on December 28, 2011
The author talks about - and to some degree - explores self-organization/morphodynamics; he outlines how systems that are (then) far from equilibrium can spontaneously "create themselves" (not a quote). Ever more complex systems pave the way to, are substrates for and mark steps toward life (and mind). Biological cells are pretty complex. To create them, self-sustaining (autocatalytic) systems (constituted by chemical processes) are necessary which need to progress to autogen(ic) status; autogenic status is characterized by the ability of the system (cell) to repair itself and to replicate itself. Essentially, in order to reach the complexity required for life, (gradual) progress has to be made. Each increase in complexity, each increase in sophistication of systems needs to be protected so that it can be build upon. Very much simplified: imagine a self-assembling sandcastle that needs to protect itself against the onslaught of mindless children who are out to destroy it. Mr. Deacon offers concepts for how that could work (not for sandcastles).
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.
on November 30, 2013
I read Terrance Deacon's book "The Symbolic Species" some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, and understood everything he was saying. It was written clearly. In contrast, this book was maddening and frustrating for me. It took me about six weeks to slog through it because it kept either making me confused or would put me to sleep. If I have to read a paragraph twice, I blame myself, but if I have to read it seven times, I blame the writer. His prose is often convoluted, and he invents new words needlessly. At times, it almost seems as if he is trying to be enigmatic rather than clear, as if he is intentionally speaking in Zen koans. He badly needs an editor to simplify his run-on sentences. This could have been said in 300 pages instead of 600, if his writing had been concise. The basic ideas are reasonable, however, although I failed to see how they are revolutionary or so different from others' ideas on how emergent properties might be realized in physical substrates and be maintained and evolve within a far-from-equilibrium but still physicalist paradigm. The central idea is that causation can proceed because of physical constraints placed on what is possible. How can anyone disagree with that? He confuses the matter when he talks about absence being causal, as if nothing can cause something. He gives metaphors like the hole in the hub of a wagon wheel being an absence that is causal by allowing the whole to rotate around an axle. But really, the axle is constrained by the inner rim holding spokes and to talk of the absence in the center being causal is just confusing. I sure hope a better writer can give a shorter, clearer version of Deacon's argument someday. It would be useful if someone would write a list of what Deacon's claims are in simple English, and what is really new. I read Colin McGinn's review of Deacon's book online, and found it catty and overly condemning. On the other hand, Deacon is himself to blame for making his ideas so hard to extract from the convoluted prose and neologisms.
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.
on November 13, 2011
If it were a snake it would have bit us. It's sitting right under our noses. It's the unifying insight behind the two biggest breakthrough clues toward solving the biggest remaining scientific mystery. Grateful and greatly encouraged by the breakthrough clues we ran with them, ignoring their underlying and unifying insight, the insight that made them both possible. We ignored the underlying insight until Deacon's book, whose 600 exquisitely reasoned and written pages I'll attempt to summarize here.
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.
on June 3, 2012
I was excited about the book because it appeared to be one of those books yet to appear, doing three things: carefully laying out the grand challenge (how do we understand the division between living and non-living matters, each with and without meaning, values, and purpose, in terms of known laws of physics and chemistry?), solves the underlying problem on the fundamental level, and look at the consequences and ramifications in terms of our understanding of biological evolution, consciousness, ethics, etc. Schneider and Sagan's 'Into the Cool' is an example of an attempt, in which I think the authors have the very plausible central idea but bungled in the execution.
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.
on November 22, 2011
Let's start with my confession: I don't think I get it. So, I could be wrong about this. Now, here's my problem with this book.
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.
on May 21, 2012
Terrence Deacon's essential idea concerns a philosophy he calls "absentialism", a Taoist notion that requires that we pay attention to what is absent. What matters is what is not evident. Concepts such as information, purpose, meaning, and consciousness are examples of concepts that are defined in terms of what they are not, and Deacon invents the term "ententional" to describe these phenomena.
