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  • Is Terrence Deacon's Metaphysics of Incompleteness Still Incomplete?

I. Introduction

Terrence Deacon, author of Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, proposes that constraint understood as constitutive absence is a necessary factor in the emergence of life from nonlife, mind from matter. By "constraint" he means "the property of being restricted or being less variable than possible."1 By "absence" he means that constraint is a negative property qualifying a collection or ensemble of constituent parts or members: "It is a way of referring to what is not exhibited, but could have been, at least under some circumstances" (193). By "constitutive absence" he means what is the case "irrespective of whether this is registered by any act of observation" (192). So constraint thus understood is metaphysically grounded in something constitutive of the way nature works. This kind of constraint is not externally imposed by some outside agency but internally by reason of "the dynamical organization of a somewhat diverse class of phenomena which share in common the tendency to become spontaneously more organized and orderly over time due to constant perturbation" (237). Deacon cautions that these processes of internal organization have been called "self-organizing," but that in fact there is no self to do the organizing of their inanimate components (e.g., molecules) (237-38). Instead, what is thought to be self-organizing is in fact due to persistent coincidences in nature's mode of operation ("micro-configurational particularities") that become over time habitual patterns ("macro-configurational regularities"). These habitual patterns together constitute the corporate reality of a physical system with internally generated constraints on its normal mode of operation. "This centrality of form-begetting form is what justifies calling these processes morphodynamic" (261).

I applaud Deacon for his willingness to move beyond scientific description to account for the way in which higher-order systems emerge out of the dynamic interplay of lower-order systems within physical reality. His resulting metaphysics [End Page 138] of evolution is clearly different from the substance-accident metaphysics of Aristotle in which the substantial form of an individual entity governs from the top-down the material constituents of that same entity. For, as Deacon makes clear in Incomplete Nature, "being alive does not merely consist in being composed in a particular way. It consists in changing in a particular way" (175). An Aristotelian substantial form is basically fixed in its mode of operation. It is thus ill suited to be the governing principle in an evolving life-system in which the mode of operation of the system keeps evolving in the direction of greater order and complexity. But is it enough to claim that the "constitutive absence" of a substantial form to govern its mode of operation suffices to explain from a philosophical perspective how the life-system continues to evolve in an orderly manner? Deacon's appeal to the notion of mutual constraint as the way that the components of a given system dynamically interrelate is simply a description of what happens, not of why it happens.

The deeper philosophical explanation of ongoing change within a life-system would seem to lie in the capacity or potentiality of the components of the system to interact with one another in an orderly rather than a chaotic and disorganized manner. But the capacity for that kind of change is not present in inanimate constituents—only in components that are alive and thus capable of significantly altering their relationship to one another. As we shall see below, Deacon avoids this implication because in his mind it ends up in an affirmation of pan-psychism ("mind all the way down"). But can he then consistently explain how life is unexpectedly emergent from nonlife and how human self-consciousness can be emergent from animal sentience? Can the self-organizing character of a morphodynamic system, for example, be accounted for simply by reference to "coincidences" and "habitual patterns" in the objective workings of nature?

In this article, I first set forth in some detail Deacon's argument in Incomplete Nature that increasing levels of objective constraint in hierarchically ordered systems of inanimate constituents suffice to account for the emergence of life from nonlife and consciousness from sentient life. Then I offer an alternative explanation for the emergence of life from nonlife and human self-consciousness from animal sentience that is based on the notion of universal intersubjectivity, namely, that "the final real things of which the world is made up" are momentary self-constituting subjects of experience. In and through their dynamic interrelation at every moment, these self-constituting subjects of experience coconstitute hierarchically ordered systems that continue to evolve in complexity and self-awareness. As such, this proposal is closely related to the philosophical cosmology set forth by Alfred North Whitehead in his book Process and Reality. But it uses Deacon's insight into the notion of "reciprocal [End Page 139] constraint" between components of a given system, and between rival systems, that is insufficiently emphasized in Whitehead's scheme. Hence, what I present in this article is a modest but important modification of Whiteheadian metaphysics in the direction of contemporary systems theory.2

