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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at


From Biosemiotics to Cosmosemiotics

The Language of the Universe

Joe Corbett

No one knows why the universe is so finely-tuned to exist, and to exist in a goldielocks zone for the emergence of life on top of that.

There are two or three dozen constants of nature that are so finely-tuned that just a tiny change in any one of their values would result in a completely different universe, if one were to exist at all, and consequently there would be no possibility for life as we know it, or perhaps for any existence at all. No one knows why the universe is so finely-tuned to exist, and to exist in a goldielocks zone for the emergence of life on top of that. The multiverse of infinite universes has been used as a rationale for explaining how this all just happened by chance, whereby we just happen to be in a universe that is just right for us to be here, and to see that the universe is finely-tuned for our existence.

If that rationale sounds familiar you'd be right, because it's the same rationale most scientists use to explain the origin and flourishing of life. Even given the universe we have, for life to have originated and flourished as it has required another set of equally miraculous and finely-tuned conditions (who says scientists don't believe in miracles?), such as distance from the sun and size and chemical composition of the sun and earth. These are not by themselves miraculous coincidences, but they are when combined with the numerous other factors in the early environment of the earth that must have been “just right”, all of which “just happened” to come together in just the right way by chance, which was capable of persisting and multiplying promising molecular formations over sufficient time periods and in sufficient numbers whereby selection could tune and diversify the emergence and subsequent evolution of biomolecular forms.

In other words, so the mythical story goes, the universe exists and life emerged by a lucky accident of all the right ingredients coming together in just the right way, in just the right proportions, and at just the right time, giving the faith in biblical and other religious mythologies of origin a run for their money, only at one developmental level higher than pre-scientific traditions. But what if the constants of nature and the origin and flourishing of life aren't by mere chance, a mere fluke of mathematical probability? What if the universe isn't stitched together by the god of Chance and Chaos, but by the god of Reason and Order? What if there are organizing codes, rules, or physical principles for the universe as well as life, mind and society that set the parameters to what they need to be for the universe, life, mind and society to exist as they do?

Biosemiotics is a field of study in which signs and meaning play a role in the origin, construction, and maintenance of living organisms. In written language, as in molecular biology, words (material signifers, UR) are composed of a series of markings or letters (atoms) that represent audible vibrations (sounds, or atomic bonds). These composite signs in turn represent the signified (what the signifiers refer to, or in biology the molecular subject of the atomic objects, UL). The letters-atoms can be arranged in a variety of ways to represent numerous different signifieds-molecules. But the specific meaning of those signifieds will depend on the context in which they are represented within a string or template (and ultimately a network) of other signifiers and signifieds within sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The context of those signifieds will then give us the semantic meaning or interpretation (LL) of those words and molecules for the images and forms they create within the sentences, chains, and networks of signifieds-molecules. Finally, the meanings within the sentence-chains are ultimately generated, coordinated, and structured by rules of sequence in the grammatical syntax of these molecular word chains (LR).

In short, the self-organization of meaning and form according to the principles and rules found in language are similarly operative at the biomolecular level leading to life as we know it, and this all maps to an integral semiotics as spelled-out by Ken Wilber. This is only a rough sketch of how an integral biosemiotics might approach the integration of the creation of linguistic meaning and form with an understanding of how meaning and form is created at the biomolecular level. Many more details and parallels between biology and language can be found. But here I will suggest that the corresponding self-organization of meaning and form between biology and language goes much further, for the same self-organizing principles found in them can also be extrapolated to the cosmos as a whole in the notion of cosmosemiotics, or a meaningfully structured organization of the universe, which is therefore governed by Reason and Order rather than by Chance and Chaos.

In short, the self-organization of meaning and form according to the principles and rules found in language are similarly operative at the biomolecular level leading to life as we know it, and this all maps to an integral semiotics as spelled-out by Ken Wilber.

A General Theory of Physiosemiotics

Abstracting and generalizing from semiotic principles, we can see that there is a principle of Manifestation and Extension in the material signifier (UR) beginning with naming, or assigning a word to a signified. Without a name or a word to identify something it's difficult to bring it into mind as a subject, just as without the electromagnetic bonds between atoms (and gravity bringing them all together even before that) the formation of molecules as an extension of atoms would be impossible. Hence the simple coming together of elementary parts (letters or atoms) to create a subject (signified/molecule) that didn't exist before, is the first principle of linguistic, biological, and physical existence.

