Deacon and OOP

by Asher Kay

Before I get down to brass tachyons on Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, I want to set up a little philosophical context — something to keep in mind as we wade through his sometimes conceptually difficult ideas. The context involves our occasional preoccupation with object-oriented philosophy.

Deacon has probably never heard of OOP or Speculative Realism, and he probably wouldn’t be all that interested in them anyway, since he approaches things mostly from a physicalist, scientific perspective. He mentions some classic philosophers like Aristotle, Hume and John Stuart Mill – and he’s apparently a fan of Charles Sanders Pierce – but the modern philosophers he mentions are mostly on the scientific or analytic side — people like Rorty, Fodor, Jaegwon Kim, the Churchlands, and Dan Dennett. Though he’s kind of speculative, he’s not French-armchair-speculative — in other words, you won’t hear him talking about Deleuze, Badiou or Lacan, using the word “as” in bizarre ways, or getting all immanent about stuff.

But I do think Deacon’s ideas relate to OOP, and to the puzzlement we experience with some of its concepts. Since Deacon’s writing is difficult to excerpt (he even refers to his “sometimes tortured prose” in the acknowledgments), I’m going to offload the task to a summary of Incomplete Nature from a review by Jeremy Sherman. Sherman has apparently collaborated with Deacon, and his review is an amazingly well-written and accurate distillation of the book (the length of the excerpt is right up against the limit of acceptability, so I urge you to read the whole review as well):

We have embraced Darwin’s breakthrough but haven’t embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science’s greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.

Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there’s one. The step-down from 52 to one–the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It’s a narrowing of possibility.

Again, though we ran with Shannon’s breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.

We are very thing-oriented.

We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we’re pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.

We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a “least discordant remainder.”

Obviously, if you substitute “object” for “thing”, you could read this as a kind of rejection of the whole OOP undertaking. I don’t see it that way, but it does amount to a criticism, not just of our conceptual obsession with things, but also of our “things plus relations” way of looking at systems. Deacon’s criticism is aimed mostly at emergentist theories that focus on supervenience and mereological relations, but I think it has repercussions for frameworks like Harman’s, which sometimes express relations between two things as yet a third thing (entity) that contains them.

As Sherman expresses so vividly, Deacon’s re-framing involves looking at absences. Information, energy, and self-organizing systems are all defined by an absence of possibilities. A constraint is an absence of possible states. Thing-oriented models of reality are unable to capture this notion of absence fully, so Deacon suggests we turn to a process-oriented view.

Beyond the “process vs. objects” story, Deacon’s biggest unknowing comment on OOP concerns the idea of a “flat ontology”. I’ll let Levi Bryant lay out the relevant details (from The Democracy of Objects):

…Flat ontology refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation. To be sure, flat ontology readily recognizes that humans have unique powers and capacities and that how humans relate to the world is a topic more than worthy of investigation, yet nothing about this establishes that humans must be included in every inter-object relation or that how humans relate to objects differs in kind from how other entities relate to objects.

Deacon would probably agree with b), but I think he’d definitely have a problem with a) (although for him, it’s not about “humans”, per se). Here, Deacon talks about the difficulty of expressing the causality of a boy skipping a stone at the beach:

The boy’s idea that it might be possible to treat this stone like another that he’d once seen skipped is far more relevant to the organization of these causal probabilities than what he ate for breakfast, or how the stone came to be deposited in this place on this beach. Even though the force imparted to the stone is largely derived from the energy released from the chemical bonds in digested food, and its location at that spot is entirely due to the energetics of geology, wind, and waves, these facts are almost irrelevant. The predictive value of shifting attention to very general types of events, macroscopic global similarities, predictions of possible thought processes, and so forth, offers a critical hint that we are employing a very different and in some ways orthogonal logic of causality when we consider this mental analysis of the event rather than its physics. Indeed, this difference makes the two analyses appear counterintuitively incompatible. The thought is about a possibility, and a possibility is something that doesn’t yet exist and may never exist. It is as though a possible future is somehow influencing the present.

The discontinuity of causality implicit in human action parallels a related discontinuity between living and non-living processes. Ultimately, both involve what amounts to a reversal of causal logic: order developing from disorder, the lack of a state of affairs bringing itself into existence, and a potential tending to realize itself. We describe this in general terms as “ends determining means.” But compared to the way things work in the non-living, non-thinking world, it is as though a fundamental phase change has occurred in the dynamical fabric of the world. Crossing the border from machines to minds, or from chemical reactions to life, is leaving one universe of possibilities to enter another.

Ultimately, we need an account of these properties that does not make it absurd that they exist, or that we exist, with the phenomenology we have. Our brains evolved as one product of a 3-billion-year incremental elaboration of an explicitly end-directed process called life. Like the idle thoughts of the boy strolling along the beach, this process has no counterpart in the inorganic world. It would be absurd to argue that these differences are illusory. Whatever else we can say about life and mind, they have radically reorganized the causal fabric of events taking place on the surface of the Earth. Of course, life and mind are linked. The sentience that we experience as consciousness has its precursors in the adaptive processes of life in general. They are two extreme ends of a single thread of evolution. So it’s not just mind that requires us to come to a scientific understanding of end-directed forms of causality; it’s life itself.

The first thing to notice here is, again, the focus on what Deacon calls “absential” qualities. Ideas and intentions are centered around things that are not present. There is a teleological quality to them that points at something (a goal, a purpose, an exact or approximate end-state) that does not exist yet, and may never exist.

This “absential” kind of causality, Deacon is saying, introduces something new into the world that did not exist before life emerged, and which most definitely “differs in kind” from the way in which non-living objects can relate to one another. His entire book centers around the idea that our theories need to be expanded to include the unique sort of causality that living organisms bring about.

So that’s the context. As I work through Incomplete Nature in subsequent posts, I might mention things like Harman’s conception of causality and his take on Latour’s actor-network theory, as well as some of Bryant’s ideas about assemblages. But I’ll likely leave any hardcore analysis of OOP out. While it provides a nice common ground of reference for we voles, engaging with OOP at a polemical level is probably best left to professionals.


84 Responses to “Deacon and OOP”

  1. Mostly OOP to me is an object lesson in what happens when philosophers get hold of stuff that would be interesting otherwise (and more power to them, etc.), so I appreciate this deck-clearing and look forward to the poop-in-itself.

  2. I’ve read Chapters 0 and 1: engaging so far. I’d never thought about “absential properties” as a general category that applies most distinctively to living beings and especially to sentient ones. Deacon says this (p. 12):

    Despite the obvious and unquestioned role played by functions, purposes, meanings, and values in the organization of our bodies and minds, and in the changes taking place in the world around us, our scientific theories still have to officially deny them anything but a sort of heuristic legitimacy. This has contributed to many tortured theoretical tricks and contorted rhetorical maneuvers in order either to obscure this deep inconsistency or else to claim that it must forever remain beyond the reach of science.