II. Deacon's Argument for Constitutive Absence in Incomplete Nature

Deacon begins by noting how the cosmic process tends to evolve in opposite directions: toward entropy or dissipation of energy as a consequence of a gradual breakdown in structure and organization between entities, and negentropy or increased energy due to a gradual development of more complex structure and organization between those same entities (206-14). The first tendency is most notable in what Deacon calls "homeodynamic" systems that exist with a minimum level of structure and organization in virtue of the principle of entropy. The second tendency is found in the above-named "morphodynamic" systems that exist at a higher and ever growing level of existence and activity within the cosmic process in virtue of the interaction of two or more homeodynamic systems. That is, when two homeodynamic systems interact, they tend to interfere with one another's "orthograde" mode of operation, and through their "contragrade" interaction with one another, spontaneously generate a morphodynamic system with a more complex structure or mode of operation. The constraints proper to the new morphodynamic system in turn constrict the governing form or mode of operation of the original homeodynamic systems insofar as they serve as subsystems within the morphodynamic system. Furthermore, when two morphodynamic systems with different modes of operation interact, then a still more complex morphodynamic system emerges that incorporates these lower-level morphodynamic systems into itself as its subsystems (235-43). Yet in this gradual growth in complexity and constrained mode of operation for morphodynamic systems, nothing like a self or immaterial principle of organization is involved. Everything takes place in virtue of a clash in the customary mode of operation of rival inanimate morphodynamic systems. "Such processes are thoroughly non-mysterious and mechanistic" (173).

Only in the emergence of teleodynamic processes does a self-organizing principle enter into the analysis of physical systems according to Deacon. He defines a teleodynamic process as "a dynamical form of organization that promotes its own persistence and maintenance by modifying this dynamics to [End Page 140] more effectively utilize extrinsic conditions" (270). He then adds that this principle of self-organization is "not identifiable with any particular constituents, or even any constituent morphodynamic process" (270). At the same time, it is not imposed upon its material constituents from an outside source (e.g., a Creator God) like the substantial form in Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. It is dependent for its spontaneous emergence upon antecedently existing morphodynamic processes. But, once emergent and in operation, a teleodynamic process is independently self-sustaining and self-reproducing by reason of what he calls autocatalysis and autogenesis. Autocatalysis is a special case of catalytic chemical reactions among a set of molecules in which certain molecules with higher energy-potential each augment the production of another member of the set, so that ultimately all members of the set are reproduced (293). Moreover, when this catalytic process is sufficiently "constrained" within a cell with a protective membrane, autocatalysis converts into autogenesis, a process of "self-repair, self-reconstitution, and even self-replication" of the cell (306). Together, autocatalysis and autogenesis are the infallible signs of life and spontaneous self-organization within nature. Yet, while a teleodynamic process is itself alive, its components are inanimate entities. On the one hand, Deacon thereby parts company with physical reductionists who claim that all systems are simply the sum of the mechanical workings of their component parts. For Deacon, a teleodynamic system is a genuinely emergent higher-order reality that is better organized than its component parts. But, on the other hand, a teleological system is not governed by an immaterial principle of self-organization or soul ("homunculus") (46-79).

In subsequent chapters of Incomplete Nature, Deacon shows how his theory of emergent dynamics does not conflict with established principles of physics. For example, in the chapter on "work," he notes that "two thermodynamic systems which are either at different equilibria or are both undergoing spontaneous change at different rates … will do work on one another if they become coupled" (337). Work, in other words, is involved in the emergence of a complex morphodynamic system out of the interaction of two "contragrade" thermodynamic systems on one another. In similar fashion, work is involved in the emergence of a new "orthograde" teleodynamic process out of the mutual interaction of two or more "contragrade" morphodynamic systems with one another. Furthermore, "new teleodynamic systems and relationships are generated from the interaction of prior teleodynamic systems with respect to their shared environmental contexts" (362). Thus "evolution is a kind of teleodynamic engine, powered by taking advantage of spontaneous thermodynamic, morphodynamic, and teleodynamic processes … which generate new teleodynamic processes and relationships" (364). In place of a self within such [End Page 141] Self-organizing processes, there is instead for Deacon a teleodynamic "engine" or impersonal process at work. It is not who works but what works that counts.

Deacon's analysis of the term information is also quite revealing. He first notes that information is not a quantitative reality or "thing" that can be generated, stored, and passed on to others, but instead a relational reality, specifically a relation to something missing or absent that, once learned, alters one's thinking and behavior (377). This involves, however, teleodynamic work since one has to limit or "constrain" the range of possible explanations for what the absence means (378-81). Here too the emphasis is on information transmitted or received rather than on someone transmitting or receiving the information. Furthermore, since information is not always significant, work is involved in the sometimes laborious task of fact checking (404). Even here the focus seems to be more on the objective analysis of what constitutes good fact checking than on the person of the fact checker in that decision (414-19).