In the simple coming together of parts, or manifestation by extension, something that didn't exist before suddenly emerges into existence that is nothing like its individual parts. For example, water is unique and nothing like hydrogen and oxygen, just as carbon dioxide is unique and nothing like carbon and oxygen. Likewise, when quarks came together to create nuclei they “named” those larger particles into existence, so to speak, creating unique signifieds nothing like the individual quarks. Therefore, in the beginning was the audible letter-quark-atom, and from that sound-letter or atom came the word and its signified-atom-molecule. And with numerous different combinations of letters and atoms we can get an incredible variety of different signifieds and molecules in the UL, which is the second general principle of physiosemiotics: Variation.

But the variation among signifieds and molecules does not end with their differentiation from one another as the unique combinations of letters and atoms. For just as in the case of the signifieds that signifiers refer to, molecules have multiple possible meanings depending on the context of their use. And that is why the second co-principle of Variation in the UL is Possibility. Water, for instance, is something more than hydrogen and oxygen, giving it a unique identity as a signified-molecule, which is also different from other molecules that are “spelled” differently with different combinations of atoms. But water itself has different meanings depending on its interpretation, which has an entirely different meaning to a fish and a cat, just as carbon dioxide means something entirely different to a tree and a human. The words water, tree, or carbon-dioxide have multiple possible meanings and interpretations depending on who or what is doing the interpreting and in what context it is being used. The semantic context (phrase, sentence, chain, or template) of a signified-molecule in the LL gives it specificity through a committed, conventional and stable meaning from its multiple possible meanings as a free-floating signified-molecule.

Meaning, as opposed to a mere signal, is thus acquired via a commitment of the signified to a specific form given by its relation to other signifieds. The multiple possible meanings of a signified are constrained by the template of a phrase or a sentence-chain in which it is placed. Only within the specific template of a chain of signifiers does the signified take its definitive meaning. Family tree and Christmas tree, for instance, have entirely different meanings for the same signified (tree), and the same goes for different molecules juxtaposed in chains of molecular signifieds - the same molecule can mean different things depending on what other molecules it is in relation to. This gives us a third general principle of physiosemiotics: Conventional Constraint and Commitment in the LL, whereby the definitive meaning of a signified arises only from a commitment to a specific context or template where it can be reliably interpreted.

Nevertheless, a phrase, sentence or template for the specific, stable and conventional or reliable emergence of meaning is not enough to create spoken or written language, just as nucleotide and amino-peptide chains and their constituent molecules are necessary but not sufficient to create life. There must also be a set of rules by which the organization of the structure of the template is coordinated to consistently generate new and coherent meanings in the manner of grammatical syntax, the formal rules or codes that allow us to combine and recombine elements of meaning-chains in a nearly infinite number of ways, through what is known in linguistics as recursion. In other words, such a physiosemiotic principle would involve a dynamical structure capable of generative and creative output, indeed just like language and life itself does through grammatic and genetic codes, which allow for dynamic rather than static organization.

Hence the fourth and final general principle of physiosemiotics would be the Rules of Systemic Generation and Coordination, how the parts of the whole are to be combined and recombined into a dynamical self-sustaining structure of coherent and polymorphous meanings. This is perhaps the most enigmatic and mysterious of the four physiosemiotic principles. In the case of biology, natural selection supposedly chose what codes would coordinate the whole of organisms for functional fit in the environment through a process of elimination. Even in the case of grammar, natural selection is thought to have favored those genes capable of a grammar-based language. But in both cases, the organizing code was not itself generated by natural selection, but was only passively selected for preservation by its fitness in the environment.

Natural selection, after all, does not create anything, but merely passively selects through elimination what has already been generated by nature.

Therefore any organizing code or self-generating dynamical process within language and biology must have emerged prior to its selection for fitness, whose selection after it emerged would then have resulted in the fine-tuning of the self-generating grammatic rules and genetic codes into more robustly self-sustaining forms. Natural selection, after all, does not create anything, but merely passively selects through elimination what has already been generated by nature. Therefore, the Rules of Systemic Generation and Coordination in the LR (whatever those rules may be), although they may vary somewhat across different languages and organisms, must have been an immanently universal and emergent physical principle rather than a gradually evolved trait of natural selection, indeed just as Chomsky claims of the language faculty in humans.

