The Deacon Emails

The Search for Sentience
OCTOBER 11, 2012
Terrence W. Deacon, reply by Colin McGinn

Can Anything Emerge from Nothing? from the June 7, 2012 issue                                                 

To the Editors:

Colin McGinn’s review of my 602-page book Incomplete Nature [NYR, June 7] focuses on a nontechnical, mostly heuristic use of “absence” from the first chapters and on my speculations about consciousness in the last chapters. He distorts, caricatures, and largely ignores nearly 80 percent of the book—in which I systematically reanalyze concepts as diverse as entropy, work, information, and the physics of life—in the process.

Apart from his churlish comments about my writing style and his self-assured pronouncement that there is no originality to my theory—which he never bothers to describe—he says that the central claim of the book is that dynamical systems theory can solve the riddle of consciousness. This would indeed be an unoriginal claim—suggested by many before me (he cites two)—but one that I dismiss in my book. He also rhetorically asks: “Does [Deacon] really think that biochemical molecules have real sensations and feelings (but not the atoms that compose them)?,” despite the fact that I repeatedly show why we cannot reduce either life or mind to material substrates. In dismissing the whole enterprise, he triumphantly exclaims: “We still don’t see how mere self-organization can generate the subjective character of conscious experience.”

Indeed, I begin Incomplete Nature by arguing that current dynamical systems theory is incapable of explaining life, much less mind. So I must admit to feeling a kind of vertigo at being criticized for holding ideas expressed by others that I explicitly challenge and endeavor to correct in my book. Ironically, in McGinn’s derisive accounts of ideas that he mistakenly believes to be mine, he actually challenges ideas that are proposed by Alicia Juarrero and Evan Thompson, whom he praises in the review.

What is completely obscured by his review is the fundamental distinction I draw between merely self-organizing processes, such as whirlpools and snow crystals, and what I call teleodynamic (i.e., end-directed) processes, such as those characterizing life. This explains why organisms violate properties of self- organization (such as the maximum entropy production principle) and can repair and reproduce themselves. This model system is also used to develop an account of the emergence of molecular (e.g., genetic) information and to develop a more comprehensive theory of natural selection, as well as provide hints about mental experience.

Although McGinn’s philosophical views are fundamentally challenged by the theories developed in Incomplete Nature, he at least owes readers an undistorted, if critical, account of this contrary view. Lacking this, you can always read the book and judge for yourself.

Terrence W. Deacon
Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, California

Colin McGinn replies:
I didn’t ignore the long middle chapters of Incomplete Nature, even approving them (see the last paragraph of my review). I did concentrate on the more distinctive claims of the book, however.

I fail to see how it can be “churlish” for a reviewer to complain about the bad prose style of an author if it is bad; and I did cite representative samples of Deacon’s turgid and unclear prose.

Deacon misses the point about cells and biochemical molecules. My objection is not that he is trying to reduce sentience to the material substrate. It is that he thinks that the teleological properties of such biological entities provide an adequate explanation of sentience. Adding “teleodynamics” to systems theory by no means closes the explanatory gap between mind and matter. If it did we would have to conclude that liver cells and amoebas are conscious, since they have teleological properties. I would have thought this was quite clear from my review. I note that in his letter Deacon now merely says that teleological properties of this primitive kind “provide hints about mental experience.” This is not what he claims in his book, and I am left wondering what kind of worthwhile “hints” he has in mind.

While I do cite Juarrero and Thompson as preceding Deacon, I never suggest that I agree with all their philosophical conclusions. This is quite consistent with praising them.

Deacon ends by saying that my philosophical views are “fundamentally challenged” by his theories. If by “challenged” he means “disagreed with,” that would seem true (though he never mentions me in the book); but if instead he means “actually brought into serious question,” then I must demur, for the reasons given. In any case, the grounds of my criticisms of his book are not that his philosophical views differ from mine, but are internal to his own efforts.

I wonder whether the absence of any “challenge” to my other criticisms indicates that Deacon can now see what is wrong with many of his other formulations, e.g., the use of the very notion of “incomplete nature.” One can but hope.

