Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder

by Asher Kay

It would be easy to dismiss Colin McGinn’s review of Deacon’s Incomplete Nature as a bit of grumpy get-off-my-lawnism. But I think that by taking a closer look, we can gain some insight into the difficulty of communicating across disciplines.

As cognitive, neurological and complexity sciences burgeoned over the last few decades, scientists started encroaching on land once firmly occupied by philosophers. These scientists are eager to take a crack at some of the questions about human consciousness that have been vexing pretty much everyone pretty much forever. Beyond the obvious territorial concerns, this influx of foreigners creates some serious communication problems. McGinn’s review of Deacon, I think, is a fascinating case in point.

What we have is a philosopher in the field of “Philosophy of Mind” reviewing a book about the emergence of consciousness written by a scientist in the field of biological anthropology. What symptoms of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder (CDCD) might we expect to see? Here are some possibilities:

  1. A tendency for the discomfort and difficulty of understanding the scientist’s text to manifest in emotional ways like blame, offhand dismissiveness, derision, and imputing negative motives to the scientist.
  2. An aversion to the more wonkily scientific parts of the book, where the philosopher is likely to feel less sure of his rhetorical footing.
  3. A tendency to fault the scientist for his lack of knowledge concerning previous work done in philosophy on the questions the scientist is attempting to answer.
  4. An unexamined projection of philosophical terminology, conceptual frameworks and exegetical norms to the scientist’s text — In short, an assumption that the scientist is writing a work of philosophy.

If these are reasonable, it’s pretty clear from the review that McGinn has a nasty case of the CDCDs.

It’s not my intention to lay this all on McGinn (although his review is snotty enough at times that he arguably deserves some ribbing). For each of these symptoms, there’s a corresponding symptom that we’d expect to see, either in the scientist’s book itself or in his responses to philosophers’ criticisms. For example, the scientist might avoid philosophical ideas and approaches for the same reasons the philosopher avoids scientific ones. But if Deacon wants to create a cross-disciplinary work – if he wants to engage philosophers as well as scientists – he needs to be aware of the problem and find a way to communicate clearly with both groups. This is no easy thing — even less so since both groups have multiple sub-groups with their own communication problems. I think Deacon succeeds in some ways and fails in others. I’ll try to point out both as I go along.

Blame, Dismissiveness, Imputing Negative Motives

Take a look at a few reviews of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and you’ll see an interesting progression of responses. Almost every review mentions that it’s a challenging work. Some go further, arguing that Wallace’s dense prose is a drawback. Some edge uncomfortably out into the domain of the emotional, professing annoyance at the intricate sentences and multilayered digressions, and wondering aloud what the hell Wallace is trying to accomplish. And some – Dale Peck’s hatchet job comes to mind – become unabashedly emotional, resenting not only the book but also Wallace himself, and accusing him of deliberately writing to be unreadable in order to seem clever or erudite.

While accusations like this can in some cases be completely true, they are almost never informative, unless what the reader wants to be informed about is the more ugly side of the reviewer’s temperment. It’s the last step in the emotional progression that goes too far, abandoning reasoned argument for an unsupported narrative about the author. It’s the sort of reaction you could excuse coming from a frustrated participant in a book group who feels out of his depth, but not from the writer of a published review, who’s expected to support his or her assertions about a piece.

McGinn’s reaction to the difficulty of the prose in Incomplete Nature approaches Dale Peckian proportions:

Deacon’s prose style can only be described as abominable. It is heavy with jargon and pointless neologisms; it is repetitive and longwinded; it is rarely clear. His intention seems to be to sound as impressive as possible, impressiveness being equated with the frequent use of scientific-sounding long words, without any regard for clarity and ease of grammatical processing.

Five hundred pages of this rebarbative word-spinning are enough to daunt even the most determined reader (it certainly ruined my vacation break). I am professionally accustomed to reading long unreadable books, but this is by far the most unreadable book I have ever encountered.

Some quotes from Heidegger and Derrida are probably in order here, but I’ll refrain, for everyone’s sake.

The fact is, Deacon’s book is very difficult reading. Whether it’s difficult enough to ruin the vacation break of a philosophy professor is arguable (and probably depends more on whether the professor had been forgetting to take his Propranolol than anything else). I personally found it difficult but rewarding, and I’m close to the “interested general reader” McGinn finds the book “completely unsuitable for”, having myself only a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and no formal education in science.

The real question is whether there’s a good reason for Deacon’s book to be so difficult, whether Deacon could have done a better (and perhaps briefer) job explaining his ideas, and whether the handful of neologisms he introduces are truly needed. McGinn does not address this question at all, preferring instead the grumbly and dismissive approach. A full accounting is beyond the scope of this article, but with the promise to get back to it in a future piece, I’ll outsource a hint of the answer to Charles Dyke, from an unpublished paper:

Put simply, the explicitly expressed aim of Deacon’s IN is to set agenda for the immediate future of cognitive science. One of the main difficulties with the fulfilling the aim, hence one of the difficulties with the book, is that the current investigative ecosystem doesn’t yet have a completely comfortable niche for this next science, so Deacon has simultaneously to suggest the agenda for the next science and prepare a niche for it. As best he can, he has to do these jobs without resorting to the imposition of an a priori framework dragged in from elsewhere. His theory has to be continuous with established science, while simultaneously establishing discontinuities with some of the traditional practices of established science. The result is an extremely gnarly book – but, arguably, it couldn’t have been otherwise.

Obviously there’s much more to be said, but this suggestion points toward a reason for the precision, prolixity and neologisms of Incomplete Nature.

Scientific Aversion

For all of his professed puzzlement about the usefulness of Deacon’s concept of “absence”, McGinn’s review features one that is very telling: an almost complete absence of engagement with Deacon’s scientific observations and examples. Near the beginning of the review McGinn mentions autogens, but beyond that, the only mention of Deacon’s scientific exposition is a reference to “laboring through 450 pages on physics, chemistry, and biology”. In fact, if you search the review, you will find exactly zero uses of the word “constraint”.

It’s kind of like reading a review of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason that doesn’t mention synthetic judgements. Or a review of Gone With the Wind that doesn’t contain the word “Scarlett”.

One of the unfortunate things about Incomplete Nature in the context of CDCD is that Deacon attempts to make the concepts of absence, constraint and teleology work at an intuitive as well as scientific level. In the introductory chapters, he uses things like the history of “zero” and the example of a boy skipping a stone at the beach to point the reader toward what he means by these concepts. Then, in the later, more scientific chapters, he makes the concepts real and precise, using Lorez attractors, Shannon vs. Boltzmann entropy, Rayleigh–Bénard convection and a host of other systems to pin things down. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that readers who are confused by or uninterested in the science will pay attention only to the beginning and the end of the book; and worse, they will come away thinking that refuting Deacon’s ideas is as easy as refuting the intuitive examples. McGinn appears to fall into this category.

It was pretty clear to me as a reader when Deacon was speaking intuitively and when he was doing real work. But I admit to some confusion on that score myself, and I can only imagine it would be worse if I were coming at it from a more purely philosophical perspective.

No True Philosopher

McGinn calls Deacon to task for his ignorance of work by Evan Thompson and Alicia Juarrero, whose books also deal with complex systems, information theory and constraint-causation. The oversight has proved to be truly unfortunate for Deacon, not just because of the distraction caused by accusations of poor scholarship (and even plagiarism), but also because it’s allowed several reviewers (McGinn included) to state baldly and without real support that Deacon is merely recapitulating arguments that were already posed by others. I’ve already waded too far into those fetid waters in the comments, so I won’t try to address that fully here. But I think it’s important to consider that when your ecological niche (as Dyke so aptly put it) is at the border of several disciplines, detractors will tend to reach for exactly that sort of hatchet.

Outside Thompson and Juarrero, McGinn still has much to say about Deacon’s philosophical ignorance. For example:

If you are wondering whether Deacon has something in mind like Sartre’s use of the concept of “nothingness” to characterize the essence of consciousness, as proposed in Being and Nothingness, then think again-he shows no awareness of that monumental phenomenological work on pure absence.

That Sartre’s work is about a sort of absence so different from Deacon’s sense that only the term itself connects them seems to be lost on McGinn, along with the fact that Deacon is not in any way doing phenomenology. One explanation for this is that McGinn doesn’t really understand what Deacon means by absence:

It is quite true that thoughts and emotions can be about absent objects, existing elsewhere or even nonexistent, but they can also be about perfectly present and palpable objects-there is nothing absent when I point at my cat in front of me.

Here we see McGinn refuting (if you can call it that) one of Deacon’s intuitive arguments, and focusing on a rather imprecise notion of absence that some attention to the sections on information theory and constraints in far-from-equilibrium systems would clear up.

Here’s a funnier example.

Possibilities are something else again, being nonactual, though they can be possibilities of material things-such as the possibility of my room being on fire. Purposes are inherently future-directed, but it is peculiar to call them “incomplete.” For instance, I completely intend now to play tennis later today.

His argument here is that if his intention is complete, how could you call the directedness toward the future playing of tennis incomplete? Perhaps in the sense that he is not now playing tennis, and that the completion of his intention is to actually play tennis? I don’t know. It’s been a long time since my freshman year in philosophy.

Snarkiness aside, in what way is McGinn above actually engaging with what Deacon is trying to say? The answer, sadly, is “in none of way”. The important, non-intuitive part of Deacon’s concept of absence has to do with the absence of particular locations in the total state-space of a system. Far-from-equilibrium systems “give up” a huge range of possible behaviors in becoming organized — it is this absence of possibility, in fact, that makes them organized.

Even writing about it as I did in the preceding paragraph gives me pause. These are rigorous and precise ideas, and I am not getting them exactly right. It’s hard – for me at least – to fault Deacon for being laborious when the things he’s trying to communicate require that kind of precision and care.

Philosophical Projection

The projection of philosophical conceptions and norms onto a book that occupies a niche at the border of science and philosophy is the most difficult and knotty of the DCDC symptoms, but probably the most important. To survive in this niche, Deacon must trade with both groups, speak both languages, and yet find a way to forge his own currency and syntax. By calling upon the ghosts of Aristotle and Pierce in his book, Deacon risks doing himself more harm than good.

If someone were to ask me whether Deacon’s book was a work of philosophy or science, I would say “science” without hesitation. Deacon, for example, doesn’t even bother to define himself as a physicalist (the words “physicalism” and “physicalist” don’t appear in Incomplete nature), but the assumption permeates the book. For a philosopher, physicalism is (at least a little) controversial and requires support. For a scientist, it’s a given that doesn’t require any additional explanation. This can cause some trouble.

Take, for instance, this passage in McGinn’s review:

All that can be said to unify this motley collection [thoughts, emotions, purposes] is that each item is apparently not part of actual physical reality, so each proves troublesome for materialist reductions. But things can be positively “present” (whatever this quite means) without necessarily being reducible to matter-for instance, one’s current sensation of redness. The notions of “absence” and “incompleteness” are just not apt ways of characterizing these nonmaterial phenomena. Deacon’s attempt to unify the nonmaterial class by the neologism “ententional phenomena” merely names a heterogeneous bunch of things.

Here McGinn calls the phenomena both “not part of actual physical reality” and “nonmaterial” as if they meant the same thing, leading to quite a bit of confusion. Deacon himself uses the term “non-material” in his book, but he’s very clear about whether these subjective things are part of physical reality.

Thus autonomy and agency, and their implicit teleology, and even the locus of subjectivity, can be given a concrete account. Paradoxically, however, by filling in the physical dynamics of this account, we end up with a non-material conception of organism and neurological self, and by extension, of subjective self as well: a self that is embodied by dynamical constraints. But constraints are the present signature of what is absent. So, surprisingly, this view of self shows it to be as non-material as Descartes might have imagined, and yet as physical, extended, and relevant to the causal scheme of things as is the hole at the hub of a wheel.

Again, to the scientific eye, conceptually distinguishing the physical from the material is largely non-problematic. But, if McGinn’s review is any guide, it can be a big sticking-point for philosophers (though, to be clear, many philosophers do make a distinction between physical and material).

Another of McGinn’s confusions concerns the nature of Deacon’s project:

Despite his aspirations to producing a new metaphysics, Deacon is clearly no metaphysician (he is a biologist and brain scientist, not a philosopher).

McGinn is aware that Deacon is not a philosopher, but doesn’t hesitate to call Deacon’s project metaphysical. I think that Deacon invites this confusion to some extent. Here’s a snippet of one of the early footnotes:

I will resist the obvious tendency to call this metaphysical paradigm absentialism, because as will soon be evident, it is an explanation of the emergent and dynamical character of the processes generating these phenomena that is my primary goal.

This is where cross-disciplinary boundaries are at their most blurred. It seems from this quote that Deacon certainly sees the concept of absence as a metaphysical one, but it’s also clear that he means something much less expansive by the word metaphysics than most philosophers would. Deacon’s metaphysics is confined entirely to an examination of physical, dynamical processes, and the “high” concept of absence doesn’t aspire to anything beyond serving as a conceptual framework through which to view these processes in a novel way. You won’t, in other words, find any transcendental arguments in Incomplete Nature. And most mentions of metaphysics are about other people’s metaphysics.

What is most depressing about the whole review, though, is how little McGinn seems to really understand Deacon’s argument. He accusses Deacon of asserting without support things that Deacon spends chapters developing, and assumes that Deacon is recycling “old and discredited idea[s]” without really looking for the differences between the old ideas and Deacon’s.

Here’s a final example:

What prompts Deacon to this preposterous statement is the confused idea that the organization of a system is “absent” because it is not the same as the stuff (“substrate”) that makes up the system. But nothing can literally emerge from nothing, and nothing does – the organization of a system is just as “present” as its material basis

Confused himself, McGinn accuses Deacon of being confused. The organization of a system is not in any way absent in Deacon’s reckoning — absence, embodied by constraints, are what make a system organized as opposed to disorganized.

Perhaps if Deacon had called them “essences”, it would have been easier for McGinn to understand.

Diagnosis Without a Cure

Hopefully I’ve written some things here that help clarify the nature of the CDCDs. I have no ideas for a cure, but I suspect that nature will eventually take care of it. Niches are meant to be explored and colonized, and boundaries to be crossed. In future posts, I’ll do some work building a few of the philosophical foundations that I think are needed to make Incomplete Nature more accessible across disciplines. And I’ll dig further into the ideas of Charles Dyke, who will bring Isabelle Stengers to the table (and Latour, Deleuze and Guattari at least to the kitchen).

