Quantum Decoherence and the Incompleteness of Nature

“[Creativity] prevents us from considering the temporal world as a definite actual creature. For the temporal world is an essential incompleteness.” -Whitehead188

 

Epperson argues that Whitehead’s account of the process of concrescence, the centerpiece of his metaphysical scheme, provides “an extremely precise, phase-by-phase exemplification” of contemporary “decoherence-based interpretations” of quantum mechanics.189 Unlike the instrumentalist interpretations that have spun off Niels Bohr’s account of quantum effects in terms of epistemological “complementarity,” quantum decoherence offers a fully fledged ontological description of quantum reality.190 Further, unlike Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation, the decoherence-based approach provides a more ontologically parsimonious, not to mention less empirically question begging, account of the unfolding of the physical universe. And finally, unlike the quantum cosmogonies offered by Hawking and Krauss, which purport to explain the random emergence of the actual universe ex nihilo from the sheer potentiality of the “quantum void,” decoherence-based interpretations avoid the logical incoherence of having to posit a realm of pure potentiality utterly independent of, and somehow responsible for generating, concrete actuality.191 Whitehead, as discussed earlier, also describes something akin to the “quantum void,” or “vacuum,” from which all potency is ceaselessly born: Creativity. But, in order to maintain the coherence of the fundamental categories of his metaphysical scheme (such that all ideas require one another for their meaning), the sheer potentiality of Creativity is said always to be conditioned by at least one actual creature.192 The primordial creature of Creativity is God. Subsequently to God, Creativity also comes to be conditioned by the passage into objective immortality of finite actual occasions.193 Potentiality, in other words, has never been untouched by actuality.

The decoherence interpretation of quantum mechanics, like Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, presupposes the givenness of facts, rather than trying to offer some arbitrary ex nihilo explanation of their spontaneous appearance. According to Epperson,

…actuality is necessarily presupposed by…potentiality, such that the latter cannot be abstracted from the former. This is both a logical requirement and a requirement of quantum mechanics, which describes the evolution of actual facts and their associated potentia–not the evolution of vacuous potentia into actuality.194

In other words, quantum mechanical descriptions presuppose actuality, and so cannot explain its emergence by reference only to potentiality. Nonetheless, potentiality does have a significant role to play in both decoherence-based and Whiteheadian accounts of the evolution of the universe. In 1958, probably independently of Whitehead’s earlier re-incorporation, Werner Heisenberg argued that quantum effects demanded that something like Aristotle’s concept of “potentia” be brought back into the philosophy of nature.195 The decoherence interpretation describes the way a quantum event, or wave-function, first arises from the actualized facts of the past, evaluates the potentia relevant to its situation, and finally selects among those potentia to bring about the collapse of its wave-function, thereby realizing some novel actual fact.196 It is a process of “evolutions from actuality to potentiality to actuality.”197 In Whitehead’s terms, the concrescence of an actual occasion passes through several phases: 1) the occasion prehends the initial data provided to it by the multiplicity of objectively immortal occasions making up its past actual world, negatively prehending those elements which are irrelevant to its situation, 2) the occasion, through a process of integration of simpler feelings into more complex feelings, unifies its many prehensions of its actual world into one, objective datum, 3) the objective datum is felt by the subjective form of the occasion, which is the complex qualitative pattern of eternal objects characterizing how this occasion experiences its world, 4) the occasion, having satisfied its subjective form, perishes into objective immortality to become the data prehended by further occasions.198 The end result of this process is the emergence of a novel actuality.

