Skip to main content

Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature

The Problematic Matter of Mind

A review of Terrence Deacon's Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (624 pages, W. W. Norton & Company; November 21, 2011)

Cartesian Theater

Cartesian Theater

According to Julian Jaynes, our ancestors first became cognizant of the problem of mind when they literally stopped hearing the voices inside their heads. Prior to that, conscious experience as we know it did not exist. Instead human cognitions amounted to the poetic directives of aurally hallucinated 'gods' emanating from the right cerebral hemisphere. This did not change until humans developed, via the left hemisphere and written text, the linguistic sophistication of describing experience metaphorically, which occurred in response to socio-cultural changes brought on by the development and collapse of the first civilizations.

Not coincidentally, in ancient Greece, the silencing of the right hemispheric “god voices” was accompanied by the rapid ascent of philosophy, math, and science: the mental constructions upon which contemporary Western civilization is founded.

During this transition the meanings of the Greek words soma and psyche, which originally referred literally to ‘body’ (or ‘corpse’) and ‘life’ (or ‘breath’), evolved into a metaphorical dichotomy: body and soul. And so was born the pernicious notion of dualism. Quoting Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1rst Edition, p. 291):

“But the matter does not stop there. In Pindar, Heraclitus, and others around 500 B.C., psyche and nous [‘mind’ or ‘thought’, from noos, literally ‘seeing’] begin to coalesce. It is now the conscious subjective mind-space and its self that is opposed to the material body. Cults spring up about this new wonder-provoking division between psyche and soma. It both excites and seems to explain the new conscious experience, thus reinforcing its very existence. The conscious psyche is imprisoned in the body as in a tomb. It becomes an object of wide-eyed controversy. Where is it? And the locations in the body or outside it vary. What is it made of? Water (Thales), blood, air (Anaximenes), breath (Xenophanes), fire (Heraclitus), and so on, as the science of it all begins in a morass of pseudoquestions.

“So dualism, that central difficulty in this problem of consciousness, begins its huge haunted career through history, to be firmly set in the firmament of thought by Plato, moving through Gnosticism into the great religions, up through the arrogant assurances of Descartes to become one of the great spurious quandaries of modern psychology.”

Thus for Jaynes, consciousness is problematic because it is entangled with a misconception—dualism—whose modern incarnation stems from Rene Descartes’ pronouncement that mind is an immaterial yet somehow substantial entity (‘soul’) that comes to reside in a human body (in the brain). Descartes was a contemporary of Galileo, and he no doubt felt the Inquisition breathing down his neck. It can be argued that his dualistic stance served to placate the Church, which retained authority over the soul while science (natural philosophy) pursued its agenda of discovering the natural causes (‘mechanisms’) governing the body.

But then along came Darwin, whose theory of evolution by means of natural selection renders the idea that human beings are the sole beneficiaries of mind unintelligible; and some would say, the problem of mind moot.

For within the Darwinian paradigm, it is quite easy to rationalize mind as being nothing more than a set of neural mechanisms that evolved because of the reproductive advantage they afford. This is the position of my friend Pcunix, who has argued that mind is therefore a non-problem.

The argument is essentially thus: organisms can be adequately explained in terms of mechanisms; mind is a feature of organisms; therefore mind can be adequately explained in terms of mechanisms. That mind is a feature of organisms (of animals at least) is self-evident; hence, the argument rests on the contention that organisms can be adequately explained by mechanisms.

Is that true?

To answer that question requires that we define both mechanism and organism, and that we do so predicatively, i.e. such that ‘mechanism’ is not used in our definition of organism.

A mechanism can be broadly defined as any process or configuration that behaves deterministically—that is, in a way that is mathematically predictable from sufficiently specified initial and boundary conditions. Anything that is predicted by the laws of physics (Newton’s Laws of Motion, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations etc.) fits this definition, as does the evolutionary process of natural selection. A machine is a mechanism; but not all mechanisms would be described as machines, at least in the usual sense of the word (natural selection being an example).

So a definitive attribute of a mechanism is that it is deterministic.

Defining ‘organism’ is not nearly so easy. If anyone tells you that it is, you can rest assured that that person is deluded. To define ‘organism’ is to define life itself. Many books, written by some of the smartest people in the history of science, have struggled with that subject. But for the sake of this discussion we can at least specify some of the definitive features of all known organisms, without loss of generality (but perhaps at the risk of over-generalizing to include things that are not really organisms).

An organism can be broadly defined as any autonomous process or configuration that develops into existence (i.e., comes to be via a trajectory of growth and self-organization that transforms a relatively small and/or vague progenitor, such as a single undifferentiated cell, into a much larger, more powerful and/or distinctive entity, often composed of many functionally differentiated cells), and that works to both maintain homeostasis (persist and adapt under changing and often unpredictable circumstances) and reproduce. Any autonomous agent that can be said to be alive fits this definition.

Hence a definitive attribute of an organism is that it is developmentally self-organizing and physiologically self-maintaining over a range of somewhat (though not entirely) unpredictable conditions.

We can now ask: are organisms adequately explained by mechanisms?

The answer is a no. A close examination of our definitions reveals why: a mechanism, by definition, is fully determined (by physical laws, and just as importantly, by initial and boundary conditions), whereas an organism, by definition, is not. That is in fact why it is easy to define the former and not so easy to define the latter.

Now some might object that that only reflects that we have prohibited reference to ‘mechanism’ in our definition of ‘organism’. Without that prohibition we could for example define organism as ‘a complex organic mechanism’. But this type of reasoning is impredicative, and hence of no use in answering our question—it simply assumes as true that which we seek to ascertain.

Scroll to Continue

I expect that many believe this to be a safe assumption. Organisms are physical (material) beings that are to some extent predictable, and predictability in physical systems—i.e. real systems—implies determinism, and hence mechanism. So what is predictable in biology is by and large if not entirely mechanistic. But biology is not entirely predictable, and is in fact largely indeterminate with respect to the laws of physics. That does not mean that it violates those laws, or even that it involves anything substantial that is not physical. It only means that the laws of physics do not and cannot predict biology. No matter how far the science of physics progresses, it will never be able to predict biology. Biology is not applied physics, is not derivable from physics, and will never be a branch of physics. These days most physicists (if not most biologists) know this to be true. As noted by Nobel prize-winning physicist Philip W. Anderson in 1972, physics is a science of symmetry, but life breaks symmetry. And it does so in ways that are completely arbitrary.

But there is another problem with trying to explain organisms entirely in terms of mechanisms, which is this: all organisms act intentionally, whereas mechanisms do not. By this I mean that organisms make arbitrary choices that are directed toward bringing about some end that can reasonably be described as being desired by the organism. No mechanism that is not created by a living system can be said to do this. It might be argued that computers can, but computers are mechanisms created by human beings, and the choices that they make are all constrained by choices that their human engineers and programmers made in order to achieve a desired end. Intentional action—a defining attribute of life and mind—cannot be viewed as intrinsically mechanistic except by assumption (i.e. belief). And (to my mind at least) that is an assumption that is as absurd as belief in a supernatural deity.

So the problem of mind is this: although the anatomy, physiology, development and evolution of an organism can be described in terms of mechanisms, those mechanisms are merely means to an end that the mechanisms themselves do not intrinsically specify. This is even true for the mechanism of natural selection, which is merely a means to the end of equilibration—that is to say, natural selection is a servant of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that most non-mechanistic of physical laws (note that the phrase ‘statistical mechanics’ is oxymoronic, but we’ll leave that for another hub).

Science only deals with that which is empirically or mathematically verifiable, which is why concepts like ‘soul’, ‘god’, and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific. The problem then is this: if intentional causation is not mechanistic, how can it be explained by science?

That is the problem that Terrence Deacon attempts to solve in his new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. Does he succeed? To find out, read on.

The absential nature of causal constraint

Deacon’s thesis is that solving the problem requires that we conceive mind not as a presence, as it is usually conceived, but rather as an absence. In other words, we need to frame the problem in terms of constraint rather than mechanism. There is an important difference between the two approaches. A mechanism is fully determined, whereas a constraint is simply anything that reduces the number of possibilities or degrees of freedom (i.e., an asymmetry). So something can be constrained but not fully determined. Anything that can be defined at all is constrained in some way, because definition minimally implies that a thing is what it is because it is not something else.

As noted above, an organism cannot be adequately explained in terms of mechanisms. But perhaps it can be adequately explained in terms of constraints—what Deacon refers to as ‘absentials’.

Deacon likens this insight to that which followed upon the incorporation of zero into mathematics. Absence has not always been represented by a numerical symbol; for example, there is no Roman numeral for zero. Deacon notes that the numerical representation of absence was contested by mathematicians in ancient Greece. It was however recognized and used by mathematicians in ancient India (that hotbed of mysticism!), and eventually migrated to the Middle East via Arab trade routes, to be incorporated into modern (Arabic) numerology. Nevertheless European scholars resisted the very notion, even into the middle ages, as being ‘magical’—a resistance not unlike that displayed by contemporary reductionists who pejoratively refer to non-mechanistic explanations of causality as being ‘magical’ or ‘mystical’.

Regarding such cognitive entrenchment Deacon writes (p. 8-10):

“The difficulty we face when dealing with absences that matter has a striking historical parallel: the problems posed by the concept of zero. ...[O]ne of the greatest advances in the history of mathematics was the discovery of zero. A symbol designating the lack of quantity was not merely important because of the convenience it offered for notating large quantities. It transformed the very concept of number and revolutionized the process of calculation. In many ways, the discovery of the usefulness of zero marks the dawn of modern mathematics. But as many historians have noted, zero was at times feared, banned, shunned, and worshiped during the millennia-long history that preceded its acceptance in the West. And despite the fact that it is a cornerstone of mathematics and a critical building block of modern science, it remains problematic, as every child studying the operation of division soon learns.


“For medieval mathematicians, zero was the devil’s number. The unnatural way it behaved with respect to other numbers when incorporated into calculations suggested that it could be dangerous. Even today schoolchildren are warned of the dangers of dividing by zero. Do this and you can show that 1 = 2 or that all numbers are equal. In contemporary neuroscience, molecular biology, and dynamical systems theory approaches to life and mind, there is an analogous assumption about concepts like representation and purposiveness. Many of the most respected researchers in these fields have decided that these concepts are not even helpful heuristics. It is not uncommon to hear quite explicit injunctions against their use to describe organism properties or cognitive operations. The almost universal assumption is that modern computational and dynamical approaches to these subjects have made these concepts as anachronistic as phlogiston.

“So the idea of allowing the potentially achievable consequence characterizing a function, a reference, or an intended goal to play a causal role in our explanations of physical change has become anathema for science. A potential purpose or meaning must either be reducible to a merely physical parameter identified within the phenomenon in question, or else it must be treated as a useful fiction only allowed into discussion as a shorthand appeal to folk psychology for the sake of non-technical communication. Centuries of battling against explanations based on superstition, magic, supernatural beings, and divine purpose have trained us to be highly suspicious of any mention of such intentional and teleological properties, where things are explained as existing “for-the-sake-of” something else. These phenomena can’t be what they seem. Besides, assuming that they are what they seem will almost certainly lead to absurdities as problematic as dividing by zero.” [Italics in original]

But how can we conceive of mind as absence? Deacon’s approach to answering this question is to systematically examine the how constraint can be causative, beginning from first principles of thermodynamics. He does this in the last twelve of his seventeen chapters comprising five hundred some odd pages, after spending the first five chapters framing the problem historically, and critiquing how previous attempts involving reductionism, evolutionary theory, information theory, computer science, cybernetics, dynamic systems theory, and neurobiology have fallen short. I do not need to spend any more verbiage on the critique, and so will cut to the chase.

Change that is spontaneous versus change that requires work

A key clarifying insight comes from recognizing that there are two fundamentally different kinds of change: that which occurs spontaneously and that which requires work. Deacon refers to these respectively as ‘orthograde’ change and ‘contragrade’ change. Examples of orthograde change are a car rolling downhill, and an ice cube melting in warm water. Examples of contragrade change are a car being driven uphill, and a freezer making ice. It should be obvious from this that orthograde change implies an absence of constraint along a potential gradient, whereas contragrade change implies the presence of constraint that must be overcome for the change to occur. In other words, anything that can be characterized as work implies the presence of constraint—i.e., the presence of absence.

What sort of absence is overcome by work? The answer is of course ‘absence of potential for spontaneous change’. Change that requires work is change that will not happen without work. But that doesn’t mean that the change is impossible; it simply means that effort (expenditure of free energy) is needed to create conditions that will allow it to happen spontaneously.

