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:
- 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.
- An aversion to the more wonkily scientific parts of the book, where the philosopher is likely to feel less sure of his rhetorical footing.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.]