Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman)

Stuart A. Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion recapitulates many of the ideas about the role of emergence in biology that were worked out in Kauffman’s earlier books (At Home in the Universe and Investigations), but also tries to place these ideas within a broader philosophical focus. Ultimately, Kauffman hopes to repair the breach between reason and emotion, or between science and culture, or between a naturalistic worldview and one that emphasizes spirituality.

It’s really a question of how we get there from here. Kauffman, who has long been associated with the Santa Fe institute, draws upon complexity theory in order to elucidate the role of emergence in biological processes. Working with computer simulations rather than with actual organisms, he has sought to show how, given the right conditions, autocatalytic loops might have emerged out of a primary soup of organic chemicals, and how such a process might have contributed to the origin of life. He has pioneered the idea that living organisms, and the environments they interact with, might exist in a zone of “criticality” in between excessive stability, on the one hand, and excessive chaotic tendencies, on the other. And he argues that the emergence of spontaneous, self-generated order — “order for free” — plays a major role in evolution, alongside natural selection. All these themes from Kauffman’s earlier books are recapitulated in the course of Reinventing the Sacred.

Kauffman is thus one of the few scientists who challenges the neodarwinist consensus that is endorsed by the overwhelming majority of contemporary biologists. Alongside Kauffman, one could also list Lynn Margulis (theories about the role of symbiosis in evolution), Stephen Jay Gould (both for punctual evolution, and for his insistence, together with Richard Lewontin, on the importance of exaptation), Susan Oyama and her colleagues (Developmental Systems Theory), Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela (autopoiesis), James Lovelock (the Gaia hypothesis), Jean-Jacques Kupiec and Pierre Sonigo (who deploy Darwinian selectionism against genetic determinism). One might also mention recent attempts, from within the neodarwinist framework, to rehabilitate the idea of group selection (e.g. David Sloan Wilson), to insist upon the continuing importance of embryology and development, rather than seeing these as a mere matter of implementing what is already coded in the DNA (e.g., the work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard on developmental plasticity, and other work in so-called “Evo-Devo”), and to show the importance of non-adaptive “genetic drift” (e.g. Michael Lynch). These numerous strands of recent biological theory differ greatly among themselves; and they also differ in terms of the degrees to which they are conciliable with, or in opposition to, mainstream neodarwinism. Also, these strands are not themselves all mutually compatible; and it is too early to judge the extent to which any of them stand or fall. But together they point to the fact that the neodarwinian synthesis has not altogether disposed of philosophical questions about “life.” It is possible to take issue with neodarwinist reductionism without thereby slipping into vitalism or creationism. Darwin’s legacy remains richer and stranger than is accounted for in current mainstream discourses of genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology.

Kauffman is one of those scientists who strongly insists that the neodarwinian synthesis leaves far too much out of account. Reinventing the Sacred moves from biological speculations to a broader attack on the very notion of scientific reductionism. Kauffman insistd that biological emergence (and other forms of emergence in the natural and social/cultural worlds, for that matter) leads to the existence of phenomena that cannot be accounted for or predicted on the basis of physical laws alone. Nothing in biology contradicts the laws of physics; but the biological world does not follow from the laws of physics in themselves, and cannot entirely be described or understood in terms of those laws. Even in principle, a perfect knowledge of the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe (Laplace’s demon) would not suffice to determine the future. For the future is open and unpredictable. The universe is characterized by a “persistent creativity,” operating on all scales and in all contexts, but especially where there is life. This creativity cannot be accounted for in terms of natural laws, and elementary particles and forces. It will not be comprehended within whatever supposed “theory of everything” the physicists manage to come up with (if they ever do). Kauffman is arguing very much in the tradition of Bergson and Whitehead (though, unfortunately, he never mentions these thinkers, and doesn’t seem to know anything about them), and Ilya Prigogine.

Reinventing the Sacred is mostly concerned with “breaking the Galilean spell” that has held us in its thrall for something like four hundred years. Even complexity theory, with its understanding of “deterministic chaos,” involving abrupt, nonlinear changes from one phase state or basin of attraction to another, does not break with the logic of linear causality and mechanistic determinism. It is still “fully lawful” (in the sense of scientific laws — 141). Kauffman claims, however, that what he calls “Darwinian preadaptation” — by which he means pretty much the same thing as Gould and Lewontin do by exaptation, a word that Kauffman oddly does not use — does indeed break with such a logic. In taking already-existing phenotypic features and detourning them to new uses, organisms explore what Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible,” and thereby expand the range of actuality in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. For “Darwinian preadaptations appear to preclude even sensible probability statements” (139). This is because judging probabilities requires knowing at least the “sample space” within which all possible outcomes are contained. But biological innovation (and cultural innovation as well) changes the very shape of this space itself. It doesn’t just choose among already-existing possibilities, but changes or expands what is possible.

