Complex Organisation and Fundamental Physics

Streaming Media Service, Cambridge University (2018)
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The file on this site provides the slides for a lecture given in Hangzhou in May 2018, and the lecture itself is available at the URL beginning 'sms' in the set of links provided in connection with this item. It is commonly assumed that regular physics underpins biology. Here it is proposed, in a synthesis of ideas by various authors, that in reality structures and mechanisms of a biological character underpin the world studied by physicists, in principle supplying detail in the domain that according to regular physics is of an indeterminate character. In regular physics mathematical equations are primary, but this constraint leads to problems with reconciling theory and reality. Biology on the other hand typically does not characterise nature in quantitative terms, instead investigating in detail important complex interrelationships between parts, leading to an understanding of the systems concerned that is in some respects beyond that which prevails in regular physics. It makes contact with quantum physics in various ways, for example in that both involve interactions between observer and observed, an insight that explains what is special about processes involving observation, justifying in the quantum physics context the replacement of the unphysical many-worlds picture by one involving collapse. The link with biology furthermore clarifies Wheeler’s suggestion that a multiplicity of observations can lead to the ‘fabrication of form’, including the insight that this process depends on very specific ‘structures with power’ related to the 'semiotic scaffolding' of the application of sign theory to biology known as biosemiotics. The observer-observed 'circle' of Wheeler and Yardley is a special case of a more general phenomenon, oppositional dynamics, related to the 'intra-action' of Barad's Agential Realism, involving cooperating systems such as mind and matter, abstract and concrete, observer and observed, that preserve their identities while interacting with one another in such a way as to act as a unit. A third system may also be involved, the mediating system of Peirce linking the two together. Such a situation of changing connections and separations may plausibly lead in the future to an understanding of how complex systems are able to evolve to produce 'life, the universe and everything'. (Added 1 July 2018) The general structure proposed here as an alternative to a mathematics-based physics can be usefully characterised by relating it to different disciplines and the specialised concepts utilised therein. In theoretical physics, the test for the correctness of a theory typically involves numerical predictions, corresponding to which theories are expressed in terms of equations, that is to say assertions that two quantities have identical values. Equations have a lesser significance in biology which typically talks in terms of functional mechanisms, dependent for example on details of chemistry and concepts such as genes, natural selection, signals and geometrical or topologically motivated concepts such as the interconnections between systems and the unfolding of DNA. Biosemiotics adds to this the concept of signs and their interpretation, implying novel concepts such as semiotic scaffolding and the semiosphere, code duality, and appreciation of the different types of signs, including symbols and their capacity for abstraction and use in language systems. Circular Theory adds to this picture, as do the ideas of Barad, considerations such as the idea of oppositional dynamics. The proposals in this lecture can be regarded as the idea that concepts such as those deriving from biosemiotics have more general applicability than just conventional biology and may apply, in some circumstances, to nonlinear systems generally, including the domain new to science hypothesised to underlie the phenomena of present-day physics. The task then has to be to restore the mathematical aspect presumed, in this picture, not to be fundamental as it is in conventional theory. Deacon has invoked a complex sequence of evolutionary steps to account for the emergence over time of human language systems, and correspondingly mathematical behaviour can be subsumed under the general evolutionary mechanisms of biosemiotics (cf. also the proposals of Davis and Hersh regarding the nature of mathematics), so that the mathematical behaviour of physical systems is consistent with the proposed scheme. In conclusion, it is suggested that theoretical physicists should cease expecting to find some universal mathematical ‘theory of everything’, and focus instead on understanding in more detail complex systems exhibiting behaviour of a biological character, extending existing understanding. This may in time provide a more fruitful understanding of the natural world than does the regular approach. The essential concepts have an observational basis from both biology and the little-known discipline of cymatics (a discipline concerned with the remarkable patterns that specific waveforms can give rise to), while again computer simulations also offer promise in providing insight into the complex behaviours involved in the above proposals. References Jesper Hoffmeyer, Semiotic Scaffolding of Living Systems. Commens, a Digital Companion to C. S. Peirce (on Commens web site). Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species, W.W. Norton & Co. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press. Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh, The Mathematical Experience, Penguin. Ilexa Yardley, Circular Theory.

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Brian Josephson
Cambridge University


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