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). In 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/or 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 (though Deacon doesn’t agree with me–I expand upon this already in conversation with Deacon HERE and in response to Jason HERE).

Since reading the first few chapters of Deacon’s book, I’ve come across several very critical reviews published in prominent places: HERE is Colin McGinn in the NY Review of Books getting Deacon back for ruining his vacation; HERE is Tom Bartlett nearly accusing him of plagiarism; HERE is Evan Thompson‘s slightly less damning review, but even he can’t help but finger-wave at Deacon for failing to even cite texts that clearly influenced him (like Thompson’s own Mind in Life (2007)), and for exaggerating the differences between his and Varela‘s solutions to the same problems. Deacon dismisses Varela’s (and Maturana’s) autopoietic philosophy of biology early on in chapter zero:

“in their effort to make the autonomous observer-self a fundamental element of the natural sciences, the origin of this self-creative dynamic is merely taken for granted, taken as a fundamental axiom” (p. 6).

Deacon cites Maturana and Varela’s work from 1980, and later (p. 311) cites Varela in 1992, which makes me wonder why he didn’t consider Varela’s work during the last 10 years of his life. The last paper he wrote (with Andreas Weber) before his death, “Life After Kant: Natural Purposes and the Autopoietic Foundations of Biological Individuals” (2002), goes a long way toward offering a solution to the same problems Deacon is exploring in his book. I think part of the problem here is that Varela, especially in his later work, is trying to uncover the ontological ground of nature, which is to say he is philosophizing, while Deacon refuses to accept a philosophical answer to the philosophical questions he is asking. He wants to find a way for natural science to answer it, since otherwise, the answer can only be “taken for granted…as a fundamental axiom,” as he puts it. Deacon will dismiss Whitehead’s cosmology for similar reasons by saying Whitehead sneaks mind and ententionality in at the beginning without explaining it. He “takes it for granted.” This strikes me as a refusal on Deacon’s part to think behind Descartes’ bifurcation of nature into thinking and extension. He fails to phenomenologically bracket the natural attitude in the way that Varela, Thompson, and Whitehead in his own way, are able to. They are just better philosophers, to put it bluntly. Natural science alone isn’t enough to think beyond substance dualism; it can’t possibly!, since natural science, as a mode of thought, is in fact founded upon a Cartesian ontology. As far as I can tell so far, Deacon seems to want an explanation in terms of extension alone, such that absential phenomena can be said to emerge out of a nature that remains essentially external. If we’re going to really do philosophy, which is to say, if we’re not going to shy away from the obscurities of ontology and the dark powers of cosmology, then we need to think our way behind the Cartesian construct of dead external “nature” observed by a physically absent intelligence. He claims to want to find a way to bring purpose and consciousness back into the scientific world-picture, but can Deacon really do this precisely by removing them from a now incomplete nature?

It remains to be seen…

As Jason already admitted, it is tough to continue plowing through 400 more pages of Deacon’s book having now plainly seen the problems pointed out by his reviewers. But I’m still willing to keep reading: at page 90, I remain interested to see where Deacon is headed. I’d like to understand the details of his argument regarding the emergence of life. If a few more chapters in it turns out that the writing becomes as torturous as McGinn alleges (“Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable”), or if it seems he is only repeating Varela and Thompson, then I might call it quits.

As I’ve agreed to do, let me turn now to a brief summary of chapter 2, titled “Homunculi.” A homunculi, as defined by Deacon, is

“a form of explanation that pretends to be offering a mechanistic account of some living or mental phenomenon, but instead only appeals to another cryptically equivalent process at some lower level” (p. 47).

Deacon goes on to discuss the explanatory use of homunculi in pseudo-scientific theories like preformationism and vitalism; but he also shows how even contemporary neuroscientists purporting to be reductionistic still ultimately rely upon homuncular rhetoric to frame their theories (see p. 52-53). Deacon admits that it is extremely difficult to explain anything living or ensouled without slipping in a “man-analogue,” or homunculus, at some lower level in order to get the ententional work done. Scientists should admit when they do this, says Deacon. Some do, offering explanatory “promissory notes” where particular mechanisms aren’t yet understood.

