tarts pieces of eight

In the science of quantum living, the possession of an authentic piece of historic artefact in effect traps a piece of history (what is past) in the present with you (generic) where you are always prisoner. These Spanish pieces of eight from 1752, materially share spacetime with these pineapple tarts made in the last days of 2014. And while one may be trapped forever in the present, a kindness gesture to the future self can be laid, shown here by the making of these pineapple tarts. In the making of these tarts, the past self manages to put in place some nice delicacies for the consumption of the future self. In this, integrity / authenticity of the artefact matters. If the coins were not of the time period, if short-cuts were taken to make those tarts or lousy ingredients used, then what worth is the conversation? No doubt there would be a conversation, but it would be a different one to be had. As with the fabric of the cosmos, the freedom to choose belongs to the individual, the outcome already determined by the making of that choice.
Text & Photo © JE Nilsson, CM Cordeiro, Sweden 2015

The turn of the new year was marked by the winter solstice on 21 December 2014 in the northern hemisphere. The days prior to the winter solstice had me occupied with reading about semiotics, or sign study.

Where I had previously only been accustomed to the semiotics movement within cognitive linguistics of Saussurean structuralism and Piercean pragmatism, my interest in physics has led to a likewise broadening of literature reads to now include semiotics in nature.

To the questions “How was your 2014? What were some takeaway points of learning from that year?” what came to mind were the words “Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” from Robert Zemeckis 1994 movie, said by the character Forrest Gump in reiteration of what his mother Mrs. Gump once told him.

I connected those words as metaphor to the uncertainty principle in physics about the philosophy of life and living. But those words would hold true on condition that it was someone else who gave you those box of chocolates. Else, in the pragmatics of living and material doing, you could counter that uncertainty principle by going to the exact favourite chocolatier of yours to order exactly the type of truffles you’d like to have put in that box. Knowing exactly from the confectioner what went into each truffle, results in the general understanding that life when orchestrated [ø by you], falls within certain parameters of predictable results. That box of chocolates would turn out, [mostly] exactly as you liked it, even if the supplier had used ingredient A instead of what was said ingredient B, or if someone else got to sampling the box of chocolates before you, leaving one or two empty slots, after you’d left it unattended somewheres [1]. This would also somewhat counter the fact that we are always trapped in the now, the Self forever transitioning from past into future but never really being able to touch either [2].

As theories of quantum physics deal so much with probabilities, I’ve found the observer effect most interesting to study both in its function and metafunction. The observer effect construes as much as it is construed. It has the ability to turn a wave into a particle by observation. And by observation, decipher the characteristics of that particle. Choose not to observe it and that particle becomes another probability, another possibility.

This uncertainty principle in quantum physics, I had previously thought an irrelevant comparison with the Sapirian and Whorfian concept of linguistic relativity. Yet if one were to take the Hallidayan functional perspective of language, where one function of language is to act as metaphor for itself, then language acts in dialogic construal of the ideational, interpersonal and textual meanings of life. It both construes and is construed by its users. Therein in language lies a form of the uncertainty principle of physics. And why not? Language is after all a product of mind, the neuro-cognitive connections of which are still being mapped today.

Still the hierarchy of sciences shows several levels needing to be crossed to get from physics to humanities. There exists a communicative gap between the sciences that results in a widening knowledge gap between the fields of physics, biology and the social sciences.

A current problem with the field of sciences outside of theoretical physics is it (humanities) is too much empiricist to be comfortable with probabilities and uncertainties. What cannot be measured and observed, simply cannot be. I am here not arguing against empiricism, rather the greater lack of courage from the humanities to make a quantum leap in theory and then go back for empirical evidence that is my point of contention.

How to close this gap in knowledge and perspective between natural and social sciences? [3]

The observer effect (perhaps still ridiculed in humanities cloaked as subjectivity of researcher perspective) in me can only resort to what I have myself studied in the past – language and linguistics. So it would be there, in that world of Alice’s wonderland to which I return for an answer.

It seems that a possibility of reconciliation lies in the study of not just semiotics, but semiotics in the context of nature, of biology, beginning with biosemiotics. If before biology, where language and the physiology of language resides there was physics, then as if in reverse engineering of sorts, one gets to connect linguistic theories to the field of physics through that of biology to get a semiotics of physics. Chemistry that comes after physics but before biology already seems impossible to be construed of outside of communicational terms such as “recognition”, “high-fidelity”, “messenger-RNA”, and “signalling” [4], all resonating in the language of biosemiotics.

That language as part of a semiotic system could so much in its metafunctions, be like the workings of the theories of quantum physics is something of a new takeaway of 2014 for me, though I believe prominent linguists have long tried to allude to that fact. The gap of an inability to conceive human organization science in terms of natural science theories continues to exist because linguistics (that shares biosemiotics) for example, fail to communicate with international business (IB) studies for example.

