Sunday, May 20, 2012

Summer Reading: Incomplete Mind, Chapter 0.


This is the inaugural post of the Summer 2012 Reading Group for Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Mind (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). I will be providing commentary on the introductory chapter, and next week Matt will be providing commentary on Chapter 2.  Somebody will pick up Chapter 1….

Chapter 0. Absence
The Missing Cipher
Deacon begins by noting what science cannot explain.  It cannot explain the “absential features” (3) of nature.  For example, meaning is shared when communicating despite not being present as such as a thing (2-3). He defines this as “an absential feature, to denote phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence” and calls it “a defining property of life and mind”  (3). What is the problem? “A causal role for absence seems to be absent from the natural sciences” (3).

Readers of the participating blogs should note that we have been discussing this for as long as I have been blogging, a year, and longer. This issue is what motivates many of the neo-materialist discussions such as Bryant’s at Larval Subjects, Shaviro and pan-psychism at The Pinnochio Theory, and of course us participants.

What Matters?
Deacon wades into a discussion of neo-materialism, pan-psychism, embodied mind theories, etc. in this section.  He begins by giving more examples of the absential, especially as is contested in physicalist or materialist notions of science.  For instance, he weighs in on purposiveness in nature.

“A purpose not yet actualized, a quality of feeling, a functional value just discovered—these are not just superimposed probable physical relationships.  They are each an intrinsically absent aspect of something present” (3).

He argues against those who would eliminate, reduce, or ignore such phenomena and gives some history of how and why this has occurred.

“The success of mechanistically accounting for phenomena once considered only explainable in mentalistic terms reached a zenith in the latter half of the twentieth century with the study of so-called self-organizing inorganic processes.  As processes as common as snow crystal formation and regularized heat convention began to be seen as natural parallels to such unexpected phenomena as superconductivity and laser light generation, it became even more common to hear of absential accounts described in historical anachronisms and illusions of a prescientific era. Many scholars now believe that developing a science capable of accurately characterizing complex self-organizing phenomena will be sufficient to finally describe organic and mental relationships in entirely non-absential terms” (4-5).

He insists that Darwinian processes and complex system dynamics are insufficient to explain absential phenomena (5).  Why are they insufficient?  Because they “explain away” rather than explain.

“Dynamical systems theories are ultimately forced to explain away the end-directed and normative characteristics of organisms, because they implicitly assume that all causally relevant phenomena must be instantiated by some material substrate or energetic difference. Consequently, they are as limited in their power to deal with the representational and experiential features of mind as are simple mechanistic accounts. From either perspective, absential features must, by definition, be treated as epiphenomenal glosses that need to be reduced to specific physical substrates or else excluded from the analysis.  The realm that includes what is merely represented, what-might-be, what-could-have-been, what-it-feels-like, or is-good-for, presumably can be of no physical relevance” (5).

Having made these general statements, he becomes specific and targets particular thinkers that should be familiar to readers, especially those of speculative realism: Gregory Bateson, Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela (5). Deacon describes them as trying to re-integrate the purposiveness of living processes against earlier failed attempts. However, these are forced marriages of mental and physical explanation.

“But the metaphysical problem of reintegrating purposiveness and subjectivity into theories of physical processes led many thinkers to propose a kind of forced marriage of convenience between mental and physical modes of explanation” (5)

Deacon is more specific, but I am going to focus on his discussion of Maturana and Verela’s  creation of concept of autopoesis “to describe the core self-referential dynamics of both life and mind that constitutes an observational perspective” (6). The problem is that the origin of the “self-created dynamic” is taken for granted (6). It avoids absential phenomena because it defines them “in internalized self-referential form” (6). “Information, in this view, is not about something; it is a formal relationship that is co-created both inside and outside this autopoetic closure” (6). This leads to the assumption of a “pre-established harmony” between absential and physical.

Personally, I have been skeptical of the employments of autopoesis that I’ve seen, and this gives me prima facie evidence to remain skeptical, though I am far from coming to a conclusive judgment on the matter.  Continuing, Deacon hashes out what he means by the “pre-established harmony” in a way that sends chills down my spine, because I might be committing this mistake as well. It came up at my dissertation defense years ago.

“For the most part, the mental half of any explanation is discounted as merely heuristic, and likely illusory, in the natural sciences.  And even the most sophisticated efforts to integrate physical theories able to account for spontaneous order with theories of mental causality end up positing a sort of methodological dualism.  Simply asserting this necessary unity—that an observing subject must be a physical system with a self-referential character—avoids the implicit absurdity of denying absential phenomena, and yet it defines them out of existence.  We still seem to be living in the shadow of Descartes” (6).

