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Information and Third Order Ontology


The question of "a Unified Theory of Information" is addressed from the logical position of many-valued ontologies. Information is described as an operational factor which forms a trans-contextural bridge between disjunct ontological systems (or monocontextures).

1. Introduction: Information and "society"

This contribution will amplify on Pedro Marijuan's statement about information and society (FIS 1996, p. 90). He says: "It can be argued that the existence of societies is dependent on the generation, exchange, and processing of meaningful information amongst their constituent members."
It can also be argued that almost everything in this universe (except maybe industrially extracted and refined material substances) can be viewed as society of some kind, as Whitehead does (Whitehead 1934, p. 33): "There is the animal life with its central direction of a society of cells, there is the vegetable life with its organized republic of cells, there is the cell life with its organized republic of molecules, there is the large-scale inorganic society of molecules with its passive acceptance of necessities derived from spatial relations, there is the inframolecular activity which has lost all trace of the passivity of inorganic Nature on a larger scale."
Society is in this context defined as a generic term for a "relation and transaction system between acting entities (or agents)". A transaction is defined as a specific kind of process between agents involved in a energy/matter exchange. Transactions can only occur along the path of a relation. This definition makes society functionally equivalent to a thermodynamically open system of dissipative flow, regardless of whether the constituent members are human, organic, or purely physical, like for example a turbulent flow in a hurricane. "Biological systems are only more complicated because of their relative stability, achieved through genetic information - we are especially stable dissipative structures". (Salthe 1992, p. 34, 38). Barham (FIS 1996, p. 238) notes another vital difference: "One of the chief properties distinguishing biological systems from inorganic ones is their limited autonomy from local energy potentials... by actively seeking out more favorable conditions."
Now the argument will be that a wider notion of the concept of information as discussed in many varieties on the FIS conferences (a Unified Theory of Information) needs an enlargement of the logical base of our enquiry. It will be argued that societal information is logically dependent on the positioning of society in the Peircean ontological category of thirdness. Because of stringent space limitations, the necessary philosophical discussions have to be drastically reduced to a few paragraphs. Marijuan notes (1996-1): "the archetypal notion of state and of separated (external) dynamical laws, so incardinated [?entrenched? A.G.] in natural science". Elsewhere he stresses "the fluid nature of life" (Marijuan 1996-2), with Whitehead and his philosophy of process as main contemporary philosophical proponent of the issue. Whitehead (1957), p. 27: "... the actual world is a process, and ... the process is the becoming of actual entities." These issues touch the very foundations of western thinking since Parmenides set the cornerstone 2500 years ago with: "esti gar einai" - "indeed, being is" (Parmenides, fragment B6). Whitehead had to make it explicit: "the philosophy of organism is apt to emphasize just those elements in the writings of these masters which subsequent systematizers have put aside" (Whitehead 1957, p. v). In the pre-socratic philosopher wars, the schools of Parmenides (most notably Zeno with his paradoxes that refuted motion categorically) and of Heraklit (panta rhei) battled the issue out and Plato shoved the heavy lid over the issue in favor of Parmenides with his "final solution" of the "eternal, unchangeable idea". This is where western thinking has rested more or less firmly ever since. Whitehead accentuates: "The safest general characterization of western philosophical tradition is that it consists of a sequence of footnotes to Plat o" (Whitehead 195 7, p. 53).
In a different work (Goppold, 1997-1), it is argued that this development was greatly influenced, if not decided, by the tradeoffs of the technology of alphabetic writing which became the universal cultural memory system of western civilization. (See also Kerckhove 1988). To use Marijuan's diction, the tradeoffs of the "infostructures" and "infrastructures" (Marijuan, 1996-1) of alphabetic writing have forced humanity to specific modes of mental functioning to the exclusion of others. Since then, the issue of being, and its philosophical treatment, ontology, has become a matter of state. In a perspective of cultural evolution this may seem necessary when considered under the processing necessities of the dominant cultural memory system, which was static. Only today, with computerized multi-media, have fully dynamic notation systems reached technological feasibility (Goppold, 1997-2). A sideways glance to another part of the planet shows us that at the same time, when the Greeks laid down the ontology of the western world, an ontology of process and relation sprung into existence with the "pratitya samutpada" (paticca-samuppada in Pali) as it was laid down in the teachings of the Buddha (Nyanatiloka, Ratnagotravibhaga, Prajnopayaviniscayasiddhi). With his concept of the "axial age", Jaspers had already marked a decisive focus epoch in the mainstream developments of the major civilization centers of humanity at the time between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C. (Jaspers, 1955, p. 58). His view may today be reformulated as an early view of an essential bifurcation in the planetary cultural evolution (Abraham 1994, p. 168-175, 208-220).