[UPDATE: And I thought McGinn was bad.... Apparently Jerry Fodor sees fit to review Deacon without even reading the book. And you can almost tell by the title ("What are trees about") the Fodoresque way in which he will probably deliberately misunderstand Deacon.]

134 Responses to “Deacon, McGinn, and the problem of Cross-Disciplinary Communication Disorder”

  1. Asher, the keyword ‘autogens’ made it all click. I subscribe to the Foundations of Information Science list serve, and they have been discussing Deacon’s book with some enthusiasm since last month. You may be interested in those discussions. Here are links to the archives of these recent discussions:

    https://webmail.unizar.es/pipermail/fis/2012-April/thread.html

    https://webmail.unizar.es/pipermail/fis/2012-May/thread.html

  2. You’re probably already aware of this – but in case not…

    http://www.newappsblog.com/2012/05/mcginns-bullshit.html

  3. Jacob – Thanks! Interesting indeed. It’s wild to see objections to Deacon’s physicalism from a totally different direction.

    Duncan – I had not seen Strohminger’s review, but I am now enriched. Everyone reading this thread: follow that link — you will not be disappointed.

    Reading that makes me feel a little less guilty about giving McGinn a hard time. Here I was restraining myself from mentioning mysterianism….

  4. Asher

    CDCD is a fine idea BUT those who arrive at the new domain and who fail to investigate what the members of that domain have ALREADY said about the topic on which they write have no right to proclaim “originality” or “new discovery” in the absence of of having done such research. They might be best off doing the research after they write out their own ideas in full once BUT that still does not excuse a failure to do the research. This is all the more true if one is declaring their work to be an academic treatise where the basis of any such claim is HAVING DONE the research. The absence of the research being done when combined with the assertion of new vocabulary and the insistence on “originality” is usually more than enough to get those in whose sandbox one is now asserting one’s supposed “expertise” aggitated.

  5. “All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

    “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

  6. Carl – nailed it. Or, rather, harpooned it.

    Michael – could you cite an example of the sort of claim to originality that’s bothering you? It would be useful to discuss specifics.

  7. Asher Given that Berkeley has Deacon’s work under legal review (per the Vice Provost of Faculty) this is not the correct forum to do another line by line commentary (which Carl has prohibited me from doing anyhow) thus I will defer to McGinn, Fodor, Thompson, and Joyus Crynoid all of whom have in their reviews objected to Deacon’s claims of originality and I will note a key sentence from Deacon’s own email on this topic addressed it seems to the world at large “I have no doubt that my work will stand the test of time, for its originality, scholarship, and significance.” Its a rather brazen claim for one to make if they are also claiming not to have read the relevant literature from the domain in which they have chosen to write. It is a scurrilous claim to make if indeed one has actually read the literature and then chosen to pretend it does not exist. Which is the truth in this case only Deacon knows for sure.

  8. I also must respectfully suggest that McGinn and Fodor understand Deacon much better than either you or I.

  9. We’re just readers of the book. If we became persuaded that your objections about originality had merit, what would you have us do? Shoould we refuse to read the book? Presumably Deacon’s book contains good ideas, since trying to get credit for stupid ideas is itself a stupid idea. So shouldn’t we try to understand these ideas regardless of who presents them to us?

    Regarding Fodor, all I saw was a brief snippet in which he acknowledges skipping over vast tracts of Deacon’s book because he thought that Deacon was substituting jargon for knowledge. Based on that summary I presumed that Fodor couldn’t be bothered to understand Deacon’s book.

  10. ktismatics I am NOT saying do not read the book. I ended up on this blog simply because Alicia’s spreadsheet was mentioned but not linked to and you folks gave Deacon the opportunity to claim falsehood regarding Alicia’s claims of prior authorship (prior in so far as the ideas go not their form of expression). It is not my job to persuade you one way or the other. Having given Deacon the opportunity to make his “case” it was only fair that those of us who see far less merit to Deacon’s case and to the originality of his ideas have an equal forum (which you have generously supplied). If Deacon had simply been willing to acknowledge that his work builds upon the works of Juarrero, Thompson etc there would be no issue. But in my view (and in McGinn’s Fodor’s etc) Deacon’s work is NOT original. Therein lies what McGinn (the subject of this post after all) finds wrong. It comes down to claims of originality. The critics are speaking truth to power (power here being either sycophants such as Sherman or mere fans such as Asher). Read, comment, process etc just please do not give credit for originality where none is due. This is the heart of academic integrity. It is not about popularity nor about fame but about the CAREFULLY documented development of ideas.

  11. Dear Mr. Doyle,

    Thank you for your message. Although I cannot comment on individual faculty matters, I will say that whenever the University receives allegations, it routinely reviews them to see whether they merit further consideration. The existence of such a review would not be a basis on which to draw any conclusions regarding the University’s position on a particular controversy.

    Regards,

    Janet Broughton
    Vice Provost for the Faculty

  12. kstismatics no one claimed Berkeley had reached any conclusionsn reviews take time

    Dear Mr. Lissack,

    I am writing to acknowledge receipt of your recent messages concerning publications by Professor Deacon. I have requested a legal review of your messages, and I will write to you more fully when that review has been completed.

    As the Vice Provost for the Faculty, I have primary responsible for questions concerning faculty conduct. You need not copy others at Berkeley in order to raise such questions.

    Sincerely yours,

    Janet Broughton
    Vice Provost for the Faculty

  13. ” I also must respectfully suggest that McGinn and Fodor understand Deacon much better than either you or I.”

    So a guy who admits he didn’t read the book and a guy whose review demonstrably misstates what is said in the book (see “physical reality” above) understands much better than I do? What basis do you have for even saying that?

    Oh, wait…

  14. Asher

    Get off your high horse. McGinn is a highly respected philosopher and was paid to review the book. Fodor is Fodor and dealt with the book as he felt appropriate. But forgive me you are a well known anonymous and ah yes you somehow like the author of whom I will no longer speak feel that you an unknown philosopher know better than they how to interpret a philosophy book. Thus your respect for the novice who intrudes into fields beyond their domain and claims a new found expertise. If you really were so “knowledgeable” you would not hide behind anonymity. Prove your credentials or acknowledge that perhaps those who have well earned them have them for a reason. Perhaps you should try actually engaging with these folks instead of bemoaning that they can see through your “hero.”

  15. First of all, your argument is a straight-up appeal to authority, which is a fallacy.

    I gave at least one example from McGinn’s review where his understanding of Deacon is exactly the opposite of what Deacon says. Care to dispute that? Although I have less of an idea what Fodor understands, the argument, “someone who skips a large part of the text is likely not to understand it well” is both strong and testable.

    As to the rest of your comment, all I can say is that I am happy you said these things here on Dead Voles, where I can ensure that they have a permanent and publicly visible home, to which others can easily refer for examples of your character.

  16. Glad to see you enjoyed the Kool Aid.

  17. I am proud to be standing up for Alicia Juarrero, Evan Thompson, Mark Graves, Colin McGinn, and Jerry Fodor over the likes of those who claim an expertise they do not have, originality they do not warrant, and an integrity the absence of which is painfully obvious except to those who drunk the Kool Aid. That my anonymous non-friend is character. Maybe you can learn from it.

  18. This is silly. At Dead Voles we don’t care where people come from; we care what they say, something I touched on in my blog post http://deadvoles.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/the-railway-inspector/. Asher could be the pope for all I care or want to know.

    Or he could be a disembodied intelligence from the year twenty-five twenty-five.

    Second, why should we care whose academic toes Deacon might have stepped on (either intentionally, accidentally, or by sheer negligence)? Is that even relevant to the conversation here? Is it? Calculus is calculus. Do I really care if it was Newton or Leibniz who “invented” it? (Lest I be accused of not having academic integrity, you will see that my blog posts are stultified with references and attributions).

    Third, the information science scholars over at FIS are no strangers to the literature, and they still find Deacon’s book well worth the read, so much so are thinking of devoting a conference to the themes it discusses. As one said (I’m paraphrasing here), his work might not be completely original, but it has refocused attention where it needs to be focused. Well, good for him!

  19. Jacob references a bit obscure who is FIS and how do I find them? If you are just reading then you are right the concerns matter not. They only do matter here because you provided a forum for Deacon to make false claims re Alicia Juarrero. I keep trying to move on … Asher keeps on trying to “win” read what you wish think what you wish but be aware that the claims of originality are bogus and that such bogus claims can agitate people from within the field especially those who actually did have the original thoughts I am not a member of your self selected blog group. What and how you pick as discussions do not matter to me. But if you allow the permanent publication of false claims against my colleague I will do what I can to offset those false claims. If you enjoy Deacon enjoy. But be aware of the Kool Aid being served to you

  20. Jacob I found FIS and we shall see. As for credentials you are suggesting it is UNIMPORTANT to know that Jeremy Sherman works with Deacon and is a Terry’s pirate and equally unimportant to know of both Jerry Fodor’s credentials and that Deacon himself suggested that his book was an answer to Fodor. And you claim expertise in situation semantics? How much about the importance of context did you fail to grasp? Such a shame.

  21. Mr. Lissack, I will not feed trolls. My conversation with you is over.

  22. Another blog discussion has been unfolding in parallel with this one, exploring the intellectual property ownership of Deacon’s ideas. It’s interesting to see the parallel lines of speculation among discussants on both threads. Perhaps most informative to me is a link to the full text of Fodor’s review, freed from the paywall behind which it had been sequestered when I tried to read it. Here’s the link, provided by a commenter named munibond (aka Michael?): http://emergence.org/Fodor-Deacon-LRB.pdf

    Fodor doesn’t talk much about the attribution of ideas, though he does note that many of them have been floating around for decades. Mostly Fodor expresses skepticism as to whether the particular ideas selected by Deacon as pivotal add anything of value to the long-standing problem of how intentionality could have evolved from the unintentionality of nature. In particular, Fodor doubts the explanatory value of “calling in the heavy artillery” of thermodynamics and self-organizing chemical systems while generally ignoring the more “delicate” matters of epistemology, metaphysics, and “artistic verisimilitude.” This isn’t the right post to discuss the merits of Fodor’s complaints, or of my own for that matter, about the explanatory value of the ideas themselves. Briefly though, Fodor weighs the ideas that Deacon espouses and finds them wanting regardless of their provenance.

    Now that I’m within 50 pages of finishing Deacon’s book (without skipping any of it!), I’ve requested Juarrero’s book from interlibrary loan.

  23. Since I stuck my neck out earlier, I will plead ignorance of any previous comments made on this issue of plagiarism in response to Asher’s earlier post. http://deadvoles.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/deacon-and-oop/. I had not read that post, or its comments, until today, when I saw them linked to at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

    I still object strongly to personal attacks on this blog, and in particular to this harassment of Asher.

  24. In the interests of fairness can we eliminate the use of the “p” word please? Deacon (in my opinion and in McGinn’s Fodor’s Thompson’s Juarrero’s etc) has no done the “p” offense — he has either NOT read the literature relevant to his own work or ignorede it and then when it was brought to his attention claimed it was superficial and irrelevant. He then continues to assert claims of originality. These are offenses against academic integrity (especially when committed by a senior academic — yes credentials here do matter) not the “p” offence. I am not here to debate Deacon’s arguments (some of which I agree with some I disagree with) but to protect the academic history of the ideas he has chosen to express. If that protection counts as trolling well fine but allowing Deacon’s false charge against Juarrero to stand is not in my character. When you all stop discussing whether or not Deacon’s thoughts are “original” I will go away. Until then ….

  25. I am imagining McGinn and Fodor doing a duet of “I Need A Hero”.

    I really don’t think any of these people need help – especially the kind you are giving them. Juarrero is a very smart and rhetorically able person who can make her own case. I can only imagine she’s embarrassed by some of your online behavior. Call her up and ask her seriously if that’s true.

    I know you’re unable to see it in yourself, but a lot of what you’re doing looks very much harassing and troll-like. For example:

    1. Posting people’s private communications publicly without asking
    2. Sending barrages of e-mails to UC Berkley staff, CC-ing everyone you can think of
    3. Posting conspiracy-theory-like smoking-gun pictures of Juarrero with Deacon at a conference
    4. Almost childlike appeals to authority
    5. Sheer repetition of a point you’ve made many times on any thread you can find, without adding any new information
    6. Attacking people on a personal level when they disagree with what you say

    After dealing with a lot of people who act like this on the internet, my strong suspicion is that you are not going to see the sense in what I’m telling you. That’s okay. This thread – which could have been interesting – is now one more sample of your behavior for people to look at when they judge your credibility.

  26. You have a nice Memorial Day Weekend too.

  27. John – thanks for posting that link to Fodor. I’d been dying to read it, but couldn’t find a copy of the whole thing.

    I was very pleasantly surprised by the review. It exhibits almost none of the CDCD symptoms, and when it hints at one (like the science aversion), it’s takes more of a questioning than attacking approach.

    In fact, the whole thing reads like a question. Fodor is basically saying “I don’t see how this addresses the questions I have about intensionality and consciousness”. And he’s consistent in admitting that he may be missing something in the scientific explanations, and that he may not understand Deacon perfectly.

    Basically, the review gives someone who wants philosophers to understand this stuff a foothold. To answer Fodor, you’d need to say what a theory would be required to explain (an area where I agree that Incomplete Nature is weak), and why teleology, intensionality and consciousness are the same mystery — or at least how their solutions are related and mutually dependent. Fodor poses a bunch of other questions that Deacon might consider to be flybottles (like the “felt character” thing, and how final causes can precede their effects). I’m starting to think that to speak effectively to the philosophers, you need at least to explain exactly why those are flybottles (if they are) and how they lead us astray.

  28. Since I am the one who posted it (and hosts it) I will accept your thanks.

  29. Missed that it was from emergence.org – so thanks, Michael. I assume you got permission from the LRB to host the material.

  30. More Deacon from http://joyuscrynoid.hubpages.com/hub/DeaconIncompleteNature-Review.

    Terrence Deacon 17 hours ago

    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 — her’s 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 naive 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

  31. Great post. It’s funny – everyone gives lots of lip service to interdisciplinary work, until it shows up (or asks for a grant). Disciplinary inertia is a helluva thing. Asher, your whole analysis is spot-on, at least in my estimation. I started wondering about halfway through the McGinn review whether he had read the whole book; I retain this question, but I think your analysis of the translation-between-disciplines problem is an additional likely suspect. Anyway, careful and thoughtful analysis – kudos.

    Also, glad I’m not the only one weirded out by Lissack. Once he started posting private emails on discussion boards… well, that pretty much said it all, for me.