Ententional phenomena are purposeful, end-directed, and teleological and are usually associated with evolution, biological processes, and consciousness. Biologists, for example, have no problem using ententional or teleological language when describing biological processes or events. They might say that the bird builds a nest in order to protect its eggs, or that DNA emerges from the nucleolus in order to be replicated, yet when asked directly, these same biologists will completely deny any involvement with teleological or ententional explanations for these occurrences. Deacon contends that rather than hiding from what seems evident, we should instead try to explain how ententional processes arise from physical matter and energy. Deacon explains that the processes involved from non-life to life and from matter to consciousness proceed in a ratcheting-up of a step-by-step orthograde process beginning with thermodynamic constraints that step up to morphodynamic constraints and evolve to teleodynamic constraints. (An example of thermodynamic constraint would be a piston in an engine that constrains an expanding gas to produce work.) Each of these steps from the thermodynamic to the teleodynamic and from life to consciousness are irreducible. One cannot deduce the parts from the whole when considering life or consciousness, because something is lost or constrained at each stage of the evolutionary process. Quite literally, according to Deacon, the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
Whereas a machine must be assembled from various parts by a designer with a pre-determined purpose, living organisms intrinsically differentiate, beginning with the whole and subdividing into parts, the most basic of which is the cell wall, a constraint necessary for all living organisms on earth. Once life emerged it developed from simple organisms to more advanced, organized, and specialized forms through progressive series of natural constraints called evolution.
Deacon has produced a profound addition to our understanding of life and consciousness. My only disappointment apart from the lack of constraints on the length of this work--nearly 600 pages--is his reluctance to include quantum theory. Deacon seems to want to disregard what he apparently views as some kind of fringe aspect of physics when he states: These [quantum physical phenomena] must be excluded for three reasons: First, if we were to make use of any such extraordinary physical phenomena, we would at best only have substituted one mystery for another..." Also, Deacon states, "Although quantum phenomena often seem strange, they are not strange in the sense of exhibiting the kind of causality that organisms and minds do...more important the scale at which we do unambiguously recognize ententional properties is vastly larger than the scale of quantum events." These propositions as I understand them are not correct. First, classical physics, which encompass the laws of thermodynamics and cause and effect, are a special case in physics. Classical physics is a subset of quantum theory--not the other way around. Secondly, the scale of quantum effects is not too small to account for the processes involved in the macromolecules of biological life as Deacon says. Quantum effects are essential for the alignment of the complementary strands of DNA during replication, and the two and three-dimensional folding of proteins that carry out most of the functions of the organism.
Deacon did a wonderful job applying his thesis to explain many of the mysteries of life and consciousness and his work advanced my own thinking about the nature of reality.
Book review by David Kreiter author of: "Quantum Reality: A New Philosophical Perspective" (Amazon 1994) and "Confronting the Quantum Enigma: Albert, Niels, and John" (Amazon 2011).
on January 20, 2012
I believe this book has the potential to change--and perhaps revolutionize--scientific thinking in a great many areas. Deacon presents a theory of "emergent dynamics" to explain how the emergence of higher-level processes from simpler physical processes changes causal dynamics in surprising and dramatic ways. His main objective is to show that "ententional" phenomena (function, information, meaning, reference, representation, agency, purpose, sentience, and value) have a legitimate place in scientific explanation once they are properly understood. Accomplishing that would overcome an enormous divide in modern thought since Descartes, with physical scientists tending to eliminate or marginalize these phenomena because they can't fit them into their mechanistic models, and more phenomenological thinkers insisting on them as essential aspects of our human experience, although not being able to explain how they can exist in a material world. In the course of presenting his solution to that problem, Deacon makes major contributions to the understanding of causality, emergence, organisms, evolution, work, information, emotion, and consciousness.
Fundamental to Deacon's argument is a distinction between "orthograde" changes, which occur spontaneously without external interference, and "contragrade" changes, which must be extrinsically forced. Contragrade changes correspond to Aristotle's efficient causality, the usual causality assumed in mechanistic explanation. Such explanation tends to overlook orthograde change and the more subtle formal and/or final causality it involves. Deacon understands form as a constraint on the possible states of a system, a definition that avoids both extreme realism (general forms existing prior to particulars, as in Platonism) and extreme nominalism (forms existing only in the minds of observers). Defined as constraint, form refers in a way to what isn't physically present, and yet what has definite causal consequences. Final causality is the ability of a synergistic system of forms to become its own cause by perpetuating itself.