What this suggests is that in order for the universe to exist in a way that would allow life to emerge there doesn't need to be all those miraculous fine-tunings that just by chance fell into all the right values, and we just happen to live in one among a near infinite many universes where those values combine by chance in just the right way for us to be here. Instead all that would be needed is a few guiding physical principles to assure that the essential parameters for a range of constant values were set, and then those principles would select the values that would be optimal for fulfilling the principles (the principles of manifestation, variation, preservation, and coordination).

In other words, within the first few seconds and minutes of the big bang inflation, or perhaps during the inflationary period of manifestation by extension of space itself, the values of the universal constants would have been rapidly sorted and selected for their fit into the cosmic system of physiosemiotic principles for Manifestation-Extension in the UR (signifier), Variation-Possibility in the UL (signified), Conventional Constraint and Commitment in the LL (semantics), and the Rules of Generation and Coordination in the LR (syntax), all simultaneously operating and tetra-arising together. The universe, life, and language did not arise as they have by accident within an improbable statistical probability, but according to principles that made their emergence inevitable through the manifestation of possibilities constrained by the rules of coordination for generating and sustaining a system for those principles to be fulfilled.

Of course, this explanation begs the question of where these physiosemiotic principles came from in the first place. And for this we need to turn to Cosmosemiotics for an answer.

From Cosmosemiotics to Kosmosemiotics

In a previous essay on the integral structure of space-time evolution, I similarly argued that physical form, the potential for other form, a resonant memory of form, and a relational order of larger or more complex forms are all geometrically emergent properties from the spin-foam network of space-time derived from the four surfaces of a primordial tetrahedral qubit, and that each of these space-time structures correspond to the four quadrants of the AQAL. Specifically, in terms of the correspondence between the tetrahedral qubit and the AQAL, we might say that the structure of manifest reality consists of physical form in the UR, which would be the Truth of existence, a potential for other forms in the UL, which would be the Beauty of existence, a cyclical or resonant feedback memory of form in the LL, which would be the Goodness of existence, and a relational order of forms organized into ever larger forms in the LR, which would be the Justice of existence.

These space-time structures that are emergent from the geometric unfolding of the tetrahedral qubit into spin-networks and spin-foams that form the physical universe, according to quantum gravitational theory, are remarkably similar to the physiosemiotic principles described above. The emergence of the physiosemiotic principles, and therefore of life and language as well, according to this view, comes directly from the geometric emergence of the 4 space-time dimensions themselves. In the evolutionary unfolding of space-time there is a geometric dimension of unfolding into physical form through manifestation by extension of space, a geometric dimension of unfolding into the potentials and varieties of form, a geometric dimension of unfolding into the preservational constraint and memory of forms, and a geometric dimension of unfolding that organizes and coordinates the relations of form into greater wholes of complexity.

Each geometric dimension of unfolding space-time has a teleological principle, rationality, or purpose of being defined by its particular angular and directional perspective from the four surface areas of the tetrahedral qubit, entangled together but in completely different yet complimentary ways in order to 1. manifest forms and 2. their potentials in 3. a stable and 4. coordinated fashion. And indeed this is what they appear to do all the way up to the level of human cognition and civilization, in what Habermas calls “the grammars of the forms of life”. These are the rationalities inherent in communication through language, and those rationalities correspond to the four quadrants of aesthetic rationality (UL), moral rationality (LL), instrumental rationality (UR), and strategic rationality (LR). All of these rationalities exist in humans from the beginning of language, and some are developed more than others, in different combinations with the others, in different historical periods and cultural spaces. Modernity (flatland) has two-dimensionally developed the exterior quadrant rationalities at the expense of the inner rationalities, and therefore it lacks the full four dimensional reality in which we actually live, leading directly to the crisis we face as a civilization.

Since it is the incomplete and therefore mistaken paradigm of flatland modernity that the majority of the world currently lives under, leading us straight into nuclear, climactic, and species catastrophe, it is imperative that we understand the full four dimensional physiosemiotic, biosemiotic, and cosmosemiotic reality that underlies the entire existence of the Kosmos at large, including the emergence of life and the language we use to understand it and ourselves as we teeter on the edge. Without an understanding of what principles underlie our existence immanent in the geometric structure of the universe itself, from which there is no escape and no getting around in terms of how we and all beings must conduct their lives to survive, we might come to believe that we can manifest our potentials in a sustainable way with a two-dimensional flatland perspective, and that would be a fatal mistake.

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