    Keep up the good work, you’ve earned yourselves a new DeadVoles reader.

  32. The full account (to date) is at [conspiracy web site].

    [Editor: Sorry - not going to help you bump up your search results]

  33. Thanks, Glasperlenspiel. I think it’s possible that McGinn did some Fodoresque “skipping”. There are too many places where he doesn’t seem to be aware that Deacon specifically addresses his questions. It could also be deliberate.

    I’m hoping to do some future posts that will move beyond diagnosis and build a sort of bridge for philosophers to Deacon’s book. I’ll be counting on intelligent readers to point out where I go astray.

  34. Lissack linked to it above, but I wanted to point everyone toward the entire discussion at Joyus Crynoid’s Hub Page. Near the end, I try to articulate what I consider to be important differences between Juarrero’s and Deacon’s approaches with respect to constraints and reductionism, and Joyus maintains that their central theses are essentially the same.

  35. Don Mikulecky wrote a great piece which seems helpful see http://emergence.org/NetworkCausality.pdf

  36. There’s a lot more name-dropping in Mikulecky’s piece than cogent analysis. He says things like, “What Deacon and the others are doing is inventing language ignoring these aspects of reductionist thought and throwing out the baby with the bath water”, and offers no support for the assertion. The way I read it, Deacon spends a lot of time looking at reductionist arguments and engaging with them directly (e.g. Jaegwon Kim) rather than ignoring them as Mikulecky accuses.

    I’ve heard from several places that bringing Mikulecky’s tight pal Rosen into the discussion might be helpful. It’s usually in the form of an incredulous “How could he have ignored Rosen?!?!”, without specifics concerning what Rosen brings to the table, but I definitely want to look into it.

  37. “The tedious thing about being a book reviewer is your obligation to be fair, thorough, and concise. You’re supposed to keep in mind that, quite possibly, all your readers will ever know about the book you’re reviewing is what you say in the review, so the poor author, who may have spent years writing the book, is to that extent at your mercy. You’re supposed to give a reasonably complete idea what’s in the book, not just what you found interesting about it, since you don’t know that what interests you will interest others. You’re supposed to put the author’s case in the most persuasive and plausible form, since she won’t get to reply in more than a few, inevitably inadequate paragraphs. You can’t just blather on, mentioning all the (often irrelevant) things the book made you think about and, in particular, dropping the names of other (often remotely) related books, just to demonstrate your cosmopolitan interests and vast erudition.” (From George Scialabba at Crooked Timber.)

  38. Wow. I just burned a good day and a half digging in this mire; however, as this particular entry exemplifies, it was worth it. I hope those with much more to lose in this debacle can say the same someday soon. I’m learning from IN, and have had the good fortune to ask Deacon about his work directly. Although aware that most of you are better equipped philosophically than I, I look forward to contributing what I can.

    Of all the articles and blogs I’ve read surrounding this sordid affair, this was the most civilized, simultaneously open and disciplined. So, thanks. Furthermore, this particular post very eloquently articulates a frustration I share with Deacon, even though I currently approach the problem of cognition from a civilian position, i.e. non-academic. Never the less, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time creating a rigorous research proposal called Synthetic Cognition. To date I’ve given one lecture on the subject; and, based on that and many other discussions, I’d like to extend your above thesis to the discipline of computation. I come from the sciences and design, and, like Deacon, employ thermodynamics and information theory. So, not only do I receive crossed-glances from philosophers, who promptly remind me of all the philosophy I should understand before they’ll entertain my scientific arguments, I similarly receive skepticism from computationally minded folks (important to note that many biologists I encounter will arduously defend the computational analogy of mind … golems). The skepticism is welcome, but the demand that I prove why computationalism is false before they entertain my thesis borders on denial.

    I admit that my opinion is colored by some frustration and my own bias, and I think that a rigorous refutation of computationalism would be a great and useful exercise. I have in fact a rough draft of just such an argument. However, in so far as such an exercise precludes one from engaging a legitimate and falsifiable positive claim for a testable theory of cognition, the requirement that all other claims in their respective disciplines be first refuted is pure protectionism!

    Whew! I feel much better. I hope I haven’t imposed by venting a bit and putting my own independent research on the table. In any case, I’m glad I found these posts and threads.

    Cheers,
    Josh

  39. Cheers Josh! Your remarks about the perils of interdisciplinarity (we are all ‘civilians’ to the fields in which we’re not credentialed) are right on. Speaking of which I’m afraid I was quickly out of my depth at your website, but I appreciate your perspective on all this and look forward to seeing what it brings to Asher’s project going forward.

  40. Thanks, Carl. Right you are about the civilian issue; therein lies the problem of inter-disciplinary communication, I suppose. Perhaps we need a meta-language, like electro-magnatism or Cognitive-Behavioral Theory, but on a broader scale. It has to be both rigorous and inclusive, both deep and wide, often two orthogonal goals. Oh, let the fun begin!

    If only one could find funding for such a quixotic quest 8)

    Cheers.

  41. Welcome Josh. I’ve had similar frustration with physicalism. I end up just not engaging that much with people who aren’t willing to at least entertain the assumption for the sake of argument. I finally realized that I don’t have much interest in converting people, because when it comes down to it, if my argument has actually explained something, that in itself lends support to the idea that physicalism could be true. In other words, saying “I don’t think physicalism is true” usually means “I think that if you assume physicalism, there’s a bunch of stuff you won’t be able to explain sufficiently”.

    If my next post on Deacon develops the way I think it will, we’ll have much to discuss.

  42. Thanks, Asher. I look forward to your next Deacon installment.

    Cheers.

  43. Many of the responses and reviews of Deacon (particularly from philosophers) remind me of a great Max Planck quote:
    “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
    That’s either depressing or encouraging, depending on how you look at it. But I imagine a lot of the philosophical responses are coming from an older generation with pretty strong commitments, people who have been digging trenches over whole careers. Not coincidentally, they’re also the experts in their fields, at least insofar as expertise involves knowing the state of the union (and thereby qualified to review a book in the first place). But as any grad student with advisers knows, that expertise often comes with a certain degree of inflexibility to novel ideas (or, more kindly, conviction to developed positions). Call it inertia, a paradigm, whatever.
    Not having yet dug my trench (perhaps an inevitability), I’ve been a bit dismayed by philosophers responding with “But Deacon ignores Whitehead’s metaphysics” or “But Deacon assumes an epistemological position I reject.” Best case scenario, that leads to a good and healthy debate as to the relative merits of each approach; worst case, we hit a brick wall where the conversation can’t proceed any further.
    Reminds me of debating a public evangelist at my old school – once I realized any philosophical difference would ultimately boil down to my not accepting the Bible as God’s word, I realized we had reached the end of the line. He was a very smart guy, and an excellent debater (much better than me). But when I finally realized the basement difference of commitment, it killed the idea of any future debate to me. No matter where we started topically (homosexuality, abortion, etc) I realized where we would always end. It took the romance out of the relationship. So I stopped debating him – we broke up.

  44. Right, I did that dance in high school with the born-agains. So when I got to the Foucault/Habermas axis later on, and then Wittgenstein, it seemed obvious to me that Habermas was dreaming and the live analytical space was between Wittgenstein’s games and Foucault’s power regimes. This is some of what Greg and I are mumbling about in the democracy post that’s up right now.

    One way I think this Juarrero/Deacon stuff can actually help and not just be a generation-defining intellectual fad is in calling attention to how these dynamics we’re describing/experiencing/constructing/participating in are ordinary emergent features of the dynamical systems we call ‘disciplines’, as they contragradiently aggregate and assemble resources by arranging systems of constraints. The question then is always ‘What’s accomplished by that, and at what costs?’ Like old utopian socialists we can always dream up alternative regimes of complete freedom, but as Marx kept telling them there has to be a possibility path immanent in current initial conditions and the actual dynamics of how stuff works.

  45. Great question Carl. Looking at any general system that tends to persist, I think a basic operating guideline is that adaptive systems must do two seemingly orthogonal things: 1) expand their engagement with their environment, while 2) they simultaneously maintain a coherent and inertial ‘self’. To do this in a world of limited resources, the successful adaptive system must synthesize the many often contradictory implications of all the information they engage from their environment, per 1), into higher-order internal complex structures that, per 2), simultaneously tend to preserve the inherent structure of self.

    Here in lies the paradox of life. For example, the successful academic must simultaneously distinguish themselves as distinct from their environment, per 2), in order to potentially contribute something novel, while not reinventing the wheel and remaining relevant to their colleagues, per 1). Moving up in scale we have your example of disciplines that dynamically ebb and flow between self-coherence and just enough de-coherence to integrate with other disciplines over century time scales. Deacon calls the latter tendency constraint relaxation, and he, along with his grad student Julie Hui, have proposed a novel contribution to inclusive fitness and how multi-cellularity occurred beyond the strictly stochastic explanations.

    The “cost” for any adaptive system is directly homologous to the 99.9% of extinct species since life began that didn’t find that paradoxical balance between self and assimilation within their respective environments. “What’s accomplished” through evolution is the increased tendency to do ever more complex forms of work within one’s environment. As the ability of the biosphere does more work given the same energy inpur, Schrodinger’s Negative entropy is realized. It’s not quite an engineering problem whereby the efficiency by which some limited set of a priori goal-functions are over-cohered upon. I think it is something between a heuristic and design process where the adaptive agent evolves to ever more efficiently leverage ever more novel problems towards persistence of, not any one self per se, but a lineage. But, again, the paradox is that this persistence requires disorder, noise, and even death, an oscillation between over and under-coherence weaving threads of a self into its environment and back again.

  46. Joshua you should read Edgar Morin’s work this is what he has focused on see On Complexity as an example

  47. Thanks, Michael. I will check it out.

  48. I’m not sure on which thread to put this, but I’ve begun reading Juarrero’s book. So far (I’ve finished chapter 8) she’s been giving a quick tour of a lot of different kinds of ideas. I’ve encountered what I regard as significant problems, either in my understanding or in Juarrero’s. I’ll enumerate three of them. In each case there seems to be an unwarranted jump to a conclusion that is likely to prove pivotal as the argument progresses.

    1. In chapter 6 Juarrero presents an argument against the cause-effect dynamic of behaviorism and in favor of intentionality. One pivotal question is whether mental intent is an epiphenomenon that can be reduced to neural cause-effect mechanisms — a position that’s currently upheld not just by traditional behaviorists but also by many neuroscientists. Juarrero arrives at a definitive solution in favor of intentional thought based on the logic of information theory. She asserts that if different neurophysiological patterns can result in achieving the same intentional action. e.g., raising my arm, then the neural activity is dependent on the intent for achieving the end. But it’s not controversial that there are many means to achieving a given intended end; the question is whether the formulation of the intended end is itself the result of neural activity. There might, for example, be multiple neural pathways by which the intention to raise my arm forms in my brain. Per Juarrero’s logic we’d have to assert that there is something “upstream” on which the intent is dependent. As far as I can tell she never addresses this critical possibility.

    2. In chapter 8 Juarrero discusses self-organizing systems under far-from-equilibrium conditions. While such systems are locally negentropic, they are also “dissipative structures,” serving to restore equilibrium and to increase overall entropy. The end result is that the self-organizing system self-disorganizes. But Juarrero says that under certain circumstances a self-organizing system can be pushed to an even higher threshold of disequilibrium, resulting in the emergence of a higher-order system. Juarrero asserts:

    “In virtue of its own internal dynamics, self-organization thus spawns ever higher levels of self-organization and the system as a whole evolves… Dissipative structures thus evolve through a sequence of such irreversible phase changes or bifurcations. Each reorganization, it will be recalled, dissipates the nonequilibrium that had built up. The reorganized system is thus better adapted to current conditions than the earlier one. So dissipative structures are also adaptive systems that show how, over time, complex order emerges from disorder.”

    I don’t see how it follows that self-organization tends to evolve toward higher levels of complex order. Maybe it’s the case (though I don’t see what evidence she presents) that greater disequilibrium tends toward more complex self-organization. But as Juarrero states, self-organization serves to dissipate nonequilibrium; i.e., it drives the overall system toward entropy rather than negentropy, toward disorganization rather than more organization. It is “better adapted to current conditions” by restoring an equilibrium in which self-organization is no longer necessary, and so it disintegrates.

    3. Later in chapter 8 Juarrero jumps from self-organization to self-preservation of complex systems. She contends:

    “The direction of self-organization is always away from disorganized complicatedness and toward more organized complexity. ‘Greater levels of performance’ thus refers to more efficient processing of energy and matter flows, all in the service of the enhanced integration and cohesion of the whole. Autocatalysis’s ‘goal’ is its own maintenance and enhancement in the face of disintegrating pressures from the environment.”

    How so? A system self-organizes in far-from-equilibrium conditions “in order to” process energy more efficiently; i.e., to bring about greater equilibrium/entropy. Why would such a system try to preserve itself “in the face of disintegrating pressures” that are the main outcome of its self-organization in the first place? If such a system has a ‘goal,’ it is to restore conditions in which the system spontaneously disorganizes itself.

    So now Juarrero has provided rationales for intentionality, the evolution of increasing complexity, and the evolution of intentional self-preservation, all of them built on shaky ground as far as I can discern. But I’m less than halfway through, so maybe there will be some backfilling of more compelling arguments. I should also note that so far I’m reserving judgment on the relationship between Juarrero’s book and Deacon’s.

  49. This thread is fine. I’m a bit overloaded with work at the moment, so I haven’t had the chance to post anything new.

    #1 is a good point – I had a similar thought when I was reading it.

    #2 – I’m not sure I’m understanding you. It seems like increase/decrease in entropy is always to be viewed from the context of a dividing line between the local system and the larger, outside system in which it’s embedded. The idea of dissipative structures is that there’s something on the outside applying constant work to the local system. The result of the outside work is to decrease entropy in the local system and increase entropy in the larger system. So, for example, we have the sun applying energy constantly to our planet, which gives rise to locally negentropic systems but increases the overall entropy of the universe at large. Any dissipative structure in this sense is just buying time. Beyond that, even stable systems disintegrate over the long haul, as those of us who are getting older well know.

    My problem with Juarrero on this score is that she’s just asserting that such systems move toward higher levels of order — as a result of “closing the loop” or some such. Attempting to figure out why that actually happens is one of the reasons why Deacon’s book is so much longer.

