Tuesday, February 7, 2012

#98. The Unfinished Business of Science

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This three-part post is an introduction to a book I think represents a major breakthrough in the 500-year history of science and its relationship with religion.

When I began my blog more than five years ago, the main concern I had was to help those interested to see that when we write off religious perspectives we miss out on the value of religious experience as part of humanity's effort to understand and be part of the world.

I see myself addressing people like myself: anyone who wants to understand human beings as participants in the world's evolution. We don't want to shut ourselves off from either ancient wisdom or modern efforts at understanding. My concern was to show that the two world views-- of religion and science-- were ultimately about the same thing: ourselves and our existence in the real world of space, time, matter and energy.

The way I see it, the difference between the ancient and modern perspectives is that they are coming from very different directions-- from radically different ways of perceiving reality-- but that they meet precisely in an understanding of human persons. That's why I use the term "convergence" in the blog's title.

It's also why I didn't begin the blog with posts about the new evolutionary cosmology. I focused instead on the research being done-- as much as I knew of it at that time-- on the human brain and nervous system in the context of anthropology.

Several of my earliest posts were about the work the Biogenetic Structuralists described in their 1990 text, Brain, Symbol & Experience (New Science Library). (I first discovered that research because of my interest in liturgy and ritual: the second of their earlier publications is The Spectrum of Ritual: A Biogenetic Structural Analysis (Columbia U. Press, 1979).)

Much has happened in the areas of science and religion in the last three decades and, indeed, even in the five years since I began the blog.

Recently, the work of a highly creative new contributor to these science and religion issues has appeared. He, too, has a background in anthropology and neurological studies. Terrence Deacon is chair of Biological Anthropology and Neuroscience at the University of California (Berkeley).

I mentioned Deacon back in post #50 (The End of Patriarchy) in connection with his earlier (1998) book, also published by Norton, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. His research is described as "a combination of human evolutionary biology and neuroscience in the investigation of the evolution of the processes underlying animal and human communication."

I heard Professor Deacon speak in October at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Anthropology and Archeology, just before the publication of his new book, Incomplete Nature (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011).

With its subtitle, How Mind Emerged From Matter, his book addresses head-on-- and as far as I know for the first in the 500-year history of modern science-- humanity's two greatest problems with regard to our scientific understanding of the world: scientific reductionism and philosophical dualism. Most Americans have fallen victim to one or the other of these views, and it's important to be clear about their meanings.


Reductionism is a mechanistic view of reality; it sees all life and mind as nothing more than the workings of the material parts of machines. It reduces biological and human life to the barest minimum of inanimate matter, facts and logic. In this view there is no meaning or value to our existence.

Although few live their everyday lives as if this was an accurate understanding of the world, reductionism is a widespread theoretic view. And, unfortunately for our culture, it is commonly understood to be the scientific understanding of reality-- which it is not.


Dualism, of course, is the opposite of reductionism. It's a philosophical and religious perspective, which insists that life and consciousness are not only more than mere matter, but also that the "more" has been inserted into matter by a source external to the world.

As Deacon notes, dualism is a highly attractive viewpoint. "There is indeed a difference," he says, "between mind and matter." But he also notes that our need now is to understand the difference in scientific terms, and not-- as reductionism does-- explain it away.

This is the great issue of our time, says Deacon. He calls it "the unfinished business of science." Despite the success of humanity's scientific endeavor in the last 500 years, "Our best science," he says, "excludes us." We ourselves are left out of our own understanding of reality.


The big question, of course, is: Why has our best science excluded us?

Deacon's answer-- the central idea of his book-- is that science has not given the attention needed to the energy processes which physical matter undergoes.

If you are asking, "What have energy processes to do with the human mind and heart?", that is the right question!

As Deacon says, neither the reductionist perspective (that we are machines) nor the dualistic perspective (that human consciousness comes from outside the physical universe) is acceptable from a strictly scientific viewpoint.

He acknowledges that science has neglected to bring together an understanding of life and mind with physical matter. He says science has been deficient precisely because it's been so successful in improving the human condition. But in its success, he adds, it has ignored what is most important to us-- our own self-understanding.