"Evolution is not imposed design, but progressive constraint" (426). Imposed design implies a designer extrinsic to the process of evolution. Progressive constraint, however, arises from within the evolutionary process. But is it possible that evolution in terms of progressive constraint is the result not only of increasingly constrained physical processes but also of (conscious or unconscious) subjective "decisions" to accept or reject those constraints by the constituents of the process in question? Deacon himself points to what he calls "autogenic interpretation," in which the molecules within a cell "respond selectively" to external environmental conditions (442). He makes reference here to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls habit taking within nature but does not note that Peirce conceived habit taking in terms of his antecedent belief in the simultaneous coexisting of mind and matter everywhere in the physical world.3 It is enough for Deacon to show that a teleodynamic process can exist at the level of molecular interaction, that is, "be about" something (or be "end-directed") without any reference to a "self" in the traditional sense (454). In virtue of its internal constraints, a "not quite living" teleodynamic process suffices to explain the emergence of life (456-57).

Finally, Deacon analyzes the notions of "self," "sentience," and "consciousness" as the necessary stages in the emergence of mind from matter. Being a self is not a fixed reality: "Selves evolve, selves develop, selves differentiate, and selves change" simply as complex teleodynamic systems (464). "Subjectivity is almost certainly a specially developed mode of self that is probably limited to creatures with complex brains" (466). Selfhood as such deals only with the [End Page 142] notion of individuation. An organism is individuated because there is a reciprocal causal relation between the whole and its constituent parts. This is true of all teleodynamic systems from single-cell zygotes to the workings of the human brain. Within human beings, for example, self-consciousness "is thus both a higher form of self, and at the same time subordinate to the organism self" (469). That is, self-consciousness exists to serve the needs of the human being as an organic whole (476-78). For, each of the multiple self-organizing processes within a human being is itself an agent that reconciles contragrade tendencies among its own parts or members (479). Effective agency, then, is distributed among all the systems proper to the human body and is thus not limited to the exercise of free will or conscious choice within self-consciousness (480).

With respect to "sentience," Deacon argues that "we lack a naturalistic account of sentience because of … failure to understand how the teleodynamics of sentience emerges from morphodynamic and thermodynamic/homeodynamic processes of nervous system function" (494). Sentience is thus emergent from the workings of the nervous system but not reducible to it. Unlike brainless organisms, "brain-based sentience is the culmination of vastly many stages in the evolution of sentience built upon sentience" (505). What is missing here is any reference to subjectivity as an additional factor in the origin and ongoing mode of operation of sentience in higher-order animal species.

Finally, Deacon analyzes consciousness and in human beings self-consciousness. Deacon begins with the claim that consciousness is a higher-order form of sentience that is "discontinuous" with lower-order forms of sentience found in brainless organisms and free-living cells. At the same time, all these lower-order forms of sentience are at work in the higher-order sentience of (human) consciousness (508-9). Neurons, for example, are sentient agents but not conscious agents. But they are still necessary to sustain the higher-order teleodynamic system proper to consciousness. Emotion, the "what it feels like" of subjective experience, is not limited to strong personal feelings like fear, hate, and love but "is present in every experience … because it is the expression of the necessary dynamic infrastructure of all mental activity," namely, lower-level thermodynamic and morphodynamic processes within the teleodynamic process proper to mental activity (512). Expenditure of energy or work at unconscious lower levels of brain activity is thus required for the acquisition of information and fashioning an appropriate response to it in the teleodynamic process proper to self-consciousness. Furthermore, this higher-order teleodynamic process generates its own self-other context. "This emergent dynamic homunculus [inner self] is constituted by a central, teleodynamically organized, global pattern of network activity [in the brain]" (528). What results within self-consciousness is [End Page 143] a strong sense of being present to oneself accompanied by a feeling of either well-being or of pain and suffering in terms of what one perceives and how one responds to it.