Earlier, in a discussion of the inherent limits to our experience of simultaneity based upon the finite (but invariant) speed of light, I mentioned a further complexity based upon quantum non-locality and the difference between efficient and formal causality. Efficient causes are those influences involving the direct transmission of feeling from one actual occasion or society of occasions to another, as when a flashlight shines in my eyes or a baseball breaks through a window. They are physical causes. Formal causes, from both a Whiteheadian perspective on reality more generally and a decoherence-based perspective on quantum physics more specifically, can involve instantaneous, non-local affection of the potenia of distant actual occasions. These are conceptual causes. To illustrate the difference, Epperson uses the example of an asteroid that has just been knocked by a comet into a collision course with Earth.199 Although in terms of physical influence, we will not know about the incoming astroid until the photons reflecting off its surface reach Earth, in conceptual, or potential, terms, the astroid’s change of course has instantaneously affected the potenia describing Earth’s ongoing evolution. Further clarifying the difference between efficient and formal causality, Epperson writes:

“Causal influence,” in the Whiteheadian scheme, is operative in the physical pole or primary stage (the conformal phase, or phase of causal efficacy), and is bound by the speed of light according to the theory of special relativity; “causal affection” is operative in the mental pole or supplementary stage, and is not limited by special relativity.200

If the local relativisitic relationships of causal influence among actual occasions were not supplemented by the non-local quantum relationships of logically ordered potenia, the reality of an asymmetrical passage of time from closed past to open future would be impossible to account for. On the purely relativistic reading, time is symmetrical: causality works just the same whether you run it forward or backward. But from the perspectives of quantum decoherence, thermodynamics, Whitehead’s process philosophy, and our own direct experience, time is intrinsically irreversible.201

The physical account of the decoherence of a wave-function and the metaphysical account of the concrescence of an actual occasion both imply a panexperientialist ontology of constructive becomings, rather than a materialist ontology of ready-made beings. In a materialist ontology, reality is identified with actuality.202 This implies that nothing new ever really emerges, since all that can be has already been actualized. Change is merely apparent, the re-shuffling of static parts that are externally related. In an ensouled process ontology like Whitehead’s, actuality and potentiality are organically integrated so as to allow for a genuinely creative cosmos where, though the past is settled, the future remains wildly open. New forms of fact are always emerging, though none ever exists in isolation from its environment. “In sharp contrast [to mechanistic materialism],” writes Epperson,

[in] Whitehead’s cosmology as exemplified by the decoherence interpretations of quantum mechanics, the universe is…characterized as a fundamentally complex domain with an inherent aim toward an ideal balance of reproduction and reversion–a balance formative of a nurturing home for a seemingly infinitely large family of complex adaptive systems such as ourselves.203

Epperson explicitly connects Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme, along with the decoherence-based account of quantum mechanics, to efforts in the complexity sciences to account for the regularity and diversity achieved by the various examples of emergent order at all scales in nature.204 In Whitehead’s terms, emergence concerns the achievement by actual occasions of novel forms of “structured society,” be they physical (atoms, stars), biological (cells, plants), or psychological (animals, humans).205

For contemporary complexity scientist Terrence Deacon, mentioned earlier, coherent accounts of emergence also depend upon the ontologization of potentiality along side actuality. Deacon coins the term “absential” to refer to those features of nature that, while not physically present, nonetheless have an important role to play in the emergence of the higher order organizational levels of biology and psychology.206 These role of these absential features would suggest that nature is in some sense “incomplete.” The recognition of this incompleteness leads Deacon to flirt with something like Whitehead’s panexperientialist process ontology, where

no object, event, or interaction–down to the most fundamental physical interactions, such as between elementary particles–is complete in itself, [meaning that] all aspects of physical causality implicitly depend on something extrinsic that is not physically present “there.”207

But in the end, Deacon remains unsatisfied with Whitehead’s approach, since it seems to assume what he is setting out to explain, namely, how experience and value emerge later on up the scale of complexity from otherwise numb, purposeless matter. Deacon attempts to avoid what he calls “homuncular” accounts of the emergence of complexity from physical processes, which he says include information theoretic accounts as well as Whitehead’s. Information theory suggests that all physical processes can be interpreted as computation-performing operations.208 As a result, physical processes “can be treated as though [they have] mentalistic properties.”209 Although Deacon admits to being favorably influenced by Whitehead early in his career, especially in respect to his attempt to save realism as against nominalism in natural philosophy, he eventually became dissatisfied by Whitehead’s seeming need to “[sneak] in homunculi at a very, very low level…the level of subatomic quantum events.”210 From Deacon’s scientific perspective, building in anything like purpose or feeling at the basement level of actuality doesn’t explain anything; rather, only “if you can show how [these are] generated [will] you have an explanation for [them].”211