How does that work? According to Deacon, work occurs whenever a constraint in one system is juxtaposed with orthograde change in another, such that the latter overcomes the former. Thus (for example), a chemical reaction that is prevented by a potential barrier (‘activation energy’) between reactants and products can be made to occur by heating the reactants. In this case the juxtaposition of the reactants with a source of heat drives the contragrade change of overcoming the constraint of the potential barrier. Of course, once the work (activation energy) needed to overcome that barrier is accomplished, the chemical reaction becomes orthograde, as there is no longer a constraint preventing it from happening. That’s what happens with explosions.

And that is why the Second Law of Thermodynamics, an orthograde tendency toward equilibration (disorder), does not prevent the spontaneous emergence of order. As shown by Ilya Prigogine, all that is needed for the latter to occur is that the disordered (and thus constrained) system be hooked up to a larger unconstrained system. The orthograde change of the latter then works to drive contragrade change in the former. Deacon refers to the spontaneous emergence of a form by way of thermodynamic work as ‘morphodynamics’. The Second Law does not prohibit the spontaneous emergence of order because morphodynamics emerges from thermodynamics, via the asymmetric juxtaposition of orthograde change occurring in different non-equilibrium systems. The result is the creation of higher-order constraints that previously did not exist—a process that I refer to as development. This does not explain how teleology (intentional, goal-directed causation) emerges from physical systems. But it suggests an approach toward answering that question.

Teleodynamics and teleodynamic work

Deacon’s approach is as follows: if morphodynamics results from asymmetric juxtaposition of opposing orthograde tendencies of different thermodynamic systems, perhaps we can explain teleology, and thus ultimately mind, by considering what happens when different morphodynamic systems are asymmetrically juxtaposed. Deacon does this in two ways: first, by articulating a hypothesis for what is minimally required of matter to generate goal-directed behavior (what he refers to as ‘ententionality’, which is a precursor to the more developed ‘intentionality’ of sentient creatures), which speaks directly to the problem of abiogenesis (the origin of life); and second, by generalizing the concept of work to show how the colloquial usage of the term (as in mental work) extends from the technical meaning of the term in physics (as in mechanical work, or force times displacement).

Deacon coins the term ‘teleodynamics’ to refer to constrained dynamics that produce ententional phenomena. His solution to the problem of what constitutes the minimal teleodynamic system is the ‘autogen’: molecular autocatalysis coupled (juxtaposed) to molecular self-assembly. Autocatalysis occurs via cyclic configurations of orthograde reactions, that is, when the products of a thermodynamically favored reaction are reactants of subsequent reactions that then produce reactants for the first. Autocatalysis fuels growth, but is constrained by diffusion, as it requires that the reactants be in close proximity. Self-assembly occurs via orthograde (thermodynamically favored) aggregation of molecules into metastable structures. Self-assembly also fuels growth, but is constrained by the availability of molecular components.

Autogenesis is what happens when autocatalysis produces the components for self-assembly, which in turn produces a container that limits diffusion, thereby favoring autocatalysis. Such a configuration allows the constraints that impede continuance of each process (autocatalysis and self-assembly) to be overcome by the other process—each completes the other. It is teleodynamic because the configuration establishes constraints that entail a ‘goal’—its own continuation—under uncertain circumstances: conditions favoring growth afford for reproduction via autocatalysis, whereas growth-limiting conditions do not bring about its demise owing to the long-term stability of the self-assembled structures.

Autogens are not organisms and are not alive, but their teleodynamic nature is lifelike and could provide a predisposition for life. As it stands Deacon’s proposal for ‘autogenesis’ is a theory in need of empirical support. It is however empirically testable (and hence scientific), and provides a novel conceptual framework for thinking about the origin of life. One of the attractive features of the theory is that it is consistent with both on-earth and extraterrestrial scenarios of abiogenesis. One can imagine that autogenic configurations may have arisen on primordial earth; but owing to their inherent stability, one can as easily imagine that they could have been transported here through space.

Teleodynamics, as embodied by an autogen, is the result of morphodynamic work, which is accomplished by the asymmetric juxtaposition of orthograde change enabled by two different morphodynamic processes (autocatalysis and self-assembly). To explain how mind emerges from teleodynamics, Deacon extends this further by postulating that asymmetric juxtaposition of different teleodynamic systems can accomplish teleodynamic work, and that when this occurs recursively through evolution it creates the higher order constraints that we recognize as mind.

The detailed explanation of how this works occupies the last six chapters of the book (Chapters 12-17): Information, Significance, Evolution, Self, Sentience, and Consciousness. I won’t go through it here, except to note that Deacon’s approach is semiotic, extending directly from the work of the American logician Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). In semiotics information is not something that exists in isolation, but only relationally via the interpretation of signs. From this perspective the technical (quantitative) definition of ‘information’ developed by Claude Shannon is incomplete, because it ignores some of the definitve attributes of information: the fact that it is both referential and meaningful. Thus, the data stored in computers (or for that matter in DNA) is only information to the extent that it is rendered as an interpretation by living systems (e.g. human minds). The evolution of mind through self, sentience, and consciousness can only be understood semiotically. The number of people who are actually cognizant of that fact remains exceedingly small. Fortunately, the number is growing, and Deacon’s book is a valuable addition to the discourse fueling that growth.

Is the problem solved?

Deacon does an excellent job of framing the problem of mind, which is a necessary first step toward solving it. But after the expenditure of many words (perhaps too many) and the creation of a fair number of new ones, he does not solve it. Some might object to his penchant for coining terms, as if that explains anything—it does not. But I see this as valuable nonetheless, in part because so many of the old words (e.g. ‘teleology’, ‘intentionality’) are loaded with historical baggage that impedes their effective use in scientific discourse. Perhaps coining new words can rescue the baby from the bathwater. Beyond that, it is apropos to coin new terms in the service of solving the problem of mind, simply because the problem is semiotic, and hence linguistic. If Jaynes is to be believed, human consciousness was created by way of metaphor.

There is a deeper problem that Deacon skirts by way of a straw-man critique in the first few chapters of the book, and by simple assertion later in the book: the nature and meaning of subjectivity. It can be argued (as I have) that subjectivity is an aspect of the material world that is refractory to objective discourse. Deacon criticizes such panpsychist approaches to the problem by arguing that they do not really explain subjectivity. But this does not give credit to the best contemporary philosophers of panpsychism (e.g. Freya Mathews, David Abram), who have advanced good arguments for why any attempt to explain subjectivity in objective terms is misguided. For Deacon, subjectivity is essentially synonymous with human consciousness. For various reasons that I won’t go into here, I beg to differ, and Deacon fails to make a case that changes my mind.

But perhaps the fact that Deacon does not ‘solve’ the problem of mind actually follows from his thesis. If mind is not a ‘presence’, but rather an ‘absence’—a hole of potential filled with nothing but possibility—then it may well be an intractable problem in the sense that it has no definite solution. Unlike a mechanism, life and mind are undetermined by nature.

It’s been said before

My biggest criticism of Incomplete Nature is that much of the substance of Deacon’s argument has been advanced before, in some cases more rigorously, by scholars whom he fails to acknowledge. The work of Robert Rosen (e.g. Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, Mathematical, and Methodological Foundations and Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life) is particularly germane to this discourse, and yet not mentioned by Deacon. Deacon's discussion of hierarchically organized constraint echoes Stanley Salthe's groundbreaking work on hierarchy theory, developed in his books Evolving Hierarchical Systems and Development and Evolution: Complexity and Change in Biology, neither of which Deacon cites. I am not the only one to criticize Deacon’s scholarship: in his Nature review, Evan Thompson faults Deacon for not citing his own similar arguments (Mind in Life), or those of Alicia Juarrero (Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System). While I have not yet read the former, I have now read the latter and I have to agree. In fact, major elements of Deacon's argument so closely parallel Juarrero's that it is hard to believe that that is mere coincidence (see postscript below).

Be that as it may, Incomplete Nature is an important book simply because it addresses a difficult (perhaps ultimately intractable) problem that many scientists would rather not think about. I think that it does offer original insights, or at least important insights articulated in a new way. There is a lot of convergence on these ideas now, and it is not unusual for deep thinkers to sometimes forget where they acquired their thoughts.

The bottom line for me is this: a good deal of ‘teleodynamic’ work is needed to overcome the constraint of cognitive entrenchment wrought by reductionism, a constraint that wreaks ecological havoc even as it enables technological wonders. If Deacon’s book works toward that end, then it is doing an important and useful job.

Postscript: my take on the Juarrero-Deacon controversy

Since the publication of Incomplete Nature over a year ago, the controversy over its originality—particularly its alleged rehash, without attribution, of themes and arguments advanced by Alicia Juarrero in her book Dynamics in Action—continues to rage. Since I was taken to task by several commenters (including Deacon himself) for criticizing Deacon’s scholarship and uncritically accepting comments stoking the controversy, I have, as promised, made an effort to carefully reconsider the matter. Here is what I have come to conclude.

I have read both books from cover to cover, and I stand by my original claim that Deacon covered much of the same ground covered previously by Juarrero. That ground includes an extended, systematic critique of reductionist attempts to explain (away) mind as a mechanically determined epiphenomenon, but also (and more importantly) the central thesis of both books, which is that a more realistic and potentially fruitful approach is to view intentionality as something that emerges by virtue of hierarchically organized constraints on flow. The question then is whether that ground can reasonably be considered to be ‘public domain’—i.e. so well trod that attribution is not needed. To some extent I would say yes: the criticism of reductionism has indeed been covered by many writers, as has the idea that hierarchical organization produces constraints that impede and thus direct flow. I suspect this is how Deacon rationalized not citing Juarrero (and others who deserved credit where none was given).

There are serious problems with this rationalization however. First, it contradicts Deacon’s strong claim to originality, which he proudly stakes in the book, and which has been promulgated by his fans. The problem with not citing those who developed similar ideas previously is that it misleads the naïve general reader (Deacon’s proclaimed intended audience!) into thinking that the claim of originality covers those ideas. Unfortunately, Deacon fails to carefully delineate which parts of his book are truly original, and which are derived.

The second problem with the ‘public domain’ rationalization is that in light of certain historical facts it strains credibility. Here I admit that I am privy to a bit of inside knowledge, thanks to having colleagues connected in one way or another to the controversy. The key fact of the matter is that both Deacon and Juarrero attended a conference in Mexico in 2007, where they both presented their work. This was several years after publication of Dynamics in Action, and well before publication of Incomplete Nature. I don’t know whether Deacon actually conversed with Juarrero, but he undoubtedly heard her lecture, and so was aware of her work when he wrote his book. To my mind this is the most damning fact of the matter: Deacon must have been aware that Juarrero had already advanced many of the arguments that he articulated in Incomplete Nature. In light of this, his failure to cite her work is unconscionably dishonest. Unfortunately, in the testosterone-saturated, ego-inflated halls of academia, this sort of thing is not at all uncommon.

The situation can be made completely transparent simply by considering its asymmetry, and asking what would have likely occurred had the roles been reversed. Deacon is a male professor at a highly-regarded research University (U.C. Berkeley), whereas Juarrero is a female professor (now Emeritus) at a relatively unknown community college (Prince George’s in Maryland). If Deacon had published a book in 1999 and presented it at a conference attended by Jaurrero in 2007, and then Juarrero had subsequently tried to publish a book presenting similar ideas without citing Deacon, do you honestly think she would have gotten away with it? Most likely her book would not have been published until she had rectified that scholarly lapse, and then it probably would not have been touted up as a major breakthrough, as Deacon’s book has been in some quarters.

So I stand by my original criticism. But, to be fair, we should try to make clear what is original in Deacon’s book. As he notes in his comment below, he, unlike Juarrero, makes a concerted effort to move beyond complex dynamic systems theory, which he in fact critiques for its limitations. He does so by way of Peirceian semiotics, which Juarrero does not bring in to her analysis. In addition, he comes up with an original materialist model for the origin of life and mind, involving "autogenesis", which provides a springboard for the development of "telogenesis". So whereas Juarrero was largely concerned with explaining human intentionality, Deacon seeks to explain the origin of intentionality in the universe. Finally, Deacon’s claim of originality is staked on the notion that mind would be better (more productively) viewed as a specified absence—i.e., a manifestation of constrained potential—rather than a specific presence. While Juarrero also bases her argument on the causal efficacy of contextual constraint, she does not explicitly make the connection between constraint and absence (the incompleteness alluded to in Deacon’s title).

