On Sunday, July 7th I was joined by biological anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence Deacon, for a special extended 2-hour dialogue entitled “The Importance of What’s Missing”.
If you’re interested in exploring the leading edge of evolutionary science and the philosophy of contemporary nondual and evolutionary spirituality, I highly recommend listening in. It’s definitely intellectually sophisticated, but well worth the effort.
For me, the big takeaway was a challenging, powerful and intriguing idea: Maybe emergence itself is even more fundamental than consciousness. And maybe this can serve as the basis for a radical marriage of evolutionary and non-dual spirituality.
Essentially, Deacon suggests a radically new view of evolution, one that he says resolves the subtle errors of both of the most popular views of reality — the mainstream “mechanistic” view that sees consciousness as epiphenomenal — and the “spiritual” view that sees consciousness as “always already” here, and even more fundamental than matter, energy, space and time.
The Importance of What’s Missing
Instead, by noticing how “absence” and “constraint” (“what’s missing”) is even more fundamental than “stuff” (“what’s present”), he has outlined detailed step-by-step scientifically plausible theories of how higher and higher dynamic processes could have developed, and how life could have naturally emerged from dead matter, and how human subjective consciousness could have naturally emerged from life forms with only vegetative sentience. He describes how “homeodynamic” processes can give rise to “morphodynamic” processes that give rise to higher and higher order “teleodynamic” processes. You could call this “radical emergence”.
Unlike mechanists, he doesn’t think we can reduce our subjective experience and selfhood and values to a neurological substrate. Unlike integralists, he doesn’t think that we need to posit that “consciousness goes all the way down” to account for the emergence of sentience, consciousness, conscience, creativity, and inspiration.
He’s suggesting a radically new view, in which what is most fundamental is the potential for “what’s missing” (which he directly compares with the Tao and with Buddhist “emptiness”.) He quotes Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching:
“Thirty spokes converged at the wheel’s hub to an empty space that makes it useful. Clay is shaped into a vessel, to take advantage of the emptiness it surrounds. Doors and windows are cut into walls of a room so that it can serve some function. Though we must work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.”
This is what enables the emergence of higher and higher order processes—including not just life, not just selfhood, not just sentience, and not just consciousness, but higher and higher orders of consciousness—potentially without limit!
Thus, he describes himself as an “emergentist” (rather than a “mechanist”) even though his theory of emergence does not require any non-material forces.
On one hand he is very respectful of and interested in the emergence of “consciousness”, “selfhood”, and values like goodness and beauty, never treating them as epiphenomena, even saying that the “universe as mechanism” model is “absurdly” inadequate at explaining much of what gives our life meaning. Thus, he brings a much more complex and nuanced way of understanding to the conversation, especially intriguing to me is the way that “what’s missing” may be the key to glimpsing the so-called “ghost in the machine”.
On the other hand, he’s a hard scientist with no interest in untestable evolutionary mechanisms, partaking of the general scientific consensus against perennial concepts like Eros and life-energy, not to mention ether, elan vital, or phlogiston. What he does is apply his encyclopedic knowledge of neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, human evolution, cognitive science, and linguistics in a mainstream scientific and materialistic context, but creatively and with an open mind. He showed respect for my interest in considering the implications of his ideas to evolutionary interiors even though his specialty is to focus attention entirely on evolutionary exteriors.
Entropy, Higher Order and the World Crisis
Deacon is not dogmatic. So our conversation was speculative, scintillating and wide-ranging. In his formulation I encountered a much higher-level materialist conception of the evolution of life and mind than I had previously grappled with.
He sees our current world crisis as an example of a principle he has identified — how higher “teleodynamic” processes (like human beings) begin to interact with each other to produce collective system dynamics (like societies) that can express lower-order entropic “morphodynamic” processes. In this view, we are creating the higher and higher order of evolving human culture by creating greater and greater disorder by burning as much fossil fuel as possible as quickly as possible—changing our atmosphere, climate & weather. On a hopeful note, he asserts that these dynamics often change, interacting to eventually produce higher order (purposive, ordered, and ultimately sustainable) results.
Interestingly, Deacon’s interest focuses directly on one of the most important aspects of contemporary Integral culture—the emergence of a higher order of collective consciousness—the arising of a real, functioning transpersonal collective self and consciousness.
He was most interested in what he saw as the driving motivation of my inquiry—the intention to assist individuals and eventually an important fraction of the world community in reaching a level of consciousness and higher selfhood that’s not yet obviously manifest.
Is Emergence More Fundamental than Consciousness?
He argues that the “panpsychist” view (the view that holds that consciousness pervades all existence and is “always-already-there”) doesn’t help to understand the emergence of unprecedented forms of consciousness. Talking of this in evolutionary terms alone seems to obscure this sense of the emergence of an utterly novel, higher order self and subjectivity. He objects to portraying the evolution of consciousness as the unrolling of involutionary givens, the unfolding and complexification of pre-existing forms. If consciousness is already there in all things, its evolution just comes across as a kind of unfolding, or at most a growth or expansion—not a radical new level of anything.