I'm sure long-time readers of the blog will know what Deacon says is the needed perspective which science has neglected. I've mentioned it many times, because institutional religion has neglected it too. It's our need to move out of the static viewpoint of the ancient world and move into a much more dynamic understanding of the universe.

Deacon's most basic thought is that if we are to understand ourselves and the world from a scientific perspective we need to stop thinking only in terms of physical things and material objects and to look, instead, at the dynamic processes by which the universe operates.

Buddhists have been saying this for centuries.

Deacon emphasizes that, in looking at the processes rather than static objects, we are remaining grounded in the material-physical world. We do not want to become either reductionists or dualists, he says; what we do want is to understand reality from a point of view which includes those dynamic energy processes.


Long-time readers will remember that I've said numerous times in these posts, "There's more to religion than it seems." And now, thanks to Deacon's insights, we can say the same thing about science. Just as there's more to religion than is commonly understood even by many religious people, so there's more to science than is commonly assumed even by many science-literate persons.

In both cases, the key to understanding that "more" is to move away from the ancient world's preference for seeing reality in terms of permanently stable and static objects.

This change in perspective-- from stasis to dynamis-- is the Great Turning happening in our time. It is the Immense Transition in human consciousness which global humanity is currently experiencing. And it is the central focus of Deacon's book.

His book is far from easy reading, but I've found it highly satisfying and have been urged by friends and blog readers to share my understanding of it. So that's what I'm doing in this post. Without their inspiration and encouragement, I wouldn't have the courage to try it.


The "unfinished business of science" is its need to look at the processes by which the physical world becomes living and conscious. At first hearing, this may sound a bit simplistic. But listen to what Deacon has to say....

He stresses that in everyday life we act all the time as if we have goals for what we do; we also presume that for our purposes, some things are better than others, and that we can use things as tools for specific tasks. Purpose, value and function are the common names for what he's talking about here.

His point is that while in ordinary life we take for granted things like purpose, value and function, science has tended to ignore them. The scientific enterprise has been so successful in practical terms in the last few centuries that it has simply denied reality to these aspects of life which are important to us.

It's obvious that having a purpose is something real, even though it can't be found in physical or material objects. It's real because it influences our actions; purpose makes a difference in the world. But these things which matters most to us-- such as purpose, value and function-- have yet to be understood in scientific terms.

In our day, the central question for science, then, says Deacon, is how we can understand the reality of these aspects of our lives which mean so much to us-- even though they are not physical or material things-- and how we can understand them without moving outside of the realm of the natural sciences.

That's the challenge. To not just look at physical objects but at the energy dynamics which physical matter undergoes. "Look at the energy processes," says Deacon.

For most of us, it's not an obvious problem. We know that there are many aspects of our experience which, while not being embodied in physical objects, are real because they make a difference to us.

In addition to purpose, value and function, other aspects of our lives neglected by science are information (as in "how-to" directions), meaning (as in "the meaning of symbols") and even personal experience itself. Deacon has coined the term "ententional phenomena" to include all of them and notes that what they have in common is an end or goal (telos, in Greek).


Few would argue with the idea that these aspects of life and mind are real; we experience daily their power to cause things to happen. But the important point Deacon wants us to keep in mind is that these "ententional phenomena" are not embodied in physical things or static material objects. They emerge from the dynamic processes which generate them.

Science is about explaining things, but if the scientific enterprise writes off aspects of human experience such as these ententional phenomena, that makes us nothing but machines-- which is exactly what the reductionist view says. It makes us robots-- automatons like the golems of Medieval stories or the zombies of contemporary science fiction films. There's human-like behavior but, as Deacon puts it, "nobody's home."

And if we were in fact robots, he says, "There would be no caring, no cared for, no kindness, no sharing of beauty and discovery and sorrow; no value to our pains and pleasures." Indeed, for each of us, there would be no "me" at all. Reductionist materialism, says Deacon, "is impotent to explain the mystery of ourselves."

If, on the other hand, we accept the dualistic view that life and mind are real because of an intervention from outside the physical universe, that makes us aliens in our own world. And of course many people do experience this kind of painful alienation today.

