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Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter Hardcover – Oct 25 2011
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A profound shift in thinking that in magnitude can only be compared with those that followed upon the works of Darwin and Einstein. — Robert E. Ulanowicz, author of A Third Window: Natural Life beyond Newton and Darwin
This is a work of science and philosophy at the cutting edge of both that seeks to develop a complete theory of the world that includes humans, our minds and culture, embodied and emerging in nature. — Bruce H. Weber, coauthor of Darwinism Evolving
A stunningly original, stunningly synoptic book. With Autogenesis, Significance, Sentience, seventeen insightful and integrated chapters turn our world upside down and finally, as in the Chinese proverb, lead us home again to a place we see anew. Few ask the important questions. Deacon is one of these. — Stuart Kauffman, author of Investigations
[Deacon] demonstrates how systems that are intrinsically incomplete happen to be alive and meaning-making. The crux of life—and meaning—is solved. It was worthwhile to wait for this book. The twenty-first century can now really start. — Kalevi Kull, professor, Department of Semiotics, Tartu University
About the Author
Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature, he lives near Berkeley, California.
Top Customer Reviews
Some of us are content to fend off this kind of question with the belief that the Creator's purposes preceded the creation, and now pervade it in some mysterious way. But taking purposefulness for granted prevents us from getting to the bottom of it. Deacon appeals to perfectly ordinary experiences, informed by the purely physical concepts of energy and work, to explain how purpose could arise unintentionally -- spontaneously, but not instantaneously. He does find it necessary to introduce some new conceptual tools along the way.Read more ›
Recommended by Daniel Dennet.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, while he discusses all sorts of things (prominently: complexity theory, self-organization/morphodynamics, thermodynamics, teleodynamics, intentional/ententional [the latter a term he creates] phenomena, information theory and emergence) it does not converge into progress. At least not to me.
Ententional phenomena (elements that are not directly physically represented, such as purpose and thoughts) seem to be what he assigned a fundamental role to. But a focus on that theme is only present in the book's first half and does not amount to a conclusion, to a new insight, to something to work with.
The focus then shifts to constraints. Constraints prevent things. They cause things to not happen, they cause them to remain absent and to only be what (otherwise) could have been. Incidentally they cause/allow for other, alternative things to happen. (Naturally, they play a role in organization/morphodynamics.) I have a feeling that this doesn't sound like much of a great insight. It wasn't to me. I don't see what can - in respect to the emergence of mind/consciousness - be gained through that, allegedly new, perspective. For one thing, constraints are physically there. They aren't absent/absential features. For another thing, defining things negatively (a banana is a fruit that is not any fruit other than a banana) is not a new invention. I do not see anything resembling the paradigm shift and revolution Mr. Deacon postulates (and the publisher advertises).
In my view, this book doesn't revolutionize the concept of emergence; nor does it revolutionize (or particularly further) the understanding of the human mind. It enlightens few things. But it was interesting to read since it addresses interesting topics (of course that's a subjective assessment -- the second paragraph provides a short list, the first paragraph a minimally detailed example). The author's language could be called convoluted. Nonetheless, he remains modest. His insistence on having outlined something astounding is strange. There's a - let's say small - chance that somewhere in his text an idea is encoded and encapsulated that I could not access with my breadth and level of knowledge. In consequence, I plan to read his previous book (The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain) and, through different authors, to further explore the topics he addresses. The impressions described here are based on having read the full book and are strong enough to warrant a review; I will modify and mark it should I arrive at a new/improved understanding. Criticism is welcome.
The biggest remaining scientific mystery is how to close the explanatory gap between the hard and the soft sciences, between energy and information, between physical forces and living desires, between a values-neutral physio-chemical universe and the values-driven bio-psycho-social universe--in a word, between clockwork physics and ever-game-changing life.
In other words, why can we talk about a living creature's intentions, preferences, desires, appetites, adaptations, functions, and purposes, but not a rock, a planet's, or an atom's? What changed, making information and intention cause matter to behave so differently, the way it most obviously does with life? And precisely how do intentions change things?
The two biggest breakthrough clues are evolutionary theory and information theory, and the overlooked underlying insight is about where to look for what life does differently--not in things themselves but in differences, and in particular differences between behaviors that do and don't persist, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent.
