The Sacred Emerges from the Secular

Paul Bassett

Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, by Stuart A. Kauffman (New York: Basic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-46500300-6) 320 pp. Cloth $27.00.


Science and religion are bicameral lawmakers that mathematical biologist and philosopher Stuart Kauffman would prefer to harmonize. Science, despite its stunning successes, can never unify all laws of nature. Religion, despite its succor for souls, has erred in legislating supernatural creators. In Reinventing the Sacred, he connects these two seemingly unrelated rebukes by arguing that the universe’s “partially lawless, ceaseless creativity” is a natural notion of God worthy of superseding all others.

A MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee, Kauffman rose to prominence by showing that self-organizing processes are as important to the origin and evolution of life as Darwinian natural selection. Now he treads on the toes of reductionists like Nobel laureate Stephen Weinberg, who holds that the universe consists of nothing but elementary particles in motion. (The electromagnetic, gravitational, strong, and weak forces are themselves mediated by particles.) In this worldview, all phenomena “from asteroid collisions to a kiss to a court in France finding a man guilty of murder” are, in principle if not in practice, explainable in terms of particles. Consistent with this view, philosophers such as Hume assert the naturalistic fallacy that “one cannot deduce ought from is,” that moral principles cannot be derived from the happenings of particles and their aggregates.

Yes, scientific reductionism is the most powerful epistemology ever invented. But Kauffman shows that it must fail to “reduce” many, if not most, interesting phenomena in our universe, including ecosystems, economics, culture, politics, minds, and religion. Why? Because the multiplatform argument tells us that when the same phenomenon can occur on dissimilar “platforms”—physical settings that operate by different rules—then the rules of specific platforms are insufficient to explain that phenomenon. Chess, for example, obeys well-defined rules, and its theory is nontrivial; but chess is played in and by many disparate agents, including humans and computers, using a variety of physical media. So while phenomena such as games, minds, and programs require physical platforms for their manifestation, their theories are not reducible to the physics of particles. Such epiphenomena are termed emergent.

Kauffman devotes much space to “breaking the Galilean spell” of reductionism so readers can appreciate the plethora of emergent phenomena that are as much a part of “the furniture of the universe” as particles. He says that our universe is a far richer space and place than science has heretofore allowed. It is also “partially lawless,” meaning not that any physical laws are violated but that emergence is unpredictable and that there are many mysteries no one will ever be able to fully understand. He illustrates with Darwinian “pre-adaptations”—neutral mutations that confer future advantages. They remind me of important mathematical and scientific discoveries that were originally considered useless. No evolutionary theory can predict specific pre-adaptations, such as early fish with lungs being pre-adapted for swim bladders. Among his many other examples is this vignette, said to be true:

A group of engineers were trying to invent the tractor. They knew they would need a massive engine. They obtained a massive engine block and mounted it on a chassis, which promptly broke. They tried successively larger chassis, all of which broke. At last one of the engineers said, “You know, the engine block is so big and rigid, we can use [it] as the chassis and hang the rest of the tractor off the engine block.” And indeed that is how tractors are made. Now the rigidity of the engine block was an unused causal feature of the engine block that came to be used for a novel function—to serve as a chassis. It is a Darwinian preadaptation in the economic sphere: legally, it was an invention, presumably patentable.

Pre-adaptations are a subset of the even more ubiquitous “adjacent possible”: unrelated things that happen to come together, enabling novel synergies. Thus a cosmic ray mutates a DNA molecule, enabling a game-changing adaptation. Or three jawbones in an early fish (today’s stapes, malleus, and incus) “came together to jointly create a new function relevant to hearing.” Kauffman strenuously argues that the endless possibilities cannot be enumerated or even pre-stated; hence there is no way to predict their detailed unfolding. His multiplicity of examples lends credence to the universe being “ceaselessly creative.”

Kauffman weaves into his arguments a distillation of ideas found in his other books, in particular on the origins of life. He reminds us that self-organizing processes abound, both biotic and abiotic, including crystallization (as in salt and snowflakes), liposomes, self-catalyzing molecules, spontaneous network growth, morphogenesis (of eggs into trillion-cell adults), and the self-organized criticality of complex systems. He defines any system to be alive if it can do three things: (1) reproduce; (2) metabolize, i.e., utilize external energy to maintain sufficient internal order (homeostasis) so that work cycles can be repeated; and (3) be an agent, i.e., behave autonomously. Thus a bacterium is an agent because it senses then swims up a glucose gradient. (Do all agents have free will? Kauffman does not say, but I doubt bacteria can elect not to swim up food gradients.)

Unlike a ball rolling down an inclined plane, an agent gains autonomy by translating signs, happenings in the environment (e.g., a glucose gradient), into actions, doings (e.g., movement towards food). A doing such as going grocery shopping cannot be inferred from the myriad happenings involved in getting to a grocery store, most of which vary from trip to trip. Yet because agents are finite, translating from happenings to doings must involve abstractions, which we call “goals.” This is how goal-seeking (i.e., teleological) behavior emerges. Only agents, not mere particle aggregates, have goals. Choosing among goals involves having meta-goals, which we call “values.” Kauffman thus transcends Hume, arguing that it is legitimate for agents to infer ought from is when the is concerns doings (as opposed to happenings).

“A central implication of this new worldview is that we are co-creators of a universe, biosphere, and culture of endlessly novel creativity.” His idea is interestingly self-referential: the universe, through entirely natural processes, managed to create agents that autonomously create more novelty. Thus agents are catalysts, speeding up the creation process, likely also enabling the creation of entities not otherwise creatable.