Deacon then moves into a discussion of final causality, cautioning us not to take the misstep leading to Intelligent Design, where unexplained phenomena (e.g., life and mind) are explained by reference to an absent designer. While it is standard practice for scientists to create homuncular “black boxes” to stand in for not-yet-understood physical mechanisms, these are regarded as I.O.U’s, not permanent solutions. The problem with Intelligent Design is that it posits a designer as “a permanently unopenable black box” (p. 62). Deacon rightly sees such a position as an attack upon “the very logic and ethic of the scientific enterprise” (p. 61). As I recently suggested in a comment to Levi Bryant, I’d say the I.D.ers are wrong in what they (attempt to scientifically) affirm (i.e., “God did it”), but right in what they deny (i.e., that scientific materialism can ever explain life or consciousness).

Deacon then makes some important comments about the popular oversimplifications regarding the biological role of DNA. See, for example, Dawkins’ recent book review, where he continues to argue that organisms are just survival machines for selfish genes (as he has done for almost 40 years, despite major conceptual shifts in mainstream biological science), as though the DNA molecule were the only real level of causal agency in the biosphere (see also Adam/Knowledge-Ecology’s review of Dawkins and our exchange in the comments). As Deacon makes clear, homuncular explanation is alive and well in contemporary neodarwinian accounts of life. Neodarwinian fetishizations of DNA ignore the fact that the “information” involved in living organization cannot be simply located in specific molecules, since in metazoan creatures, this information is

“ultimately embodied in the elaborate patterns of interaction among cells and how these affect which genes get expressed. The vast majority of structural information is generated anew in each organism as an emergent consequence of a kind of ecology of developing cells…patterns of gene expression depend on patterns of embryo geometry, and changes of gene expression influence embryo geometry in cycle upon cycle of interactions” (p. 69).

This is not a new critique of genetic reductionism (Thompson offers a nearly identical critique of DNA in Mind in Life, only he argues DNA can’t even play the role of “programmer” in single-celled organisms; Richard Lewontin offers another similar critique in this lecture from 2004). Still, it remains an important criticism worth repeating.

After briefly beating the dead horses, Fodor, Chomsky, and Pinker, for their blatantly homuncular account of cognition in terms of a “language of thought,” Deacon moves on to express his dissatisfaction with the panpsychism that some quantum-information theorists have been lead to. He then all too briefly unpacks Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, a scheme he says is “probably the most sophisticated effort to  make twentieth-century physics compatible with teleological principles” (p. 77). Deacon agrees that something like a process ontology is necessary to solve the problem of ententional phenomena in nature: all physical events must be understood to be in some sense “incomplete” in themselves, and therefore dependent upon absential causes. But he doesn’t think Whitehead finally explains why life and mind seem so different from inanimate matter.

As I’ve attempted to articulate elsewhere, it all depends what we mean by explanation. Whitehead’s philosophizing, if we are willing to follow him, shifts the problem set, such that the universe is understood as always already alive, always already intelligent. The scientific materialist’s questions: from where comes life, from where mind?–become irrelevant. A new set of questions arise, questions Deacon hits on, concerning specific organizational differences between grades of societies of actual occasions. (Dis)solved are old questions arising only from a Cartesian picture of the world. From Whitehead’s point of view, it makes no sense to ask where experience and value come from. Without them, there would simply be nothing, so we may as well ask where matter comes from. It is no less mysterious a question from Whitehead’s point of view. Whitehead’s universe is bound up in a single soul, not bifurcated into intelligent scientists looking out upon extended bodies for the ateleological mechanisms that might explain them. Deacon is asking questions that cannot be answered from the ontological paradigm within which he is asking them. His questions, should they be solved, can only lead him to a cosmological re-orientation along the lines offered by Whitehead.

Earlier in the chapter, Deacon writes that “since the Renaissance, the concept of efficient cause has become the paradigm exemplar for all fully described conceptions of cause in the natural sciences” (p. 59). Perhaps he should have said “since the Scientific Revolution.” More characteristic of the Renaissance are accounts of nature in terms of the anima mundi by alchemical thinkers like Ficino and Paracelsus (James Hillman explores this theme masterfully). If we’re going to preserve formal and final causes in nature, I don’t see any way around recognizing it as ensouled. Either the universe itself thinks and wills (serving as the participatory ground of any organism’s thinking and willing), or, as Jason has been pointing out for a while now, we’re left with a form of nominalistic anthropocentrism, where special human consciousness projects general structures/forms and purpose/finality onto an otherwise dumb, numb nature.