Join us on Sunday, July 7th at 10 AM Pacific Time for a special 2-hour dialogue with UC Berkeley Professor Terrence Deacon entitled “The Importance of What’s Missing”.
I am very excited to offer you this “special edition” dialogue—for two primary reasons:
First, Terrence Deacon is a brilliant and original thinker whose innovative ideas will offer us a valuable education, upgrading our understanding of evolution, especially the complex processes by which life and mind may have emerged. My conversations with him have been scintillating and wide-ranging. He’s helped me go beyond what I already know and think more rigorously—which I love!
Second, it should be highly engaging. After all, it’s essentially a friendly showdown. Unlike most of my guests, Terrence Deacon is a mainstream scientist who has written that his radically holistic new ideas about evolution “are no invitation to mysticism.” I regard our dialogue as an opportunity for me, as an unapologetic contemporary mystic, to become a more “honest philosopher” by engaging a much more advanced “friendly adversary” in one of the most basic and profound debates at the core of contemporary philosophical discourse: Is consciousness at the essential center of existence? Or is consciousness an epiphenomenon of physical processes? Deacon reframes the “scientific” position by rephrasing it, asking instead “Is consciousness dynamic and creative but emergent from non-conscious physics and chemistry?”
It is self-evident to me that the universe is by its nature essentially conscious and alive (and in some contexts I would even say “Divine”). But of course many mainstream scientists would challenge me. To them it seems obvious that space, time, matter and energy are the bottom-line realities of this universe. After all, hard evidence seems to show that they’d been around a long time before life and mind showed up! Since life emerged out of mechanical material processes and human consciousness emerged similarly out of animal life, these scientists see life and consciousness as “epiphenomena” of fundamentally mechanical physical processes. I and most contemporary mystics regard consciousness as what’s most fundamental, not matter.
This debate is so foundational that its origins go back to the dawn of science. And yet it is so deep that it persists, vigorously, to this day. Many vigilantly skeptical scientists would dispute my worldview and the worldviews of most of the people I have interviewed on Beyond Awakening (even most of the scientists.)
In turn, most integral and evolutionary thinkers (and a significant minority among mainstream scientists) find mechanistic explanations for the evolution of life and matter to be laughably incomplete, and wholly lacking in concrete evidence. For example, the highly respected scientist Lynn Margulis wrote:
“…Neo-Darwinists….teach that what is generating novelty is the accumulation of random mutations in DNA, in a direction set by natural selection. If you want bigger eggs, you keep selecting the hens that are laying the biggest eggs, and you get bigger and bigger eggs. But you also get hens with defective feathers and wobbly legs. Natural selection eliminates and maybe maintains, but it doesn’t create…. [N]eo-Darwinists say that new species emerge when mutations occur and modify an organism. I was taught over and over again that the accumulation of random mutations led to evolutionary change-led to new species. I believed it until I looked for evidence.”
Ken Wilber said it too:
“Science has been able to provide the “what” and the “how” of evolution, but the “why” remains just as elusive as ever—why is there something instead of nothing? Why does there appear to be a natural “tilt” of the universe toward increasing creativity and complexity? … Science is helpful with phenomena once they have arisen, but is unable to explain phenomena when they appear for the first time.”
Ken Wilber summarizes our understanding of the relationship of consciousness and material evolution with the pithy one-liner, “Consciousness goes all the way down” (meaning there’s a very basic proto-sentience in rocks and other “dead” matter, including molecules, atoms, and even photons.)
Terrence Deacon takes a more nuanced view: He denies that consciousness is epiphenomenal, pointing out that it is a real irreducibly causal influence in the world. He provides a model that accounts for how it can emerge from physical, chemical and biological processes but maintains that is not reducible to mechanics precisely because it exists as an absence—in part as physical incompleteness. Thus it is not “made of stuff”. Instead, it is effectively comprised of the “possibility spaces” created by but unoccupied by stuff.
To me, Deacon is interesting because he uplifts the level of the conversation. He calls himself an “emergentist” (rather than a “mechanist”) — even admitting that the “universe as mechanism” model is “absurdly” inadequate at explaining our human experience of meaning and value. Thus, he brings a much more complex and nuanced way of understanding the processes that relate human consciousness to the patterns and absences of its physical substrate. He shows a way of thinking about how consciousness could have emerged from matter that requires us to think more deeply about how “Eros” or “Spirit” or “consciousness” expresses itself in evolutionary emergence.