Based on these differences, Deacon and his fans would have us believe that his conception of constraint—the "absential" essence of mind—is fundamentally different than Juarrero’s. He and his fans assert that his idea that intentionality is produced by "teleodynamic work" resulting from asymmetrically juxtaposed (i.e. constrained) “teleodynamics” produced by "morphodynamic work" resulting from asymmetrically juxtaposed “morphodynamics” is completely original and unlike Juarrero’s idea that intentionality emerges by virtue of “second order constraints” produced by the interaction between context and network dynamics (manifesting lower level or first order constraints). Sorry, I don’t see it: from my perspective Deacon’s originality here lies mostly in the coining of new words and in saying the same thing in a different (and perhaps in some ways more compelling) way. Moreover, Deacon’s own words belie his claim of moving beyond complex dynamic systems theory. Is not “teleodynamics” by definition a form of dynamics, specifically those constrained by higher levels of contextual organization? How do those constraints differ fundamentally from what Juarrero called “second order contextual constraints”?

In his acknowledgements Deacon thanks a group of academic compatriots that convened regularly at his house to discuss the ideas developed in his book, a club that he fondly refers to as “Terry and the Pirates”. How fitting is that? As I said in the above review (most of which I wrote before I was made aware of Dynamics in Action and the controversy) when I first read Incomplete Nature I was bothered by the fact that it echoed ideas developed and expressed by thinkers such as Robert Rosen and Stanley Salthe, but without attribution. So when I did become aware of the controversy I was not particularly surprised, as I had already smelled a fish. The tragedy here is that Incomplete Nature is a work of potential importance that is undermined by the failure of its author to acknowledge his sources.

P.P.S.: If you liked this...

Check out my book Global Insanity, co-authored with Don Mikulecky and published in November 2012 by Emergent Publications, which deals with many of the issues discussed here, but in the context of our current global predicament. Incomplete Nature was recommended to me by one of the reviewers of the initial draft of our book.


Alan Steele on October 29, 2014:

As you are obviously knowledgeable about this matter, I investigated you book, Global Insanity, and noticed that you rely heavily on Rosen and Salthe. So you are intimately acquainted with their scholarship and referenced it against Deacon's Incomplete Nature. To be transparent, you should have acknowledged this before calling Deacon's scholarship into question. Also, altho they may have attended the same conference, it is not a given that "he undoubtedly heard her lecture..." You make some good points, but you seem to get carried away and make a mountain out of a molehill.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on September 11, 2013:

No; but I'm not sure the question can be answered successfully (conclusively). But Rosen provides a compelling approach. Deacon's approach is also compelling, and somewhat different if not altogether original.

Aaron on September 11, 2013:

"Good question--in fact, that is arguably THE question. From my perspective the best approach to answering that question is via an understanding of the modeling relation described by Robert Rosen in his book Anticipatory Systems."

I had never heard of Rosen before reading this blog post, so thank you for bringing him to my attention (I'm just a layman). Do you feel that he answers the question successfully?

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on September 10, 2013:

Thanks Kevin--yes, it is a tough read!


"are not the choices of living organisms all constrained by the engineering and programming of evolution? "

Yes they are.

"How does the origin of the constraints on a system effect the existence of intentionality?"

Good question--in fact, that is arguably THE question. From my perspective the best approach to answering that question is via an understanding of the modeling relation described by Robert Rosen in his book Anticipatory Systems.

Aaron on September 10, 2013:

"But there is another problem with trying to explain organisms entirely in terms of mechanisms, which is this: all organisms act intentionally, whereas mechanisms do not. By this I mean that organisms make arbitrary choices that are directed toward bringing about some end that can reasonably be described as being desired by the organism. No mechanism that is not created by a living system can be said to do this. It might be argued that computers can, but computers are mechanisms created by human beings, and the choices that they make are all constrained by choices that their human engineers and programmers made in order to achieve a desired end."

And yet, are not the choices of living organisms all constrained by the engineering and programming of evolution? How does the origin of the constraints on a system effect the existence of intentionality?

KevinInSeattle from Seattle, Washington on September 09, 2013:

Thank you very much for this thoughtful review--I am really struggling through this book, and your summary has helped congeal some of the half-remembered, half-understood concepts that I've read so far. I'm about 80% completed and it's just getting more difficult. The chapter about information was the most challenging. I am not an academic, scientist or a philosopher, just a person with a keen interest in origins, naturalism, mind, etc-- and as a novice in these areas I have to say that this book is extremely dense and obtuse. The polarized reviews of this book on amazon are interesting- everything from "is this a bad joke?" to "as important as Darwin"-- I've found myself repeatedly oscillating between these attitudes over the last 2 months and will soldier on to the bitter end.

LikesToRead on February 02, 2013:

Just a quick update - Berkeley has completed their investigation, and exonerated Deacon of all the accusations. They published their findings on a website, which I'll simply say is quite detailed and unprecedented in its discussion of such an issue - appropriately so, I think, given the unique degree of internet publicity the claims received.

"The Investigation Committee has exonerated Terrence Deacon by finding that each of the allegations of plagiarism made against him are either without foundation in logic or evidence, or are demonstrably false."

I can only say I'm impressed by the depth of the investigation, and by the effort on Berkeley's part to make the process and findings absolutely transparent. The whole website is worth a read, even for those without a particular stake in the issue - I don't know of a comparable case provoking such an official response from a university. Strange times we live in.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 23, 2012:

Well said Janet. I agree that this conversation, like so many others in our culture, is long overdue. So "slippery slope" was probably a bad choice of words, to the extent that it connotes a reluctance to engage in the conversation.

Janet Singer on December 23, 2012:

Yes — not only are these things not black and white, but nothing ever is. I also would like to see more effort made to de-personalize the matter. I don't think it's about Deacon per se, except to the extent that his ungraciousness to the other authors escalated matters. It was his misfortune that he made himself the test case for calling such behavior out.

If he had included the standard scholarly "No such sweeping effort can be the work of one person. If I have failed to give credit to others who I have unwittingly drawn from, I apologize ..." there would be no issue. If he had responded better when the possibility of oversight was brought to his attention, there would be no issue.

But he actually made affirmative claims of originality in a field outside his area of expertise where there was already established material. He, in effect, asserts intellectual property rights in what has been a multidisciplinary scholarly effort where everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants.

That puts him in the position of a claim jumper on a commons shared by all who abide by the community norms of scholarly humility and mutual respect. The fact that others engage in the behavior as well does not mean that it can be tolerated without the commons being destroyed. Those who trouble to take on defectors do so at a personal cost in resources for the good of the total resources of the cooperators as a group. (You may be familiar with this dynamic, validated in evolutionary game theory.)

I agree that there needs to be a broader debate about intellectual property in general as well as a debate about scholarship. I don't see this as a slippery slope, but as a conversation that is overdue.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 23, 2012:

Janet, I agree, and am not trying to defend Deacon, beyond making the suggestion that these things are never as black and white as they may seem or are made out to be. I stand by everything I said in the review and my comments. But any kind of activity that tends to engender zealous witch hunts is a slippery slope in my book. Moreover, as far as I'm concerned the whole Western concept of "intellectual property" is pretty darn slippery (this coming from the offspring of a successful patent attorney). It calls for great care.

Janet Singer on December 23, 2012:

Joyus, I doubt Michael would disagree that Deacon's case is likely one among many. He did not start out with anything personal against Deacon (though once he was threatened, as I understand, that may have changed). Michael had suggested that the issue be laid to rest in a scholarly manner by bringing the participants together to discuss their work and advance the field for the benefit of all.

Does the fact that "everybody's doing it" mean a single case should not be investigated so that the habits and privileges a powerful group has become accustomed to can be preserved? "Slippery slope" connotes a dynamic that you don't want to initiate for fear it will end up doing more harm than good.

Access to the internet has changed the landscape of scholarship by 1) making it easer to identify plagiarism; 2) making failure to competently review the literature and cite others’ relevant work inexcusable; 3) making reputation the coin of the land by airing publicly what in the past might have been swept under the rug; and 4) challenging the value propositions, and therefore the very existence, of academic institutions.

Universities need to decide if they want to get out in front of the changes and hold their academic elites to the same standards of scholarship as the students if they want to retain any credibility.

As W.E. Deming repeatedly warned: Change is mandatory; survival is optional.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 23, 2012:

Michael, thanks for your comments and the plug. To be perfectly honest however, I have to admit that to some extent I share LikesToRead's misgivings. While I stand by my assertion that Deacon failed to give credit where credit is due (a lapse of scholarship at the very least), in his defense it should be noted that this sort of thing is quite common in academia. I might even venture to say that it is more the rule than the exception. So I can see how he would feel he has done nothing wrong, to the extent that our perception of right and wrong is determined by cultural norms. Sadly, in academia, as everywhere else in our culture, responsibility for actions is disproportionately shouldered by those who lack prestige and power. As a result we don't let our students get away with poor scholarship, but turn a blind eye when it happens with a celebrated scholar. I guess my point is that it seems a little unfair to single out Deacon. He is but the tip of an iceberg, upon which you will find a very slippery slope.

Michael Lissack on December 20, 2012:

the link to James' and Don's book is

Michael Lissack on December 20, 2012:


If Deacon had EVER indicated a willingness to engage in constructive debate then none of the "methods" you object to would have occurred. But, Deacon holds himself out as "above" needing to engage in this discussion and thus the "methods" become the only venue.

And please please note Deacon's plagiarisms are numerous. See the new forensic investigatory tool we posted at

It seems that roughly 50% of the books chapters are "missing" important citations which would give the book the requisite status as "scholarly" (IMHO still incoherent but at least with attributions scholarly). The charge is plagiarism by negligence -- the use of the ideas of others as if they were your own. Deacon was clearly exposed to these ideas but he then self appropriated them. The clearest evidence of this by me is Mark Graves book -- prepared with Deacon's guidance -- which does make the appropriate attributions and which Deacon then completely ignored.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 06, 2012:

Thanks for your comments Janet. Deacon does cite Peirce in Incomplete Nature, but not Rosen. To my knowledge Rosen did not cite Peirce. Don Mikulecky and I discuss both, and note the similarity of their ideas, in our new book just published by Emergent Publications.

Janet Singer on December 06, 2012:

Pardon the typos -- hazard of writing from phone

Janet Singer on December 06, 2012:

LikestoRead, Can you clarify just what Deacon *is* claiming is original in his work? When I heard him speak at the American Society for Cybernetics conference this summer, he not only did not mention Robert Rosen as a precursor, he did not mention that his work was based on Charles Sanders Peirce. At the end of the talk, I suggested to he would find it fruitful to look into those two bodies of work , and that, from my own experience, the disappointment that others had covered the same ground before would be replaced by appreciation of the opportunities to elaborate, refine, and popularize. He did not respond that he knew of their work, but that his approach was more scientific - to which I replied that Peirce, was a working scientist and great logician, and Rosen, a mathematical biologist. It wasn't until later that I learned he was aware of their work it certainly wasn't clear from his manner of presentation.

Why does he not make an effort to "socialize" his work within the community of ideas? It is a never-ending process in systems research, which has occurred as a subfield in so many areas one will continually be finding that others have come to the same or similar conclusions before, possibly using different terminology. The obligation of good scholarship is to acknowledge, integrate, and differentiate to move the knowledge frontier forward together. Someone wise (K. Bounding? G. Weinberg?) said that to do good systems research, one needs to be prepared to repeatedly feel like a fool as one comes up against the limits of one's own background knowledge. The question is how one responds when made aware of those limitations and opportunities to co-operate with the rest of the scholarly community.

(I am VP for Research and Publications of the International Society for the Systems Science.)

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 06, 2012:

Hi Sparkster, good to see you back. I would guess that at present there are no conscious machines. I don't know if it is possible to engineer a machine capable of experiencing consciousness, and I don't think anyone does. Thinking about it makes for some great sci-fi (e.g. Bladerunner, or AI). It would seem however that if Deacon is right we ought to be able to use his ideas to develop a conscious machine!

Marc Hubs from United Kingdom on December 06, 2012:

It looks like I'm 10 months too late for this comment but machines don't experience consciousness... or can they??

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on December 06, 2012:

LikesToRead, thanks for weighing in. It's interesting that we have such divergent opinions on the matter. To clarify mine, I never claimed (and I don't know that anyone else has) that Deacon consciously misappropriated Juarrero's ideas. What I'm saying is that he really should have known better, and I expect at some level he did. And as I noted it's not just Juarrero that he failed to acknowledge. I agree that the notion "that Deacon encountered Juarrero’s work, decided to appropriate it, only thereafter realized multiple fatal flaws that he disagreed with, and constructed his own theory from the scraps of his critique of her work, all the while deciding not to cite her" strains credibility. I don't think anyone is claiming that that is what happened. I certainly am not. As I've said from the beginning, the situation reminds me of what happens all the time in academia--you describe an idea to a senior colleague (or mentor), who shoots it down, only to later tell you of this great idea that he came up with, which sounds suspiciously like your own. As you no doubt know, much if not most of what we do is unconscious, and much of what we say about what we do is post facto rationalization.