From Whitehead’s philosophical perspective, science cannot explain the emergence of experiential qualities like value, purpose, and feeling out of dumb physical activity. Whitehead’s understanding of what constitutes a proper explanation seems to be the reverse of Deacon’s, in that for Whitehead, natural philosophy cannot explain the emergence of what is concrete (i.e., value and experience), but only of what is abstract. New possibilities are always emerging into actuality (or in Whitehead’s terms, novel eternal objects are always ingressing); actuality itself, on the other hand, must be intrinsically evaluative for explanations of such emergence to remain rational instead of miraculous. The emergence of complex forms of organization like galaxies and stars, for example, already requires an explanation in terms of some aim intrinsic to physical activity. “The element of value,” writes Whitehead,

of being valuable, of having value, of being an end in itself, of being something which is for its own sake, must not be omitted in any account of an event as the most concrete actual something. ‘Value’ is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event.212

In other words, no value, no reality. Akin to Deacon’s scientific desire to avoid humuncular explanations is Whitehead’s philosophical desire to avoid employing the dubious concept of “vacuous actuality.” This concept “haunts realistic philosophy,”213 according to Whitehead, which is born out by the example of Deacon’s realism, where experience is purported to emerge from dumb matter. “Apart from the experience of [actual occasions],” writes Whitehead, “there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness.”214

This fundamental divergence of metaphysical first principles may at first seem like a matter impossible to settle other than by subjective preference. As mentioned earlier, aside from their metaphysical differences, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biological and psychological forms of organization can be read as adding much needed specificity to Whitehead’s more general account. In this sense, their approaches are complimentary. But there are other criteria from which to judge the overall coherence of each of their approaches.

Deacon claims to prefer a perspective of radical emergence, wherein infinitely many novel forms of organization are possible, while he regards Whitehead’s cosmological scheme as somehow restricting the open-endedness of emergent evolution.215 On the other hand, Deacon admits that there are limits on the evolution of this novelty, offering a rather sophisticated account of these limits based upon the notion of hierarchically nested constraints.216 The question is, what constrains the emergence of novelty at the cosmic, rather than specifically biological or psychological scale? According to Deacon’s scientific account, cosmic constraint is afforded by the interplay between the biased probability of entropic orthograde processes and the emergent contragrade processes supported by thermodynamic work.217 Once constraints at the thermodynamic level are established, higher-order constraints can emerge to secure what Deacon calls “morphodynamic”, and then “teleodynamic,” modes of organization.

Whitehead also offers an account of limitation, but his rests on a far more general, and therefore metaphysical, basis. As discussed in a preceding section, the unfathomable potency of Creativity being the ultimate category of his scheme, Whitehead needed a principle of limitation, or concretion, to account for how anything of definite value could come to exist. Whitehead calls his principle of limitation, or concretion, “God.” Instead of basing limitation on some particular tendency in the physical world, as Deacon does, Whitehead asks what must be the case, metaphysically speaking, for physical “tendencies” to be possible at all: “What is the status of the enduring stability of the order of nature?”218 Whitehead’s answer to this question depends, again, on what is to count as a valid means of explanation. From his perspective, the aim of any genuine philosophical explanation is to produce “self-evidence,” or “sheer disclosure.”219 This aim can never be finally realized due to the fact that “language halts behind intuition.”220 In this sense, “all explanation must end in an ultimate arbitrariness.”221 Nevertheless, although total disclosure cannot finally be achieved, the penetration of our understanding can be increased.222

