29 May 2012

Why Life?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:12 am

At Dead Voles I’ve been participating in an intermittent multipronged discussion of Terrence Deacon’s 2012 book Incomplete Nature. Deacon proposes a pathway by which life might have emerged in an inanimate universe. Here I have to confess that I don’t quite get two of Deacon’s main points: (1) some kinds of self-organizing systems spontaneously become ends-driven; and (2) understanding how such systems come into being depends not so much on the components of which they’re composed but on the constraints they impose and propagate.

Self-organizing systems seem to counteract the second law of thermodynamics, which specifies that everything in the universe tends toward disorder, or a state of energy equilibrium. However, self-organizing systems, which emerge under far-from equilibrium conditions, actually maximize the rate of equilibration and entropy gain. The organized structure of the system serves to accelerate system-wide expenditure of potential energy. Deacon presents the example of a stream with a boulder in the stream bed. The stream will spontaneously organize a system of eddies and currents around the boulder, seeming to resist the spontaneous downhill movement of the water. However, the eddies actually serve to move the water downstream past the boulder more efficiently than would be the case if the flow were disrupted in a less organized way. Because a self-organizing system is such an efficient entropy-maximizing apparatus, it also tends to self-disorganize. E.g., once the stream wears away the boulder, the system of eddies spontaneously relapses into a smooth flow.

So why would a self-organizing system ever reach the point where it seeks to perpetuate itself? It’s ridiculous to imagine an eddy in the stream trying to keep the boulder from disintegrating, or trying to position more boulders in the stream bed so that more eddies can be born. But living beings seem to do it: they actively seek out nutrients and avoid/repair damage in order to keep themselves alive; and they reproduce in order to make more beings like themselves. Deacon summarizes four ways in which organisms invert the spontaneous order-producing “morphodynamics” of self-organizing systems via “teleodynamics”:

1.  Organisms depend on and utilize energetic and material gradients in their environment in order to perform work or to sustain the constraints of their persistent, far-from-equilibrium dynamics, and to maintain constraints that are critical for countering the tendency toward thermodynamic decay.

2.  Organisms actively reorganize their internal dynamics and relationships to the environment in ways that specifically counter or compensate for any depletion of the gradients that is necessary to maintain their dynamical integrity and their capacity to so respond.

3.  Many organisms have evolved means of gradient assessment and spatial mobility that enable them to anticipate and avoid conditions of depleted gradients and to seek out more optimal ingredients.

4.  Organisms and ecosystems evolve toward forms of organization that increase the indirectness of the “dissipation-path length” of energy and material throughput in order to extract more work from the available gradients.

Deacon goes on to characterize organisms in abstract terms:

Living organisms are integrated and bounded wholes, constituted by processes that maintain persistent self-similarity. These processes are functions, not merely chemical reactions, because they exist to produce specific self-promoting physical consequences. These functions are adaptive and have evolved with respect to certain requirements in their environment that may or may not obtain. And these adaptations exist for the sake of preserving the integrity and persistence of these integrated systems and their unbroken chain of ancestral forms for which they are defining links.

Deacon describes at some length how a hypothetical system could organize itself teleodynamically, maintaining ongoing contact with a substrate of energy and material while simultaneously self-constructing a barrier around itself to prevent dissolution. What I don’t get is why such a system would spontaneously organize itself. The best I can figure, extrapolating from Deacon’s discussion of self-organization, is that a teleodynamic system organizes, protects, and replicates itself in order to dissipate potential energy more efficiently than less complex morphodynamic systems, thereby accelerating the general universal tendency toward maximum entropy. It’s certainly the case that I’m using up more of the universe’s potential energy now than I will when I’m dead and all of my metabolic functions have ceased. Maybe that’s the main purpose of my existence: to accelerate the heat death of the universe.

Maybe I’ll write something about constraint propagation later. But it’s 5 a.m. now, time to slow my metabolism for awhile by going to sleep. That way I can recharge myself for another round of energy dissipation, incrementally fulfilling my ongoing mission in the universe.


  1. I’ll have more to say later when I’m not neglecting work by commenting, but I’m struggling with the whole idea of spontaneity. It feels like buck-passing to me — or like saying “it just does” or “it’s uncaused”.

    I also have trouble with why self-organization occurs (specifically, the self-maintenance part). Stuart Kauffman is focused on those things, so I might go back and re-read some of his stuff.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 29 May 2012 @ 10:10 am

  2. That ‘why’ is your brain’s God habit trying to get the conversation back into its familiar channels, where it has the best access to your energy. From the perspective of not having a God habit, I’m not troubled by the thought that self-organizing systems might emerge out of the possibility-fan of morphodynamic processes. How (not why, how) exactly that happens may not yet be explained, but it’s not in itself a bigger or different kind of question than any other about how things work.