As for your contenton that Deacon provided a mechanism while Juarrero was merely phenomenological, I guess I need to re-read Incomplete Nature, as I don't see it. It is phenomenology dressed up with mechanistic pretensions. I really got the sense when reading it that Deacon is yet another reductionist who pretends not to be.

LikesToRead on December 05, 2012:

Joyus, thanks for following up with an update as promised.

I've also followed the issue as it's played out over the past few months, and I've actually come to an almost perfectly orthogonal conclusion to your own. The more I review the two works, the more the glaring differences stand out to me - and the more spurious and self-important the accusations seem.

First, I should mention how strongly I’ve been turned off by the methods employed by Lissack & co. Blast-emailing hundreds of Deacon’s colleagues, ignoring confidentiality agreements, and generally making a controversy out of who-yells-loudest strike me as tremendously unprofessional, and has left a sour taste in my mouth. Most of the blood in the water, at this point, looks to be chum. This has no bearing on the validity of the accusations themselves, but I should admit their methods have me cringing for the future of academic dialogue.

That being said, the first question is whether Juarrero deserves credit for her critique of materialism – i.e. whether Deacon stole her unique bibliography. From my look at her spreadsheet and other materials on the Lissack site, it seems pretty clear to me that she’s overreaching. Does everyone who cites Kant in the context of complex systems need to also cite Juarrero’s citation? Does everyone who addresses Kim’s critique need to cite Juarrero’s discussion? Almost all of the “parallels” fell into this category for me: we’re talking about major players in the intellectual history, and their appearance in both works doesn’t really send up any red flags to me. Both authors also discuss many thinkers that the other does not. Broadly speaking, I’d say I agree with the “public domain” argument you outline. I was aware of many such critiques before I’d heard of either Deacon or Juarrero, and if I wrote a book tomorrow critiquing reductionism, I wouldn’t feel obliged to cite either of them. Then again, I might spark “the LikesToRead Affair” and get my own website.

The conference link – meh. It’s been on Lissack’s website for a while now, and honestly feels circumstantial. I’ve witnessed professors reading their email, carrying on full conversations with neighbors, and playing iPhone games during academic talks before. And if you asked me whether I am “aware of the work” (or even the name) of everyone who has talked at every conference I’ve attended… sorry, but it wouldn’t even be close. I’m sure I’d bruise some egos with that admission, but I trust I’m not alone.

As far as their actual claims, outside of their critique – this is where I find Juarrero to be reaching the furthest. Correct me if I’m wrong, but neither Deacon nor Juarrero were the first to discuss emergence in terms of constraint. To me, Deacon isn’t claiming strong originality for that, or for the critique of reductionism. He’s claiming originality for his hierarchy of dynamics – the mechanism by which emergence happens without magical top-down causality. Darwin never laid claim to transmutation of species – he showed how it might work in a way that others before him hadn’t been able to (and without resorting to Lamarckian ‘magic.’) To me, Juarrero is describing transmutation without a mechanism (a kind of phenomenology of emergence) – and pointing to “higher level constraints” isn’t a mechanism to me, and it definitely isn’t the same as what Deacon outlines. At the end of the day, her approach doesn’t work for me, and it definitely doesn’t look like Deacon’s. If that makes me a Deacon “fan,” fine.

I think what strains credibility is the notion that Deacon encountered Juarrero’s work, decided to appropriate it, only thereafter realized multiple fatal flaws that he disagreed with, and constructed his own theory from the scraps of his critique of her work, all the while deciding not to cite her. As I mentioned over on Asher’s blog, including her would have strengthened Deacon’s position – she could serve as an Archimedian point to leverage his unique position (i.e. against complex systems approaches, against top-down causality, both of which she embodies quite well). The idea that Deacon was scheming to appropriate an author he clearly disagrees with doesn’t pass my internal parsimony test. It starts to feel too much like a conspiracy.

If you asked Juarrero why she didn’t raise her complaints earlier – Deacon has been publishing on emergence for years now – she would probably say she hadn’t read his papers. It’s not hard for me to imagine that Deacon was also unaware of her work, conference notwithstanding. He wouldn’t have been the only one.

Janet Singer on December 03, 2012:

I have not yet read either Deacon's or Juarrero's book. My comment is on Deacon's point in his response to your review, above:

"Perhaps some of the differences in focus can be traced to the difference between a scientific and a philosophical approach, and even our difference in philosophical commitments are likely relevant — hers with Kant, mine with Peirce."

Peirce was very open about the influence of Kant on his work, and if one includes those who were directly influenced by Peirce (like James, Dewey, etc.), just about every great thinker of the systems project was motivated by the work of Kant and/or Peirce: Bertalanffy, Whitehead, Miller, E.A. Singer, Churchman, Ackoff, Wiener, Rosen, etc., etc.

This cohort shared more than a systems-oriented and evolutionist Zeitgeist -- to some extent the entire systems project has been and continues to be an elaboration of the Kant/Peirce insights.

If Deacon is providing further elaboration and popularization of this common core, that is a welcome contribution.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on November 29, 2012:

I have added a postscript to the hub giving my take on the controversy that this book has generated.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on October 08, 2012:

Beyond that, I am quite happy calling the final results of a spreadsheet 'emergent', and with attributing life and mind to "feedback and decision gates...nothing more" (except perhaps random chance!).

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on October 08, 2012:

I hate to be a stickler, but I am one of those with "the idea that there is something special here that can't be reproduced in a machine". If you substitute the word 'simulated' for 'reproduced', I would agree with you. But I am quite confident that no machine will ever reproduce life. Only the other way around works. But to see that you need to read and understand Rosen. He shows, quite rigorously and without recourse to mysticism or superstitious mumbo jumbo, that life (in contrast to biology, which is the scientific model for life) is more generic than physics (the scientific model for mechanistic causation).

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on October 08, 2012:

The use of words is indeed tricky. Now, how many of those who THINK you were in disagreement with me will like that new explanation?

You see, that's the problem I have: you start throwing around words like "emergent" and "qualia" and some people get the idea that there is something special here that can't be reproduced in a machine.

If human mind is emergent, so are the final results of a spreadsheet. It's only a matter of degree. Feedback and decision gates.. nothing more.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on October 08, 2012:

That is pretty much all I am trying to say PC. So I guess we are in agreement after all! I always thought our argument was more semantic than anything else. The use of words is tricky, and I'm still learning how to do it effectively. Thanks for the clarifying comment.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on October 08, 2012:

I recently had a similar conversation with someone else. He said

"Just relax and we can discuss it in a useful way. Mind is emergent from neurology in the same sense that biological phenomena like your heartbeat is emergent from biochemistry. The heart is made of living cells that metabolize, but it would be absurd to try to use the ontological framework of biochemistry to explain a higher level phenomenon like a heart attack. Same thing with the mind: trying to describe something cognitive like playing a violin in terms of individual electrons coursing through the brain would be pointless. This is in no way contradictory to a functionalist account of mind; it just means that cognition calls for its own scientific terms, relations and theories."

And that's fine - I have no issue with that. If THAT's all you mean, then we're in agreement. Otherwise, I still insist you are tragically wrong.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on June 08, 2012:

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on June 05, 2012:

Thanks Michael. 'Causal' is a loaded term if ever there was one. You have given me the next word-topic to muse about in my blog (, which will dovetail nicely with my 'Thoughts on randomness'!

Michael Lissack on June 04, 2012:

One last thought for tonight: reciprocally linked complex systems etc is a description of the relationship between attention and affordances well described by Gibson and the environmental psychologists. Affordances only matter (and exhibit "causal tendencies") to the extent to which they are attended to, and attention is itself a vey complex system involving history, memory, state, and environment. If we are going to give "credit" for this insight it goes to JJ Gibson -- not Deacon (but since Deacon has issues with reading original sources after he has written .....)

Michael Lissack on June 04, 2012:

sorry pdf is at

Michael Lissack on June 04, 2012:

Joyus and Likes to Read

If I may I would suggest looking at the pdf at

which summarizes work done roughly one month ago at IFSR.

To use the terminology from within that presentation it seems that both Juarrero and Deacon are illuminating what goes on in "Science II". Juarrero is more focused on the complex arena within Science II and Deacon seems to be more focused on the qualities which exist at the crossover boundary between Science I and Science II. The "mistake" which I find Deacon makes is to attribute causality as being part of Science II. Causality (the formulation of which allows reliable prediction) is a Science I concept without parallel in Science II. In Science II we only have explanation and understanding which do not allow for reliable prediction but instead allow for an observer/participant to be more "attuned" to the affordances which may be available. The "causal" powers which Deacon attributes to 'absences' only have such "power" with respect to an available affordance and NOT in any general sense. Thus the absence and the affordances to which it relates are themselves all part of a complex system within which explanation does a great job of masquerading as cause.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on June 04, 2012:


"I think it's a really, really important insight without precedent."

I agree that it's important, but I disagree that is without precedent. But to be fair I need to revisit both books (and some others) and give this issue a bit more thought. I will then update the hub with a sidebar that compares and contrasts the two books. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

LikesToRead on June 03, 2012:


"I don't know that anyone else has said just that, and I am happy to grant that that such reciprocity is an important insight contributed by Deacon. His advance then is to shine a bit more light on how higher level constraints (might possibly) emerge."

Here, whether you consider teleodynamics a significant advance depends on whether you see it as distinct in type from a dynamic system or not (a true "emergence"). If so, it means that dynamic systems are not semiotic, not living, not about anything (which I sense is true for Benard cells, BZ reactions, snowflakes, whirlpools, etc). If not, and it's just a special, slightly-more-complicated case of a complex system, you leave me wondering why living systems exhibit all sorts of behavior that isn't happening in those examples. Meaning: you grant it's an "important insight," and I think it's a really, really important insight without precedent. And part of my problem with this whole appropriation business is that I think it's blurring an important distinction between he and Juarrero. Basically, drama aside, I don't want to see his idea mistaken with systems dynamics, because I think it's distinct-in-type.

"What I find artificial is your distinction between 'complex systems alone' and 'reciprocally linked complex systems'. I don't think anyone who thinks deeply about these things would say that 'complex systems alone' refers to anything that exists in the actual world."

Okay, I can phrase it differently: dynamics that seem to violate thermodynamics-as-normal, but don't seem to be living, or referential, or functional, etc. Examples above. Ignoring whether "complex systems" is a real-world category, I simply want to preserve the distinction between a whirlpool and a bacterium.

"You (and Deacon) are right to say that intentional and/or teleo-behavior cannot be reduced to such models. But I don't think Juarrero is saying that it can."

Hmm. Not sure I agree with your reading of her on that. She definitely attributes representation to such models, and if she doesn't offer something like teleodynamics, I don't see how teleo-stuffs could be anything but an attribute of a complex system (even if it is in the constraints). I'll need to do some re-reading, which seems to be par for the course with both books.

"What she is saying, and what Deacon also said without acknowledging that she said it, is that organizational/contextual constraints on dynamics (absences of potential), however they come to be embodied, are causal, and offer a better route to explaining intentionality/teleology than does reductionism."

Agreed on the common ground there: they share the constraint insight. But she sticks with the constraints within a complex systems approach, and Deacon doesn't think the kinds of work done at that level are life-like or representational. And once more, we're back to the question of whether it's a difference in type. I also think the mereology side of things (raised above by Asher) a pretty serious difference, and one important from a scientific perspective - top-down causality doesn't sit well with me.

Regarding attribution, with the prosecution having presented its case, I remain unconvinced of wrongdoing, or even "sloppy scholarship." I think parallels exist that should be fleshed out, in exactly this kind of debate. Differences too. I'll leave it at that.

Michael Lissack on June 01, 2012:

"organizational/contextual constraints on dynamics (absences of potential), however they come to be embodied, are causal" it is the causal which is Juarrero's insight. Morin made note that the very existence of a complex system's coherence as having an identity (within boundaries and constrained as such) MEANT BY DEFINITION that both something new emerged (the complex entity) AND something less resulted (in that the degrees of freedom of potential available to components was constrained so long as there was an assertion of ontic status by the complex assemblage as a system. The distinction for Morin was that an assemblage which did not possess complexity (and thus was in Simon's terms decomposable rather than semi-decomposable) lacked the "causal" power to constrain the components.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on June 01, 2012:


"I suppose what I would want to see is the idea of reciprocally linked complex systems generating causal tendencies without precedent within complex systems alone."