Taking into account dynamic processes and what emerges from them will, says Deacon, "make it easier to increase our sense of belonging in the universe." His hope is that we will eventually have a scientific perspective "which includes us and our own incomplete nature as legitimate forms of knotting in the fabric of the universe."

It becomes clearer every day that if we are ever to deal with our multiple global crises-- environmental and political, economic and educational-- this sense of "belonging in the universe" is probably humanity's single greatest need in our time.


There's one more idea I want to include in this introductory part of my post on Deacon's Incomplete Nature. He says that in order to move beyond the impasse of rationalist reductionism and religious dualism, we need something in science like what zero is in math.

Zero was once banned, shunned and feared, but it eventually revolutionized math and made modern science possible. In our day, ententional phenomena-- things like purpose, function, value and meaning-- are similar.

Just as zero, in the Middle Ages, was not considered real because it stood for nothing, so today in science things like function, value and purpose are ignored because they are not present in physical objects. Deacon observes that contemporary science is centuries behind its understanding of the more tangible realties in its understanding of things we take for granted in everyday life such as meaning and purpose. And in doing so, science is denying those things that are most important to us.

This denial of the reality of the "ententional phenomena" has divided the natural sciences from the human sciences, and has divided all of science from the humanities, says Deacon. It has, he says, alienated scientific knowledge from human experience.

And that denial makes science appear to be the enemy of human values. It also accounts for the understandable rebirth of religious fundamentalism with its deep distrust of a non-religious determination of human values.

Clearly, it is time to get on with the unfinished business of science!


PART TWO (added February 20, 2012). In the second part of this post I share my understanding of what Deacon has to say about how the workings of those dynamic energy processes allow life and mind to emerge from cosmic matter.

First, a bit of science history. Since prehistoric times the human mind and heart has always been fascinated when it encounters order in the world; the recurring patterns in the night sky, the cycles of the seasons, and the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes are good examples.

Deacon notes that in the past when people encountered nature's often awe-inspiring patterns, the existence of those patterns was usually explained by what he calls "the influence of absential influences." He means magic or supernatural powers-- what today we usually refer to "divine intervention."

But in science, says Deacon, these "absential accounts" came into question beginning around the year 1850. Since that time, "divine design" has no longer been accepted as a scientific explanation for anything, and the modern mechanistic view which resulted reached a zenith in the mid-20th century with ideas about self-organizing processes.

If the concept of "self-organization" is new to you, you might like to check out two of my recent posts: #96 (Science's Best: Cosmic Energy), which includes a description of self-organizing processes, and #97 (Five Years of Posts), which includes a link to an especially interesting example of self-organization: the hexagonal cloud formation at the North Pole of Saturn.


Deacon says that while "self-organization" really isn't an accurate term (since there is no "self" involved in the formation of these natural patterns), it's in such common use now that he, too, uses it. Much more important is his note that, while the "self-organizing" concepts work well in our understanding of the formation of patterns in nature, they do not account for the origins of such processes.

He says it had become apparent by the 1980s that even the best evolutionary perspectives do not provide an adequate explanation of the origins of life and mind. And that "is the great question for 21st-century science."

So while there's no question that life and mind are real (since they produce real physical results) and while we know that they haven't always been around (since there was a time on our planet when there was no human life-- or any life at all), what we want to be clear about now is how life and mind emerged during the Earth's long evolutionary development.

"We need to construct an understanding of emergence based on the dynamic cosmic processes," says Deacon. "We" here means scientists, of course, but it also includes you and me and all who care about humanity's scientific enterprise.


It may be surprising that the idea of the emergence of life is so new in science. It doesn't date back to the time of Galileo or Newton, or even Darwin. As a scientific concept, says Deacon, emergence began to take on meaning only in the last years of the 20th century. Just a few decades ago!

Nothing radically new happened, says Deacon, in the evolution of the universe when galaxies, stars and atoms first appeared, but something quite obviously new occurred when life first appeared on our planet. He stresses that while the basic laws of physics and chemistry didn't change, "there was a profound reorganization of matter and energy."