May 26

Dear Joyous Crynoid,
Though I generally avoid interacting in blog forums, I feel the need to do so here. You have done an excellent job of reviewing my book. One of the best that I've read so far. Thank you for working so hard to accurately summarize my reasoning and to make the effort to try to understand the motivations behind this approach. And I also appreciate your divulging your own theoretical bias as well. I think that the interesting contrasts and parallels you draw are illuminating, even though they are unlikely to alter our divergent metaphysical commitments.

But I am mostly writing because I wish you had applied same level of careful analysis to the highly charged claims and pseudo-evidence sent to you by Lissack and Juarrero before including it at the end of your review. I wish you had actually read her book and done the comparison for yourself rather than just accepting it a face value. Unfortunately, by following up your careful and detailed review by merely parroting their claims and passing on their suggested URLs without a similarly careful comparison I feel that you have done me and your readers a disservice.

Though I had not read her book prior to finishing my book, I have been reading her work since. She has indeed done excellent work synthesizing Kant, dynamical systems theory, and issues of consciousness. It is now clear that she recognized some of these connections well before me. But it will not take a very detailed reading to notice that our assumptions, arguments, and purposes are ultimately quite different. I don't harbor the illusion that my ideas have never been entertained before by others. Indeed, I suspect that intellectual synchronicity is the rule not the exception, though the stronger claims of identity are easy to refute if one reads the books.

Having done such a careful job explaining exactly how my analysis demonstrates the inadequacy of the dynamical systems approach, you wii easily be able to recognize a critical difference. Juarrero ultimately believes that dynamical systems thinking is sufficient. Her work relies heavily on ideas that are quite opposite from those that are at the heart of my work — Ideas like Wholes being more that the sum of their parts, wholes constraining their parts, top-down causality, and her assumption that autocatalysis (=autopoiesis) exemplifies the basic logic behind life and mind. Thus the morphodynamic / teleodynamic distinction which is so central to my theory is not even recognized in her work. So whereas I argue that we need to go beyond the dynamical systems paradigm if we are to make progress toward understanding the distinctiveness of life and mind, she does not.There are, of course, a great many other problems that I struggle with that are not discussed in her book, and many philosophical issues that concern her but do not interest me. Perhaps some of the differences in focus can be traced to the difference between a scientific and a philosophical approach, and even our difference in philosophical commitments are likely relevant — her's with Kant, mine with Peirce.

I have no problem admitting that there are a large number of thinkers pursuing similar paths that I have overlooked in my preparations (some of which you also identify). At some point one needs to decide when to stop reading and get something down on paper. The relevant literature is vast when you consider the scope of my book — from emergence theory to thermodynamics to systems theory to origins of life and DNA to work to reformulating information theory to grounding semiotics to speculating about the nature of mind — and I believe that my citations and references reflect a serious effort to do this vast sweep of topics justice. Inevitably I did not read or cite many relevant books and papers that a more encyclopedic work might have. Since the publication of the book I have been been trying to follow up on these many suggestions of parallel theories and competing paradigms, and I am indeed finding this to be a rich field, though sadly more in philosophy than in the sciences. I notice for example that recently many quite notable philosophers of science have struggled with the comparison between Kant's notion of self-organization and the modern dynamical systems view — as does Juarrero — however the majority seem to have also overlooked her work as I have. So I agree that her work deserves better attention than it has received.

Despite this effort to attack my academic integrity, I will treat Juarrero's work with the intellectual respect it deserves. For example, I have recently submitted a paper (already accepted for publication) in which I explore some of the similarities and differences between our theories as well as discussing how both approaches compare with a few others whose work was not discussed in my book (e.g. Thompson). Perhaps this reflects my naive trust in the old ideal of published intellectual discourse, focused on ideas, pursued in academic venues.In the mean time I reiterate my request: please take the time do the comparison yourself, and with the same care that you have exhibited in this review of my book. Yes there are similarities, but I am certain that with similar attention to detail your appraisal of the independence and originality of my work will not suffer by such a comparison.

And it may even provide an interesting subject for a future blog ;-)Thank you.Sincerely, Terry Deacon

May 22

> Dear colleagues,
> You are one of hundreds who have received emails about me and my work
> from Michael Lissack. I have compiled this long list of emails from only one
> of his many broadcast emails to anyone he believes might be susceptible to
> his game of slander. I do not know if you have received other defaming emails
> from him, but if you have, you have probably guessed that he has
> decided to do everything he can to defame me to you my many colleagues
> throughout the world and to use his ill-gotten millions to both attack my
> scholarship and my character in a very public and vicious way.
> As for the reviews of my book that he selects to broadcast, I do not mind
> that some  people consider my new book threatening enough to want to critique
> it. Indeed, such intellectual heat suggests to me that I have struck a
> nerve. I think that it is becoming obvious that they do protest too much.
> And this I hope will get people to read it and judge for themselves. I
> have no doubt that my work will stand the test of time, for its
> originality, scholarship, and significance. So I welcome serious
> comparison and criticism.
> But I write for another reason.
> Mr. Lissack is engaging in a ruthless campaign of character assassination.
> If this is the first email you have received from him, it almost certainly
> won't be the last. Now that he has your email on his list I have little
> doubt that he will continue to send you whatever he can find to defame me
> in your eyes. Besides sending emails to hundreds of recipients like yourself
> that he hopes will innocently spread his accusations without checking, he
> has influenced the publication of scathing reviews and has spread rumors
> of scandal to many sites and journal editors. He is savvy and without
> scruples and he has very deep pockets.
> Those of you who know me will see this for what it is - a form of
> intellectual slander - and I hope will not let it pass. But for those who
> don't know me I urge you to not let this kind of thing go unchallenged. If
> we let the likes of people like Lissack succeed in infiltrating the world
> of scholarship with this kind of personal vendetta masquerading as
> intellectual dispute it will open the door to a very ugly future. Will
> careful analysis and serious debate over ideas be replaced by character
> attacks, scandalous inuendos, and disinformation in an effort to discredit
> the work of others? We have come to accept this dishonesty in our
> politics. I hope that we will reject it in the the pursuit of knowledge.
> You don't have to know me or know my work to stand against this. This use
> of the electronic media to spread disinformation and invent scandal in
> order to destroy one's opponents is a growing danger that we dare not
> ignore. I am the target today, but ... Please do not be complicit by your
> silence.
> Thank you.
> Sincerely, Terry Deacon

May 17

Terrence Deacon   
May 17, 2012 at 8:24 pm
I thank you all for putting up with this. As you now recognize, there is an unacknowledged agenda being played out. I urge you all to just read the books in question, make up your own minds, and ignore the rest. Don’t take these variously biased interpretations and personal inuendos masquerading as reviews and serious criticisms to provide any useful interpretation. Let the ideas speak for themselves.
By the way, Graves (mentioned above) was a participant in a seminar I taught on the topic of emergence a number of years back, so the parallels are not coincidental. I would indeed suggest adding his text to the list.
I will exit this discussion thread at this point. Thank you again.

February 29

Hi all (and especially Marianna), I have been directed to your blog by a colleague who noticed the comments about my book and Juarrero’s spreadsheet. This is a nasty business in which Juarrero is spreading false claims suggesting that I have used her ideas without attribution. I have not. I urge you to read both books, and you will see this for yourself. Although there are indeed superficial similarities, as inevitably occurs in an area of such intense intellectual discussion, these are ultimately quite superficial. I have only recently come to read her book and her one paper on Kant in response to her tirade about not being cited, and it is now clear that I disagree with her approach in far more ways than we agree. This is not just because she is a philosopher and I am a lab scientist by training. I think that we are fundamentally driving at very different ways of explaining almost every aspect covered in my book: life, mind, sentience, consciousness, information, work, and so forth, even though we both borrow insights from dynamical systems theories and share a criticism of simple eliminative materialism. Nevertheless, once you overcome the accusatory hype of her spreadsheet and actually do compare these two approaches the differences can be quite informative and worth debating. To those of you struggling through the book. I hope that you find the ideas worth the time and teleodynamic work. I can’t promise to be able to keep up with your blog or to have any idea of what OOP is about but I am honored to have initiated some interesting discussions. — Terry

January 27


As of yesterday I had resolved never to again reply to your emails. But given your last email I have broken this resolution. Indeed, I very much want to engage in close discussion with these other scholars working along very similar lines. Both our various points of theoretical agreement and disagreement are likely to be illuminative. I am indeed embarrassed that Evan's and Alicia's books were not known to me at the time of writing, but you can be sure that as I become informed by them I will of course both cite them and make appropriate assignments of priority in all future works (including future editions of Incomplete Nature). Parenthetically, I should say that Mark Graves (and you will find others) participated regularly in discussions with me, sat in on my seminar on the topic many years ago, and has used my approach centrally in his (though I have only superficially skimmed his book as of now). I consider him a colleague. That being said, I think that I will find it difficult to have any direct scholarly association with you (and probably Alicia), given what has transpired, but I will at least read Alicia's work and make a good faith effort to give her credit where due. Perhaps the passage of time will change this, perhaps not. 

Sincerely, Terry

January 25

Dear Michael Lissack and Alicia Juarrero,

Let me repeat one last time. There is no basis in truth to your libelous
You have now crossed a line that will force me to take action.
The comments below indicate that you have made a quite superficial read of
my book that misses its core thesis and picks at superficial similarities
that have been in the literature for years.
Indeed, I will be forced to read Juarrero's book and make analogous
If indeed there are significant points of overlap where Juarrero deserves
priority I will be happy to state this in the preface of the next edition
of my book.
The community of scholars that have worked with me on this project or have
followed its development over the past decade and a half will easily
refute this claim, but the professional and personal hurt this causes me
are significant.
If this were truly an honorable effort at redress you would not have
approached it this way.

Sincerely, Terrence Deacon

January 25

Dear Michael Lissack,

I do not know your motives, but I find this to be a remarkably vicious
attack, that I obviously can't let stand, especially now that you have
attempted to damage my career in this way. The accusations you make have
no basis in truth. I have never read Juarraro's book and have only just
started reading Evan's most recent book (only a few pages in) and didn't
know his other book that you cite. Indeed, I just purchased Evan's recent
book and Juarraro's book from Amazon. I don't doubt that there may be
certain parallels, but I expect that they are superficial or else widely
shared. I have developed this work with constant back and forth
discussions with a very wide body of colleagues around the world over the
course of a decade, and have presented these ideas in various states of
development at innumerable meetings since shortly after my book The
Symbolic Species was published. All who have ever worked with me will, I
am certain, vouch for my academic integrity and intellectual independence.
Also, since there were others at the Esalen meeting you cite who have also
followed the development of my work before and after that meeting, I am
sure that they can also assure you that there was little that I have
directly borrowed from works presented there. Indeed, I presented
significant parts of the theory laid out in my book at that meeting,
material which apparently you have not remembered. You have now made this
charge in a way that is clearly aimed at damaging my intellectual
reputation and my career. And you have done so without directly contacting
me first or checking with others about the facts. I don't know what
recourse you leave me but to defend my honor using what resources I have
available to me.

Sincerely, Terrence Deacon

November 24

Dear Alicia (cc other recipients of her emails),

I am impressed that you appear to have combed through my book so completely. Have you actually read it, or is this mostly based on use of the index? If you have really read it, I would be interested in intellectual feedback about where we differ, since that is where progress will be made. At this point I cannot comment on whether the parallels you draw are deep or trivial because I have not yet read your book. However, even though your accusation puts me off, this list of presumed parallels does prompt me to want to read your work. Despite some superficial similarities I nevertheless suspect that there are also deep differences. I will withhold judgment until I can determine this, but I suspect that these differences will be at least as insightful as are the similarities you see. Since many excellent scholars are currently writing about teleology, mental agency, information theory, emergence, and consciousness it would not surprise me if there were many parallels both with my book and with many other books and articles written in the past two decades. Indeed, I recognize that in a world of many thousands of scholars working on related problems, some independent parallelisms will be inevitable. Such shared visions should be celebrated, not fought over.

I have always been interested in interacting with people working through similar ideas and I usually welcome such productive conversations, as friends and colleagues will certainly attest (many on this list of recipients). But this continued effort to impugn my work of many decades as well as my intellectual honesty is both angering and defamatory in a way that is most unprofessional. Let me repeat again, your accusations are baseless, I have not read your work. These efforts to attack me will almost certainly backfire if you persist.