I don't know that anyone else has said just that, and I am happy to grant that that such reciprocity is an important insight contributed by Deacon. His advance then is to shine a bit more light on how higher level constraints (might possibly) emerge. And as I have said, the conception of an autogen that embodies such teleodynamics by coupling autocatalysis to self-assembly is an original idea.

What I find artificial is your distinction between 'complex systems alone' and 'reciprocally linked complex systems'. I don't think anyone who thinks deeply about these things would say that 'complex systems alone' refers to anything that exists in the actual world. So I am guessing that what you intend by that term is the large class of models developed in the dynamic systems discourse, which account for what Deacon refers to as 'morphodynamics'. You (and Deacon) are right to say that intentional and/or teleo-behavior cannot be reduced to such models. But I don't think Juarrero is saying that it can. Rather, what she is saying, and what Deacon also said without acknowledging that she said it, is that organizational/contextual constraints on dynamics (absences of potential), however they come to be embodied, are causal, and offer a better route to explaining intentionality/teleology than does reductionism. In this light 'teleodynamics' is more of a small step than a giant leap in how we conceive of complex systems. And it still doesn't traverse the epistemic cut or solve the problem of mind.

LikesToRead on May 31, 2012:


"'Teleodynamics'... has, in essence, been said before--just not in so many words, or labeled as such."

I would need to be shown this, I think. I definitely haven't gotten it out of my reading of Juarrero - but perhaps I should be shown a passage to re-read, and you also mention folks I haven't read yet. I suppose what I would want to see is the idea of reciprocally linked complex systems generating causal tendencies without precedent within complex systems alone. Deacon links this to the emergence of semiosis, aboutness, function, and so on - qualities I strongly agree do not exist within complex systems (and which Juarrero explicitly attributes to them). Again, I would need to be convinced that a complex system is referential, functional, or (somehow, at least in some cases) exhibiting life-like properties. Until I've found this idea in another author - couched in whatever language they prefer, which I'm happy to navigate - I'm afraid I'll remain unconvinced of its unoriginality.


I appreciate the political and economic focus of your comment - it's easy to forget (or to repress) that our science is lived practice and ethically implicated, necessarily. My hesitation with your claim: no matter how anti-reductionist our science may someday become, it can nevertheless find a home within the systems of injustice you describe - particularly if it turns out to be "right," or at least practically implementable. An antireductionist emergentism can make money - too much money - just as easily as the philosophical status quo, in molecular biology or elsewhere. Just my own impression.

don mikulecky on May 30, 2012:

LikesToRead: The place where a myriad of practicing biologists is at marks only the success of the old paradigm. That success now is grounded in making money. It gives their position no credibility. They plug away "counting telephone poles" as Hutchins parodied it over 70 years ago. Rosen's work was influenced greatly by Hutchins ( ) and the stuff we are discussing as if new now was well understood by him at least in principal. Molecular biology is a philosophical dead end. It will continue to make drug companies richer and to further corrupt graduate education with its lure of big money through patents, but if this is science I think science is then corrupt as well. It is encouraging to0 me at 76 to see some sign of recognition of the limits the old paradigm set on us. I have struggled all my life to teach about this but the system prevents those students from ever practicing what they learn.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 30, 2012:

LikesToRead--I agree with your last statement. But beyond inventing some new words to describe what we don't yet understand, I'm not convinced that Deacon has really gotten beyond where we already were. As I said in the review his contribution is important because it says important (and highly underappreciated) things in new ways (always valuable, to the extent that it widens the scope of communication), and also because it does develop some original ideas (e.g. autogenesis). I just don't think 'teleodynamics' is one of them, because it has, in essence, been said before--just not in so many words, or labeled as such.

LikesToRead on May 30, 2012:

Yikes - leave a thread for a day or two and it branches out beautifully. :) Let's see what I can get to.


"Well, the tide may be turning, but from where I sit as a working biologist I don't see a sea change. Biology is still very much mired in reductionism, and even most so-called 'systems biologists' are essentially reductionists."

Okay, agreed - most working biologists, even if they operate within a "systems" approach, are still fully reductionist. That being said, a lot of "systems" biology is drawing its "systems" approach from cybernetics and systems theory, not from work in whatever-the-hell-we're-calling-this-now (emergence? complexity? complex systems? etc). Tons of fields influenced by the cybernetic approach (ecology, computer science, etc) had no interest in "emergence," they just wanted to describe interrelating parts of a complicated, multipart system. And please correct me if I'm wrong on my understanding of "systems biology" (seriously - I don't do it).

"I don't think it's at all fair to characterize Juarrero's critique as being completely generic or derivative."

I have no intention of characterizing her that way. I simply meant that I had heard many of the supposed "parallels" between their works before, in non-Deacon/Juarrero works.

"I adopt Robert Rosen's definition of 'complexity' as meaning that no real system can possibly be fully represented in a single largest model. In other words, life itself is complex, whereas our formal models are not. The best any model (e.g. 'morphodynamics', or 'teleodynamics') can ever do is represent some definitive aspect of life itself, to the exclusion of others. I think Deacon begins to approach this fundamentally important insight in his thesis, but unlike Rosen, doesn't quite get there."

Okay, I don't know Rosen and you've added another (and another and another - thanks) book to my reading list. But from your short description, I'm immediately wary. I get it - the map is not the territory. The model is not the thing modeled. Wind it back to whatever phenomenological or epistemological position you want. We're not capturing everything, okay. But models are better or worse (not perfect, never the territory), and surrendering to the difficulties posed by life/mind, using complex systems theory, seems like settling for worse. Even if there is a ceiling to our possible understanding of these properties, I don't think we've reached it. And what I see as unique in Deacon (and in teleodynamics) is a push in that direction that hasn't been made before, and that is worth taking very seriously. It's what makes me more interested in him than in Juarrero.

Long story short, if there's a towel to be thrown in, I'm not convinced that complex systems theory is it.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 29, 2012:

Here is a pertinent commentary from my colleague Don Mikulecky:

"Network Causality:

I am writing this as a response to recent discussions centering on work by Deacon, Juarrero, and others. We seem to be at a point in history where the Faustian idea quoted by one of the “fathers” of network thermodynamics, George Oster, has come into play. The line is “When concepts fail, words arise." This quote may be a self referential example of what I am trying to express with inadequate language.

When Robert Rosen died I went to his Daughter’s home after the short memorial service. I was given copies of his unfinished work. This was 1998 less than ten years after my book on Network Thermodynamics was published. One piece that was especially exciting was apparently a beginning of a next phase of his work. It had to do with networks of causality. It was merely a sketch with little detail. It seems appropriate now to reflect on why that might be a logical next step. I mention Oster and my own work in Network Thermodynamics because it is, in my mind, a missing puzzle piece.

Before I explain that, let me say that what makes me uncomfortable about the whole Deacon controversy is that it is getting us off track. Rather than a problem in who had what ideas first and who should have cited whom, the work needs to be seen in context. That context is complex in its own right. The self referential aspects of this discussion are an example of our problem (and a key to its resolution). To put bluntly, the creation of new words to try to categorize levels of abstraction and their proposed emergent properties is at best, a new form of reductionism. That is both good and bad for our minds work that way. The problem lies in the human trait to become the parent of ideas and then defend your children with passion.

Among the many things Robert Rosen made clear after he tackled these same problems over fifty years ago is that the result of the last wave of reductionist efforts has helped us but then became a prison for our thought. The crux of that prison was the notion that there could be a largest model and that anything falling outside the scope of that model was “unscientific”. If we have not learned anything else from this we need to understand the way Rosen broke free from the prison. He never proposed that his work would replace reductionist thought. He gave the only meaningful definition of a complex system that I know to this day. It stated that there could be no largest model and that if we could interact with a system in an infinite number of ways then we needed an infinite number of models none of which could be derived from the others.

It seems that the hidden agenda in the present attempt to go beyond reductionism is to find a new largest model. This is an understandable unintended consequence of the way we have been thinking for hundreds of years. It is there in philosophy as it is in science.

The recent works are laudable in their attempts to lay down some concepts about how things can happen in processes as complex as the mind or evolution. This might excuse an apparent lack of humility. However the problem is much deeper and the surface has merely been scratched. One reason I can say this with conviction is that there is a lot missing in Deacon’s approach as there is in the others. The result is that Deacon becomes on of the ten (or more) blind men describing the elephant.

Now to jump to the point. Oster and Perelson have two very important papers in the Archives of Rational Mechanics. They formalize their work on Network Thermodynamics with Katchalsky (who was, in my mind, a genius). Peusner (another genius) wrote books and papers on Network Thermodynamics that have revolutionary things in them. My own book on Network Thermodynamics is replete with computer models of sophisticated network models with applications ranging from molecular models to ecosystems and important contributions to cancer chemotherapy. I would love to rant about these findings for they are very relevant to the discussion in ways that almost no one has noticed. Maybe I need to do that, but somewhere else. I want to extract but a few of the things we learned (but few others did) from that large body of (neglected) work. The irony is that we were in the heart of the beast and did things that even the reductionists had to ignore to keep their hold on the “largest model.” Network thermodynamics grew out of physical systems theory and is basically the way thermodynamic (mainly relational) reasoning can be married with hard core reductionist ideas to produce something more than the mere sum of those parts.

What was done was the use of the two ideas underlying electrical network theory, namely constitutive relations characterizing real physical components like resistors, capacitors, transistors, etc. with the topology of the networks in which they were connected. How dull; you may think. No because what we learned was very exciting. The key was the concept of “multiports” which represented coupled processes. These are the crux of how negative entropy, or organization gets produced in the real world. Every multiport was a description of interacting physical processes such as diffusion and volume flow in a membrane, for example. Coupling to chemical reaction made “active transport” transparent. Tissues like sodium transporting epithelia became easily modeled. These were examples of emergence in the most clearly reductionist setting one could have. The causal aspects were not looked at with the care they should have been for causal reasoning was relatively unknown to us at the time. What is clear now about all these models is the fact that they were not capable of being reduced to direct causal representations. Already the whole, causally, was far more than the sum of its parts.

Now to get to the point. What Deacon and the others are doing is inventing language ignoring these aspects of reductionist thought and throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I am in no way implying that models of mind and evolution can be built with these concepts. I am saying that what they seem to attribute to systems at higher levels of abstraction and give names to have some very interesting counterparts in the reductionist world.

Now to what Rosen accomplished over fifty years ago. By creating a new kind of causal network he was able to formalize the concept of organism in a special kind of model using category theory. His abstract block diagrams were the escape from the reductionist prison for they allowed the use of function rather than physical objects to be the things modeled. In so doing he provided a very clean conceptual framework using representations that had their origins in the way we modeled physical networks.. The fact that our physical networks were able to exist at levels spanning molecular machines to ecosystems and had demonstrated emergent properties at all those levels in physical systems can not be swept aside. We were able to do this because we learned how to include topological relational aspects of the system along with nard core physical properties. Rosen left the physical properties out and made a leap forward. These ideas are very relevant and missing in the present discussion. It therefore is bogging down in apparent new ideas with lots of new words to characterize them. Things like this progress slowly and will come only from a multifaceted view of complex reality. Deacon will not give us a new largest model nor will Rosen nor will Network Thermodynamics, nor will anything else!"

Asher Kay on May 29, 2012:

I think I do understand your point. You're saying that the differences I'm pointing out are not important to you (or don't seem meaningful to you) in terms of what you're evaluating. I'm trying to argue that the differences are meaningful and important (i.e. "essentially" different).

I can accept, though, that my argument was ineffective as far as you're concerned. Perhaps another reader will see what I said and think, "yeah, that makes sense".

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 29, 2012:

Asher, you seem to be missing the point. The problem is that Juarrero fully articulated "an emergence conception framed in terms of constraint on dynamics". No she did not engage with Kim's argument in the same way that Deacon did. Yes she had a somewhat different agenda, and perhaps a different intended audience. But so what? The central idea that she articulates--that constraints that come to be via organization are causative--is essentially the same. What is constraint if not absence?

You (and I would say Deacon as well) seem to be hung up on semantics. Normally I would say that that is all well and good (I happen to think that semantic arguments are important), but in this case I think it is nitpicking, to the point of missing the point.

And yes, the reductionist vs. anti-reductionist issue is important to me. I think Deacon strives mightily to accommodate life to reductionism. That is a sisyphean undertaking if ever there was one.

