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Joseph Brisendine: on 3/15/17 at 7:52am UTC, wrote Hi Simon! Thanks for reading my essay and I have to say I'm a little...

Simon DeDeo: on 3/15/17 at 6:05am UTC, wrote Dear Joe -- A lot going on in this lovely piece. A question, since you...

Joseph Brisendine: on 3/14/17 at 23:50pm UTC, wrote Thanks for the kind words Tommaso! I'm happy to try to clarify my...

Tommaso Bolognesi: on 3/14/17 at 16:42pm UTC, wrote Dear Joseph, your essay is remarkable for the degree of personal...

Joseph Brisendine: on 3/13/17 at 5:01am UTC, wrote Gee I think it all depends on what you mean by that, and what you include...

Shaikh Raisuddin: on 3/13/17 at 4:50am UTC, wrote FIRE Is not a spark of fire a goal-directed and replicating phenomenon?

Ines Samengo: on 3/12/17 at 23:56pm UTC, wrote I think you are right, I am expecting from anthropic reasoning something it...

Joseph Brisendine: on 3/12/17 at 20:45pm UTC, wrote Hi Ines that was a lovely compliment! I had noticed and enjoyed your...


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March 28, 2017

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: A Sign without Meaning by Joseph Murphy Brisendine [refresh]
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This essay's rating: Community = 4.9; Public = 6.3

Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine wrote on Feb. 21, 2017 @ 15:31 GMT
Essay Abstract

The aim of this work is to bring together the contemporary understanding of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and Information theory built from the large-deviations scaling derivation of the Shannon-Gibbs entropy with the critique of Cartesian rationality and theory of embodied selfhood presented by the French and German phenomenological philosophical traditions. These two very different intellectual resources work together to provide an account of the emergence of and relations between objects and subjects along with the conditions required for their stability. Information and meaning are distinguished and we present a definition of meaningful information which relies on the inferential capcity of dynamical systems interacting repeatedly with a fluctuating environment. We then trace the origin of the question regarding the emergence of intentionality to the problem of Cartesian dualism, and argue that the very same anthropic principle which underlies the intuition of the Cogito is also, when applied to itself, the explanation for the illusion of the certainty of the Cogito. Finally, we end with a plea for accepting the relative instability of selfhood as a condition of understanding and accepting our emergent humanity.

Author Bio

I am a PhD candidate in biochemistry at CUNY with a background in philosophy. I earned a Master's degree in philosophy before transitioning to science in my mid 20's, and since that time I have been trying to understand the physics of the living state. While my circuitous path has not yet led me to renown as a researcher, I have tried to use my diverse education to craft a response to this question that speaks to our scientific curiosity and our living passion in equal measure.

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Don C Foster wrote on Feb. 22, 2017 @ 18:08 GMT
Great job! You covered a lot of difficult conceptual terrain in a clear and approachable fashion. Good read. Hope you get a chance to look at my essay when it completes gestation. Best, Don Foster

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Feb. 22, 2017 @ 20:27 GMT
Thanks very much for the kind words! I'll gladly look at your essay, has it been posted yet? If not, I'll keep an eye out.


Don C Foster wrote on Feb. 22, 2017 @ 18:55 GMT
Ah, a question emerges. I wonder how to fit, within your koanical closing remarks about the mutability of structure, Prigogine’s insight that ‘time’s arrow’ emerges from irreversible dynamics of dissipative structures and allows for structure to accumulate. Thereby is created a ratchet effect, a coral-like accretion of energy/material pathways that have integrity and an ‘inertial’ continuity.


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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Feb. 22, 2017 @ 20:52 GMT

Thank you for mentioning Prigogine, I agree with the philosophical thrust of his ideas and think that he was ahead of his time in many ways, but also the mathematical details of some of what he proposed in the 1970's regarding "microscopic irreversibility' appear now to be incorrect in light of the major advances in non-eq thermo that have taken place since the various fluctuation...

