I believe this book has the potential to change--and perhaps revolutionize--scientific thinking in a great many areas. Deacon presents a theory of "em...moreI believe this book has the potential to change--and perhaps revolutionize--scientific thinking in a great many areas. Deacon presents a theory of "emergent dynamics" to explain how the emergence of higher-level processes from simpler physical processes changes causal dynamics in surprising and dramatic ways. His main objective is to show that "ententional" phenomena (function, information, meaning, reference, representation, agency, purpose, sentience, and value) have a legitimate place in scientific explanation once they are properly understood. Accomplishing that would overcome an enormous divide in modern thought since Descartes, with physical scientists tending to eliminate or marginalize these phenomena because they can't fit them into their mechanistic models, and more phenomenological thinkers insisting on them as essential aspects of our human experience, although not being able to explain how they can exist in a material world. In the course of presenting his solution to that problem, Deacon makes major contributions to the understanding of causality, emergence, organisms, evolution, work, information, emotion, and consciousness.
Fundamental to Deacon's argument is a distinction between "orthograde" changes, which occur spontaneously without external interference, and "contragrade" changes, which must be extrinsically forced. Contragrade changes correspond to Aristotle's efficient causality, the usual causality assumed in mechanistic explanation. Such explanation tends to overlook orthograde change and the more subtle formal and/or final causality it involves. Deacon understands form as a constraint on the possible states of a system, a definition that avoids both extreme realism (general forms existing prior to particulars, as in Platonism) and extreme nominalism (forms existing only in the minds of observers). Defined as constraint, form refers in a way to what isn't physically present, and yet what has definite causal consequences. Final causality is the ability of a synergistic system of forms to become its own cause by perpetuating itself.
Deacon distinguishes three levels of dynamic process, each with its own orthograde tendency. A "homeodynamic" process spontaneously reduces a system's constraints to their minimum, as exemplified by the increase in entropy described by the second law of thermodynamics. Although a large number of objects interacting in a system exert efficient causality on one another, an increase in entropy arises from the statistical form of the system as a whole, in which disordered macro-states far outnumber ordered states; in that sense the homeodynamic process exhibits formal causality.
When systems in different thermodynamic states encounter each other, they exert a contragrade influence, as when a hotter system encounters a colder one, so that each is moved away from the equilibrium it otherwise would have had. The second level of dynamic process, "morphodynamic," emerges when the flow of "energy" across such a gradient is constrained so as to generate order; it is a process of form generating more form. The crystalline form of a falling snowflake places constraint on where additional molecules will form when it freezes some of the water molecules it encounters in the air, so its form generates more form over its unique interactional history. Surprisingly then, a higher-level order-building process emerges out of the lower-level tendency toward thermodynamic equilibrium, one illustration of how emergence transforms causal dynamics. Morphodynamic processes occur only rarely and fleetingly in the inorganic world, but they are essential to the organic world. They rely on the thermodynamic foundation of radiation from the Sun to the Earth, constrained and put to the work of building bodies.
Organisms depend on a number of morphodynamic, order-building processes, each inducing contragrade changes in others, but in a synergistic way. One process creates a condition favorable to another, so that it can continue rather than wind down by destroying the conditions that gave rise to it. A self-assembly process similar to crystal formation can build a cellular wall, providing a protected space for an autocatalytic process that creates many molecules of the same kind, providing a continued supply of material for self-assembly. This kind of synergy generates Deacon's third level of dynamic process, called "teleodynamic" or end-directed, in which the system's orthograde tendency is to perpetuate itself by sustaining its closely coordinated morphodynamic processes. This gives organisms a kind of closure from external processes, creating a distinct self, able to act on its own behalf in its environment in order to sustain itself.
Purely bottom-up explanation, trying to find the causes of the organism's behavior at lower levels, will be insufficient here. The lower-level physiological details can vary greatly, as long as the macro-level constraints are perpetuated. And the component processes are affected by the synergistic relationships in which they participate, so they can't be understood simply as independent causes. This is also relevant to the understanding of genetic information, whose meaning is not intrinsic but dependent on the teleodynamic context in which it is used. That's part of the problem of seeing the organism as a machine running a genetic "program."
In animals with brains, a second-order self can emerge, which we call "consciousness". This is a more specialized teleodynamic process contributing to the more general teleodynamics of the organism. Like any teleodynamic process, it is thermodynamically driven (it takes energy to feel and think) and emergent from morphodynamic synergies (interdependencies among order-generating processes within the vast neural network of the brain). And like any teleodynamic process, it is inherently self-sustaining. But what does it do for the body? Deacon describes it as a representational process that interprets the organisms's own teleodynamic tendency. I take that to mean that this process maintains a normative model of what the animal is trying to do, allowing it to anticipate opportunities and threats rather than just reacting to them. At the risk of putting words in Deacon's mouth, I would conclude that it is purposive in a double sense, having its own purpose of sustaining itself so that it can give purpose (direction) to the organism as it tries to sustain itself. Like any teleodynamic process, it performs work on what is "other" to itself, but in this case what is other includes other processes within the same body. Deacon makes the intriguing suggestion that the work done to mobilize the body to respond to favorable or unfavorable contingencies is experienced as emotion.