Asher Kay on May 28, 2012:

I should have added that I think the differences in their conceptions of constraint are different in ways that are really difficult to summarize pithily in a blog comment. But the heart of it may be that an "absence" conception of constraint is meant to address Kim's critique without being anti-reductionist, whereas Juarrero's conception of constraint is specifically anti-reductionist. Here's a quote from IN that points to what I mean:

"Shifting to an emergence conception framed in terms of constraint on dynamics, however, undermines both of these criteria [mereological and supervenient conception of causation] and thus escapes this critique; and yet it does not lead to anti-reductionism in the traditional sense. All the material and energetic features of a given system are subject to mereological analysis without residue. There is nothing left out. Or rather, 'what is not exemplified' is exactly what is left out in reductionistic analyses. What is not there or not exemplified is not anything that is reducible, because there are no components to what is absent."

If the reductionist vs. anti-reductionist issue is important to you, then I think these differences between Deacon and Juarrero should seem important.

Asher Kay on May 28, 2012:

Joyus - Here's a quote from Juarrero:

"...complex adaptive systems exhibit true self-cause: parts interact to produce novel, emergent wholes; in turn, these distributed wholes as wholes regulate and constrain the parts that make them up."

That is very clear mereological language -- and she uses it throughout DiA.

And yes, Juarrero cites Kim. But I didn't say that she didn't cite him -- I said that she doesn't engage with the argument from Kim that Deacon sees as important. Would you say that she does?

I also wasn't saying that Juarrero embraces substance metaphysics (she clearly criticizes "substances over properties"). What I was saying was that Deacon and Juarrero are arguing from different places. Deacon is undermining from a lower point (the whole idea that there are particles without organization), where Juarrero is focused on legitimizing self-cause.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 28, 2012:

Asher I disagree. I would not characterize Juarrero's approach as 'mereological'. In fact she cites Kim multiple times. The bottom line is that Juarrero's conception of 'constraint'--which she regards as key to mental causation--is essentially the same as Deacon's. So her framework cannot be accurately characterized as "substance metaphysics" by any stretch.

I would add that from my perspective Deacon's critique of 'top-down' causation is a bit of a straw man. There are different ways 'top-down' can be conceived, not all of which imply mereology. One way is as organizational 'constraint' broadly conceived. Maybe I missed something, but I don't see how this differs from 'absential' causation.

Asher Kay on May 28, 2012:

LikesToRead - I think you're hitting on one of the major differences. Deacon rejects the kind of top-down causality Juarrero is talking about. If you look at Juarrero's argument, she speaks in terms of parts and wholes, and wholes having causal relationships to parts, while Deacon criticizes the entire mereological approach. Juarrero is not directly concerned about Jaegwon Kim's critique of emergence, while Deacon finds it "devastating" for the conception that Juarrero appears to embrace. So in that sense, Deacon would reject Juarrero's view of emergence and her view of the way causality works in complex systems. Juarrero argues from the idea of "self-cause" (which only works in a mereological framework), whereas Deacon attacks the whole basis of "substance metaphysics" (after Bickhard) and focuses on the causal nature of absence.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 28, 2012:

"I honestly sense more of a sea change underway than a complete hegemony of the reductionist paradigm... and that's excluding Juarrero, who I had never heard of prior to this affair."

Well, the tide may be turning, but from where I sit as a working biologist I don't see a sea change. Biology is still very much mired in reductionism, and even most so-called 'systems biologists' are essentially reductionists.

"Many of Deacon's critiques - particularly of eliminative materialism - struck me as an excellent articulation of a quite widespread discontent, one that came about with dynamic systems theorists. I also might have this sense because I read lots of emergence stuff, and they tend to share these discontents."

Yes, there have been many critics of reductionism (some of whom Deacon did cite), but none of them (that I am aware of) echo Juarrero as strongly as does Deacon, without attribution. I say this as one who is also quite familiar with the literature dealing with dynamic systems and emergence. I don't think it's at all fair to characterize Juarrero's critique as being completely generic or derivative.

"Is the autogen basically just a complex system (i.e. morphodynamic) that Deacon is unique in developing? Or more broadly: is life essentially a complex system?"

Yes and yes. But I don't equate 'complex system' with 'morphodynamic'. I adopt Robert Rosen's definition of 'complexity' as meaning that no real system can possibly be fully represented in a single largest model. In other words, life itself is complex, whereas our formal models are not. The best any model (e.g. 'morphodynamics', or 'teleodynamics') can ever do is represent some definitive aspect of life itself, to the exclusion of others. I think Deacon begins to approach this fundamentally important insight in his thesis, but unlike Rosen, doesn't quite get there.

LikesToRead on May 28, 2012:

"As you say many of those similarities are in the critique of the (still dominant) reductionist paradigm. If that critique was now so common as to be 'generic' I might agree that attribution is not necessary, but that is not the case."

Hm. Maybe it's because I'm younger, but I honestly sense more of a sea change underway than a complete hegemony of the reductionist paradigm... and that's excluding Juarrero, who I had never heard of prior to this affair. Many of Deacon's critiques - particularly of eliminative materialism - struck me as an excellent articulation of a quite widespread discontent, one that came about with dynamic systems theorists. I also might have this sense because I read lots of emergence stuff, and they tend to share these discontents. So perhaps that's why the similarities in the critique haven't been all that suggestive to me.

I still retain my sense that teleodynamics is indeed different than complex systems theory - at least as much as dynamic systems are different from thermodynamics as usual. Teleodynamics rests on self-organizing patterns, but is not 'reducible' to them. Particularly when Juarrero starts claiming self-organizing systems are representational or information-carrying, I get off the boat (I think Deacon's teleodynamics is the point of emergence of these properties, and is not just a weak extension of complex systems).

Joyus, out of curiosity: since Deacon develops autogenesis as a case-study in teleodynamics, and you think it's original, do you think it's nevertheless not particularly different from a complex systems approach (even if no one has articulated it before)? Is the autogen basically just a complex system (i.e. morphodynamic) that Deacon is unique in developing? Or more broadly: is life essentially a complex system?

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 28, 2012:

LikesToRead - thanks for your comments. I agree with you that there are important differences between the books, as Terry himself pointed out in his comment above. For example, his theory of autogenesis (first published in 2006 as a paper in the journal Biological Theory) is original. And, as Terry says, his work extends directly (with attribution) from that of C.S. Peirce, whereas that of Juarrero does not. So yes, there are important differences. The problem is that there are also significant similarities that are not acknowledged. As you say many of those similarities are in the critique of the (still dominant) reductionist paradigm. If that critique was now so common as to be 'generic' I might agree that attribution is not necessary, but that is not the case. Moreover it is an academic scholar's job to know, and to cite, the relevant work of his or her peers, and to point out the similarities and differences.

Beyond the critique however is the fact that Deacon's central thesis--that 'constraints' (absences) are causal and that acknowledging this affords a route toward developing a naturalistic explanation of mind--is itself essentially the same as that of Juarrero. I am not altogether convinced that his approach really does transcend dynamic systems approaches, any more than hers does. Consider that Deacon's 'teleodynamics' is essentially dynamics constrained by the interactions of 'morphodynamic' systems. Juarrero builds a similar case for how mind comes to be via the emergence of successively higher levels of dynamic constraints, without the use of neologisms.

It seems to me the best thing that can come of this controversy is that it will inspire more people to read BOTH books, as well as others dealing with the same subject (including but not limited to Thompson's, and the work of Robert Rosen that I mentioned in the review), and make up their own minds. The sad fact is that very few people are aware of any of these works, and even fewer have carefully read them and seriously considered what bearing they have on the human condition. And sadder still, most hard-core reductionists won't understand or have any use for any of them, as can be seen from some of the comments above. This is truly unfortunate, given the scourge that reductionism has become.

Michael Lissack on May 28, 2012:

The full account (to date) is at

LikestoRead: The argumentation in the first 500 pages of Deacons book follows Juarrero's line of argumentation almost exactly. It is that line of argumentation which appears to have been either "borrowed" or failed to be acknowledged. The simple fact by Deacon's own admissions is that he failed to examine the literature which was written on this topic but not sitting on his desk. If he was writing infotainment then fine but that is NOT how senior academics are supposed to write and publish academic works. Notice the lack of post 2005 references (which makes no sense for a 2011 book). Academic integrity is what is at issue here. No one has argued that Deacon's main ideas came from Juarrero, but rather that his supporting premises all seem to be derived from Juarrero and Thompson.

LikesToRead on May 27, 2012:

Addendum: Joyus, I just realized my critique of critics may have sounded aimed at you; much to the contrary, I was happy to find this post so closely engaged with the book. Particularly since you spend most of it discussing what I think distinguishes Deacon's approach from others, I'm certainly surprised at the weight you've given the accusations. But regardless, my "skimming" comment had some of the published reviews in mind (Thompson, McGinn, Fodor who tells us as much), and not your rather excellent review and discussion.

LikesToRead on May 27, 2012:

So I've spent a few hours looking through the circulating list of supposed parallels, comparing the listed pages in Deacon's and Juarrero's books.

Honestly, the longer I cross-check the pages, the weaker the argument for appropriation becomes, IMHO. Many of the accusations seem completely superficial (e.g. both authors using an example of a child moving); most relate to both authors dealing with a similar intellectual history (e.g. philosophical zombies, critiquing behaviorism and eliminative materialism, Descartes/Aristotle/Kant, Edelman, etc). Once you set these aside, the few remaining parallels are mostly critiques that both Juarrero and Deacon share. And since they're critiquing big-ticket paradigms, it makes sense that the critiques would resemble each other without any ill intent.

What I find sort of bizarre is the accusation that Deacon's basic thesis (his claim, rather than his critiques) is similar to Juarrero's. Juarrero seems to exemplify the "complex systems" approach to mind that Deacon very explicitly rejects before advancing his own claim. Juarrero thinks that mind is self-organizing (Deacon's "morphodynamic"), and Deacon goes to great lengths to show this is not a sufficient account (thus developing his "teleodynamic" system). I've been honestly baffled that so few people are grasping this difference, especially people who should know better (i.e. reviewers). I'm starting to get the sense that people have just skimmed Deacon's book and assumed it was a complex systems argument, or else read something entirely different from it than I did. All the drama aside, claiming that Deacon and Juarrero are making the same argument is just sloppy scholarship. There is nothing in her book that resembles teleodynamics, and Deacon's whole argument (right or wrong) pivots on that idea.

To put it simply, if Deacon had just rehashed Juarrero's ideas, I wouldn't have been all that interested in his book. I've heard the whole complex-systems thing before. What has me excited are the ideas that don't show up in any of the books I've read (e.g. teleodynamics, his theory of abiogenesis and DNA, the outline of a teleodynamic account of mind, etc). And if someone has articulated these ideas prior to him, I haven't found them yet.

Anyway, I'll just echo the suggestion that everyone check out the claims themselves, or (better yet) to read both books, as both Deacon and Juarrero are encouraging us to do.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 26, 2012:

Terry, thank you for the comment. Actually I have read Juarrero's book. If I had not I would not have said what I did, or have allowed the comments from Michael. To me the parallels are striking. I agree with you however that there is a lot of convergence on these ideas of late (as I said in the review). So I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt; as a scholar myself I know how hard it is to keep on top of everything that's been written. Nevertheless, you know as well as I that even if you were not aware of Alicia's work, you should have been, especially given that you attended the same conference where you both presented your work.

But I am happy to admit that I may be off mark, so I will revisit your book, as well as Alicia's, and update this review based on my re-appraisal.

Terrence Deacon on May 26, 2012:

Dear Joyous Crynoid,

Though I generally avoid interacting in blog forums, I feel the need to do so here. You have done an excellent job of reviewing my book. One of the best that I've read so far. Thank you for working so hard to accurately summarize my reasoning and to make the effort to try to understand the motivations behind this approach. And I also appreciate your divulging your own theoretical bias as well. I think that the interesting contrasts and parallels you draw are illuminating, even though they are unlikely to alter our divergent metaphysical commitments.

But I am mostly writing because I wish you had applied same level of careful analysis to the highly charged claims and pseudo-evidence sent to you by Lissack and Juarrero before including it at the end of your review. I wish you had actually read her book and done the comparison for yourself rather than just accepting it a face value. Unfortunately, by following up your careful and detailed review by merely parroting their claims and passing on their suggested URLs without a similarly careful comparison I feel that you have done me and your readers a disservice.