By analogy, the first appearance of life is a very different sort of process than subsequent evolution of the various living forms. As Deacon insists in his book, life emerged from non-life, it didn’t “evolve” from it. (Emergence involves the appearance of something radically and unpredictably new, as contrasted with evolution, which only involves incremental novelty.) So, analogously, according to Deacon, to really make sense of the emergence of a form of subjective self that has never before been manifest we need to know how self emerges de novo.
An explanation of the emergence of subjective agentive self in a world where it did not previously exist creates a space for this possibility that is more basic than evolution. But if the emergence of a new level of global consciousness is critical at this level, then it must also be critical at lower levels as well – the emergence of teleodynamics from a background entirely lacking these fundamental attributes.
This paradigm of radical emergence, according to Deacon, is the essence of a truly creative universe. It is also the necessary essence of the subjective emergence that is consciousness; of coming into being de novo every second.
I responded to this by speaking from my own experience. I have directly observed and validated non-separate consciousness. In high meditative states, I have been present as the non-separate conscious self-recognizing nature of existence, what Tibetans call rigpa. In this I am “being being being itself” conscious and complete.
If I take on the implications of Deacon’s ideas, and “try them on for size” presuming them to be true, it suggests a subtle shift of emphasis. It suggests that the direct awakening that I’ve interpreted as a validation of a panpsychist view might actually validate emergence.
Maybe in our conversations about dharma we confer a “misplaced concreteness” on consciousness. Maybe the emptiness of being itself is as if “pregnant” with what I know as consciousness, and thus can be said (as all the great traditions do) to be “of the nature of consciousness”, but nothing like what we know and recognize as consciousness. Maybe the inherent nature of being is a fecund emptiness, inherently emergent with the qualities of awareness and luminosity. Maybe in high meditative states we are being that infinite potentiality itself.
Thus, if I for a moment presume that Deacon is not only right but that there’s a deep dharmic truth in his findings, maybe emergence is more fundamental than consciousness—the bottom-line is not a thing but an emptiness, which is also the propensity for an infinite creativity to arise out of being.
Putting this to the mystical test — asking how it stacks up subjectively — it seems to merit more research. If one takes this to be true, one is opened to infinite Wonder—exactly as it is if we presume the universality of consciousness. If we awaken as our nature we awaken into an emptiness that is infinitely capable of producing ever-increasing depth and consciousness—even a depth of consciousness unimaginable. Since this is a basis for potent religio-spiritual awe and radical presence, I am intrigued.
There is another way of internalizing the mystical implications of Deacon’s theories of emergence, however. In this view we acknowledge that what we can recognize as consciousness only emerges after vast evolutionary eons out of the ground of emergent emptiness. But instead of completely abandoning a panpsychist perspective, we simply acknowledge that the “proto-sentience” of matter and the “vegetative sentience” of lower life forms cannot account for the miracles of the emergence of the kind of consciousness we recognize and value in our own experience. This view amounts to a kind of “soft panpsychism” that harmonizes with both radical emergence and our millennia-old mystical philosophical wisdom.
In either case, however, Deacon’s “radical emergentism” points us to the infinite fecundity of emptiness (“what’s missing”) rather than the generative power of consciousness (“what’s here”) — a shift of emphasis that seems subtle but which might have significant implications.
For one thing, Deacon suggested that it can be the basis for healing the Cartesian divide between science and spirit and C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”, and reuniting our streams of discourse that focus on interiors vs. exteriors. This hard scientist seemed intrigued by the potential for us to eventually participate ecstatically in our inner and outer lives while thinking with scientific rigor (albeit non-reductively) about it all as a seamless unity.
Transhumanism and Spiritual Machines
Our dialog covered other topics too. One point that was particularly intriguing was when a listener asked about Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about uploading his consciousness into a smarter-than-human silicone-based intelligence.
Deacon thinks the idea that we can upload our consciousness into silicon is silly, at least in the way it’s so often described. He says we need to distinguish carefully between machine intelligence and machine subjectivity. Computers as we know them now are unconscious. “There’s nobody home.” There are very deep processes through which subjectivity and self emerge.
He said, however, that it is true that the particular substrate we call a brain is not necessarily absolutely essential. There should be other ways to develop teleodynamic processes with real interior subjectivity. If we begin to create real subjective interiority in robots or other human simulations by learning to mimic how brains work, even if we don’t know what we’re doing, Deacon thinks we could eventually produce machines with real interiority.
The less we understand it the more likely we are to exploit their capacity for suffering, and thus produce moral horrors. He warns that the prospect is both exciting and frightening. He points out that, historically, humanity has not done so well when controlling the lives of creatures (animal or human) that suffer.
He is more positively interested in the kind of transhumanism that involves greater and greater linkage with machines. Could we produce a higher-order integration between biological subjectivity and silicon subjectivity? He doesn’t think it’s impossible. But he cautions that it will raise fundamental moral questions.
Here I have summarized only a few of my favorite topics in what was a wide-ranging conversation. I invite you to tune in here and experience it for yourself!