Apart from non-communication between disciplines, when communication does take place, as with most concepts and (mis-)understandings, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa turns out to be anyone’s and everyone’s Mona Lisa.

After standing and contemplating that one painting, we all come away with different understandings and impressions of what it is. There is no one concept from that one painting. The myriad of impressions formed from the viewing of the Mona Lisa is little different from the debates of signs and signification from early Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, to modern Saussure, Pierce, Halliday and Chomsky [5]. Conceptual differences for the moment, are viewed as dichotomous cultural differences, i.e. they set ground for disagreements. This is far from the quantum theoretical physics view of wave-particle duality, with a both/and logic of non-logic. We find this in general, tricky if not difficult to manage.

If it is the very act of observing and measuring that which you choose to focus that makes the uncertain certain (else all else are possibilities, and relative), then for the more empirically oriented humanities, what is needed is perhaps a sharper (defined in its appropriacy) tool in methodology, in concept and framework of analysis?

Here, the metafunctions of semiotics could be a bridging concept. Taking a linguistic perspective to Hallidayan functional grammar, one such could be the greater application and use of language metafunctions in the study of human sciences. Language metafunctions has an ability to concretely connect the metaphysical world to that of the material world. It has the ability to reduce subjectivity and uncertainties because as a method an analysis, language metafunctions are a highly precise instrument of decoding language, thought and thus the construal of reality. It not only describes phenomena but uncovers agency.

The reverse engineering of connecting the semiotics of language metafunctions to biology (biosemiotics) and then to physics is in working towards a unified grand theory of the science of life, the goal of which is a pedagogic model of education for the children of tomorrow.

It is the hope of this bridging between the natural sciences and humanities to (re-)circle, what once was seen as a circle:

“The conception of nature as fundamentally semiotic is certainly not new; what is new, rather, is the nearly unanimous repression of this conception by learned society.” [6]

Life is everyone’s Mona Lisa. But depending on observation and the phenomenon to be studied [ ø what you choose to focus on studying / measuring], life is also like a box of chocolates where you will, within parameters of certainty, (always) know what you will find in that box.

Footnotes and references

[1] My use of this word is attributed to the influence of watching lectures by Leonard Susskind on theoretical physics. I love this word because of its intrinsic ideology, a quality exuded when used. Inherent in “somewheres” is a double uncertainty contained in a deictic non-deictic pointer. One could experiment with the question, “Where?” expecting at least a 3-dimensional Cartesian coordinate of a location to which the answer “somewhere” denies those coordinates. An additional “-s” would insist on the relativity of those Cartesian coordinates, in denial of the existence of a singular 3-dimensional coordinate plane, implicating instead, a multiverse.

[2] deGrasse Tyson, Neil 2014. Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains The End Of ‘Interstellar’. Internet resource at Business Insider, http://bit.ly/1xjrl1S. Retrieved 3 Jan. 2015.

[3] Awareness of the gulf between science and social sciences has been since the 1980s with F. Eugene Yates, a distinguished medical engineer in 1985 voicing the need to bridge (an engineering term he used) between the world of physics and biology in a paper entitled “Semiotics as Bridge”.

In 1995, Thomas Sebeok (1995:3. Online resource at http://bit.ly/1A5q5l9) wrote:

“Which brings me to the gap, or, in his words, “gulf of mutual incomprehension — sometimes…hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding”, so memorably highlighted by C.P. Snow’s expression “the two cultures”, and the (tumultuous, on occasion intemperate) debates that ensued (Snow 1971). Snow had lamented that “Literary intellectuals at one pole” — for convenience, let me broaden this congregation to “humanists” in the conventional sense — “at the other scientists, and, as the most representative, the physical scientists” have ceased to communicate (1959:4). The remedy suggested by Snow entailed a radical reform in educational attitudes without which “the West can’t even begin to cope” (ibid. 53), even though he admitted that he didn’t know whether the “immense capital outlay, an immense investment in…both scientists and linguists” can possibly happen in laissez faire economies (ibid. 51-52).”

An updated version of Sebeok’s work can be found in:

Sebeok, Thomas A. 2001. Signs, Bridges, Origins, (Ch 5) in Global Semiotics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp 59-73.


Sebeok, Thomas A. 2000. Semiotics as Bridge Between Humanities and Sciences. In Semiotics and Information Sciences, Paul Perron, Leonard G. Sbrocchi, Paul Colilli, and Marcel Danesi (eds). Ottawa: Legas Press, pp 76-100.

[4] Yates, F. Eugene 1985. Semiotics as a bridge between information (biology) and dynamics (physics). Recherches Sémiotiques / Semiotic Inquiry 5: 347–360.

[5] The reason why academia can be so fascinating, the reason why academics could die arguing for one point in their entire lifetime. We all either have a very good idea of what we are discussing, or not at all. It is only that some fields more readily admit what they do not know.

[6] Hoffmeyer, J. 2009. Semiotics of nature. In P. Cobley, The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. Routledge, pp 29-42: 29.