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Don C Foster replied on Feb. 23, 2017 @ 16:33 GMT

I much appreciate your walking me through that. I looked at Eric Smith’s paper and confess the mathematics was a couple of orders of magnitude too complex for my appreciation. Still, I am sorry to give up on the arrow of time and wonder if there is what you might call the practical chef’s arrow of time and thus not feel compelled to watch the skillet in case the eggs should pop...

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Feb. 23, 2017 @ 20:29 GMT

I started working through the math of contemporary thermo about 5 years agao now, and it took at least three years and many, many examples from my own research and others combined with many hours of pondering before I felt like I had a decent grasp of what was going on, but I promise you that it's all much simpler than the formalism makes it look. Also, I don't want to cause any confusion, the arrow of time that you grew up with is still alive and well, nothing has really changed in our philosophical understanding of what irreversibility means for life at the human scale, these issues really only ever impacted what was happening at microscopic scales to begin with. Biology is probably poised right at the scale where it can make use of fluctuations away from equilibrium that appear to "violate" a pre-statistical understanding of the second law for some if its processes, non-adiabatic tunneling reactions in particular, but also have other processes occurring that are effectively irreversible and completely obey our classical understanding of the second law, ATP hydrolysis would be an example of the latter. So there's no need to worry about second-law 'violations' or Maxwell's demons when you're cooking!


Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Feb. 23, 2017 @ 01:32 GMT
Dear Joseph Murphy Brisendine,

Good essay on Philosophy of perception of things. Your thinking is Good… Let me quote a few points….

1. Structure is never simply structure then, but rather information which may be potentially transmitted from one environment to another and thus shared, becoming mutual information. It was not made to last, but rather to be transmitted. It is a sign, signifying nothing in itself; always for we—the living—to decide what it means.

2. I would invite you to try and consider how the world would manifest to you if you had no memory,

3. Bacterial chemotaxis is an example of perhaps the simplest possible manifestation of meaningfulness we know, and it is understood in complete mechanistic detail (13). The basic structure of the sensing-computing-acting feedback loop can also already be seen in this example

I can suggest you to read the Philosophical thinking of Jiddu Krishna Murti or JK of JK Foundation, USA …………

Have look at my essay also…

Best wishes…………….

=snp. gupta

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Feb. 23, 2017 @ 02:15 GMT
Mr. Gupta,

Thank you for taking the time to read and appreciate my work. When I was studying philosophy in my youth, I was interested in eastern thought also, and in particular Dogen's writings collected under the title "Moon in a Dewdrop" had a big influence on me, as well as modern Japanese philosophy from the Kyoto school. After I transitioned to science, I was more immediately concerned with making sure that I had a firm grasp of the technical details of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. But once I became comfortable with my own expertise, limited as it is, I began returning to thinking about those texts from my youth, and I found many of Dogen's koans to actually be very good at bringing across technical points concerning scale-invariance, renormalization, and symmetry-breaking. Not that ancient thinkers somehow just "intuited" these technical ideas at all, mind you, and I'd never tell someone to read eastern philsophy in order to learn statistical physics (you give them Landau and Lifshitz and tell them to walk the path for themselves), but rather that their insights about nature were prescient in ways that they couldn't understand but somehow managed to articulate anyway, and in hindsight we may gain insight into issues where our everyday intuition is a poor guide if we let ourselves combine a rigorous, technical grasp of the science with an open-minded view of what ancient texts have to offer.

I read your essay also, and enjoyed learning about galactic lifecycles.



Edwin Eugene Klingman wrote on Feb. 28, 2017 @ 19:53 GMT
Hi Joseph Murphy Brisendine,

Yours is one of the best written, most insightful, and greatest joy to read of all essays here, which is saying something. Rather than list things with which I agree, which would for the most part simply reproduce your essay, I will focus on our differences.

You discuss two robots, (similar to one discussed in my endnotes) to one of which you wish to...