    #3 – For me, it’s the same problem. There’s a gap in the explanation. As I think Deacon will end up pointing out, she seems to be jumping from auto-catalysis to teleological causation (or proto-intentionality). It’s appears to be true that self-organization (the system performing work that results in its own continuance) has something to do with what’s going on. But what, exactly? And how does it work?

    The whole “proto” thing also doesn’t sit well with me. I understand how the argument works, but you have to be careful with it — careful that you’re not just saying, “Now that we have proto-intentionality, just imagine that beefed-up to the nth degree and you get full-blown intentionality!”. The task is to show the steps by which that proto-process becomes the full-blown process. You can’t skip over it.

  50. My second point is as you reiterated, Asher. I see no rationale for asserting a spontaneous tendency toward increasingly higher levels of self-organization. Both Juarrero and Deacon write about the spontaneous formation of Benard convection cells in a liquid heated from below, which is the externally-introduced source of energy and disequilibrium prompting the self-organization. But the array of Benard convection structures doesn’t, for example, spontaneously reorganize itself in some more complex way if the heat is increased. The system persists until equilibrium is established, either by removing the external heat source or by the convection system causing all of the liquid to evaporate.

    It’s possible to look at the earth, with its proliferation of complex life forms composed of interacting systems of less complexity, and to infer that some sort of ratcheting up of complexity is a natural tendency under some set of conditions. It’s possible to describe in Darwinian terms how more complex life forms could have evolved from simpler forms, though again there is no general tendency toward increased complexity, as Gould took pains to explain. But going from nonlife to life? That’s the big challenge that Deacon set himself, and presumably Juarrero as well: to make a persuasive argument as to how and why this tendency toward organic complexity might work. Key mechanisms include the emergence of intentionality, a spontaneous tendency toward more complexity, and a spontaneous tendency toward self-preservation — the three issues I flagged in my prior comment on Juarrero. Presumably some sort of “proto thing” needs to be introduced, but as you say, demonstrating the move from proto to full is problematic. So too is the move from pre to proto, which I think also remains underexplained.

  51. Cool. I think this ends up being one of the basic differences between Deacon and Juarrero. Juarrero is asserting this natural tendency as a new sort of causality at work, where Deacon seems to think that the tendency itself (why it’s different for Benard cells than it is for organisms) is what needs to be examined and explained.

    As I said on the Joyus Crynoid post linked above, Juarrero is employing a mereological, system-dynamics approach that Deacon specifically rejects. That’s something else to keep in mind as you read — whether Deacon’s argument against this approach applies in the real-world example of Juarrero.

  52. I have yet to read Dynamics in Action; however, I look forward to it. In the meantime, to remind myself before delving into DiA, I’ll throw out a partial response to the critical question you both raise. Namely, what is the difference between self-organizing Benard cells and organisms?

    As both of you probably know, Deacon calls the former systems Morphodynamic (morpho) and the latter Teleodynamic (teleo). What really got me excited about Deacon was a lecture he gave a while back at an AI meetup near Redwood city, CA. The thing that resonated most with me is his claim that teleo systems reduce the rate of entropy export. In other words, teleo systems have evolved to both store free energy and slow the rate of entropy exportation. In this way, energy tends to be expended when it is advantages for the system in its environment. A classic example would be hybernation, where an organism has evolved to sync their energy expenditure with their environment’s dynamics. The biosphere is similar in affect, because energy from the sun is increasingly used to do organizational work as opposed to merely dissipating the energy back into space as heat as the moon does with the same energy per area.

    Morpho systems, such as Benard cells or whirlpools, are quite distinct from teleo systems in that they affect entropy quite oppositely. Specifically, morpho systems tend to maximize energy degradation. The accrued order of these morpho systems are organized to increase the rate at which entropy is exported to the system’s surroundings. As soon as the external gradient, e.g. heat for Benard cells or a river’s flow for whirlpools, ceases the accrued organization fall prey to the second law without deviance. Deacon talks about morpho system’s maximizing constraints to facilitate energy dissipation.

    In contrast, teleo systems couple morpho constraints together. As in his autogen example, the morpho auto-catalysis is coupled with the self-assembly of molecular enclosure. The outputs of the one are the inputs for the other, and vise versa. In this way, as auto-catalysis uses the available free energy to create products, these products self-assemble into a shell, which captures the catalyst and, for the moment, stops the process before complete depletion, i.e. non-equilibrium is sustained. The morpho self-assembly constrains the morpho auto-catalysis. Then, when the environment is replete with free energy again, the shell will dissemble, essentially “dying”, to enable re-auto-catalysis of reproduced autogens.

    The question of intent is rightly raised, of course, since one wonders how the autogen “knows” to open. Deacon’s answer is that heuristically via natural selection, the shell could incorporate a receptor that can sense it’s environment for a ligand that indicates the presence of relevant free energy laden molecules. Sentience (Lat. sentire), in a proto sense, is about sensation. So, not only does the autogen embody co-constraints that tend to keep each other out of an inescapable energy local minimum, the autogen is also coupled, or further co-constrained, with its environment, which is fundamental to its survival.

    I agree that a great deal of work needs to be done to get from proto-intent to intent, but I also suggest that a rush to explain “consciousness” is what has led to many houses of cards. Deacon has gone down into the physics, getting heat from philosophers along the way, and come back with a relatively sound(er) foundation. Based on his ability to rigorously distinguish between morpho and teleo phenomena, I currently believe that this foundation has a good chance of understanding human level teleodynamics. Ironically, however, it requires such McGinn inciting concepts as “absential” phenomena, a difficult and foreign concept indeed. It is ironic, because it is not some salient knowledge we have yet to discover that stands in our way, it is what we already know that we attribute too much significance. Perhaps related to OOP?? As my old design professor used to say: “we have to forget to remember, and remember to forget.” 8)

    In any case, I look forward to what Juarrero and you guys have to say.

    Cheers,
    Josh

  53. Deacon’s answer is that heuristically via natural selection, the shell could incorporate a receptor that can sense it’s environment for a ligand that indicates the presence of relevant free energy laden molecules. Sentience (Lat. sentire), in a proto sense, is about sensation. So, not only does the autogen embody co-constraints that tend to keep each other out of an inescapable energy local minimum, the autogen is also coupled, or further co-constrained, with its environment, which is fundamental to its survival.

    This is a discussion about attention and affordances and should not be undertaken without a good look at the environmental psychology literature and JJ Gibson.. Further there then is a demand for storage which brings up Rosen’s anticipatory systems and Ehresmann’s Memory Evolutive Systems. It has all been discussed before and at length BUT it requires a very broad reading list.

    Merely searching for Deacon’s idiosyncratic jargon will not suffice. One must probe the existing research by using the concepts being expressed rather than the form of expression.

  54. Juarrero published an article called Intentions as Complex Dynamical Attractors- in J.H. Aguilar and Buckareff, A.A. (eds) Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives on the Causal Theory of Action (MIT 2010)
    This article reads something like a Dynamics in Action light. I think it’s on her website too (aliciajuarrero.com). It addresses many of the issues you guys have been raising.

  55. Maybe this is part of a larger discussion, but it’s starting to feel like water-muddying to bring in all of these ideas.

    Gibson’s affordances, for example. This is a concept from psychology, so the conceptual model is at the level of psychological theory. Deacon and Juarrero are trying to work from the bottom level of a physical theory up to things like intentionality. Neither is building on Gibson, and if Gibson were to be brought into the discussion, it would be in a loose way. For example, one might say, “If you understand Gibson’s affordances, my idea of constraints is kind of like that”. But theories (Gibson’s and everyone else’s) are by definition explanations of causal structures. And in this particular discussion, we are prone to all sorts of category errors about causality — mainly in talking about causes at higher and lower levels of organization.

    Which is all to say that I don’t think an understanding of Gibson is necessary to understand Deacon or Juarrero. If they were building on those models, sure. But they’re operating on a completely different *type* of model.

    Which is *not* to say that understanding other models is not important. Deacon and Juarrero have models with similar features but different takes on emergence, reductionism and mereology. Robert Rosen too. Understanding these – and why they’re accepted, rejected or modified by others can provide some great insights. But at the end of the day, we have to judge a model on its own merits.

    Physical theory can’t be “bricolage”.

  56. Thanks for the synopsis of Deacon’s position, Joshua. Something you’ve added to (my understanding of) Deacon’s book is this:

    “teleo systems reduce the rate of entropy export. In other words, teleo systems have evolved to both store free energy and slow the rate of entropy exportation. In this way, energy tends to be expended when it is advantages for the system in its environment.”

    Let’s assume this to be true. The question is whether, in a teleodynamic system, entropy slows down in order to achieve certain advantages or ends. Deacon characterizes the teleodynamics of organisms explicitly in terms of telos. E.g.:

    “Organisms depend on and utilize energetic and material gradients in their environment in order to perform work or to sustain the constraints of their persistent, far-from-equilibrium dynamics… Organisms and ecosystems evolve toward forms of organization that increase the indirectness of the “dissipation-path length” of energy and material throughput in order to extract more work from the available gradients.”

    Deacon’s autogen illustrates how a hypothetical system could organize itself teleodynamically, maintaining ongoing contact with a substrate of energy and material while simultaneously self-constructing a barrier around itself to prevent dissolution. But there is no need to attribute intentionality to a system that just happens to organize itself in this way under certain environmental circumstances. Clearly Deacon doesn’t regard telos as epiphenomenal or illusory, but in my view there remains a significant gap between the physical and energetic properties of his autogen and its transition to teleo. Still, he does acknowledge that teleodynamics cannot merely be regarded as an inevitable characteristic of increasingly complex self-organization. I.e., there could hypothetically be morphodynamic systems whose complexity exceeds that of the simplest autogen.

    “The question of intent is rightly raised, of course, since one wonders how the autogen “knows” to open. Deacon’s answer is that heuristically via natural selection, the shell could incorporate a receptor that can sense it’s environment for a ligand that indicates the presence of relevant free energy laden molecules. Sentience (Lat. sentire), in a proto sense, is about sensation. So, not only does the autogen embody co-constraints that tend to keep each other out of an inescapable energy local minimum, the autogen is also coupled, or further co-constrained, with its environment, which is fundamental to its survival.”

    Again though, what are the circumstances in which the survival of an autogen becomes important? This proto-intentionality becomes particularly problematic if the teleodynamic system inhibits entropy and so would otherwise spontaneously dissipate.

    “I agree that a great deal of work needs to be done to get from proto-intent to intent, but I also suggest that a rush to explain “consciousness” is what has led to many houses of cards. Deacon has gone down into the physics, getting heat from philosophers along the way, and come back with a relatively sound(er) foundation.”

    I agree too. It’s slow going, and even at the methodical and detailed pace of Deacon’s book we can detect gaps and missing links. These are areas for further investigation, as authors of research articles habitually insist on including toward the end of the paper.

  57. Gibson is potentially relevant to Juarrero’s discussion of behaviorism, which was the focus of my first objection. In her chapter 6 debunking of behaviorism Juarrero doesn’t propose a solution like Gibson’s, in which environmental features afford intentional behavior in the organism. Juarrero is insistent on the self-causing push toward action, with intent-laden information moving forward from the organism through an action to the action’s intended result. Gibson’s theory of affordances moves in the other direction: goal-relevant information is transmitted back from the environment to the organism, triggering actions that, if successful, would prove valuable to the organism. Again though, I’m less than halfway through with Juarrero’s book; maybe later she’ll get to an ecological bidirectionality of information and of intentionality.

  58. Ok, I’m going to go out a limb here. I hope it is not imposing, but the following has been floating in my mind for quite some time. I promise it is relevant to the post 8)

    Premises:
    1) Something and Nothing are not mutually exclusive. Yes, that means a strict interpretation of the Law of the Excluded Middle is being challenged. A simple example: imagine two sine waves each of the same frequency but 180 degrees out of phase. Now, superimpose them; they cancel each other. Is it two somethings or merely nothing? In reality, it is both/and. If in doubt take away something from nothing by filtering just one of the waves, and voila! the other wave emerges. Another empirical example is particle/anti-particle pairs that come in and out of ‘existence’. And, yes, we all know a cat is not a not-cat, nor is it a dog. Which is why, like Deacon, I don’t claim to do philosophy.

    2) Based on 1), it’s completely reasonable that an ostensible ‘something’ be able to come from a similarly ostensible ‘nothing’. Case in point: purpose and function. Just like everything else in the universe, there is no logical reason to suppose that any observable event was around before the universe, and certainly not beyond it. That means no Dualism, property or substance … I mean that in the most scientific way 8)

    3) Also based on 1), mutual exclusivity may have epistemological utility; however, ontologically, it’s a source of more questions than answers. Why? Because modern physics makes a stronger case for the claim that all events or objects at the micro-scale are distributed through a continuum than the claim for discrete atomism; which, by the way, is a logical frick’n nightmare to defend, because every boundary condition of supposed irreducible part-icles would require infinite energy per the Uncertainty principle.

    To review:
    P1) Something and Nothing are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
    P2) A seeming ‘something’, e.g. particle + anti-particle + photon, can come from apparently ‘nothing’, e.g. no observable difference.
    P3) Physical reality is most probably distributed, not discrete.

    Onto some not-syllogistic conclusions, so let’s call them claims:
    C1) Based on P2, any difference, event, relation, or object in the universe may have reasonably evolved from a mutual cancellation of all those things, popularly known as ‘nothing’. This includes, but is not limited to, purpose and function.
    C2) Based on P3, all events, observable or not, in the universe, including any conception of information, are both distinct and inter-dependent with other local events, simultaneously. [I call this my prime premise in my own work. It was reassuring to find the same independent claim in Edgar Morin's Restricted Complexity, General Complexity - Thanks, Michael]

    Review claims:
    C1) All that exists in the universe co-evolved from ‘nothing’ or no-things, a priori.
    C2) Every-thing in the universe is both distinct and inter-dependent with other things, simultaneously.

    It’s important I emphasize that when I say simultaneous, I mean in the same space at the same time. But wait, we were all taught that this is impossible. Well, not only is it possible, it is the foundation of all matter-energy interactions … ever. As the sine wave example above illustrates, it’s called superposition, and every atom and molecule, every force, and therefore every action/reaction is predicated on superposition, i.e. the distinct, yet inter-dependent, nature of all events in physical reality.

    Let’s try some conclusions based on the claims. Here’s the part relevant to the post:

    Based on C1, purpose and function do not need to be presupposed for any process. They can evolve with everything else.

    Based on C1 and C2, intent is a co-evolution between a distinct event in nature and other distributed events in its surroundings. This can be the relation between DNA and RNA, or it can be the relation between DNA and the angst of post-industrial man under late capitalism [thanks, Searle].

