Demonstrating some spousal exaggeration, my wife has been saying that she fears being crushed by a pile of books I've read that are awaiting my blogging attention.
(I made sure to include a chair in this photo for scale; unless Laurel shrinks to two feet tall, I think she has nothing to worry about. However, I will admit that there's another pile behind this one, so combined they could possibly be a risk to wifely health.)
The top light green book, 600 pages thick, seemed like a good place to start on reducing the pile. It is Terrence W. Deacon's densely written, yet provocative, "Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter."
This is one of those books that makes me think, If I can read this sucker all of the way through, and understand a good share of it, that compensates for not doing other senior citizen brain exercises, like the New York Times crossword puzzle.
There were times (well, many times) when I felt like giving up on Incomplete Nature.
But I persevered, even when I'd read a chapter and be perplexed about what the heck Deacon was trying to say. Since he is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, obviously Deacon has impressive intellectual and academic qualifications.
Bottom line: this book further convinced me that life and consciousness emerged from matter, not some divine or supernatural source. However, it is really difficult for me to summarize Deacon's thesis, because it was so difficult to understand Deacon's writing.
Here's an initial stab at relating what appealed to me the most -- his emphasis on absence.
Now, this also is a fascination of mine. I've just written about it in a much different way than Deacon has. You'll find lots of posts about absence in the "Wu Project" category in the right sidebar of this blog. My first post on this theme was in 2006, "The Wu Project."
We’re talking here about the real Wu. Which, because it signifies nothing, is pretty darn hard to say anything about. Nonetheless, I’m drawn to try. And even more perhaps: to be.
It’s a dream of mine. To be Wu. Not the Chinese character. Not the various Wu-associations Wikipedia talks about. Something else. What remains when all the somethings that I’m not are negated and just the nothing that I may be remains.
“May be” is the operative word here. There are no guarantees with Wu. It’s the ultimate mystery. You can’t rely on it for anything, because there is no thing there. Or so they say. And I tend to believe them.
Early on in his book, Deacon writes:
Each of these sorts of phenomena -- a function, reference, purpose, or value -- is in some way incomplete. There is something not there there. Without this "something" missing, they would just be plain and simple physical objects or events, lacking these otherwise curious attributes. Longing, desire, passion, appetite, mourning, loss, aspiration -- all are based on an analogous incompleteness, an integral without-ness.
As I reflect on this odd state of things, I am struck by the fact that there is no single term that seems to refer to this elusive character of such things. So, at the risk of initiating this discussion with a clumsy neologism, I will refer to this as an absential feature, to denote phenomena whose existence is determined with respect to an essential absence.
This could be a state of things not yet realized, a specific separate object of a representation, a general type of property that may or may not exist, an abstract quality, an experience, and so forth -- just not that which is actually present. This paradoxical intrinsic quality of existing with respect to something missing, separate, and possibly nonexistent is irrelevant when it comes to inanimate things, but it is a defining property of life and mind.
A complete theory of the world that includes us, and our experience of the world, must make sense of the way that we are shaped by and emerge from such specific absences. What is absent matters, and yet our current understanding of the physical world suggests that it should not. A causal role for absence seems to be absent from the natural sciences.
This is brilliant. Deacon had me on pages 2 and 3. I was looking forward to him building on this theme, fleshing out the notion of absence being the key to understanding life, mind, and consciousness.
When I got to the end of his 600 pages, I felt a lack.
Which I guess is appropriate, given his emphasis on absence. I never fully grasped his argument for absential features being the foundation of living beings. But here's a simple, and decidedly incomplete, way of explaining Deacon's creative, detailed, rigorous, yet excessively abstruse take on the world.
Constraint is a concept that runs through his book. It is key to understanding thermodynamic processes. When water boils, steam is released. Without any constraints, steam just bubbles up into the air from a pot of boiling water, like when I make spaghetti.
But when steam is constrained in certain ways, it can be used to power things, like a locomotive. Or to heat things, like an apartment building. Putting bounds on where the steam goes, restricting its freedom, so to speak, allows people to do useful things with boiling water.
But although the specific absences that constitute a constraint do not suffer the epiphenomenality of descriptive notions of organization, they are nevertheless explicitly not anything that is present. This requires that we show how what is absent is responsible for the causal power of organization and the asymmetric dynamics of a physical or living process.
...The presence of constraint -- the absence of certain potential states -- is a critical factor in the capacity to perform work. Thus, it is only because of a restriction or constraint imposed on the release of energy (e.g, the one-directional expansion of an exploding gas in a cylinder) that a change of state can be imposed by one system on another.
It is precisely by virtue of what is not enabled, but could otherwise have occurred, that a change can be forced.
A brilliant observation. Also, an obvious one, now that Deacon has pointed it out.
Even though I've read all of his book, I still don't grasp what he says below very well. Others may find the following even more mysterious. Or, perhaps, less so. In another blog post I'll try to explain how his absential outlook relates to mind and consciousness.
The core insight that guides this book can be grasped by taking the Taoist metaphysics quoted at the beginning of this chapter seriously. We simply need to pay attention to the holes. As rhetorically ironic as this sounds, the thesis of this book is that the answer to the age-old riddle of teleology is not provided in terms of "nothing but..." or "something more..." but rather "something less..." This is the essence of what I am calling absentialism.
This is the Tao Te Ching passage Deacon alludes to:
Thirty spokes converge at the wheel's hub, to a hole
that allows it to turn.
Clay is shaped into a vessel, to enclose an emptiness
that can be filled.
Doors and windows are cut into walls, to provide
access to their protection.
Though we can only work with what is there, use
comes from what is not there.
-- LAO TSU