    Comment by Carl — 29 May 2012 @ 10:48 am

  3. Regarding why versus how, I’d reiterate Dennett’s distinction between “reasons why” and “reasons for”. Gaudi had reasons for designing the Sagrada Familia Cathedral: honor God, create a unique work of architectural art, build a monument to himself, build a tourist attraction for Barcelona, etc. In contrast, there are reasons why termites build mounds even if the termites don’t understand these reasons or intentionally act in accord with them. There are reasons why a whole bunch of H2O molecules hanging around together form a liquid at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, why the liquid freezes from the top surface down when the temperature drops below 32, etc. Understanding why this happens doesn’t mean that the H2O molecules are intentionally organizing themselves to behave in these particular ways, or that God designed water’s properties according to His own transcendent purposes.

    Deacon spends quite a bit of intentional effort trying to lay out the reasons why, for example, the stream self-organizes eddy patterns to move the flowing water around the boulder. He also proposes that even organisms more primitive than termites are distinguished from inorganic things in large part because organisms have reasons for doing things: securing food, protecting themselves from adverse environmental conditions, etc. I’m stuck on the reasons why certain kinds of entities came into existence that have reasons for — i.e., intentionality as an emergent property in the universe. From the POV of the organism itself it’s possible to see the advantages of intentionality as a self-perpetuating capability under uncertain environmental conditions. But what purpose does intentionality serve in a world in which entropy is the general tendency? Deacon specifically rejects the existence some sort of elan vital or countervailing anti-entropic force in the universe by which emergent self-organizing phenomena just pop into existence. He seems to think that he’s explained the reasons why intentionality emerges and is naturally selected by the environment. Either I don’t get his argument or I don’t buy it. Mostly it seems that he didn’t really explain it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 May 2012 @ 12:39 pm

  4. This is where I’m at with it too. In the autocatalysis example, I feel all on top of things. The asymmetry in concentrations leads to this, leads to that, etc. But there’s a point where morphodynamic systems plugged together start actively maintaining themselves, and the local causes become too numerous and complicated to track in that same sequential way, and I get the feeling that something has appeared out of nowhere or that we’ve hopped up to speaking about a different level of organization without noticing the transition.

    Juarrero’s description is even harder to grasp than Deacon’s:

    The ability of catalyst A (perhaps because of its geometric shape) to increase the likelihood that B will occur, of B to increase the likelihood that C will happen and so on embodies what can be called first-order contextual constraints, that is, context-sensitive constraints operating at the same level of organization. In the B-Z reaction, however, once molecule Z catalyzes A and the autocatalytic loop closes a phase change takes place: the autocatalytic network’s organization itself suddenly emerges as a contextual constraint on its components. I call these second-order contextual constraints.

    That’s it. It just “suddenly emerges”.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 29 May 2012 @ 1:42 pm

  5. John, you’re unresponsive, and in a diagnostic way. I see that you want to use the why language like you do. I’m saying that’s the trap. The why formulation is the God subroutine at work. Let’s stick with how for a bit and then see if there’s any work left for why to do.

    Asher, souffle’ just suddenly emerges from whipped eggs and heat. Does that also bother you? You might say, ‘well, the conditions for the souffle’ have to keep being actively recreated’. Right, but once those conditions assemble in a way that closes a loop, the loop itself keeps creating those conditions. It’s just a particular kind of how stuff happens.


    Comment by Carl — 30 May 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  6. My problem is more with the “just” than the “suddenly”. I have a mostly reductive view of soufflé. I’d be interested in why it’s fluffy (i.e. how it comes to be fluffy via heat) or why it stays fluffy after the heat is removed rather than assuming its former mien. What I want is a sort of conceptual continuity in the causal analysis, where we don’t say things like “then, fluffiness occurs”. For me, why and how provide the same sort of explanation.

    Conditions for the soufflé are fine, too, but in a causal analysis, I’d have to know how conditions work – what gives them the efficacy to enforce a certain type of behavior. And that efficacy has to jibe with the larger model in which the notion of conditional efficacy operates. The phrase “the loop itself keeps creating” is shorthand for something very precise, and I need to know with precision what that is, or I will feel ill-at-ease with the explanation.