    Based on C1 and C2, autopoiesis is not plausible because the ‘self’ necessarily co-evolves with its surroundings. The self can not have only internal volition, because any understanding of adaptability would then need to be internally generated. And, in a physics sense, it’s just plain inefficient; let the environment inform the developing organism what’s important to some significant degree. The ‘self’ is in-formed by the environment.

    Based on C2, mereology, supervenience, and any cybernetic or computationalist project will not succeed in modeling life or mind, let alone being them, because they all presuppose discrete and fixed parts and/or functions. Based on C2, all aspects of life and mind are ontologically distributed. Their transition from state to state is continuously dependent upon many local superimposed phenomena. As such, there is no fixed function, no fixed behavior, only tendencies that are guaranteed to evolve.

    As for dynamics, yes, life is dynamic. However, as discussed above, a whirlpool is organized, but it is logically distinct from an organism. The whirlpool persists over-coherent upon itself, whereas the organism persists based on both itself and its environment. For example, the autogen’s interior space can trap any number of compounds that may interact with future generations to manifest intentional relations in time, because the internalized compound is not of the self originally. It is of its environment. That which was consumed in the last generation is incorporated into the next. And a correspondence can be established, whereby indispensable relations with the agent’s environment are considered as merely ‘self’. In fact, however, the ‘autonomous’ agent, while certainly distinct, necessarily co-evolved to be inter-dependent with its environment. Intent is an evolved physical relationship.

    I’m pretty sure this is what Deacon is arguing. I know it’s what I’m arguing.

    Cheers and thanks for indulging the lengthy post;
    Josh

  59. Josh please see http://isce.edu/ifsr.pdf which is a summary of the work a bunch of us at IFSR in April on Sciecne I and Science II it fits well within your schema

  60. Josh, I like it.

    All, maybe I’m missing something or just hand waving, but my understanding of nonlinearity, thermodynamics etc., is that it’s for describing/explaining emergent systems, that is systems in which parts and relations and inputs reach tipping points into qualitatively different states (excuse also lexical vacatiosity please). These are situations in which there is inherently a “gap in the explanation,” if the causal model is the billiard balls both Hume and Juarrero criticize (although she spends the better part of two chapters systematically and aggressively misunderstanding this about him, but it’s OK because he’s dead and she reinvents the wheel quite nicely).

    But if I understand correctly, this is not the 1. Get underpants. 2. ? 3. Profit …. kind of gap. It’s the ordinary business of dynamic self-organization, which is where whirlpools, teakettles on a rolling boil and other everyday phase shifts come in. If you want billiard balls, you end up with some sort of ‘god of the gaps’, but wanting linear (subset, intentional) causality is precisely part of the theology Hume was already trying to clean out of philosophy 200 years ago. So one of the things Juarrero, Deacon et. al. are (still) trying to do is track us into a different understanding of how things work and therefore what counts as an explanation. Is this responsive, or have I missed the point?

  61. Will take a look, Michael.

    Thanks, Carl.

  62. (Re: Hume and therefore back down the rat hole of the history of philosophy, which is where Juarrero noodles herself out of all possible audiences except the tiny one that still cares about Aristotle – as I recall from now long-ago reading, Hume’s basic point is that when we see one billiard ball hit another and then motion from the second, we may infer causation from this but we do not actually see ’cause’. We see a conjunction of objects and motions. Because we can’t see it, cause is therefore an extra-empirical, metaphysical speculation. About ‘it’ we are therefore stuck with gathering inherently indirect indices, based on which we may hypothesize a relationship that with repetition (‘constant conjunction’) may well grow sufficiently robust in an always-probabilistic way to act like a fact, or factish. In Hume therefore, the ontology of objects has already given way to the science of relationships; definite certainties to robust probabilities. Which of course is why Kant found him so challenging and took that little detour we’re still trying to beat our way back from. Speaking of which, end digression.)

  63. Carl – I think you’re right on the mark. If you look at Deacon and Juarrero, the take-away message is “We’re thinking about it wrong”. And when you gut the structure down to the foundation, you now have to address “What counts as an explanation?”

    Poor Hume. He’s become everyone’s favorite straw-man. But you’re right: we never made it back from “that little detour”, and the issues Kant grappled with are still front-and-center. What is the nature of the mind’s access to the world? I think Deacon’s got the question right in a way a lot of people are missing.

  64. Josh, I don’t feel qualified to comment on your model, but it’s pretty cool that you have a project related to Deacon’s and Juarrero’s work. I’m curious and engaged, but I have no horse in the race that I’m backing.

    Carl, I returned Deacon’s book to the library, but early on he says that he’s trying to reconcile the hard sciences, in which breakdown into subcomponents and cause-effect chains dominate the explanatory apparatus, with the “special” sciences (I love that term –like we’re all riding the short bus to school) in which intention is routinely invoked as the “cause” of decisions and actions. This is familiar territory for you, of course. But Deacon is going to want to explain the emergent phenomena all the way up and down the line, closing all the gaps, including the evolution/emergence of intentionality. Is this a fool’s errand? It’s hard to say. Looking at Michael’s slideshow, he’s going to retain the divide between hard and special sciences, or Science 1 and Science 2, presumably on pragmatic grounds because his work unfolds in the Science 2 realm. That’s fair enough

    We were talking briefly about JJ Gibson. In the second chapter of his Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (1979) he says:

    “The world can be described at different levels, and one can choose which level to begin with. Biology begins with the division between the living and the nonliving. But psychology begins with the division between the animate and the inanimate, and this is where we choose to begin.”

    Though Gibson does make explicit claims that his theory of perception applies to human and nonhuman animals, he doesn’t extend the theory to plants or to inanimate systems. In trying to link hard and special sciences while trying to avoid ultra-mechanistic explanations, it’s tempting and perhaps fruitful to shunt ideas from the special sciences across the divide into the inanimate world. Gibson’s idea of affordances becomes a candidate for describing system-environment interactions all the way down. , this time from the second page:

    “[T]he words animal and environment make an inseparable pair. Each term implies the other. No animal could exist without an environment surrounding it. Equally, though not so obvious, an environment implies an animal (or at least an organism) to be surrounded…”

    But again Gibson immediately lays down the constraints on extending his interconnective model to the inanimate realm:

    “…This means that the surface of the earth, millions of years ago before life developed on it, was not an environment, properly speaking. The earth was a physical reality, a part of the universe, and the subject matter of geology. It was a potential environment, prerequisite to the evolution of life on this planet. We might agree to call it a world, but it was not an environment. The mutuality of animal and environment is not implied in physics and the physical sciences. The basic concepts of space, time, matter, and energy do not lead naturally to the organism-environment concept or to the concept of a species and its habitat. Instead, they seem to lead to the idea of an animal as an extremely complex object of the physical world. The animal is thought of as a highly organized part of the physical world but still a part and still an object. This way of thinking neglects the fact that the animal-object is surrounded in a special way, that an environment is ambient for a living object in a different way from the way that a set of objects is ambient for a physical object. The term physical environment is, therefore, apt to get us mixed up, and it will usually be avoided in this book.”

    Deacon (and I think Juarrero as well) are motivated to bridge the gap between inorganic and organic, between complex physical object and animal, between the earth as potential environment and actual environments. Gibson explicitly warns his reader against trying to use his concepts to smooth out these differences, but presumably there had to have been at least one moment in the earth’s history when the gap was bridged. Does the bridge always have to be built from lower to higher, from physics to biology to psychology, etc. Or is it possible to build from both sides of the divide? If it’s possible to invoke the autogen as a missing proto-thing, a link between complex physical object and organism, can the same be done with proto-environments, proto-affordances, proto-ecologies, and so on? Gibson warns against the danger of taking concepts with scientific explanatory power in one realm and turning them into mere metaphors when exporting them to other realms. But he was staking out new ground in psychology; maybe now that his ideas have gained more traction in his home field he’d loosen up the constraints a little, hand them the keys and let them take a little drive out of the neighborhood.

  65. That’s some seriously interesting stuff, John. Weird, too, that he was warning against the same thing I was warning against earlier (if I’m reading you right). Now I want to read him. Damn you, Lissack!

    From an evolutionary point of view, there’s always something close to but not quite the full-fledged thing we think of when we name it. Does a lobster have a brain? Does a giant squid? Prior to that, did there have to be something proto-neuronal? And does that make our current brains proto-whatever’s-next?

    Stuart Kauffman seems to think that there isn’t always such a thing — that some types of order spontaneously form out of decidedly disordered processes. I could be wrong, but I think Deacon follows that idea, and also thinks that new types of order can form in the same way within already-interlocked ordered systems.

  66. “Deacon (and I think Juarrero as well) are motivated to bridge the gap between inorganic and organic, between complex physical object and animal, between the earth as potential environment and actual environments. Gibson explicitly warns his reader against trying to use his concepts to smooth out these differences, but presumably there had to have been at least one moment in the earth’s history when the gap was bridged.”

    Exactly. The question is not whether someone has articulated something similar to Deacon’s teleodynamics previously – he is talking about the attributes of life and mind, so of course these things have been described before. The question is whether anyone has systematically described a system by which they might emerge, both dynamically and historically. What Deacon seems to be offering is a scientifically satisfactory way of describing the emergence of these qualities… and not “emergence” in a hand-wavey, mereological way. The entire idea is that these ideas – described by others in the past – might cash out in a manner that is consistent with the observations of physical and natural science. Deacon’s contribution is fleshing the whole thing out, rather than making vague claims about what seems to be true of life or mind. For those of us in scientific disciplines, fleshing it out is the most important part – and why previously, claims for special qualities of life and mind were difficult to reconcile with the scientific worldview.

    It’s funny – this is why I’m more interested in how philosophically-minded scientists react to his theory, rather than in how scientifically-minded philosophers react. Not because of some hard-science-fetishism, but because of the expectations that scientists hold with respect to a theory of life or mind: that it can be reconciled with empirical observation. In Deacon’s attempt, of both “subjective” and “objective” types.

  67. Glasperlenspiel – This, in my opinion, is where the big hangup is. You can see it in both McGinn’s and Fodor’s reviews — an unacknowedged (and maybe even unknowing) difference of opinion on the nature of explanation. It comes down to a normativity with respect to meta-theory.

    While the norm in science is that it’s largely unproblematic (meta-theory = “if the theory matches observation, you are golden”), it’s still a roiling, bloody mess in philosophy (see Hume v. Kant above). What’s extremely interesting to me is that Deacon sees that there is a “philosophical” problem, but sees it from a scientific perspective. He’s both fleshing it out *and* re-conceptualizing.

    My intuition is that there’s a way to bridge the scientific/philosophical gap. Deacon is pointing the way for scientifically-minded philosophers to build it, but it’s going to take time and work. The reason I’m so excited about Incomplete Nature is that it’s clarifying some ideas I’ve had on that front that have remained vague for quite a while.

    By the way, were you commenting over at the Joyus Crynoid post?

  68. “My practice, you say, refutes my doubts. But you mistake the purport of my question. As an agent, I am quite satisfied in the point; but as a philosopher… I want to learn the foundation of this inference [of causality]…. Nor need we fear that this philosophy… should ever undermine the reasoning of common life, and carry its doubts so far as to destroy all action, as well as speculation. Nature will always maintain her rights, and prevail in the end against any abstract reasoning whatsoever.” Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He doesn’t quite call philosophers fundamentalists….

  69. Are you guys actually reading Juarrero? DiA has at least one whole chapter on explanation! Plus you might want to check out her talk in Cancun (audio & power point slide notes up on her website). That’s the one Deacon attended.

  70. In 1983, four years after Gibson’s book came out, Fodor published Modularity of Mind. As an account of mind it is mereological, if I understand the term correctly. The mind is assembled from discrete faculties, or modules, linked together into a more complex whole. Fodor explicitly acknowledges an intellectual debt to Chomsky, who proposed that linguistic ability is a discrete module that radically distinguishes human from nonhuman minds. According to Fodor, a mental module is largely (1)domain-specific, (2) innate, (3) assembled from more elementary subprocesses, (4) hardwired, and (5) computationally autonomous. In Fodor’s model the multiple discrete modules are coordinated and integrated by some sort of nonmodular central system that acts on behalf of the whole organism.

    These aren’t crackpot ideas, and empirical support is not lacking for them. On the other hand, the discrete modularity of faculties, the bottom-up assembly from components, and the central coordinating “homunculus” have all taken their lumps from neurological and cognitive research. In a sense Deacon is offering a radical critique of Fodor’s model, arguing for the wholes organizing the parts, for reorganization rather than assembly of components, for distributed rather than central coordination. It’s not surprising then that Fodor is quick to dismiss Deacon’s project.

    With respect to Juarrero, I’m halfway through, and I believe that many of the other discussants are reading or have already read the book. I introduced some questions about her ideas a few steps back in this thread, which we’re discussing in a roundabout way along with others’ issues. It looks like Juarrero finishes the book with a couple of chapters on explanation; I’m not there yet.

  71. Mariana – I’m reading as much as I can get hold of (including DiA, the paper you linked to, and other stuff). Do you feel that her discussion of explanation addresses something here that we’re missing?

  72. Mariana, I have now read DiA and the paper you linked. They’re fine pieces of work in a tradition I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years. When she says something the most useful way for something I want to get at, I will be sure to invoke her appropriately. When she doesn’t, I won’t, because to do so would just be pseudo-scholarly obfuscatory clutter.

    As it happens, while I admire Juarrero’s accomplishment the particular frame she’s got these issues in is, in my view, cluttered with the detritus of philosophical time-wasting in ways that make it prohibitively cumbersome to extract for my purposes. As a Marx and Gramsci scholar I also could laboriously extract most of this stuff from those much older texts, and as a son of Chuck Dyke I could go much more fruitfully for my particular purposes to his excellent Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Systems (1988), as well as his more recent work. Which in fact I do, without troubling the discussion with endless reminders for everyone to do it my way and read the particular book I happen to like the best.

    Again, I could get these ideas many, many different ways at this point. The insights are old and the literature is vast and varied. So when I’ve got work to do I go to where the configuration of the tools best suit the particular task at hand. And again because of the philosophical frame, for me that’s never going to be Juarrero. For some other Goldilocks, perhaps you for example, she will be just right, which in well-trodden fields is all any of us can ask for.

    Right now this group is trying to figure out how Deacon’s got the tools configured and what work can be done with them. I would think calls to bibliographical completeness are very clearly orthogonal to that project. But then, a lot of stuff seems obvious to me and yet not to other people.