    That seems right to me. Deacon characterizes the two main “contorted rhetorical maneuvers” in a way that might allow us to assign Metzinger to one team and Harman to the other — but that might come later. Deacon continues:

    More serious, however, is the way this has divided the natural sciences from the human sciences.

    I studied one of those human sciences: psychology. Functions, purposes, meanings, and values comprised a reasonable chunk of the field of empirical investigation, but we never really concerned ourselves with how physicists might explain these less-than-material constructs. I suspect the same is true for the physicists, who don’t really give much thought to things that psychologists work on. There’s a divide between plumbers and road pavers too, but it doesn’t really affect their going about their respective businesses. I think it’s more the philosophers rather than the practitioners of science who worry about this divide.

  3. John – I think you’re right about practitioners. For the most part, the models we have at various “levels” serve each science well enough that people can do their work. But I think that our successes obscure some deeper problems.

    As a psychologist, would you say that we are really good at treating addiction? Or depression? Or preventing suicide? Rehabilitating sociopaths? The sense I get is that there is a lot of excitement about what some of the current neuroscience might be able to tell us about the mechanisms that cause those things. But the problem is that we are unable to create a theoretical bridge between “mechanisms” in the brain and higher-order things like obsession, inability to act according to self-interest, inability to perceive self-interest, empathy, craving, jealousy, pursuit of approval, desire for revenge, etc. And the reason – at least according to Deacon – is that mechanistic theories can’t model end-directed things.

    For me, the need to bridge the divide feels almost visceral. My daughter has been having a lot of problems lately, and although we can very specifically define the behaviors she’s engaged in that are harmful and dangerous, I have not yet found a single practitioner who could say to me, “Yes, this is a well-understood thing. These are the steps we need to take to help her”. There isn’t really even a coherent theory of behavior or mental pathology that any of the practitioners share in common. They share some common terms and approaches, but there are no real answers.

    I don’t think physicists really concern themselves about it, because there are no “ententional” (to use Deacon’s term) processes in physics. But biologists end up being stuck between the two worlds in many respects, and it’s there that the divide is probably most critical.

  4. Carl – Yeah, I think I’ll stick with the poop and avoid the oop as much as possible.

  5. OK then, keep us in the loop.

  6. Regarding your daughter, I had a perhaps similar experience with my ex-wife. All my sympathies. I agree that we could really use better understanding of underlieing processes and therapeutic bridges between scales of complexes. The general consensus now seems to be that there are no clear thresholds between ‘normal’ and ‘disordered’ thought, which I think is a humane and productive insight, but as we both know if you get far enough thataway it can be pretty hard to see the way back.

  7. Jeez, Asher, I didn’t mean to imply that psychology is as useful as plumbing. It’s clear though that, in attempting to understand disorders of thought, emotion, and behavior, most of the effort and money is going into exploring the biochemical substrates of thought and behavior. In this sense it’s the more tried-and-true deterministic paradigms that are being called upon. The replacement of talk therapy with pharmacotherapy, of clinical intuition with cognitive-behavioral lockstep — these trends might be lamented for all sorts of reasons, and as you point out the results remain pretty meager. And while some point their fingers at big pharma’s profit margins and at the epidemic-like increase of depression in our society, there’s no viable socioeconomic critique of the individualism that shapes diagnosis and treatment.

    One question is the extent to which the barriers between bio, psych, soc, information theory, etc. are institutional rather than paradigmatic. There’s a lot more cross-disciplinary work going on in neuroscience, for example, with psychologists, biologists, philosophers, and computer scientists working together. Deacon himself evidences this trend: “professor of biological anthropology and neurosciences,” it says on the backflap blurb. I’m sure there are some “theory of everything” seminars, and I’m all for the sort of cross-pollenization and paradigm rethinking that Deacon assays in this book. But my understanding is that most of the day-to-day effort goes into investigating specific boundary-spanning questions that are subject to empirical methods and to the extension/refinement of already-validated theoretical models. Again though, I’ve not read very far into the book.

  8. John – I apologize if I sounded judgemental. I think it’s mostly my frustration talking. The fact is, most of my understanding of psychology comes from self-study, and my perspective has always been that of someone who has something wrong with him. So I don’t have a deep (or even wide) understanding of extant psychological theory, and to that extent am talking out my ass.

    I do think Deacon has a point wrt the value of bridging the divide. The biggest effect would be seen in biology, with interesting things bubbling up from there. There is also a lot of trickling down possible, which is something that’s totally missing in the current state of affairs.

    More later.

  9. “my perspective has always been that of someone who has something wrong with him”

    Mine too. Sorry to hear about your daughter. Cognitive-behavioral therapy attempts to work on the gap between end-directed intentions/desires and behavior patterns that seem incompatible with those ends. CBT doesn’t achieve worse results than other techniques, but in most studies it doesn’t work significantly better either. Still, the fact that therapy researchers invest more hope in CBT than in other modalities suggests at least an appreciation of people’s inability to complete the circuit between means and intended ends.

  10. Wanna track the parallels between Incomplete Nature and Juarrero’s Dynamics in Action (MIT Press 1999)? Here’s the argumentation pattern in both books:

    1. Newtonian mechanical (efficient) causality cannot account for end-directedness and goal-directedness (teleology, purposiveness) — or agency, intentionality (consciousness, sentience). So attempts to reduce the latter to the former won’t work.
    2) Aristotelian formal and final causes used to serve this purpose but not an option since the Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution — Kant knew that and identified teleology with intrinsic finality/self-organization. Prigogine’s discovery of dissipative structures provide a scientific respectable understanding of teleology as self-organization. Juarrero-Roque published this material in Review of Metaphysics, September 1985.
    3) So best to reconceptualize causality in other terms
    4) Consider information theory and entropy in far from equilibrium thermodynamics — Prigogine dissipative structures, the B-Z reaction, and self-organization, especially autocatalysis. Autocatalysis embodies formal cause (see Ulanowicz) as well as intrinsic finality sensu Kant, and constitutes a proto-self through the implementation of intrinsic constraints. Far from equilibrium thermodynamics do not violate the first law.
    5) Part-whole and whole-part context-sensitive/dependent constraints (redundancy) can account for mereological causality (bottom up, first order context-sensitive constraints are enabling — they expand a system’s degrees of freedom); top-down second/higher-order constraints — from whole to part — are restrictive) — differences between physical, chemical and biological constraint production & operation — and the emergent properties each level produces — do not obviate the similarities in the way inter-level constraints work, and both can account for “whole to part influences — these in turn embody formal and final causes without reduction or remainder. Dynamical constraint operation is irreducible to matter/energy considerations — whole-part selection occurs on the basis of criteria set at the higher level. There is decoupling between levels due to multiple realizability feature of higher level constraints. Hence emergence and top-down influence are ontological.
    6) The workings of constraint in both cases are changes in probability/frequency distribution — this dissolves the Maxwell demon problem by making the demon a constraint which the dynamics endogenously generates. Second law of thermodynamics is thereby upheld too.
    7) 5 and 6 above are best understood as ontogenetic and phylogenetically constructed dynamical attractors and can be pictured topologically. Doing so dissolves the semantics/syntax (meaning-grammar) problem — answers Searle’s Chinese room objection.
    8) The self, free will, consciousness, and individuality are best reconceptualized and understood in terms of the operations of complex dynamical constraints. Juarrero emphasizes the role of such constraints in intentional causation of action/agency.
    9) Agency and intentional causation are the exercise of whole-part dynamical constraints
    10) Biological constraints are semiotic; interpretive (see Ulanowicz on autocatalysis).