I think that a lot of this resonates with Whitehead’s speculations on creativity and innovation, and with Deleuze’s notion of the virtual or potential (and how it differs from the merely possible). But this in turn brings up the entire question of how to relate science and philosophy. Whitehead and Deleuze are opposed, as Kauffman is, to scientific reductionism: that is to say, they are opposed to the claim that the reduction of mental experiences to neural firings, and of physical phenomena to elementary particles and forces is all there is. As I say in my Whitehead book:

Against all reductionism, Whitehead insists that “we may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electrical waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (1920/2004, 29). The phenomenologist only considers the red glow of the sunset; the physicist only considers the mechanics of electromagnetic radiation. But Whitehead insists upon a metaphysics that embraces both. For “philosophy can exclude nothing” (1938/1968, 2).

The problem is not with scientific explanations in themselves, whose truth we can and should accept. The problem is only with thinking that these lower-level scientific explanations are ultimate and exhaustive, so that “higher-level” sorts of explanation can be entirely reduced to them — as E. O. Wilson claims with his notion of consilence, or as Paul and Patricia Churchland do with their notion of eliminative materialism. In other words, the problem comes when the low-level scientific explanation is accepted as what really is the case, and everything else is regarded as illusion or mere appearance. (This ironically reinstates the old reality/appearance distinction that scientific empiricism was supposed to get rid of once and for all). Now, it is unclear to me that this really makes much of a difference to the way that working scientists actually do their research. It only comes up when those scientists sit back and reflect upon their research in a non-experimental context — or when philosophers like the Churchlands, or armchair cultural speculators like myself, ask meta-questions about such research. But such speculations are themselves inevitable and unavoidable — it is impossible to separate “pure science” from them. The result is, we are left in a kind of circle. And Kauffman’s generous speculations are certainly welcome in contrast to Wilson’s “scientific imperialism,” his reductionist attempt to subordinate all other forms of understanding and inquiry to his particular kind of science.

At the same time, of course, we need to beware of the trap of taking Deleuze or Whitehead as an absolute starting point, and judging scientific theories on the basis of how well they conform to an already-existing philosophical argument. Both Whitehead and Deleuze were keenly interested in the science of their times, and both of them sought to create a metaphysics that was in tune with that science. This was (is) a two-way process. Both Whitehead and Deleuze insist that there is no such thing as positivistic, value-free science; all empirical research presupposes a background of theories, assumptions, and already-accepted facts. There is no physics free of metaphysics. Whithead and Deleuze therefore both strive to provide a metaphysics that will be adequate to the needs of modern science; but this does not mean that they claim, in the Kantian manner, to stipulate in advance the necessary and sufficient conditions for all knowledge (scientific or otherwise). This is part of what it means to say that they are (as Deleuze put it) “transcendental empiricists” rather than Kantian transcendental idealists. As the metaphysical process of what Whitehead calls generalization or speculation proceeds, it must continually test itself and modify itself in accordance with the developments of scientific knowledge (and other sorts of knowledge), even as it resists the exclusivist or imperialist claims that arise from, or are made on behalf of, these developments of knowledge.

To get back to Kauffman: given his interest in the role of creativity in the universe, and particularly in life processes, it’s really too bad that he seems entirely unaware of Whitehead. It is all too easy for me to translate Kauffman’s formulations into Whiteheadian terms; but I’d like to get more of a sense of how Kauffman’s speculations might allow us to modify or ‘update’ Whitehead. The weakest aspect of Kauffman’s book is his attempt to move from science to philosophy: there is a sense in which his philosophical musings are just too simplistic, or “naive.” When he gets beyond the technical details of his computer simulations, Kauffman is way too eager just to make a “leap of faith” into an embrace of teleological and spiritual concerns. There’s a lot of blather in the book about the wisdom of past civilizations, and the need to construct a “global ethic,” and far too little a sense of what it means to engage in speculation.

