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.