    There’s a spreadsheet being passed around that helps you track the parallels page by page.

  11. Mariana, Wow! We haven’t met before, at least in this space; but I am surely glad to make your acquaintance. Any chance of the spreadsheet getting passed this way?

  12. Asher, allow me to confess my total ignorance. I take it that by “OOP” you mean neither a cartoon caveman nor Object Oriented Programming. Where should I look for enlightenment?

  13. Good stuff Mariana. Juarrero looks mandatory. Is Deacon merely a plagiarizer, has he legitimately adopted a conceptual/research programme, does he have anything of value to add?

    John, oop is object oriented philosophy, much discussed here and at JohnD’s place once upon a time.

  14. Carl, thanks. I guessed it was something like that, and found the Wikipedia page.

  15. Sure, but don’t know where to send it.

  16. Mariana – thanks for the summary. Fantastic! It does look like Juarrero is mandatory. I’m hoping she’ll give me some additional perspective on the stuff I’m having trouble with in Deacon. If you wouldn’t mind sending the spreadsheet, I can be reached at asherkay[at]

    Carl – Your experiences have given me some perspective. Although my daughter is suffering from a lot of problems (things that might be about self-esteem, her relationship with her mother, her sexuality, her amazing rationalization skills, simply being an impulsive teenager who was allowed to inhabit an adult world), I feel like it *is* early, and we *can* get to the bottom of it if we don’t allow her to ignore it.

    I have a friend whose wife had a sort of delusional problem (she thought she was infected by tiny insects, amongst many other things, one after the other), along with thinking and behavior that was strikingly BPD-like. He tried to keep the marriage going, but from a distance, I could see that it was eventually going to fail. As long as she was depending on him, she wouldn’t get real help, and his reality would continue to be distorted. It’s such an amazingly sad thing.

    John – I have a personal fondness for CBT. Part of it, I suspect, is that my own therapist used it during one of the worst spots in my life, and understanding how it worked was something of an epiphany for me. I’ve applied it to my shyness in social situations in addition to the depression I was experiencing. The other thing I like is its sort of cheerful, rational practicality. My daughter hears her negative thinking as a sort of “voice”, just like I do. Her “voice” says, “that person hates me”, or “I need this person”, or “it was okay to hurt that person because he hurt me”, or “It’s not wrong to lie to my Dad because he doesn’t care that I’m unhappy”. Answering that voice may not fix the problem, but it’s a good first step. And you often get to the point where you’ve sort of pre-answered the voice before it even gets the chance to speak or affect your behavior.

  17. Carl – Rather than stoop to throw goop at OOP, I’ll just give you the straight scoop.

  18. Last night I read the Homunculi chapter. The “voices in the head” idea tends to freak people out, but this is one of the issues I presume that Deacon is queuing up. From a brain perspective the neurons and synapses trace a congeries of pathways, building up their biochemical charges until one of them pushes beyond the “tipping point.” Then it emerges into consciousness as the final cause for some ends-based scheme. This model implies that consciousness is a homunculus receiving the brain’s strongest signal and transforming it into an idea — which is paradigmatically problematic as Deacon points out. Still, the neural perspective acknowledges that the one conscious idea that comes to mind might be emitting a signal only slightly stronger than the others chattering away in the background circuitry. If somehow the most destructive channel can be acknowledged as being more a biochemical habit than the voice of one’s essential self, then maybe its persuasive power can be weakened. Then some of the other lower-amplitude channels, more benign or constructive, can get tuned in and strengthened to the point of coming spontaneously into conscious consideration. CBT is fully compatible with these premises, though it’s a frustratingly crude and weak tool, as you’ve noted.

    This neural model also implies that everyone’s brain has any number of voices muttering away in the back room, grabbing for the microphone, trying to get their messages across to the consciousness homunculus. Maybe empathy entails being aware of these other less dominant voices clamoring for attention in our own heads.

  19. Incidentally this picture is also consistent with the James/G.H. Mead pragmatic tradition for which self is a dynamic, adaptive construct of memory traces from significant interactions with others (essentially emergent, although they didn’t know to put it that way). Mead explicitly discussed thought as an internal conversation among these others, which isn’t quite the same idea as voices jockeying for bandwidth but addresses the same functional pluralism.

    I very much like JohnD’s suggestion here about how to render this insight in a therapeutic context, and further think that therapeutic cathexis / identification can be seen as the insertion of another voice at a higher amplitude, which has the danger of simply adding to the cacophany but maybe unavoidably so.

  20. I like it too. In Deacon’s parlance, you’d have multiple overlapping “teleodynamic” processes. Some of them would seek the regular survival-based things other animals seek, and some would have far more indirect aims.

    Here’s an interesting quote from David Eagleman (where I believe he’s referencing this paper, which is in turn referencing some earlier research):

    Consider this simple experiment with a laboratory rat: if you put both food and an electrical shock at the end of an alley, the rat finds himself stuck at a certain distance from the end. He begins to approach but withdraws; he begins to withdraw but finds the courage to approach again. He oscillates, conflicted. If you outfit the rat with a little harness to measure the force with which he pulls toward food alone and, separately, you measure the force with which he pulls away from an electric shock alone, you find that the rat gets stuck at the point where the two forces are equal and cancel out. The pull matches the push

    So there’s two end-directed systems in conflict with one another, and they basically cancel each other out. If you imagine a human in the same situation, you see the possibility of a conscious, executive, end-directed system moderating the two processes that are in conflict. The conflicting processes “bubble up” into consciousness as its inputs.

  21. I’ve seen schizophrenia hypothesized as a feedback response to the same kind of insoluble relational double-bind you describe for the rat.

  22. Great rat study, Asher. A significant evolutionary benefit of consciousness is that you can become self-reflexive about these sorts of push-pull, self-defeating double binds, hopefully letting you exert intentional agency in overriding the mixed signals that your brain sends you.

  23. Being utterly swamped with other things, I strongly doubt that I will find the time to read Deacon while this thread is still alive. So I’ve poked around on the Net looking for reviews, e.g., the following from the Wall Street Journal.

    I wonder how those who are reading the book will react to it.