Many contemporary scientists, Deacon included, would seem to have little patience for traditional theology. Whitehead generally shares their distaste for those philosophers and theologians who, “anxious to establish the religious significance of God,” succumbed to the unfortunate habit of paying him “metaphysical compliments.”223 The God of Western religion has tended to be fashioned in the image of an imperial ruler.224 Rather than making God an exception to the principles holding true of every other actual occasion, Whitehead’s God is “their chief exemplification.”225 Why then does Whitehead risk the scorn of atheistic or agnostic scientists and philosophers by calling his principle of concretion “God”? “Because,” writes Whitehead,

the contemplation of our natures, as enjoying real feelings derived from the timeless source of all order, acquires that “subjective form” of refreshment and companionship at which religions aim.226

God’s primordial act of concretion cannot be rationally explained, since this divine act provides the foundation for rationality.227 That the universe has some definite character, some order, realized along certain limits despite the onrush of Creativity possessing no intrinsic reasons of its own, requires explanation. But in attempting to explain how this definite order could be possible, we come to the very limits of reason. As a panexperientialist, Whitehead’s allegiance is ultimately to empiricism. “The general principle of empiricism,” he writes,

depends upon the doctrine that there is a principle of concretion which is not discoverable by abstract reason. What further can be known about God must be sought in the region of particular experiences, and therefore rests on an empirical basis.228

It follows from Whitehead’s allegiance to empiricism that the progress of the general science of metaphysics and the special sciences alike depends upon a certain faith, or “ultimate moral intuition into the nature of intellectual action.”229 Whitehead’s approach also has rationalist aspects, but he always checks the impulse for theoretical explanation with the requirement that “there be ‘given’ elements so as to form the material for theorizing.”230 God is such an element, the primordial reason conditioning the creative flux, though not itself rationally explainable.

As discussed earlier, God is that actual entity responsible for grading the relevance of the infinite multiplicity of eternal objects. “Apart from God,” writes Whitehead, “there could be no relevant novelty.”231 In other words, it is God’s primordial role to provide each concrescing actual occasion with possibilities graded as relevant to the givenness of its unique situation. Without this provision, eternal objects yet to be realized in the actual world would be all but non-existent for the occasion in question.232 It follows from Whitehead’s ontological principle that as of yet unactualized possibilities, or eternal objects, cannot float into actuality from nowhere.233 Eternal objects yet to be actualized by any finite actual occasion have already been conceptually prehended by the divine non-temporal actual occasion. God is that non-temporal actual occasion which conceptually prehends, and thereby evaluates, the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby adjusting, or conditioning, creativity so as to allow a definite order to emerge in the ongoing course of cosmogenesis. “The adjustment is the reason for the world,” writes Whitehead; he continues:

It is not the case that there is an actual world which accidentally happens to exhibit an order of nature. There is an actual world because there is an order in nature. If there were no order, there would be no world. Also since there is a world, we know that there is an order. The ordering entity [God] is a necessary element in the metaphysical situation presented by the actual world.234

In respect to Deacon’s desire both to “save Plato, or to save realism,”235 and to describe a cosmos with open-ended possibilities of emergent order, it is difficult to see how this could be achieved without some cosmic principle of concretion to provide the basis for the emergence of forms of order relevant to the actual occasions, or societies of occasions, in question. That biological and psychological forms of order have emerged in the course of time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” Epperson likens this harmonious tendency, or “subjective aim” provided by God “by which nature regulates herself without determining herself,” to the concept of “effective complexity” employed in complexity theory.236 It could be said that this tendency is “built in” to the universe, but this phrase is likely to foster an image of a transcendent divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. In his famous cosmological dialogue Timaeus, Plato uses a similar image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Timaeus also employs other images to account for cosmogenesis, including that of an indwelling World-Soul, and that of a formless mediatrix for form called the Receptacle. Were Plato alive today, he may have emphasized these latter images as the more appropriate rhetorical choices for mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead not only attempts to “save Plato” from the myth of a transcendent demiurge, but also to save modern theology from the jealous tyrant imagined by Job, and modern science from the deistic mechanical engineer imagined by Newton. To do so, he re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present.”237 God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned also by the objective immortality of the past decisions of all the other historical routes of concrescence populating its cosmic community. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged. In the final section, the implications of Whitehead’s reformed Platonism will be explored, with special attention paid to the need to mythologize his metaphysics so as to excite the aesthetic, emotional, and moral appetites in a way that purely rational discourse cannot.