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 1, 2017 @ 03:40 GMT
Hi Eugene,

First and foremost I appreciate the feedback. I clearly put a lot of myself into the work and it's immensely rewarding to hear that it resonates with people. It would seem that we agree on the 'spirit' of many aspects of the question but I'm uncertain if we agree in the details of the letter. On our point of contention, I am of the opinion that it is possible to confer...

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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 16:40 GMT
Dear Joe,

this is a nice essay. I particularly like your E.coli example illustrating that one process can at the same time be both, a manifestation of mindless mathematical laws and of intentional behavior -- depending on the language you use to describe it (or at which scale you describe it, as I'd put it).

I'm not sure that I agree that there is a "highly-discontinuous change" "when we arrive at 'ourselves'". Couldn't it be that you only perceive this last step as bigger than previous steps, because you can't look at it from an even "higher" perspective? Don't you think that from the perspective of E.coli the step which distinguishes E.coli from everything that was there on a "lower" level would also be perceived as huge?

I think this also touches upon a question you raise: Perceiving the last step leading to 'ourselves' as particularly big, might explain why it is more difficult for us to admit the fragility of what is achieved in this last step.

Cheers, Stefan

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 3, 2017 @ 07:57 GMT
Thanks Stefan!

I would use the term scale also, and it's good to get a response from a sober physicalist! There's a sense in which it's important to recognize that there is no discontinuity whatsoever when you just view us biologically, perhaps I didn't emphasize that enough but I was short for space. As animals we're fairly unremarkable, maladapted even, and part of me would respond to...

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Stefan Keppeler replied on Mar. 3, 2017 @ 11:21 GMT
Thanks for that long reply! You clearly argue your point, especially when you contrast "modern humans" with our much longer history as a biological species. Yes, I'm also in the contest -- Goals emerge in macroscopic descriptions of the world -- and, as you guessed, my line of reasoning is not exactly orthogonal to yours. ;-)

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Yehuda Atai wrote on Mar. 2, 2017 @ 21:09 GMT
Hi Joseph Murphy Brisendine

Very interesting essay.

Meaning based information is of the type that hold at least one possible action between two "existents". If there is no potential action in the relation there is no meaning.

Yet, as I understood you the inner concrete "I" or "self organization" is kept as imaginary one rather than ratifying its self reality through its life duration. The Cartesian approach to reality is dualistic and causal (any levels of complexities).

Yes, we do perceive reality objectively, which give the uniqueness in us and in the reality itself. It is an eminent transcendental reality, and through it (with it) comes the glory of phenomena.


yehuda atai

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 3, 2017 @ 08:00 GMT
Thanks Yehuda! From your comments I have the impression you are a phenomenologist in the tradition of Husserl. I personally prefer (young) Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, but I do certainly believe in the glory of phenomenaa! I'll look over you essay now as well I have been meaning to :)


Mark Pharoah wrote on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 19:55 GMT

I enjoyed reading your essay but have some questions for you:

You say, “I would invite you to try and consider how the world would manifest to you if you had no memory…” You ask whether individuals with severe memory impairment possess “selves” and whether such individuals know that they exist? You answer, “I believe the evidence obliges us to answer no.”

You are saying, that individuals with total memory impairment do not know they exist, that is, that they do not have a self. But the two things are not the same. Knowing you exist is not the same as having a self. When I am asleep, I do not know if I exist or not, but does my ‘self’ really cease to exist until I wake? Does an infant human not have a self until it has a memory? By this reasoncing, if two infants have the same memory, for instance: ‘the ice cream I had yesterday was delicious’, are you to say both infants have the same self? If they don't have the same self, then self must be more than memory. So, you see, the existence of memory is not, prima facie, the pillar of selfhood as you say it is.

In many respects you echo Dennett’s stance. You say, “As we move from the meaningfulness manifested by bacterial chemotaxis to the meaningfulness manifested by animals in their environments, not much changes except the scale of the processes involved.” Similarly, Dennett explains that the difference between simple and complex systems is one of scale—one of degrees of system complexity. I describe this view toward intentionality and representation as a greyscale stance were intentionality is determined by degrees of functional complexity. In my critical analysis (see paper at I explain why this stance is problematic.