  24. The reviewer is fighting the good fight against reductionism; the problem is that in the tradition Deacon’s working in, that fight was at least a couple of wars ago, which would be why Deacon doesn’t relitigate it to his satisfaction. So right, yes, mind/behavior don’t boil down to neurons, or molecules, or atoms for that matter. But the live question is how those substrates assemble to produce effects out of their own scale, ranging from reflex memories to hankerins for a blt to international scholarly communities.

  25. Carl – I think you have it right. Tallis has a very specific axe to grind, and his reading of Deacon and Gazzaniga takes place very much through that lens. I haven’t gotten to the part about sentience yet, so I don’t know if I will find it convincing. What he says of the parts of Deacon I have read so far seems to be fairly accurate, but his statement about the neuron as a homunculus seems wrong – a neuron in itself is a morphodynamic system contained in a larger teleodynamic one.

    One thing Deacon hasn’t mentioned yet – but which is lurking in the back of my mind – is how his re-conceived causality affects arguments about free will. If Deacon is doing what I think he’s doing, there’s a whole new line of attack there.

  26. I didn’t realize there were still arguments about Free Willy. I thought everyone agreed that it was a bad thing to keep him captive, and after he got out he was still a whale.

  27. My three weeks are up and so far I’ve read through chapter six (Constraint). I may try for one more chapter, but rather than renewing and finishing it I think I’ll return it and check it out again later, in synchrony with whatever discussion might ensue here. Intriguing so far though — thanks for the heads up on this book, Asher.

  28. Hi all (and especially Marianna), I have been directed to your blog by a colleague who noticed the comments about my book and Juarrero’s spreadsheet. This is a nasty business in which Juarrero is spreading false claims suggesting that I have used her ideas without attribution. I have not. I urge you to read both books, and you will see this for yourself. Although there are indeed superficial similarities, as inevitably occurs in an area of such intense intellectual discussion, these are ultimately quite superficial. I have only recently come to read her book and her one paper on Kant in response to her tirade about not being cited, and it is now clear that I disagree with her approach in far more ways than we agree. This is not just because she is a philosopher and I am a lab scientist by training. I think that we are fundamentally driving at very different ways of explaining almost every aspect covered in my book: life, mind, sentience, consciousness, information, work, and so forth, even though we both borrow insights from dynamical systems theories and share a criticism of simple eliminative materialism. Nevertheless, once you overcome the accusatory hype of her spreadsheet and actually do compare these two approaches the differences can be quite informative and worth debating. To those of you struggling through the book. I hope that you find the ideas worth the time and teleodynamic work. I can’t promise to be able to keep up with your blog or to have any idea of what OOP is about but I am honored to have initiated some interesting discussions. — Terry

  29. Hi, Professor Deacon. Thanks for leaving a comment. Marianna never did send the spreadsheet, but I’ll be sure to take it with a grain of salt if I do see it. It sounds like it’s a bit more than the list of parallels Marianna made it out to be. You have my sympathy — it must be distressing to be accused of something like that.

    I’ve definitely found Incomplete Nature to be worth the work. It’s as eye-opening as Symbolic Species was, which is saying a lot.

    The most difficult thing for me in Incomplete Nature is wrapping my head around your arguments about causality as they relate to reductionism. Although it’s easy to see how a different sort of causality is needed to explain the operation of teleodynamic systems, the burning question for me is whether the role of this sort of causality goes beyond being “merely” explanatory.

    It’s roughly similar to arguments made about emergence — that the need to speak in terms of higher-order, emergent properties of a system is really a limitation of our own abilities to conceptualize or formalize the system rather than something that exists in the system itself. Such an argument would claim, for example, that far-apart molecules in the Rayleigh-Bénard convection example are indeed correlated, but are really only being acted upon locally. Of course, if that’s the case, then our concept of local, efficient causation is really only explanatory too.

    Anyway, that’s the sticking-point for me. My suspicion is that I’m boxing myself in with hidden assumptions about the relationship between theory and reality — hopefully I’ll find a way past it.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  30. Yeah sounds like a box. There is no really radical departure from the good old physical causality we’re used to. Still particles and atoms, still thermodynamics. Emergent dynamics isn’t magic, but it’s not merely what is sometimes. It just is an argument that we have systematically ignored an aspect of causality — the fact that for any form of work to be possible there must be specific constraints. and constraints are absences. What emerges at each level (homeo-morpho-teleo) are unprecedented orthograde dispositions for physical change and with them unprecedented forms of physical work become possible. The only anti-reductionistic aspect is this: when we decompose a complex system or structure to analyze the properties of the components we tend to forget that the critical absences (constraints) implicit in the organization of the prior whole phenomenon have no parts to be reduced to. We simply erase their trace in the reduction. This analytic approach is most troubling and misleading when the critical constraints arise from intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic sources. That’s what makes life and mind appear so mysterious, as though emerging out of nothing.

  31. A similar perspective can be found in the opening paragraphs of Lin Freeman’s history of social network analysis.


    Writing in 1968, a Columbia University sociologist, Allen Barton, described mainstream research in social science:

    For the last thirty years, empirical social research has been dominated by the sample survey. But as usually practiced, using random sampling of individuals, the survey is a sociological meatgrinder, tearing the individual from his social context and guaranteeing that nobody in the study interacts with anyone else in it. It is a little like a biologist putting his experimental animals through a hamburger machine and looking at every hundredth cell through a microscope; anatomy and physiology get lost, structure and function disappear, and one is left with cell biology….If our aim is to understand people’s behavior rather than simply to record it, we want to know about primary groups, neighborhoods, organizations, social circles, and communities; about interaction, communication, role expectations, and social control.

    Barton’s statement was true when he made it, and it is still true today. Mainstream social research was and is focused exclusively on the behavior of individuals. It neglects the social part of behavior; the part that is concerned with the ways individuals interact and the influence they have on one another.

    The resemblance lies in the basic logic of the argument. Deconstructing the object of analysis into its parts removes the connections that hold it together and drive its behavior.

