Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature

Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter

By Terrence Deacon

W. W. Norton, 2013, paperback, 627 pages.

Incomplete Nature is a big book, literally and conceptually. The subtitle “How Mind Emerged From Matter” hints of a grand synthesis and Terrence Deacon, chair of University of California–Berkeley’s anthropology department, presents a dense argument which defies usual labels. The result is part philosophy and part popular science writing, containing speculation, but also providing suggestions for hypothesis-driven, experimental investigation. Although written for a general audience, Incomplete Nature is thick with jargon (Deacon admits to “tortured prose”). The work has also sparked controversy concerning intellectual dishonesty–allegations for which Deacon has been exonerated. Despite the book’s demanding character (I’ve spent far more time pondering it than initially planned), it deserves a wide readership.

The author foreshadows a conceptual figure/background shift to approach seemingly intractable topics like subjectivity and semiosis in life and life-like processes. The goal is, in the words of Prigogine and Stengers (both chemists-turned-philosophers), to arrive at “an account of the material world in which it is not absurd to claim that it produced us” (p. 143). Chapter “0”, aptly named “Absence,” asks us to contemplate the efficacy of absence. Deacon introduces a pedagogic analogy with how the number zero developed in mathematics. Deacon asks us to accept that: “what zero shares in common with living and mental phenomena is that these natural processes also each owe their most fundamental character to what is specifically not present” (p. 9). The author suggests our inability to explain the origins of life and mind is due to a “Zeno’s paradox of the mind”. This eponymous paradox recalls the race between Achilles and a tortoise, where the latter was given a head start. Zeno famously argued that Achilles, who was the faster, paradoxically could never retake the tortoise because this would require him to move through a never-ending series of fractions (1/2, 1/4, 1/8 and so on). Mathematicians could only solve the paradox by learning to operate with zero and infinitely small divisions of space, time and distance, via differentiation and integration (the basics of calculus). It required the ability to represent that an infinite series of mathematical operations could converge on finite solutions. For Deacon, contemporary science suffers under a similar spell as these “pre-zero” mathematicians. This spell has rendered functions, purposes, meanings and values unable to play constitutive roles in science, with the current antagonistic divide between natural sciences and the humanities as an unfortunate side effect. Deacon sees opportunities for unification by reintegrating “absence-based causality into science” (p. 12).

Chapter 1, “(W)holes,” starts enigmatically with the 6th century Chinese philosopher-poet Lao Tsu: “Thirty spokes converge at the wheel’s hub, to a hole that allows it to turn”, and “though we can only work with what is there, use comes from what is not there” (p. 19). These Taoist sayings introduce a nested argument for reintroducing teleology into contemporary scientific inquiry. This requires recognizing the causal properties of ententional phenomena. “Ententional” (one among several neologisms coined in the book), is a class of phenomena that are intrinsically incomplete, or to use another neologism, absential. Absentials stand in relationship to, are constituted by, or organized to achieve something non-intrinsic (imagine how anticipation of some future event can constrain an organism’s behavior). Function, information, meaning, reference, representation, agency, purpose, sentience and values are all absential phenomena with telos, purpose and end-directedness. Absentials involve semiosis, introduce novel forms of causality into the world, and have distinct evolutionary trajectories. As Deacon nicely puts it: “Crossing the border from machines to minds, or from chemical reactions to life, is leaving one universe of possibilities to enter another” (p. 21).

To account for mind and life without lapsing into mysticism, Deacon’s first five chapters consist of reframings of several hard problems such as homuncular theories of mind, mindless”Golem”-accounts, as well the premature dismissal of teleology in life science, problems with reductionism, and the efficacy of constraints. A key move in Deacon’s figure/background shift requires dispensing with push-pull, billiard-ball notions of causality. He therefore urges us to pay attention to the efficacious qualities Aristotle called final cause (“aboutness,” or “that for the sake of which” p. 34). Aboutness and function, says Deacon, is not something added on top of things, but something that emerges from constraints on matter and process. Deacon sees constraint as a form of causality which can be generated intrinsically, simply by processes interacting with each other. Chapter 6 develops this negative conception of order. For order to arise, says Deacon, there must be constraints on degrees of freedom.