Deacon brings his book to a close with two broad generalizations. First, "the complex and convoluted dynamical processes that are the defining features of self, at any given level, are not embodied in molecules or neurons, or even neural signals, but in the teleodynamics of processes generated in the vast networks of brains" (535). Secondly, "subjectivity is not located in what is there, but emerges quite precisely from what is not there," namely, instead of an Aristotelian substantial form, "the constraints emerging from teleodynamic processes, irrespective of their physical embodiment" (535). Thus, as noted above, Deacon is not a materialist who believes that the human mind is reducible to complex neural activity in the brain. But he also believes that human subjectivity is not based on the presupposition of a soul or immaterial principle of self-organization at work within a human being. Rather, subjectivity is emergent out of the inevitable constraints imposed by the dynamic interplay of thermodynamic, morphodynamic, and teledynamic processes within the brain and body. "You are in this quite literal sense something coming out of nothing, and thus newly embodied at each instant" (535). In this way, meaning and value in human life are not based on arbitrary subjective judgments of individuals but are scientifically grounded in objective processes unconsciously at work in the human mind and body (544).

III. My Critique of Deacon's Notion of Constitutive Absence

In this second part of the article, I set forth my counterargument that the term constitutive absence should not be identified with the absence of an Aristotelian substantial form in favor of objective constraints in the evolution from thermodynamic to morphodynamic and finally to teleodynamic processes within physical reality. Rather, constitutive absence should be linked to the invisible workings of subjectivity within each of the components of these processes as their ontological ground or vital source.

Deacon, as noted above, claims that the human self is a natural byproduct of the normal workings of the thermodynamic, morphodynamic, and teleodynamic processes proper to the human body: "You are in this quite literal sense something coming out of nothing, and thus newly embodied at each instant" (535). But is the term nothing here something no longer needed (i.e., an Aristotelian substantial form as governing principle of self-organization) or something hidden from view but still indispensable as a component of the evolutionary process (i.e., subjectivity as vital source for what here and now [End Page 144] exists). If one is thinking simply in terms of what objectively here and now exists, nothing clearly means nothing at all. But, if one is thinking in terms of subjectivity as the latent capacity for an entity either to come into existence or to change its current mode of operation, nothing means what is not yet existent but capable of existing "newly embodied at each instant."

Perhaps because of his life-long interest in science with its high standards for objectivity in the analysis of empirical data, Deacon evidently interprets constitutive absence as something missing or left behind. Yet as a process-oriented thinker, he should have considered more carefully the other option, namely, constitutive absence as subjectivity, that is, the ever-present potentiality for change and further development within physical reality. Here I have in mind not the abstract statistical possibility for something to happen but subjectivity as the ontological ground or vital source for the existence of an entity as an objective reality. In my judgment, Martin Heidegger had basically the same notion of potentiality (rather than actuality) in mind with his claim that Being is not to be identified with God as the Supreme Being but with the ontological ground or vital source for the existence and activity of individual beings in this world.4

A related problematic issue in Deacon's scheme for the emergence of life from nonlife, mind from matter, is his understanding of agency, or that which makes things happen. That is, he seems to attribute agency directly to the workings of objective thermodynamic, morphodynamic, and teleodynamic processes in their ongoing dynamic interrelationship. But is agency for change located in the system itself as an objective reality or instead in the dynamic interplay of the constituent parts or members of the system at every moment that sustains the system? I would argue that a human being, for example, has a determinate self or personality from moment to moment but is still involved in an ongoing process of personal development. With respect to the future, therefore, agency for change within a human being is located in the dynamic interplay between the atomic, molecular, and cellular constituents of the processes making up an individual's mind and body. These constituent parts or members "constrain" one another's "orthograde" mode of operation so as to produce the higher-order process of the person as an organic unity. Hence, when Deacon (in critique of Alfred North Whitehead's notion of actual entities and the societies into which they aggregate) claims to find no evidence for the workings of subjectivity in the [End Page 145] objective processes constitutive of clouds and rivers (78-79), he may be looking for subjectivity in the wrong place. Subjectivity is presumably at work in the dynamic interrelationship of atomic and molecular components that together produce the ongoing objective reality of the cloud or river. Thus, while clouds or rivers are not themselves alive, their components are very much alive in and through their ever-changing dynamic relationship to one another and to the external environment.

Whitehead, in my judgment, is much clearer than Deacon on what is alive and what is not alive in the workings of nature. For example, within his metaphysical scheme there are inanimate entities, that is, societies of actual entities that lack an internal life-principle or soul even though they are different from one another in terms of material components and intrinsic mode of operation (e.g., a table rather than a lamp). They each possess a "common element of form" or governing structure from moment to moment that passively constrains the ongoing interplay of their constituent actual entities.5 As such, these nonliving Whiteheadian societies correspond to thermodynamic and nonliving morphodynamic processes in Deacon's scheme. At the same time, there are higher-order living things, that is, societies of actual entities with a regnant subsociety or life-principle for the entity as a whole. These higher-order societies of actual entities for Whitehead correspond to teleodynamic processes for Deacon. Where Whitehead and Deacon differ in their respective evolutionary schemes is in their different understandings of the nature or basic composition of the constituents for the societies/processes that they coconstitute by their dynamic interrelation.

