Less Than Scratch


Book Review, Sort of: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman
April 7, 2009, 11:56 am
Filed under: Education

Before I begin, two disclaimers:

  • This review is not going to be objective at all.
  • I will not be able to do this book and its ideas justice.

That said, let’s begin.

Stuart Kauffman’s latest book, Reinventing the Sacred, really struck a chord with me. In it, Kauffman makes the point that reductionism isn’t the only answer. In fact, reductionism–that everything is reducible to physics–has caused rifts betwen the realms of science and the humanities and religion. Reductionism tends to suck the sacredness out of life. In physics, there are only happenings, the actions that occur have no meaning, no value. However, our lives have meaning. We have ethics and assign value to parts of our existence. Kauffman explains how because of this, our culture, our humanity, are emergent phenomena that are beyond the known laws of nature.

Of course, Kauffman provides scientific and philosophical evidence to support his case, and does so in very clear, understandable language. Any attempt on my part to recreate his points would be disastrous, especially since I had to return the book to the library before writing this. He even touches on the fact that some physicists are beginning to realize that reductionism might not solve every issue, including reconciling the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

The overarching point of Kauffman’s book, however, is that it is time we redefined our view of the universe. Kauffman wants us to embrace the unending creativity that is the development of complex evolving systems such as the biosphere, our economy, or our culture. He even goes so far as to suggest that we redefine the term God to mean this creative emergent force. I had previously been unable to shake the feeling of dread in thinking that universe was complete deterministic. It stripped the meaning, the beauty, out of all life if everything was cause and effect. Kauffman’s point gave me an avenue for embracing emergence and science without facing the void I once did.

Another goal of Kauffman’s work is to bridge the gap between science and the humanities. As he notes, the humanities are often discarded as the softer sciences. Kauffman points out that there are similar characteristics between all complex evolving systems, from the biosphere and evolution to the economy and human culture.

Kauffman also hopes to develop a global ethic–one that would connect different religions. This seems like quite the tall order. He hopes the shift in perception could help us to develop a better global economy and environment. Kauffman admits, though, that there are many that will not easily stray from their belief of God as the creator. It is a romantic notion, nonetheless.

One of the more subtle points Kauffman makes that resonated with me in particular is about how we live our lives. The future is unknowable. We never know what is coming next, from great windfalls to disasters. We can’t even begin to predict all of the possibilities. Yet, we live as though we know. Everyday we make a best guess and work toward a particular goal, adapting and changing as necessary. We don’t live in fear, we move forward not knowing where the next step will take us. To me, this is nothing short of amazing. It would seem so easy to get caught up in worry and fear, but as a society, we don’t. We progress, we adapt, we don’t stop moving forward. There definitely seems to be a life lesson in there somewhere.

Overall, this book is fantastic. It touches on a wide range of subjects from evolution to the economy, to consciousness, and all in a very accessible way (except for some quantum mechanics that was a little over my head). Most importantly, it carries a hopeful message. This book has rekindled my interest in the study of complexity and I want to be a part of the change Kauffman calls for. It’s given me a new sense of direction.

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Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent? – Richard Feynman

I read this book myself not too long ago. While I agreed with Kaufmann’s overall message in many ways, I also felt that his arguments tended to be unclear, frustrating, and somewhat misguided. Take, for instance, one of the core ideas of the book – the notion that reductionism has destroyed “sacredness”, leaving everything devoid of meaning. As Feynman so clearly points out above, this notion is somewhat silly. Knowing more about how something works doesn’t destroy whatever intrinsic glory or “sacredness” it might posess; in fact, it often enhances it. For me, the scientific story about how and why the sun rises and falls in its ever-consistent manner is infinitely more fascinating and meaningful than, say, a Native American myth that attempts to explain the same. Reductionism itself doesn’t strip the meaning and emotional significance from natural things; humans do. After all, you can watch the Sun rise and set and envision the cosmic force of your choice acting to move it in accordance with Newtonian dynamics.

Comment by Joe




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