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Sacred Science

published July 2008
Can emergence break the spell of reductionism and put spirituality back into nature?
magazine cover

In the early 17th century a demon was loosed on the world by Italian mathematician Galileo Galilei when he began swinging pendulums, rolling balls down ramps and observing the moons of Jupiter — all with an aim toward discovering regularities that could be codified into laws of nature.

So successful was this mechanical worldview that by the early 19th century French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace was able to “imagine an Intelligence who would know at a given instant of time all forces acting in nature and the position of all things of which the world consists… Then it could derive a result that would embrace in one and the same formula the motion of the largest bodies in the universe and of the lightest atoms. Nothing would be uncertain for this Intelligence.”

By the early 20th century science undertook to become Laplace’s demon. It cast a wide “causal net” linking effects to causes throughout the past and into the future and sought to explain all complex phenomena by reducing them into their simpler component parts. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg captured this philosophy of reductionism poignantly: “All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.” In such an all-encompassing and fully explicable cosmos, then, what place for God?

Stuart Kauffman has an answer: naturalize the deity. In his new book, Reinventing the Sacred (Basic Books, 2008), Kauffman — founding director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary in Alberta and one of the pioneers of complexity theory — reverses the reductionist’s causal arrow with a comprehensive theory of emergence and self-organization that he says “breaks no laws of physics” and yet cannot be explained by them. God “is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures,” Kauffman declares.

In Kauffman’s emergent universe, reductionism is not wrong so much as incomplete. It has done much of the heavy lifting in the history of science, but reductionism cannot explain a host of as yet unsolved mysteries, such as the origin of life, the biosphere, consciousness, evolution, ethics and economics. How would a reductionist explain the biosphere, for example? “One approach would be, following Newton, to write down the equations for the evolution of the biosphere and solve them. This cannot be done,” Kauffman avers. “We cannot say ahead of time what novel functionalities will arise in the biosphere. Thus we do not know what variables — lungs, wings, etc. — to put into our equations. The Newtonian scientific framework where we can prestate the variables, the laws among the variables, and the initial and boundary conditions, and then compute the forward behavior of the system, cannot help us predict future states of the biosphere.”

This problem is not merely an epistemological matter of computing power, Kauffman cautions; it is an ontological problem of different causes at different levels. Something wholly new emerges at these higher levels of complexity.

Similar ontological differences exist in the self-organized emergence of consciousness, morality and the economy. In my recent book, The Mind of the Market (Times Books, 2008), I show how economics and evolution are complex adaptive systems that learn and grow as they evolve from simple to complex and how they are autocatalytic, or containing self-driving feedback loops. It was therefore gratifying to find corroboration in Kauffman’s detailed explication of why such phenomena “cannot be deduced from physics, have causal powers of their own, and therefore are emergent real entities in the universe.” This creative process of emergence, Kauffman contends, “is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe.”

I have spent time with Stu Kauffman at two of the most sacred places on earth: Cortona, Italy (under the Tuscan sun), and Esalen, Calif. (above the Pacific Ocean), at conferences on the intersection of science and religion. He is one of the most spiritual scientists I know, a man of inestimable warmth and ecumenical tolerance, and his God 2.0 is a deity worthy of worship. But I am skeptical that it will displace God 1.0, Yahweh, whose Bronze Age program has been running for 6,000 years on the software of our brains and culture.

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9 Comments to “Sacred Science”

  1. Ragged Clown » Blog Archive » A God worthy of worship Says:

    […] Michael Shermer has a review of Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred. […]

  2. Raquel Baranow Says:

    IMO, the uniqueness of Earth — all the contingentcies necessary for life is a miracle. Earth really is “Sacred” and we should appreciate it more!

    From my website:

  3. Mike Says:

    Uniqueness of earth? We have found thousands of extrasolar planets, many of them very much like earth. Just because something is unique means that it is a miracle? Each pile of cow dung is unique. So, that cow dung is a miracle?
    The fact that we fit so well into our environment here on Earth is perfectly explained by evolution. If we didn’t fit within Earth’s parameters, we would die and fail to reproduce and we wouldn’t be here. So the only logical conclusion of evolution is that all of the species that exist must fit well into the “contingencies necessary for life.” If we were created by an all-powerful being, then why would he/she have made it so that we can only survive on this planet and just barely? One theory leads to an actual conclusion, the other “theory” leads nowhere.
    No miracle, just science.
    IMO, Raquel’s opinion doesn’t make any sense at all.

  4. Bill Newnam Says:

    With regard to the title of the piece, to call reductionism a spell is to mischaracterize one of the triumphs of science, adopted to seek understanding of deep reality. To grapple with emergence is not hindered by the insights gained from reductionism. Nor do I think it necessary to imagine a lost spirituality ever in oblivious nature.

  5. Aaron Harbour Says:

    I’m uncertain what difference the direction, inward or outward, of applying the methodologies of science makes. Though the majority of scientific work completed could be described as reductionism I don’t think that science is inherently as such and thus unable to grapple with problems of complexity without hiding in the spiritual. More specifically, having the ghost of spirituality as a magic end to potential further scientific development seems defeatist and adds nothing to the wealth of human knowledge

  6. Michael Philips (aka The Undercover Philosopher) Says:

    I’m a bit confused about what people mean by “spirituality” and “the spiritual” in this discussion and on the street. There seem to be two main possibilities: 1) that “the spiritual” requires an ontological underpinning, the kind of nonmaterial substance that scientific materialism rejects (a soul or mind, i.e., dualism); and 2) that spirituality is a simply a stance toward life and the world, attitude that makes and requires no nonmaterial claims (Kaufman speaks of an attitude of awe, gratitude, and respect).