Deacon distinguishes three levels of dynamic process, each with its own orthograde tendency. A "homeodynamic" process spontaneously reduces a system's constraints to their minimum, as exemplified by the increase in entropy described by the second law of thermodynamics. Although a large number of objects interacting in a system exert efficient causality on one another, an increase in entropy arises from the statistical form of the system as a whole, in which disordered macro-states far outnumber ordered states; in that sense the homeodynamic process exhibits formal causality.
When systems in different thermodynamic states encounter each other, they exert a contragrade influence, as when a hotter system encounters a colder one, so that each is moved away from the equilibrium it otherwise would have had. The second level of dynamic process, "morphodynamic," emerges when the flow of "energy" across such a gradient is constrained so as to generate order; it is a process of form generating more form. The crystalline form of a falling snowflake places constraint on where additional molecules will form when it freezes some of the water molecules it encounters in the air, so its form generates more form over its unique interactional history. Surprisingly then, a higher-level order-building process emerges out of the lower-level tendency toward thermodynamic equilibrium, one illustration of how emergence transforms causal dynamics. Morphodynamic processes occur only rarely and fleetingly in the inorganic world, but they are essential to the organic world. They rely on the thermodynamic foundation of radiation from the Sun to the Earth, constrained and put to the work of building bodies.
Organisms depend on a number of morphodynamic, order-building processes, each inducing contragrade changes in others, but in a synergistic way. One process creates a condition favorable to another, so that it can continue rather than wind down by destroying the conditions that gave rise to it. A self-assembly process similar to crystal formation can build a cellular wall, providing a protected space for an autocatalytic process that creates many molecules of the same kind, providing a continued supply of material for self-assembly. This kind of synergy generates Deacon's third level of dynamic process, called "teleodynamic" or end-directed, in which the system's orthograde tendency is to perpetuate itself by sustaining its closely coordinated morphodynamic processes. This gives organisms a kind of closure from external processes, creating a distinct self, able to act on its own behalf in its environment in order to sustain itself.
Purely bottom-up explanation, trying to find the causes of the organism's behavior at lower levels, will be insufficient here. The lower-level physiological details can vary greatly, as long as the macro-level constraints are perpetuated. And the component processes are affected by the synergistic relationships in which they participate, so they can't be understood simply as independent causes. This is also relevant to the understanding of genetic information, whose meaning is not intrinsic but dependent on the teleodynamic context in which it is used. That's part of the problem of seeing the organism as a machine running a genetic "program."
In animals with brains, a second-order self can emerge, which we call "consciousness". This is a more specialized teleodynamic process contributing to the more general teleodynamics of the organism. Like any teleodynamic process, it is thermodynamically driven (it takes energy to feel and think) and emergent from morphodynamic synergies (interdependencies among order-generating processes within the vast neural network of the brain). And like any teleodynamic process, it is inherently self-sustaining. But what does it do for the body? Deacon describes it as a representational process that interprets the organisms's own teleodynamic tendency. I take that to mean that this process maintains a normative model of what the animal is trying to do, allowing it to anticipate opportunities and threats rather than just reacting to them. At the risk of putting words in Deacon's mouth, I would conclude that it is purposive in a double sense, having its own purpose of sustaining itself so that it can give purpose (direction) to the organism as it tries to sustain itself. Like any teleodynamic process, it performs work on what is "other" to itself, but in this case what is other includes other processes within the same body. Deacon makes the intriguing suggestion that the work done to mobilize the body to respond to favorable or unfavorable contingencies is experienced as emotion.
This perspective leads more naturally than any other I'm aware of to an understanding of human beings as thinking, feeling, and active free agents. But as Deacon says, freedom has to be understood not as freedom from causality, but freedom to exercise causal power, including some power over ourselves!
Obviously Deacon takes a dim view of cognitive science and neuroscience models that reduce thought to mechanical computation or relegate consciousness to the role of passive spectator to the brain's bottom-up causal activity. Mind isn't a ghostly immaterial entity existing beyond causality, but neither is it causally epiphenomenal (inconsequential). It is a dynamic process that evolved because of its function in sustaining and coordinating bodily activity in a very subtle way, through the perpetuation of constraint. Since mechanistic models only consider the extrinsic force exerted on one part by another in a deterministic system, they overlook the spontaneous propagation and self-persistence of constraints that organize our world while leaving it open to further organization.
