Monday, June 30, 2008

Naturalizing God - Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred"

I was away for the past couple of days so I'm still catching up on relevant articles. Here is a review from Science (June 20) of Stuart Kauffman's book, Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion:

He builds his case step by step, first developing powerful arguments against reductionism. Not only is the world in some sense inexplicable at its lowest level (does anyone really understand quantum mechanics in the sense in which we can say that we understand Newtonian mechanics?), it is also necessarily historically unique in its development at higher levels. There is "ceaseless novelty" in what Kauffman calls the "adjacent present" that cannot be anticipated, just as it would be impossible to anticipate all the future uses to which a new invention might be put. So biology cannot conceivably be reduced to physics. Laplace's calculating demon would not be able to foresee all the future because he would not even be able to specify all the relevant variables.

It is from this phenomenon of "ceaseless creativity" in nature that Kauffman develops his case for reinventing the sacred. His argument is partly based on underlining the awe and humility we must feel at contemplating nature and partly a neat sidestepping of the "ought-is" argument in ethics. For him, ethics have emerged from evolution. They are part of the facts of the world we live in.

Okay...but part of the message of his book is to reclaim "God":

Another part of reinventing the sacred comes from the author's conviction that we need to find a new way of expressing human spirituality: "Seeking a new vision of the real world and our place in it has been a central aim of this book--to find common ground between science and religion so that we might collectively reinvent the sacred."

But why should we call any of this "God"? Kauffman's God is not even given the power that the Deists recognize. It is not a prime mover. He feels that "we must use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature." I am sympathetic to this view and, as Kauffman himself notes, there are religions (notably Buddhism) that do not postulate a Creator God and for whom nature is sacred to a high degree.

I don't know who will be convinced by using "God" in this manner. As the reviewer aptly picks up on this point:

So, could his concept of God as nature's ceaseless creativity be convincing? As he expects, believers in a Creator God will strongly disagree with him, whereas humanists are not likely to adopt aword they have expunged from their language.
I'm not sure what is point of going through all of this to reclaim the notion of God. Read the full Science review here.

Here is another review by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, and it roughly has the same tone:

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.

and it also ends with a note of skepticism for the success of such a notion of God:

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.
Read the full Scientific American review here.