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

  33. need to emphasize that Deacon’s theses — and the arguments he
    presents to back up those theses– track mine practically from
    beginning to end (without my emphasis on action theory, and certainly
    without his neologisms!). We’re not just talking of a few selected
    passages here and there that are similar. My central ideas and
    argumentation permeate Deacon’s book from beginning to end, as the
    spreadsheet shows.
    Here are the two books’ main theses:

    1. Newtonian mechanical (efficient) causality cannot account for
    end-directedness and goal-directedness (teleology, purposiveness) — or
    agency, intentionality (consciousness, sentience). So attempts to
    reduce the latter to the former won’t work.
    2) Aristotelian formal and final causes used to serve this purpose but
    not an option since the Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution — Kant knew
    that, however, and associated teleology with intrinsic
    finality/self-organization. Prigogine’s discovery of dissipative
    structures provide a scientific respectable understanding of teleology
    as self-organization. I published this material in 1985.
    3) Best to reconceptualize causality in other terms
    4) Consider information theory and entropy in Thermodynamics can help —
    especially Prigogine/self-organization/far from equilibrium
    thermodynamics (complex systems), and self-organization, especially
    autocatalysis. Autocatalysis embodies formal cause and constitutes a
    proto-self through the implementation of intrinsic constraints. Far from
    equilibrium thermodynamics do not violate the first law.
    5) Part-whole and whole-part context-sensitive/dependent constraints
    (redundancy) can account for mereological causality (bottom up
    constraints are enabling, expand degrees of freedom); top-down
    second/higher order constraints — from whole to part — are
    restrictive) — differences between physical, chemical and biological
    constraint production & operation do not obviate the similarities and
    both can account for “whole to part causality” — these in turn embody
    formal and final causes without reduction or remainder.
    6) The workings of constraint in both cases are changes in
    probability/frequency distribution — this dissolves the Maxwell demon
    problem by making the demon an internal. Second law of thermodynamics is
    thereby upheld too.
    7) 5 and 6 above are best understood as ontogenetic and phylogenetically
    constructed dynamical attractors and can be pictured topologically.
    Doing so dissolves the semantics/syntax (meaning-grammar) problem —
    answers Searle’s Chinese room objection.
    8) The self, free will, and individuality are best reconceptualized and
    understood as the operations of complex dynamical constraints.
    9) Dynamical constraint operation is irreducible to matter/energy
    considerations. THere is decoupling between levels due to multiple
    realizability feature of higher level constraints. Hence emergence is
    10) Agency and intentional causation are the exercise of whole-part
    dynamical constraints
    11) Biological constraints are semiotic; interpretive

    Since there is no sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph
    identities, in order to make a determination that my main claims and
    arguments have been appropriated there is no other way than to read both
    books carefully and in their entirety –using the spreadsheet’s
    identification of specific page references in both books for assistance.

    Thank you.
    Alicia Juarrero


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

  35. I’m about two-thirds finished with Deacon’s book. If these other two books largely agree with Deacon (or vice versa), is there reason for me to read them? Maybe this is a case of this being the right time in history for these ideas, such that several thinkers working independently are converging on what will soon be regarded as an inevitable next step in the development of thought about life and mind. Sort of like Boyle, Lavoisier, and Dalton simultaneously arriving at the theory of elements and compounds, laying the foundation for modern chemistry.

  36. Juarrero wrote in 1999. I personally discussed her work with Deacon and Thompson in 2003. Thompson wrote in 2007.
    Deacon appeared as a keynote as did Juarrero at a small conference in Cancun. It is hard to argue that the thought trains are “parallel” when Juarrero is 12 years earlier and Thompson 5 years earlier. It is also troubling that Deacon includes no references to writers beyond himself dated after 2005. This is not simultaneity at all. It may be similar to Wolfram just deciding to NOT read while writing and then being shocked to discover that others had actually been first to some of “his” thoughts. See

  37. Your argument based on personal communication is a strong one, Michael. No doubt you’ve seen that Deacon weighed in on the controversy earlier in this thread. He suggests that people read both his book and Juerrero’s in order to judge for themselves the degree of overlap in ideas. I see that you run the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, and that Alicia Juerrero is on your faculty, so it makes sense both personally and professionally that you would defend her position. Maybe I’ll follow Deacon’s suggestion and read Juerrero’s book after I finish his. Then I suppose I should read Wolfram’s book too.

  38. I think we’ve been more than polite so far. Now I’m going to call a failure-to-read-Foucault foul. No one gets to kvetch about authorship any more at this blog until they’ve accounted intelligently for the episteme, that is, until they’ve joined us in the late 20th century. I’d also like to point out the irony of people who are supposedly familiar with complex systems and emergence producing linear intellectual property narratives like so many two-bit patent attorneys. How likely is it, on the face of the theory, that this stuff was produced singly and originally by one person, or even by a cleanly trackable bibliographical genealogy? Come on. If you can’t get your theory to explain your own life try another one.

    If we can get the conversation to be more intelligent and serious along these lines, I am happy to continue with it. Otherwise, I’d prefer the axes be ground elsewhere.

  39. John – I’m most of the way through Juarerro, and despite the similarities (the most striking of which are the illustrative examples the authors chose), they’re very different books. Almost half of Juarrero’s book is set up around a critique of causation in Action Theory, and overall, her book is more oriented toward philosophy than Deacon’s. I’m finding it very interesting, but that might have to do with the same feeling of recognition I had when I read Deacon, of seeing someone wrestle the same ideas that have preoccupied me for years.

    I really don’t know what to make of all this. I’ve always been in awe of Deacon’s ideas (in the conversation-with-any-three-living-people scenario, he’d definitely be one of my picks) so I have to admit that I don’t want to believe the accusations that are being made.

    Be that as it may, I think it’s possible that Deacon simply overlooked Thompson and Juarerro’s books, as he said (though I do think it’s cause for embarrassment to have been thus unaware). It depends on how he works, and I have no knowledge of that. Plus, I don’t really understand how his personal motivation would work. He certainly cites a bunch of people, and he even incorporates lines of thought from his contemporaries (Kauffman, for example). Why would he take the trouble to do so in some cases but not others?

    If you’re comparing general lines of thought, there definitely are similarities. But I myself pondered whether emergence required a rethinking of causality, and even wondered (publicly, here, three years ago) whether constraints and the idea of formal cause might be a key to explaining complex emergent systems. And not only had I not read Juarrero or Thompson, I’m a lowly software engineer — not even an academic! If I had been, would I have eventually zeroed in on Shannon’s information theory, Kauffman’s musings on autocatalysis, Prigogine’s dissipative systems, etc., as pieces of the puzzle? Would I have been struck anew by Kant’s formulation of intrinsic finality? It’s hard to believe that I wouldn’t. All of these things are close at hand to someone with my set of interests.

    What strikes me most about the whole thing, though, is that, as an outsider to academia, I can’t for the life of me understand why Lissack (and I guess Juarrero, if Lissack’s e-mail quote above is authentic) would react the way they did. As Deacon said in the inappropriately-shared private e-mail above, “I very much want to engage in close discussion with these other scholars working along very similar lines. Both our various points of theoretical agreement and disagreement are likely to be illuminative”. If I had written Juarrero’s book and saw Deacon’s book ten years later, I would have been in instant contact, saying, “It seems you’re not acquainted with my work. We’ve been thinking about strikingly similar ideas, and we should definitely start a conversation”. Instead, the door has been closed on the possibility.

