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

Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.)

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.



20 responses to “Deacon’s Incomplete Nature (con’t.)”

  1. Jason Hills Avatar
    Jason Hills

    Since you’ve kept it up, I’ll soldier along as well. I wasn’t going to continue solo. Carry on!

  2. […] it in the context of some of the other books on the list. (Matt Segall has recently provided a helpful overview to a chapter in Terrence Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature that seems to indicate a strong […]

  3. Joe Avatar

    “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.”

    It is a bold statement to say what some method CANNOT do. How can you show what cannot be done from some starting point? And I know your response will be something along the lines of ‘the cartesian mode of thinking is the basis of natural science and therefore the cartesian split cannot be overcome with it’ (and maybe you’re right, I’m not sure), but you need to admit he’s right when he says that assuming it is already there (an axiom) as in Whitehead is not satisfying in the least. It simply puts off the problem.

    If we let experience in at the outset, we still are faced with asking how ‘micro-experiences’ can come together to form larger patterns which might be called ‘macro-experiences’. So, from my view, even assuming consciousness is a fundamental force of nature doesn’t really increase my understanding of it. Why are some experiences different than others? Does a blade of grass have a similar experience as a cat? If so, we might as well just go to sleep and forget it all, if not, why not? I tend to believe my experience is qualitatively different than that of a rock or even a tree, not just quantitatively. Ironically perhaps, I think the Whiteheadian perspective reduces these differences to differences of amount only. If we only have quantitative difference, we have a very linear and boring universe.

    Your attitude to the book so far seems combative (as if you are trying to catch him being naughty), I suggest you entertain his line of thinking a bit longer before you come down with ultimate judgements of success or failure. Just like every other book, there are probably nuggets of truth and wisdom, as well as flights-of-fancy on points which are merely conjecture.

    1. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      The only hardness I’m seeing here is coming from you.

      It is not necessarily bold at all to say what a method cannot do. Being a method, it has presuppositions and a procedure, and if Matt can identify problematic points then he can make that claim. Rather, the question is whether he has done so, which it purely a factual question.

      Finally, your claims against Whitehead are beside the point as you are equivocating on the term “experience” in a manner similar to most who take that line of criticism and thereby misinterpreting/misunderstanding.

      1. normonics Avatar

        I apologize for my perceived hardness, I’ll be softer. I simply want Matt to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. I admittedly haven’t read very far, so am also withholding judgement, I’m not sure where the narrative is going yet.

        I would not want to say that science is a method with a set procedure (so perhaps my using the word ‘method’ was a poor choice). Science, from my perspective, is essentially an attitude. It is an attitude that emphasizes checking the consequences of your mental constructs against the observed phenomena. This is why science has revolutions. It is evolving and sometimes goes through phase transitions. Because science evolves, it is in principle impossible to say what kinds of spaces it will traverse in the future from where we currently stand (said another way, we don’t yet know what we will know, and we don’t know where any of the paths lead).

        I’m not quite sure why my comment on Whitehead is so off the mark. My point isn’t that he isn’t right, he might be. If the universe has a ‘raw intelligence’, I still would like to better understand how that raw intelligence arranges itself into patterns of increasing complexity, and how this complexity is related to experience. I’m admittedly no Whitehead scholar, but simply taking intelligence as axiomatic doesn’t alter the important questions, from my perspective. Even if intelligence is a given, different arrangements of intelligence have real, and different, causal roles. Why are they different? Why does the arrangement seem to matter? From where do the differences arise and how do new patterns emerge from old ones?

      2. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills


        Science does have a set logic or “procedure” and is limited by what we know of the inquirers, e.g., what it is possible for a human being to know, and the limitations of the current practices of science. The logic of science is called “abduction,” or “inference to the best explanation,” and I do teach that in my critical thinking courses. If one knows that, then one can identify poor science even if one is not a specialist of that field.This is a separate issue from the discussion of Deacon, but is pertinent to Matt’s other posts.

        I wrote that your comment about Whitehead is off the mark, because your ascriptions to him appeared to be inaccurate, and thus any conclusions made from those premises are unjustifiable (not sound/cogent).

        I recommend that you find out what “intelligence” is, because you seem unaware. That said, I’m sure that I’ll disagree with Matt somewhere on the matter, though I do try to discover the details of the disagreement before weighing in too heavily.

