Last night was family movie night, and the selection was Inside Out. This is the Disney-Pixar film that takes place inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl. There, five characters – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust – “see” out through the girl’s eyes and negotiate her responses to the challenges of her world at a control panel with buttons and levers. We saw the film when it came out in the theaters and were watching it again on DVD, at the urging of my eldest, also an 11-year-old girl. The film is brilliant and moving, but as I watched, I began to wonder whether she and her brother would see the logical problem of its central conceit. The protagonist, after all, is not the girl but the emotion, Joy. Like the girl does, Joy has a body. Like the girl, Joy displays a range of emotional responses as she confronts a series of challenges in her world. Does that mean Joy also has a set of five characters inside her head standing before their own control panel? And do each of them have sets of characters at control panels inside their own heads?
Joy and her colleagues are examples of homunculi, little creature-like beings inside human beings that help us explain difficult things like intention, conscious behaviors, and other end-directed activities. As Terrence Deacon, the neuro-anthropologist and professor of cognitive science at UC-Berkeley explained in his book, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (2012), homunculi were what early naturalists imagined to be inside spermatozoa. Although science long ago rejected homunculi of this type, they still mark, Deacon argues, “an explanatory hole” found in many of our accounts of reality (22). This is true not only for obvious aesthetic accounts like those of Inside Out but for scientific ones, too, where the homunculi tend to be subtle and well-hidden. In the same way that Joy operates at the interface between an 11-year-old-girl’s mind and body, scientific homunculi continue to hide the lack of connection between mentality and materiality in our most authoritative accounts of how things work and what’s real.
The theory of natural selection, for example, hides its own homunculi. Why are organisms striving to adapt, to organize themselves within their environments? Why, it’s because there’s a tiny creature at a control panel inside them pushing the “adapt” button, pulling the lever marked “survive.” “Function” is another common placeholder for mind-stuff, covering the explanatory hole where, in our official accounting of reality, mind and matter fail to connect.
Although Deacon is not the first to do so, he presses anew the argument that this failure to connect makes for a fundamental incoherence in modern thought. Having failed to achieve any “balanced resolution” to the ancient mind-matter problem, modern science bracketed it, explained it away with various homunculi, so that scientists might get on with their work of understanding and gaining control of the material world. Most humanities scholars, too, I would think, go about their tasks with a similar working dualism, as if this incoherence could be safely ignored. There’s a certain lag going on here. The New Physics of the early twentieth century refuted much of Newtonian physics, and since then several varieties of postmodernism in science have continued to ‘de-materialize matter,’ so to speak, and ascribe to it mental attributes. Yet when it comes to the way most of us organize perception — scientists and non-scientists alike — we are still living, Deacon claims, “in the shadow of Descartes” (6).
Is it safely ignorable? Can’t we continue on as we’ve been going, dividing up the magisteria, granting that related to the empirical to science, granting that related to mind to the humanities (and letting the social sciences scramble for a place in between)? That might be tenable, were both magisteria given even a roughly equal status. But they aren’t, as we all well know. As the centuries since Descartes passed, framing explanations for how the world works increasingly privileged the material and rested on a physics of energy and force. All goings-on, no matter how complex, were thought to be reducible to mindless interactions at the microscopic level. The causal efficacy of mental content was dismissed as a matter of principle. In mainstream science, this is all still mostly the case, just as it still undergirds the way ‘thoughtful people’ organize their perception in society at large. Yet life itself – at least the experience of it – continues to be permeated with the stuff of mind. Deacon provides a useful list: the what-might-be, the what-could-have-been, the what-it-feels-like, the what-it-is-good-for, and the represented-by-something-else. This stuff is ubiquitous and commonplace, yet how is it to be explained? Is it sufficient to see it as a mere rhetorical stand-in for physical events yet to be explained?
Deacon doesn’t think so. The fundamental incoherence, the explanatory hole in our working dualism, where some homunculi always “waits at the door,” is, he claims, “the central problem of contemporary science and philosophy” (58). In Incomplete Nature, he aims to re-naturalize end-directedness, representation, and other mindstuff, to re-legitimize it with a precise and non-mystical account. He describes a dynamic process in which ordering tendencies work to produce novel forms that marshal energy to constrain, in ever more complex ways, the disordering tendencies that lead to entropy. Life, in other words, is a sort of constant end-run around the second law of thermodynamics.
As his subtitle, “How Mind Emerged from Matter,” suggests, he leans heavily on a body of thought in the postmodern life sciences known as emergence theory. He surveys this thought and offers a version of his own. Deacon’s model takes the form of a tri-fold hierarchy. Thermodynamic processes give rise to morpho-dynamics, processes whose constraints create and recreate form. When forms created by morpho-dynamics become so complex that they are able to set out their own “boundary conditions” and contain their own “constraints,” a third level of dynamics emerges. Deacon calls this teleo-dynamics. Now end-directed processes become part of the system. Now the system has the attributes of mind.
Obviously, the above paragraphs don’t begin to do justice to Deacon’s patiently detailed argument. I think the crucial point, though, is this hierarchical emergence. It speaks to the question of reducibility. When mind-stuff is reduced to physical stuff, its status is deflated. The epiphenomena is inferior to the phenomena. With each emergence into a higher level, as Deacon has it, a threshold is crossed and a new dynamic is realized. Non-physical phenomena emerge from a wholly material substrate, but the nature of the threshold is that these non-physical characteristics cannot be reduced to the lower processes. Between each a causal phase change, a kind of firewall over which no accusations of unreality or irrelevance can be lofted. Others who have waded into these depths have argued that the postmodern cosmologies provide evidence that mind was “there” all along. Here, Deacon differs. To him, it’s self-evident that mentality and end-directedness didn’t always exist. History and an open universe made it possible for mind-stuff to emerge. Like much of postmodern thought in physics and the life sciences, including Big Bang theory, a radical historicism holds sway.
It seems to me that intellectual historians might consider the worth of Deacon’s project, especially the way he frames the basic problem as a problem of value. While I’m not wholly uncritical, I do find persuasive his claim that the explanatory hole is a source – perhaps the source – of irritation and corrosion outside the realms of science and philosophy. “Our scientific theories have failed to explain,” Deacon writes, “what matters most to us: the place of meaning, purpose, and value in the physical world.” “Is it any wonder, then,” he asks elsewhere, “that scientific knowledge is viewed with distrust by many, as an enemy of human values; the handmaid of cynical secularism, and a harbinger of nihilism”? (14, 22)
The suggestion here is that the explanatory hole is at the very root of conflict we call the culture war here at home, and internationally, the war on terror. It’s also at the root of our inability to confront climate change and the widespread collapse of living ecologies. What stubborn constituencies might be broken up, and what common grounds uncovered, were the dilemma more directly addressed, rather than being hidden behind homunculi?
Anthony Chaney (PhD, University of Texas at Dallas) is currently shopping his book, The Apocalyptic Encounter: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, 1956-1967.