2. Actualizing the Peircean categories

Peirce has described the ontological categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness as "a table of conceptions drawn from the logical analysis of thought and regarded as applicable to being". (Peirce, CP 1.301-1.353). An essential characteristic of category is its non-conversibility (with other categories), or as it will be called further down, its mono-contexturality. The examples of entity, process, and relation, give a primary triadic categorization of being (i.e. a many-valued ontology), even though western philosophy would refrain from admitting at all that relation and process can be ontological categories. As the discussions between the Parmenides and Heraklit schools show, anything in the world can be perceived either as state (entity) or in flow (process), and it was noted in the beginning (and by the Buddhist philosophy), that the world can also be perceived as a system of relations, thus showing that non-entity oriented systems of ontology are entirely feasible, and whole civilizations have been built on these foundations. The design of the holon as given by Ian Smuts and Arthur Koestler corresponds closely to the positioning of entity as ontological category. The categories of Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness appear under a different naming as popular philosophical themes throughout the millennia. The diagram given here is adapted from Popper and Eccles (1977), and Penrose (1994). The first ontological place (Firstness) is SUB. The second (Secondness) is OBJ. The third (Thirdness) is SEM. This can most closely be related to the category of relation, OBJ is in the modern physical view a system of process, and the entity or holon category remains for SUB. (Even if it doesn't fit comfortably at this point, the issue of subjectivity proves an obstacle for application in the non-human domain).

The three ontological world centers: SUB, OBJ, SEM

By using an otherwise nondescript naming, Peirce had indicated that the overriding factor of this categorization is its order of grouping, not its naming. And what is even more important is their operational relation. For the logical structure presented is a three-valued ontology or polycontexturality (according to Gotthard Günther, 1976, p. 249-328, Günther 1978, 329-341) which is not reducible to a two-valued, dualistic ontology. The conventional philosophical names of the three centers are: Subjective, Objective, and Intersubjective. Or the soul (psychae), body (soma), and mind/spirit (pneuma). Or the language categories of I, It, and We. Another correspondence is to the philosophical realms of Esthetics, Objective knowing, and Ethics, as well as the Beautiful (Kalon), the True, and the Good (Agathon) of Platon. Korvin-Krasinski (1986) has called this basic triadic structure the Trina Mundi Machina in his book under the same title.

3. The logical consequences

Wittgenstein said in aphorism 1. of his famous Tractatus: "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." (The world is everything that is the case). To decide what is the case is the task of logics. In a monocontextural system, the Aristotelian logics with their binary values of "yes" and "no" and the "tertium non datur" are entirely sufficient. To make the world fit this logical model, it had to be reduced to a monocontexture. Consequently most of the heat of the philosophical debate of the last 2500 years has gone into trying to decide which ontological center is "the real one-and-only reality". Mainly this has been a debate between two sides only: idealism and objectivism.
As the present argument goes, the concept of information may turn out to force us out of this monocontextural view. To use Marijuan's diction: the "infostructures" and "infrastructures" (Marijuan, 1996-1) belong to different ontological domains. In certain applications in the scientific and technical world of OBJ, our requirements can be adequately treated with the dualistic formalisms of binary Boolean logics of this domain. But information has also an essentially extra-physical aspect. (This is a more neutral wording than the term "meta-physical" whose bad associations for scientific discourses result from the subjectivistic problematic of idealism which we have no space to discuss here). Norbert Wiener had hinted at this when he said: "Information is neither matter nor energy". Now the physical universe is exactly made up of matter and energy and these are convertible into each other by Einstein's formula e=mc2. Their convertibility is equivalent to their belonging to the same contexture in Günther's sense. (Günther 1979, 283-306). The thermodynamic treatment of information by Brillouin (1962) gives the physical aspect of information. (See also Barham, FIS 1996, p. 235-236). There is a thermodynamic threshold required over random noise which is needed for any receiving system to discern an input as signal. The extra-physical component is the sign as given by Peirce or Marijuan's "catastrophe of meaning" (Marijuan, 1996-2). Inherently there is no need for any receiving system to treat any input as a sign unless it is cued to do so. In the machine case, this is effected by built-in or programmed threshold values. (The Telos of the machine, see Polanyi 1985, p. 40-42, also Barham, FIS 1996, p. 236-237). The technical signal is a very special case of sign being a selection from an available range of physical parameters which have the power of activating internal processes of a mechanism via these threshold values. The vexing and tempting property of information is its ontological trans-contexturality, bridging an essential non-convertibility. Once the viewpoint of trans-contexturality is accepted, it is clear that this cannot be proved within a monocontextural logical system as present science is. So information has become "the phlogiston of our time" (Marijuan, FIS '96). The infinite regress of the interpretant given by Peirce concerning the processing of the sign (CP 1.340) can only be interpreted as admission of this logical impossibility of proof. (See Barham, a.a.o.). Figge (1994) has given a reverse demonstration by stating that in the purely physical universe, the only means of exchange of a system with its environment are matter and energy. The brute fact that the system "actively selects" a certain matter/energy configuration as a sign, and reacts upon it, indicates that there must be something going on which cannot be entirely explained within this frame of reference, or as we call it here, in the monocontexture of the physical world OBJ.
The salient question of introducing the issue of polycontexturality into the discussion of information is, by Occam's razor: "entia non sunt multiplicanda preter necessitatem". What good does it do to add a whole new logical dimension? First, it allows us to catch up with actual practice. In the social sciences, certain aspects of society are since a long time being treated informally as having their own ontological place. W.v. Humboldt attributes to language the status of energeia, and not of ergon. (Humboldt 1963, p. 418) The philosophical difference between energeia and ergon is that of act and potence (See also Marijuan, FIS 1996, p. 88). The interpretative method of hermeneutics (Dilthey) and the derived sociological and anthropological methods, as well as the radical constructivism of Watzlawick advocate the social construction of reality. The next question would be why Gotthard Günther was not able to install his method while he worked in the 60's at that proverbial germinating nucleus of cybernetics, the Biological Computers Laboratory in Urbana, that had been founded by McCulloch and was at the time directed by Heinz v. Foerster. This question can probably only be answered by those who were present. Perhaps the time was not ripe yet, and perhaps Gotthard Günther had tried it the wrong way. He had himself stated (Günther 1979, p. 184): "Um einen neuen, echten Formalismus an die Stelle eines alten zu setzen, muß man vorerst ein neues ontologisches Wirklichkeitsbild besitzen. Die Formalisierung eines solchen Wirklichkeitsbildes gibt dann automatisch eine neue Logik als sekundäres Derivat. Der umgekehrte Weg ist nicht möglich." - (translation:) "To put a new, true formalism in place of an old one, one has to first have a new ontological world model. The formalization of such a world model results in a new logics as secondary derivation. The reverse approach is not possible". The present contribution is aimed to supply that ontological world model.