      3. Joe Avatar

        Well if you teach it to your critical thinking course it must be right.

        Maybe you could enlighten me, what is ‘intelligence’?

      4. Jason Hills Avatar
        Jason Hills

        Don’t take my word for it Joe; pick up any textbook that includes the logic of science.

        Rationality or intelligence is nothing more than well-organized habit. It enables self-control and control of the situation. Being continuous with nature, it is neither arbitrary nor unreal, yet it is not a faculty or power. It is an achievement. This is from my book, and I produce it more for demonstration and less to get into a discussion about it.

      5. Joe Avatar

        And quite a demonstration it was.


    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Well, I’m trying to qualify Deacon’s claim that panpsychism, and Whitehead’s version of panpsychism in particular, just axiomatically assume experience is there from the beginning. I think this claim is really just showing Deacon’s distaste for metaphysics, which is fine, especially since he seems more willing than most natural scientists to at least ask the metaphysical questions. All I’m saying is that he already operates within the bounds of certain metaphysical and paradigmatic assumptions, assumptions he has mostly backgrounded, though again he is more aware of the shortcomings of Cartesianism than most. In short, we all make axiomatic assumptions. He assumes matter is fundamentally lacking experience of any kind. Fine. Its still an assumption, though. I think assuming experientiality and materiality are co-extensive allows us to understand a wider scope of phenomena more coherently. It dissolves many of the problems he is trying to solve. It leaves other, I think more tractable problems (like how to account for the emergence of conscious experience out of cellular experience, or cellular experience out of molecular experience, etc.).

      Whitehead doesn’t so much talk about increases in the “quantity” of experience as you go up the chain of evolutionary complexity: he speaks of increases in intensity of experience. It’s not just that there is “more” experience in a cat than in a bush, its that there is a heightened intensity of contrasting feelings unified into one conscious experience.

  4. normonics Avatar

    One more thing: the argument ‘all this has been said before’ can pretty much be said for any book. Most of what appears in Thompson’s Mind in Life can also be traced back to earlier thinking. Perhaps it would have been appropriate to reference some of these thinkers and expand on their differences, but in my opinion this is not a damning feature of the book.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Yeah, this is true. I’m willing to read the book even if he is “only” re-wording old ideas, since often new turns of phrase are actually very helpful for grasping hidden aspects of ideas I thought I already understood well.

      1. normonics Avatar

        Absolutely. It’s like looking at an object from a different angle. You may see something that was previously occluded, even though it’s the same object.

    2. Jason Hills Avatar
      Jason Hills


      That is true, and thus it should not be taken as necessarily derogatory as so many seem to take it. The question is whether the book is informative, not creative.

  5. Will Avatar

    A pet peeve of mine is the valourization of creativity which usually amounts to the re-invention of the wheel. I think it is only after a time lag before you get a sense of ‘new-ness’.

  6. Metaphysical Reflections Avatar

    Hey Mat, one of my former profs asked me to read Incomplete Nature. Hit page 30 and figured reading some reviews might keep me on track. Your blog was the first hit on google.

    It appears that a couple of years has lapsed since you have written this entry; perhaps you have had time to think more on the subjects and have made new connections along the way…

    Could you set your clock for 60 seconds and type out as fast as you can what a general reader should know about this book and/or why it would be a worthwhile read? It is my intention or purpose or hope to bang off a blog on some of Deacon’s views to the origins of consciousness and use your short piece as the inner seed of my outer shell.



    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Hi JY, the short and sweet of Deacon’s project is that he is attempting to close or at least narrow the explanatory gap separating mind from matter by articulating a series of intermediate steps between blind chemistry and purposeful or at least purpose-ish self-organization.

      1. Metaphysical Reflections Avatar

        Happy new years Matt and thanks for getting back to me on this one!

        What does blind chemistry mean? Would it be possible to replace the word chemistry with physics, without losing the value of your meaning in your paragraph above?

    2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Deacon calls the purpose-ish behavior of simple chemical systems “teleodynamic,” referring to the way constraints emerge to shape its thermodynamic exchanges in such a way as to preserve and even generate complex form.

    3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Overall, it’s a valiant effort. But as you’ll see in my essay on Whitehead’s cosmology (see Essays section of my blog), I think Deacon remains stuck on some of materialism’s metsphysical assumptions and so ultimately fails to close the explanatory gap (though he does seem to have narrowed it).

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