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Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter

3.94  ·  Rating details ·  360 ratings  ·  41 reviews
As physicists work toward completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness, and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what w ...more
Hardcover, 624 pages
Published November 21st 2011 by W. W. Norton Company
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Jan 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I 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 scie ...more
Mar 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The title, “Incomplete Nature,” bears a dual sense. It refers, first of all, to the incomplete pictures of nature so far yielded by materialism and idealism alike. In this guise, the work proposes itself as a third alternative, a prolegomena to a complete explanation of mind that formulates the criteria by which we can recognize when we've reached explanatory completeness. Deacon shows the kind of painstaking metaphysical reconstruction that is required to bridge the gap that still remains betwe ...more
Bob Nichols
Aug 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
In a thick, complex argument, Deacon makes the case for absence as the critical factor in the transition from inorganic matter to life and from life to mind. To best illustrate this notion, ideas have no physical attribute yet they have casual power. This "absence" he argues is a central factor in the evolution of life.

Deacon's thesis is embedded in physics and specifically in the second law of thermodynamics. Matter's natural course is the dissipation of energy to an equilibrium state. Life is
Mar 05, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I can't see myself recommending this book to anyone.

Part of this is because I'm a physicist. Deacon spends quite a bit of time discussing thermodynamics, but he doesn't understand it as thoroughly as he perhaps thinks he does. The second law doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is a part of thermodynamics that works in concert with other pieces. I would point him to the Helmholtz free energy and Boltzman's formula for entropy. Combining them, his concept of constraint and its subsequent implications be
Oct 18, 2017 rated it did not like it
In "Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter," Terrence W. Deacon attacks a deep and serious problem: if we reject a non-physical spirit, how can we explain the mind.
My first complaint about this book is that it is too long. Deacon's editor should have pared the book down to a third of its present size to keep Deacon's argument focused. Instead Deacon goes off on tangents which meander too far from the declared topic. For instance, he feels compelled to try to explain how life could have
Feb 02, 2018 rated it did not like it
George Orwell wrote six rules for writing. I'm not saying that we should necessarily defer to him just because he was a great writer, but they're good rules of thumb. This author breaks 2/3 of them. Here they are:

1:Never use a long word where a short one will do.
2. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
3. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Here's a
Brian Tracz
May 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book contained one of the most unique, rigorously scientific, and inventive accounts of the mind in nature that I have read recently. The basic gist of the book is that "absential" constraints are as important as the present physical properties in explaining self-organising systems like the mind. In other words, reductive physicalism overlooks the way that phenomena *not present in the system (e.g., brain)* but nevertheless *constraining* it might have played a role in shaping evolution, th ...more
Kunal Sen
Jun 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most difficult books I have read, but the gain easily paid for the effort. In fact I would strongly suggest that anyone who is curious about the deepest problems of life – intelligence, emotions, self, consciousness, etc., and is looking for answers that do not involve any mysticism or magic, must pick up this book. It is a beautiful example of how to build up an argument and a point of view from the absolute basics and gradually form an explanation for some of the most comple ...more
May 20, 2013 rated it it was ok
(I have a friend who did throw War and Peace across a room, upon realizing, 95% done, that they didn't care what happened to the characters.)

I 'spose academics are free, outside the classroom, to spout nonsense about science that they have no understanding of. But even so, can you do neuroscience and misunderstand completely what the 2nd Law is about?
Oct 30, 2011 rated it it was ok
I give up. I loved his previous book on language, The Symbolic Species, though it was certainly a tough read. This one tilts way too far into academese, where no simple thought is left uncomplicated by syntax and word choice. It's just absurd. I got through almost 300 pages and still I can barely figure out anything but the most basic thrust of the book. Which is to say, it feels like I've spent 300 pages wading though thick mud for no other purpose than to hear him restate his thesis ten differ ...more
Be sure to check out the controversy over this book: and ...more
Otto Lehto
Nov 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Terrence Deacon's ambitious tome can be intimidating, as it is occasionally difficult, but it is worth reading, since it opens up a new paradigm. The book is beautifully written and the jargon is - amazingly - kept at a minimum. I consider it one of the most important books I have ever read.

It strives to unify the sciences, and produce an integrated vision of how life, mind and meaning can, without magic, emerge from the seemingly inorganic, insentient and meaningless material world. The questi
Roy Kenagy
Nov 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: in-stasis
Deacon's "Symbolic Species" is the most comprehensive and persuasive text I know for explaining the development and function of language and "information." From the reviews so far, this book takes the next step in explaining what it means to be human.

PW Review:

"In a tour de force encompassing biology, neurobiology, metaphysics, information theory, physics, and semiotics, Deacon, a neuroscientist and chair of anthropology at UC-Berkeley, attempts to resolve the issue of how l
Theo Armour
Nov 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Absence makes the brain go ponder...
Tyler Guillen
This book somehow found itself on one of my Amazon wish lists, so in a fit of curiosity, I ordered it. The description seemed to implicitly promise some spooky mystical solution to the problems it presents (sometimes a sane-sounding book will bait-and-switch you at the very end with some stupid new-agey deus ex machina--I've read enough Terence McKenna to be able to see that coming), but I went ahead with it for the sake of discovery. The depth and scope of the work, I found, was pleasantly fulf ...more
Apr 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was one of the hardest books I've ever read largely because it presupposes an indepth knowledge of mechanics, chemistry, genetics, biology and physics. Much of it flew right over my head.