For Whitehead these constituents are alive, miniorganisms. For Deacon, the constituents of thermodynamic and morphodynamic processes are nonliving atoms and molecules. For Whitehead, accordingly, there is no transit from nonlife to life in the evolutionary growth in complexity and self-awareness of societies of actual entities since the society is itself the byproduct or objective result from moment to moment of the interrelated activity of increasingly complex subjects of experience.6 For Deacon, however, there is necessarily a transit or ontological leap from nonlife to life in the move from thermodynamic and morphodynamic processes to teleodynamic processes. As noted above, Deacon appeals first to autocatalysis of cell components and then to autogenesis within cells to explain the emergence of life from nonlife in natural processes. But this would seem to be a scientific description of what de facto happens within nature under certain conditions. It is not a philosophical explanation of why it happens. [End Page 146]

Deacon wants to avoid at all costs pan-psychism. But, even if one rightly wants to deny self-awareness to atoms and molecules as the components of physical processes, does one likewise have to exclude some primitive form of spontaneity or feeling-level responsiveness to one another in their dynamic interrelations from moment to moment? Jesper Hoffmeyer, a leading figure in the new field of biosemiosis, proposes an understanding of the emergence of higher-order systems out of the ongoing interplay of lower-order systems in terms of what he calls semiotic emergence: "Semiotic emergence designates the establishment of macroentities or higher-level patterns through a situated exchange of signs between subcomponents."7 For example, molecules at a certain level of dynamic interaction actively "interpret" the signs of one another's different modes of operation and then adjust their relationship to one another so as to allow for the spontaneous emergence of a still higher-order system. Admittedly, Hoffmeyer does not allow for such "semiotic emergence" at the level of atomic interaction. He endorses, however, the idea of "protosemiosic activity" in early stages of the earth's evolution: namely, "a gradual formation of ordered configurations of processes and thereby … a growing deviation from equiprobability or, in other words, growing predictability."8 At the same time, of course, Hoffmeyer has no explanation for the emergence of life as a consequence of biosemiotic activity that only begins at the molecular level of existence and activity within nature.

Curiously, both Deacon and Hoffmeyer appeal to the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce in support of their own positions. Deacon, as noted above, appeals to Peirce's notion of habit taking to explain how constraint works in the evolution of thermodynamic, morphodynamic, and teleodynamics processes within the physical order. But he dismisses Peirce's further contention that "what we call matter is not completely dead, but is merely mind hidebound with habits."9 So what Deacon regards as metaphor is for Peirce "The Law of Mind" that is all-pervasive within nature.10 Similarly, Hoffmeyer relies on Peirce's theory of the mutual interpretation of signs between neighboring individual entities for his own explanation of biosemiotics, but he too stops short of affirming that this interpretation of signs can be found even at the atomic level of existence and activity within nature. Both Deacon and Hoffmeyer are well [End Page 147] aware of Whitehead's presupposition that "the final real things of which the world is made up" are actual entities, momentary self-constituting subjects of experience that are grouped together into enduring societies with a "common element of form" or governing structure.11 But they do not accept Whitehead's proposal as a plausible philosophical explanation of their own more empirically oriented theories for the emergence of life from nonlife, mind from matter. In the belief that this is a mistake on their part, I offer in the final pages of this article a brief sketch of how Whitehead in Process and Reality expands upon and, in my judgment, better explains the evolutionary emergence of life from nonlife, mind and self-consciousness from merely sentient life.