This perspective leads more naturally than any other I'm aware of to an understanding of human beings as thinking, feeling, and active free agents. But as Deacon says, freedom has to be understood not as freedom from causality, but freedom to exercise causal power, including some power over ourselves!
Obviously Deacon takes a dim view of cognitive science and neuroscience models that reduce thought to mechanical computation or relegate consciousness to the role of passive spectator to the brain's bottom-up causal activity. Mind isn't a ghostly immaterial entity existing beyond causality, but neither is it causally epiphenomenal (inconsequential). It is a dynamic process that evolved because of its function in sustaining and coordinating bodily activity in a very subtle way, through the perpetuation of constraint. Since mechanistic models only consider the extrinsic force exerted on one part by another in a deterministic system, they overlook the spontaneous propagation and self-persistence of constraints that organize our world while leaving it open to further organization.
I do have one reservation about Deacon's position, and that is that I'm not as sure as he is that teleodynamic process was absent for most of the universe's history. His description of teleodynamics reminded me of physicist David Bohm's concept of reciprocal causation, which he intends as a universal principle. I understand why Deacon wants to limit the discussion to living things, and I find his account of teleodynamics there persuasive, but perhaps he closes the door a little too firmly against the possibility of a self-sustaining process on a deeper level. I wonder what Aristotle would make of that.
Overall, I recommend this book very highly and hope that it will be widely read. Anyone who wants to think about human beings scientifically without reducing them to robots (or "golems") will benefit from it. In the Machine Age, we modeled our relationship to nature as a relationship of "man to machine," which ultimately forced us to regard ourselves as machines in order to include ourselves in nature. So the model became machinery controlled by machinery, with no place for consciousness, purpose, feeling or value. Now it's time to recover our respect for nature's purposes, as well as our own self-respect. As Deacon ends the book, "Even as our scientific tools have given us mastery over so much of the physical world around and within us, they have at the same time alienated us from these same realms. It is time to find our way home." (less)
My advice for anyone who reads this book is to be sure and read the entire book carefully. In the first few chapters, Gazzaniga presents neurological...moreMy advice for anyone who reads this book is to be sure and read the entire book carefully. In the first few chapters, Gazzaniga presents neurological determinism so convincingly that a careless reader might mistake it for the author's final position. Gazzaniga may also invite misunderstanding by titling Ch. 4 "Abandoning the Concept of Free Will," when a careful reading of the chapter shows that he really wants to "reframe the question about what it means to have free will." By the end of the chapter, he has recast freedom and responsibility as emergent properties of a complex, multi-layered system.
Gazzaniga agrees with other neuroscientists in rejecting a pre-scientific notion of free will, the idea that "YOU, a self with a central command center, are in charge, are free from causation, and are doing things....The modern perspective is that brains enable minds, and that YOU is your vastly parallel and distributed brain without a central command center." Most of what goes on in the brain is unconscious, and our brains are already initiating actions before we are aware of what we are doing. But unlike many of his colleagues, Gazzaniga does not jump to the conclusion that causality is solely from the bottom up, from brain to mind, so that conscious thought is inconsequential. That would seem to eliminate moral responsibility, an awkward conclusion considering the research suggesting that people actually act better when they believe they are free and responsible! Gazzaniga does not believe that science has to undermine our humanity or moral worth.
Gazzaniga points out that much of science has moved beyond determinism, embracing ideas such as unpredictability in complex systems, quantum indeterminacy, and emergence of qualitatively new properties at higher levels of analysis. "The ones left sitting at the 'hard' determinist table are the neuroscientists and Richard Dawkins." To illustrate how emergence alters one's perspective, consider a musician playing a note. The musician relies on the deterministic mechanics of the instrument, the brain and the body, and all the necessary causes they entail. But analysis at those levels is insufficient to explain THIS note in this musical context; that requires a more aesthetic and cultural analysis. The lower level enables but doesn't entirely determine the emergent higher level. Similarly, why do I type these words in preference to all the other words I could type without violating any physical laws? A complete answer requires an understanding of the cultural conversation in which I am participating. Gazzaniga rejects neurological determinism because he takes seriously the emergent sociocultural level which constrains individual minds and brains. He rejects bottom-up causality in favor of a complementarity in which the neurological and sociocultural levels influence each other. Within that framework he finds it appropriate and necessary that societies hold individuals responsible for their actions.
