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As physicists work toward completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness, and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical ...
As physicists work toward completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness, and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical properties—such as mass, momentum, charge, and location—that are assumed to be necessary for something to have physical consequences in the world. This is an unacceptable omission. We need a "theory of everything" that does not leave it absurd that we exist.
Incomplete Nature begins by accepting what other theories try to deny: that, although mental contents do indeed lack these material-energetic properties, they are still entirely products of physical processes and have an unprecedented kind of causal power that is unlike anything that physics and chemistry alone have so far explained. Paradoxically, it is the intrinsic incompleteness of these semiotic and teleological phenomena that is the source of their unique form of physical influence in the world. Incomplete Nature meticulously traces the emergence of this special causal capacity from simple thermodynamics to self-organizing dynamics to living and mental dynamics, and it demonstrates how specific absences (or constraints) play the critical causal role in the organization of physical processes that generate these properties.
The book's radically challenging conclusion is that we are made of these specific absenses—such stuff as dreams are made on—and that what is not immediately present can be as physically potent as that which is. It offers a figure/background shift that shows how even meanings and values can be understood as legitimate components of the physical world.
Deacon (Biological Anthropology and Neuroscience/Univ. of California, Berkeley; The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, 1997) takes up the challenge of giving a physical, scientific basis for our perception of agency and selfhood.
With the development of fMRI and other scanning devices, scientists are able to correlate the activation areas of the brain to stimulus/response patterns involved in decision making, which precede conscious thought (the subject of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink).While Deacon has no answer to the conundrum of the disappearing "I"—the inability of scientists to discover a neurological foundation for our subjective perception of our own agency—he believes that one does exist but requires a revolutionary shift in the present scientific paradigm. The author offers a prospectus for such a scientific revolution—"the qualitative outlines of a future science that is subtle enough to include us"—that would encompass a neurological basis for the emergence of creativity. He develops insights from complexity theory and nonlinear dynamics at extreme conditions to address the fundamental question of how cellular life emerged from the physical substrata as a precondition for evolution. "Life and sentience are deeply interrelated," he writes. "Sentience is not just a product of biological evolution, but in many respects a micro-evolutionary process in action...the experience of being sentient is what it feels like to be evolution.
A dense but intriguing book that demands close reading; for dedicated readers, it's well worth the effort.
Posted February 3, 2012
While Deacon's latest work is a well written review of his current thinking if one is a general reader, the book falls well short of acceptable academic standards. Important parallel work by Alicia Juarrero, Evan Thompson, and Mark Graves is simply ignored -- despite all three authors having published years before this book and despite Deacon's having had personal interaction with all three. There seem to be NO references cited post 2005 other than Deacon's own work -- which seems strange for a book written in 2010 and edited in 2011. Academic readers are urged to look at the parallel research where the referencing is much better and attributions are NOT inexplicably missing. General readers looking to explore will find a thoughtful exposition BUT this is NOT Deacon's best work.
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