For those of you who know me, and are receiving these emails, I would appreciate any effort to set this person right, both about my work and my intellectual integrity.

Sincerely, Terry

Professor Terrence W. Deacon
Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

November 22

Dear Alicia,

Your outrageous implication is both ludicrous and hardly worth a
response.But since you are making this serious accusation in a very public
manner,you leave me no choice but to respond, though I suspect that others you
have written to will also be able to correct you.

I am sorry, but I have never referred to your book because it is unknown
to me. And I suspect that I do not recall your talk in Cancun because I
have repeatedly argued over the years that downward causation makes no
sense. I would have paid little attention for that reason. But then YOU
should also recall that I argued for a definition of emergence in
constraint terms in the talk that I presented at that meeting in Cancun,
the content of which I allowed the STARS organizers to make
electronically available to attendees following my talk.

Indeed I have been working on this issue since the early 80s and
published on related ideas  as early as 1976 in a paper on Peirce's semiotics and
its relevance to cybernetics that is widely known. My discussion group
(see the acknowledgements) has been working on this book with me since
2001 along with many colleagues around the world. And audiences from
Star Island, Templeton Foundation conferences, the STARS group, the
Copenhagen biosemiotics group, workshops at Esalan Institute, various talks at
Berkeley, and many places around the World where I have spoken over the
years have heard my discussion of these ideas since the mid 90s. Indeed,
since Bruce Weber is on this mail list you may want to look up the paper
that we wrote together about emergence in the Journal Cybernetics and
Human Knowing back in 2000 following our discussions at a 1999
conference that Bruce organized.

The idea that you have some priority thinking about these issues in
constraint terms is also not credible. I was teaching classes using
Ashby's Introduction to Cybernetics in the late 1970s in which
constraint is one of the central concepts. It also plays an important role in his
early paper on self-organization. And although it was the critical
concept in Shannon's 1948 Mathematical Theory of Communication even that is not
the first use by far. I find that Stu Kauffman has also been
particularly clear on the importance of constraint in his work, from way back (and I
quote one of his favorite aphorisms about it as a chapter epigraph). But
so has Howard Pattee and many others extending back into the 70s.
Hopefully in your work you also cite these and the many other pioneers
of these ideas, instead of pretending that you were the first ever to have
thought of them. These ideas have been in the air for decades in various

So mostly i find your accusation surprisingly self-serving and
presumptuous. I don't claim to have originated these ideas, though let
me repeat that your work has had NO influence on me. And this is only a
small part of my book that that provides a reconception of the origins of
life, the concept of work, the notion of information, the logic of evolution,
and the basis of consciousness. I leave it to others to read our
respective books and to ascertain any resemblance, novelty, priority, or
worth. Despite your quite nasty attack, I will look up your work, and as
I mentioned previously, if I find any useful material there I will be
happy to cite it in my future work.

Sincerely, Terry

Professor Terrence W. Deacon
Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

November 18

Date: Fri, 18 Nov 2011 23:18:58 -0800
Subject: Re: Absential in Incomplete Nature
Dear Alicia,
Disgusting?! Yes we may have met. No I do not know your work,
nor do I recall your talk, sorry. The concept of constraint and its role
in dynamical systems is hardly new -- including in terms of so-called top
down causality. The title of your book did not make on my radar as
indicating that it would be relevant, but I will check it out. Of course,
concepts like constraint and emergence don't hardly cover all that my book
is about, and you can rest assured that I have probably missed other
important thinkers and books that touch on these subjects. For this reason
I find your response to be oddly narcissistic. It might surprise you that
I don't know all the work ever written on this topic and I don't remember
every conversation. Nor do I expect that every one writing a book on
topics that I have worked on will cite me. I'd be interested to read your
work at some point, however, and I would hope to find some useful
insights. If I do I will definitely cite or even quote you in future work.
But having not read your work, it would obviously be irresponsible for me
to cite it. By the way, you have my permission not to cite me in your
Regards, Terry