    In the case of Juarrero, there seems to be no more explanation to be found. In Deacon, there’s more, and my working assumption is that I either haven’t grasped the details or I am failing to “think in the model” that he’s proposing. But it’s also possible that he’s not providing an adequate explanation, and it’s up to me to be very precise and specific about what is missing.

    One thing that’s getting in the way is confusion about whether mental processes are physical or non-physical. Deacon seems to espouse *both* views at different points (See my comment here).


    Comment by Asher Kay — 30 May 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  7. Unresponsive in a diagnostic way, Carl? This sounds like you have an interpretation of why I responded to your comment how I did. Are you exercising godlike insight into my core being, an insight that eludes me or that I’m trying without success to hide from you? Okay, I’ll try to avoid the “why” word and give it another go.

    Deacon’s project consists largely of accounting for the emergence of organisms that do things intentionally, that have a reason why they do things rather than merely being caused by biological and environmental factors. In Darwinian terms it’s possible to explain after the fact the persistence of a particular feature of an organism; e.g., vision. The answer isn’t that organisms acquired vision in order to detect food, enemies, etc. — that would be a Lamarckian explanation. A better answer is that a mutation that enhanced the organism’s detection abilities proved adaptive via natural selection. But what situation in the world produced the conditions within which it became adaptive for self-preserving organisms to evolve in the first place? Deacon acknowledges that natural selection doesn’t serve as the cause for the emergence of natural selection processes within the biosphere. What does? Deacon proposes an answer to that question, but I don’t find it persuasive. Rather than saying that he doesn’t explain why self-preserving and reproducing and intentional organisms came to exist, I could just as easily say that his explanation of how they came to be doesn’t seem adequate to account for the environmental circumstances in which they arose, circumstances which Deacon acknowledges are dominated by the persistent general trend toward maximizing entropy.

    If you read the book you might find Deacon’s explanation perfectly satisfactory. Life just happened to emerge from nonlife. It is the case though that Deacon seems to expect more from his own explanations than that, so you might dismiss his whole project as a fool’s errand. Other sorts of emergent phenomena just happen, but once they’ve happened it’s a typical scientific undertaking to reverse-engineer the process in order to understand what caused a particular set of properties to emerge. So the first chef to bake a souflee might have been surprised, but s/he might then start experimenting with the ingredients, proportions, temperature, cooking time, etc. to ascertain the relationship between these causal factors and the effects within the souflee. This is what Deacon tries to do: given the emergence of life, can we reverse-engineer the causal factors leading up to it?


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 May 2012 @ 1:23 pm

  8. To be clear, I’m harboring no secret hope (of which I’m aware) that the emergence of life will prove inexplicable without supernatural intervention. Alternatively, there are those who believe that neither termites nor snails nor humans have any ability to intend anything; that in fact all of our actions are caused through intricate stimulus-response chains that despite their enormous complexity are not fundamentally different from Newtonian billiard balls colliding with each other; that our self-reflexivity about having decided something is a self-delusion, an awareness of presumptive agency that occurs only after the automatic switch has already been tripped in our brain. I am not counted among their number. So I’m intrinsically aligned with Deacon’s project, hoping that he will either solve the puzzle or at least put a few more of the pieces in place. I think he’s done the latter, which is no small accomplishment, but I’m greedy for more.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 May 2012 @ 3:49 pm

  9. John, after all our years together I really don’t see the reason to pretend to doubt, even in jest, my godlike insight into your core being and everything else’s.

    Otherwise I take your point, and leave mine alongside it for reference as investigation proceeds.


    Comment by Carl — 30 May 2012 @ 4:12 pm

  10. The border between the organic and the inorganic when examined closely become fuzzy. There is a continuous rise in complexity and with that comes instability. there is more to go wrong and more to go right. I don’t believe that there is a need for a creative infusion to supply a naturalist deficit. How things are essentially such that evolution was inevitable is an interesting question but one given that our form of understanding is psycho-somatic may not be apprhehensible. Is consciousness itself an artifact of evolution and not ontologically ultimate. Dan Dennet beckons me on the back of that white whale.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 30 May 2012 @ 5:55 pm

  11. Deacon invents a borderline entity called an “autogen,” a hypothetical missing link between nonlife and life that’s able to replicate and protect its integrity inside a self-generated “container.” These two functions are necessary for true life forms, but in the case of the autogen there is no intentionality, no final cause toward which it propels itself. It’s the intentionality, the moving beyond causal automatism, that for me remains lost in the borderlands.

    It’s funny, but Carl invoked the Ahab analogy in a related but tangential obsession on the Dead Voles discussions of Deacon.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 May 2012 @ 9:43 pm

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