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 4, 2017 @ 23:43 GMT
Hi Mark!

I did my best to distinguish between selfhood and self-awareness in the essay, or being a self vs knowing that you are a self, but I was covering a lot of ground and I might have not been clear on my position. To answer your questions just from my perspective first, any living thing that embodies a dynamical system "thermostatted" to a fluctuating environment is a self, to borrow...

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Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Mar. 5, 2017 @ 21:42 GMT

Thank you for a deeply thoughtful and nicely written essay. There are aspects of your philosophical view that are very insightful and well presented – for example, in thinking about what it would be like to have no memory, and in your critique of “self” as a basic intuition. And your overview of the progression from thermal physics to bacteria etc. is excellent, very...

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 7, 2017 @ 15:45 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Thanks for the kind words and I'll be sure to look over your essay as soon as I get the chance, I've been travelling and haven't been able to reply freely. I think that you're correct about the weaker parts of my thesis, and I fully admit that I don't have the education in human anthropology, a subject I've never really studied, to properly address the mechanistic causes of our...

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Conrad Dale Johnson replied on Mar. 8, 2017 @ 15:59 GMT

Rereading my post, I think it sounds more critical than I meant it to be… I really was impressed by your essay, and it deserves a 10, a rating I don’t give lightly. And I’m far from an expert in any field of science, though I try to make sure my writing is accurate. Heidegger I do know fairly well, since he was very important to me in grad school back in the 70’s. I’m very glad you know his work, and delighted to find someone with that background doing biochemistry. The truth is I can hardly read “Philosophy” any more, since the world itself is so much more interesting. It often seems to me that while our knowledge has grown exponentially since 1900, we still seem to conceptualize the world largely in terms that were familiar in the 19th century.

You say, “What I really want to retain from Being and Time are all the resources we need to combat all of this neo-dualism that has cropped up in phil mind” – Yes, this is where Being and Time really succeeds, as still the deepest critique of the Cartesian/Kantian tradition. And he did it by articulating the many “equiprimordial” elements involved in what seems like the perfectly simple idea of “self”. I get your point about taking self-awareness as a “teleological” explanation of what makes us humans so different, and you’re right that it’s implicit in all our experience, from a very early age. And I’m intrigued by your comment about “the dimensional context of experience” that’s hidden by dualism… I hope to discuss that further!

Thanks – Conrad

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Mark Pharoah wrote on Mar. 6, 2017 @ 21:08 GMT

Thanks for the detailed response to my queries. I can see now there is much more to your ideas than could have been crammed into the essay topic. I did misinterpret some of your ideas and would need to read it again I think now that you have clarified things. It would be nice to cover more of these ideas through discussion.

In your second paragraph you talk of the emergence of self-awareness and say "I don't know what the mechanism was that actually caused this change" (the change that brought about self-awareness). You may be interested in my hierarchical construct theory essay which also talks about a hierarchy of emergent capabilities that have distinctive attributes. I do give an account of how each level, in a three-tiered hierarchy, emerge and evolve.

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine wrote on Mar. 9, 2017 @ 18:55 GMT
Conrad, Mark, Stefan, everyone else who expressed interest in further discussion--

Thank you all for considering my ideas and it would be my pleasure. I can be reached at and feel free to reach out anytime. Meanwhile I'll get back in touch once I have properly considered everyone else's entries.



Ines Samengo wrote on Mar. 11, 2017 @ 22:18 GMT
Hi, Joseph, congratulations, this is an excellent essay. Both for the ideas in it, and the writing. Many of the things you mention resonate with the ones I chose to focus in my essay (comments from you would be most appreciated). I still get wound up by the anthropic reasoning, though. I understand that conditioning on our existence rules outs a-priori possible evolutions of the universe that do not give rise to us. I also understand that perceiving ourselves makes all things related to ourselves interesting. I do not understand, however, in which way anthropic reasoning provides explanations - and I do care for explanations, whatever those may be!

