The American Journal of Semiotics

Volume 24, Issue 1/3, 2008


Stefan Artmann
Pages 95-105

Organic Problem Solving
Biology, Decision Theory, and the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis

Sign-theoretical concepts have been used in research into the nature of living systems, not only by biologists, semioticians, and philosophers, but also by scientists who analyze organisms from the perspective of Decision Theory. Decision Theory (DT) describes both the external behavior and the internal information-processing of any kind of agent in terms of problem solving. Such “problem solving” is considered a complex process of: (1) defining a goal in an environment, (2) selecting the means to reach the defined goal, and (3) controlling the effects of said selected means on the environment. The hypothesis that problem-solving agents are, first, physical entities and, second, sign-using systems is one of the most influential ideas in Decision Theory. This idea has been developed under the name of the ‘Physical Symbol System Hypothesis’ (PSSH) since the 1950s, particularly by two American scientists, Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon, who did interdisciplinary research in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, economics, and decision theory. This paper first gives a short overview of the basic semiotic theory that underlies Newell’s and Simon’s work, and then offers some ideas on a specifically biosemiotic use of the Physical Symbol System Hypothesis.

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