  73. Carl thanks for the reference to your father’s book. I have ordered a copy.

    As for the tools. I would politely suggest that any effort to explain things which are more properly in the realm of Science II (those areas where reliable prediction is neither the goal nor logically possible) with tools which are part of Science I (those areas where reliable prediction is the goal) are doomed to failure at worst and inadequacy at best. Deacon is attempting IMHO to do just that and does so by “inventing” a proxy for Science II which he endows with ontic status for purposes of anchoring in Science I. (for these terms please see our work at IFSR from April at http://isce.edu/ifsr.pdf)

    I further agree with you that the bibliographic debate has moved on to other venues and does not need revisiting here

  74. Thank you Michael! This is especially interesting to me because, 1. As a historian, all my analyses are post facto, 2. Historians have been of several minds about our relation to science since Ranke, Dilthey, and the contingencies of funding during the Cold War, and 3. As a historian of social theory I have a bit of a running battle with the prediction-oriented positivists who dominate that field. (Juarrero is exactly right about how complex the stories get.)

  75. Maybe this thread is all wrapped up with a bow on top, but apparently I just can’t drop the bone (to mix at least two metaphors). Since comments aren’t formally closed I’ll ramble on a bit. Last night in Juarrero’s book I read chapter 12 on “Intentional Action,” — a chapter which presumably is pivotal to the overall purpose of the book. Up to this point things were going swimmingly, and with the preceding chapter’s coverage of artificial neural networks I felt well-positioned for Juarrero’s next moves. Sad to report, after chapter 12 I find myself both unpersuaded and baffled. Here’s why.

    1. The book has invoked complex dynamic systems to contend that, in far from equilibrium conditions, systems self-organize in ways that generate emergent properties that aren’t reducible to their components. Fair enough. So what about the emergence of systems that have intentionality: is there anything specific that accounts for their emergence? Says Juarrero in chapter 12:

    “In the case of the human brain, a number of lower-level neurological units and layers, recurrently connected, are undoubtedly a prerequisite before self-organized dynamical neural structures with the emergent properties of meaning, consciousness, and even self-consciousness can appear. But it is not unreasonable to speculate that, once those prerequisites are in place, such highly complex levels of neural organization will self-assemble. Deliberate purposiveness, self-awareness, and so forth are among the novel properties that will become manifest with that level of emergent neurological organization.”

    Well that was easy. “Can appear” and “not unreasonable to speculate” suddenly become “will self-assemble” and “will become manifest.” I wonder what the “and so forth” of self-organizational manifestations are: linguistic ability, math skills, love, justice, theosis? Next topic.

    2. In an earlier comment I explained why I didn’t buy Juarrero’s strategy for debunking behaviorism. Now, several chapters later, she addresses my precise objection:

    “In the chapter on information theory I also claimed that to constitute action the trajectory ‘intention to raise arm –> arm rises’, must unequivocally identify the intention as the source of the behavior… The problem appears one step further back in the process. If ‘intention to raise arm’ can be realized in any one of several neurological processes, isn’t the behavior ‘arm rises’ equivocal with respect to those neurological processes?”

    Right: if multiple neural pathways can lead to the same intention, then intentionality is caused by something neurally upstream from the intent. So what’s Juarrero’s response to this acknowledged logical conundrum?

    “Under normal conditions the behavior of a complex system’s components is at the service of the global level, which, by its very nature, tolerates a certain range of fluctuation at the lower level… Once the cognitive, intentional level self-organizes, the fact that any one of several neurological processes can implement the same mental event becomes irrelevant… What matters, that is, is whether or not the neural process transmits information as mental.”

    So because neural processes have self-organized into a mental process, the mental trumps the neural going back upstream. I.e., the various possible neural paths that can generate the same intent are already part of a mental intentionality system. Maybe so. Then according to that same logic why not make the same contention one level downstream? I.e., if multiple behaviors can result in raising the arm, why not assert that those behaviors are already part of an arm-raising system? There would be no need for mentality; only behavioral systems need be invoked — which is exactly what the behaviorists asserted. As far as I can tell, based solely on Juarrero’s logic — i.e., without empirical backing — there is no persuasive basis for choosing cognitivism over behaviorism, and intentionality goes out with the bathwater.

    3. Intentional action has for decades been one of the main topics of theory and empirical investigation in psychology. Juarrero largely ignores this work, relying instead on information theory, dynamic systems theory, set theory, “plausible scenarios,” “what it might look like,” and so on. Why invoke these abstract devices imported from other disciplines to explain of how intentional action might work when there are empirically-supported theories that do a pretty good job of explaining how intentional action actually does work?

    Three chapters to go.

  76. Here’s something I did like quite a lot in Juarrero’s book, from chapter 11:

    “Both artificial and biological neural networks are coarse-coded; that is, each unit receives input from many other units. Moreover some of the connections to a given unit may be excitatory, others inhibitory. The artificial network as a whole computes inputs to all the units and settles into a state that best satisfies the overall level of constraints… It is important to emphasize that the specific pattern of connection weights that each neural network embodies at any given moment will be different depending on the exact distribution of weights from which it started and the precise sequence of input signals on which it was trained.”

    Asher and I previously talked a bit about these features of neural nets, supporting the importance of systemic organization and constraint propagation that both Juarrero and Deacon emphasize. As Juarrero says, “artificial neural networks start out with a random distribution of weights;” i.e., a system characterized not by stasis but by noise — that’s good too, and supportive of the larger argument based on informational entropy. But then Juarrero goes on to make the case for complex system dynamics:

    “Artificial neural networks with recurrent circuits produce behavior that issues from a dynamically self-organized set of connection weights.”

    Yes, that’s what the statistical algorithms built into the model are there for: the data iterates through simultaneous equations until a best-fitting solution is arrived at. This solution will typically consist of a set of factors, with each factor being a distinct vector of weighted values derived from all or some of the input variables. A lot of multivariate statistical analyses work this way even when they’re not strapped to a neural net simulation. But Juarrero never talks about the algorithms; she discusses only the self-organizational dynamic and the emergent properties — i.e., the factors calculated from the variables. She acknowledges that the simulations are allopoietic, designed and built rather than totally self-organizing. However, she speculates that real autopoietic neural nets organize themselves in a similar way, generating syntactically rich factors from surface-level variables. Maybe so. But in the case of the neural net simulation the emergent systemic properties can be directly and precisely tied back to the specific set of lower-level neural nodes, environmental input variables, and algorithms. That’s the sort of detail that Deacon at least tries to come to grips with.

  77. “An unexamined projection of philosophical terminology, conceptual frameworks and exegetical norms to the scientist’s text — In short, an assumption that the scientist is writing a work of philosophy.”

    This was EXACTLY my thought as I read McGinn’s review. He clearly hasn’t understood Deacon’s notion of absence, and brings up an example that doesn’t pertain to the physics sense that Deacon is using.

  78. Krishan

    With all due respect. Deacon is NOT a physicist. He is an anthropologist writing a text about philosophical questions. To assert that because he claims to be a “scientist” gives him some privilege over mere philosophers when writing outside of his own field about philosophy is very strange. And my friend there is NO physics concept of “absence” — show me one reference from a major physicist writing about physics where it is used. As for the physicists who write philosophy sorry same objection — they too are writing out of their own field and lose any claim to ‘special knowledge’ or even to ‘accurate jargon’

    see http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/what-physics-learns-from-philosophy.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/russell-stannard/m-theory_b_1571466.html

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/can-physics-and-philosophy-get-along/

  79. Michael, I find both cereal boxes and multivolume tomes worth reading from time to time. The Qur’an is worth reading and so is Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Yet life is short. Please specify the relevance and value of suggested readings (aka dead voles) or they will be ignored.

  80. JohnD, just wait until you get to the payoff chapter on explanation and it turns out the whole thing was an elaborate regrounding of Gadamerische hermeneutics.

  81. Michael – seems your argument is with me, not Krishan. Krishan made one assertion – that McGinn doesn’t understand Deacon’s notion of absence. So there was no claim of privilege. Please try to argue with actual claims being made.

    Absence, as used in Deacon’s book, is his concept. The whole book is about how existing physical models are having difficulty incorporating processes like intention. So it would be rather unusual for physicists to have used it, eh?

  82. sorry the link is to a piece which tries to tie Deacon Juarrero and more together

    Asher its that Krishan said “the physics sense” and I believe you and I would agree that Deacon’s absence is NOT a physics concept. It the use of “science” as a claim of privilege (by Deacon himself in contrast to philosophers) and then to magnify the claim by relying on that supposed “god” physics. None of the discussion to date has been physics and none is likely to be going forward … IMHO this is a philosophy debate

  83. To act top-down from the intentional level in which meaning is embodied is thus to exercise free will, in the following senses: (1) Because all self-organizing systems select the stimuli to which they respond… (from Juarrero’s last chapter, underlines added by me)

    As I rushed toward the conclusion of Juarrero’s book, stumbling over the wild question-begging assertion in this excerpt, I realized something that had somehow eluded me: Juarrero’s intention in writing this book is exactly the opposite of Deacon’s.

    Juarrero contends that not only are human actions intrinsically unpredictable; so too are physical and chemical actions. A human is like a hurricane, she avers a couple of times toward the end: you never know what pathway either one is going to take. When Juarrero invokes self-organizing systems and so on, she’s not looking for a way to “close the gaps” between unintentional causes and intentions. She’s arguing that the gaps cannot be closed even in the realms studied by physics and chemistry. And in the quote above she’s even contending that a self-organizing system like a hurricane is selecting its path; i.e., it’s intentionality all the way down.

    In short, Juarrero is here to celebrate the gaps as the source of freedom, unpredictability, and (yes) the American entrepreneurial spirit. Deacon, on the other hand, brings in self-organizing system theory as a possible tool in the ongoing work of closing the gaps in the “traditional” scientific explanatory enterprise.

    Because I read Deacon’s book first, and because I was alerted to the overlaps between his book and Juarrero’s, I read Juarrero’s book with a hermeneutical lens fitted by Deacon. I think this expectation misled me. These two writers might cover similar turf, but they deploy the tools and interpret the implications in radically different ways. It’s true: Deacon does invoke ideas that Juarrero also uses in her book. But if I were Deacon I’d likely have regarded Juarrero not as precursor but as foil. If Deacon had cited Juarrero, he might have said something like this: Juarrero asserts that “all self-organizing systems select,” but that’s both misleading and almost certainly flat-out wrong and here’s why… Citing Juarrero in this way might have helped Deacon frame his position more clearly, while simultaneously adding some controversy. It might have added a bit of tabloid appeal, an affective lure for drawing more readers to both books.

  84. Looks like the underlines didn’t underline — in the Juarrero citation at the top of my comment I intended to highlight the words “all” and “select.” Self-referentially, my failure *underlines* a point that Juarrero makes in her book: actions taken in pursuit of an intention don’t always succeed. Or as somebody once said, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.

  85. John as the Brits might say “By Jove Old Boy You’ve Got It” and thus from Juarreros’ point of view Deacon’s making use of much of the same material to attempt to illustrate/prove/explain the opposite of her conclusions was startling at a minimum and demanding of engagement (which she I and many others still hope can somehow occur)

  86. Michael, if JohnD is in fact correct then what you seem to be looking for is sort of like Adam Smith insisting that since both he and Marx talk about markets, the division of labor and political economy, Marx should fess up he got the good stuff from old Uncle Adam over here, no hard feelings come have a nice sit-down and incidentally, what’s all this communism nonsense?

    What actually happened is Marx spent several thousand pages explaining rudely and in detail how fundamentally wrong-headed ‘bourgeois’ economics was, using them as explicit foils for his comprehensively contrary conception in which ‘the same’ materials were developed to opposite purpose. With copious and rigorous footnotes in the best scholarly tradition. This being one example of how ‘engagement’ can go.

  87. Carl and if they had been contemporaries what an interesting debate/dialogue might have ensued! (and thanks for noting that Karl was very careful with his citations … ) Not that Juarrero and Deacon can even approach such a dialogue but the exchange around the ideas is what will provide the learning (and not the bibliographic debate)

  88. And full disclosure I spent 14 years as an investment banker and thus derived much benefit from “bourgeois economics”
    then I gave my money away and became an academic

  89. Of course the question remains unanswered, at least not to everyone’s satisfaction: what did Deacon know and when did he know it? Regardless of the past, D and J would make for an interesting discussion/debate on the go-forward.

  90. John IMHO the question you ask is unlikely to ever be answered so the task for me now is to attempt to enable the conditions which allow for the discussion/debate — to the extent that others can help with enablement it would be greatly appreciated (and to the extent so desired humbly acknowledged)

  91. John – I’ve been totally crushed for time this last week, but I wanted to note briefly that your continuing discussion of Juarrero has been of value to me. Besides the point about behaviorism/”multiple pathways”, which I think is important and correct, I really like the idea about celebrating the gaps, which draws Deacon and Juarrero into better contrast than I’ve yet been able to do.

    Also, it was instructive to think about the question: “If Deacon *had* read and cited Juarrero, what would he have said?” I hadn’t really thought about it from that angle. Briefly, I think she fits the mold of the mereological dynamic-systems approach that Deacon finds insufficient. I’m hoping Juarrero will have occasion to write about what she thinks about Deacon’s approach.

    There’s much to riff on, and no time to riff. Hopefully, I’ll get my sh*t together and do a post on the neural network stuff.

  92. Asher – yep, I was over there too. ‘LikesToRead’ (currently) Hesse’s Glasperlenspiel – a topic-relevant novel if ever there was one.

    “In short, Juarrero is here to celebrate the gaps as the source of freedom, unpredictability, and (yes) the American entrepreneurial spirit. Deacon, on the other hand, brings in self-organizing system theory as a possible tool in the ongoing work of closing the gaps in the “traditional” scientific explanatory enterprise.”

    Ah, beautifully put. I wonder if each author would agree to their respective characterization.

    ‘If Deacon had cited Juarrero, he might have said something like this: Juarrero asserts that “all self-organizing systems select,” but that’s both misleading and almost certainly flat-out wrong and here’s why…”

    I’ve actually wondered this myself – which part of Deacon’s book does Juarrero think she would fit into? I actually think Juarrero would have been a perfect Archimedian point for Deacon’s leverage: “Here’s what I *don’t* mean by absence.” At the least she would have found a home among the complex systems folks, who Deacon rejects; or among the top-down mereology folks, who he also rejects. Probably some resonance with her constraint story, but taking it in a nearly opposite direction. Not “celebrating the gaps,” but celebrating his absences.

