How Does a Molecule Become a Message?

My messages to the biosemiotics list (see the thread Conformons as the sound of cell language) with comment to

H. H. Pattee, How Does a Molecule Become a Message?

Communication in Development Proceedings of the 28 th Symposium, The Society for Developmental Biology, Boulder, CO, June 16-18, 1969 Editor-in -Chief ~ M. V . EDDS, .JR. Academic Press , New York and London, 1969, Organized and Edited by Anton Lang M S U / AEC Plant Research Laboratory Michigan State University

Alternate ref: Developmental Biology Supplement 3, 1-16 (1969)

11.05.2013 17:03

I understand what you say but I do not see the difference between the case with the rock and so called biocommunication by means of conformons and biophotons.

I have browsed your paper. Two quotes:

1) “Let me make it quite clear at this point that I believe that all the molecules in the living cell obey precisely the laws of normal physics and chemistry (Pattee, 1969).

2) “A molecule becomes a message only in the context of a larger system of physical constraints which I have called a “language” in analogy to our normal usage of the concept of message.”

The problem is that “language” appears for just a scientists who observes plants. When we remove a scientist, there is no more “language” left. It is exactly the same problem with the question that I have posted some time ago “Who Determines Surroundedness of an Organism?”. In my view, when we accept 1) and remove a scientists, there is no one who can determine the surroundedness of plants: there are only molecules that “obey precisely the laws of normal physics and chemistry”. There are no arbitrary symbols, only physical forces.

11.05.2013 19:13

Provided physicalism is assumed, the genetic language as well as “obeying laws” vs. “determined by laws” do no exist without a scientist. I am afraid that you are not consistent with your assumptions.

This is why I like The Grand Design. Although I do not agree with conclusions in the book, I could follow the logic behind it. If we assume physical laws, then “obeying laws” vs. “determined by laws” does not make sense any more. It is just some language game that could entertain a scientist but that has no meaning when there is a nature without a scientist.

12.05.2013 18:16

I am reading now Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back into Biology to see what the alternatives are. It would be definitely nice to have strong emergence with causal power on its own. Unfortunately I do not see how it could appear under physicalism. In the book there are just words, words and words. I am not convinced though.

13.05.2013 09:21


For fun I have searched for robot mating on YouTube. This is one video for example:

It is not that nice as with birds, but still it raises a question. Let us imagine that some crazy scientists have programmed the behavior with the fish in bird-looking robots. Will the fish still be a sign in this case?

13.05.2013 10:39

>The answer is no, the programmed machine comprises simply the mechanisms of cause and effect assembled by an intelligence. The machine knows nothing of symbols, in the Peircean sense, as a consequence.

Doesn’t this mean that it is impossible to find signs under physicalism also in biology? Hawking writes in The Grand Design:

“Electromagnetic forces are responsible for all of chemistry and biology”.

How could it be possible to find a sign in biology in this case?

13.05.2013 09:42

Not sufficient in this respect just means that one does not have enough computing power to employ the Theory-Of-Everything directly. You should read The Grand Design:

“Though we feel that we can choose what we do, our understanding of the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets.”

In this sense, other laws you mention belong to “an effective theory” according to Hawking. For example

“In the case of people, since we cannot solve the equations that determine our behavior, we use the effective theory that people have free will.”

Finally one more quote:

“Electromagnetic forces are responsible for all of chemistry and biology”.

The Physicist is the One. The Biologist is just a master of some effective theory according to Hawking.

13.05.2013 09:59

Liquidity is emergence in eyes of an observer. Let us remove the observer and have “a look from nowhere”. The we have just nuclei and electron density. Liquidity as such disappears.

By the way, it is good to remember that a molecule (for example DNA) is nothing more that a convenient concept introduced by chemists to more easily classify experiments. There was an endless discussion in chemistry whether there is a difference between intermolecular and intramolecular forces. As far as I understand, the conclusion was that there is no qualitative difference. There are just nuclei surrounded by electrons and it is impossible to partition the space in such a way to find “a molecule” not speaking about liquidity.

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