Reinventing the Sacred: A New View Of Science, Reason, and Religion Hardcover – May 6 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Kauffman, a complexity theorist at the University of Calgary, sets a huge task for himself in this provocative but difficult book: to find common ground between religion and science by redefining God as not a supernatural Creator but as the natural creativity in the universe. That creativity, says Kauffman, defies scientific assumptions that the biosphere's evolution and human activity can be reduced to physics and are fully governed by natural laws. Kauffman (At Home in the Universe) espouses emergence, the theory of how complex systems self-organize into entities that are far more than the sum of their parts. To bolster the idea of this ceaselessly creative and unpredictable nature, Kauffman draws examples from the biosphere, neurobiology and economics. His definition of God as the fully natural, awesome, creativity that surrounds us is unlikely to convince those with a more traditional take on religion. Similarly, Kauffman's detailed discussions of quantum mechanics to explain emergence are apt to lose all but the most technically inclined readers. Nonetheless, Kauffman raises important questions about the self-organizing potential of natural systems that deserve serious consideration. (May)
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"Kauffman, an outstanding thinker who has devoted much reflection to complexity theory, offers some insightful perspectives on the physical world in "Reinventing the Sacred,.".. This is an interesting book that will generate much discussion."
"Kauffman's book is a rigorous intellectual quest not only to find the sacred in nature but to remove the taint of atheism from science."
"[Kauffman's] provocative argument for a different understanding of God is compelling."
"["Reinventing the Sacred"] sparkles from every angle as its author gallops through the relevant science, philosophy, economics, history, ethics, poetry and - well, we had better use the word because Kauffman does: religion.... Bringing science and religion together globally in the way that Kauffman wishes is not going to be easy - as other ecumenical movements have repeatedly found - but it is necessary."
"[Kauffman] offers a fresh angle in the ongoing debates concerning creationism, intelligent design, and evolution."
"Provocative.... Kauffman raises important questions about the self-organizing potential of natural systems that deserve serious consideration."
Brian Goodwin, Co-author of "Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology"
"This brilliantly-argued book takes science into novel territory with clarity and conviction, and in Kauffman's inimitable style it challenges some scientific taboos. With this book a new biology is emerging, and with it a new culture."
Owen Flanagan, Author of "The Really HardProblem"
"Stuart Kauffman is the new Spinoza. "Reinventing the Sacred" is a pedagogical tour de force as well as an uplifting metaphysics for the 21st century."
Gordon D. Kaufman, Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, Harvard University
"This is a brilliant, new, comprehensive, scientific world-picture, and it deserves a wide reading in the educated public."
Philip Clayton, Author of "Mind and Emergence"
""Reinventing the Sacred" is a tour de force and a brilliant manifesto for a new emergence-based scientific worldview. But science alone will never be enough; humanity must also invent new categories of the sacred that speak to this naturalistic age. Stuart Kauffman courageously challenges fundamentalist pretensions on both sides, seeking to mold a new partnership of science and religious values...an epoch-making book."
Kenneth Arrow, Nobel Laureate in Economics
"Stuart Kauffman has long studied the nature of complexity in biological systems. His new book shows in a startling way the power of these ideas in our understanding of ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. The sense of agency and of values, seemingly banished by the scientific viewpoint, are restored and enriched by a fuller perception of science deriving from biology as well as physics. Any reader's views will be dramatically altered."
Lee Smolin, Author of "The Trouble with Physics"
"Stuart Kauffman has written a wonderful book, as optimistic as it is provocative. He proposes a new scientific world view that not only incorporates reductionism, but goes beyond it to a vision of a self-constructed and continuously creative universe whichcan be understood and revered, but not always predicted. Knowledge and wisdom are different aspects of our humanity in Kauffman's universe."
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"Well-written and rigorously argued.... For this meaningful contribution to the quest for an era of sustainability, atheists and believers alike should be most grateful."