Whereas most brain researchers and philosophers of mind have focused on brain processes, neural computations, and their correspondences with the physical world, Deacon asserts “we should be focusing on what’s not there instead”. He focuses on “the importance of what’s missing” — on how higher order emerges “as a consequence of possibilities that become increasingly improbable by the compounding of constraints, due to continual perturbation.” He furnishes a vivid example: “as the branches of a snow crystal grow, they progressively restrict where new growth can take place. Constraints reflect what is not there, and the more constrained something is, the more symmetric and regular it is.”
His recent book, Incomplete Nature shows how simple natural phenomena like snowflakes (and especially self-replicating dynamical patterns like whirlpools) can give rise to more complex dynamical patterns “when two or more self-organizing processes become linked so each one generates the constraints that make up the boundary conditions necessary for the other to occur.”
His theory spells out how entropic thermodynamic patterns (which he calls “homeodynamic”) can interact to give rise to more complex “morphodynamic” patterns, like crystals and whirlpools, which in turn can constrain each other to give rise to more complex purposive “teleodynamic” processes. Deacon points out that there’s no real “self” in simple self-organizing morphodynamic patterns, but he sees the beginning of what we know as selfhood, purpose, and even meaning becoming possible in higher teleodynamic processes. On the other hand, he regards this ‘selfness’ as “a form of self-creating, self-sustaining absence.” He says “Consciousness emerges from the constitutive absences created by the dynamics of the neural processes, not neurons or signals themselves. In this way subjectivity is like the hole at the wheel’s hub, without which the wheel isn’t a wheel.”
His book is important primarily for the rich detail he brings to imagining the emergence not only of life and selfhood but also of consciousness, meaning, purpose and value. But in this interview, he has agreed to simply outline the broad features of this extremely detailed model, and to concentrate on more fundamental questions that are of special interest to me and to Beyond Awakening listeners, such as:
-Is there a way to reconcile his view of emergence with the presumption of an inherently conscious, living universe, in which “consciousness goes all the way down”?
– How does his augmented complex systems understanding illuminate the nature of the world crisis we’re in right now—which seems to have human socioeconomic dynamics in a disastrous self-undermining downward spiral, maximizing physical entropy production (by releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere as fast as possible)?
-How does his theory illuminate the opportunities individual human beings have to participate consciously, as planetary citizens, in taking a healthy evolutionary turn?
About Terrence Deacon
Terrence Deacon is a biological anthropologist, neuroscientist, and cognitive scientist with a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Harvard University where he taught for eight years, until he relocated to Boston University and then more recently to the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently Professor and Chair of Anthropology, Professor in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, and member of the Cognitive Science faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.
His 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain is widely considered a seminal work in the subject of evolutionary cognition. His 2011 book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, explores the properties of life, the emergence of consciousness, and the relationship between evolutionary and semiotic processes.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE:
Sunday, July 7th at 10:00 am Pacific*; 11:00 am Mountain; 12:00pm Central; 1:00pm Eastern
*Find Your Local Time
Please Note: There will be a limited number of lines available on the live conference call, so we encourage you to listen online if possible. To make sure you can get through by phone, we encourage you to dial in early.
- To listen live by phone, dial: 206-402-0100 (alternate #: 501-707-0312)
- Then, enter Access Code: 272072#
- To listen live online go to: http://instantteleseminar.com/?eventid=42841983
- To download the audio after the teleseminar is complete go to the Beyond Awakening Audio Page
Join the Dialogue: About one hour into the dialogue, we’ll open up the lines and you’ll have the opportunity to interact with us directly over the phone or via instant message. Here’s what to do:
To interact live by voice, dial into the conference line number and wait until we ask for a question from someone in your region, or
Send us your question via instant message in the teleseminar window on your computer
Send us your questions and comments before or during the live dialogue by posting them on our Beyond Awakening Community Facebook page
We look forward to your attendance!
The Beyond Awakening Team