Review: Reinventing the Sacred by Stuart Kauffman

Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awesome to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell at a stroke, or to realize the truth: the living cell evolved with no Creator, no Almighty Hand, but arose on its own, created by the evolving biosphere? The truth is much more magnificent, much more worthy of awe and wonder, than our ancient creation myths.

Reinventing the Sacred proposes a new understanding of a natural divinity based on an emerging, scientifically based world view. Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman does not propose somehow to insert “god” into a cold, lifeless universe. Instead he argues that the qualities of divinity that we hold sacred — creativity, meaning, purposeful action — are in fact properties of the universe that can be investigated scientifically. (…)

-From the cover blurb

Reinventing the Sacred coverLast week, I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos and criticised it for answering the human world/physical universe problem in a way that effectively rejected current science. Fittingly enough, this review features one of the books I think successfully integrates science with humanity, even spirituality.

Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion actually has much more scientific content than one would expect from its descriptions. Certainly, it offers a view of how we could see sacredness as a property of the evolving universe rather than a god outside of it. It also talks at length about things like collectively autocatalytic sets, something fairly technical that may help explain how life emerged in the first place. Being a complexity theorist who hangs out at the Santa Fe Institute, Kauffman also touches on other subjects such as economics, which nevertheless involve some of the same patterns and themes. In particular, a running theme is that of creative emergence, where the evolving world is constantly finding new ways to become. Kauffman sketches a reasonable model of how, without needing to break any laws of physics or add to them, these new phenomena can be quite novel and impossible to predict in principle.

In the last chapters, Kauffman goes back to the ethical and spiritual view he proposes. I have been thinking many of the same things, so obviously I approve. We need to take the world seriously and see it as sacred, and have ethical vision, but without a requirement to go back to old mythologies that used to play a role in that. A “scientific” world view may be narrow and exclusively reductionist, but there’s absolutely no reason for it to be.

In other words: We need spirituality, but what do we need the supernatural for? But, of course, even if you do believe there is a god behind it all, that doesn’t mean you can’t share in this view of majesty of the universe and the deeper understanding of it.

Somehow, the book works, though it’s a strange mix of different kinds of science and different kinds of philosophy. Most of it is good. I did think Kauffman was believing the wrong philosophers in his ideas of the problems in the philosophy of mind that he tried to speculatively answer. But overall I found it a very illuminating, interesting and inspiring  tour through science and philosophy right up to the meaning of life, just the way I like it. People studying emergence (like myself) should also find it theoretically interesting.

Rating: 4/5

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