A radical new explanation of how life and consciousness emerge from physics and chemistry.
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 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.
©2012 Terrence W. Deacon (P)2015 Audible, Inc.
I've read it many times. I've read lots of other books on the origins of life and mind. Hands down this is the one that addresses the issue most clearly, scientifically and directly. Some have complained that it's badly written. It is not. It's a rich concentrate of ideas, all of which are necessary. If you want a scientific approach to the meaning of life, or more accurately how, with life meaning emerges, this book is well worth the effort.
This book exhibits most of what's wrong with modern philosophy, especially regarding the sciences. In particular, the book follows a typical form of many philosophy books; the stages are:
1) Review the literature, emphasizing relatively obscure philosophers and scientists, usually to validate the author’s bona fides as a scholar in the field, but providing nothing truly new.
2) Create a rash of neologisms (e.g. telodynamics, autogen, telogen) that constitute a semantic forest of poorly differentiated concepts. He completely fails to offer comparisons to semantic terms from other authors.
3) Build on the basket of neologisms to create higher and higher levels of abstractions. Unfortunately, these new levels are postulated without clear examples from scientific data. Ultimately, no testable hypotheses are offered and story ends with demands for others to provide the “details”—that is, what should be the actual substance of any serious addition to the field of study.
His work is well written and interesting at points. Sadly, this is not enough. There are many other recent works on the subject of consciousness that are actually grounded in modern science.
I sense that, not being able to write a peer-reviewable paper the subject, the author took the chatty book route instead (and boy does he chat - you will not know what the book is about through the first several chapters - there is little reference to the book title's subject (consciousness from matter) - he circles around the subject from a great distance - probably planning to slowly lead into it, but he never appears to get close to addressing consciousness from matter - and if you are not well versed in the key branches of the sciences (physics, biology, and chemistry) then you will not be able to mentally visualize what he is saying and the book will be gibberish.
The author is proposing a new personal hypothesis, but the book would have been better if it were a summary of the current state of affairs in the field, while including his own thoughts among the others. I did not really expect an answer, just a summary of current thinking - but the book is really about the author presenting new potentially useful perspectives (ways of looking at things).
Why not a peer-reviewable paper? I can see several possible reasons: 1. He still does not have a full grasp of the subject (understandable); 2. His hypotheses are outside of current academic dogma and he knows they will be dismissed out-of-hand, so he is putting it out there to the general public instead. 3. He is not offering any new science, but merely new potentially useful perspectives - which, as potentially useful perspectives, should be explored - for reality can easily be missed when using the wrong perspective when peering into the unknown.
So the book does not offer new science, but new perspectives - at best he is identifying additional useful ways of perceiving the problem - which would lead to additional avenues of investigation, which, statistically speaking, would increase the odds of finding the answers (reaching the destination).
The author does (occasionally) needlessly complicate sentences, but that is a lack of writing skill (he should have been thinking 'clarity' and 'what mental imagery the sentence will convey'') and you can forgive him.
The author invents a handful of words, which adds a bit of fun - as does his coverage of the history of the homunculus (who can resist them?) and how the concept (incredibly) is still used today (indirectly), and the author says 'dynamical' rather than 'dynamic' throughout the book, which is guaranteed to make you giggle - though it won't help you fathom anything he said on the first pass - be prepared to have the book be mere background noise during the first listen - you may pick-out a few items of interest, but you not fathom most of it - not being able to construct mental images of what is being said - and this again reflects the poor writing skills of a physicist.
If I can finally fathom what he is trying to say, I'll return and summarize it here - but it appears that the book is not pushing new science but rather new perspectives with which to view the issue, and from which new discoveries may be made.
One of the problems with audio books relative to print books is it's difficult to go back and re-read a sentence you might not fully understand. Incomplete Nature is the most extreme example of this problem. Mr. Deacon never uses a simple word where a conglomerate multisyllabic pronouncement can be inserted. The effect of this habit is to make simple ideas too dense to be digested in one pass, and complex ideas a complete disaster. In print this habit is not so glaring because you can read slowly or re-read the word, sentence, paragraph, or page. After having listened to a few hours of this book I honestly can't tell you what it is about. I may give this book a shot in print although I suspect I might not understand it there either.
Remind me to never buy a book about consciousness again.
They always get stuck in their own unclear definitions and baseless assumptions.
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