Darwin discovered how differential survival, the proliferation of some lineages and the disappearance and absence of others yielded game-changing adaptations over time. Life doesn't require a creator-thing, or an improver-thing in order to evolve. Instead, it requires a difference between the lineages that stay present and the lineages that become absent.
We have embraced Darwin's breakthrough but haven't embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science's greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.
Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.
Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there's one. The step-down from 52 to one--the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It's a narrowing of possibility.
Again, though we ran with Shannon's breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.
We are very thing-oriented.
We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we're pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.
We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a "least discordant remainder."
Complexity and self-organization theory provide a breakthrough understanding of such self-organizing processes but again we have run with the breakthrough, forgetting the underlying insight. A whirlpool is not a self-organizing-thing, because it's not a self-thing and it's not, as complexity theory suggests a process, that gravitates toward an attractor-thing.
The key in all of these cases, argues Deacon is to pay attention to the "constraint dynamics" that produce these differences between what remains present what becomes absent. Heating a pizza is "constraint dissipation," the equalization of differences. The formation of a whirlpool is "constraint propagation," the compounding growth of differences, as the more turbulence cancel each other, the less discordant the remainder, which cancels even more turbulence.
Life is a different kind of constraint dynamic in which constraints constraint, maintain and preserve themselves. Deacon shows step by careful step how with life real selves emerge, not as things but as constraint begetting dynamics, producing from its origins, lineages that in self-regeneration, impose new constraints upon their environments.
And in the process Deacon's approach provides a backdoor solution to the problem of free will. It's not how life becomes unconstrained, but how it becomes the source of novel constraint, acting in novel upon the world as it does in us humans especially, but to some extent in all adaptive traits, organisms and lineages.
The burden is on scientists to show in strictly classical physical terms how informational, intentional behavior emerges from energetic behavior, not at the origins of the universe, not at the origin of the human mind, not at the origin of sentient organisms, but at the origin of life. At the origin, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent become constrained in new ways, constraints that create, preserve and maintain themselves, in ways Deacon explains.
Embracing the full implications of the underlying insight that with life there is a change in how differences happen, Incomplete Nature provides a clear step-by-step description of how intentional dynamics really emerge from physical dynamics--how informational dynamics really emerge from energetic dynamics.
Deacon's approach offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive attempt at a physical science of all informational, intentional and meaningful behavior, a theory of everything" that "does not make it absurd that we exist," a theory that might complete our incomplete theories of consciousness by naturalizing in physic science the incompleteness we experience in life's infinitely innovative capacity to produce Darwin's 'endless forms most beautiful.'
In the past century, quantum physics and general relativity expanded physics in two directions, shrinking the status of classical physics to that of a special case operative under special conditions. Deacon's approach suggests that by understanding the physics of intention, the kind of work we living creatures do, we may be on the verge of a third expansion, a physical science of mattering that expands our scientific accounts of what is physically possible to encompass what has heretofore only been physically familiar.
Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.
My enthusiasm waned as I progressed over the chapters, but I did persevere till the end. I have to agree with another reviewer that his writing style is convoluted. Earlier chapters 1-9 are Okay and you may like some of them if you are unfamiliar with the subject matter. An important point is that contrary to common beliefs, Darwinian explanation of natural selection does not solve the problem of what life is, because why organisms strive for survival and reproduction is not clear. Classifying natural processes into homeodynamic (non-organizing), morphodynamic (self-organizing), and teleodynamic (living) ones seems to be a promising idea, if the criteria can be made precise in physical and thermodynamic sense. Morphodynamics involve Benard convection-like emergence of patterns, a reasonable distinction because many well-studied examples of such self-organization now exist. What makes teleodynamic ones different is the central question, which should also explain the emergence of 'values.'
This proposal eventually comes in chapter 10: basically the idea is that it is through a symbiosis of autocatalysis and self-assembly. Autocatalysis amplifies production of chemical species but is transient because of diffusion. Self-assembly can provide containment (think "cell walls") but requires supply of building blocks. They complement each other to form 'autogens.' Whether this is really possible needs to be judged based on physics and chemistry; the author is scant on details: is there a model system of autocatalysis of relevance in metabolism/biochemistry that produces polymeric building blocks? Can one build a proper thermodynamic/kinetic model demonstrating the symbiosis? More importantly, however, the question of how this proposal explains the emergence of values is not made clear. I tried hard to figure out what exactly was being proposed regarding this question in the subsection "The emergence of teleodynamics" of Chapter 10, but all I could suspect was something like this: the two agents of symbiosis do things "for" the other agent. It is this emergence of end-directed nature that we should trace the origin of values to. Please let me know if anyone can do better that I did figuring out what the author is trying to say here. I couldn't help thinking he did not nail this down in his mind either and was just trying to gloss over with long convoluted writings and discussions.
