“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Reading “Incomplete Nature” by Terrence Deacon

Jason/Immanent Transcendence has written the first response for our summer reading group. Chapter 0 of Terrence Deacon‘s new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter introduces what he calls the “absential” features of the universe. According to Deacon, the defining property of every living or psychic system is that its causes are conspicuously absent from the system in which they participate. They are causes not present in the material system itself, even though they produce effects in that system.

As I read Deacon in the first few opening chapters (and after hearing him lecture and respond to questions), I think he clearly wants to preserve formal and final causality (to use Aristotle’s archelogisms). Preserving a more expanded conception of causality has been perhaps my main philosophical ambition since starting graduate school. HERE is an early example, and HERE is a more recent response to Levi Bryant/Larval Subjects on the same issue.

While he remains a materialist in the sense that he believes life and mind spontaneously emerged at some point in the past from inanimate particles, Deacon nonetheless dismisses the idea that mind and and life might be explained by reduction to those particles. The absential features of living and psychic systems–like purposes, intentions, images, and identities–are real and cannot be reduced to the physical mechanisms of the systems in which they participate. They are emergent properties that must be accounted for in their own ententional terms.

Deacon is after an account of the emergence of life and mind out of chemistry and physics. Since he dismisses panpsychism (and Whitehead) early on, I remain eager to see how he will explain the emergence of mind from inanimate matter.

Though Whitehead will still color my interpretations, I will be reading Deacon alongside Schelling this summer. I think it will make for an interesting cross fertilization, since Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is ultimately a powers ontology, while I’m still not certain whether Deacon is even going to offer an ontology. His approach is far more descriptive in the healthy scientific sense. I doubt I’ll disagree with the strictly scientific insights in Deacon’s book. I will probably just disagree with the metaphysical and cosmological contexts within which they are placed.

In a few days, I’ll post some thoughts on Chapter 2, wherein Deacon discusses the hidden homunculi of most scientific descriptions of biological and psychological systems.



17 responses to “Reading “Incomplete Nature” by Terrence Deacon”

  1. Levi Avatar

    Hi Matthew,

    I don’t know if it makes much of a difference to our philosophical differences, but I don’t believe that “mind emerges from inanimate particles.”. There’s a very simple reason for this: I don’t believe inanimate particles exist. Quantum physics has refuted this conception of matter. We’ve discussed this quite a bit in the past. If you’re going to take on materialism you need to have an accurate conception of matter and not one that no one has advocated since the 18th century. Thus, while I do believe mind emerges from matter, I do not believe that matter is inanimate.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hey Levi,

      Thanks for dropping by, even if it was based on a misreading!

      What do you mean by “animate” when you suggest that particles are not “inanimate”? As I understand your approach, you would not be willing to say that material organization at the quantum level is evidence that matter-energy/space-time is somehow ensouled (anima being Latin for soul). Nor is this what most quantum physicists–aside from perhaps F. Capra and others like him–would want to say.

      To be fair, I’m only a few chapters in to Deacon’s book, so I’m not sure what he is ultimately going to say about the nature of matter. So far, he has spoken of matter without reference to the non-locality and spontaneity of quantum phenomena. I’ll certainly return to this issue in subsequent posts on his book.

      1. Levi Avatar

        Hi Matt,

        I just mean that matter is more like a fire or flame than like a marble. It’s not some hard energetic stuff that just sits there until moved by something else (mechanistic materialism), but is energetic and constantly on the move. I’m not suggesting that matter has a soul or anything like that.

    2. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      You should not be describing as what exists as “physical” as the physical and energetic are often understood to be two intertwined but non-identical phenomena. It greatly muddies the water.

      Also, I am rather surprised that you’re not familiar with “materialism” and “naturalism” being de facto reductive terms in analytic philosophy for decades. Your description of naturalism is actually akin to the Americanist description.

  2. Levi Avatar

    My mistake! You’re referring to Deacon, not me.

  3. John Anngeister Avatar

    I thought Jason did a good job setting out the issues for a non-reader as well. I am not doing the reading this summer, but I now have Deacon’s interesting book on my to-read list for later.

    Glad he included that comparison to Zeno’s Paradox.

    “Squaring the Circle” also comes to mind. That grail search finally ended when it was proved in 1882 that pi was non-algebraic – a transcendental number.