  93. I thought that was you. You did a fantastic job over there — patiently and precisely herding him toward your point.

    What seems to be very much under-discussed regarding Deacon’s absences is that the concept is the key to his reductionist “compatibilism”. What’s left over when you’ve reduced a system is what’s *not* there. This is the part I’d like to try and re-tell from a philosophical perspective.

  94. Asher et al if you are going to go down the road of “explaining” Deacon’s absentials please try explain why he gives absences powers he denies memes see http://www.teleodynamics.com/wp-content/PDF/Memes.pdf and http://projects.chass.utoronto.ca/semiotics/srb/10-3edit.html I cannot resolve this contradiction (well I can bibliographic debate wise but that is another story for another web site)

  95. What “powers” does he “give them”, Michael?

  96. Hm. Not sure how you read it that way, Michael.

    Deacon does not “deny” memes. He’s pointing out that the meme concept, as developed by Dawkins and progeny, is only describing one aspect (self-replication) of what a sign does (and what semiotics has studied for a century). Basically he’s saying that semiotics – in particular Peircean semiotics, which seems pretty fundamental to Deacon’s orientation (both in Symbolic Species and Incomplete Nature) – is a more fruitful way of studying and understanding signs than is the relatively recent advent of “meme theory”. He acknowledges that meme theory might be helpful because it reminds semioticians not to simply categorize the world into semiotic typologies – it focuses us on processes – but that generally, semiotics offers a more robust and fleshed-out account of what meme theory is trying to describe… particularly in pop-science versions like Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, which I never liked very much.

    This was also published in 1999, looks like (maybe as a review of The Meme Machine?). A pretty strong degree of overlap with Deacon’s topics in Incomplete Nature – particularly regarding DNA and abiogenesis, the question of information and its physical substrate, etc: “Genes and memes are the physical loci where the replicative and adaptational functions intersect, but these loci do not ‘contain’ the information that constitutes these two functions any more than they determine their own replication.”

    If I’m reading it right, these are hints toward what later becomes “absential” qualities in Incomplete Nature – the physical stuff does not *contain* information, representation, adaptation, replication, function, etc. These are dynamically or relationally produced, the “what’s missing” from a physicalist account. It’s not fully developed, but it’s there – and a full three years before Juarrero’s book.

  97. Juarrero’s book was 1999

  98. Ah, apologies – the MIT Press page must reflect a later printing (?). Anyhow, my point is simply that Deacon seems to have been thinking about these issues for quite some time.

  99. I read the first meme article. Deacon’s main point is that the meme has no agency, that it’s not “trying” to replicate itself in brains. A meme without agency can still be causal; e.g., I would never hum Dixie if I had never head that particular tune before. Similarly, the pitcher of iced tea in the refrigerator is a cause for my sitting here drinking it. But the tea isn’t an intentional agent luring me into the kitchen.

    One reason why memes seem to have agency is that they often bypass human intentionality. I can hear a song and start singing it, words and all, without consciously being aware of having learned it. Where then does the agency come from? It’s like the song planted itself in my head. But a lot of human learning takes place unconsciously and unintentionally. Deacon says that a song, like any meme, is a pattern that must be interpreted in order for it to become information. The implication of meme transmission is that human pattern interpretation can take place unconsciously and unintentionally. There’s good evidence for that being the case; e.g., visual perception entails the unconscious and unintentional interpretation of patterns of luminance, color, edges, motions, etc. as a 3-D spatial array of objects in dynamic relation with one another. The bookcase across the room causes my brain to generate a visual representation, but that doesn’t mean that the bookcase wants me to replicate itself in my brain.

  100. So Dixie didn’t tell you to infect Dead Voles with itself?

  101. Wait… this IS the land of cotton, isn’t it?

  102. Deacon’s reply to the McGinn review is out, as well as McGinn’s response:

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/oct/11/search-sentience/

  103. Well, this pretty much confirms that McGinn is clueless. Enough so that one begins to suspect Dunning-Kruger effect.

  104. Here’s a couple points supporting Carl’s claim:

    1. Deacon did not argue that sentience can be reduced to a material substrate; in fact, Deacon just said as much in his response: “… despite the fact that I repeatedly show why we cannot reduce either life or mind to material substrates.”. So, it is totally irrelevant whether or not McGinn objects to a point Deacon does not make.

    2. Yes, Deacon thinks that teleodynamics is a useful step in explaining sentience; that is the whole middle of the book about entropy, information, constraint, and work. Based on this foundation, the autogen is provided as an empirically testable link between non-representational and representational dynamic processes, a necessary precursor for sentience. Deacon does go on to speculate about sentience, but not before laying out a vary robust and deliberate means to get there. McGinn seems to utterly ignore the science, jumping straight to Deacon’s thoughtful – although admitted – speculations regarding the vastly more complex sentience/consciousness questions as if this is the central effort of the book. Deacon clearly states in his response to the contrary.

    3. No, teleodynamics, if accepted, does not mean liver cells must be conscious. Such a claim boarders on panpsychism, which Deacon rejects. Teleodyanamics is a rigorous argument for a logical and physical “phase change” where the behavior of entropy is nearly orthogonal to its behavior at the morpho- and certainly homeodyanmic levels, a central thesis of IN clearly missed my McGinn.

    There are clearly worthwhile philosophical discussion to have regarding ententional phenomena and the physical and/or non-physical nature of constraints. However, a modicum of respect – if not understanding – of the science is necessary to have a semblance of a useful discourse that McGinn so patronizingly pines for. Instead he ends with a bow shot across the title of the book, as if that was one of the more substantive challenges by McGinn in dire need of a response from Deacon … or, perhaps, it’s a salvageable invitation?

    In any case, this latest exchange is merely a continued symptom of what Asher has clearly articulated in this post. I suppose my response is only a recapitulation of points already made in what will remain a long road through the inter-disciplinary thickets for some time. I never the less remain optimistic.

  105. Update on the Deacon “affair” – the University exonerated him of all accusations. They also published a website outlining all of the accusations, along with the findings of the investigative committee, in an effort to restore his reputation. http://terrydeacon.berkeley.edu/

  106. Really interesting — thanks for the update, Glas. Inasmuch as the committee was comprised of UC-Berkeley senior faculty, Deacon’s accusers probably dismiss the conclusions as an insider cover-up job. But this…

    “First, the committee noted that, in Deacon’s book, these common references were embedded in a larger body of non-common material, making it implausible that he incorporated them from Juarrero. Second, the committee found Deacon’s treatment of many of the common references much different from Juarrero’s.”

    …is arguably the only sound conclusion to be reached by anyone who reads both books.

  107. Agreed, John. And since in effect this is the conclusion many of us here at DV reached, and since none of us are senior UCB faculty, I consider the matter robustly settled – as to merit, if not as to collateral damage.

  108. I was really glad to see that they made a special effort to counter Lissack’s internet campaign. And their bio of Lissack himself was priceless.

  109. Yup. Btw Asher, love your new Machinarium icon!

  110. So far two people have recognized the little robot, and they were both cool. Ergo…

  111. That Berkeley pdf report is excellent – thanks for the link.

  112. Well I guess you’ve got to hand it to McGinn. I wonder if he’d agree that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

  113. Wow. That’s a half hour I’ll never get back. Hard to tell which is more ‘disgusting’ – McGinn’s fatuous, entitled, narcissistic preening, or the fatuous, entitled, moralistic preening of the pitchfork-wielding mobs who have seized the opportunity to vent every festering resentment on the fallen aristo. Fortunately, I can hold two ideas in mind at once!

  114. If I had read McGinn’s “refutation” of the accusations in a George Saunders collection, I would have said, “Comic gold”.

  115. ktismatics wrote on June 7th 2012 at 11:22pm

    “Or is it possible to build from both sides of the divide? If it’s possible to invoke the autogen as a missing proto-thing, a link between complex physical object and organism, can the same be done with proto-environments, proto-affordances, proto-ecologies, and so on? Gibson warns against the danger of taking concepts with scientific explanatory power in one realm and turning them into mere metaphors when exporting them to other realms. But he was staking out new ground in psychology; maybe now that his ideas have gained more traction in his home field he’d loosen up the constraints a little, hand them the keys and let them take a little drive out of the neighborhood.”

    I found this while searching for uses of the phrase “proto-affordance” in something like that sense, in discussions of J.J.Gibson. I have been using that and other generalisations of the notion of “affordance” (e.g. epistemic affordance, vicarious affordance, in various contexts discussing the power and limitations of Gibson’s ideas since around 2006 or 2007 (though I used the idea without that label in discussion perception of and reasoning about possibilities much earlier). EXample: http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/research/projects/cogaff/talks/#gibson

    I am curious to know where else the idea of proto-affordance has been used and by whom. Did ktismatics first come up with it while writing that sentence, or is there something published elsewhere that I could read?

    I am not concerned with issues of priority: I would merely like to have literature other than my own to refer to when discussing these ideas. especially if others have come up with the same ideas independently.

    Thanks
    Aaron

    http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/˜axs/

  116. Aaron – Sorry, I missed your comment.

    In the context of the discussion, I think ktismatics was sort of coining the term on the fly as he was synthesizing Gibson’s ideas with the work Deacon and others are doing to bridge the gap (or fill in the continuum) between living and non-living things. To what extent he further developed the idea, I don’t know, but it definitely seemed like an exciting trail to follow.

    I don’t think he’s been blogging much of late, but you might be able to contact him via his blog at http://ktismatics.wordpress.com/

  117. It’s the thread that refuses to succumb to blogging heat-death…

    You’re right, Asher: I made up the term in response to Deacon’s project. Deacon hypothesizes about proto-organisms as missing links, incrementally bridging the gap between inanimate and animate. So I was trying to think about properties of environments that bridge the gap between environmental preconditions for triggering specific inanimate actions and ecological features that support the survival of particular kinds of organisms. Gibson reserves the term “affordance” for the latter category; e.g, the downward sloping surface affords walking down into the valley where water can be obtained from the stream. But it’s also true, as you assert in one of your slide shows, Aaron (if you’re still around), that the downslope affords the possibility of the boulder rolling down the hill. So are there features of proto-ecologies that afford, say, the formation of a cell wall that sustains a self-organizing structure in far-from-equilibrium conditions, which Deacon regards as a crucial capability of any proto-organism? Certainly that would have to be true. The question in Deacon’s scheme is whether the proto-organism orients itself in a proto-intentional or “ententional” way toward these self-sustaining substrate conditions in its surroundings.

    My sense is that you, Aaron, use “proto-” more in the sense of “protean” — a feature of the environment that affords more than one possible action. I can certainly picture polyvalent affordances: for the deer, the vertical wall affords hiding-behind from predators and hiding-behind by predators; for me, the table affords standing-on in order to dance ridiculously or to replace the burned-out light bulb in the ceiling fixture. But in your usage does proto-affordance refer also to the possibility that the same feature affords different behaviors for different kinds of animate and inanimate objects? E.g., the does the downward slope afford both rolling for boulders and stream access for thirsty creatures? If so, then aren’t you positioning affordances not in the interactions between things (where Gibson placed them) but rather in the things themselves?

    If so, this gets us back to another tangentially relevant topic for this thread. Some of our object-oriented ontology pals would certainly regard affordances as properties of the object: a stream affords drinking-from, floating-on, dissolving-in, etc. I found this thinking problematic. Does the stream afford writing-poems-about, as Graham Harman would assert? Did this affordance exist in the stream even before there were poets in the universe? Or are affordances ecological, characterizing interactions between the object and other objects? I think so.

  118. Asher, Ktismatics, Thanks for your comments.

    Ktismatics wrote:
    “I made up the term in response to Deacon’s project.”

    It’s interesting that we chose the same label for slightly different, though related concepts.

    My deepest source of interest in Gibson comes from my attempt to understand the nature of mathematical discovery (along Kantian lines).

    In my 1962 DPhil thesis (a result of converting from mathematics to philosophy because I felt that almost all the philosophers I encountered at that time were wrong about mathematical knowledge) I tried to show that when perceiving or thinking about some physical configuration, we can often perceive, think about, and reason about constraints in sets
    of possible alternatives to what actually exists. (In a later paper I called them ‘actual possibilities’.)

    E.g. the table could have been nearer the door, oriented differently, bigger, a different colour etc. But without either the doorway or the table changing size or the table being disassembled, the table cannot pass through the doorway. I think the ability to make such discoveries and to reflect on them was at the root of the processes that culminated in Euclid’s elements: whose contents could not originally have come from mathematics teachers as they did not exist when the mathematical discoveries were originally made.

    They may have been triggered by empirical discoveries, but were transformed by non-empirical mathematical thinking — as Kant claimed, though he could not explain how. (Many details omitted here.)

    An example: four planar surfaces can completely enclose a finite 3-d portion of space, but three planar surfaces cannot
    (though they can bound an infinite tube).

    Later, when I encountered Gibson’s work on affordances I noticed that he was talking about a subset of the kinds of possibilities that could be perceived and thought about, namely those that were relevant to the perceiver’s goals and possible actions. I chose the phrase ‘proto affordances’ to refer to the more general class of possibilities and constraints
    — ‘proto’ because many (all?) of them could become affordances in Gibson’s sense for a perceiver with appropriate goals and capabilities.

    I think humans are not the only species that can perceive and think about such things, but we seem to be the only species that can reflect on such thought processes and communicate the results to others, engage in argument about them, and organise our discoveries into systems. (E.g. Euclidean geometry.)

    However very young children seem to be more like other intelligent animals: able to perceive and reason about possibilities and constraints on possibilities, in taking practical decisions, but without being able to reflect on what they are doing.

    They discover and use ‘toddler theorems’, but don’t know that they are doing that. Mostly parents, teachers, etc. don’t don’t notice either. I think Piaget had relevant insights, but standard psychological research methodologies are not suited to investigating such things, especially as there are many individual differences and diverse developmental
    trajectories. And the conceptual tools Piaget tried (e.g. group theory, truth tables) were not up to the explanatory job.

    Not only humans: squirrels, many nest-building birds, hunting mammals, elephants and others, also have some of these capabilities, though like human toddlers, they vary in the specific contents and depth of their understanding, and they don’t seem to have the meta-cognitive information processing layers required for human-like reflection on what they
    have discovered. Betty, the hook-making New Caledonian crow who became famous in 2002 was a spectacular example — videos of her exploits are online at the Oxford behavioural ecology web site: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~kgroup/tools/movies.shtml (the character before ‘kgroup’ must be ’tilde': ascii 126 ~)

    (I don’t think humans have the meta-cognitive abilities at birth, for good reasons: not enough material has been accumulated for them to operate on.)