  40. Carl – I wish now that I’d refreshed my browser before hitting “post”.

  41. You get to be good cop this time.

  42. John is good cop. I’m clueless cop.

  43. I thought you brought a certain clueful elan to the discussion, what with actually having read both books and all.

  44. Asher

    But there is NO excuse for Deacon’s supposed lack of familiarity with the work of Juarrero or Thompson. He listened to Alicia give a keynote on the work at a conference where he too was a keynote. He Thompson and I discussed Alicia’s work for 3 days in 2003. Academics are supposed to take the time and effort to see what others have said on the topic they are writing about. There are no citations after 2005 in Deacon’s book of anyone but Deacon. As the NY Review of Books review stated it is either deliberate or unacceptable laziness. In academia the measure of one’s impact is being cited by others thus to be ignored is a big deal.

  45. Carl: Yes, Foucault but please see Discipline and Punish. The issue is a simple one. In academia one is required if one is a member of the discipline to accurately cite and give credit to those who have articulated ideas upon which your articulation “might appear” to be based. When a self-proclaimed member of the discipline fails to do so then there is an outcry for punishment. Academic integrity is based upon citation standards. And yes citation standards are linear. So is Deacon’s claim to be “original” which looks way to much like Wolfram’s similar claims (originality in the absence of reading the relevant material may be a mark of “cleverness” but it is a FAILURE of academic integrity)

  46. To quote from the Berkeley Code of Faculty Conduct:

    Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty.
    Unacceptable behavior: Violation of canons of intellectual honesty, such as research misconduct and/or
    intentional misappropriation of the writings, research, and findings of others.

  47. I certainly agree that each of us should give credit where it’s due. Recently I read a book about the history of the unconscious, written by Guy Claxton. He calls Freud on the carpet for failing to acknowledge his intellectual debt to scores, perhaps hundreds of his predecessors and contemporaries, including philosophers and empirical psychologists, many of them well known and widely read at the Freud began publishing his ideas about the unconscious. Into his seventies Freud continued to claim that consciousness was the only game in town until he showed up on the scene. Writes Claxton:

    “Whether his amnesia for all the sources that were saying otherwise was feigned, deliberate or itself unconscious, we can only surmise. Though Freud, in the end, may have added few if any truly novel ingredients to our understanding of the unconscious, he drew a number of strands of thought together, and packaged them in a way that was at once accessible, salacious and seemingly scientific. He appealed to people with tabloid interests and broadsheet intellects, and gave a repressed European society an impersonal language with which to talk about the desires and failings which their upbringings had taught them to hide.

    I doubt that Deacon will ever grace the pages of tabloids until he starts writing in a more accessible style.

    Unacceptable behavior for Berkeley faculty includes “intentional misappropriation of the writings, research, and findings of others.” It’s acknowledged that Deacon’s prose is quite different from (and possibly worse than) Juarrero’s, so he didn’t appropriate that. Call me a hard-core empiricist, but I have yet to encounter any new “research” or “findings” in Deacon’s book. He elaborates on and synthesizes others’ research, trying to link them together in an intellectual argument. As I said, I’ve not read Juarrero’s book but I suspect she does the same thing.

    I recently read Being No One by Thomas Metzinger. He does something similar to Deacon, citing a lot of neuroscience research to buttress his intellectual argument, which he summarizes in the second sentence of the book: “no such things as selves exist in the world.” He’s certainly not the first one to stake that claim, though as I recall he doesn’t cite the Buddha or Schopenhauer, nor does he devote many lines to discussing the ongoing theoretical controversy about eliminativism among the empiricists whom he does cite. Surely Metzinger gets more credit than he deserves for the content of his book, even though he explicitly cites the researchers whose findings he includes. I don’t think he makes a very strong case for his central thesis. Still, he rather than the empirical researchers has brand-name recognition. Is it fair? I don’t know. He’s snappy and controversial, he includes personal vignettes, he makes otherwise arcane empirical findings accessible to the non-specialist.

  48. Michael, you make points that would adequately constitute a side in a civil suit. We have heard Deacon’s side and it passes the summary judgment test. Beyond noting the presence of litigable facts and assertions on both sides we have no interest in participating in a kangaroo court of public opinion. We would like provenance to be right but we know that at the cutting edge of multi-disciplinary synthesis this can get pretty tricky.

    You have not addressed the episteme, nor have you made any attempt to apply your own emergence theory to the case. Those are the conditions of participation in this salon. There are many other venues better suited to legalistic disputation. You have also insistently and redundantly hijacked Asher’s lovely thread, which is about the merit of the ideas in question, not their provenance, in the process chilling consideration and development of the very collective oeuvre which all parties concerned need to stay hot and vital if their reputations are to flourish. I think this is a profound strategic error, but reasonable opinion may differ. I wonder with Asher why Juarrero is not out in the world enthusiastically participating in the conceptual revolution of which she is now an important but increasingly dated part. There are of course both generous and ungenerous interpretations that might be made of this lacuna, as with Deacon’s.

    Please be assured that no one here will fail properly to credit and champion Juarrero for her prior brilliant work of synthesis, although it is in the nature of conceptual branding that ideas in common circulation are attributed according to the conveniences of reception and utility.

    All the best.

  49. John – I don’t know if reading Wolfram is worth it. There’s a huge difference in tone between Wolfram and someone like Deacon (and probably Metzinger, who’s on my ever-expanding reading list). Wolfram is self-promoting and self-aggrandizing to an uncomfortable degree.

    But in this discussion, NKS is a useful book to bring up, because there’s a similarity in aims that make the contrast between Deacon and Wolfram stand out nicely. Both authors find the current conceptual models used in their objects of study inadequate, and the main thrust of both books is the need to reconceptualize and come up with new models. It’s very different from something by, say Edelman, where the new concepts mostly extend existing models and the new perspectives don’t require picking up and hiking to completely different ground.

    Anyone who tries to redistrict the map of the sciences (especially in the popular rather than the academic press) is going to be open to charges of hubris at minimum and megalomaniacal crankdom at the extremes. The writer is basically shooting down a whole way of thinking about things and promoting their particular new way. As you can see in Deacon (but not so much in Wolfram), what helps ameliorate the reader’s sense of the author’s self-aggrandizement (and the reader’s sense that the author is just making shit up) is to say, “Hey, look, other people before me have mapped out parts of these areas — but someone needs to pull all that together into a new framework, and I’m trying to be that person”. In that sense, some discussions of Juarrero and Thompson in Incomplete Nature would not only have lent weight to Deacon’s argument for the need to reconceptualize, but also could have been used to lend weight to his arguments for where to draw the borders, either by similarity or contrast to J’s and T’s ideas. It seems that Deacon regrets missing that opportunity.

    And it seems sad to me that Lissack would rather discipline and/or punish Deacon than recapture the opportunity in later editions of Incomplete Nature.

  50. Asher

    I have no desire to either punish Deacon. I want him to properly acknowledge the work of Juarrero, Thompson and Graves rather than asserting with hubris that he has no need to do so. I want them to collaborate on an academic project done to academic standards (which Incomplete Nature is not due to the lack of appropriate references not just the three mentioned but anything after 2005). There will NOT be further editions of Incomplete Nature — its reviews are terrible. Thus for Deacon to make this right he needs to actually DO something. Further what is left out of all this is that Deacon is a big shot and the three people whose work he has run all over are just little fish. The Power relationship being promoted by Deacon and his followers is “let the big guy have his way” Well real academics do not work that way. Terry Deacon knows better and has allowed his ego to get in the way of his academic integrity.