It deserves four stars if for nothing else, its impenetrability.

Sarcasm aside, the mystery and the glory of the quest is worthwhile.

Deacon seeks nothing less than to fill the scientific vacancy between mind and matter. A lot of pages in this book are filled with the historical blind alleys that thought has
Matt B
Nov 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: have, nonfiction
Need to re-read this immediately. As the final chapters begin to settle in, they threaten to provoke a complete figure / ground shift in one's way of thinking about mind and reality. It humbly sets out to provide nothing less than an empirical way to study the causality of something like a thought on the stuff of reality by instating absence as a part of dynamical systems. On the way to the conclusion, you will be asked to think in entirely new ways about Information Theory, the nature of work, ...more
Sep 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
The hardest 624 pages of my life. I could never imagine that Zero can ever appear to me as one of the most powerful things in the known world...and the funniest thing is that it doesn't even exists!
In any case, after 25 hours of active listening I came to conclusion that if I honestly want to render this case closed, the text book reading is something must! So, the real review will follow just after that.
Mar 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Best science/philosophy book I've picked up since The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Amazing book about trying to quantify thought... ...more
James Miller
Terrence Deacon, biological anthropologist and neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, had this book published in 2011. In 1997 he came out with "The Symbolic Species." Both books show a truly independent and brilliant scientific mind grappling with "emergence" of key realities. In "Incomplete Nature" it's the emergence of life; in "Symbolic Species" it's human language.

Deacon has been accused of inventing neologisms which seem quirky and distract from his narrative. I have found his neologisms to be ver
Dec 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Paraphrasing Terry Bisson’s famous story -- we humans are the calculating machines made out of meat. How is it possible the meat can do the thinking, be self, be conscious? This should look very peculiar to the higher forms of intelligence made of steel, silicon and other serious materials. If machines could be or will be conscious self-beings, would it be moral to shut them down? This is one of the several intriguing questions raised by Deacon in his very comprehensive book on a very complex an ...more
Ogi Ogas
Jun 20, 2019 rated it liked it
My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.
PF Chang
Feb 18, 2021 rated it did not like it
I suffered through the first half of this book, and literally flipped through the rest only because of my quirk of not being able to give up on a book mid way.

Every chapter follows the same template of "in the previous chapters, blah blah blah...<>... In the next chapter we will find out why X is Y". After two thousand new terms have been coined, very little (if at all) was discussed or explored.
Matthew Crosswell
Jan 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
Hard going but worth the effort. Once you finally start to understand where he's going with the first approach a whole host of complex systems start to reveal their inner workings to you. Pair this with the reunification of homeostatic principles into fundamental biological system thinking and it all starts to make sense in wonderfully dynamical ways. ...more
Dec 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
The author spent too much time browsing instead trying to form comprehensible sentences. Where's the editor? ...more
Bart Jr.
Aug 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
One large problem we face today in our lives and in the sciences is that many of the really important things are considered abstract and unscientific: function, purpose, meaning, value, mind. There is a separation between reason and value.
In Incomplete Nature, Terrence Deacon attempts a new synthesis of these concepts of the absent to explain emergent processes.
His first and primary tool in doing so is an original formulation of the concept of constraint.
The problem, says Deacon, is that we cate
Ben McFarland
Aug 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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
Oct 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing
In my mind, this book has accomplished all it set out to do. Through it I have gained a shift in perspective that shifts foreground and background and shows how absence and constraint can build a living and sentient world without supernaturalism.My mind is reeling from how I see the process of emergence as outlined in this book meshes astoundingly with my amateur understanding of Kabbalah. I am especially struck by how it brings the realms of subjectivity and value back into the scientific schem ...more
Apr 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Ambitious, intriguing, but flawed

I'm struggling with how to describe this book.

It was definitely one of the most difficult reads I've ever completed. His writing is so incredibly abstract, obtuse, and repetitive, I sometimes left he was making it purposefully difficult to understand. As a rule, sentences are long and convoluted, making the argument difficult to follow. His goal, to explain multiple of the most difficult questions in science, is so vast that he inevitably falls short. Terms like
Dan Johnson
Dec 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Linguistics and consciousness are tightly tied together. This book points to recent developments in these fields that clarifies such. The application of the idea so studied in non-linear dynamics of emergent behavior in complex systems is applied to the mind. Deacon is exceptional in his understanding of many diverse fields and how they work together to create mind. I love his work and can't wait for the next book. ...more
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Brain Science Pod...: Terrance Deacon heard on BSP 1 5 Aug 01, 2014 12:32PM  
Brain Science Pod...: Terrence Deacon Interview 1 9 Jul 15, 2012 08:24AM  

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Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of The Symbolic Species, he lives near Berkeley, California.

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“This means that if we are able to make sense of absential relationships, it won’t merely illuminate certain everyday mysteries. If the example of zero is any hint, even just glimpsing the outlines of a systematic way to integrate these phenomena into the natural sciences could light the path to whole new fields of inquiry. And making scientific sense of these most personal of nature’s properties, without trashing them, has the potential to transform the way we personally see ourselves within the scheme of things. The” 1 likes
“Developing formal tools capable of integrating this missing cipher—absential influence—into the fabric of the natural sciences is an enterprise that should be at the center of scientific and philosophical debate.” 1 likes
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