Footnotes

188 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 80.

189 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 129.

190 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 33.

191 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 18; Krauss, A Universe From Nothing, xiv.

192 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 3.

193 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

194 Epperson, Quantum Physics, 7

195 Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper and Row, 1958), 185.

196 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 8-9.

197 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

198 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 221.

199 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii-xiii.

200 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 228.

201 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 234.

202 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, xii.

203 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 17.

204 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 198.

205 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 100.

206 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 3.

207 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 78.

208 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 75.

209 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 374.

210 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

211 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

212 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 89.

213 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29.

214 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 167.

215 “I see emergence as an open-ended process, while [Whitehead] does not,” Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

216 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 423cf.

217 Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 230, 247.

218 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

219 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

220 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 49.

221 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 88.

222 Whitehead, Modes of Thought, 51.

223 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

224 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 342.

225 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.

226 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31-32.

227 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

228 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 161.

229 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

230 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 42.

231 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 164.

232 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 31.

233 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 244.

234 Whitehead, Religion in the Making, 91.

235 Deacon, personal communication on April 26, 2012.

236 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics, 236.

237 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 32.

Whitehead and Contemporary Scientific Theory

“The general principles of physics are exactly what we should expect as a specific exemplification of the metaphysics required by the philosophy of organism.” -Whitehead103

 

Since its eruption in the 17th century, modern science has instigated profound re-orientations in the outlook and self-conception of European civilization. More recently, in the last century and a half, various discoveries have forced upon science the need for no less fundamental a transformation of its own presupposed materialistic-mechanistic ontology. This transformation, understood in the light of Whitehead’s organic ontology, is the focus of this section. To begin, let us take stock of what has happened: In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, wherein he described, according to the special abstractions proper to biology, a process which would later come to be known more generally as the theory of evolution:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.104

In the early 1880s, while Whitehead was still a student of mathematics at Cambridge, “physics was supposed to be nearly a closed subject,” with just a few minor details left to be explained in terms of Newton’s fundamental principles. “No one sensed what was coming,” according to Whitehead: “By 1900, the Newtonian physics were demolished, done for!”105 The whole notion of fixed laws of nature imposed upon the behavior of ready-made material particles in absolute time and space, which Darwin’s mechanistic biology took for granted as its foundation, had been called into question by relativity and quantum theories. “The appeal to mechanism on behalf of biology,” wrote Whitehead in 1925,

was in its origin an appeal to the well-attested self-consistent physical concepts as expressing the basis of all natural phenomena. But at present there is no such system of concepts.106

Arguably, almost a century after Whitehead’s remark, physical science still lacks anything approaching such a systematic account of nature. While several candidate theories uniting relativistic and quantum effects have been proposed, due to lack of empirical confirmation or mathematical coherence, none of them has succeeded in garnering the widespread support of the physics community. Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is generally understood to have successfully unified quantum mechanics with at least special relativity, but because it leaves out gravitational effects, and because its approach remains largely instrumental, it does little in the way of providing a truly unifying theory of nature.107 According to physicist Leon Lederman,

Gravity is our number one problem as we attempt to combine particle physics with cosmology…Here we are like the ancient Greeks, waiting and watching for something to happen, not able to experiment…Without bringing the gravitational force into the family of quantum forces, we’ll never understand the details of the Big Bang or, in fact, the deep, deep structure of elementary particles.108