He also notes that our understanding of emerging new structures could not have happened without the invention of computers. High speed computers can run hundreds of thousands of iterations (repetitions of a program) in a relatively short time, and this allows the pathways of physical, chemical, biological and even social changes to be studied.

In post #96 (Science's Best: Cosmic Energy) I included an example of the difference the development of high-speed computers has made in allowing us a far deeper look at the dynamic processes of the cosmos than earlier generations could ever have imagined. The example is a recent computer simulation of the formation of a spiral galaxy; it was completed in "only" eight months by a super-computer system in Switzerland. That may sound like a lot but, as I said in post #96, on a personal computer the same simulation would take 570 years. Click here to see a three minute video of that eight-month long simulation.

Deacon notes that the concept of emergence is now used not just in computation and the physical sciences but also in economics, social studies and business applications. To a great extent, then, we owe the practical details of the fundamental cultural transition of our time-- the shift from stasis to dynamis in our cosmology-- to computer technology. It's an essential tool for dealing with the unfinished business of science.


Please be patient with what follows. It is my understanding of Deacon's ideas about "the profound reorganization of matter and energy" which occurred when life emerged. This is the heart of his work, but it's far more complicated than I can present easily. My hope is that what I have to say will offer you a good appreciation of Deacon's ground-breaking ideas, and that it may encourage you to tackle his book.

His most basic idea with regard to the origins of life and mind is that there are three different levels of energy processes involved. His names for the three levels are homeo-dynamics, morpho-dynamics and teleo-dynamics. (Those terms aren't usually written with hyphens, but my teacher-instincts tell me that the use of hyphens will be helpful for those who are encountering these terms for the first time.)

These three names are used to describe different kinds of changes in the natural world.


The term "homeo-dynamics" refers to changes which happen by themselves. They happen "naturally," as we say, and they always produce randomly distributed results. Autumn leaves falling from a tree, for example, don't fall into any pattern, they just spread out on the ground wherever they fall or a breeze may take them. Any time we spill something-- a glass of milk, a box of thumbtacks-- the scattering of the components of the container demonstrates the random ("spread out") results of homeo-dynamic processes.

The main idea here is that in homeo-dynamics, the bits and pieces of matter-- the atoms and molecules or whatever-- move spontaneously from a higher energy state to a lower energy state. In terms of orderliness, the change is from more orderly to more random conditions. We know this process from frequent personal experience: life is messy and things fall apart easily. In physics, it's called the "Second Law of Thermodynamics."

It's not really a law, however, so much as a way of describing the relentless and inevitable increase toward messiness and random disorder in the world. The basic point to understand here is that life and mind work against this general tendency of physical things.

In all life processes and mental activities, the movement is away from randomness. These are the processes which Deacon wants us to look at and understand.

While material things generally tend to become more disordered, the tendency does not exclude movement towards more orderly states. And this is the whole issue: How can a group of things-- a collection of molecules, for example-- become more orderly?

In answering that question, Deacon's main idea is that the more orderly processes show themselves only under two conditions: when energy is being supplied and when other, lower-level and less-orderly processes are prevented from happening. He refers to these limitations as "constraints."

His main idea, again: When energy is being added to a system of molecules, constraint on the lower level processes makes the higher level processes possible.


The concept of constraint isn't easy to understand at first hearing. We usually think of life as something "more" than mere matter, but Deacon is saying that, in a sense, it's something less. He offers a good analogy which I'll describe below. For the analogy to be clear, however, we need some basic facts about the unique characteristics of all life-forms.

Living things operate "for the sake of" their own persistence. They have a goal: to keep themselves going. They repair themselves, when necessary, and even reproduce themselves. This kind of self-regulation for the sake of self-preservation is much more than a machine-like workings of parts. It's because of this purpose or end (telos) that Deacon refers to living organisms as "teleo" processes.

The question, then, is how we might understand a collection of chemicals that in fact can regulate, repair and replicate itself. No machine can do anything like that.