The problem is that even the best of these views lead to a “methodological dualism.”  I noted this about my own position years ago and have been developing the metaphysics behind my phenomenology to address this.  Hence my many posts on scholastic realism and accusations that others are “living in the shadow of Descartes” (6). These views, speaking in Deweyan terms, treat the mental and physical as discontinuous and thereby bifurcate nature methodologically if not ontologically.  And thus I give a lot of people a hard time because as long as they are doing the former, a methodological bifurcation, then their proclamations of not doing the latter, an ontological bifurcation, are almost moot. Regardless, I suspect those more familiar with this branch of metaphysics have a lot to say about Deacon’s accusations, and for now I will continue with his discussion of this “shadow.”

“This persistent dualism is perhaps made most evident by the recent flurry of interest in the problem of consciousness, and the often extreme theoretical views concerning its nature and scientific status that have been proposed—everything from locating some hint of it in all material processes to denying that it exists at all.  The problem with consciousness, like all other phenomena phenomena exhibiting an absential character, is that it doesn’t appear to have clear physical correlates, even though it is quite unambiguously associated with having an awake, functioning brain.  Materialism, the view that there are only material things and their interactions in the world, seems impotent here (7).”

Materialism is impotent to explain these phenomena. This is a discussion that I’ve had with Michael, along with Matt, Leon, and Adam, at some length recently. Where this came up in that discussion is as follows. When Michael claimed that matter has “powers,” I asked how he could explain what powers were, given that he rejected teleology or purposiveness.  If we say that the singular thing or “object” has powers, then we run into the usual problem; how can we know what those are, if there are no universal ontological categories by which we describe those powers? Otherwise said, to borrow Hume’s example, how do we know that bread will nourish rather than poison us each time that we eat it?  We cannot claim to know that.  Ever.  We cannot claim that it has “nutritive power.”  Likewise, if mind is a power of matter, what power is it?  If conscious experience exists, how can any conscious experience ever come to know anything such that we can proclaim that materialist theories are true? There are responses to these questions, but they tend to be lacking.

On the flip side, we should not rush to the other extreme, warns Deacon, and he goes to Chalmers to demonstrate this point.  Chalmers embraces panpsychism because the emergence of experience cannot be derived from physical theory (7). Deacon takes this as mysterious and going to far and proposes that 

“Like meanings and purposes, consciousness may not be something there in any typical sense of being materially or energetically embodied, and yet may still be materially causally relevant” (7).

He then notes that conscious experience shares this problem with function, meaning, or value.  Finally, as a partial thesis statement—he gives lots of these—he will argue a less dramatic but counter-intuitive approach than anti-materialism (7).

Calculating with Absence

Deacon narrates the history of the concept of zero to show what happens when a previously unthinkable concept gains traction, becomes established, and radically transforms human knowledge (8-11). He admonishes that the historic and contemporary rejection of intentional and teleological properties is like the rejection of zero (10).

A Zeno’s Paradox of the Mind

We have been under a spell of a sort of Zeno’s paradox of the mind (11). As a result we have excluded absential relations from playing constitutive roles in natural science (11-12). This has divided the natural sciences from the human sciences and the humanities, and has had the effect of rendering the most fundamental features of human experience as “somehow illusory and irrelevant” (12).  We become effectively unreal.

“As Simple as Possible, but Not Too Simple”

Giving us another part of his thesis, he writes that he wants to unify the apparently incompatible approaches to conceptualizing the world. (13) He closes this chapter by addressing the prejudices against absential views (13-14) and then gives an outline of the book (15-17).

In conclusion, I am really excited about this book, because it brings together so much contemporary scholarship that I haven't the time to read separately while directly applying to my own work per emergent naturalism. I was challenged by a review for my last article, because I proposed to talk about the continuity of the environment, body, and mind, without discussion of the relevant scientific theories. Instead, I employed an informal speculative logic that could not speak to those details and did not try to.  Now, hopefully, I am beginning a path towards knowing the relevant literature this side of actually being a lab scientist. That said, when I read some of that literature, I don't see them answering the questions that I proposed to answer provisionally.  Deacon is right that there is too many divisions in these fields of study, except that I am hesitant to embrace inter-disciplinary studies as some do, because in practice they tend not to impart expertise.  That is, it seems that inter-disciplinarity is something to achieve as part of an on-going career, as we American academic institutions are still struggling with how to prepare students for it.


  1. Thanks for this. I posted a short follow up announcement.

  2. Uh oh.

    Here is a pointed critique of Terrence Deacon on the issue of whether he commits academic dishonesty in his book. Regardless of its pointed nature, it links to many reviews.


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