Though it remains mechanistic in orientation, unlike 19th century physics QED can longer claim that its mechanical accounts reflect a reality independent of its experimental instruments. What was originally a mechanistic ontology meant to explain nature has become a mechanistic epistemology meant to operationally describe it; as a result, metaphysical realism in science has devolved into nominalism. This allows instrumentalist approaches to quantum mechanics to avoid the philosophical challenge of having to integrate the spooky paradoxes of wave/particle duality and non-locality into their hypothesized materialist ontology. Instead, as Whiteheadian physicist Michael Epperson suggests, instrumentalists can defer their philosophical failings by invoking the fact that “quantum mechanics is simply a tool used to predict the outcomes of measurements under specific conditions.”109 Even if its mechanistic models cannot be unambiguously proven to reflect the reality of nature in itself, “nature” (whatever it is) can be forced, at least under laboratory conditions, to agree with QED’s operational predictions to an extremely high degree of statistical accuracy. According to philosopher of science Karl Popper, this instrumentalist mindset among physicists is a result of a lack of respect for the importance of philosophy in framing the way problems are posed in physics: “It is a tradition which may easily lead to the end of science and its replacement by technology.”110

Supposing a properly physical (if not fully metaphysical) “grand unifying theory” is eventually discovered, there still remains the philosophical problem of unifying physics with biology, psychology, and spirituality. During the later half of the 20th century, a number of explanatory and descriptive strategies began to be developed in an attempt to tackle aspects of this problem, all of which could be said to fall under the general umbrella of complex systems theory. Many of these scientific approaches to theretofore intractable philosophical problems became possible, not because humanity suddenly developed a finer imagination, but rather because we developed finer technological instruments.111 Computer modeling now provides scientists with God-like powers of simulation; however, deep philosophical issues remain regarding how such simulations can be said to relate to reality.

Keeping the limits of modeling in mind, the key concept that has arisen out of work on complexity theory is undoubtedly that of emergence. Simply defined, emergence is that process by which the components of a system begin to interact in such a way that the behavior of the system as a system can no longer be understood by reduction to the sum of its components. Even more succinctly put, emergence is said to have occurred whenever a whole exhibits properties which are greater than the sum of its parts. The most recent attempt to unify the emergent stages of nature by applying the principles of complexity is that of biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon in his book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012). Regarding the history of the concept of emergence, Deacon writes that

it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties not exhibited by non-living and non-mental processes, and in many cases appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions.112

Deacon’s path-breaking scientific work in this area provides an ideal comparison with Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, in that both seek to articulate a processual account of the universe no longer restricted to the efficient causes of strict mechanism, or to the nominalist epistemology of instrumentalism, but open to the creative organic influence of formal and final causality. The two also provide an ideal contrast, in that they each set out to think nature on somewhat different metaphysical footing. Whitehead begins his path by balancing his thinking upon the speculative stance that experience pervades the natural world, which is to say that a universally communicated texture of experience links everything in the cosmos.113 Deacon begins his climb toward knowledge of nature from a somewhat off-kilter panmaterialist posture that assumes experience and value (in his terms, “ententionality”) emerge atop a basically purposeless material flux. Despite their differing philosophical presuppositions, it is nevertheless possible to re-interpret Deacon’s scientific contribution as a specific application of Whitehead’s more general cosmological scheme. In other words, despite Deacon’s dissatisfaction with panexperientialism, without something like Whitehead’s radical reconstruction of the metaphysical foundations of scientific materialism, Deacon’s account of the emergence of biotic and psychic phenomena from physics and chemistry remains literally incomplete. Deacon’s and Whitehead’s approaches are compared and contrasted in more detail in a later subsection. The philosophical commitments differentiating their approaches to the emergence of complexity should become clearer if I first unpack Whitehead’s startlingly novel interpretations of 20th century physics and his cosmological generalization of evolutionary theory.

Footnotes

103 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 116.

104 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1859/2004), 384. Darwin added the words “by the Creator” in the second edition.