Deacon says that scientific reductionists ignore these dynamic teleo-processes. They "ignore the fact that living things are alive." An example of the fact that they also don't pay much attention to morph-processes can be found in the introduction to the

Astronomy Picture of the Day's explanation of Saturn's north pole hexagon, featured on January 22, 2012. It begins by saying only that "It is unclear how an unusual hexagonal cloud system that surrounds Saturn's north pole was created [and] keeps its shape."


Morpho processes lie in between homeo and teleo processes, so if we are to appreciate the uniqueness of the energy-dynamics of the cosmos which generate life and mind, it's important that we not be "unclear" about morpho-dynamics.

All changes other than the homeo-dynamic kind require an impetus-- a push or energy input-- to get them started and to continue. We need to heat water, for example, to get it to boil, and it will only continue to boil as long as heat is continually supplied from the outside.

All non-homeo-processes require a constant input of energy. When water is heated, the water molecules are raised to a higher energy level than they had previously, but if the heat source is removed, the molecules will move down "naturally" to a lower energy state.

So far, I haven't told you anything you don't know. Here's the new part:

When a collection of water molecules that is being heated reaches a certain energy level, shapes or columns of molecules begin to form. What's happening is that the energy can drop down a bit to a lower level, but not necessarily to the lowest natural level. This is the origin of "self-organizing" morpho processes. "Morph" just means "shape."

In heated water, the morphs-shapes are referred to as Benard's cells or convection cells. The six-pointed pattern of snowflakes and the hexagonal formation at Saturn's North Pole are good examples of the shapes resulting from of these morph-producing processes.

The difference between the shape-producing processes of morpho-dynamics and the randomness-producing processes of homeo-dynamics is that energy needs to continuously be supplied so that the shape can be at least temporarily stable. In the case of that North Pole hexagon on Saturn, its energy-- which is continually dissipating into Saturn's atmosphere-- is constantly being renewed by energy from the sun.

Even though it's a distraction from the main ideas, I think it's worth noting here that this same kind of morpho-dynamic process accounts for biological shapes, too. Everything from the spiral tendrils of a morning glory vine and the double helix pattern of sunflower seeds to the patterns on the wing of a butterfly result from these same morpho processes.


While both teleo processes and morpho processes require constant energy input, the results are quite different. Morph-forms are collections of chemicals which have a temporarily permanent shape, due to their being at a less than lowest energy level. But life-forms, in contrast, are collections of chemicals that can regulate, repair and replicate themselves.

Deacon says that teleo-processes are related to morpho-processes in the same way that morpho-processes are related to homeo-processes. I don't know how to say that more simply. It's one of the more difficult of Deacon's ideas to understand at first hearing.

See if this helps: Just as morph-processes move from a higher to a lower, but not to the lowest, energy level, so teleo-processes move from a higher to a somewhat lower level, but not as low as the morpho-processes. If we picture homeo-dynamics happening at the bottom of a stairway, then morpho-processes occur several steps higher up, and teleo-processes are happening all the way at the top.


It's that extra-high energy level which makes teleo-processes unique. They not only maintain a shape the way morpho-processes do, they also sustain themselves from within. Even the most elementary organism-- a bacterium, for example-- can regulate which bio-chemicals in its surroundings may enter into itself through its cell wall membrane.

Single-celled organisms can even respond in a conscious way to their surroundings, moving toward nutrients and away from materials which may be damaging. In comparison, the forms resulting from morpho-processes are totally passive: there's no self in even the most elementary sense, no inner agency which reacts or respond to the external environment.

So "teleo" really is a good name for the higher level energy processes. Living things have a purpose (an end or goal) for the sake of which they work: their own persistence. They search for nutrition, avoid potential harm, even repair and reproduce themselves.

It's seeing how these teleo processes work that can help us understand the origins of life and mind.


That "how" may be the biggest of our big questions. Since they work so powerfully against the natural tendency to disorder in the material universe, how did these order-producing teleo processes come about? What allowed them to happen in the first place?

I found Deacon's answer to this critical question especially challenging. It did finally make sense, but it took a while for me to catch on to it. So, again, please be patient.

You will remember, from above, that one of Deacon's central ideas is that the more orderly morpho and teleo processes show themselves only when energy is being supplied and when other, lower-level and less-orderly processes are prevented from happening.

