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Intrinsic Incompleteness: Deacon on ‘ententional’ processes

This is the first in a planned series of posts on Terrence Deacon’s book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter. I’m calling it the Deactionary, since Deacon is fond of coining new terms and redefining old ones.

Deacon outlines an ambitious goal: understanding the emergence of consciousness from insensate matter. Of course, not everyone thinks that mind emerged from matter in the first place. Dualists think mind is a separate substance from matter. Idealists think matter is a subset of mind, rather than the other way round. And panpsychists think that mind is an intrinsic property of all forms of matter, so it didn’t really emerge at all.

But dualism, idealism and panpsychism are probably minority positions among the science-oriented. It is widely assumed that before life evolved, the universe was mindless, and that the arrival of subjective experience — the word “subjective” may or may not be redundant when discussing experience — represents a qualitative change that demands explanation.

There is an apparent gap between physical and biological modes of description. Physics is articulated in terms of mind-free concepts such as mass, position, velocity, charge, force, and so on. But subjective experience is described in intentional terms like ‘mental content’, ‘representation’, ‘symbol’, ‘concept’, ‘meaning’, and ‘idea’. And non-mental biological processes are described in teleological terms such as ‘function’ and ‘purpose’. Deacon wants us to see intentionality and teleology as variations on a single theme: the inclination or tending of a thing or process towards something else.

Intentionality and teleology are alien to the sciences of the inanimate: atoms don’t have purposes, and chemical reactions aren’t representing anything. Moreover, concepts like representation, goal, and function sit uneasily with modern notions of causality.

It’s good to pause here to investigate what exactly we mean by causality. Aristotle laid much of the groundwork for subsequent western thinking on causes. He thought of causes as answers to “why” questions. Aristotle proposed that when we want to know why a thing appears the way it does, we seek one or more of the following:

  • The material cause: the substance(s) of which the thing is made. For example, the material ’cause’ of a table is wood.
  • The formal cause: the form or arrangement of the thing. For the table, its shape is the formal cause.
  • The efficient cause: the conditions apart from the thing itself that enable the thing to arise. The carpenter with his tools is the efficient cause of the table.
  • The final cause: the end or purpose of the thing. In the case of the table, it may be to serve as a writing desk or as a dining table.

The first three Aristotelian causes fit well with modern physical science. But final causes seem out of place. The end for which something is meant occurs after the thing is created (if at all), whereas causes are typically understood as preceding their effects. The causal story of how a ball rolls down a hill involves the state of the ball in the present — not the still-unrealized purpose for which the ball was dispatched (there may not even be one, in the case of an accident). Moreover, once we have explained the physical causes of some process, the purposes (if any) seem superfluous. Reductive physicalism might be understood as the attempt to subsume all why questions into how questions.

Reductive physicalists reason that since (1) physics is the science of the most fundamental entities, and (2) physics has no use for purposes and goals, then purposes and goals must not ‘exist’ — the universe is quite literally pointless. At best, goals, functions and purposes are shorthand compressions of complicated physical processes that will one day be decompressed into a teleology-free format. The term ‘teleonomy’ is often used to denote apparently teleological processes whose telos is no more than a tool for the scientist, with no real existence. A side-effect of the illusory nature of teleological processes is that they cannot then be causal.

Emergentists, of which Deacon is a prime example, complain that pronouncements about cosmic purposelessness are based on half-baked science. Instead of forcing living systems to fit into physics-derived categories, non-reductive physicalists seek an intermediate stage in which specific arrangements of inanimate matter cause purposes to spontaneously arise.

Deacon’s first step towards this goal is to highlight what is similar about intentionality and teleology. Both concepts are fundamentally relational: they involve one thing being for or about something else. But to Deacon, intention and telos bear the stain of the mental; when attempting to explain the emergence of mind, using such terms is tantamount to circular reasoning. So he creates the term “ententional” as a broader tent that encompass both concepts.

[…] we need to introduce a more generic term for all such phenomena, irrespective of whether they are associated with minds or merely features of life.
To address this need, I propose that we use the term ententional as a generic adjective to describe all phenomena that are intrinsically incomplete in the sense of being in relationship to, constituted by, or organized to achieve something non-intrinsic. By combining the prefix en– (for “in” or “within”) with the adjectival form meaning something like “inclined toward,” I hope to signal this deep and typically ignored commonality that exists in all the various phenomena that include within them a fundamental relationship to something absent.