Now, when I say that Kauffman’s claims are largely speculative, this is not a criticism, because I do not share the positivist sense that speculation is unacceptable and that we must confine ourselves to hard empirical evidence and legitimate induction from such evidence. As Whitehead says, “the Baconian method of induction… if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it.” A certain amount of speculation is necessary, if we are to discover or invent anything at all. Kauffman is indeed unique among contemporary scientists because of the degree to which his research has been almost entirely speculative — his work has largely consisted, as I have already noted, in running computer simulations of biological processes, rather than looking at any actual organisms. This is precisely why his claims about emergent order have been ignored, rejected, or dismissed as incomprehensible by the vast majority of biological researchers. But it’s also why his suggestions are important, for any effort actually to think the biological in terms that go beyond genetic determinism and strict adaptationism.

However, some of Kauffman’s speculations in Reinventing the Sacred are just too tenuous, too lame. This is especially the case when he spends a chapter proposing a quantum model of the brain — one that differs from Roger Penrose’s better-known proposal, but that shares with it an argument that quantum indeterminacy could account for brain processes that are non-deterministic, and (especially) non-algorithmic. This is a case where Kauffman protests way too much — every step in his tortuous line of reasoning is qualified by statements like, “the hypothesis… is not at all ruled out” (211), certain factors “may remain available” according to his particular scenario (212), “perhaps something similar” is happening in a completely different realm from the one in which a particular kind of pattern has been noted (214), “it may always be the case” that such and such a process can take place (219), and so on at embarrassing length. In effect, Kauffman is constructing a Rube Goldberg machine to account for a process — let’s call it “decision” or “choice” — that classic determinism cannot explain, but only explain away. This seems utterly misguided to me — it makes far more sense just to accept, as a primary datum, recent observations about, for instance, fruit flies making unconstrained, undetermined decisions, than to go through Kauffman’s barely plausible chain of inferences and pleadings in order to allow for such a possibility.

The trouble, in a case like this, is that Kauffman’s speculations are simply not speculative enough. There needs to be some middle way between Kauffman’s appeal to a tortuous chain of reasoning on the one hand, and delirious invocations of cosmic forces on the other. It is especially noteworthy, and symptomatic, that Kauffman pulls off his explanation by appealing to quantum mechanics. It strikes me that the appeal to quantum indeterminacy, to give a scientific explanation of some otherwise unaccountable phenomenon, is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card to be used on all occasions when one cannot come up with anything else, or anything better. The same thing happens, for instance, in Greg Egan’s novel Teranesia — except Egan pulls out his quantum trump card in defense of neodarwinist reductionism, while Kauffman does so in defence of anti-reductionism.

In any case, for all that Kauffman is a speculative biologist (and, again, I am using this in a laudatory rather than dismissive sense), he fails to realize how his own mode of speculation is itself an example of the creative process that he sees at work throughout the biosphere, and perhaps the entire physical universe. Even though he has in effect abandoned the “scientific method,” he remains overly attached to “hard” factual claims, rather than understanding the continual play between what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact” and the way that, as Whitehead also says, “there is not a sentence, or a word, with a meaning which is independent of the circumstances under which it is uttered”, so that “every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact.” This is why science must always be accompanied by robust speculation, whether in the form of metaphysics or in that of science fiction.

10 thoughts on “Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman)”

  1. In proposing the general character of the universe required for a fact, we (re)invent the Sacred, as Kauffman may or may not do here, for I have not read the book. It is that metaphysical ‘universe’ that is pulled into existence when a structure or more physically, a fact, is functional. The higher the evolutionary level of that functional structure, the nearer we approach the Sacred, which then, I suppose Kauffman argues, teleologically calls for lower structures to also emerge and even die again, to maintain the life of their first cause (the Sacred in this case). Indeed that is what Bergson argues. Biological physics and universal metaphysics had common ground in ‘the fringe of instinct’, intuition, which he then richly described (and was Nobel laureated for) as the ‘intuition of duration’. I believe the Sacred, or God, is all of us watching, polarizing and correcting each other. Dominance and submission in groups are mediated by complex moral decisions reducible or at least accountable in differentiation, immediacy, actuality, continuousness, change, equity, newness and simplicity, to sum up a few aspects of duration as Bergson specified it. There is one main condition for this knowledge though, if I understand correctly: the possibility of individual criticism and (therefore) independent confirmation or rejection, to get rid of, what Bergson called, ‘intellectual sociobabble’.

