Terrence Deacon:
"Incomplete Nature" (Norton, 2012)

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

First of all a warning: this is a very technical book that is challenging to read even for a specialist, and i'm not even sure which specialty you must have studied in order to understand every sentence of it. Therefore any review of this book is a wild oversimplification.

The core of the book is (or "ostensibly is") the search for an explanation to the mystery of how human consciousness emerges from unconscious matter. Deacon introduces a new primitive biological entity, the "autogen" (from Maturana's "autopoiesis"): a self-organizing unit that preserves itself and grows via a combination of two processes (autocatalysis and self-assembly). In other words, not just self-organizing but self-generating.

If the autogen is the precursor to life, "ententionality" is the precursor to consciounesness (or, better, to what philosophers call "intentionality"). Deacon defines it as, basically, goal-directed behavior. Ententionality is produced by "teleodynamics", which is basically behavior under some constrains.

So the chain of steps that take from the autogen to me is: teleodynamics creates ententionality, which creates intentionality, which creates consciousness.

The key therefore lies in the constraints. Deacon differentiates behavior that requires work (a car driving uphill), which has to deal with constraints, and behavior that does not require work (a car rolling downhill), which does not have constraints, which he terms "orthograde change" (in other words, spontaneous behavior).

When a constrained system interacts with an unconstrained system (which has to be larger in order to satisfy the law of entropy), the orthograde change of the latter constitutes the work that drives contragrade change in the former. The result ("morphodynamics") is a new, higher form and set of constraints.

SInce the solution to the mystery lies in the constraints, Deacon uses an intriguing metaphor: consciousness is about the things that don't exist, not about the things that exist. It's about the "absentials", not the "essentials". My favorite quote from the book: "There is something not-there there". It is hard not to notice the quasi-spiritual turn that the discussion takes. "The self... emerges at each moment from what is not there". This sounds like Buddhism to me.

The whole premise of the book was to explain how non-conscious matter evolves consciousness. Deacon tells us that consciousness evolves from absentials (constraints), but he has simply shifted the problem: are those absentials conscious? If not, how does consciousness emerge from non-conscious absentials?

I feel that there are several fundamental postulates that Deacon does not fully disclose, and one is that consciousness is teleology, which i personally don't believe to be true (nor all that relevant).

Evan Thompson correctly complained that Deacon did not mention his own work published in "Mind in Life" (Belknap, 2007), nor Alicia Juarrero's "Dynamics in Action" (Bradford, 2002), that cover the exact same ground, nor Robert Rosen's "Life Itself" (Columbia University Press, 1991). In fact, i think that these arguments (that were groundbreaking a decade ago) have now become a bit too fashionable and tend to repeat the same intuition without turning it into real science, as it is often the case with ideas that create a new lucrative section in bookstores.

See also:
Deacon Terrence: THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES (Norton, 1998)

TM, ®, Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi