Terrence Deacon is professor of Biological Anthropology, Neuroscience, and Linguistics at University of California-Berkeley.
In his 1997 book. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and
, he argued that language coevolved by natural selection with the brain, although he now argues that the major source of language acquisition is social transmission, with a trial-and-error process analogous to natural selection occurring while the brain develops.
Deacon's 2011 work Incomplete Nature
has a strong triadic structure, inspired perhaps by an important influence from semiotics—the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce
's triad of icon, index, and symbol. Deacon's triad levels represent the material, the ideal, and the pragmatic. The first two levels reflect the ancient philosophical dualism of materialism and idealism, or body and mind, respectively. The major transition from the nonliving to the living - the problem of abiogenesis
, and the introduction of telos in the universe - happens in Deacon's third level.
is Deacon's name for the third level in his dynamics hierarchy. It is built on and incorporates the two lower levels — the first level is physical and material, the second adds an informational
and immaterial aspect.
At the bottom level is the natural world, which Deacon characterizes by its subjection to the second law of thermodynamics. When entropy (the Boltzmann
kind) reaches its maximum, the equilibrium condition is pure formless disorder. Although there is matter in motion, it is the motion we call heat
and nothing interesting is happening. Equilibrium has no meaningful differences, so Deacon calls this the homeodynamics
level, using the root homeo-
, meaning "the same." There are no meaningful differences here.
At the second level, form (showing differences) emerges. Deacon identifies a number of processes that are negentropic
, reducing the entropy locally by doing work against and despite the first level's thermodynamics. This requires constraints
, says Deacon, like the piston in a heat engine that constrains the expansion of a hot gas to a single direction, allowing the formless heat to produce directed motion.
Atomic constraints such as the quantum-mechanical bonding of water molecules allow snow crystals to self-organize into spectacular forms, producing order from disorder. Deacon dubs this second level morphodynamic
. He sees the emerging forms as differences against the background of unformed sameness. His morphodynamic examples include, besides crystals, whirlpools, Bénard convection cells, basalt columns, and soil polygons, all of which apparently
violate the first-level tendency toward equilibrium and disorder in the universe. These are processes that information philosophy calls ergodic
On Deacon's third level, "a difference that makes a difference" (cf. Gregory Bateson
and Donald MacKay
) emerges as a purposeful process we can identify as protolife
. The quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger
saw the secret of life in an aperiodic crystal, and this is the basis for Deacon's third level. He ponders the role of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) monomers in energy transfer and their role in polymers like RNA and DNA, where the nucleotide arrangements can store information about constraints. He asks whether the order of nucleotides might create adjacent sites that enhance the closeness of certain molecules and thus increase their rate of interaction. This would constitute information in an organism that makes a difference in the external environment, an autocatalytic capability to recruit needed resources. Such a capability might have been a precursor to the genetic code.
Deacon crafts an ingenious model for a minimal "autogenic" system that has a teleonomic (purposeful) character, with properties that might be discovered some day to have existed in forms of protolife. His simplest "autogen" combines an autocatalytic capability with a self-assembly property like that in lipid membranes, which could act to conserve the catalyzing resources inside a protocell.
are his examples of morphodynamic
processes that combine to produce his third-level, teleodynamics. Note that Deacon's simplest autogen need not replicate immediately. Like the near-life of a virus, it lacks a metabolic cycle and does not maintain its "species" with regular reproduction. But insofar as it stores information, it has a primitive ability to break into parts that could later produce similar wholes in the right environment. And the teleonomic information might suffer accidental changes that produce a kind of natural selection.
Deacon introduces a second triad he calls Shannon
(Claude, Ludwig, and Charles). He describes it on his Web site www. teleodynamics.com
. I would rearrange the first two stages to match his homeodynamic-morphodynamic-teleodynamic
triad. This would put Boltzmann first (matter and energy in motion, but both conserved, merely transformed by morphodynamics). A second Shannon stage then adds information
(Deacon sees clearly that information is neither matter nor energy); for example, knowledge in an organism's "mind" about the external constraints that its actions can influence.
This stored information about constraints enables the proto-organism in the third stage to act in the world as an agent that can do useful work, that can evaluate its options, and that can be pragmatic (more shades of Peirce) and normative
. Thus Deacon's model introduces value into the universe— good and bad (from the organism's perspective). It also achieves his goal of explaining the emergence
of perhaps the most significant aspect of the mind: that it is normative and has goals. This is the ancient telos
Appreciating Deacon's argument is easier with a little history. Claude Shannon's information theory produced an expression for the potential information that can be carried in a communication channel. It is the mathematical negative of Boltzmann's formula for entropy.
S = k log W
Confusingly, John von Neumann
suggested that Shannon use the word entropy for his measure of information. Then Leon Brillouin
coined the term negentropy to describe far-from-equilibrium conditions in the world epitomized by information. Since Erwin Schrödinger
, we have known that life is impossible without the negative-entropy flow of far-from-equilibrium available energy from the sun.
Shannon entropy (which is negentropy) describes the large number of possible messages that could be encoded in a string of characters. Shannon's actual information reduces the uncertainty
in the entropy of potential messages. Deacon notes correctly that new information can be transmitted only if these alternative possibilities exist. Without probability
) and true alternative possibilities
, there would be no information in the message.
"No possibilities = no uncertainty = no information," Deacon says. Without something new, the amount of information in the universe would be fixed. This is deeply true.
Organisms are not machines, and minds are not computers, says Deacon, criticizing cognitive scientists who seek a one-to-one correspondence between conscious thoughts or actions and neuronal events. Machines are assembled from parts, whereas organisms self-assemble, he insightfully observes.
Computers are designed to be totally predictable
logical devices that are noise-free, but organisms and the mind could not survive if they worked that way, because the universe continually generates unpredictable
new situations. The mind supervenes on astronomical numbers of neuronal events, which likely transmit far more stochastic noise than they do meaningful signals. Deacon thinks that meaningful mental events are probably only statistical regularities, averages over neuronal events, just as macroscopic classical properties are averages over quantum-level events.
Deacon's interest in the etymology of words is fascinating, but his love of symbols leads him to use neologisms that make his sentences too dense, often obscuring his excellent ideas. He does provide a glossary
of his newly coined terms, but these are difficult to keep in mind while reading his text.
For example, Deacon uses homeodynamic
for his first level instead of the standard term thermodynamic
, which he does use occasionally and which would have been more clear. Then, instead of morphodynamic
for the second level where information structures appear, he might have used negentropic (implying Shannon entropy and information creation). For his third level, teleodynamic
is fine, but I'd have chosen the well-known term teleonomic, suggested by Colin Pittendrigh
, and used by Ernst Mayr
and Jacques Monod
, whose Nobel colaureate François Jacob said that "the goal of every cell is to become two cells."
Deacon's triadic levels (compare Peirce and Hegel
Homeodynamic - a dynamic process in which a system is approaching thermodynamic equilibrium - perhaps thermodynamic, which Deacon sometimes uses, would be clearer?
Morphodynamic - describes a system spontaneously organizing, lowering its entropy, increasing information structures
Teleodynamic - two morphodynamic systems, one self-organizing, the other autocatalytic, which together exhibit an internal purpose - an "end" or "telos," namely to use the flow through them of negative entropy (matter and energy), enabling them to act (pragmatically) to maintain themselves. (One might ask what exactly it is about Deacon's combination of two systems that adds the telos. Both "self"-organizing and "auto"-catalytic systems exhibit what Howard Pattee calls the self/non-self distinction or "epistemic cut.")
Deacon objects to calling his third level teleonomic
, which was created explicitly to remove the theological "intelligent design" elements of the term teleological
Deacon defines teleonomic as "teleological in name only" (see glossary
below), which is odd considering the historical purpose of the term in biology, which was introduced by Colin Pittendrigh
in 1958, used by Jacques Monod
in his 1971 Chance and Necessity
, and clarified by Ernst Mayr
in his 1974 article Teleological and Teleonomic: A New Analysis
, his 1988 book Toward a New Philosophy of Biology
, and his 1992 article The Idea of Teleology
What does Deacon add into his teleodynamic that goes beyond teleonomic? He defines his teleodynamic
as "exhibiting end-directedness" and then adds the highly specific and technical criteria "consequence-organized features constituted by the co-creation, complementary constraint, and reciprocal synergy of two or more strongly coupled morphodynamic processes."
Deacon's major work is to model computer-based simulations of these combined morphodynamic processes to better understand their properties, so he is entitled to his technical definitions, if they are essential to his dynamical computational models.
His current major goal is to understand how his simple autogen model can combine with information theory to explain the concepts of "reference" and "significance." He variously defines reference
as "aboutness" or "re-presentation," the semiotic or semantic relation between a sign-vehicle and its object. He describes significance
as the pragmatic dimension of "value," "normativity," "purpose," "interpretation," "function," "usefulness," "end-directed," and "goal-state." "Work is the relevant measure when it comes to assessing the usefulness of information
," he says.
Reference is the simple connection between an abstract idea (re-presentation in the mind) and its material (or conceptual) object. In linguistics, reference is the semantic
connection between a word and its (dictionary) meaning. For Saussure it is independent of context or Peircean interpretation. Deacon may take a reference as not involving any physical work.
added "context" to Claude Shannon
's theory of communications, which understandably ignored the "meaning" in a message to study only channel capacity.
By contrast, significance is the pragmatic
or functional value of an idea or a sign/symbol when it is interpreted in context
by an agent (Peirce's interpretant). The agent must act
on a meaningful message (where "meaning" is now not merely the standard reference
of the symbol, but what the message means in the context of the future behavior of the agent, e.g. love or hate?, flight or fight?). An action normally involves physical work, as Deacon correctly notes. And in the context of his purely dynamical, arguably inanimate, autogen, that is appropriate. But for animals and humans, pragmatic consequences may only generate internal thoughts, ideas, judgments, and emotions, feelings, desires, that generate possibilities for willful actions after a careful evaluation and decision.
In any case, Deacon is right to distinguish reference and significance (as semantics and pragmatics) and try to understand them in terms of his two morphodynamic processes. But is he right to say that teleodynamics is in some way more purposeful than a teleonomic process, a process that has its purpose "built-in," what Aristotle called "entelechy
" (from the Greek en-telos-echein, in-purpose-have)?
Let's carefully read Deacon's difference (that makes a difference) between teleonomic and teleodynamic proposed for his 2015 workshop
. He describes
a long-standing debate in
the natural sciences over the role of teleology in scientific explanations. This debate was
presumed settled in middle of the last century with the development of cybernetic models of
goal-directed behavior, such as in guidance systems and adaptive computer algorithms. Systems
organized in this way are described as teleonomic rather than teleologic, to indicate that no
intrinsic representation of an end is responsible for this behavior, only a systemic deviation-minimizing
regulatory mechanism. In contrast, we argue that an interpretive process can only be
adequately defined with respect to a process that is organized so that the goal-state contributes to
the maintenance of the system with the disposition to attain that state, not merely some arbitrary
physical state of things. Deacon (2009, 2012) terms this a teleodynamic process.
Deacon's glossary also contains Ernst Mayr's teleomatic
, which Mayr meant to single out systems that are purely mechanical and dynamical, obeying physical laws. Can this include a thermostat (Deacon's "systemic deviation-minimizing regulatory mechanism"), with the appearance of goal-directed behaviors? Deacon defines teleomatic as "Automatically achieving an end, as when a thermodynamic system develops toward equilibrium or gravity provides the end state for a falling rock."
Let's review Mayr's careful and important distinction between teleological, teleonomic and teleomatic
What is teleology, and to what extent is it a valid concept? These have been burning questions since the time of Aristotle. Kant based his explanation of biological phenomena, particularly of the perfection of adaptations, on teleology — the notion that organisms were designed for some purpose...And the numerous autogenetic theories of evolution, such as orthogenesis, nomogenesis, aristogenesis, and the omega principle (Teilhard de Chardin), were all based on a teleological world view. Indeed, as Jacques Monod (1971) rightly stressed, almost all of the most important ideologies of the past and the present are built on a belief in teleology.
It is my belief that the pervasive confusion in this subject has been due to a failure to discriminate among very different processes and phenomena, all labeled "teleological." The most important conclusion of the recent research on teleology is that it is illegitimate to extrapolate from the existence of teleonomic processes (that is, those directed or controlled by the organism's own DNA) and teleomatic processes (those resulting from physical laws) to an existence of cosmic teleology. There is neither a program nor a law that can explain and predict biological evolution in any teleological manner. Nor is there, since 1859, any need for a teleological explanation: The Darwinian mechanism of natural selection with its chance aspects and constraints is fully sufficient.
The study of genetics has shown that seemingly goal-directed processes in a living organism (teleonomic processes) have a strictly material basis, being controlled by a coded genetic program.
(Toward A New Philosophy Of Biology, p.3)
We must distinguish non-physical and immaterial. Information is physical but immaterial.
Deacon has now given us a specific model for the locus of the telos
. He says that the first material particles, the first atoms forming molecules, the first stars, and so on, can be explained without reference to anything non-physical. But since these are formed by what he calls morphodynamic processes, they must also involve some immaterial
information generation. They are information structures
. Information philosophy shows that without the expansion of the universe and ontological chance
arising from quantum uncertainty
, no new information could have come into existence from an assumed original state of thermodynamic equilibrium. There would be no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no life, no minds, no creative new thoughts, and in particular, no telos
Why does Deacon describe nature as incomplete? Because information seems non-physical (it is actually physical, just not material
), he says, we lack a scientific understanding of how words and sentences refer to atoms of meaning. The meanings of words and thoughts, the contents of the mind — especially goals and purposes — are "not present," he says. He reifies this absence and says cryptically that "a causal role for absence seems to be absent from the natural sciences." He calls this a "figure/ground reversal" in which he focuses on what is absent rather than present, likening it to the concept of zero, the holes in the "(w)hole." We can agree with Deacon that ideas and information are immaterial
, neither matter nor energy, but they need matter to be embodied and energy to be communicated. And when they are embodied, they are obviously present (to my mind) — in particular, as those alternative possibilities
(merely potential information) in a Shannon communication, those possibilities that are never actualized.
A review in the journal BioScience
of Deacon's Incomplete Nature
Deacon on Information (from Incomplete Nature)
TWO ENTROPIES (see our Entropy Flows)
To the extent that regularity and constraint provide a necessary background,
for deviation and absence to stand out, nature's most basic convergent regularity must provide the ultimate ground for information. This regularity
is of course the spontaneous tendency for entropy to increase in physical
systems. Although Rudolf Clausius coined the term entropy in 1865, it was
Ludwig Boltzmann who in 1866 recognized that this could be described
in terms of increasing disorder. We will therefore refer to this conception of
thermodynamic entropy as Boltzmann entropy.
This reliably asymmetric habit of nature provides the ultimate background with respect to which an attribute of one thing can exemplify an
attribute of something else. The reason is simple: since non-correlation and
disorder are so highly likely, any degree of orderliness of things typically
means that some external intervention has perturbed them away from this
most probable state. In other words, this spontaneous relentless tendency
toward messiness provides the ultimate slate for recording outside interference. If things are not in their most probable state, then something external
must have done work to divert them from that state.
A second use of the term entropy has become widely applied to the assessment of information, and for related reasons. In the late 1940s, the Bell Lab
mathematician Claude Shannon demonstrated that the most relevant measure of the amount of information that can be carried in a given medium
of communication (e.g., in a page of print or a radio transmission) is analogous to statistical entropy. According to Shannon's analysis, the quantity
of information conveyed at any point is the improbability of receiving a
given transmitted signal, determined with respect to the probabilities of all
possible signals that could have been sent. Because this measure of signal
options is mathematically analogous to the measure of physical options in
thermodynamic entropy, Shannon also called this measure the "entropy"
of the signal source. I will refer to this as Shannon entropy to distinguish it
from thermodynamic entropy (though we will later see that they are more
intimately related than just by analogy).
Consider, for example, a coded communication sent as a finite string of
alphanumeric characters. If each possible character can appear with equal
probability at every point in the transmission, there is maximum uncertainty
about what to expect. This means that each character received reduces this
uncertainty, and an entire message reduces the uncertainty with respect to
the probability that any possible combination of characters of that length
could have been sent. The amount of the uncertainty reduced by receiving
a signal is Shannon's measure of the maximum amount of information that
can be conveyed by that signal.
In other words, the measure of information conveyed involves comparison
of a received signal with respect to possible signals that could have been
sent. If there are more possible character types to choose from, or more
possible characters in the string, there will be more uncertainty about which
will be present where, and thus each will potentially carry more information.
Similarly, if there are fewer possible characters, fewer characters comprising
a given message, or if the probabilities of characters appearing are not equal,
then each will be capable of conveying proportionately less information.
Shannon's notion of entropy can be made quite precise for analysis of
electronic transmission of signals and yet can also be generalized to cover
quite mundane and diverse notions of possible variety. Shannon entropy is
thus a measure of how much information these media can possibly carry.
Because it is a logical, not a physical, measure, it is widely realizable. It
applies as well to a page of text as to the distribution of objects in a room, or
the positions that mercury can occupy in a thermometer. Since each object
can assume any of a number of alternative positions, each possible configuration
of the collection of objects is a potential sign.
Shannon's analysis of information capacity provides another example of
the critical role of absence. According to this way of measuring information, it is not intrinsic to the received communication itself; rather, it is a
function of its relationship to something absent — the vast ensemble of other
possible communications that could have been sent, but weren't. Without
reference to this absent background of possible alternatives, the amount of
potential information of a message cannot be measured. In other words,
the background of unchosen signals is a critical determinant of what makes
the received signals capable of conveying information. No alternatives =
no uncertainty = no information.[Our emphasis] Thus Shannon measured the information
received in terms of the uncertainty that it removed with respect to what
could have been sent.
The analogy to thermodynamic entropy breaks down, however, because
Shannon's concept is a logical (or structural) property, not a dynamical
property. For example, Shannon entropy does not generally increase spontaneously
in most communication systems, so there is no equivalent to the
second law of thermodynamics when it comes to the entropy of information.
The arrangement of units in a message doesn't spontaneously "tend" to
change toward equiprobability. And yet something analogous to this effect
becomes relevant in the case of real physically embodied messages conveyed
by real mechanisms (such as a radio transmission or a computer network.
In the real world of signal transmission, no medium is free from the effects
of physical irregularities and functional degradation, an unreliability resulting
from the physical effects of the second law.
So both notions of entropy are relevant to the concept of information,
though in different ways. The Shannon entropy of a signal is the probability
of receiving a given signal from among those possible; and the Boltzmann
entropy of the signal is the probability that a given signal may have been
A transmission affected by thermodynamic perturbations that make it
less than perfectly reliable will introduce an additional level of uncertainty
to contend with, but one that decreases information capacity. An increase
in the Boltzmann entropy of the physical medium that constitutes the signal
carrier corresponds to a decrease in the correlation between sent and
received signals. Although this does not decrease the signal entropy, it
reduces the amount of uncertainty that can be removed by a given signal.
and thus reduces the information capacity.
This identifies two contributors to the entropy of a signal — one associated
with the probability of a given signal being sent and the other associated
with a given signal being corrupted. This complementary relationship is a
hint that the physical and informational uses of the concept of entropy are
more than merely analogous. By exploring the relationship between Shannon
entropy and Boltzmann entropy, we can shed light on the reason why change in Shannon entropy is critical to information. But the connection is subtle, and its relation to the way that a signal conveys its information is even subtler.
Deacon adds something significant to his analysis of the two entropies and the connection to three levels of semiotics - syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (which he associates with Shannon, Boltzmann, and Darwin). He identifies three general rules about the
nature of information and its relationship to the material-energetic processes on which it
1) Information potential: Information is dependent on the physical features of a
communication channel or (more generally) a sign medium and so the capacity of
that channel or medium to assume different states (its maximum possible Shannon
entropy) determines the maximum amount of information it can convey.
2) Physical basis of information: The Shannon entropy of a communication channel
or sign medium is a function of the variety of states it can assume along with the
degree of their causal independence from one another. This in turn can be
described in terms of Boltzmann entropy.
3) Information as absence: The maximum potential information that a signal or sign
can convey must be measured with respect to signals or signs that were not
produced. It can only be defined and quantified with respect to the probability of
these unrealized possibilities. Even in noisy conditions where an unreliable
medium does not allow complete reduction of uncertainty from the maximum
Shannon entropy, any degree of reduction provides a measurable level of
(Shannon-Boltzmann-Darwin: redefining information
, Part 1, p.15)
He says that the
basis for the interdependence of Shannon and Boltzmann entropy can be stated in simple
form as follows: a reduction of either Shannon or Boltzmann entropy does not tend to
occur spontaneously, so when it does occur it is evidence of the intervention of an
. (Shannon-Boltzmann-Darwin: redefining information, Part 1, p.17)
He summarizes the realtion between the entropies:
The analysis so far has exposed a common feature of both the logic of information
theory (Shannon) and the logic of thermodynamic theory (Boltzmann). This not only
helps explain the analogical use of the entropy concept in each and also explain why it is
necessary to link these approaches into a common theory to begin to define the referential
function of information. Both these formal commonalities and the basis for their
unification into a theory for the referential ground of information depend on a focus on a
dependence on a relationship to absence. In the case of classic information theory, the
improbability of receiving a given sign or signal with respect to the background
expectation of its receipt compared to other options defines the meaure of potential
information. In the case of classic thermodynamics, the improbability of being in some
far from equilibrium state is a measure of its potential to do work, and also a measure of
work that was necessarily performed to shift it into this state.
(Shannon-Boltzmann-Darwin: redefining information
, Part 1, p.25)
Deacon on Free Will (from Incomplete Nature)
THE LOCUS OF AGENCY
Perhaps the most enigmatic feature of self its role as agent: as the locus
and initiator of non-spontaneous physical changes in the world around it.
This is often confused with the age-old problem of explaining the possibility
of free will in a deterministic world. However, it is different in a number
of important respects. Self as agent is indeed what philosophers struggling
with the so-called free will paradox should be focused on, rather than freedom
from determinate constraint. Determinate causality is in fact a necessary
condition for the self to become the locus of physical work. An agent is
a locus of work that is able to change things in ways more concordant with
internally generated ends and contrary to extrinsic tendencies.
Approaching the self-dynamics of mental agency using this same framework,
we need to look to the closure of the teleodynamic constraint generation
process for the locus of the capacity to do self-initiated work. For the
simplest autogenic process, this closure is constituted by a complex synergy
between morphodynamic processes that makes possible both the generation
of constraints and also their maintenance and replication. The teleodynamics
that distinguishes the agency of organisms from mere physical work is a
product of this closed reciprocity of form- (i.e., constraint-) generating processes.
Specific forms of work are made possible by the imposition of specific
forms of constraint, and the way this channels spontaneous change, via
the expenditure of energy. So this defining dynamic of organisms amounts
to the incessant generation of the capacity to perform specific forms of work
to alter the surrounding milieu in ways that are determined by this locus of
teleodynamics, irrespective of extrinsic causal tendencies. This persistent
capacity to generate and maintain self-perpetuating constraints is therefore
at the same time the creation of a locus of the capacity to do self-promoting
Free Will from The Symbolic Species
Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub,
As a species, we seem to be preoccupied with ends, in all senses of the
word. We organize our actions around imagined extrapolations of the
consequences they will produce. We struggle in vain to comprehend
the implications of our own impending cessation of life. And we weave marvelously
elaborate and beautifully obscure stories to fill our need to find purpose
in the fabric of the universe. This fills no obvious adaptive need. Our
evolution never included selection favoring anything like this intense and
desperate drive. And yet it is so powerful as to be able to overcome some
of the most irresistible predispositions that evolution has provided. If we
are language savants compared to other species, then a preoccupation with
ends is the special exaggerated compulsion that complements our unique
Symbolic analysis is the basis for a remarkable new level of self-determination
that human beings alone have stumbled upon. The ability to
use virtual reference to build up elaborate internal models of possible futures,
and to hold these complex visions in mind with the force of the
mnemonic glue of symbolic inference and descriptive shorthands, gives us
unprecedented capacity to generate independent adaptive behaviors. Remarkable
abstraction from indexically bound experiences is further enhanced
by the ability of symbolic reference to pick out tiny fragments of
real world processes and arrange them as buoys to chart an inferential
course that predicts physical and social events. The price we pay for this is
that our symbolically mediated actions can often be in conflict with motivations
to act that arise from more concrete and immediate biological
sources. Arguments in support of the classic notion of free will frequently
cite this capacity to use reason (that is, symbolic inference and model building)
to overcome desire and compulsion. One might respond that calling
some actions "free" and others not oversimplifies what is really only a matter
of the degree of the strengths of competing compulsions to act, some
compulsions arising from autonomic and hormonal sources and others from
our imagined satisfaction at reaching a symbolized goal. But there is an important
sense in which these competing compulsions are not equal.
Those that arise from purely physiological sources, or physiological
sources mediated by conditioned associations, could be called bottom-up
processes for producing action. They are much more tied to mechanism and
thus exhibit few degrees of freedom and limited spontaneous variation. They
are comparatively predictable, though any organismic process inevitably exhibits
tangled paths of causality.
but it is the hole in the center that provides its usefulness.
—Lao Tsu, from the Tao Te Ching
But symbolically mediated compulsions to
act are far more chaotic, in the technical sense of that word, far more susceptible
to the influence of tiny initial differences in starting assumptions
or ways of dividing up experiences and qualities symbolically. This is because
symbolically mediated models of things — whether theories, stories, or just
rationally argued predictions — exhibit complicated nonlinearity and recursive
structure as well as nearly infinite flexibility and capacity for novelty
due to their combinatorial nature. It is not so much that our actions arise
from a totally unconstrained and compulsion-free center of intentions, but
that the potential starting point, the intended purpose we have modeled,
can be drawn from such a vast variety of alternatives with little initial difference
in motive power.
Final causality, according to Aristotle, is exhibited when processes are driven
not by antecedent physical conditions but by ends. In some ways this
is like time reversed. In hindsight it is easy to infer that certain past conditions
were necessitated by the way things turned out. Deductive inference
is a lot like this sort of reflective inversion of temporal and physical order.
The consequence is already implicitly included in the premises. In symbolic
thinking, this results in what might be called a sort of symbolic compulsion.
Certain statements compel certain others. Aristotle reserved another term
for such compulsion — formal causality — but I think there is an important
way that this links to the other, classic conception of cause in terms of the
ways that symbols work. Little of our reasoning is so precise as to be called
deductive, and yet the way that certain beliefs compel others can have
nearly this force. Ideologies, religions, and just good explanations or stories
thus exert a sort of inferential compulsion on us that is hard to resist because
of their mutually reinforcing deductive and inductive links. Our end-directed
behaviors are in this way often derived from such "compulsions"
as are implicit in the form that underlies the flow of inferences. So one might
say that thinking in symbols is a means whereby formal causes can determine
final causes. The abstract nature of this source makes for a top-down
causality, even if implemented on a bottom-up biological machine.
Though the evolution of brains has been about systems for modeling and
predicting events in the world, the evolution of symbolic abilities has not
just amplified this ability far beyond that in any other species, it has also introduced
an insidiously inverted modeling tendency. The svmbolic capacity
seems to have brought with it a predisposition to project itself into what
it models. The savant, instead of seeing a field of wildflowers. sees 247 flowers.
chaos and complexity theories do not generate "unconstrained and compulsion-free" alternative possibilities
, Deacon seems to recognize the need for a "vast variety of alternatives" for action
The human brain is the biological information processor par excellence, quite unlike the digital computer
Similarly, we don't just see a world of physical processes, accidents, reproducing
organisms, and biological information processors churning out
complex plans, desires, and needs. Instead, we see the handiwork of an infinite
wisdom, the working out of a divine plan, the children of a creator,
and a conflict between those on the side of good and those on the side of
evil. We carry a nagging doubt about anything reallv being accidental. Co-incidence isn't just coincidence, it's a sign, and bad luck and disease don't
just happen, perhaps a sorcerer has wished harm on the village. Wherever
we look, we expect to find purpose. All things can be seen as signs and symbols
of an all-knowing consciousness at work, or the marks of mythical
events that occur in a dreamtime, behind the scenes of the universe. We
are not just applying symbolic interpretations to human words and events;
all the universe has become a symbol.
This is the evidence that we have become symbolic savants in the deeper
sense of that metaphor. We are not just a species that uses symbols. The
symbolic universe has ensnared us in an inescapable web. Like a "mind
virus," the symbolic adaptation has infected us, and now by virtue of the irresistible
urge it has instilled in us to turn everything we encounter and
everyone we meet into symbols, we have become the means by which it unceremoniously
propagates itself throughout the world.
It is clear that we feel more comfortable in a world that is meaningful,
living a life that has meaning. The alternative is somehow too frightening.
But why? Why should the ability to acquire symbolic abilities and conceive
of things symbolically also bring with it a powerful urge to see it in every
conceivable context? It could be seen as part of the predisposition to acquire
symbols in the first place, part of the overdesign of the mind to ensure
that symbols get discovered. But I think it may be a more mundane
feature of cognitive and sensorimotor biases in general. The autistic savant
is in this way no different from the kitten that sees every small mobile object
as a representative prey toy, or the baby who interacts with every holdable
object as a thing to be put into the mouth — for reasons that probably
flow ineluctably from the Darwinian-competitive structure of neural information
processing. Brains are spontaneously active biological computers
in which activity patterns incessantly compete for wider expression
throughout each network. Under these conditions, the dominant operation
simply runs on its own and assimilates whatever is available. In us, this appears
to be the expression of what I have called front-heavy cognition, driven
by an overactive, busybody prefrontal cortex. It gets expressed as a
need to recode our experiences, to see everything as a representation, to
expect there to be a deeper hidden logic. Even when we don't believe in
it, we find ourselves captivated by the lure of numerology, astrology, or the
global intrigue of conspiracy theories. This is the characteristic expression
of a uniquely human cognitive style; the mark of a thoroughly symbolic
One of the essentially universal attributes of human culture is what might
be called the mystical or religious inclination. There is no culture I know
of that lacks a rich mythical, mystical, and religious tradition. And there is
no culture that doesn't devote much of this intense interpretive enterprise
to struggling with the very personal mystery of mortality. Knowledge of
death, of the inconceivable possibility that the experiences of life will end, is
a datum that only symbolic representation can impart. Other species may
experience loss, and the pain of separation, and the difficulty of abandoning a dead companion; yet without the ability to represent this abstract counterfactual
(at least for the moment) relationship, there can be no emotional
connection to one's own future death. But this news, which all children eventually
discover as they develop their symbolic abilities, provides an unbidden
opportunity to turn the naturally evolved social instinct of loss and
separation in on itself to create a foreboding sense of fear, sorrow, and impending
loss with respect to our own lives, as if looking back from an impossible
future. No feature of the limbic system has evolved to handle this
ubiquitous virtual sense of loss. Indeed, I wonder if this isn't one of the most
maladaptive of the serendipitous consequences of the evolution of symbolic
abilities. What great efforts we exert trying to forget our future fate by submerging
the constant angst with innumerable distractions, or trying to convince
ourselves that the end isn't really what it seems by weaving marvelous
alternative interpretations of what will happen in "the undiscovered country"
on the other side of death.
In many ways this is the source both of what is most noble and most
pathological in human behaviors. Supported by these interpretations, reason
can recruit the strength to face the threat of emptiness in the service
of shared values and aspirations. But the dark side of religious belief and
powerful ideology is that they so often provide twisted justifications for arbitrarily
sparing or destroying lives. Their symbolic power can trap us in a
web of oppression, as we try through ritual action and obsessive devotion
to a cause to maintain a psychic safety net that protects us from our fears
of purposelessness. The interaction of symbolic cultural evolution and unprepared
biology has created some of the most influential and virulent systems
of symbols the world has ever known. Few if any societies have ever
escaped the grip of powerful beliefs that cloak the impenetrable mystery
of human life and death in a cocoon of symbolism and meaning. The history
of the twentieth century, like all those recorded before it, is sadly written
in the blood that irreconcilable symbol systems have spilt between
them. Perhaps this is because the savantlike compulsion to see symbols in
everything reaches its most irresistible expression when it comes to the symbolization
of our own lives' end. We inevitably imagine ourselves as symbols,
as the tokens of a deeper discourse of the world. But symbols are
subject to being rendered meaningless by contradiction, and this makes alternative
models of the world direct threats to existence.
Almost certainly this is one of the other defining features of the human
mentality: an ever present virtual experience of our own loss. And yet we
know so little about what it is that we fear to lose. Perhaps if we understood
this symbolic compulsion, and the consciousness it brings with it, we might
find this emptiness at the center a bit less disturbing.
(The Symbolic Species
A vital tool needed to understand the book Incomplete Nature
The paradoxical intrinsic property of existing with respect to something
missing, separate, and possibly nonexistent. Although this property is
irrelevant when it comes to inanimate things, it is a defining property of life
and mind; elsewhere (Deacon 2005) described as a constitutive absence.
An attractor is a "region" within the range of possible states that a
dynamical system is most likely to be found within. The behavior of a dynamical
system is commonly modeled as a complex "trajectory of states leading
to states" within a phase space
(typically depicted as a complex curve in
a multidimensional graph). The term is used here to describe one or more
of the quasi-stable regions of dynamics that a dynamical system will asymmetrically
tend toward. Dynamical attractors include state of equilibrium of a
thermodynamic system, the self-organized global regularity converged upon
by a morphodynamic process, or the metabolic maintenance and developmental
trajectory of an organism (a teleodynamic system). An attractor does
not "attract" in the sense of a field of force; rather it is the expression of an
asymmetric statistical tendency.
A set of chemical reactions can be said to be "collectively autocatalytic"
if a number of those reactions produce, as reaction products, catalysts
for enough of the other reactions that the entire set of chemical reactions is
self-sustaining, given an input of energy and substrate molecules. This has the
effect of producing a runaway increase in the molecules of the autocatalytic
set at the expense of other molecular forms, until all substrates are exhausted
A minimal molecular teleodynamic system (termed an autogen in this
book), consisting of mutually reinforcing autocatalytic process and a molecular
self-assembly process, first described in Deacon 2006a.
A self-generating system at the phase transition between morphodynamics
and teleodynamics; any form of self-generating, self-repairing,
self-replicating system that is constituted by reciprocal morphodynamic
Adjective describing any process involving reciprocally reinforcing
morphodynamic processes that thereby has the potential to self-reconstitute
The combination of self-generation, self-repair, self-replication
capacities that is made possible by teleodynamic organization; the process
by which reciprocally reinforcing morphodynamic processes become a selfgenerating
A term used in this work to indicate the traditional entropy
of thermodynamic processes. It is distiguished from "entropy" as defined by
Claude Shannon for use in information theory
When two metallic plates are placed facing each other a small
distance apart in a vacuum, an extremely tiny attractive force can be measured
between them. Quantum field theory interprets this as the effect of
fluctuating electromagnetic waves that are present even in empty space
A field of study in applied mathematics that studies the behavior
of dynamical systems that tend to be highly sensitive to initial conditions;
a popular phrase for this sensitivity is the "butterfly effect." Although such
systems can be completely deterministic, they become increasingly unpredictable
over time. This is often described as deterministic chaos. Though
unpredictable in detail, such systems may nevertheless exhibit considerable
constraint in their trajectories of change. These constrained trajectories are
often described as attractors
A field of study in applied mathematics concerned with
systems of high-dimensionality in structure or dynamics, such as those generated
by non-linear processes and recursive algorithms, and including systems exhibiting
deterministic chaos. The intention is to find ways to model physical and biological
systems that have otherwise been difficult to analyze and model
A particular and precise missing something that is a
critical defining attribute of "ententional" phenomena, such as functions,
thoughts, adaptations, purposes, and subjective experiences.
The state of being restricted or confined within prescribed bounds.
Constraints are what is not there but could have been. The concept of constraint
is, in effect, a complementary concept to order, habit, and organization
because something that is ordered or organized is restricted in its range and
or dimensions of variation, and consequently tends to exhibit redundant features
or regularities. A dynamical system is constrained to the extent that it is
restricted in degrees of freedom to change and exhibits attractor tendencies.
Constraints can originate intrinsic or extrinsic to the system that is thereby
Changes in the state of a system that must be extrinsically forced
because they run counter to orthograde
(aka spontaneous) tendencies
A discipline that studies circular causal systems, where part of the
effect of a chain of causal events returns to influence causal processes further
back up the chain. Typically, a cybernetic system moves from action, to sensing,
to comparison with a desired goal, and again to action
The assumption that all reference to ententional phenomena
can and must be eliminated from our scientific theories and replaced
by accounts of material mechanisms
A term used to designate an apparently discontinuous transition
from one mode of causal properties to another of a higher rank, typically
associated with an increase in scale in which lower-order component interactions
contribute to the lower-order
interactions. The term has a long and diverse history, but throughout this
history it has been used to describe the way that living and mental processes
depend upon chemical and physical processes, yet exhibit collective properties
exhibited by living and non-mental processes, and in many cases
appear to violate the ubiquitous tendencies exhibited by these component interactions
A theory developed in this book which explains how
homeodynamic (e.g., thermodynamic) processes can give rise to morphodynamic
(e.g., self-organizing) processes, which can give rise to teleodynamic
(e.g., living and mental) processes. Intended to legitimize scientific uses of
ententional (intentional, purposeful, normative) concepts by demonstrating
the way that processes at a higher level in this hierarchy emerge from, and are
grounded in, simpler physical processes, but exhibit reversals of the otherwise
ubiquitous tendencies of these lower-level processes
A term Aristotle coined for a non-perceptible principle in organisms
leading to full actualization of what was merely potential. It is responsible for
the growth of the embryo into an adult of its species, and for the maintenance
of the organism's species-specific activities as an adult
A generic adjective coined in this book for describing all phenomena
that are intrinsically incomplete in the sense of being in relationship to,
constituted by, or organized to achieve something non-intrinsic. This includes
function, information, meaning, reference, representation, agency, purpose,
sentience, and value
Something is epiphenomenal if it is causally irrelevant and
therefore just a redescription of more fundamental physical phenomena that
are responsible for all that the causal powers mistakenly attribute to the epiphenomenal
The idea that the organization of a process can have real causal
efficacy in the world, independent of the specific material components that
constitute it. Thus a computer algorithm can exhibit the same global causal
consequences despite being run on quite different computer architectures
A conception of emergence proposed by the philosopher Paul Humphreys,
which argues that lower-level components and dynamics merge in
indecomposable ways in the emergence of higher-order phenomena. It is
especially relevant to the transition from quantum to classical processes. A
related concept is discussed in terms of the reciprocal co-creation of biomolecules
that compose an organism body
In Jewish folklore a golem is an animated, anthropomorphic being, created
entirely from inanimate matter but lacking a soul
Any dynamic process that spontaneously reduces a system's
constraints to their minimum and thus more evenly distributes system properties
across space and time. The second law of thermodynamics describes
the paradigm case
Any tiny or cryptic humanlike form or creature, something slightly
less than human, though exhibiting certain human attributes. In recent scientific
literature, "homunculus" has also come to mean the misuse of teleological
assumptions: the unacknowledged gap-fillers that stand behind, outside,
or within processes involving apparent teleological processes, such as many
features of life and mind, and pretend to be explanations of their function
In common usage, an adjective describing an act that is performed
on purpose. Technically, in twentieth-century philosophy of mind, it is a term
deriving from the medieval Scholastics, reintroduced by the German philosopher
Brentano, to designate a characteristic common to all sensations, ideas,
thoughts, and desires: the fact that they are "about" something other than
Literally, the "study of partness"; in practice, the study of compositionality
relationships and their related hierarchic properties
Dynamical organization exhibiting the tendency to become
spontaneously more organized and orderly over time due to constant perturbation,
but without the extrinsic imposition of influences that specifically
impose that regularity
When the same property can be produced by diverse
means; independence of certain phenomena from any of their specific constitutive material details (see also Functionalism)
The assumption that generalizations are merely conveniences
of thought, abstracted from observation, and otherwise epiphenomenal in
the world of physical cause and effect; thus a denial of the efficacy of types,
classes, species, ideal forms and general properties over and above that of the
individuals they describe
Changes in the state of a system that are consistent with the spontaneous,
"natural" tendency to change, without external interference
The assumption that a vestige of mental phenomenology is present
in every physical event, and therefore suffused throughout the cosmos.
Although panpsychism is not as influential today, and effectively plays no role
in modern cognitive neuroscience, it still attracts a wide following, mostly
because of a serendipitous compatibility with certain interpretations of quantum physics
In mathematics and physics, a phase space is a space in which all
possible states of a system are represented. Each possible state of the system
corresponds to one unique point in the phase space. For mechanical systems, a
phase space usually consists of all possible values of position and momentum,
Narrowly, the assumption that the human physique was preformed from conception. More broadly as used here, the assumption that ententional phenomena were performed in antecedent phenomena— that, for example, language is preformed in a universal grammar module, information
is preformed in DNA, or that consciousness is preformed in the mind of God
Insulation between levels of dynamics, in effect, micro differences
that don't make a macro difference because of statistical smoothing and
attractor dynamics. Introduced by the physicist Robert Laughlin to describe
the causal insulation of physical processes at different levels of scale
Any of a number of theoretical, membrane-bound multimolecular
units conceived by molecular biologists as experimental or theoretical simplest
possible living units, usually consisting of replicating polynucleotides
within a lipid "bubble," used as possible exemplars of the precursors of life
The assumption that general properties, laws, and physical dispositions
to change are fundamental facts about reality, irrespective of subjective experience, and are causally efficacious
W. Ross Ashby (1957) defined a self-organizing
system as one that spontaneously reduces its statistical entropy,
but not necessarily its thermodynamic entropy, by reducing the number of
its potential states. Ashby equated self-organization with self-simplification.
In parallel, Ilya Prigogine explored how such phenomena can be generated
by constantly changing physical and chemical conditions, thereby continually
perturbing them away from equilibrium. This work augmented the notion
of self-organization by demonstrating that it is a property common to many
far-from-equilibrium processes; systems that Prigogine described as dissipative
A measure of the variety of possible signal configurations
of a communication medium determined as proportional to the logarithm
of the number of possible states of the medium. This is an entirely general
quantity that can be applied to almost any phenomenon. Designating it
as entropy, though initially due to its mathematical parallel with thermodynamic
entropy, is now generally thought to be describing the same thing
in informational terms
A way of measuring the information-carrying capacity of
a medium in terms of the uncertainty that a received signal removes
The argument that emergent transitions involve a fundamental
discontinuity of physical laws — cf. Weak emergentism
The relationship that emergent properties have to the base properties
that give rise to them
A form of dynamical organization exhibiting end-directedness
and consequence-organized features that is constituted by the co-creation,
complementary constraint, and reciprocal synergy of two or more strongly
coupled morphodynamic processes
A non-autonomous autogenically organized system that is a component
within a larger autogenic system, such as a somatic cell within a
multicellular organism or an endosymbiotic organism within an organism.
Although such subordinate or lower-order nearly autogenic subsystems are
not fully reciprocally closed in their dynamics, they nevertheless exhibit end-directed
tendencies and normative relationships with respect to extrinsic
A systemic property (or individuated dynamical system) constituted
by a higher-order form of teleodynamic process, specifically where that teleodynamic
process includes a self-referential loop of causality such that the
causal properties of the individuated teleodynamic unit are re-presented in
some form in the generation of teleodynamic adaptive processes
Automatically achieving an end, as when a thermodynamic system
develops toward equilibrium or gravity provides the end state for a falling rock
Teleological in name only. A terminological distinction
that would exemplify a middle ground between mere mechanism and
purpose, behavior predictably oriented toward a particular target state even
in systems where there was no explicit representation of that state or intention
to achieve it. [This term was invented by Colin Pittendrigh
, to distinguish it from teleology, and was used by Jacques Monod
and Ernst Mayr
. It is closely related to Aristotle
's term "entelechy
Purposive, or end-directed (the study of such relationships). Philosophically related to Aristotle's concept of a "final cause"
The notion that higher-order emergent phenomena can
alter phenomena that they supervene upon (i.e., the components and interactions
that collectively have given rise to the emergent phenomena). Usually
proposed as a countervailing causal claim to the reductionist assumption
that macro events and properties are entirely determined by the micro events
and properties of components that compose them. For example, some have
argued that whole brain functions, which are the product of billions of neural
interactions, can alter the way individual neurons behave, and thus generate
causal consequences at the neuronal level. As a temporally understood
causal relationship, this is not problematic; but understood synchronically,
it appears to lead to vicious regress. Anther way of understanding top-down
causality, due to Roger Sperry (see chapter 5), is as global constraint. Thus
atoms in a wheel are constrained to only move with respect to neighboring
atoms; but if the whole wheel rolls, all the atoms are caused to follow cycloid
paths of movement
The metaphysical assumption that, at base, change is spontaneous and
singular, and thus intrinsically uncorrelated
A theory in natural philosophy claiming that physical and chemical
processes alone are insufficient to explain living organisms. An additional
non-perceptible factor is necessary which Hans Driesch (1929) called entelechy
to honor Aristotle, and Henri Bergson (1907) called élan vital. For
Driesch, in its earliest stage an embryo is not manifold in an extensive sense,
but there is present in it an entelechy which is "an intensive manifoldness" -
The argument that although in emergent transitions there
may be a superficially radical reorganization, the properties of the higher
and lower levels form a continuum, with no new laws of causality emerging.
Often associated with epistemological emergentism because it is attributed to
incomplete knowledge of the critical causality
Reference and Significance of Information
Prolegomenon for a formal theory of referential information
Complexity and Dynamical Depth
Complexity and Dynamical Depth
Shannon - Boltzmann — Darwin:
Redefining information (Part I)
Shannon - Boltzmann — Darwin:
Redefining information (Part II)
What Is Missing from Theories of Information
Exploring Constraint: Simulating Self-Organization
and Autogenesis in the Autogenic Automaton
The transition from constraint to regulation at the origin of life
Papers at Deacon's 2015 Biosemiotics Workshop
Steps to a Science of Semiotics
Prolegomenon for a Formal Theory
Information Philosopher review of Incomplete Nature for BioScience (2012)
Information Philosopher Presentation on Biosemiotics
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inexist, To exist within.
inexistent, [LL.inexistens. See IN -in;
EXISTENT.] Inherent; innate: indwelling.
inexistent, adj. [in -not +existent.] Not having
being; not existing.
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