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In the course of this book, Kauffman examines the latest theories on the likely origins of life on Earth, considers the chemistry of cellular biology, looks at evolutionary processes (and, in particular, Darwinian preadaptations) and then -- using an examination of the behaviour of complex human systems such as the web of global economics -- demonstrates that all complex systems display emergent properties (i.e. elaborate characteristics which arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions) which greatly resemble those things we call agency, value and meaning -- just those very properties that are denied an explanation (and therefore any real existence) by reductionist Newtonian physics. Using his complexity theory approach, Kauffman goes on to show that not only is the formation of life close to an absolute certainty (contrary to the commonly expounded stance that the probability of life arising spontaneously is almost infinitely small) but also that evolution of morality is a perfectly natural outcome of biological evolutionary processes. And, indeed, all of those things for which a creator God has previously been held accountable can be explained as the emergent outcomes of a boundless creativity that is a natural characteristic of our universe. Positing that this natural creativity is infinitely wondrous and thus worthy of our veneration, Kauffman exhorts us to recognise it as Divine, thus enabling it to stand as a substitute for a creator God for those currently without one, at the centre of a new sacred outlook on the world.
Now, while Kauffman makes the case strongly for why the human race may benefit from such an outlook (and may indeed need one, if we are to survive some of the challenges ahead) I for one feel he is somewhat naïve in his suggestion that it will fulfil the spiritual needs of both believer and non-believer alike. And while he makes a case for his ideas healing many of the rifts that pervade our secular thought processes and mindsets, I think it is a step too far to suggest that they may also help to bridge the divides that currently separate most of the current world faiths from each other. To suggest especially that his ideas are at all equivalent to established belief-sets is largely to miss the point of most of those religious faiths, partly with regard to the central role played by faith itself and also with regard to the comfort which those beliefs offer, particularly with regard to the soul and its afterlife--an aspect of human thinking that Kauffman stays well away from in this book. To be fair, Kauffman never suggests for a moment that his ideas are likely to supplant those of established faiths, merely that they provide a framework that might be regarded as sacred in its focus wherein those individuals currently without such a basis to their lives may find one. Or something that substitutes for one (and onto which they can map for their own peace of mind the beliefs of others).
As a book, I fear that "Reinventing the Sacred" ends up falling between two stools -- falling, in fact, into one of the very rifts that Kauffman is so concerned to heal. The science it presents, for all that Kauffman tries to make it accessible, is nevertheless hard work in places. The "sacred" aspects of the book, meanwhile, will probably strike the atheist as needlessly pandering, whilst those readers already of a faith will find these same aspects wishy-washy and vague. For me, where the book really falls down is the lack of any clear progression through its subject matter because of Kauffman's habit of falling back onto the same phrases over and over again coupled with his rather annoying habit of going off on long excursive examinations of things which appear to have no bearing on anything else but which are later referenced without any obvious reason. This leads to a constant feeling throughout the book that one is missing something. Perhaps I was! I can't help but think, though, that with so much of import to convey, this book would have benefited from a much firmer editorial hand.
The main theme of the book is that nature is endlessly creative and it is through this creativity that we experience the sacred. His first point is that nature is non-reductionistic, that is we can't use elementaty physical laws, as Laplace's demon does, to derive the complexity of the universe. These more complex laws are emergent and nonergodic. He then applies these principles to explain a variety of phenomena, including the origin of life, genetic diversity, markets, and even consciousness. He concludes the book paying homage to the spititual gifts of pantheistic creationism. In this comprehensive endeavor, he sometimes falls short.
