2014/02/25 18:00 Terence Deacon, “Emergence: Why self-organization is not enough”, U. of Toronto

Abstract for Terence Deacon talk:

How can living and mental “selves” exhibit properties that are so unlike the properties of the inanimate, insentient material processes that constitute them? Can an account of how order spontaneously arises from chaotic beginnings in so-called “self-organizing” processes solve these mysteries?  this talk will demonstrate how self-organizing processes work, explain why they alone cannot solve these mysteries, but hen show how certain higher order relationships between self-organizing processes do create selves.

Wiegand Memorial Foundation Lecture Series, Vivian & David Campbell Conference Facility, Munk School of Global Affairs

Welcome by Jay Pratt, vp of dean and infrastructure

Weigand interest:  in larger questions, science and faith

This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship, by David Ing.

Professor Terence Deacon, anthropology, U. California Berkeley

Terence Deacon, speaking at U. of Toronto, Feb. 25, 2014


Neuroscientists, evolutionary anthropologist, but will talk little about brains today

Will take about self, as neither physical nor energetic

  • Spans science, philosophy and faith

Dilemma we’re stuck in:  are we homunculi (little guys in head with little guys in heads) or golems (machines with biological circuitry)

  • Hero or villian:  Descartes says separation between mental and physical

Will argue that dualistic argument is wrong

  • A first step

Pansyschicims myserianism, of how cells respond as they do, doesn’t answer questions on value or meaning

Elimininative materialism: there’s really nothing there

Contemporary science makes us humans aliens in this university

  • Scientience, ideas and purposes as fictions
  • Saying that we don’t exist, that meaning and value are mere social inventions
  • This is an invitation for nihilims
  • It’s machines all they way down, an empty view of the world, leads to secular governance

Our current science is part of the problem

Prigogine & Stengers:  We need an understanding of nature that has us as its products

  • Grand physics says we’re glued together atoms and molecules
  • Feelings, experience and agency as absurb

Daniel Dennett, favourite, but argue about a lot

  • Agree:  Now there are selves.  There was a time when there were none.  Thus, there is a true story to be told.
  • Story of lifeless matter become value, worrying beings
  • We want to explain it, not explain it away

Problem:  What’s the boundary of myself?

  • We’re filled with bacteria that we need
    • Huge number of micro-organisms:  are they part of myself, as me, my DNA and my bacteria?
  • Holistic problem of entangled web, every living thing depends on other living things, aren’t autonomous
    • Can’t leave the planet
    • Should I pay attention to linkages?

Will argue a denial of both of the above stories

Another story:  my self isn’t in my body, it is just in the body, it’s immaterial and immortal

  • Separation of spirits, souls, essential you
  • Find in spiritual practices

Properties of self

  • Autonomy, don’t have to breath every moment
  • Locus of agency, if I want to give a talk, I give a talk, I’m not a clockwork,
  • Substrate is indifferent and transferrable, in space and in time, the me here today isn’t the same physical thing as the one giving a talk 2 yeas ago
  • Separate from the world, self-other difference
  • Self doesn’t change with body, asynchronous
  • Body is physically open, things come in and out
  • Impredicate, really hard to define what I’m talking about, because self is self-referential and circular
  • Interiority:  consciousness, the feeling of subjective self, the quality of being, my interior perspective isn’t your interial
  • Mortal, non-conserved, may not be around forever


Plato’s eidos, what the world is made of, the ideal forms

  • Eternal, non-physical, unchanging
  • The circles we see aren’t the perfect forms, things approximate the ideal

Inherited into spirital or soul

  • Eternal
  • Non-physical
  • Unchanging
  • Character, has a structure, like a form
  • Temporarily embodied

When we try to construct self, some of the above features work

  • However, explaining self is difficult

Won’t spend much time explaining mental self, because it’s hard

  • Mental self is with animals with brains, millions of years of evolution

Try simpler:  organism self or vegetative self

  • I worry about my life
  • Protecting, reinterpreting
  • Organisms are all about self
  • Start with what is organism self, may get to what is subjective self

Simpler than any bacterium, but bacteria are complicated, they protect themselves, reproduce themselves

The problem with life:  the increase in entropy.