    When I learnt about Artificial Intelligence and started programming, around 1969-70, I hoped to be able to model these discovery processes. But most of them have proved very difficult to replicate on computers, though I don’t know whether that’s simply because we have not been clever enough designers, or because different mechanisms of computation are
    required. None of the proposed neural models I know of suffice either. They can be trained to classify and to make (probabilistic) predictions, but not to discover new classes of possibilities and the impossibilities that limit them (constraints on possibilities).

    I am now hoping to get clues as to what we are missing by attempting to unravel the evolutionary history of these capabilities from microbes or pre-biota onwards, since it may be that current intelligent species are using unbvious layers of mechanism that evolved in earlier stages in our evolutionary history, I call that the ‘Meta-Morphogenesis’ project, partly in homage to Turing’s work on chemical mechanisms controlling morphogenesis shortly before he died.

    I suspect this will involve studying far more intermediate stages than anyone has so far looked at.

    Gibson’s work provides some clues, but there’s much that he missed.

    One thing I think he did notice was that many of the perceived structures, relations and possibilities don’t involve a metric — contrary to the assumptions of most researchers who attempt to model visual processes. Without a metric there’s still a rich collection of partial orderings: more or less near, large, curved, sloping, receding, expanding, etc. The
    implications of this are not clear yet.

    I have not studied Deacon’s work and don’t know if it will help. My understanding is that he was primarily interested in evolution of human language, which I think builds on many other things shared with other species, still largely un-noticed by most scientists and philosophers.

    But there’s still a huge amount to be done. Search terms: meta-morphogenesis, toddler-theorems, “triangle qualia”, “proto affordances”, “precocial competences” “meta-configured competences”, “Reasoning About a torus”.

    Aaron Sloman

    http://www.cs.bham.ac.uk/~axs

  119. It’s the thread that refuses to succumb to blogging heat-death…

    Take that, entropy!

    Every time I see a new comment here, I feel a pang about all the stuff I was planning to write about Deacon but didn’t.

    Or are affordances ecological, characterizing interactions between the object and other objects? I think so.

    Yeah, I think that’s it. My first thought was, “there would be a stream in any case”, but that’s not true of flowers. Affordances seem very accidental to me, which I guess makes sense since intention is in “use” rather than “being used”.

    Aaron – I’m finding your ideas very fascinating. My personal preoccupation is the way in which novel conceptual structures allow us to understand things that we were previously unable to understand. A simplified, rough example: were the models we use to understand genetics possible before we developed concepts of computation? And was a certain mechanistic conception (like Turing’s “tape”) necessary to get to computation? Do we need something like the concepts of Shannon entropy to develop a theory like Deacon’s about teleodynamic systems? And how do such conceptual structures come into existence? Conceptual structures are themselves affordances, in a sense. We start, it seems, (though not necessarily consciously) with metaphor (or isomorphism, as some say) — the function of DNA is “like” computation. A far-from-equilibrium system is *like* information as opposed to entropy.

    As you said, the neural systems we study and work with to this point don’t do these things that even squirrels do. So what I’ve got my eye out for is the “proto-metaphorical” system. What seems to be missing, to my mind, has something to do with bodies. This is where our primary set of non-conscious conceptual metaphors come from — the interactions between our bodies and the things in our environments. Think of how impossible it is to communicate even the simplest idea without a spatial or spatio-causal metaphor. We even think of our goals as physical journeys toward a destination. And we can bet, I think, that metaphorical/isomorphic thinking is pre-linguistic. At the most basic level, it’s tied to our body’s movement and causal force in the world, not to linguistic structures.

    I’ve said it enough times at Dead Voles that I’m sure it’s become tiresome, but I think our ANNs need two things they don’t currently have: bodies and childhoods. But I think they need more than that. I think association, classification, etc. are low-level, building-block like structures that arise from neural networks. They’re NAND gates, as it were, and we’d have to go up the scale to latches, flip-flops, memory circuits, registers, etc. before we’d see behavior that generates new classes (new isomorphisms, new metaphors). Intermediate stages.

    I don’t see a lot of interest in studying ANNs in this particular way, but it’s out there.

  120. “I chose the phrase ‘proto affordances’ to refer to the more general class of possibilities and constraints — ‘proto’ because many (all?) of them could become affordances in Gibson’s sense for a perceiver with appropriate goals and capabilities.”

    Yes, surely there are objects or properties in the environment whose affordance values emerge only through experience or learning. Language is arguably the prime carrier of “epistemic affordances” for humans, but obviously the affordance value — the meaning — is lost on infants. Language acquisition in young children, though rapid, is still incremental and largely unconscious, acquired empirically through multiple conversational trials than through explicit instruction. It’s a process not unlike that demonstrated by the hook-making crow. Is it fair to say that the sounds that humans make constitute proto-affordances? Maybe: humans probably evolved the ability to generate and to distinguish those sounds in parallel with their evolving ability to use symbolic language. But what about written language: do those pen-scratches or stick-gouges or digital electronic signals have proto-affordance value? I suppose they do, for sophisticated language-users who are able to transform noticeable differences in sounds into noticeable differences in physical markings. At a certain level of abstraction everything acquires potential affordance value, but only for creatures who are capable of functioning at that abstract level. Abstraction too is likely acquired incrementally, ratcheting its way up bit by bit from the concrete. Still, even for non-abstract creatures anything has potential affordance value; e.g., for Pavlov’s dog the bell affords chow time.

    “we seem to be the only species that can reflect on such thought processes and communicate the results to others, engage in argument about them, and organise our discoveries into systems. (E.g. Euclidean geometry.)”

    Chomsky argues for an abstract universal grammar hard-wired into the human brain, but isn’t it more likely that the grammar is an abstract sort of tool fabricated to describe what’s evolved and learned empirically and concretely? I.e., universal grammar is not unlike Euclidean geometry in your scheme. There are distinct advantages in being able to iterate between the concrete and the abstract, the empirical and the theoretical.

    “None of the proposed neural models I know of suffice either. They can be trained to classify and to make (probabilistic) predictions, but not to discover new classes of possibilities and the impossibilities that limit them (constraints on possibilities).”

    I’ve not given this problem much thought. If you took a very limited domain and assigned the neural system the task of discovering new classes of possibilities, could it do so? E.g., if you asked it to invent a new symbolic language system from objects and energy sources available in its environment, could it do so? I.e., could a computer invent a new code language, in which the structural invariants of the source language are preserved in the new language? It wouldn’t have to be a fully complex language — just one that transmitted certain specific messages in the newly invented/discovered symbol system. I’m guessing that it could be done.

    “I have not studied Deacon’s work and don’t know if it will help. My understanding is that he was primarily interested in evolution of human language”

    The book that Asher alerted us to on this thread — Incomplete Nature — goes much farther upstream, addressing the evolution of life and of intentionality in incremental steps. Would his work be useful in your meta-morphogenesis project? Possibly.

  121. Sometimes affordances are counteracted by constraints; e.g., for the crow the attraction to the food is blocked by its being inaccessible. The constraint provides an incentive for the crow to discover the proto-affordance in the wire as a tool for overcoming the constraint. On the other hand, an affordance itself also functions as a constraint, in the sense that it impels the organism to act in a particular way so as to satisfy the desire or need triggered by the affordance. The affordance functions as an external stimulus for the organism’s behavioral response, inhibiting other possible motives and behaviors, locking the organism into a cause-effect chain. If there is nothing impeding the organism’s pursuit of the affordances that present themselves, does that organism lose motivation to explore other proto-affordances latent in its ecosystem? Or does the satisfaction of one need/desire give the organism the necessary freedom to explore less pressing motivations, including the more abstract ones that lead to the discovery of geometries and grammars? Is necessity or leisure the mother of invention? (It’s notable that Deacon places great stock in constraint as a mechanism for increasing the order of a system without increasing the energy required for sustaining that order.)

    Abstraction is probably necessary in order to recognize that affordances aren’t inherent properties of objects but are emergent properties of interactions between objects. E.g., it took a long time for humans to grasp the idea that greenness isn’t a property of the leaves but is rather an interaction between the light reflecting off the leaves and the visual perception apparatus of an organism for which the representation of light wave frequency variations is helpful in navigating its ecosystem. Similarly, barbarians aren’t intrinsically meant to serve the Greeks, nor are women innately subservient to men: these are interpersonal politico-economic affordances that emerge within particular human ecosystems dominated by Greek men. Did the Greek leisure class arrive at this abstract understanding, or was it pushed on them from below by the barbarians and the women who were being systematically constrained?

  122. “I think association, classification, etc. are low-level, building-block like structures that arise from neural networks. They’re NAND gates, as it were, and we’d have to go up the scale to latches, flip-flops, memory circuits, registers, etc. before we’d see behavior that generates new classes (new isomorphisms, new metaphors).”

    You might be right, Asher, but I’m not sure why the lower-level building blocks of association and classification can’t be assembled together into new classification schemes. Many artificial neural networks rely not on formal logic but on probabilistic algorithms to identify axes of similarity, clustering together things that are more or less the same as each other. This probabilistic sorting is a kind of nonlinguistic metaphorical thinking, inasmuch as the factor-analytic operations doing the sorting aren’t predefined as the features, qualities, and properties that are so readily captured in language. Like geometry and grammar, these abstract descriptions of similarity tend to come after the fact, with conscious reflection on what’s already been experienced unconsciously, sorted out by the network of low-level difference engines.

    There’s at least a couple of reasons why I’d think these low-level building blocks can accomplish at least some of the mental feats you’re looking for. First, since the low-level similarity factors are probabilistic, their persistence in network functioning depends on their degree of pragmatic accuracy in identifying invariants in the ecosystem that are useful in sorting same versus different — differences that make a difference, to borrow a slogan. If a factoring algorithm proves inadequate, its synaptic strength presumably degrades, freeing up brain space for other sorting solutions to have a go at it. I.e., similarity criteria are self-correcting based on embodied interactions with the environment.

    Second, the artificial neural nets tend to be constructed from multiple layers of factor-analytic algorithms, with deeper layers using as inputs the outputs of surface-level algorithms. So it’s roughly the same kinds of building blocks assembled into more complex structures. This hierarchical arrangement of components presumably permits the system to identify new kinds of similarities predicated not just on the raw sensorium but on more complex criteria, including the kinds of criteria that characterize metaphor. Again, because the higher-level sortings are also probabilistic, they can be experimented with on the fly, with different kinds of same-different criteria, different kinds of metaphors, being given the opportunity to prove their worth. This multilayered categorization machinery does seem to emulate pretty well the organization of neurons in brains.

    That said, I’ve never actually built one of these newfangled contraptions, so perhaps my optimism is unwarranted. Still, following Deacon’s approach and the history of evolution, it does seem that for organisms the complex is most often constructed incrementally from simple components cobbled together.

  123. Yeah, I think we’re saying basically the same thing. And I’m also optimistic. If we are able to capture what is causally relevant – not just in neuronal behavior but also in the structure of the networks – we will very likely succeed in capturing these behaviors. There has been a lot of focus on getting ANNs to solve particular problems (skipping bodies), and if you look at the CompSci literature, you can see that a lot of focus is on getting these things to train faster (skipping childhoods). All that is great, but I think the people who are looking at, for example, how motor control interacts with classification are going to be the ones hitting upon these novel behaviors. There’s a huge difference in design between an artificial network built to classify food vs non-food and an artificial network designed to want, acquire, manipulate and imbibe food

    I think what you wrote above points to another point about the “proto” issue. In at least some way, we can say that the higher-level cognitive tasks are a “kind of” classification, or that a neuron, looked at in isolation, is a “proto-classifier”. In other words, what one would call the “essence” or “primary function” of classification is present to some degree at all levels. Just like you could say that a relay or a flip-flop is “memory-like”.

    Pan-psychism has always seemed kind of “woo” to me (mostly because it is so vague, but also because it seems naive) but if it ends up being true, it’s going to be something like the idea that a recurrent loop is “proto-self-awareness”.

  124. This hierarchical arrangement of components presumably permits the system to identify new kinds of similarities predicated not just on the raw sensorium but on more complex criteria, including the kinds of criteria that characterize metaphor. Again, because the higher-level sortings are also probabilistic, they can be experimented with on the fly, with different kinds of same-different criteria

    For someone who has never built one of these contraptions, you seem to understand them remarkably well. Maybe you could explain them to Stephen Pinker, who has frustrated me for years for not grasping the things you are pointing out.

    Which is to say, I think you’ve got this exactly right. A couple of other things that I think arise with this kind of structure:

    1. The similarities that are found might seem really weird to us. Did you ever play 20Q? It asks really bizarre questions sometimes, and you wonder, “how the hell did it guess *that* from *those* questions? This is the nature of probabilistic processing. A poetic form can be “like” an icicle in a way that doesn’t “care” that one is a concrete object and the other a non-concrete one.

    2. The various layers of processing perform, by their very structure, a process of *abstraction*. This occurs in a couple of ways. The first is that a cluster within a network might correspond to (“detect”) a feature, which means that the feature is “abstracted” into that cluster. The second is that, going up the chain, raw sensorium is effectively translated into a common encoding, so that things that are very different sensorium-wise can be compared as if they are not. To me, this “proto-abstraction” is profound.

  125. “a neuron, looked at in isolation, is a “proto-classifier”. In other words, what one would call the “essence” or “primary function” of classification is present to some degree at all levels.

    Agreed.

    I worked on earlier generation AI, which as you know involved the logical manipulation of linguistic constructs like rules and object properties. But I also got pretty adept at using principal components factor analysis in grad school. So I’m familiar with the lower-level building blocks, which gives me a pretty good understanding of how they’ve subsequently been linked together in neural networks.

    Your observation about the weird similarities in 20Q applies also to visual perception, where the invariants extracted by the low-level detectors from the “ambient optic array” and manipulated by the distributed pattern-matching neural network don’t correspond very well to the abstract ways in which we describe physical terrains and objects.

    “The various layers of processing perform, by their very structure, a process of *abstraction*.”

    I recall your having emphasized in prior discussions the interactions between bottom-up and top-down processing. Factor analysis works like this too, as you probably know. The empirically derived factors partitioning up the variance, transforming discrete instances into shared commonalities, often don’t make abstract sense. So you can impose more sensible top-down constraints on the factor-analytic operations and run them on the data again, to see if you gain information or lose it thereby. It’s iterative. Brains probably work this way too.

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