The rest of the book of course hinges on how well this crucial argument has been delivered and bolstered, and needless to say I was disappointed, but the writing style (reminiscent of essays written with length requirements to be fulfilled) didn't help either. I agree with another reviewer that the book reads like sermons, not persuasive arguments. There was only one part I recognized with factual inaccuracy though. He criticizes the gene-centric view and the RNA world theory (the section "The replicator's new clothes") first by replacing RNA with DNA, and then argues RNA sequences without proteins do not constitute information. RNA/DNA are copied by polymerases (not PCR machines), which are normally proteins, but certain RNA sequences can fold and act as polymerases. These RNA sequences are "about" replicating just as modern polymerase genes are, and therefore constitute information. DNAs do not fold so needs to be 'compiled' by mRNA and ribosome into proteins, so they likely evolved as a more stable system of record that requires an overhead. Guess what the compiler (ribosome) is made of: RNAs, because they had to make first proteins when proteins didn't exist yet.
I find it exciting, however, that scientists, including Deacon, are finally beginning to talk about physical mechanisms that lead to emergence, since philosophers going back to the British Emergentists failed to explain emergence at the level of physical mechanisms. Three other recent books do a much better and clearer job of explaining the interplay of emergence and information in my opinion. Two of them, 'Life's Ratchet' by Hoffman, and 'Physics in Mind' by Loewenstein zoom in on molecule-level biophysics to account for how microscopic 'noise' can be harnessed for the purposive ends of cells and sensory systems. Tse's 'The neural basis of free will' develops a variant of constraint-causation that he calls 'criterial causation'. He develops a new account of the neural code that is fundamentally about rapid synaptic weight resetting which in turns changes physically realized informational constraints on incoming physical and informational inputs. What these last three authors took pains to be was clear. Each of them also goes deeply into biophysics. But the prose is concise and there are not the annoying neologisms. One emerges from these other books with a sense of awe at the beauty of how physical constraints on possibilities could lead to life and mind. This was the goal of Deacon's book too I assume, but it ended up being one of the most frustrating reads of my life. I would approach emergence first by reading one of these other clearer, shorter books. Emergence of purpose and indeed mind within far-from-equilibrium dynamical systems on the basis of physical constraints is an important idea. It is so important that you might want to start with other books first.
I can't tell whether it is an argument or a sermon. As a sermon, it works! Pretty much. It gives you that feeling like "sitting in church, being touched by the sense of something enormous and enigmatic, much larger than yourself." And even if you can't follow all of the citations / scripture that have been recited, it moves you to appreciate something you might not otherwise come around to feel.
But as an argument, it is tough going. Deacon's explanations run through one highly abstract notion to another at reckless speeds. Swooping between evolutionary biology and quantum physics in a few paragraphs, and then back, and then into 19th century philosophy for cover, leaves the reader in a vertiginous delirium. Like a great church service, it feels expansive and uplifting. But has it explained something?
I started out to read this, "just far enough to see if he was making sense." At one third of the way through, I still couldn't tell where it was going. It sort of did make sense, but I decided to bail out for this reason: I didn't think that this style of argument was going to lead to answers that I was interested in. Following his logical path through a dozen twists and turns, all at a dangerously ethereal level of abstraction, was going to leave me with little confidence about where I finally arrived. There were no anchors where I could say, "OK, I'm with you so far, because this makes sense to me." I was just being enjoined to hike along his logic trail for a few more miles before I would see promised sights.
I might come back and finish the book. It was a dazzling voyage. But I want to leave the reader of this review with an alternative, which I think covers nearly the same territory: It's Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature." I think the style of that book teaches more, while being less didactic. Also a terrific sermon, Bateson's book really does have all of the pieces in it to arrive to see the sights it promises, with many spectacular views along the way.
Meh? I could be wrong.
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