It's the constraints-- the limitations or restrictions on the lower level chemical and physical processes-- which makes the higher level processes possible.

I came to understand this idea of constraint better when I realized that the higher level morpho and teleo processes are in fact no less normal in the natural world than are the homeo processes, so that they too occur wherever they can; they emerge whenever the higher levels of energy are available and transition to the lower levels is restricted.

Deacon notes that it's understandable why science hasn't given much attention to these energy dynamics. As I mentioned in Part 1, it has been so successful in improving human conditions on the practical level that it has been reluctant to move away from the static worldview of the past. But it's that dynamic emergent worldview which we now need.
If you have stayed with me through this difficult second section of the post, there's one more challenge. It's to understand how these teleo processes-- which are a natural part of the energy dynamics of the universe-- happen only when the lower level processes are prevented from happening. We need to make sense of the concept of "constraint."

While it's easy enough to see that living things are specific patterns of complex matter and high energy in the universe, the idea that they emerge only when other patterns or processes are restricted, is not. It helps if we ask, What causes constraints?


I said earlier that Deacon provides an excellent image that helps us understand what causes the constraints. It comes from an ancient cultural craft which archeologists know to be about 5,000 years old: the weaving of fabric from silk.

When the threads of silk worms are woven together in any specific way, all the other possible random ways in which those threads might have been put together are prevented (excluded, constrained). It's the specific pattern of the threads which is the constraint. 
One pattern prevents all the other potential patterns from resulting.

The great value of this analogy is that while it's obvious that the resulting fabric isn't made of anything other than thread, it's also obvious that the fabric is something more than just thread. We can do very little with thread in comparison to what we can do with fabric.


Deacon emphasizes that no new physics and chemistry laws come into effect with the emergence of life; what does, however, are new cause-and-effect laws.

And if we ask whether causes really exist-- apart from, or in addition to-- matter and energy, he asks, "What else is there?"

His answer is "relationships." Just as fabric is "thread in-relationship," so living things and human consciousness are "matter and energy in-relationships."

I think this fabric-and-thread analogy is especially helpful for understanding that life and mind are not something added to matter so much as something which naturally emerges from matter and energy when lower level energy processes are prevented from happening.

The analogy helps us to see that there is complete continuity between the physical matter of the universe and the world of living things. It lets us recognize that the emergence of dynamic teleo processes is a completely natural aspect of the workings of the cosmos.


Deacon makes a special point of mentioning that this understanding of life and mind-- as natural results of the evolutionary development of the universe-- will not be accepted unless we are able to let go of philosophical dualism.

For many, the willingness to give up dualistic perspectives is a tremendous challenge. But if we can be clear about the idea of life and mind resulting not from matter but from the relationships between the energy processes which matter undergoes, we can see that religious dualism isn't necessary for an understanding of the place of living things and personal consciousness in the physical universe.

Please note that I am not saying (and neither is Deacon, as far as I know) that this dynamic understanding of life and mind excludes a religious perspective, but only that it excludes the static perspective on which religious and philosophical dualism is based.

This second part of the post on "The Unfinished Business of Science" has-- if you're still reading it-- given you quite a workout. Me, too. Time for a break!


PART THREE (added March 1, 2012). In the brief third part of this post I share my understanding of the unique characteristics of all living things, including ourselves, which are the results of the emergent teleo processes of the cosmos.

To appreciate the unique nature of life-- and to contribute, by our efforts, to the "unfinished business of science"-- we need to be clear about how the results of the teleo-dynamic life-processes are radically different from the results of the morpho processes.

If you haven't read the second part of this post, you might want to read it before going on. The differences between "morpho" and "teleo" are critical not just for the understanding of life-processes but for our own personal and global-communal-human self-understanding.

Both the shape-producing morpho processes and the end-directed teleo processes go against the general tendency of inanimate matter to move toward increasingly disorganized states. Both depend on an influx of energy from outside themselves-- and both result, thereby, in a spontaneous increase in order, regularity and complexity.