  2. Maybe you demand too much from Kauffmann… ?

    What researchers like Kauffmann aim for is actually some diversification of reductionism. Let’s say you have a formal system that enables a simple explanation of a natural phenomenon ( the stripes of a zebra ). This system might fully abstract from all physical forces and operate on zero point energy but can nevertheless be implemented or realized using matter just like computer hardware can be used to implement algorithms which aren’t physical either but isomorphic to an abstract machine ( Church-Turing ). The prime example is of course evolution itself using variation and natural selection. Apparent “anti-reductionists” like Kauffmannn strive for uncovering natural laws which are not laws of physics but laws determined by structure, shape, topology, network flows etc.

    From your book description I get the message that Kauffmann tries to find the Sacred within the horizon of his work, within the transitive closure of all those formal systems scientists are dealing with as the top level of the emergent world-process or as some kind of natural, subconscience deity like Lynn Margulis.

    I wonder though if this concept isn’t more apt towards a gnostic meaning: something which is left from another world within ours. It reiterates the mentioned hardware/software relationship but now hard- and software is understood as a unit, set aside from something else which is none of them, which is from elsewhere and requires this unit to come into existence. It is not only negative but more negative than negative. When it turns into being it can only be in the way of splitting the reality we understand as a hardware/software unit or nature. This discontinuation doesn’t have be catastrophic, spectacular, revolutionary, occult or otherwise pompous – but it is always sensible. It can be as subtle as the mind/matter duality which might serve as an analogy.

  3. There’s a fundamental paradox with any reductionist theory. A theory that reduces (e.g. physicalism) experience of phenomenon, or ideas and awe by which we take in the world must be reduced to the reduced world. Concepts no longer have life if what we reduce them to is mere matter.

    Let me reset my criticism and you tell me if it makes sense. If we reduce phenomenon to brain matter the theory by which we reduce phenomenon must also be reduced to brain matter thus making reductionist theories paradoxical. The theory that is reduced to matter is no longer conceptual in that true understanding of what has been reduced must be referred to as the reduced. Reductionism works to explain and analyze. If we take it serious as a theory all conceptual powers we possess no longer matter and we must throw out anything that disagrees with our reductionist hypothesis.

    We must be cautious to be ambivalent towards our powers to conceptualize.

    I’ll try to make this formulaic and clear. Back later.

  4. I wish I have time to write out “Steps To An Ecology of Mind” by Gregory Bateson where he formulates his critical tool of schismogenesis (pp 61-72).

    He criticizes Whitehead for falling victim of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” This is against the work Whitehead did with Russell in Principia Mathematica where the theory of logical types only goes as far as pointing out concrete objects and the classes, etc.

    “religion,” “economic” etc., are not real subdivisions which are present in the cultures which we study, but merely abstractions which we make for our own convenience when we set out to describe cultures in words” (64).

    I may have made my criticism more obscure. But thank you Professor Shaviro. You jump-started my thoughts on communication and conceptualization.

  5. There is an interesting parallel perhaps in that Kauffman is admittedly unfamiliar with Whitehead and Deleuze, and the Chalmers is the same with Spinoza. Strangely, as the sciences find themselves encroaching upon what has been historically Philosophical Ground, setting the framework for our narrative telling of what IS, they find themselves perhaps in need of the very discoursive history of the landscape they find themselves standing on. Just as philosophy is in its last, authoritative breath (philosopher-types ignorant of the fact), people are (or should be) leaning over to hear what it has been saying.

  6. The criticism of Kauffman not knowing philosophers of similar mind is beside the point. It’s good to build thought upon thought and academia does this well. Prof Shaviro’s references to literature in the review is impressive, and helpful and appreciated. But sometimes fresh thought is needed, and if a Kauffman dares to step into the ring from a different perspective, bringing a different set of background understandings to a debate, that author should be welcomed and not criticized for not having read everything that was ever written on the subject. That is an impossibility that stiffles the development of new ideas. I’m enjoying Kauffman’s book. It’s up to me, the reader, to connect the threads of thought from different authors.

  7. Well said Wayne.

    It is the very premise of the book that Kaufmann, a scientist breaks into the philosophical realm with a similar yet new perspective. These types of breakthroughs are not linear. They come from unexpected places yet share a common thread. It’s up to the reader to decide what to do with how he wants to carry the thread forward.

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