantage is that it allows you in the long run to improve your set of habits. Your investment of time and effort – in considering possible courses of action, and turning some of them into habits through actual or anticipated practice, to the point where they become ‘second nature’ – is repaid when your body can handle now-familiar situations on its own, leaving your conscious attention free for more significant things.

Consciousness is the narrow neck of the Klein bottle of mind. Passing through this bottleneck, intention becomes the experience of conscious will, perception becomes the experience of conscious awareness of the world, and the implicit model of the world becomes an explicit description. It is a bottleneck because working memory is so limited, attention so narrowly focused and conscious decision-making so slow that very little “content” flows through it – but its emergy is high in transformity.

Evolving consciousness

Living systems are self-organizing; inquiring systems are also self-critical. All are texts which revise themselves in dialogue with their contexts. Over generations of interpretant symbols, the types of these texts evolve.

Let us inquire into the role of consciousness in this process. Thomas Metzinger begins here:

First, let’s not forget that evolution is driven by chance, does not pursue a goal, and achieved what we now consider the continuous optimization of nervous systems in a blind process of hereditary variation and selection.

— Metzinger 2009, 55

But if evolution has achieved ‘what we now consider the continuous optimization of nervous systems,’ why can’t we say that this was (and is) an intrinsic ‘goal’ of evolution, a final cause, before anyone considered it? Surely a real tendency (or intention) does not need to be consciously chosen in order to guide a process in a general direction. Why not say that a ‘goal’ of evolution is the development of guidance systems, of what Peirce calls self-control? Wouldn’t any real guidance system, no matter how primitive, have a tendency to optimize itself? After all, no process can be driven by ‘chance,’ although chance may contribute to the variation which is necessary in order for selection to operate. Nothing can be driven unless in some direction, and that directedness may itself evolve, from vague tendency to preconscious intention to conscious purpose, from natural selection to ethical inquiry.

Signs of life

Another of His signs is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the diversity of your languages and colours. There truly are signs in this for those who know. Among His signs are your sleep, by night and by day, and your seeking His bounty. There truly are signs in this for those who can hear. Among His signs, too, are that He shows you the lightning that terrifies and inspires hope; that He sends water down from the sky to restore the earth to life after death. There truly are signs in this for those who use their reason.

Qur’an 30:22-4 (tr. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem)

Abstraction and self-control

Among the logical functions which are closely entwined with the social phenomenon of language, one of the key instruments of high-level anticipation is the process of abstraction. The product of this process is an ens rationis. Since the Latin age, philosophers have made a common distinction between an ens rationis and an ens reale or really existing thing. According to Peirce,

An ens rationis may be defined as a subject whose being consists in a Secondness, or fact, concerning something else. Its being is thus of the nature of Thirdness, or thought. Any abstraction, such as Truth or Justice, is an ens rationis. That does not prevent Truth and Justice from being real powers in the world without any figure of speech.

Lowell Lectures. 1903. Lecture 5. Vol. 1 | MS [R] 469:8. Term in M. Bergman & S. Paavola (Eds.), The Commens Dictionary: Peirce’s Terms in His Own Words. New Edition. Retrieved from, 04.02.2017.

This kind of abstraction, called ‘hypostatic’ by Peirce to distinguish it from other uses of the term, is a vital process: in order to conceive of a concept’s implications for future conduct – that is, of its meaning – we have to objectify its depth. ‘When we speak of the depth, or signification, of a sign we are resorting to hypostatic abstraction, that process whereby we regard a thought as a thing, make an interpretant sign the object of a sign’ (Peirce, EP2:394). ‘That wonderful operation of hypostatic abstraction by which we seem to create entia rationis that are, nevertheless, sometimes real, furnishes us the means of turning predicates from being signs that we think or think through, into being subjects thought of’ (CP 4.549, 1906).

The question of whether apparently mind-created things can be real was the crux of debate between the scholastic realists and the nominalists, and Peirce declared himself (here as elsewhere) on the realist side by saying that entia rationis are ‘sometimes real.’ But why bother to think about thought-signs at all? Because consciousness of semiosis (i.e. semiotic awareness) enables higher grades of self-control. Abstraction is ‘the basis of voluntary inhibition, which is the chief characteristic of mankind’ (EP2:394); and ‘self-control of any kind is purely inhibitory’ (EP2:233).

If it seems a bit strange to say that voluntary inhibition (rather than voluntary action) is ‘the chief characteristic of mankind,’ reflect that in practice we cannot choose to do anything unless we can imagine a range of possible actions, or at least some ideal of practice which can be compared to the action contemplated. The person who reacts automatically to any situation, without stopping to think whether another response might be better, is incapable not only of self-control but of any deliberate act. The ability to choose a better course of action implies a more or less conscious comparison with some ideal standard of conduct. The more consciously choices are made, the higher the grade of self-control, as Peirce explains in a 1905 passage (CP 5.533):

To return to self-control … of course there are inhibitions and coördinations that entirely escape consciousness. There are, in the next place, modes of self-control which seem quite instinctive. Next, there is a kind of self-control which results from training. Next, a man can be his own training-master and thus control his self-control. When this point is reached much or all the training may be conducted in imagination. When a man trains himself, thus controlling control, he must have some moral rule in view, however special and irrational it may be. But next he may undertake to improve this rule; that is, to exercise a control over his control of control. To do this he must have in view something higher than an irrational rule. He must have some sort of moral principle. This, in turn, may be controlled by reference to an esthetic ideal of what is fine. There are certainly more grades than I have enumerated. Perhaps their number is indefinite. The brutes are certainly capable of more than one grade of control; but it seems to me that our superiority to them is more due to our greater number of grades of self-control than it is to our versatility.

Logic itself, as a normative science – one which can distinguish between good and bad reasoning, or strong and weak inference – is a means of exercising control over control of self-control. ‘Logic regarded from one instructive, though partial and narrow, point of view, is the theory of deliberate thinking. To say that any thinking is deliberate is to imply that it is controlled with a view to making it conform to a purpose or ideal’ (EP2:376). In Peirce’s view, recognition of that ideal is ultimately an esthetic judgment, to which most people (not being philosophers or logicians) give little critical attention. They settle instead for conformity to ‘a particular ideal’ which is ‘nothing but a traditional standard’ (EP2:377), and thus do not rise to the highest grade of self-control. This kind of conformity is often the most reliable guide in practical matters, and certainly stabilizes the community, but it has very little transformity. Social information is generated by the dynamic tension between individual and society – between internal and external guidance systems.