Chapters 6 through 10 contains Deacon’s theory of “emergent dynamics,” a three-tiered process hierarchy describing how dynamical processes like meaning, subjectivity, self and sentience are organized in relation to “possibilities not realized”. The first tier, homeodynamics, is a class of equilibrium processes where constraints are spontaneously reduced to a minimum and evened out (Deacon argues that entropy should be seen a measure of constraint). The second law of thermodynamics provides the paradigm case. Two or more homeodynamic processes can under certain conditions interact spontaneously (directly or via some medium), and give rise to form, or morphodynamics. Examples include whirlpools, convection cells and snow crystals. For example, the latter’s shape embody a formative history of changing air pressure, humidity and temperature on their way through the sky. This prior history constrain and bias probabilities of further growth patterns. Whereas morphodynamic relationships has been studied under labels like “self-organization,” “complexity,” or “dynamical systems theory,” Deacon argues that such frameworks are inadequate. Despite the intrinsic order-generating potential of morphodynamic systems, they lack representational, functional organization, and the normative, evaluative character of individuated “selves.”

The third level, teleodynamics, emerges from interaction between morphodynamic self-organizing processes. Teleodynamics is a “dynamical form of organization that promotes its own persistence and maintenance by modifying this dynamics to more effectively utilize supportive extrinsic condition” (p. 270). These end-directed phenomena are fundamentally incomplete. Just like the hollow center in a clay vessel (as the coffee cup in front of me) has no material parts, ends and meanings have no material parts either. Yet, this absence is intrinsically organized and constrained so that certain kinds of processes and actions are more likely than others. As such the subtitle is a bit misleading; it is from the interstices of matter that mind emerges. Teleodynamics is paradoxically “consequence-relative organization”. In contrast to homeodynamics, which involve equilibration and dissipation of constraint, and morphodynamic processes that amplify and regularises constraint, teleodynamics like life and semiosis adds recursive self-reconstitution and reproduction of constraint.

Chapter 10 brings emergent dynamic theory under empirical scrutiny by postulating the existence of a simple, general molecular system called an “autogen.” This teleodynamic system is capable of ratcheting effects like self-generation, self-repair and self-replication (autocatalysis). Its particular organization, in which reciprocally reinforcing morphodynamic processes interact to produce ententional phenomena and an individuated teleodynamic self.  Chapters 11 through 17 reframes theories of work, information, significance, evolution, self, sentience, emotion and consciousness within the scope of emergent dynamics.  Chapter 16 on sentience for instance, has an interesting critique of computationalism. “The design principles of brains just don’t compute”, Deacon claims (p. 499).  He discusses critical challenges with contemporary computationalism, despite its widespread appeal in the cognitive sciences: “It is precisely by reconstructing the emergence of teleodynamics of thought from its neuronal thermodynamic and morphodynamic foundations that we will rediscover the life that computationalism has drained from the sciences of the mind” (p. 504).

Compellingly for anthropologists, the book takes up ideas conceived by radical interdisciplinarian Gregory Bateson (whom Deacon consider an early intellectual influence). Just like Bateson, who worked at the interfaces between established academic fields, Deacon has suggested that anthropology has provided a home where he can pursue the kind of amalgamate work that Incomplete Nature represents. As chair of an anthropology department, Deacon also believes that the science distrust among some of his more socioculturally oriented colleagues has aided in articulating his position on the problematic separation of meaning and value from contemporary science. Deacon’s attempt at extending semiosis “beyond the human” (biosemiotics), has recently been taken up by Eduardo Kohn in his “anthropology of life,” How Forests Think (Kohn was a member of “Terry and Pirates” seminar, which eventually led to Deacon’s treatise).

Although recognizing its explanatory power, Deacon nonetheless critiques the greediest versions of reductionist epistemology for inquiry into self, meaning and value. It is therefore intriguing that Incomplete Nature has made a steadfast cognitivist like Daniel Dennett willing to concede points to the “Romanticist” side in current arguments about mind and cognition. I am uncertain of where the chips will fall in this debate, but it will be exciting to see what future impact Deacon’s work will have on the field. Since the book tackles topics of broad interest it should be relevant to scholars concerned with foundational issues like meaning-making, materiality, semiotics and symbolism. It might even speak to audiences as different as the interlocutors in the “ontological turn” and cognitivists alike.

Mads Solberg is a doctoral fellow at the University of Bergen, Norway. He works on a cognitive ethnography of knowledge-making and technological innovation in marine science; in particular the development of novel solutions for managing sea lice, a persistent threat to salmon farming.