Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon

It's been half a decade since I read a science book that inspired me this much. (The previous one was The Chemistry of Evolution by Williams and da Silva, and I've just written a full book inspired by that one.)* Deacon has built a dynamical theory of how things happen. By itself, that sounds kind of abstract, but he applies it to two mysteries that preoccupy my time: the origin of life and the workings of consciousness, or in short, evolution and mind.

The theory does appear to offer a possible ways forward on the first front, although I'm not as sure about the second, but that's not my primary area and I'm fascinated by the chemical possibilities. Deacon's take on physical chemistry and the nature of energy is solid enough and unique enough that I'm considering how to teach it in my physical chemistry course. Much better than I could do on neuroscience (Deacon's primary area), that's for sure.

As Deacon admits, this book is only a sketch, albeit a 545-page sketch. I could have used more. Since dynamical processes have particular structures, I could have used more figures to clarify some of Deacon's terms and "levels" of dynamics. Although the evolution and mind subjects are interrelated, I think we could have gotten one book on evolution and a second book on mind, and that would have left room to explore more side roads and give more examples. But I'm intrigued enough to come up with examples on my own.

The biggest ally left unenlisted may be theology. Apophatic theology involves double negatives and absential qualities like Deacon's work. Again, this is an open door for others to walk through. I think there's fruitful progress to be made in taking Deacon's ideas seriously and then using those as a basis for natural theology (a la McGrath, not a la Paley, of course!).

In sum, this is a book that I've only begun to soak in. It already makes the short list of "10 most influential books" in my life.

* Deacon and RJP Williams do both emphasize constraints, so much so that I'm already seeing new things by juxtaposing the two. My first public reflection on Williams was a lecture titled "The Chemical Constraints on Creation" no less!

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