105 Lucien Price, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Mentor, 1954), 277.

106 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 97.

107 Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (New York: Mariner Books, 2006), 277cf.

108 Lederman, The God Particle, 99.

109 Epperson, Quantum Mechanics and the Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (New York: Fordham, 2004), 33.

110 Karl Popper, Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956), 100.

111 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 107.

112 Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), 549.

113 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 4.

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.

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.

A few weeks back, Jason/Immanent Transcendence asked me if I’d like to start a reading group with him this summer for Terrence Deacon‘s new book. A few days later, I found out he’d be lecturing in San Francisco… I was impressed and hope to encourage more of you to join our reading/discussion group!

I’ve transcribed the gist of my short exchange with Deacon below. I would have liked to continue the discussion, but other people in attendance had questions for him. I’ll follow up with what I would have said to him in response below.

Me: “Terry you mentioned formal causality just now… I was hoping to draw you into a discussion about the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I know you engage with him a little bit in your book–

Terrence Deacon: “…negatively, actually, but I have great respect for Whitehead. But in terms of the concepts that I’m after, I’m troubled by him…”

Me: “…you use the notion of thermodynamic ‘constraint’ to try to figure out how what Aristotle called formal causality is possible.”

TD: “Yes.”

Me: “Whitehead writes about ‘eternal objects,’ or ‘forms,’ but tries to reform Plato so that the forms aren’t entering into this world from another world, but that the forms represent what he calls ‘determinate possibilities’ that haven’t yet been actualized. So forms are not physical…

TD: “…and their not in another world…”

Me: “Right.”

TD: “That’s not too far from the notion of emergent constraint that I’m after. Not too far from it.”

Me: “What’s the difference?”

TD: “My point is that in the quasi-Platonic realm, there is maybe a finite set of forms. In an emergent world, there is an infinite set. Its continually constructing constraints producing constraints producing constraints… complication forever. I have my own perspective, which is radically emergent. Its a perspective in which the “ideal forms” are not finite and yet there are limitations on what can happen. We run up against limitations all the time. That aspect of Whitehead–his attempt to save Plato, or to save realism as I would put it in more general philosophical terms–is a noble effort and an effort I am making here as well. I think saving realism is important, rather than abandoning science to a sort of nominalism where there is only stuff, only atoms, or only particles, only isolated events. I think that is a noble task and that he and I are exactly in the same boat. I was influenced by him early on in my career, but became very dissatisfied because I began to think he was sneaking in homunculi at a very, very low level, at the level of subatomic quantum events, that there is some kind of essence of wanting, or of needing… its hard to put my finger on it, but that has always troubled me. Because for me that sneaks the name of the game in at the start. From my perspective, I wanted to build the game from a point of view that there is no sentience and now there is. Theres a reason for that, because the other way doesn’t explain anything. There’s no clear explanation if you sneak feeling in at the start. If you can show how it is generated, then you have an explanation for it. I prefer a radical emergence perspective, which suggests that new value is possible, that new consciousness, new forms, and new ideal types are possible. So Whitehead’s process thinking is agreeable to me, but I see emergence as an open-ended process, while he does not. Now its questionable, I can’t say that I’m a Whitehead expert anymore…”

I’ve yet to read Deacon’s new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter, but based on the lecture I heard him give about it this week, and a quick read of the first chapter, I’m convinced it is important, and even relevant to my dissertation research on Whitehead. Deacon praises Whitehead for defiantly pursuing a realist philosophy despite the tide of nominalism rising all about him during the first half of the 20th century. He nonetheless is “troubled” by at least two aspects of Whitehead’s scheme: 1) his sense that Whitehead’s is a “closed universe” where the number of potential forms available for emergent actualization is finite, and 2) his sense that Whitehead sneaks feeling and sentience in at the beginning without explaining how it is generated.

