Ed's Reviews > Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart A. Kauffman
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Aug 03, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: biology, philosophy, religion, my-reviews

The idea that the sacred is to be found within nature rather than outside it is a very old one, although it is a minority view within modern Western culture. It is more common for both believers and non-believers to associate the sacred with the supernatural, and then argue over the existence of supernatural beings. Kauffman's book is interesting not only for the conclusion he comes to, but for the route by which he gets there. His studies in the science of complexity have led him to appreciate a creativity within nature that conventional science cannot reduce to laws or computations. It is a mystery that cannot be entirely dispelled by further scientific progress, but must be embraced and celebrated.

In many ways, this book is a restatement of--and spiritual reflection upon--Kauffman's earlier work, especially his last book, Investigations. There he departed from the more "normal science" he had done before to explore some deeper philosophical implications of biological complexity. Central to both books is his rejection of scientific reductionism, the idea that the complex can be explained by the simple, with the ultimate explanation to be found in the actions of subatomic particles or strings. Kauffman is interested in the ongoing emergence of new organization, especially in the biosphere and human society, but also in the universe more generally. New organization can't violate any lower-level laws, but it is not necessitated by those laws or computable from them. He believes that the standard account of evolution is one form of reductionism, relying too much on natural selection from variations in individual genes, while overlooking the emergence of new forms and functions through the ongoing organization and use of genomes as wholes. (Jablonka and Lamb's Evolution in Four Dimensions appears to provide support for this more holistic view of evolution.)

As Kauffman sees it, the trajectory of the "nonergodic" (non-repeating) universe is continually taking it into the "adjacent possible," a configuration space whose possibilities cannot be computed in advance. New things emerge that cannot be entirely described by existing categories. Thus no algorithm or logical deduction can account completely for the present or future, and we have to learn to live with mystery creatively. Our scientific way of understanding the world must expand to include something more like aesthetic interpretation (non-reductionist interpretation in context). Ethically, we must learn to see ourselves as co-creators of the biosphere and global community.

Kauffman's new conception of the sacred fits this new worldview. The creativity of nature "is stunning, awesome, and worthy of reverence. One view of God is that God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures."

Kauffman is taking the ideas of complexity and emergence in radically new directions. Those ideas take him beyond traditional science into a realm of thought where science, art and religion come together. Readers who are willing to take that leap may love this book. Readers who think that the standard methods of science tell us all that can be known (which sounds a little contradictory, since it isn't a scientific statement per se) or who believe that nothing is so sacred as to deserve to be called "God" may dislike it. I highly recommend the book, but only for those readers who are interested in an alternative to both religious supernaturalism and scientific secularism.
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