  51. Michael – Could you explain why you referenced Foucault’s Discipline and Punish?

  52. Actually, on second thought, don’t. It would be too nonsensical.

    Let me say instead: We’ve graciously allowed you to grind your axe, and I don’t think rebutting your statements is necessary because an intelligent reader will read the whole thread and probably come to the conclusion that if you want what you say you do, you’ve screwed it up for yourself by approaching Deacon in the way you did.

    So now, permission to further grind axe into powder suitable for fortifying breakfast cereal is revoked. If you want to comment on the ideas, feel free. If not, grind elsewhere.

  53. Okay lets move on to concepts. I take it from reading the blog that some seem to be projecting the OOP concept of “withdrawal” to be equivalent to Deacon’s absence and in making this equivalence find a deep meaning in Deacon’s text. If the equivalence is to be believed then the notion of withdrawal has a possibility of satisfying McGinn’s criticism of Deacon’s conflating causal with explanatory. The very independent existence of an item and its corresponding need to express its ontic status could indeed be causal and that too would apply to absence. But the category which Deacon defines as absence is broader and less onticly stable than that of withdrawal. Withdrawal is existence in the absence of attended to affordances. Deacon argues for other kinds of absence which are a product of object-cognition interaction rather than being removed therefrom. It is these absences which seem to be at best explanatory in nature and devoid of properties which can render them causal UNLESS there exists an omniscient higher power who is making use of these absences in the name of final cause. Leave aside all of my concerns from prior posts — I find that if one were to narrow Deacon’s absences to withdrawals that his argument gains in coherence. Reaction?

  54. I thank you all for putting up with this. As you now recognize, there is an unacknowledged agenda being played out. I urge you all to just read the books in question, make up your own minds, and ignore the rest. Don’t take these variously biased interpretations and personal inuendos masquerading as reviews and serious criticisms to provide any useful interpretation. Let the ideas speak for themselves.

    By the way, Graves (mentioned above) was a participant in a seminar I taught on the topic of emergence a number of years back, so the parallels are not coincidental. I would indeed suggest adding his text to the list.

    I will exit this discussion thread at this point. Thank you again.

  55. “I take it from reading the blog that some seem to be projecting the OOP concept of “withdrawal” to be equivalent to Deacon’s absence and in making this equivalence find a deep meaning in Deacon’s text.”

    Heavens, no. I think holding Harman’s metaphysics and Deacon’s project side by side might be interesting in a purely metaphorical way, but Harman is engaging in speculative, metaphysical philosophy, and Deacon is not, so trying to trade between the two frameworks would probably result in jibberish. It’s way more practical to meet the criticism head-on and leave Harman out of it. Besides, if you look at the comments above, you can see that most of the people here reacted to my mention of OOP by saying the polite equivalent of “Please, no”, so there’s no point throwing chum in the goldfish bowl, as they say.

    Howevers… I think the important thing to look at is that McGinn is reading Deacon with a philosophical eye, and thus interprets Deacon strangely. Either Deacon is:

    1. Making (possibly implicit or tacit) metaphysical/ontological claims which are really explanatory claims that he doesn’t know are merely explanatory because he’s conflated metaphysics and explanation.


    2. Simply making explanatory claims.

    My vote is for #2. If you look at the comments above, you’ll see me say:

    “the burning question for me is whether the role of this sort of causality goes beyond being “merely” explanatory…. My suspicion is that I’m boxing myself in with hidden assumptions about the relationship between theory and reality.”

    To which Deacon replies:

    “Yeah sounds like a box. There is no really radical departure from the good old physical causality we’re used to.”

    In other words, Deacon accepts the metaphysics of the physical sciences (such as it is), and his entire thesis is about constructing an explanatory framework. When McGinn talks about thoughts, moral values or unicorns not being physical entities, Deacon would probably be intensely puzzled. Of course they’re physical entities. The whole book is about how they can emerge from physical systems. Thoughts are certainly weird and complex in a way McGinn’s cat is not, but thinking of them as non-physical is probably an alien concept to Deacon.

    As you can see, I made the same mistake as McGinn because I was preoccupied with the age-old ontology/epistemology distinction in philosophy. I don’t think I went speeding at 90 mph over the cliff as McGinn does, but that’s the subject of an entire post, which I’ll get to writing if it interests anyone.

  56. Asher

    But thinking about thoughts, moral values as physical removes their status as thoughts or moral values. instead they are electrical impulses acting in concert to which observers give the label x. And with that the baby has gone down with the bathwater. Obviously I agree with McGinn (not quite to his extent however).

  57. Further I suspect that this chain of thought gives emergence short shift and organization even less. Please look at my Morin comment on your other Deacon post.

  58. ” But thinking about thoughts, moral values as physical removes their status as thoughts or moral values.”

    It does not. This point is essentially Platonic and is only self-evident in those terms. The counter-tradition starts with Aristotle and winds up through pragmatism, to cite two accessible high points.

    The whole point of emergence as I understand it is that complexity (like thoughts, moral values and BBQ) is generated ground-up from the organized relational dynamics of simpler components, not top-down from some pre-existing notional status. Thoughts are thus particular kinds of (constrained and therefore enabled, see Garfinkel) physical assemblage, and nothing more, although of course all the thinky action is in the details of the assemblage. I should cite Latour for the helpful concept of assemblage here – thanks Bruno.

  59. “The whole point of emergence as I understand it is that complexity (like thoughts, moral values and BBQ) is generated ground-up from the organized relational dynamics of simpler components, not top-down from some pre-existing notional status.”

    Precisely. And my suspicion is that philosophers (especially when dealing with science) can have trouble letting go of that notional status, or at least the idea that the scientist is speaking in those terms.

    ” I suspect that this chain of thought gives emergence short shift and organization even less.”

    I’d argue that it gives it way longer shrift than an artificial elevation of status to the non-physical. If two thoughts occurring in the same brain are two different physical things, then it’s the emergence and organization aspects of those physical things that plays the key role, not the material aspect.

    Consider your reference to observers (“electrical impulses… to which observers give the label x”). Our central conceptual prototypes of physical things are medium-sized objects that we can observe, point to, and identify using labels (ostensive definition). Thoughts, moral values, etc. are far, far from this center. It’s possible we’ll never be able to observe a thought, in the strict sense, and a thought can’t be made conceptually static like a cat or a billiard ball can, because the changes over time in physical configuration are intrinsic to its existence. Long story short, it’s really difficult to conceptualize a thought as a physical thing. But it’s important to keep in mind that it’s at least a physical thing in the sense that there is nothing non-physical about it.