I do have one reservation about Deacon's position, and that is that I'm not as sure as he is that teleodynamic process was absent for most of the universe's history. His description of teleodynamics reminded me of physicist David Bohm's concept of reciprocal causation, which he intends as a universal principle. I understand why Deacon wants to limit the discussion to living things, and I find his account of teleodynamics there persuasive, but perhaps he closes the door a little too firmly against the possibility of a self-sustaining process on a deeper level. I wonder what Aristotle would make of that.
Overall, I recommend this book very highly and hope that it will be widely read. Anyone who wants to think about human beings scientifically without reducing them to robots (or "golems") will benefit from it. In the Machine Age, we modeled our relationship to nature as a relationship of "man to machine," which ultimately forced us to regard ourselves as machines in order to include ourselves in nature. So the model became machinery controlled by machinery, with no place for consciousness, purpose, feeling or value. Now it's time to recover our respect for nature's purposes, as well as our own self-respect. As Deacon ends the book, "Even as our scientific tools have given us mastery over so much of the physical world around and within us, they have at the same time alienated us from these same realms. It is time to find our way home."
on June 8, 2015
This is a book that doesn't insult your intelligence, that makes you use everything you ever learned, from advanced vocabulary and history of philosophy, to physics, biology, statistics, etc. It humbles you with its breath of knowledge and depth of analysis, but it's focused and clear, and so it carries you along. It's up to date scientifically and, in a very intriguing and intellectually rewarding manner, it revises century or millennia old intuitions of great thinkers in its pursuit of finding a unifying theme for inert matter, organisms and mind. It's doing that by shifting the focus of discourse from energy and information to constraint, and constraint preservation and amplification. It's an adventurous journey, pleasant, hard, and full of surprises, but just like Darwin's on the Beagle, methodically setting the seeds of something a lot bigger - in this case, an explanation of how life and mind emerged from matter and how their characteristics, while based on mechanistic, algorithmic principles, cannot be reduced to those.
on May 23, 2016
The author seems to be interested in the kind of questions that have always intrigued me. I've tried to write about them, but frankly this author is more articulate and does a better job with them than I ever did. I was pulling for him all the way, and the first four chapters were dense and difficult, but interesting. Around the fifth, I began to see that he really didn't have a solution, he was just trying diligently to manufacture one with words, hoping as I myself have hoped, that if you just keep writing, some progress must emerge. It seems like such effort should be rewarded by the gods of thought, but they don't seem to reward that. Some of the sentences he manufactured in the effort were, umm, not good. I would quote a few, and it is obvious where he stops making progress. Anyway, nice effort, but I only seriously read to around page 187, skipped to the end to see what he had to say on the off chance he discovered something, but what he had to say was: More work is needed. Which may be true. Or it may be true that more work would be a waste of time because these things just may not have a solution until we change the way we think about them so much that we could hardly be called human anymore.
on June 4, 2016
I'm struggling with how to describe this book.
It was definitely one of the most difficult reads I've ever completed. His writing is so incredibly abstract, obtuse, and repetitive, I sometimes left he was making it purposefully difficult to understand. As a rule, sentences are long and convoluted, making the argument difficult to follow. His goal, to explain multiple of the most difficult questions in science, is so vast that he inevitably falls short. Terms like teleodynamical and morphodynamical are insufficiently explained, and then used in the rest of the book as stand-ins for mysterious mechanisms in seemingly every other sentence.
But I wouldn't have continued to the end if there weren't nuggets to be gleaned. There are some powerful comparisons and explanations of natural selection, thermodynamics, intentionality, and what he calls "ententional" concepts like value, function, and representation.
If this book relates strongly to your interests or work, and you are able to take away isolated fragments and apply them outside the context of this particular theory, I would recommend this book. If not, there are much more engaging books on each of the topics mentioned above. While not as comprehensive, they will undoubtedly provide a much more pleasurable experience.