If it were a snake it would have bit us. It’s sitting right under our noses. It’s the unifying insight behind the two biggest breakthrough clues toward solving the biggest remaining scientific mystery. Grateful and greatly encouraged by the breakthrough clues we ran with them, ignoring their underlying and unifying insight, the insight that made them both possible. We ignored the underlying insight until Terrence Deacon’s book, Incomplete Nature: The Emergence Of Mind From Matter, whose 600 exquisitely reasoned and written pages I’ll attempt to summarize here.
The biggest remaining scientific mystery is how to close the explanatory gap between the hard and the soft sciences, between energy and information, between physical forces and living desires, between a values-neutral physio-chemical universe and the values-driven bio-psycho-social universe–in a word, between clockwork physics and ever-game-changing life.
In other words, why can we talk about a living creature’s intentions, preferences, desires, appetites, adaptations, functions, and purposes, but not a rock, a planet’s, or an atom’s? What changed, making information and intention cause matter to behave so differently, the way it most obviously does with life? And precisely how do intentions change things?
The two biggest breakthrough clues are evolutionary theory and information theory, and the overlooked underlying insight is about where to look for what life does differently–not in things themselves but in differences, and in particular differences between behaviors that do and don’t persist, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent.
Darwin discovered how differential survival, the proliferation of some lineages and the disappearance and absence of others yielded game-changing adaptations over time. Life doesn’t require a creator-thing, or an improver-thing in order to evolve. Instead, it requires a difference between the lineages that stay present and the lineages that become absent.
We have embraced Darwin’s breakthrough but haven’t embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science’s greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.
Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.
Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there’s one. The step-down from 52 to one–the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It’s a narrowing of possibility.
Again, though we ran with Shannon’s breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.
We are very thing-oriented.
We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we’re pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.
We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a “least discordant remainder.”
Complexity and self-organization theory provide a breakthrough understanding of such self-organizing processes but again we have run with the breakthrough, forgetting the underlying insight. A whirlpool is not a self-organizing-thing, because it’s not a self-thing and it’s not, as complexity theory suggests a process, that gravitates toward an attractor-thing.
The key in all of these cases, argues Deacon is to pay attention to the “constraint dynamics” that produce these differences between what remains present what becomes absent. Heating a pizza is “constraint dissipation,” the equalization of differences. The formation of a whirlpool is “constraint propagation,” the compounding growth of differences, as the more turbulence cancel each other, the less discordant the remainder, which cancels even more turbulence.
Life is a different kind of constraint dynamic in which constraints constrain, maintain and preserve themselves. Deacon shows step by careful step how with life real selves emerge, not as things but as constraint begetting dynamics, producing from its origins, lineages that in self-regeneration, impose new constraints upon their environments.
And in the process Deacon’s approach provides a backdoor solution to the problem of free will. It’s not how life becomes unconstrained, but how it becomes the source of novel constraint, acting in novel ways upon the world, as it does in us humans especially, but to some extent in all adaptive traits, organisms and lineages.
The burden is on scientists to show in strictly classical physical terms how informational, intentional behavior emerges from energetic behavior, not at the origins of the universe, not at the origin of the human mind, not at the origin of sentient organisms, but at the origin of life. At the origin, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent become constrained in new ways, constraints that create, preserve and maintain themselves, in ways Deacon explains.
Embracing the full implications of the underlying insight that with life there is a change in how differences happen, Incomplete Nature provides a clear step-by-step description of how intentional dynamics really emerge from physical dynamics–how informational dynamics really emerge from energetic dynamics.
Deacon’s approach offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive attempt at a physical science of all informational, intentional and meaningful behavior, a theory of everything” that “does not make it absurd that we exist,” a theory that might complete our incomplete theories of consciousness by naturalizing in physic science the incompleteness we experience in life’s infinitely innovative capacity to produce Darwin’s ‘endless forms most beautiful.’
In the past century, quantum physics and general relativity expanded physics in two directions, shrinking the status of classical physics to that of a special case operative under special conditions. Deacon’s approach suggests that by understanding the physics of intention, the kind of work we living creatures do, we may be on the verge of a third expansion, a physical science of mattering that expands our scientific accounts of what is physically possible to encompass what has heretofore only been physically familiar.
Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.