In "The Order of Nature" in Process and Reality, Whitehead defines a "society" or what I would call a system as follows: "Thus a set of entities (i) is a society in virtue of a 'defining characteristic' shared by its members, and (ii) in virtue of the presence of the defining characteristic being due to the environment provided by the society itself."12 By implication then there is a "reciprocal constraint" of the members of the society on their governing structure or "defining characteristic" as a society and vice-versa. Whitehead explains the matter as follows: "The causal laws which dominate a social environment are the product of the defining characteristic of that society. But the society is only efficient through its individual members. Thus in a society, the members can only exist by reason of the laws which dominate the society, and the laws come into being by reason of the analogous characters of the members of the society."13 Thus, what Deacon calls constitutive absence is not simply the absence of an Aristotelian substantial form to govern the constituents of a given individual entity or substance (175-81). Rather, as Whitehead indicates, constitutive absence is identifiable as the latent subjectivity of the actual entities, their potentiality for causal agency whereby they coproduce from moment to moment a new defining characteristic of the society. In turn, that newly constituted defining characteristic or governing structure of the society objectively imposes its "constraint" or structural boundaries on the self-constitution of the next set of self-constituting members of that society. Moreover, these self-constituting subjects of experience are necessarily engaged in interpretation, an intersubjective exchange of signs with one another that Hoffmeyer limits to molecules under specified conditions.14 So, for Whitehead, what Hoffmeyer calls "interpretation" goes on at all levels of existence and activity within nature. [End Page 148]

Later in the same chapter, Whitehead introduces the notion of structured societies, societies that are made up of subsocieties of actual entities together with less organized "nexuses" of actual entities.15 The less organized nexuses of actual entities in terms of order and complexity correspond to thermodynamic systems for Deacon. The more organized subsocieties in terms of order and complexity correspond to morphodynamic systems for Deacon. Finally, in some cases a structured society can have a "regnant" nexus of actual entities that, in virtue of its presiding over and thereby monitoring the activity of the actual entities in the other subsocieties and nexuses of actual entities within the body and brain of the organism, corresponds to a teleodynamic system for Deacon. Thus what Whitehead proposes with the notion of structured societies is an alternate explanation for the progressive emergence of higher-order levels of existence and activity within nature that is very much akin to Deacon's explanation of the emergence of higher-order systems out of lower-order systems as sketched above. Constraint is at work in the dynamic interplay of these subsocieties and nexuses with one another in Whitehead's scheme, just as constraint is involved in dynamic interplay of higher-order and lower-order systems in Deacon's scheme.

The only real difference between the two explanations for the progressive emergence of greater order and complexity within nature is that for Whitehead there is no emergence of life from nonlife among the subsocieties and nexuses of constituent actual entities, but only a progressive growth in spontaneous activity and/or self-organization of their constituent actual entities. In this sense, every actual entity is alive even though, at the atomic and molecular level of existence and activity, it exhibits no empirically detectable signs of life in its self-organization. The actual entity simply repeats the "common element of form" or defining mode of operation of its predecessors in the society from one moment to the next. Hence, Whitehead does not have to explain the unexpected emergence of life from nonlife. Nature is everywhere alive in terms of its ultimate constituents.

With reference to the emergence of sentient life and consciousness, Deacon, as already noted, claims that consciousness is a higher-order form of sentience that is "discontinuous" with lower-order forms of sentience found in brainless organisms and free-living cells. At the same time, all these lower-order forms of sentience are at work in the higher-order sentience of (human) consciousness (508). Whitehead's explanation of human conscious life and self-consciousness is basically the same as Deacon's but framed within the context of his understanding of the role of the regnant nexus of actual entities within a structured [End Page 149] Society with multiple subsocieties and nexuses of actual entities. That is, White-head also claims that human self-consciousness is distinct from lower-level societies of actual entities operative within the brain but is constrained in its mode of operation from moment to moment by what these lower-level societies deliver by way of information about the condition of the body at that moment. For the Self or "presiding personality" within the brain at any given moment must use the information available to it to make a conscious (or more often semiconscious) decision about what to think, say, or do at the moment with an eye to the foreseeable future. At the same time, the Self as the "regnant nexus" of actual entities exercises constraint on the workings of the brain and all the other physical processes within the human being as a psychophysical reality.

Both Whitehead and Deacon, therefore, reject the notion of the Aristotelian substantial form exercising top-down efficient causality upon the material components of the human body as in Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics.16 For both of them, efficient causality is exercised bottom-up in terms of multiple lower-order systems providing information to a single higher-order system that in virtue of its own mode of operation inevitably puts constraints on the way that information will be used to guide the organism in dealing with its external environment. The only real difference between Deacon and White-head in their respective explanations of the emergence of life from nonlife, and of self-consciousness within merely sentient life, is to be found in their assertions about the nature of the ultimate constituents of physical reality. For Deacon, these basic components are unchanging inanimate minithings; for Whitehead they are momentary self-constituting subjects of experience with an empirically verifiable pattern or mode of operation in their ongoing temporal succession. In the end, of course, it all depends on whether one is committed to a basically mechanistic or an organismic approach to cosmic evolution.