In any case, this is an old problem I've been having for ages, it's not your fault, I'll just have to keep thinking. In any case, thanks for the great read!

inés = one more sign without meaning about to fall apart.

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 20:45 GMT
Hi Ines that was a lovely compliment!

I had noticed and enjoyed your essay a great deal as well, I will definitely share my thoughts on it with you on your page. But first allow me to say that there's a sense in which you're right, anthropic reasoning explains nothing. If we insist that an explanation must be a mechanistic explanation, which means that it should tell us clearly how to...

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Ines Samengo replied on Mar. 12, 2017 @ 23:56 GMT
I think you are right, I am expecting from anthropic reasoning something it cannot quite provide. I just wish I could benefit more from the things it can actually provide. I promise to work on it, and if needed, come back to you...

Thanks for the great explanation!!


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Shaikh Raisuddin wrote on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 04:50 GMT

Is not a spark of fire a goal-directed and replicating phenomenon?

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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 13, 2017 @ 05:01 GMT
Gee I think it all depends on what you mean by that, and what you include or don't as part of the "spark."

Member Tommaso Bolognesi wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 16:42 GMT
Dear Joseph,

your essay is remarkable for the degree of personal participation that you put in your story-telling, both in tone and in contents.

However, if I were to summarise some of the main points you make, I’d have some difficulty with one which is quite central: the value of the self. On one hand you attribute much higher sophistication and ‘computational capability’ to the robot with self-awareness (following mainly Aaronson?); on the other, you regard the pretended certainty and stability of the self as a “wonderful irony of the history of philosophy”. Maybe the conflict is only apparent? I’d be curious about a final word from you on the issue. (I read your text twice, but didn’t go through the comments in your blog. Apologies if you have already covered the issue.)

Thank you and best regards!


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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 23:50 GMT
Thanks for the kind words Tommaso!

I'm happy to try to clarify my position. As you intuited, I think the tension is only apparent. I think the gain in computational complexity due to the ability to use "anthropic reasoning" has been demonstrated clearly by Aaronson, just as you say, and that this complexity gain is the "teleological" explanation for our self-awareness. This doesn't mean, of course, that this caused us to become self-aware, as this would be like saying that photosynthesis was discovered "so that orgaansms could use sunlight." only a mechanistic explanation actually tells you how to create something and allows you to infer it's actual cause for existence. A teleological explanation does tell you, however, why it is that once there were self-aware animals they quickly out-learned non self-aware animals, just s it tells you why, once there were photosynthetic organims, they quickly covered the earth. So that's the powerful part of our selfhood. My claim is that it is powerful but also unstable. The sense of its instability can be found everywhere in our experience if we pay attenntion to it, but then my contention is that it also follows logically from understanding how biology increases its thermodynamic efficiency in line with natural selection. If you want to compute things near the Landauer limit, your band gaps have to be as close to kT as they can get without being overcome by noise. Our self-awareness then is the source of our superior understanding of nature and our ability to share information so readily, but the "free energy of formation of self-awareness" appears to be very small, and easily overcome. I hope that all makes sense!

Thanks also for taking the time to read and consider my ideas, it is very rewarding to know that they were seriously considered by another intellect!


Simon DeDeo wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 06:05 GMT
Dear Joe --

A lot going on in this lovely piece.

A question, since you anchor meaning in "information relevant to survival".

Say I simulate an evolutionary process on my computer. The symbols the machine processes have meaning for me, of course. But could they also have meaning for each other? (E.g., could the symbol equivalent to a deleterious simulated environment have "meaning for" the symbol equivalent to a simulated organism? If the agent ignores it, that agent's symbol will die/become less common).



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Author Joseph Murphy Brisendine replied on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 07:52 GMT
Hi Simon! Thanks for reading my essay and I have to say I'm a little starstruck because I'm a big fan of your work!

As to your question, I wanted to define meaning more along the lines of attention, I actually had Heidegger's notion of "care" in mind when I was trying to decide what made information meaninfgul. In biology, that's generically connected to survival but then, even for most...

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