...you will follow any idiot who comes along.
Teleology - don't leave home without it.
Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, might have been titled Aristotle’s Revenge.
While the book’s subtitle is ‘How Mind Emerged From Matter’, it’s a far more ambitious–and complicated–attempt to show how goal-directed processes, including the origin of life and mind, can arise from purely physical processes.
In Incomplete Nature, Deacon begins by exposing the inadequacy of reductionistic explanations of consciousness and purpose as mere by-products of an impersonal natural order.
He is equally unsatisfied with dualism and the argument that mind and purpose can only be explained by an appeal to the transcendent.
No. For Deacon, the answer has to lie in a closer look at self-organizing processes and how the origins of life and consciousness are rooted in the constraints that bind and shape these processes as they build from the simplest self-assembly of molecules up to the emergence of the first life forms.
At 602 pages, index, notes and all, the book is a long commitment for any reader. And some reviewers (fellow academics) have been harsh. Deacon coins a number of new terms to lay out his arguments, each with its own chapter–homeodynamics, morphodynamics, teleodynamics–and while the glossary is certainly helpful, it’s not always easy to visualize what each term represents without constant, concrete examples.
Still, Evan Thomspon, a professor of philosophy who has written his own contribution to the field, Mind in Life, sums up the book’s virtues in his review for Nature.
Deacon takes his guiding idea from one of my favourite chapters of a classic Chinese philosophical text from the fourth century B.C., the Tao Te Ching: “Pots are fashioned from clay/But it’s the hollow that makes a pot work.” Similarly, Deacon sees the ‘constitutive absence’ as functional, a defining property of life and mind. Living things are dynamically organized around ends, such as finding nourishment; and minds are dynamically organized around meanings, such as anticipated future events. And like the hollowed interior of the pot, these ends and meanings are both functional and absent, in the sense that they affect a system’s behaviour, yet are not material parts of it.Deacon is arguing that scientists can accept head on, the notion that conscious thought is not material, and yet in principle can be explained in natural terms by a sort of architecture of constraints.
Constraints, as Deacon wrote last year in an overview for New Scientist, involve:
… the degrees of freedom not realised in a dynamical process. To illustrate, consider how a quickly flowing stream forms stable eddies as it curls around a boulder, or how a snow crystal spontaneously grows its precise, hexagonally symmetric, yet idiosyncratic branches.In both cases, he said, “the resulting order is a consequence of possibilities that become increasingly improbable by the compounding of constraints, due to continual perturbation.”
“Thus, as the branches of a snow crystal grow, they progressively restrict where new growth can take place. Constraints reflect what is not there,” he said, “and the more constrained something is, the more symmetric and regular it is.”
Admittedly, it’s a long way from the constraints in snow crystals … to the constraints surrounding the conscious existence of you and me. And some of Deacon’s colleagues are skeptical about his program.
But what I liked about the book is it’s author’s insistence that teleology, in one way or another, has a place in the natural sciences. I think modern day Aristotelians would approve.
So I asked Deacon, how he would distinguish the ‘contraints’-based approach to, say, a neo-Aristotelian who came up to him and said, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve been arguing all along…’ (i.e., about the explanatory power of concepts like potentiality and actuality in living systems)?
“He’d be right,” he told me in an email, “though without the science to back it up. But my work only parallels the Aristolelean approach.”
“Thus, where Aristotle tries to save a bit of Platonism, I reject it – replaced with the concept of constraint and a negative conception of form and organization – and to the extent that my theory is based on thermodynamics, deriving order and telos secondarily, I am ultimately grounded on very different metaphysical assumptions.”
Top-down causality is not the answer. But the bottom-up isn’t blind, either.
Deacon discusses the book in some detail in this presentation followed by Q&A.