Though I had not read her book prior to finishing my book, I have been reading her work since. She has indeed done excellent work synthesizing Kant, dynamical systems theory, and issues of consciousness. It is now clear that she recognized some of these connections well before me. But it will not take a very detailed reading to notice that our assumptions, arguments, and purposes are ultimately quite different. I don't harbor the illusion that my ideas have never been entertained before by others. Indeed, I suspect that intellectual synchronicity is the rule not the exception, though the stronger claims of identity are easy to refute if one reads the books.

Having done such a careful job explaining exactly how my analysis demonstrates the inadequacy of the dynamical systems approach, you wii easily be able to recognize a critical difference. Juarrero ultimately believes that dynamical systems thinking is sufficient. Her work relies heavily on ideas that are quite opposite from those that are at the heart of my work — Ideas like Wholes being more that the sum of their parts, wholes constraining their parts, top-down causality, and her assumption that autocatalysis (=autopoiesis) exemplifies the basic logic behind life and mind. Thus the morphodynamic / teleodynamic distinction which is so central to my theory is not even recognized in her work. So whereas I argue that we need to go beyond the dynamical systems paradigm if we are to make progress toward understanding the distinctiveness of life and mind, she does not.

There are, of course, a great many other problems that I struggle with that are not discussed in her book, and many philosophical issues that concern her but do not interest me. Perhaps some of the differences in focus can be traced to the difference between a scientific and a philosophical approach, and even our difference in philosophical commitments are likely relevant — hers with Kant, mine with Peirce.

I have no problem admitting that there are a large number of thinkers pursuing similar paths that I have overlooked in my preparations (some of which you also identify). At some point one needs to decide when to stop reading and get something down on paper. The relevant literature is vast when you consider the scope of my book — from emergence theory to thermodynamics to systems theory to origins of life and DNA to work to reformulating information theory to grounding semiotics to speculating about the nature of mind — and I believe that my citations and references reflect a serious effort to do this vast sweep of topics justice. Inevitably I did not read or cite many relevant books and papers that a more encyclopedic work might have. Since the publication of the book I have been been trying to follow up on these many suggestions of parallel theories and competing paradigms, and I am indeed finding this to be a rich field, though sadly more in philosophy than in the sciences. I notice for example that recently many quite notable philosophers of science have struggled with the comparison between Kant's notion of self-organization and the modern dynamical systems view — as does Juarrero — however the majority seem to have also overlooked her work as I have. So I agree that her work deserves better attention than it has received.

Despite this effort to attack my academic integrity, I will treat Juarrero's work with the intellectual respect it deserves. For example, I have recently submitted a paper (already accepted for publication) in which I explore some of the similarities and differences between our theories as well as discussing how both approaches compare with a few others whose work was not discussed in my book (e.g. Thompson). Perhaps this reflects my naïve trust in the old ideal of published intellectual discourse, focused on ideas, pursued in academic venues.

In the mean time I reiterate my request: please take the time do the comparison yourself, and with the same care that you have exhibited in this review of my book. Yes there are similarities, but I am certain that with similar attention to detail your appraisal of the independence and originality of my work will not suffer by such a comparison. And it may even provide an interesting subject for a future blog ;-)

Thank you.

Sincerely, Terry Deacon

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 22, 2012:

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 16, 2012:

Thank you Michael. Strange case indeed.

Michael Lissack on May 16, 2012:

Terry wrote me:


As of yesterday I had resolved never to again reply to your emails. But given your last email I have broken this resolution. Indeed, I very much want to engage in close discussion with these other scholars working along very similar lines. Both our various points of theoretical agreement and disagreement are likely to be illuminative. I am indeed embarrassed that Evan's and Alicia's books were not known to me at the time of writing, but you can be sure that as I become informed by them I will of course both cite them and make appropriate assignments of priority in all future works (including future editions of Incomplete Nature). Parenthetically, I should say that Mark Graves (and you will find others) participated regularly in discussions with me, sat in on my seminar on the topic many years ago, and has used my approach centrally in his (though I have only superficially skimmed his book as of now). I consider him a colleague. That being said, I think that I will find it difficult to have any direct scholarly association with you (and probably Alicia), given what has transpired, but I will at least read Alicia's work and make a good faith effort to give her credit where due. Perhaps the passage of time will change this, perhaps not.

Sincerely, Terry

Michael Lissack on May 16, 2012:

Alicia wrote me:

I need to emphasize that Deacon's theses -- and the arguments he

presents to back up those theses-- track mine practically from

beginning to end (without my emphasis on action theory, and certainly

without his neologisms!). We're not just talking of a few selected

passages here and there that are similar. My central ideas and

argumentation permeate Deacon's book from beginning to end, as the

spreadsheet shows.

Here are the two books' main theses:

1. Newtonian mechanical (efficient) causality cannot account for

end-directedness and goal-directedness (teleology, purposiveness) -- or

agency, intentionality (consciousness, sentience). So attempts to

reduce the latter to the former won't work.

2) Aristotelian formal and final causes used to serve this purpose but

not an option since the Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution -- Kant knew

that, however, and associated teleology with intrinsic

finality/self-organization. Prigogine's discovery of dissipative

structures provide a scientific respectable understanding of teleology

as self-organization. I published this material in 1985.

3) Best to reconceptualize causality in other terms

4) Consider information theory and entropy in Thermodynamics can help --

especially Prigogine/self-organization/far from equilibrium

thermodynamics (complex systems), and self-organization, especially

autocatalysis. Autocatalysis embodies formal cause and constitutes a

proto-self through the implementation of intrinsic constraints. Far from

equilibrium thermodynamics do not violate the first law.

5) Part-whole and whole-part context-sensitive/dependent constraints

(redundancy) can account for mereological causality (bottom up

constraints are enabling, expand degrees of freedom); top-down

second/higher order constraints -- from whole to part -- are

restrictive) -- differences between physical, chemical and biological

constraint production & operation do not obviate the similarities and

both can account for "whole to part causality" -- these in turn embody

formal and final causes without reduction or remainder.

6) The workings of constraint in both cases are changes in

probability/frequency distribution -- this dissolves the Maxwell demon

problem by making the demon an internal. Second law of thermodynamics is

thereby upheld too.

7) 5 and 6 above are best understood as ontogenetic and phylogenetically

constructed dynamical attractors and can be pictured topologically.

Doing so dissolves the semantics/syntax (meaning-grammar) problem --

answers Searle's Chinese room objection.

8) The self, free will, and individuality are best reconceptualized and

understood as the operations of complex dynamical constraints.

9) Dynamical constraint operation is irreducible to matter/energy

considerations. THere is decoupling between levels due to multiple

realizability feature of higher level constraints. Hence emergence is


10) Agency and intentional causation are the exercise of whole-part

dynamical constraints

11) Biological constraints are semiotic; interpretive

Since there is no sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph

identities, in order to make a determination that my main claims and

arguments have been appropriated there is no other way than to read both

books carefully and in their entirety --using the spreadsheet's

identification of specific page references in both books for assistance.

Thank you.

Alicia Juarrero


Michael Lissack on May 16, 2012:

When does too liberal borrowing crossover into unacceptable plagiarism? The strange case of Terry Deacon see

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 03, 2012:

"All of our epistemological models are, in other words, vastly compressed shorthand for what's happening ontologically."

Yes, and my point is that much is necessarily lost in the compression, and we don't really have a way of knowing how deterministic the underlying reality actually is. All we have to go on are logic and our models (upon which all knowledge depends). But there is nothing that says the universe HAS to behave logically. There does appear to be ontological indeterminacy at the quantum level (although there are those who question even that). And at the macro level simple combinometrics indicates that there are bound to be unique events that cannot possibly be predicted. But like you say that is an epistemological issue. Nevertheless we will never be able to account for such events in our models.

"I think it's wiser to look at it from both perspectives rather than having "faith" that it's one way or the other. It's possible that questioning the assumption of strong physical determinism will lead us to change our models of reality for the better, or that one view will lead to more apt models than the other."


"Re Juarrero -- I don't see anywhere in her book where she states that Deacon has knowledge of her work."

Of course she doesn't, her book was published in 1999, 12 years before Deacon's. My point is that the parallels are so striking that it is hard to believe that he was not aware of it. And if indeed he was not, he was still remiss because that is part of what good scholarship is--awareness and acknowledgement of the published work of your peers as it relates to your own.

Asher Kay on May 03, 2012:

Think about the cellular automata as an analogy to the physical universe. "Performing the full computation" is equivalent to "running the universe", which is ontologically impossible because the universe would have to contain another universe (the one that's being run to make the prediction). All of our epistemological models are, in other words, vastly compressed shorthand for what's happening ontologically.

My real point here is that the distinction is important when we have the possibility of a system that has determinism in the strong sense but is not predictable. That's not to say that the distinction always matters or that it matters for any possible discussion.

I do get your point about systems where we are unable to know whether the indeterminacy is epistemological or ontological. In those cases, I think it's wiser to look at it from both perspectives rather than having "faith" that it's one way or the other. It's possible that questioning the assumption of strong physical determinism will lead us to change our models of reality for the better, or that one view will lead to more apt models than the other.

Re Juarrero -- I don't see anywhere in her book where she states that Deacon has knowledge of her work.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 03, 2012:

Asher, yes but.... Your statement "If you do not actually perform the full computations that take the system from one step to the next, you will find it almost impossible to guess where the system will be ten steps in the future based on the current state" is telling, as it implies that if you actually DO perform the full computations then the system behaves predictably. It is simply very sensitive to initial conditions (chaotic, as opposed to complex, there being a difference). So its indeterminacy is as you say epistemological, since the behavior is algorithmically determined--it is computable. However, life itself has aspects that are not computable (as shown for example by the work of Rosen, and more recently A. Louie)--that is, it is complex--and therefore you have no way of knowing whether its indeterminacy is epistemological or ontological. All you have is faith in your assumptions. That in no way undermines science however, as the scientific method can still achieve definitive answers for the aspects of the world that are determinstic. All it does is acknowledge that all knowledge, including that produced by science, has limits.

Regarding Deacon vs. Juarrero, all the evidence you need is right there in Juarrero's book.

Asher Kay on May 02, 2012:

Joyus - Here's an example of the sort of system I was talking about:

The behavior of the system is "random" or "chaotic" in a couple of senses:

1. The system will eventually occupy a large portion of its possible state spaces. Ordered (non-random) systems, by contrast, are constrained to small parts of the possible state space.

2. If you do not actually perform the full computations that take the system from one step to the next, you will find it almost impossible to guess where the system will be ten steps in the future based on the current state.

This is precisely the kind of system where the distinction between "predictable" and "deterministic" matters.

Beyond that, I think it matters a great deal whether randomness (in your sense of being "uncaused") is ontological or epistemological. If it is ontological, it undermines the ability of the scientific method to achieve definitive answers.

As to Juarrero, all I can say is that Deacon directly claims to have been unfamiliar with her work. Since I don't have any direct knowledge (or even reliable evidence) about whether he did, I find it wiser not to accuse him of unconscionable behavior or shoddy scholarship. I have to assume you have more knowledge or evidence on the matter than I do.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on May 02, 2012:

Asher, thanks for the feedback. Regarding (1) I agree that my definition of 'deterministic' is epistemological, but personally I find the epistemology/ontology dichotomy itself to be problematic, as I recently touched on in my blog:

You say "that the present state of a system is the only possible one given its immediately previous states. There are some very simple systems that are deterministic in this sense but which are not predictable in your sense." It seems to me that if the present state of the system is the only possible one given its immediately previous states, then it was entirely predictable from those states. If not then it is not the only possible outcome. If I am missing something here please set me straight.

Regarding (2) while Deacon may not have read Juarrero, he runs in the same academic circles and goes to the same meetings, so he had undoubtedly knew of and/or heard her discuss her work. If he really thinks their arguments are superficially similar yet produce incompatible conclusions he should have said so in his book, and explained how his conclusions depart from hers. To not do so is shoddy scholarship at best. I agree that there is a lot of convergence on the idea that constraints are causal. It's just that the parallels between Incomplete Nature and Dynamics in Action extend well beyond that idea alone.

Asher Kay on May 02, 2012:

Joyus - Great review - you did an amazing job summarizing a long and detailed argument. I have a couple of comments.

1. I think your definition of "deterministic" is problematic, and might be the cause of some of the disagreements in the comments here. You tie the idea of determinism to predictability, which is an epistemological definition, in that it defines determinism based on what can be explained (predicted) about a system. The usual definition of determinism is an ontological one -- simply that the present state of a system is the only possible one given its immediately previous states. There are some very simple systems that are deterministic in this sense but which are not predictable in your sense.