It is not obvious to me, even after reading the book, that inventing a term like this enables Deacon to successfully avoid the issue of mind-ladenness (I have alluded to the general difficulty here), but the attempt to reformulate aboutness in terms of incompleteness is thought-provoking nonetheless. The idea has a poetic quality. Deacon coins yet another term, absential, to elaborate on the concept:

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.

In the case of goals, the incompleteness is relatively clear: having an active goal in the present means the goal hasn’t been reached. We might say a goal is a vacuum that nature abhors — and attempts to fill by means of the organism’s behavior. Each goal-vacuum is ‘about’ the currently-absent state that brings about its cessation1.

Absence initially seems promising when we apply it to intentionality: if I am consciously experiencing a duck, the experience per se does not ‘contain’ an actual duck — and so the duck’s absence is in some sense characteristic of the experience. But how does this work for something like color? I suppose the experience of magenta is of or about magenta, but magenta itself is not an external physical object — it arises when blue- and red- wavelength beams of light arrive at the eye. It would be strange to say that the experience of magenta is an experience of blue and red light, since the experience itself clearly occurred long before anyone understood color vision. In any case, red and blue light do not blend into magenta “out there in the world” — the experience occurs because of the specifics of our very-much-not-absent nervous systems. If we instead try to say that magenta experiences are about memories or prior experiences of magenta, we seem at risk of some kind of regress. So what exactly is intrinsically absent in the experience of magenta? 2

Perhaps that is a digression to pursue another time. For now it suffices to point out that in order to work his way up to intentionality in its full-blown mental splendor, Deacon first characterizes mindless ententional processes, which are described as natural consequences of the right sort of physical process. Perhaps ironically, Deacon proposes a bottom-up, reductionist-sounding conception of emergence. But unlike the reductionists, Deacon is interested in assigning causal efficacy to the emergent ententional processes:

By analogy, to really understand how the additional dimension of ententional properties can emerge from a substrate that is dimensionally simpler and devoid of these properties, it is necessary to understand how the material and energetic threads of the physical universe became entangled with one another in just the right way so as to produce the additional dimension that is the fabric of both life and mind. This is the problem of emergence: understanding how a new, higher dimension of causal influence can be woven from the interrelationships among component processes and properties of a lower dimension.

We’ll see how Deacon attempts this in future posts.


1 The reader acquainted with dynamical systems might wonder why Deacon doesn’t subsume absential processes into the established concept of attractors — I don’t really have a good answer yet. It may be that the attractor framework does the opposite of what physicalists want, since it opens up the possibility of an acasual, teleological interpretation of physics. This issue has been debated by physicists for two centuries — without any resolution, as far as I can tell.

2 This color conundrum just struck me, and seems to be a problem for intentionality as a whole, and not just Deacon’s treatment of it.


All quotes are from Incomplete Nature.


The Deactionary: A glossary of terms from Terrence Deacon’s ‘Incomplete Nature’

Terrence W. Deacon’s 2012 book Incomplete Nature is a bold attempt to conceptualize the emergence of life and mind using a consistent ‘physicalist’ framework. I put the term ‘physicalist’ in scare-quotes because one of the appealing quirks of the book — and perhaps one that isn’t given enough attention despite a length of 500+ pages — is that Deacon wants us to add something to the list of physical things, which typically only includes matter and energy. This something is… nothing. The incompleteness in the title seems to refer to this idea: a qualified nothing or absence is central to emergence.


Are Selves Illusory? Emergent? Ubiquitous?

I was asked this question on Quora recently:

Is the self an illusion or an emergent phenomenon? I’ve read people who use neuroscience to argue for one, the other, or both simultaneously.

Here’s how I responded.

No one knows what the self is. Least of all my fellow neuroscientists! ;)

Personally, I think the idea that the self is an illusion is meaningless. I suspect it’s just a (highly misleading) shorthand for saying that people’s notions of a permanent, unchanging self are incorrect. In other words, it means that the self is not an eternal soul with permanent, intrinsic, essential properties. Instead it is a process that changes on various timescales.

science and meta-science

The Finger Pointing At the Map

1024px-europe_a_prophecy_copy_k_plate_01A description is a way of dividing the world into at least two parts: the phenomenon to be described, and the phenomenon used to do the describing. If we describe a rose as red, we implicitly divide the world into the rose on one side and everything else (such as concept of redness) — on the other. For a description to be useful, it must convey information that the listener doesn’t already possess. Saying “this rose is rosy”, is redundant. We can label the two parts of a description the target (the phenomenon to be described) and the descriptor set (the set of concepts used for describing).