As already noted, Deacon does not subscribe to a fully mechanistic approach to evolution, given his efforts in Incomplete Nature to explain the spontaneous emergence of life from nonlife, consciousness from merely sentient life. But he does not provide any further explanation for how dynamic principles of self-organization (i.e., autocatalysis and autogenesis) originated within teleodynamic processes that are themselves the normal byproduct of inanimate thermodynamic and morphodynamic processes. As a result, he still seems to retain a basic commitment to mechanism for the workings of the evolutionary [End Page 150] process. Deacon makes favorable reference to Peirce's notion of "habit-taking" as explanation for the growth and complexity of the cosmic process. But he overlooks or ignores Peirce's further explanation of habit taking in terms of what Peirce calls "agapism" or "creative love" as the underlying principle of growth in the cosmic process.17

For a Whiteheadian, however, agapism or creative love as principle of growth in the cosmic process makes good sense. For, if "the final real things of which the world is made up" are actual entities or momentary self-constituting subjects of experience, then the transfer of energy and information from a previous actual entity to a presently self-constituting actual entity and then the transmission of that same energy and information in a somewhat modified form to a subsequent actual entity for its self-constitution can be readily interpreted as an expression of agapism or creative love.18

To sum up my argument, constitutive absence, as Deacon proposes, can certainly be said to refer to options no longer available for use within the workings of the cosmic process. But constitutive absence makes even more sense, in my judgment, if it refers to subjectivity as the hidden potentiality for change within a given entity, its ability to adopt new and still untried options for the future. Inanimate entities, after all, have no capacity for growth; they only reflect what is already a reality. Animate entities, however, with their resident subjectivity or inbuilt potentiality for change are forward looking by nature. They anticipate what could happen and strive to make it happen. In this way they are consciously or unconsciously motivated by agapism or creative love. [End Page 151]

Joseph Bracken
Xavier University


1. Terrence W. Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: W. W, Norton, 2012), 193. Subsequent citations to Deacon's Incomplete Nature will appear parenthetically in the text by page number.

2. See also my earlier article, Joseph Bracken, "Panentheism and the Classical God-World Relationship: A Systems-Oriented Approach," American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 36, no. 3 (2015), 207-25.

3. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), 6.277.

4. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 33. Heidegger, to be sure, does not specifically identify Being with subjectivity, but he does claim that Being manifests itself especially in Dasein, the human being as a subject of existence with the potentiality "to be itself or not itself" (33).

5. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected edition, ed. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), 34–35.

6. Ibid., 177–78.

7. Jesper Hoffmeyer, "God and the World of Signs: Semiotics and the Emergence of Life," Zygon 45, no. 2 (2010): 379.

8. Hoffmeyer, "Semiotics of Nature," Routledge Companion to Semiotics, ed. Paul Cobley (New York: Routledge, 2010), 35.

9. Pierce, Collected Papers, 6.158.

10. Ibid., 6.102–63.

11. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 18, 34–35.

12. Ibid., 89.

13. Ibid., 90–91.

14. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 177–78.

15. Ibid., 99.

16. Deacon, Incomplete Nature, 175: "Being alive does not merely consist in being composed in a particular way. It consists in changing in a particular way." See also Whitehead, Process and Reality, 108–9. Volume 38, Nos. 2–3, May-September 2017

17. Pierce, Collected Papers, 6.302.

18. Whiteheadians might well object that for Whitehead the achievement of beauty, the perfect harmony of all factors in human experience of reality, rather than agapism or creative love, is the supreme aim of the cosmic process (see Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas [New York: Free Press, 1967], 252–72). But perfect self-giving to another in creative love would constitute a harmony on the intersubjective level of existence and activity within the cosmic process that is missing in Whitehead's focus on the achievement of harmony in the self-constitution of individual entities. For ways in which the cosmologies of Peirce and Whitehead in this way nicely complement one another, see Joseph A. Bracken, SJ, "Whiteheadian Societies and Peirce's Law of Mind: Actuality and Potentiality in the Cosmic Process," Theology and Science 12, no. 4 (2014), 396–412; also Bracken, "Feeling Our Way Forward: Continuity and Discontinuity within the Cosmic Process," Theology and Science 8, no. 3 (2010), 319–31.

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