The book will be most challenging for two groups: those who have a pre-scientific idea of free will, and those at the other extreme who have bought into neurological determinism. The many philosophers and social scientists who never liked either of those extremes in the first place may feel more vindicated than enlightened. While I'm glad that at least one neuroscientist is trying to move beyond determinism, I actually wish he had gone a little farther. Gazzaniga still seems to me to be too much under the spell of the mechanistic metaphor that has dominated so much of our thinking in the Machine Age. When he talks about complex multi-leveled systems, he uses the language of hardware & software, algorithms and feedback loops. For example: "The social environment is just another factor contributing to the overall environment that is selecting in a downwardly causal way, with a feedback mechanism at work"; and "...the rules and algorithms that govern all of the separate and distributed modules work together to yield the human condition." Often he talks as if freedom and responsibility are nothing more than obedience to social feedback, no different than a furnace's obedience to feedback from a thermostat. In the Afterword he suggests that developing a new vocabulary may be the "scientific problem of this century," but he doesn't express any interest in going beyond mechanisms and algorithms to explore something more creative and aesthetic. One scientist whose reflections on agency and self-organization have taken him much deeper is biologist Stuart Kauffman, who argued in Investigations that we need a new synthesis of science and art in order to understand living things.
I would think that a serious reflection on freedom and responsibility would require some discussion of creativity. Kauffman criticized the standard "random variation and natural selection" model of evolution as not accounting sufficiently for the emergence of novel organization; selection only trims forms, but doesn't create them. Is Gazzaniga's model, which emphasizes neural variation and social selection, creative enough? He acknowledges the emergence of a social level in general, but he may be overlooking the little emergences of novel thoughts that are going on all the time, and which create culture as opposed to just conform to it. I suggest that regarding freedom and responsibility as participation in the creative construction of the world may turn out to be just as compatible with good science as seeing them as responses to societal feedback. I think it may be robbing freedom of too much of its meaning to see it essentially as social constraint on the brain. So while I see the book as a helpful first step beyond neurological determinism, a much deeper understanding is needed. (less)
Jeffrey Sachs presents a strong argument for progressive economic policies. As a macroeconomist practicing what he calls "clinical economics," he comb...moreJeffrey Sachs presents a strong argument for progressive economic policies. As a macroeconomist practicing what he calls "clinical economics," he combines economic analysis and policy advocacy, throwing in a healthy dose of moral outrage as well. He believes that at the root of our economic crisis lies a moral crisis, a decline of civic virtue among our economic elites. I especially liked his critique of free-market economics in Ch. 3, his take on globalization in Ch. 6, and his analysis of the federal budget deficit in Ch. 11.
Sachs is a strong believer in the idea of a mixed economy in which both market competition and government action have essential roles to play. He summarizes a lot of what economists know about the limitations of free markets alone; for example, they don't guarantee sustainability for future generations, since natural capital belongs to all and must be managed by political choices, and profit-oriented resource holders tilt production toward present consumption. Not surprisingly, he is very critical of the "Reagan Revolution," which he feels incorrectly blamed the economic problems of the 1970s on federal spending. Rather than restoring the economic growth of the post-WWII period, the Reagan era gave us slower economic growth, higher unemployment, higher inflation, greater inequality, and higher federal deficits. It was also largely responsible for a "retreat from public purpose," discouraging citizens from seeing their government as a source of solutions to public problems. Unfortunately, that came at a time when the challenges of globalization required public as well as private initiatives.
Sachs especially emphasizes the effects of globalization on labor markets. Globalization narrowed the technology gap between emerging and developed economies, brought more low-skilled workers into the globally integrated labor pool, and increased the advantage of capital over labor in an international race to the bottom, with production moving to countries with the cheapest labor, the lowest taxes and the lightest regulation. Some of these problems will not be solved without international cooperation and regulation. But domestically, the most successful economies will be those with "active labor market policies" to raise educational levels and skills, create flexible and satisfying working conditions, and match workers with appropriate jobs. Many European countries spend about 1% of GDP on such efforts, while the US spends only 0.2%. Sachs is much more interested in public investments in education, infrastructure, new energy sources and environmental sustainability than he is in macroeconomic measures to boost aggregate demand, such as fiscal stimulus and quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve.
Sachs is especially critical of the new "corporatocracy" in which corporations benefit from globalization and other economic trends, and then use their corporate power to rig the game in their favor. This sets up a vicious circle in which citizens become more cynical and disengaged from politics, making it even easier for the powerful few to have their way. (I would say that the Reagan pronouncement that "government is the problem" became part of the problem.)
The book's title comes from an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote: "I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization." With no apologies to Tea Partyers, Sachs makes a strong case for bringing America's unusually low tax rates more in line with those of European countries. He doesn't accept the familiar argument that America is richer because we tax less. We were already richer than Europe before our tax rates fell below theirs, probably because of our advantages in land and natural resources. Also, we score lower than many European countries on quality-of-life measures, despite our higher GDP. Sachs is pessimistic about reducing the federal deficit through spending cuts. We could reduce the military budget, which increased from 3% to 5% of GDP during the recent wars. But he believes we will have to add in about 3% of GDP for public goods such as education and training, early child development and infrastructure. So the Price of Civilization will inevitably be higher taxation. I would like to see those who disagree with that conclusion to analyze the federal budget as carefully as Sachs has and identify the specific kinds of spending they think we can do without. The idea that tax and spending cuts are good for the economy deserves a fair hearing, but it has become an unquestioned article of faith for too many Americans. (less)