    If we mean the first, any physicalist version of reductionism is inconsistent with spiritualism (and physicalist versions are the only ones people take seriously nowadays). This is because reductionism holds that higher level things really are nothing more than collections of lower level things. Water really is just collections of particles—so are money, Supreme Court Justices, and the set of all real numbers. All of them really nothing but clusters of ever changing subatomic particles wending and popping their ways through and about space-time. If that staggeringly hypothesis is true, then either 1) mind and spirit really are just collections of subatomic particles (like everything else) or 2) the words ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’ are just empty noises to which there corresponds nothing real. In either case, “spiritual” has no rightful place in the vocabularies of enlightened people. Also, since reductionism has this consequence and versions of emergentism denies it, reductionism is inconsistent with those versions of emergentism (the most popular versions).

    But spiritualism of the second kind–spirituality as an attitude of awe, gratitude and appreciation—has nothing to fear from reductionism. That form of spirituality—that attitude—requires no metaphysical underpinnings. Who is to say which kind of universe is more awe-inspiring and deserving of our gratitude and respect? Isn’t this more a personal matter? Would the things of the world that actually inspire awe, gratitude and respect in those who are so inspired—for example, the transforming power of love, the diversity of life forms, the ancient redwoods, the way we can be penetrated to our depths by beauty—be any less deserving of our awe, gratitude and respect if we were reductionists rather than emergentists? The rather abstract “realization” that higher level systems emerge out of lower level systems and liberate themselves from the causal laws governing those lower level systems may be rather thrilling to some of us, but so may the rather abstract “realization” that those lower level systems have within them the power to produce and to govern every higher level one. Are we really back to the good old days when deep metaphysical thinkers debated about the best of all possible standards for judging the best of all possible worlds (the one most worthy of our awe, respect, and gratitude)? Or is the more sensible attitude different strokes for different folks? It’s worth noting that spirituality in the attitudinal sense has happily survived in the age of reductionism and there is no reason to believe it’s prospects will brighten further with the emergence of emergentism. Actually, the greatest threat to spirituality in the attitudinal sense are certain philosophical and religious traditions that embrace spirituality of the metaphysical kind; traditions which devalue this world and it’s beauty and regard all bodily pleasures with suspicion or outright hostility (for example, Platonism and all Augustinian-inspired versions of Christianity).

  7. Imants Vilks Says:

    “Self-organization “breaks no laws of physics” and yet cannot be explained by them.”
    Self-organization can be explained by laws of physics. Self-organization is connected with creation of information. Two main tools of evolution (in a broad sense) are: random accidents and natural selection. Quantum and more macroscopic fluctuations are unpredictable, therefore – the outcomes of all processes where information is created.
    There ar three levels of emergent properties:
    1. The simplest ones where we can foresee, predict the futures of the complex system, e.g., Behe’s mouse trap.
    2. More complicated ones, where we can’t simply foresee the systems futures, e.g., millions of all the people’s inventions.
    3.Most complicated ones where we can’t predict (it is impossible), foresee the system’s futures, e.g., life, human society, social systems.

  8. S. Beckner Says:

    Like the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which eventually gave rise to the multiverse, and a slew of books with titles like “The Tao Of Physics”, or the once fashionable Chaos Theory, emergence is looking to become the espoire du jour for those who fear that science may soon tell us everything about everything. It’s as if some of us are suffocating with the feeling that we are entombing ourselves within the walls of knowledge. They eagerly seek a way out of these confines, a window, no matter how small, to gaze out from their insufferable finitudes. I want to give this search an important sounding name, something like “the urge to transcendence”. In part because it seems to be innate in many of us, but also because it may be the emotional driving force behind some of academia’s most brilliant theoreticians.

    As nature’s magic tricks are exposed one by one, our efforts to find an explanation-defying-illusion are beginning to cast a shadow of existential despair. How do we resolve this? Is consciousness itself going to prove to be the infinite frontier we long for? WIll each personal interpretation of the world come to be regarded as the ultimate prestidigitation, a final, unscalable rampart against the onslaughts of totalitarian, all-knowing science? Or will that veil be lifted too, leaving us naked and adrift before the unceasing number-crunch of natural law.

  9. Rafe Furst Says:

    I really like the thrust of this article and hope to see more from you on emergence. Keep hanging out with Kauffman :-)

    As an aside, one area I think Kauffman needs to give attention to is Cooperation (with a big C, a technical term). There are two dynamics which give rise to emergence, one being cooperation (think multicellular organisms) and the other being autocatalysis. Kauffman reveres the latter but mostly ignores the former. (Forgive me and enlighten me if he’s changed his tune since At Home in the Universe).

    I’m looking forward to reading Mind of the Market. In this vein, I can recommend highly Beinhocker’s “The Origin of Wealth”: which outlines a new basis for economic theory that he calls “complexity economics”. Not surprisingly, it stands in stark contrast to most economic theory. He subtitled the book “Evolution, complexity, and the radical remaking of economics.”

    For those looking for hardcore evidence that the efficient market hypothesis (both strong and weak forms) is dead, I recommend “The Story of Behavioral Finance”: I’m guessing it dovetails with Mind of the Market and draws from some of the same primary sources.

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