2. Deacon has directly claimed not to have read Juarrero prior to publishing Incomplete Nature. He further claims that the similarities in their arguments are superficial and that their conclusions are incompatible. To me, it's not surprising that multiple people thinking seriously about complex self-organization would independently hit upon the idea of constraints as a key to explaining them.

J_G on April 10, 2012:

By the way PC do you remember when you called Deacon a NONSENSE SPOUTER? Now that IS a personal ridicule, so please don't be hypocrite! Not only that but you just said it without any argument other than your faith on your mechanistic conception. So please, I ask you again for consistency in your ideas and words, don't criticize what you also do.

Oh let me guess... you will answer to Joyus something like:

"My position is correct, everything is physics, there is no magic. Hopefully you will one day understand you are wrong, you are a machine."

Now that I wrote what you algorithms would have written, can you please save us time and don't write it again please???

J_G on April 10, 2012:

Does it matters Pcunix? Remember machines just do what they are programmed so why do you care what a person do to defend a position?

And just keep on saying the same bullshit once and again "You are wrong!" "You are wrong!" "You are wrong!"

Or then giving stupid answers as "emotions are chemical and electrical activity"... that are not useful, not even for a 5 year old kid.

So my car has also emotions because it has chemical and electrical activity?

Your position is worst than an "emotionally invested", is pathetic.

Being part of an anti-religious group is just as pathetic as being part of a religious, is part of being closed and intolerant and of course, of people emotionally invested in their position. You are not open to any dialogue or to change your "mind" a little bit. I'm sure if one of your group member tells you that "science discovered that evolution are programming people to kill themselves with a bomb in a public place" you will surely do it.

But well, what could I expected from a machine? I forgot you are not a freethinker, you are just a bunch of atoms saying what colliding with each other and talking without a real process of thinking.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 10, 2012:

What is being ridiculed is the ridiculous notion that mind is a machine; it's not personal.

If I do eventually learn that I'm wrong it won't be the first time, and I'll be glad to know. But I'm not holding my breath!

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 10, 2012:

Who is resorting to personal ridicule PC?

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 10, 2012:

I have to say that a person who resorts to personal ridicule to defend their position is obviously very emotionally invested in their position.

Keep being amused. You'll eventually learn that you are wrong.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 09, 2012:

Thanks J_G, that's hilarious.

J_G on April 09, 2012:

Thank you Joyus, you got my point LOL! Maybe John Cleese can teach us something about this. Good luck!

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 05, 2012:

J_G was spot on PC--talking to you (on this subject at least) is like talking to a machine. One of us HAS actually thought about this, and it is not the machine. The machine cranks out foolish nonsense with nary a thought.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 05, 2012:

You might actually learn something if you actually thought about this instead if being beguiled by nonsense spouters like Deacon. It's foolishness to assert that awareness is anything but simple feedback.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 05, 2012:

No PC, as a subjective self I do understand what "aware" means, I just assert that science has not explained it. You certainly have not--you have not even come close. Scientists like Deacon at least recognize and are working (and as I said in the hub, making progress) on the problem, which nonetheless may ultimately be scientifically intractable. Science after all depends on logic, modeling and empirical verification, and some truths cannot be logically deduced, modeled, or empirically verified. You need to revisit Goedel and read Rosen. Life itself is incomputable, and while the machine (or computer) metaphor is useful for modeling some of its aspects, to say life is a machine or that mind is a computer is just plain foolishness.

It may be (as I suspect, and as is certainly conceivable) that subjectivity is refractory to objective discourse. I don't expect that that statement will compute for you however, given that you clearly have not moved past behaviorism--an empty idea that lost any credibility decades ago.

Touche though on being arrogant. It takes one to know one. I guess it goes with the territory:)

You really should read Deacon if you have not--he does a thorough job of exposing the flaws in your stance. You might actually learn something!

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 05, 2012:

You don't understand what "aware" is? Come on, you know what it means, you just want to make it mystical. Your feedback loops are conceptually no different than my home thermostat - it responds to external stimuli and so do you. When you "hear yourself" or are aware of yourself, that's exactly the same thing. Nothing magic, no "problem".

I'm arrogant? You could give a masters course :) I DO know what "aware" means and I DO understand why there is no "problem of mind". You don't - not because you can't, but because you refuse to accept that you are just a biological machine. You want to be "special", "emergent", and "qualia" nonsense.

As I said at my article, "consciousness is a measurement of awareness, a mark on the scale. It's arbitrary - you say that everything below this point is not conscious, I slide the mark lower."

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 05, 2012:

If the term 'machine' does not connote 'deterministic' then what use is it as a scientific or philosophical concept? I stand by my assertion that 'machine', or more generally, 'mechanism', implies 'fully determined'. What this means is that given complete knowledge of initial and boundary conditions we can fully predict a machine's behavior. Perhaps you could give your definition and show how it is a more useful concept.

Your second statement about consciousness being nonsense is itself nonsense. "It's just feedback" doesn't explain anything (anything that is interesting in this universe is "just feedback"), and "one part of your brain being aware of another" just restates the problem in different words. In mechanistic terms what does "being aware of another" mean? You can't say because you don't know. But you mask your ignorance with arrogance, deceiving yourself into thinking you have it all figured out.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 05, 2012:

There's the problem then: you insist that a machines must be deterministic. I checked half a dozen on-line dictionaries and found no definition that includes such a restriction.

As to the consciousness nonsense and "problem of mind", it doesn't exist. There is no problem - it's just feedback; one part of your brain being aware of another.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

Progress yes, but at the end of the article that you linked to they acknowledge that the hard problem of consciousness remains:

"The demonstration of which brain mechanisms are involved in the emergence of the conscious state is an important step forward in the scientific explanation of consciousness. Yet, much harder questions remain. How and why do these neural mechanisms create the subjective feeling of being, the awareness of self and environment -- the state of being conscious?"

Until we answer those questions any claim that the answer will be entirely mechanistic is merely a matter of belief.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

No, not "either way". If it is in fact true (and if push came to shove I would have to agree that it is) that "we don't know if we are deterministic or not", then you cannot possibly know the truth of the claim that "we are still machines", because machines are by definition deterministic.

Even if you rationalize your first claim by saying "we don't YET know if we are deterministic or not", with the implication being that someday we will know and that you will be proved correct by that knowledge, you are basing your second claim entirely on faith, not scientific knowledge.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

Coincidentally, I just came across this:

Again, only tangential to our disagreement but indicative of progress being made.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

I would say you have summed up our differences correctly, yes. The difference for me indeed is in the word YET. We don't know if we are deterministic or not, but either way, we are still machines.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

That is a beautiful study PC, and does indeed explain many previously unexplained aspects of how the human brain works. Unfortunately it is not relevant to the subject of this hub, which is not the human brain, but the problem of mind. You fail to see the difference because you believe that Darwin solved that problem. I beg to differ, because as a scientist I take the more realistic view that science (including evolutionary theory) can never be completely settled, any more than an organism can be completely determined. This fundamentally non-mechanistic reality is nicely articulated in the Woese article that I linked to in my comment above.

I suspect that much of our argument is semantic, which does not make it any less important. Correct me if I'm wrong, but for you 'mechanism' is synonymous with 'physics'. I don't accept that definition, because mechanisms, while physical, are fully determined. They simply 'are', as opposed to 'are in the process of becoming'. All mechanisms are physically embodied, but not everything that is physically embodied can be modeled as a mechanism. The specification hierarchy is {physical{mechanistic}}. That is why life can be physical but not completely mechanistic.

Now you will probably argue that the mechanism of natural selection is all that is needed to explain how physical mechanisms give rise to biology, but if you do then you will have to explain how that mechanistic processs traversed the epistemic cut separating non-life (without mind) from life (with mind). I doubt you can, because no one yet has. From your perspective that's because we simply don't have enough information. From mine it is because our theory is inadequate to the task--just as Newtonian theory was inadequate to the task of explaining the relationship between space and time.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

No, no, we will NEVER understand this!

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

LOL J_G, that pretty much sums it up. Woese is indeed excellent:

Thanks again!

J_G on April 04, 2012:

Do you understand now Joyus, is STUPID to continue arguing with a machine... it will just keep on saying the same bullshit which it was programmed to say. Too sad because by saying once and again "is physics" is not really saying anything and the interesting thing about Doidge book is that it is based on experiments, which is much more scientific and is not just "foolish words".

Joyus you may have read also Carl Woese, he will be very happy to hear you too. See you! And I insist, don't waste your time with machines, is like discussing with a TV. It's just ridiculous!

Good luck!

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

Right back at you PC.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

I hope you live long enough to learn just how foolish your words will sound even to you..

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

That's bullshit PC. Believe what you will (and it is just that--faith-based belief), after expenditure of untold billions of NIH and NSF dollars, mainstream science is nowhere near understanding life itself, just its developed habits and dependencies (i.e. mechanisms). There is plenty of nonsense on this page, but all of it is coming from you.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

Oh, such nonsense. "Undetermined" my left foot. We are well on our way to determining both the organization AND mechanism.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

You are wrong PC. If you want to call it magic, go ahead, I have no problem with that. There is 'magic' in nature, and anyone who does not see that is clueless...

I explained in the hub that the "ineffable thing" that disqualifies an organism from being a machine is its undetermined (incomplete) nature. Such a "thing" is not really a thing at all, and cannot be explained in terms of mechanisms, because it is about organization and context which cannot be reduced to mechanisms. Mechanisms are by definition fully determined; organisms are not. It's as simple as that. My brain makes use of mechanisms to do what it does, but it is not a machine. Not so sure about yours though;-)

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

No, it is YOU who are clueless. Where's the "magic", Joyus? What ineffable thing does the organism possess that disqualifies it from being a machine? You never, ever answer that - because there IS no answer. Your brain works by electricity and chemicals - it's a MACHINE!

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

Sorry PC, although I hold you in the highest respect, you are utterly clueless. I already said (many times) that to be an organism (which I am) is not the same thing as being a machine (which I am not). To not be a machine does not in any way imply anything mystical or supernatural. You are entrenched in an obsolete way of thinking, not unlike a Newtonian who refuses to accept Einstein's relativistic conception of space-time. It is you who clings so desperately to belief, not me.

Tony Lawrence from SE MA on April 04, 2012:

Again, you keep ignoring the most basic question: if you are not a machine, then what are you?

You wave your hands and babble about "emergence" and other silly things, but the facts remain that your brain works mechanically - there's no magic in it. Complicated, of course, but nothing more than a physical machine.

This has nothing to do with determinism and it's utterly idiotic to assume (as some do) that a "machine" must have a creator. We've been down this road: evolution was the "creator" of your mind. Your programming is infinitely more flexible than that of a stereo, but you ARE programmed just the same.

But, just like the godsoaked, you don't WANT to believe it, so you won't.

Joyus Crynoid (author) from Eden on April 04, 2012:

Thanks J_G--the Doidge book looks good, I will add it to my to-read list. It seems that there is a lot of convergence on these ideas, which is encouraging. The Bohm quote is a good one. Biologists are still overly-invested in the machine metaphor, but that may finally be starting to change. Thank you for your comments, and nice to meet you as well!

J_G on April 04, 2012:

... cause you are just following a TREND that Bohm predicted 40 years ago.

David Bohm "Some Remarks on the Notion of Order" (1968), p. 34.

Religious people are influenced by some cultural ideas, but you are also influenced by an old-fashioned scientific paradigm that physicists broke 40 years ago.

J_G on April 04, 2012:

And Pcunix...for your old-fashioned idea about physics = mechanism, please read DAVID BOHM, a REAL physicist.


So sad you are not so "freethinker" as you believed, cause you are just following a TRAND that Bohm predicted 40 years ago!

J_G on April 03, 2012:

I couldn't be more in agreement with you, it's really nice to meet someone like you and I also agree that there is any other way to a better future.

I recommend you also a book called "The Brain that Changes Itself" of Norman Doidge. Is about many stories about patients ant neuroscientists who demolished forever the idea that the brain can be seen as a "hardwired" machine with some incredible experiments made with apes and humans.

This is a little review from the book's official site:

"THE BRAIN CAN CHANGE ITSELF. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature."

And finally, as Dr. Michael Merzenich (one of the discoverers of neurplasticity) said:

"It's puzzling that determinism is so attractive to so many people, maybe it's appealing to view yourself as a defined entity and your fate as determined. Maybe it's in our nature to accept our condition."

But this has been proven wrong, the brain is far from being determined.

Good luck and thanks for the references. Again nice to meet you! I too hope those old mechanistic ideas can get out the common assessment. As Deacon said, we need to find our way home.

Related Articles