Incomplete Nature

Terence W. Deacon
2011

“Brain researchers and philosophers of mind have focused on brain processes, neural computations and their correspondences with the physical world. But what if we should be focusing on what is not there instead?”

Put one thing together with another, and the characteristics of each limits, shapes, and constrains the other. Water and rocks, crystallizing minerals, two people slow dancing —  each changes the other.

This idea of constraining relationships is the core argument of Terrence W. Deacon’s New Scientist article, “Consciousness is a Matter of Constraint” (November 30th). The article highlights Deacon’s new book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. 

Raymond Tallis reviewed Incomplete Nature, and as a result I am now reading the book, too. But it’s a long and slow slog, filled with neologisms and densely abstract arguments, so it will take me a while to finish, especially given my unfortunate tendency to be 25% of the way through seven or eight very different books at once. It certainly would be more efficient to read one book at a time, start to finish, but I find my attention and interest wandering much more than they used to — I think it’s a senior thing — so I’m stuck with this sloppier method. That means reading Incomplete Nature, Anna Karenina, 1491, The Magic of Reality (Richard Dawkins), The Beginnings of Western Science, Thinking – Fast & Slow, and Steve Jobs all at one time. Well, not exactly at one actual time, but you know what I mean.

Asides aside, Deacon was thoughtful enough to highlight his book’s main ideas in his New Scientist article. I don’t mind a little authorial self-promotion, especially when it makes my life a little easier at the same time. For now, then, I’ll deal with the article and save my reaction to the book as a whole for that more appropriate time when I’ve actually read the whole book. Damn this persistent reviewer’s integrity. Without it, I could do what most other reviewers do and read just the introduction, the last chapter, and obscure reviews from which I can steal without much chance of being caught out.

Deacon wants to make the case that consciousness is (1) entirely the result of material processes, (2) not itself material, and (3) amenable to empirical discovery on some level.

That’s an ambitious claim, but it contains the attractive notions that what we experience as consciousness is an emergent property of physical events, requiring neither supernatural birth nor metaphysical dualism.

In fact, from the 25% of the book I’ve read so far, Deacon has nothing but scorn for the traditional and neo-homunculi which, he believes, infest most attempts to explain consciousness — even those explanations which believe themselves to be entirely material and reductionist.

Deacon’s “gotcha” insight is the idea that “brain researchers and philosophers of mind have focused on brain processes, neural computations and their correspondences with the physical world. But what if we should be focusing on what is not there instead?”

This question draws us directly into the heart of the topic for Deacon. Thoughts and feelings, imaginings and longings — all of the sensations or events or whatever they are that are not “things” but are nonetheless the “real” contents of consciousness — they aren’t “there,” are they? Deacon writes that “the function of an engine, meaning of a word, or content of a thought are also not actually present in the machine, the text, or the firing patterns of neurons.” He asks, ” Does this render these missing attributes outside the realm of empirical science?”

His answer is, in a word, “No.” By studying the ways that constraints can construct complex order, how interactions can create emergent structure, Deacon believes that we can use “what isn’t there” to examine what is:

 My aim is to provide a thoroughly naturalistic account of how true purposiveness can emerge from purely mechanistic physical processes when they become organised in a way that preserves specific absences, that is, constraints.

In another part of the article, he writes:

To illustrate, consider how a quickly flowing stream forms stable eddies as it curls around a boulder, or how a snow crystal spontaneously grows its precise, hexagonally symmetric, yet idiosyncratic branches. In both cases, the resulting order is a consequence of possibilities that become increasingly improbable by the compounding of constraints.

In the larger scope of the book itself, it becomes clear that Deacon believes that consciousness is the inevitable order that arises from the constraints of a dynamic and flexible system of brain and body systems, of feelings and homeostatic states and neural networks.

In taking this position, Deacon rejects the idea that there can be any simply reductionist explanation for consciousness. He believes that there is no one thing that is consciousness. Rather, he thinks, consciousness is that state of mind that arises moment to moment all over the brain-body-environment system. That state of mind doesn’t reside any particular where, or even in any one causal branch of events. The elements of mind create consciousness the way that the elements of falling snow create flakes — each one different, each one inevitable, each one the same, each one random.

Deacon notes:

The metabolic signals we map with fMRI and PET-scan imagery may be serendipitously providing evidence that conscious arousal is not located in any one place, but constantly shifts from region to region with changes in demand.

Consciousness is one of those “BIG” topics, and Deacon is offering what he believes to be potentially the next big idea on the subject.

I’ll let you know what I think of his intriguing and rather appealing ideas when I’ve finished the book.

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4 thoughts on “Incomplete Nature

  1. Nice review ….so far….just wondered if you managed to finish (perhaps your full review of the book is elsewhere?). Anyway, on the strength of your essay, I’ve ordered the book!

    • I never did finish the book, although I got 80% of the way through before moving on to other things. Your comment motivates me to read the rest. In the second half of the book, I like the way that he distinguishes the dynamic systems of consciousness from the underlying “linear” brain activity that enables those systems. It’s a neat way of conceptualizing thought as both reductionist and non-reductionist at the same time.

      • I’m picking the book up tomorrow (from my corner bookshop…we have to support our independent retailers in the UK against the Amazon behemoth) so will see in due course how his thinking goes. My simplistic view is the brain is one of those systems which would be capable of a reductionist analysis were it not for the phenomenon of emergent complexity. Which is a way of saying the whole is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve never got my head around whether or not it’s legit to try and stick to a rigid reductionist approach to emergent phenomena/complexity.

  2. Apologies for a PS. The reductionist approach to the brain and information processing was a issue in John Holland’s “Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems” because he identified emergent comlexity as apparently a feature of the human brain’s output. It’s on my bucket list of books to read along with Melanie Mitchell’s “Introduction to Genetic Algorithms”. You read either? I used to be a chemist and cherish the quaint notion the brain and consciousness can be explained chemically…but it won’t be an easy explanation!

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