194 of 197 people found the following review helpful
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This is a hard book. A work of generative genius that is almost a sustained prose poem on the subject of how reductionism is not really a good way of looking at how the universe works.I found the early part of the book which shows how the operation of biological processes cannot be determined by or derived from the laws of physics understandable and convincing. This is his home territory from his work on autocatlytic sets described in his previous book At Home in the Universe that I really liked. But then Kauffman proceeds to build less convincingly and somewhat more opaquely a super structure on top of this to accomodate culture, the economy, consciousness and indeed the role of quantum theory in consciousness. In this process he frequently lost me at the detailed level, even when directionally his arguments made sense at the macro level: they were interesting and suggestive, but they were like a large flip chart report out of a brainstorm and the clarity of understanding that should have been central to his case was lost. And like a poem he repeated his mantra of the laws of physics not predicting biological processes, adding a little more to the chorus each time. I suspect Kauffman's genius and fast processing brain intimidated his editors, who were simply not tough enough with him. If perhaps 50 times during this book, they had said to him: 'Stuart exactly what do you mean here? Tell us and we will put it in words that your audience will understand'. Then this book would have reached its full potential. My editor uses the wonderful term 'muddy': too much of this book is muddy.It's great interesting mud but mud is mud. His closing pleas for a different take on ethics are heartfelt, appealing but are not as well connected with the foregoing framework as they could easily have been. Ultimately I preferred his previous book At Home in the Universe. But hard as this book is, it is worth some trouble and maybe like Gregory Bateson's work, someone will write a commentary on this book that makes it all clear. And yes ultimately I believe he has the beginnings of the reinvention of the sacred in his sights. He did begin to shift how I see things, and that was worth the journey.
65 of 68 people found the following review helpful
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In "Reinventing the Sacred", Stuart Kauffman explores the case for reinventing the sacred within the secular world, arguing for the establishment of a global spiritual space in which we can all find a common sense of something God-like, whatever our religious convictions (or lack thereof). To reach that point, Kauffman shows that we need to abandon the long-established world-view based on reductionistic (Newtonian) physics, and to look at the world instead through the lens of the new science of complex system theory. This need for a change of focus derives from the position that such concepts as meaning, purpose, ethics and even life itself can neither be predicted nor explained from a consideration solely of the behaviour of particles -- or whatever it is that physicists currently think is down there at the lowest level of existence -- in motion, when the reductionist approach tells us that everything that is real must be. And yet we, as humans, are generally uncomfortable with the idea that such things do not exist, or are unimportant. This is, of course, a quandary that reductionist scientists have long struggled with. Traditionally, the view has been to consign such things as morality, and the purpose and meaning of life, to the realm of the human mind, to call them mental constructs about which science has nothing to say, and move on. Kauffman aims to challenge that conclusion.
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 unbeliever 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.
59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
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There were times reading this book, I thought it deserved five stars, at other times two or three. There were sections of sheer genius and others of intellectual meandering. To fully appreciate this book, it would take expertise in philosophy, mathematics, computer science, physics, genetics, economics, and neuroscience. Very few people can claim these, including myself, a neurologist. The more logically rigorous sections were a bit ponderous, but worth the time.
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 .
67 of 81 people found the following review helpful
Leslie Ann Keller
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I have been waiting for days to see some real reviews of this book come up. Tired of waiting--let me say this is a fabulous book. For the lay reader, it is quite a challenge (I am an artist). Nevertheless, it is well worth the effort. Stuart Kauffman's ideas are powerful and sensible, above all else, inspiring.
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.
38 of 47 people found the following review helpful
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Kauffman takes "reductionism" to task for not providing meaning, only facts. Indeed, physics is only about facts. In a later chapter Kauffman states that with life comes agency and meaning. Agency is the central player in complex systems which is the study of free agents operating on the edge of order and chaos. Kauffman has provided some wonderful insights into this science. I'm a great fan of Stuart Kauffman, the scientist.
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.