  • World tends to get messy, as there are more ways to be messy than ways to be ordered
  • Entropy:  second law of therodynamics
  • Laws of physics don’t prevent reversal of the second law of thermodynamics, entropy is a tendency
  • Just unlikely that things will go the other direction, which is the key to life

Playing billiards backwards

  • Could do this is actuators so that could go back

Emergent dynamics

  • 1. Homeodynamics (thermodynamics): spontaneously
  • 2. Morphodynamics:  no self in “self-organization”, even though that’s the language people use, falling into form, doesn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics
  • 3. Teleodynamics (life, evolution, semiosis), with an end:  dynamics that don’t just make order, but make a specific end, the logic of purposes
  • Organisms do this, they try to protect themselves, they seek out contexts in the world that support this
  • Can get this tendency

Three famous self-organizing morphodynamic processes, explained through Maximum Entropy Production

  • Rayliegh-Bernard convection: local, requires constantly putting heat into fluid
  • Vortex formation:  after chaos, stabilizes into order, like water moving downstream to regularize flow, constantly, down a drain
  • Snow crystal growth:  formed from random accumulation, under Brownian motion, regularized by having molecules constantly being added, giving off heat

Far from equilibrium, constantly disturbing

Constraints are internal to systems

  • Water constrained into circles, as other paths take more energy
  • Also offloads heat and entropy faster
  • Self-simplifying dynamics, makes more regular

Bernard convection cell formation

  • If don’t have oil available, use miso soup
  • Passive convection can peel off heat into air
  • If heat to really hot, conduction can’t give up heat as fast as you give it
  • Get roll cells moving, convects, more direct pathways out
  • They form hexagons, fluids moving
  • Hexagonal flagging is common, the most efficient way to pack regular solids

Problem:  as soon as turn off heat, organizations goes away

Snow crystals: they capture history of formation, tells story of temperature, pressure, humidity

  • A history of self-organization
  • After snow crystal freeze, what happens next?  They don’t protect selves

The self-organization paradox

  • Organism’s ability to persist and reproduce depends on its ability to counter the tendency to break down
  • Depends on self-organizing processes
  • But process most efficiently destroys the gradients that produce them
  • They are intrisically self-undermining, so they’re not a good explanation for organisms

So, self-organization is not enough

  • Organisms must find a way to use self-organization against itself, as a way to generate order

Hint from Kant:  1790 Critique of Teleological Judgement

  • Do living things have intrinsic purpose?
  • Says no, but they look like they do
  • A machine has solely motive power, whereas an organized being has inherent formative power
  • It can impart material devoid of formative power, material which it organizes

Biology can’t rely on just self-organization, though

Autopoesis:  means self-fabrication, organizations make self

  • Francisco Varela, with Humberto Maturana
  • An autopoetic system — the minimal living organization — is one that continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in space and time
  • Parts making parts making each other (similar to autocatalysis)
  • Result:  fails to distinguish organization from chemical autocatalysis
  • But based in process that is self-undermining

Reciprocal catalysis

  • Molecule breaks apart, release some energy with that
  • An autocatalytic set:  release of energy that produces a product

Self-assembly in viruses and cells:

  • A lot of structure is the result of things falling together spontaneously
  • By shape
  • Just build a lot of parts, and they all fall together
  • Phospholipids have head that love water and tails that hate water, thus forming sheets
  • e.g. microtubules tend to fall together

When comparing reciprocal catalysis with self-assembly, they’re complementary

  • Each produces the others’ boundary constraints

Worked with some thought experiments:  how to put molecules together so that reciprocal catalysis works together with self-assembly

  • Autogenesis
  • Coupled together, produces something that will protect itself
  • If break apart again, they will restart processes that will destroy self