Kauffman and I part ways over his claims about brain epiphenomena called “mind” and “consciousness,” which he says “are central to my book”: “I believe the human mind is not algorithmic, and is not a mere ‘computational machine.’ Rather, I believe that the mind is more than a computational machine.” Chapter 12 attempts to buttress this widely held belief by citing examples of mental tours-de-force, such as Gödel’s proof that any system of mathematics that includes arithmetic must include unprovable truths. Curiously omitted is the mundane fact that brains subconsciously process an abundance of random external inputs, some of whose “adjacent possibles” may occasionally st
imulate novel ideas.

I see no reason to assume that gaps in our understanding cannot be explained naturally, that they require a super-algorithmic mechanism. Indeed, the kind of nonterminating goal-seeking algorithms described by Douglas Hofstadter in his 2007 I Am a Strange Loop operate simultaneously at many (possibly subconscious and emotional) levels; they are emergent and mutually irreducible; and they evolve based on interactions with the environment. Why can’t such dynamic, self-adapting algorithms plausibly account for mind and consciousness? Of course, until we know whether they do, the jury must remain out.

A second of Kauffman’s objections is that the preconditions for creating new ideas are unprestatable; in other words, no algorithm can possibly list all the adjacent possibles. But this is a red herring, as humans are just as unable to list them all; nor do we need to in order to find one that leads to a new insight. If DNA-algorithms evolve to “fit” their physical environments by trial and error, why can’t mind-algorithms similarly evolve to “fit” their problem domains?

My strongest dissent is that the author requires brains to violate the Church-Turing-Deutsch principle, which says every finitely realizable physical system can be perfectly simulated by a universal model computing machine operating by finite means. In 1985, David Deutsch, the founder of quantum computing and winner of the Dirac prize and the Edge of Computation Science prize, published a landmark paper that strengthened Church and Turing’s 1936 thesis, which in essence says every function which would naturally be regarded as computable can be computed by a conventional computer (with finite but unbounded memory). The significance of this hypothesis cannot be overstated. It implies that any sort of information processing, including whatever brains can do, can be accomplished by a finite list of steps, where each step involves nothing more than reading and possibly writing one symbol. What Deutsch did was to elevate the CT thesis, which had already resisted all attempts to refute it, to a physical principle, akin to the conservation of energy. Physical principles guide physicists in the formulation of theories. And so it is with the CTD principle. Deutsch went on to prove that all quantum mechanical systems satisfy CTD. This means the only possible escape is to discover a system that both violates the laws of quantum mechanics and computes at least one function that conventional computers can’t. Such a discovery would be revolutionary, as it would not only permit us to solve problems known to be unsolvable under CTD, but it would also profoundly alter our understanding of how the material universe works.

Kauffman agrees that brains obey the laws of quantum mechanics. He devotes his chapter 13 to a model inspired by the discovery that plants utilize quantum coherence to convert light into chemical energy. In his model, the brain maintains quantum coherences long enough to somehow transcend algorithmic limits, an ironic reduction of the mind to particles in motion. Even if his self-admittedly highly speculative model is right, he is still wrong because all quantum mechanical mechanisms have been proven to satisfy CTD. Other respected physicists such as Jacob Bekenstein, Seth Lloyd, and Y. Jack Ng agree—it’s algorithms all the way down!

Here’s the deepest irony. Kauffman subtracts when he could have added to his otherwise compelling survey of how natural physical principles enable stunning creativity and complexity to emerge without a creator god. Isn’t the mind’s endless creativity (including its notions of the sacred) all the more marvelous because it emerges from very simple (and secular) processes?

Kauffman’s diverse array of topics will be challenging for nonscientific readers. However, his main message is important and deserves a wide audience. His global ethic resonates with secular humanist maxims, as the following amalgam of eloquent quotations illustrates.

The creativity in nature is God enough. . . . From that new sacred, we can hope to invent a global ethic to orient our lives, and our emerging global civilization . . . that we jointly partially co-construct. . . . The profound fear behind the attack on evolution is the fear that . . . we will be left with a Godless, meaningless, amoral secular humanism. One deep purpose of this book is to say . . . that if we take God to be the creativity in the universe and find . . . [that] the roots of our ethics [are] due to evolution itself, then this deep fear is unfounded. . . . The sacred and the moral remain utterly valid. So I want to say that I am sympathetic with the feelings and beliefs of those who espouse intelligent design. But as science, it fails. . . . Science itself begins to tell us that reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives forward. Then perhaps we must reexamine and reintegrate the arts and humanities along with science, practical action, politics, ethics, and spirituality. . . . My own hope is that we will continue to invent institutions from international courts to nongovernmental agencies that act across national boundaries, to help shape our evolving laws and our morality, partially embedded in those laws, across our traditions. . . . We must use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature. May we find the creativity in nature sacred whether we are atheists or believers in a God who breathed life into this universe of ceaseless creativity.

Paul Bassett

Paul Bassett is past president of the Central Ontario Humanists Association. He taught computer science at York University and cofounded two software engineering companies. He is the author of Framing Software Reuse (Prentice Hall, 1997)


Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, by Stuart A. Kauffman (New York: Basic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-46500300-6) 320 pp. Cloth $27.00. Science and religion are bicameral lawmakers that mathematical biologist and philosopher Stuart Kauffman would prefer to harmonize. Science, despite its stunning successes, can never unify all laws of nature. …

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