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143 of 176 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Game Changing As Origin Of The Species, November 13, 2011
This review is from: Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 19, 2011 11:25:42 AM PST
Beautiful review, but a little proof-reading to correct some of the spelling and grammar mistakes would have made it even better.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2011 7:22:49 PM PST
C. Azevedo says:
I think your review could've served as the preface of the book. Your allusion of the difference between what "becomes absent and what remains present" is inspiring and has motivated me to give a try on this book.

In reply to an earlier post on May 5, 2012 6:25:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 5, 2012 6:29:03 PM PDT
Softbluejazz says:
I agree completely C. Azevedo.

This review would have made an excellent preface for the book.

I am very much looking forward to reading this book because of the way Taowin was able to describe, in very succinct phrases, the questions that I have. Since I find it hard to express my thoughts on this subject to others, I don't get to exchange ideas often. I appreciate Toawin's ability to describe such un-ordinary "things", for lack of a better word.

'Time to go book shopping!

Posted on May 9, 2012 9:09:30 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 9, 2012 9:09:57 PM PDT
Martin Bush says:
Thank you for such a truly engaging and beautiful review, Taowin! It represents a fine synthesis of the lucid and the lyrical. I haven't yet decided to buy and read this book, but had you been its author, I would not be hesitating.

Posted on Dec 6, 2012 9:34:05 PM PST
Blaine Snow says:
Energy and information are real enough but neither are mind and consciousness. Information is not what I as a subject experience... as a subject I experience feelings, concepts, intentions, images, ideas, emotions none of which come in the form of information. Information theory is not phenomenology. Phenomenology and qualia are mind and consciousness, not information. Information theory is a way to understand the organization of complex organisms that have minds, but interior forms such as thoughts, feelings, concepts, and ideas cannot be reduced to information and must also be understood as subjective, qualitative phenomena. Qualia must stand with energy and information as having equal ontological validity or we still are not addressing the fundamental quality of living beings. Deacon's work is outstanding but it needs also to incorporate first person, phenomenological perspectives.

Posted on Dec 7, 2012 4:01:23 PM PST
I do not believe any of this will give a "physical explanation" for functional or conscious behavior, nor life in general. It is simply another way of DESCRIBING these phenomena. You can describe heating a pizza as "constraint dissipation", whatever that means, but the fact remains that energy, regardless of how we describe it, IS a thing, and though it may not be "pumped into" the pizza, it IS transferred from the surrounding environment into the pizza
bringing about a temperature equilibration of the local environment. Simply showing another more complicated way of describing this process, or any process, does nothing to further explain it or understand it. You can put forth these ideas in as fancy a prose as you can produce, but ultimately it explains nothing. Just a thought...keep it simple! Some of your sentences come very close to being incomprehensible. It severely limits your audience.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 31, 2013 6:00:22 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 31, 2013 6:01:32 PM PST
John Smith says:
I agree with Herbert F. Myers. Many of the sentences in your review make no sense. Such as: "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." To me, that's babble.

Unfortunately, I found the same thing in the book you review, Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature. Much of what he says remains a mystery to me. For example, he says: "The significance of morphogenetic constraints on the generation of variations is only one aspect of a more global set of conditions that must be considered as antecedently relevant to natural selection theory." Huh? The whole book is that way.

In my view, Deacon writes about simple ideas in a way that makes them hard to understand. That's exactly the opposite of what a good science writer does. Incomplete Nature, and this review, seem geared to an audience of people who like their ideas presented in pretentious prose. That audience is small.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 18, 2013 12:20:51 AM PDT
I haven't purchased this book yet, but I will. I'm very impressed with "The Symbolic Species" which I'm reading. I don't expect anyone to be "Right". I was raised to listen to worthy teachers and walk away knowing what I do believe. I'm pragmatic, skeptical and concrete. I often learn much from people who are lacking in those qualities. I routinely read low star reviews yet buy the book anyway. I'm better able to form my own beliefs if I hear all sides of the issues. Thank you for taking the time to qualify what he has to offer. John Smith's review backs you totally.
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