It’s not so easy to do in labs

Reciprocity is how to get to self:  a work cycle

  • Once produce a lot of components, it will allow self-assembly
  • Once a lot of self assembly, then will have closure steps

Each creates boundary conditions that makes the other more likely to occur:  self-healing

  • Held together by a constraint:  a synergy constraint on types of self-organization
  • Will reproduce selves, and a extrinsic constraing

The synergy constraint is the locus of self

  • Not a physical or chemical constraint
  • Its a constraint

Call this dynamical process Teleodynamics

  • Produces:
  • Self / other
  • Normativity

Self is emergent, not eternal

  • Autonomous
  • Individuated
  • Teleological
  • Subjective
  • Asynchronous
  • Efficacious
  • Transient

Constitutive absences

  • Parts all work together
  • When have minimally sentient
  • From Tao #11, a variant:  30 spokes converge at a wheel’s hub
  • The kind of constraint, the kind of absence is what we are
  • We are here in the world, as a constraint

A plug for the book:  incomplete nature

  • The self is something else
  • It’s not extended in the self, in the mechanism

Even though self is not composed of stuff that makes us up, it can have physical effects in the world


Was reading about how children play games, moving self into counterfactuals.  Not physical selves moving in.

  • When trying to learn things, we repeat to selves, and get better at them
  • Mental practice of physical skills, get better at that
  • It’s just information, not the physical moving of body
  • Brain could be active as if really doing the skill

Difference between information and organization?

  • A big question
  • Currently researching how to redefine information
  • Need to have constraints that can be passed from substrate to substrate, while maintaining itself
  • 1940s Shannon and Weaver as pattern, like bits on computer, but this isn’t information, it’s the media that carries information
  • If no one to look at computer screen, the data would be about nothing
  • Organization as constraint on variety
  • Have to have teleodynamics, self, that attaches to something else in the world that needs to know, that can look through the pattern
  • When reading book, it’s not in the ink, it’s about something, where is the aboutness, it’s virtual and absence with what is present
  • Need a process that has self


  • Believe that every biological system has a semiotic aspect to it
  • Most of interest was initiative by interest in Peirce, semiotic
  • Develop an information theory, from the physics up instead of from phenomenology down
  • How a molecular can be, an aboutness, that is semiotic
  • Want to give first steps
  • An attempt to build a different semiotics, how to value information
  • Function is an end, teleological
  • Science needs a semiotic theory
  • Semiotics has been trapped in the machine part of the Cartesian separation

Energy gradient?

  • Self-organizing process are extrinsically-driven
  • In life, some constraints are intrinsically-driven
  • Not just chemical or physical
  • We are self-organizing, just not only self-organizing

Constraints intrinsic in the universe?  Do we live in a chaotic universe that makes life inevitable?

  • Yes, life inevitable
  • But we need a broader view of life
  • Should show up
  • Life, but maybe more general
  • Life-like things that work, call morphoto, using morphology
  • Had to start simple, and had to capture synergies and constraints to produce self
  • Violates local thermodynamics

Evolving self.  Considering a point that self falls to, emancipated self, or self with no problem? Self throughout the world?  Point where it becomes not evolving, just being

  • Life is far from equilibrium
  • Red Queen problem, need to keep running faster just to keep up
  • Evolution is inevitable
  • Is evolution teleological?  Don’t think so, think evolution is spontaneous, and complex
  • Living processes can’t get much simpler, but no end to how complex they can become
  • Can try all directions, spontaneous
  • Self is emancipated from the stuff, we’re not floating in space, unlikely to offload ourselves onto devices, but we could be looking for higher order selves
  • Looking at communicating processes, fads, propaganda — they may destabilize, but could also stabiliize
  • As a member of an ecosystem, could turn things around
  • Morphodynamic:  uses more and more resources, structure comes out us, but we have limited resources (e.g. fossil fuels as used up)
  • Hope:  the process of the origins of life, and self-organization hope that those that conserve self-reproduce faster

#emergence, #self-organization, #terence-deacon