His arguments for eschewing reductionism are generally well taken. He invokes Godel's incompleteness theorem and quantum physics to bolster his argument. Outside of non-Boolean non-commutative mathematical attempts to eliminate the randomness of quantum physics, I see no other objections. On the other hand, I see it as the duty of any self respecting scientist to carry redutionism as far as it can go. It is not clear to me how Kauffman determines when a system is truly emrgent. Even when he runs his computer simulations to the point of criticality, he can't be sure he isn't missing some reductionist principle. Throughout the book he will look at a complex system and muse almost in awe, without any further argument, that it is non-reductionistic. It reminds me of Paley after staring at a watch arguing that like natural systems infer a creator. In Kauffman's case it is nature. Unlike his fellow pantheist, Spinoza, Kauffman believes in free will. He gets to this point by having the mind control the quantum decoherence process. Having almost no basis to make this statement, his genius still shines through, presaging the first human attempt (recently published) to control this process through the phase qbit. It puzzles me why Kauffman treats consciousness as a "sacred" entity that could not possibly emerge from classical physics. Some of his much simpler networks generate emergent rules. I don't understand why Kauffman believes that one hundred billion neurons and one trillion glial cells could not possibly lead to consciousness in light of the fact all neurons, and now recntly discovered, some glial cells, generate action potentials.
Ulimately, the question should be asked, does Kauffman's view of nature reinvent the sacred? Yes, if awe, beauty, and creativity are only considered. This view is probably not too comforting for the average person in times of despair or as he or she contempates his or her own mortality .
I do not have the technical background to critique his ideas and I look forward to reviews written by those who do. However, as an artist, Kauffman's essential premise--that which is sacred is the immeasuarable, unfathomable creativity of the universe--resonates at a deep level. This is what I emotionally and intellectually react to each and every day I open my eyes and step out into the world.
The space of all possibilities, this is what Kauffman celebrates. I love his enthusiasm. He is a markedly creative individual, driven, no doubt, by passion. His sensibilities about the world around him are positive and heartening. This is a joy to encounter in a science-orientated, big-picture book. Kudos.
Later I discovered that Kauffman calls himself an atheist, more specifically "A Jewish Atheist," whatever that might mean. Being an atheist myself and of Jewish extraction, I thought I understood. But no. In Kauffman's case it means that he is reverting to some form of deism or theism. As the title of the book clearly indicates, "Reinventing the Sacred" despite the subtitle, "A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion," is about religion, not about science. It can be summarized in one sentence: "The cosmos is so creative and awe inspiring that we can call it god and this will make us better, more tolerant and happier."
Other reviewers have commented on the need of a better editor and I concur, Kauffman tends to be repetitious specially if you have also read some of his prior books and have watched some of his video which are quite interesting. Kauffman is a likable speaker. Some of the writing is "muddy" but that could be on account of my own lack of familiarity with some of the science.
But in this review I want to concentrate on the religious issue because I don't think it is fair for Kauffman to call himself an atheist and in the next breath call for god and reinventing the sacred. That's dishonest! I call some atheists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkings "evangelizing atheists" for their efforts to spread the gospel of atheism. I don't belong to that school, I don't care what other people believe or don't believe, that's their business. But it bothers me that a self confessed atheist should be calling for god.
It took me a long time, 30 to 40 years, to become an atheist. My journey started as a teenager looking for god. I didn't find one. What I did find is that many people substitute god for something awesome or something unknown and threatening like death. Kauffman is no exception. He ends the chapter on the "The Origin of Life" with: "Life has emerged in the universe without requiring special intervention from a Creator God. Should that fact lessen our wonder at the emergence and evolution of life and the evolution of the biosphere? No. Since we hold life scared [this is a jump to an unsupported conclusion], we are stepping towards the reinvention of the sacred as the creativity in nature." The comment in square brackets is my emphasis.
In "Breaking the Galilean Spell" Kauffman writes: "The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us. And since we can neither prestate, let alone predict, all that will happen, reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward. This emergent universe, the ceaseless creativity in this universe, is the bedrock of the sacred that I believe we must reinvent." This paragraph can be interpreted in various ways, 1) since reason alone is an insufficient, lets also use unreason... or 2) reinvent the sacred or create a god in some image we might have of him.
There is absolutely nothing new here. All Kauffman is saying is "the cosmos is awesome, let's call it god." It does not matter what myth you base your religion on, if you believe in some sort of god you are not an atheist, Jewish or otherwise.