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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Brain Science Podcast Avoids a Big Controversy

Posted by on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 8:35 AM

Let's go back to this post:

Brain Science Podcast's Ginger Campbell has posted a fascinating interview with Terrence Deacon, a biological anthropologist who teaches at Berkeley and was once a resident of West Seattle. The interview concerns the ideas presented in his new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. The core idea in this book is that we (or the biological sciences) need to face the fact that emergence explains little about the dynamics of life and consciousness. A whirlpool, for example, emerges when water is disturbed in a specific way.

Later, I posted this:

Here is [one of] Deacon's [main] points and [new ideas in his book Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter]. The nature of the contraint or contraints of a [thing determines if it is biological or merely morphological]. For example, a whirlpool's constraint (this being, of course, what is the whirlpool) functions to maximize the undoing of the whirlpool. Meaning, the contraint is there because water doesn't want to be a whirlpool. Water wants to get rid of the disturbance, the imbalance, the disequilibrium. Now life has constraints, but their function is completely opposite to the function of a whirlpool's constraint. Life's constraints are there to maintain life, to keep it going, to keep things together, and to generate more constraints. To lose your constraints is the meaning of death. So, life at its core is more than an emergence, more than mere morphodynamics—it's a much deeper dynamic, a dynamic the retains, remembers, generates, and transmits contraints.

Then came this shocker, posted by Tom Bartlett, "Stolen Ideas? Or Great Minds Thinking Alike?":

One would never think from reading Incomplete Nature that the author’s main contentions have already been systematically developed by others, and that there is in fact hardly an original idea in the book. Two works, in particular, stand out in the prior literature: Dynamics in Action by Alicia Juarrero and Mind in Life by Evan Thompson. Neither book is cited by Deacon, although they cover much the same ground as his—far more lucidly and insightfully.

if you are wondering, to Terrence Deacon's new book Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. (By the way, a controversy is steadily consuming this work. It appears that Deacon took, without credit, many of his ideas directly from another book, Dynamics in Action, which was written a decade or so ago by a Cuban-born philosopher, Alicia Juarrero, who teaches at a community college in Maryland. I read Juarrero's book and her discussion on constraints and emergent systems is brilliant, lucid, and identical to Deacon's—again, more on this in another post).

Well, guess who is the latest guest on Ginger Brown's Brain Science Podcast? Evan Thompson. Just two or so months after Brown interviewed Deacon, she interviews the man many suspect Deacon stole his central ideas from. Sadly, Brown brings none of this up, and the closest we ever get to the controversy is this statement about his book Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind:

A guiding idea through the book is the idea of self-organization. I draw a lot on notions coming from the study of self-organizing systems in biology, and also in neuroscience to some extent. And I try to show how the tools that come from the study of self-organizing systems are very illuminating for an understanding of cognition and perception, and also have echoes, you could say, in aspects of our own experience and how it organizes itself in time as a kind of flow or stream of consciousness. So, the book covers a lot of ground. But that's in very, very general terms what the book is about.
To say I'm not disappointed by this missed opportunity would be untrue.


Comments (11) RSS

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Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 1
Based on you posts and reading the summaries rather than the original works (because I am that lazy) it sounds like Evan Thomson is talking about self organization but Deacon is saying it's cool and all to talk about self organization, but it is yet another form of reductionism..that a thing self organizes doesn't predict the nature of the final work.

However, what is more interesting is the snippet of your post. That the constraints define the thing. Yes, I follow this line of reasoning as well. I have been researching information on idiot savants. My thought is that if some human brains have speedy computation abilities then maybe we all do. So like the brain is running a kind of DOS operating system (640K barrier) that limits our powers down to just what we need to function in 3D and lets all the abstractions go on under the hood.

So, yes, your Intel chip in your PC can probably calculate wind flow on an airplane, but mostly it is used to move windows around and play Mumford & Sons because that is what is required. Basically at the core of our brains we're all math geniuses as we calculate how far we have to jump to get over a puddle on the street, or catch a baseball. In the wild, there is no reason to write these things down.

We then can see mental illness as errors of that limit or coherence. Like the LSD user, the schizophrenic gets it "all at once".
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on October 11, 2012 at 9:02 AM · Report this
CharlesF 2
Truly, Charles, the cosmological constraints of our capitalist brain-paradigms will never misunderestimate the allegorical profundity of your ineffably subterfugical whirlpool metaphors.
Posted by CharlesF on October 11, 2012 at 9:14 AM · Report this
long-time reader 3
Charles, you often have an often frustrating way of dancing around your point, saying with many words what could be said with few. Case in point: Your final sentence means essentially, "I'm disappointed by this missed opportunity," an idea you managed to use twice as many words to convey.
Posted by long-time reader on October 11, 2012 at 9:18 AM · Report this
You must read Charles like a logic problem. Add up all the negatives to see if they are actually positive otherwise you might not be confused enough to know if no means no or not.
Posted by mt on October 11, 2012 at 9:34 AM · Report this
Nice litotes, Charles.
Posted by Jude Fawley on October 11, 2012 at 10:11 AM · Report this
bedipped 6
@4 I had this problem with Classic Rock Garbage Thunderdome #2 and actually voted for Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight" as a song better than something rather than a song worse than everything.
*** This Comment Has Been Approved By Schrodinger's Raccoon ***
Posted by bedipped on October 11, 2012 at 10:31 AM · Report this
Confluence 7
Oh, leave poor Ginger alone. She's just trying to keep the peace and not stir up shit. I'm grateful that she focuses on the *ideas* and not the catty fights between academics.
Posted by Confluence on October 11, 2012 at 10:39 AM · Report this
dirac 8
Why would it really need to be addressed in the radio program?

I'm looking for the post from Bartlett that lays out the case for outright plagiarism. Not that I'm doubting his view, I'm just not finding where he puts forth comparisons...yet.
Posted by dirac on October 11, 2012 at 11:10 AM · Report this
Just read Chapters 8 and 9 of
Posted by Mariana Grajales on October 15, 2012 at 6:27 AM · Report this
Please go to

Note the argument is a bout Deacon's lack of attributions. Deacon did not quote word for word instead he gobbled up entire lines of reasoning .. then rewrote them and claimed they were his own (or if one believes Deacon he invented them whole clothe and never bothered to do any research as to whether others had already published similar ideas -- the choice is yours but BOTH count as plagiarism)
Posted by Michael Lissack on October 16, 2012 at 10:26 AM · Report this
GingerCampbell 11
Before his interview Dr. Thompson and I discussed the controversy and he declined to talk about it during the interview. I am glad he shared my desire to focus on the ideas.

In fact, after his interview came out he sent me feedback indicating that he felt there was more agreement than disagreement between his ideas and those in Deacon's recent book.
Posted by GingerCampbell on October 20, 2012 at 1:06 PM · Report this

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