He admits that his Whitehead isn’t as fresh anymore, and it is difficult to give this issue the treatment I think Deacon knew it probably deserves in a 3 minute answer. I can’t be sure, but I assume that Deacon’s argument against Whitehead’s supposedly closed universe is related to his distaste of Whitehead’s theology. On the face of it, it seems a rather simple mistake by Deacon about the details of Whitehead’s system, since the most general category  is, after all, Creativity. Creativity is that which assures that the universe is never the same twice (p. 31, Process and Reality). Whitehead’s is an open-ended universe in that everything actual–even God–participates in the creative advance. Eternal objects (which are potentials for actuality and cannot themselves act) are an exception, since they are eternal: “There are no novel eternal objects” (p. 22, Process and Reality). However, since there are an infinite set of eternal objects, there can be no definite limit to the number of forms available for actualization. There is a further complication with regard to the relationship between Creativity and Eternity: God. Whitehead’s divine function is a mathematician’s God, not the God of Abraham. Whitehead’s God is a creature of Creativity, but also functions to condition Creativity: “The non-temporal act of all-inclusive unfettered valuation is at once a creature of creativity and a condition for creativity” (p. 31, Process and Reality). God conditions creativity through God’s primordial valuation of the infinite set of eternal objects, thereby grading them according to their relevance. God’s highest value is aesthetic satisfaction; God loves beauty.

Deacon doesn’t seem to have much patience for theology. The idea that God conditions Creativity, shaping it according to some primordial valuation is obviously not attractive to him. He would rather seek an explanation for value that finds it emerging later on in the creative advance, perhaps about the time life emerges. He quotes Nietzsche approvingly, and perhaps there is some Nietzschean sense in which he finds the will to live is the ultimate source of value.

Whitehead wasn’t satisfied with the emergence of value later on up the evolutionary chain as a result of the motion of emotionless dead particles in empty space. For him, value is a cosmological category, not simply a biological category. Or perhaps his “philosophy of organism” makes biology the more general science, with physics becoming a special case of biology. That there is an ordered universe with stars and galaxies already requires an explanation in terms of value, for Whitehead. That life and mind have also emerged in time would be nothing short of a miracle unless the tendency to harmony was basic to creation itself, already there “in the beginning.” I almost said that this tendency must be “built in” to the universe, but this leads most people to picture a divine craftsman who programmed every detail of the universe, “building in” its properties before the moment of creation even occurred. Though I don’t think it helps his case with modern readers, Plato had Timaeus use this image to tell his “likely story” about the genesis of the cosmos. Were Plato alive today, he may have made a more appropriate rhetorical choice in mythologizing his cosmology. Whitehead, in trying to “save Plato” from this myth for a modern, scientific audience, re-imagines God as immanent to every finite actual occasion, the cause of their feeling an “urge towards the future based upon an appetite in the present” (p. 32, Process and Reality). God does not determine the specific decision each finite occasion will make regarding this “initial aim.” God only supplies each occasion with the complex feeling of the graded relevance of all the possibilities available to it in any given moment. Which of these possibilities it chooses to realize is a free decision on its part, a freedom conditioned of course by the “objective immortality” of its past decisions, and of the past decisions of all the other occasions the occasion in question is currently prehending. God’s valuation is persuasive enough that a cosmos with not only stars and galaxies, but living planets and intelligent civilizations has emerged.

Deacon wants to know how this kind of a universe could be, and believes that Whitehead has broken the rules of the scientific game by simply asserting “feeling” or “value” as fundamental aspects of the universe, rather than explaining them. For Whitehead, however, an “explanation” for “how” value is generated is to be sought no where but in concrete experience itself, in the experience of “feelings derived from the timeless source of all order…which slowly and in quietness operate by love…[which] neither rules, nor is it unmoved” (pgs. 31, 343, Process and Reality). In other words, philosophy is not meant to explain the emergence of what is concrete, but of what is abstract (p. 20, Process and Reality). Value is not an abstraction, but a fact in the world. Its “how” is not to be explained, but to be experienced.