But, as I've said, the results of the higher-energy teleo processes are radically different from those of the lower-energy morpho processes. Because we humans are the results on our planet of four billion years of these teleo processes, it's important that we get this right. Why? If we don't get it right, we're stuck with scientific reductionism or religious dualism.


Remember from Part 2 that, while the material shapes which result from morpho processes are conventionally called "self-organizing," in fact the term isn't accurate since there is no "self" in any real sense. There's no "active agency," as Deacon says.

In the case of the life forms which result from teleo processes, however, "self-organizing" is indeed the correct term. Life and mind are goal-directed processes; there is an active agent present in all living things.

Every plant and animal on Earth is made of the same cosmic matter and energy which emerged at the birth of the universe fourteen billion years ago, and each human being is the result of the teleo-dynamics by which life emerged on our planet ten billion years later.

It is our understanding of those life processes-- and thus of ourselves-- which is "the unfinished business of science." So the focus of this third part of my long post is simply to help readers be clear about the distinction between the results of "morpho" and "teleo" processes.


Deacon lists four major ways in which living things (from single-celled bacteria to plants, animals and humans) differ from morpho forms (such as whirlpools, convection cells and Saturn's north pole hexagon). Here's his list:

1) Living things do not merely result, as morph-forms do, from the conditions in their surrounding environment; organisms make active use of the energy and materials of the environment to keep themselves going. It's a clear distinction: morph-forms result from their surrounding environment, living things interact with it.

We know, for example, that plants use the energy of the sun to convert the surrounding air and water into sugar molecules, which they then use for their on-going life processes such as growth and reproduction. We humans too interact with our physical environment to keep ourselves going; we know from personal experience how quickly we wear out without a constant supply of water and food. We also interact with our psychological environment, and quickly wear out there too without the on-going support of family, friends and culture.


2) In contrast to snowflake crystals and other morph forms, even the most elementary living things-- yeast cells, for example-- initiate changes within themselves in response to external changes in their environment. While organisms change internally to adapt to external changes, morph forms don't do anything like that; they have no "within" or "inner agency."

Yeast cells offer a familiar example of changes from within. In the absence of water and nutrients, yeast cells shut down; they go dormant. When we're planning to make bread, we buy packages of those dormant yeast cells, which-- once we provide them with the right environment of water and sugar-- initiate changes within themselves. We then use the products of those internal changes (gas bubbles, in this case) to make bread dough rise.

Another common example of internal change is the response of plants and animals to the changing seasons. As winter weather approaches, many species of trees lose their leaves and many animals hibernate. They change themselves from within, for the sake of their own persistence through the cold months. We do something similar every day. After many hours of busy mental and emotional responses to our human environment, we too temporarily shut down; we need to go to sleep for a while. We go dormant-- just like yeast cells do.

On February 21, 2012, the New York Times reported a spectacular example of the persistence of the active agent in a dormant life-form. The report said that Russian scientists have been able to germinate dormant seeds from an arctic flower called "campion," which had been stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia. According to radioactivity dating, those seeds had lain buried for 32,000 years.


3) A third major characteristic of life and mind is that living organisms are able, in Deacon's words, to "assess or evaluate various gradients in their surroundings" and thus can "move so as to anticipate and avoid depleted conditions and seek more optimal ones."

A familiar example of this evaluative characteristic is the autumn flights of birds migrating south where food will be more readily available. A less familiar example is the fact that a single-celled animal, such as a paramecium, will move away from a drop of acid which an experimenter might add to its liquid environment. Even a one-celled organism can judge and act on the evaluation of its environmental surroundings!

If you have ever ducked into a doorway during a rain shower, you too were an example of a life-form "seeking more optimal conditions." We too evaluate everything: we are drawn to some people more than others, we select our friends, some of us change jobs often. We too, like all life-forms, are always assessing our surroundings and seeking better conditions.

Even our attraction to compassionate behavior and our aversion to cruelty involve the same kind of assessment and evaluation of the "various gradients in our surroundings." Our concern for value has its ancient basis in the teleo processes common to all life-forms.