4. References

Abraham, Ralph H. (1994): Chaos, Gaia, Eros: a chaos pioneer uncovers the three great streams of history, San Francisco: Harper
Brillouin, Leon (1962): Science and Information Theory, Academic Press, NY.
Figge, Udo L. (1994): Semiotic principles and systems: Biological foundations of semiotics, in: Nöth, Winfried (ed): Origins of Semiosis. Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture, Berlin/NY. Mouton de Gruyter 1994, pp. 25-36.
FIS (1996): First conference on foundations of information science, BioSystems 38, p. 87-96, Amsterdam, Elsevier.
Goppold, Andreas (1997-1), Morphologies of Cultural Memory, Dept. Anthropology, Universität Ulm and FAW Ulm.
Goppold, Andreas (1997-2), The Symbolator Project: Multimedia Systems for Envisioning Dynamic Mental Images, Infix-Verlag, Bonn-Bad Godesberg, 1997, forthcoming
Günther, Gotthard (1976): Beiträge zur Grundlegung einer operationsfähigen Dialektik, Bd. 1, Felix Meiner, Hamburg.
Günther, Gotthard (1978): Idee und Grundriß einer nicht-Aristotelischen Logik, Felix Meiner, Hamburg.
Günther, Gotthard (1979): Beiträge zur Grundlegung einer operationsfähigen Dialektik, Bd. 2, Felix Meiner, Hamburg.
Humboldt, Wilhelm v. (1963), Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaus und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts, Werke in 5 Bänden, Bd. III, Hrg. Andreas Flitner und Klaus Giel, Wissensch. Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1963, p. 368-756.
Jaspers, Karl (1955): Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, Fischer, Frankfurt.
Kerckhove, Derrick de, (1988) and Charles Lumsden, eds.: The Alphabet and the Brain, Springer, Berlin
Korvin-Krasinski, Cyrill von (1986): Trina Mundi Machina - Die Signatur des alten Eurasien, Grünewald, Mainz.
Marijuan, Pedro (1996-1): Second Conference on Foundations of Information Science: The Quest for a Unified Theory of Information, FIS 96, Vienna.
Marijuan, Pedro (1996-2): Information and the "fluid" nature of life, FIS 96, Vienna.
Peirce, Charles Sanders (CP): The collected works of Charles Sanders Peirce; Hartshorne, Weiss, Burks, eds., Harvard Uni Press, Cambridge, MA 1931-1958.
Penrose, Roger (1994): Shadows of the Mind, Oxford Uni Press, Oxford.
Polanyi, Michael (1985): Implizites Wissen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt.
Popper and Eccles (1977): The self and its brain, Springer, Berlin.
Salthe, Stan (1992): Science as the basis for a new mythological understanding, Uroboros, Vol II, no. 1, 1992, pp 25-45.
Whitehead, Alfred North (1934): Nature and Life, Greenwood Press, NY
Whitehead, Alfred North (1957): Process and Reality, Macmillan, New York, orig. 1929

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