  60. I forgot to say that I wanted to cite Ronald Langacker for his ideas about conceptual categories and Ludwig Wittgenstein for his development of the ostensive definition. Without those two, the above comment would never have been possible, and I owe them both a great debt.

  61. Oh I know, I’m one of those who whined about OOO, but… Harman’s withdrawal refers to the essence of an object. Per Harman the essence can never participate in interactions between objects, so it can have no causal powers whatever. Though to my knowledge he doesn’t use the term, affordances would in Harman’s scheme constitute the allure of one object’s properties for another object, stimulating an interaction that involves the properties of both objects. “Withdrawal is existence in the absence of attended to affordances.” Right: the essence of neither object participates in inter-object interaction. In contrast, as I understand him, Deacon contends that absences themselves trigger interactions among objects, propagating themselves in modified form as a consequence. The absences participate in the interaction, and they serve as affordances directly influencing emergent properties/absences of systems resulting from the interaction.

  62. “The whole point of emergence as I understand it is that complexity (like thoughts, moral values and BBQ) is generated ground-up…”

    I don’t much care for ground-up barbecue myself, and I’ve seen none served that way here during my visit to KC. On the ribs or off, pulled and piled, but ground? That notional status ain’t gonna cut it, baby.

  63. John – Ever the fearless alchemist. I think your comparison between Harman and Deacon, while accurate, points at what I was afraid of in making the comparison.

    Imagine an analytic philosopher (someone who’s done work in Intentionality, Phil of Mind and all that) reading your description. They’re going to assume that there’s no basic difference in kind between what Harman’s doing when he talks about existence or cause and what Deacon’s doing. And they’re going to jump straight to the idea that absences need to have a sort of ontological status in the system, the way withdrawal does in Harman’s. “Absences themselves trigger…”, the philosopher will say. “So what’s the status of these absences that they are able to trigger things”?

    And this is exactly what McGinn does in the review:

    “He does not offer any rigorous treatment of the ontological standing of such putative “absences,” puzzling as they are, but it is easy to see that he is conflating several quite separate ideas and characterizing them using distinct concepts.”


  64. To me the value of the comparison is in recognizing that Harman’s perpetual withdrawal of essences constitutes a scheme that serves no explanatory or causal purposes in the real world. Deacon’s absences are an integral, even an essential part of the material world and its interactions, just as the spaces between these words are part of this sentence. For all we know the OOO essence of my computer, or of myself for that matter, is at this moment orbiting Alpha Centauri. But then the essence would be interacting with the star’s gravitational field; it would be reflecting the star’s light. No good: must withdraw farther — must, in fact, withdraw from materiality altogether, as best I can tell.

    I’m better able to reconcile myself with OOO when I regard it as a subgenre of speculative fiction.

  65. Yeah, and I personally see the same value — but I think it’s only possible to take advantage of if you go into it with a full awareness of the very basic differences in the nature of the projects. I think we have that awareness, but a lot of philosophy people wouldn’t.

    Harman’s perpetual withdrawal of essences constitutes a scheme that serves no explanatory or causal purposes in the real world

    The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of the scientific joke: “reality has to be that way to make the math work!” It seems like a lot of the features of Harman’s systems are there to avoid the pitfalls other metaphysical systems fall into. Avoiding those sorts of logical pitfalls often leads to the need for “radical” stances (like the radical unavailability of essences or the radical multiplicity of mediators in occasional causation). With each new possible objection the system becomes weirder and less able to be used for any practical purpose.

  66. “Scrambled or over easy?”

    “You haven’t specified the ontological standing of that frying pan.”

    “So, you don’t want eggs?”

  67. Incidentally yet appositely, I love Sherman’s crack about “basins of distraction” in the comments to the linked (excellent) review.

  68. Ha. I didn’t see the comments. I was a bit surprised to find that the Lissacki virus had not yet spread there.

  69. On an OOO-related note, yesterday I came across an essay by Daniel Dennett in which he wonders about the ontological status of various things that humans deal with all the time: numbers, electronic dollars, cahoots, smithereens, holes, voices, haircuts, centers of gravity. Should all of them be eliminate from material reality as mere epiphenomena, or should there be some robust ontology of objects that encompasses them all? Dennett concludes:

    “The perspective I would recommend is that of the diplomatic anthropologist, not the metaphysician intent on limning the ultimate structure of reality. The ontology of everyday life is now teeming with items that sit rather awkwardly in the world of atoms and molecules. If we can understand how this population explosion came about, and why it is so valuable to us as agents in the world, we can perhaps discharge our philosophical obligations without ever answering the ultimate ontological question. To me it looks more and more like professional make-work, an artefact of our reasonable but ultimately optional desire for systematicity, rather than a deeper mystery in need of solving.”

  70. Carl: Jeremy Sherman has worked with Terry Deacon for more than a decade. His review is even less objective than mine would be if AI were to write one. He specifically fails to acknowledge his relationship with Deacon in the review.

  71. I see! Well, this is very important. Tell me, does he also have dandruff? Expired car registration? Does he use the salad fork for the entree and leave the toilet seat up? Does he still think that Papyrus and Comic Sans are kewl typefaces? Does he call them fonts?

  72. The full account (to date) is at [Michael’s conspiracy site which you can look up some other way –Editor]

  73. Umm, maybe everyone missed this, but here is Colin McGinn’s incredibly witty/destructive review of Incomplete Nature in the New York Review of Books:

    I’ve read the book myself (and just finished, which is what brought me here) and McGinn is spot on for a lot of things — he also addressed the Juarrero controversy — and basically his overall point is:

    A. It’s nice that Deacon is focused on these important issues.
    B. Juarrero and Thompson cover most of what he says in their earlier books (and he doesn’t cite them)
    C. The few original things that Deacon puts in demonstrate his lack of understanding of modern philosophy (especially the analytic/mathematical side) and just a kind of general confusion/lack of familiarity with the literature. For example, there is a lot of stuff out there, modernly, on attractors, causality, and complexity… that Deacon doesn’t seem to know.

    As someone with some knowledge of all this stuff, McGinn appears to be spot on — I’m going to go read Juarrero’s book (according to McGinn it is far more readable and precise in its terminology).

  74. Welcome, Bob. I’ll let Asher speak for himself on your specific points, but in the meantime you might find some illumination in his discussion of McGinn’s review (link here). Asher and the commentary engage in some detail, but the general point is that McGinn is only right about Deacon if Deacon is trying to write a philosophy book, which in fact he is not. Hope you’ll join the discussion there.

  75. I’d just say that if I had it to write over, I’d skip the cute “disorder” frame and demonstrate how McGinn’s review is conceptually loose/fuzzy/inexact in a way that invites the same sorts of category and category-esque errors that have been leading philosophy of mind astray all along.

    Do feel welcome to add to the discussion there. I’d love the opportunity to hash through it in detail with someone who has both read Deacon closely and agrees with McGinn’s review.


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