4) Probably the most obvious distinction between living things and inanimate matter is that organisms reproduce themselves. Morph forms don't have babies-- or any kind of progeny-- while even the most elementary kinds of living things do. And their "babies" also have babies, resulting in lineages of living things. Lineages adapt (both within and without, just as individuals do) to continuing environmental changes; those unable to adapt become extinct, while those that can adapt evolve over time into ever more complex forms.

I think the best example of these on-going developmental processes is the entire history of life on our planet. For the first several billion years there were only one-celled organisms, and while most of them became extinct, the survivors continued to adapt to changing conditions. Little by little, over millions of years, the result was the spectacular complex of multicellular plants and animals we have today in the various bioregions of the Earth.


Deacon's list is impressive. I hope my intentionally elementary examples help make it clear that the emerging results of the dynamic teleo processes include far more than those static forms which result from morpho processes.

Here's a quick summary of that "far more": Living things act for their own sake, they are self-perpetuating, self-modifying, and in their capacity for self-repair and self-replication they respond, adapt and evolve. Morph forms just don't do any of that.

Living things are not reducible to their components. They show different properties-- and thus have a certain freedom-- from what they're made of. And even at the level of one-celled organisms, they all have an inner agency, an authentic acting "self." We do, too.

As life's complexity increased over evolutionary time-- from one-celled creatures to molds, lichens, sponges, worms, fish, reptiles, birds, mammals and anthropoids-- so did the depth of the inner agency's self-awareness. We are the long-term fruit of an immense evolutionary story. Our minds and hearts-- our conscious awareness and our personal relatedness-- are no less real than that "more" which is characteristic of all living things.

Like every living creature, we too interact with our environment, we too change ourselves in response to it, we too evaluate its positive and negative aspects. We too, with our personal freedom and creativity, are expressions-- absolutely unique-in-all-the-world expressions-- of the universe's vast process of emergence.


Remember from Part 2 that Deacon says about emergence that it "does not mean new physics and chemistry laws but new cause-and-effect laws." And that his response is "relationships" when we ask, "What else is there besides matter and energy?"

The unique characteristics of the fabric of life and mind are woven from the same matter and energy that constitute the rest of the world. There is complete continuity between the world of physics and chemistry and the world of living things-- including us. After 500 years of modern science we can stop saying to ourselves, "Maybe I don't belong here."

We can see that what Deacon calls the "ententionals"-- meaning, purpose and value at the depths of human life-- are as real as atoms and molecules. And that they are the "zero" that will transform modern science just as the numerical marker "0" once transformed ancient math.

And, as he says, The emergence of these attributes can be understood without attributing them to an external source or denying that a real threshold has been crossed.

Good words to end this long introduction to Deacon's book!


PS. In case you missed it in the comment section, I had a note from Michael Dowd saying that he and his wife Connie recently did an interview with Terrence Deacon. You might like to listen:



Mary Coelho said...

Hi Sam:
Thank you for this introduction to Terrence Deacon's book. It sounds to me that Deacon's phrases "energy processes" or "dynamic processes which physical matter undergoes" is different language for some of the powers that Brian Swimme identifies in his DVD series "Powers of the Universe." Swimme's energy processes include centration, emergence and transmutation. I suspect it would be informative to compare Deacon's energy processes with Swimme's ideas about the nature and origin of his "powers of the universe."

Michael Dowd said...

Sam, check out this interview that Connie and I just did with Terry Deacon!


Glad you like the book too!


~ Michael

Sam said...

The Astronomy Picture of the Day for Feb 22, 2012 shows one of the well-known traveling stones of Death Valley. But check out the soil: it's a very clear example of morph forms; they are rough hexagons, thousands of them, but obviously not alive:


Sam said...

Just as the development over evolutionary time of a digestive system in mammals (from the ability of a one-celled organism to take in food) isn't easy to picture without help with regard to the in-between stages, so is the evolutionary development of a more person-like self in higher animals, including ourselves.

A recent Metanexus website offers an excellent summary of information about the emergence of personality in the world of animals-- specifically elephants, dolphins, corvids (crows and ravens) and chimpanzees. The article is by Raymond L. Neubauer, author of "Evolution and the Emergent Self." It's only two pages long and easy to read. Shouldn't be missed!