    Even if Deacon’s very important “absential” causes are resistant to strictly material formulations, we can still go on posing to ourselves the problem of their ’emergence’ with as much ease as the mathematicians had in conceiving their problem of circle-squaring.

    However, unlike the mathematicians, we could be hanging with an unsolved problem of emergence forever – because we have no access to proof of the impossibility of our search. Or what would be the quantum equivalent of a numeric transcendental?

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      I didn’t want to “poison the well,” but after we started the reading group for Deacon, I started reading the book reviews. I now wonder how far we’ll get into Deacon’s book, because according to McGinn’s review it is extremely question-begging. We’ll see. The Peirce Society listserv was fairly positive, which is why I thought I’d try it.

      1. John Anngeister Avatar

        McGuin is right to ‘patrol’ the attempts of biologists and brain-scientists to issue metaphysical arguments. But I was under the impression that Deacon would at least articulate the ‘science’ as he sees it – and provide me with a framework for criticism of his metaphysics from an angle different than McGuin’s.

        I share McGuin’s interpretation of the phrase “incomplete nature” as meaningless except as an admission that the field of reality on which physics and chemistry have won their reputation and authority is simply not ‘complete’ enough to be the designated arena of a full discussion of consciousness.

        Deacon’s ‘absentials’ sound like elements of personal and organic reality that are in fact absent from the set of all possible objects of legitimate science (again, in my opinion). But I thought it a useful way of expressing that boundary.

        I don’t think McGuin’s ‘philosophical’ questions and rejoinders in the article do much damage to Deacon (from my own perspective they don’t seem to hit very hard). Only his plain assertion that Deacon doesn’t know the territory is of consequence.

  4. climateanalyst Avatar

    You know how in quantum physics some particles can easily travel ‘through’ things appearing to have no interaction with them whatsoever. Some disappear from our reality, or at least appear to go somewhere else, and then reappear somewhere later. What if these actually interacted with the system around them in a very real way. This could begin to bring together what one could consider the material and the spiritual.

    In terms of saying that matter is ensouled, I believe my concept of life as a fractal leading towards higher and lower forms of life accounts for that belief, observation, reality. If it were the case everything would be ‘living’ no matter how ‘inanimate’ it appeared. From that one would have to deduce the form of communication used between entities in the system, much like within a body. There are probably numerous forms of communication to be accounted for, which could be taken into account through things such as quantum physics eventually.

    There may be issues when the current unreconciled differences between quantum physics and large-scale physics, I forget the term, but I believe that need not hold back the idea. Differences in viewpoint can yield a degree of misunderstanding and when the distances are vast that misunderstanding can be easily amplified.

  5. Reflections on the Animality of Materiality | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] is not alien to matter, but is its very soul, the fire which animates it. Levi himself recently used the image of fire to describe materiality. This is a metaphor I am willing to follow quite far, so far as to suggest that embodiment acts as […]

    1. Jason Hills Avatar

      Thanks, DMF, as that is the review I mentioned. I’ve read it. I must admit, along with that blogger, that I am infuriated when academics who are not philosophers come argue philosophical points without even an undergraduate understanding of the issues. It’s particularly bad in psychology, sociology, history, English, and literature. That said, if one does have that understanding, then the person can easily outshine the others in the field.

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills

      Wow. Thanks.

  6. Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.) | Footnotes to Plato Avatar

    […] A week and a half ago, Jason/Immanent Transcendence posted the first volley of our summer reading group on chapter zero of Terence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). I that chapter, Deacon introduced the key conceptual locus of the book, what he calls the absential features of living and psychic systems: “phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” (p. 3). The research programs of scientific materialism (neodarwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, neuro-eliminativism, etc.), he says, leave out the absential features of living and psychic systems, and so cannot account for the constitutive purposiveness and consciousness of these systems. Deacon is proposing to take the first steps toward a science capable of accounting for the absent elements of natural systems, elements I think it is safe to think of along the lines of Whitehead’s eternal objects (I expanded upon this connection already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE). […]

  7. Towards an Ecological Metaphysics | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] Nature is not a finished Whole, nor is it made up of finished parts. Nature is incomplete (as Terry Deacon would say), which is to say that it is not a static set of particles, not a law-abiding […]

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