Anticipation and defining life itself --- an interview with Mihai Nadin

In this interview with scientist and philosopher Mihai Nadin, we discuss how we can define and understand living organisms as anticipatory systems. This brings up a discussion on the need and role for semiotics (as fundamental [meta]science) in scientific/philosophical research.


Ever since Newton's revolution, the reductionist-detirminist methods of modern physics have proven to be extremely successful in defining and predicting the world of matter. However, this approach --- of reducing phenomenon into a set of production rules (or axioms) from which knowledge can be inferentially entailed and thus accumulated systematically --- has proven to be ill equipped (both empirically and conceptually) to properly account for and describe the complexity of biological lifeforms.

Nadin tell us that this is because the living, in its distinction from the non-living, anticipates:

Within physics-based explanations, the current state of a system is determined by its past and is deterministically well defined, i.e., non-ambiguous. An anticipatory system is a system whose current state depends not only on previous states, and eventually its current states, but also upon possible future states.
— Nadin, 2010

Nadin tells us that the living is characterized by complexity and dynamism. The world of the living is one that we can never know in its entirety. We observe a world in flux—just as I change through this observation, the world changes me. So we formulate representations (semiotic entities) to account for this change. There is an assumption that the non-living is subject to law, that it can be completely described and predicted. There is no geometry in nature (no triangles or geometric planes) but this does not mean geometrical constructs cannot help us contend with reality. Nadin shows that the world of physics is no different:

The non-living is subject to prediction. Indeed, the knowledge acquired over time and expressed in scientific laws supports a broad spectrum of successful predictive activities: the entire exploration of outer space is based on such activities; so are the most common uses of machines (cars, TV sets, computers, refrigerators, etc.). The laws of physics and chemistry underlie such practical endeavors. Prediction applied to the living, in the form of medical assessments, for example, corresponds to the misguided notion that since the laws of physics apply to everything material, they apply just as well to life. Some are successful, some are not.
— Nadin, 2014

Thus we come to construct our world through representations, selected patterns of experience of which signs are the media. The interactions we construct meaning out of are complex: “[S]ince the living is characterized by complexity it follows that any formal representation, including the modeling of the natural system, can only be a reduction” (Nadin, 2014, p. 78).

Semiotics provides us with the realization that we can only know the world through such semiotic descriptions—this is the domain of meaning, and “(m)eanings do not have to be consistent” (Nadin, 2014, p. 78). We aggregate various systems of representations (those of chemistry, physics, and mathematics, for example) to contend with the constantly transforming complexity of the living. But these representations can only ever be partial. The living constantly exceeds our reach; it is changed the instant we try to pin it down.

Indeed, all living entities, from the monocell, to vegetation, to insects, to the most complex forms (the human being, for instance) are embodied in matter. The laws of physics (themselves subject to progressive refinement as our knowledge about the world advances) apply without any exception to the living, without fully expressing its more complex behavior. Therefore, one has to conclude that they explain only the unambiguous physics of life, but not life itself, in its ambiguous expressions.
— Nadin, 2014

But enough said… Enjoy the interview!

Check out Nadin's website here


Nadin, M. (2010). Anticipation and the artificial: aesthetics, ethics, and synthetic lifeAI & society25(1), 103-118.

Nadin, M. (2014). Semiotics is fundamental scienceKnowledge discovery, transfer, and management in the information age, 76-125.

(parts of this article were originally published in the paper "Indexical Ways of Knowing: An Inquiry Into the Indexical Sign and How to Educate for Novelty")