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Review of “Reinventing the Sacred,” by Stuart Kauffman

A Book Review of

Reinventing the Sacred-A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion


Stuart Kauffman

Stuart Kauffman is well known in biological circles for his theories about complex systems.  He is a prominent MetaDarwinist, and his views are not widely accepted among mainstream biologists.  He is a physician, biologist, philosopher of mind, researcher, and entrepreneur.  He was active in the thinktank Santa Fe Institute, and is now a professor at the University of Calgary.

In this book, he first systematically dismantles scientific reductionism, from the perspectives of both physics and biology.  It is from the position of NeoDarwinist reductionism that such vocal atheists as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Weinberg have declared that all life is in essence just particles slamming together and therefore ultimately meaningless.  Kauffman points out that in fact numerous features of life, including consciousness and mind, are emergent phenomena.  That is, rather than living things existing only as assemblies of particles, they function on levels and scales unimaginably  greater than the sum of their parts. Biology, he states, is not reducible to physics.

He cites what he calls Darwinian Preadaptations as illustrating his points.  (In Christianity in Evolution, I described  these preadaptations  as “Life is a tinkerer.”)  That is, life has the uncanny ability to find new and unpredictable uses for existing structures.  Thus, some of the jawbones of early reptiles  were modified to ultimately become the tiny bones in the middle ear of later vertebrates, including us.  In another example, the poison injection system in bacteria has been recruited and modified to become the base of the bacterial flagella, a propeller to swim with.  He asserts that Darwinian Preadaptations, (the tinkering of Life) “confront us with a radically new kind of unpredictable creativity in the evolution of the biosphere…Thus a radical, and, I will say, partially lawless creativity enters the universe.  The radical implication is that we live in an emergent universe in which ceaseless unforeseeable creativity arises and surrounds us.” This is the worldview I subscribe to, and around which I wrote Christianity in Evolution-Discovering the Harmony of Science and Faith.”

In Chapter 6, he illustrates how life is agent.  He states that the action of a bacterium swimming up a glucose gradient is acting teleologically.  He calls this simplest living system a “minimal molecular autonomous agent…capable of acting on its own behalf in an environment…Thus the agent must be able to detect, make a choice, and act.  Virtually all contemporary cells fulfill this expanded definition.  Such systems are emergent in (Nobel Prize winning Stanford Physics Professor) LaughIin’s sense, with novel properties, for they are agents and can act, where the action is the relevant subset of the causal evens that occur.”  It is a superb chapter that echoes my fundamental premise, the agency of life, which allows me to then make a Christian interpretation that is most plausible.  He goes on to declare that because life is agentive, meaning, values, morality, and ethics devolve.  I should note that he wrote this book in 2008.  I discovered it only a couple of months ago.  Basically, I reinvented the wheel.

In Chapter 7, The Cycle of Work, he discusses the agency of the cell as it establishes and maintains its boundaries and carries out its various metabolisms.  It is an excellent discussion of how Life recruits and utilizes biochemistry and physics. One can well see why he is unpopular among mainstream biologists.  In Chapter 8, talking about self organization, he states “It is, at a minimum, a concrete example of the possibility of emergence, non-reducibility, and, as we shall see, the powerful idea that order in biology does not come from natural selection alone but from a poorly understood marriage of self-organization and selection.  Thus, the classical belief of most biologists that the only source of order in biology is natural selection may well be wrong.”  He concludes, “We truly need a new worldview, well beyond the reductionism of Laplace and Weinberg. ..We must rethink evolution.”

In Chapter 10, “Breaking the Galilean Spell,” he is not taking aim at Jesus but at Galileo, who was the first reductionist.  He writes “We began this book by looking at reductionism, which has dominated our scientific worldview since the times of Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Laplace.  This philosophy holds that all of reality can ultimately be understood in terms of particles in motion, and nothing else has reality, in the sense that it has the power to cause future events.  As Stephen Weinberg puts it, all the explanatory arrows point downward.  The logical conclusion is that we live in a meaningless universe of facts and happenings.”  Kauffman disagrees:  “What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacred—agency, meaning, values, purpose, all life, and the planet?  We are neither ready to give these up nor willing to consider them mere human illusions. ..The schism between religion and science is, therefore, in part, a disagreement over the existence of meaning.” (italics mine).

I really liked his discussion of mind, in Chapter 12, as a “meaning-doing system.”  Kauffman asks, “Where then do meanings come from?…Meaning derives from agency…an increased rate of glucose molecules detected by a glucose receptor as the bacterium swims up he gradient is a sign of more glucose up the glucose gradient, and that sign was interpreted by the bacterium by its oriented motion up the gradient…the glucose is given meaning …by the bacterium’s reception of the sign, and in its doings, swimming up the gradient.He concludes, “Without agency, as far as I can tell, there can be no meaning.”

Another great chapter is #14, “Living into Mystery.”  Page 231 reinforces my idea that the Ruach is not confined to life on earth or to humankind, but rather pervades all the particles in the universe.  Perhaps this is why Jesus can stop the winds on the Sea of Galilee, why “even the winds obey him,” why he can walk on water or turn it into wine.

On page 231, he states “In the new scientific worldview I’m describing, we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, in which agency, meaning, consciousness, and ethics have evolved.”  Kauffman declares this world sacred.  I totally agree.

We differ from him in one detail.  For Kauffman, the sacredness of the creation is enough God for him.  We see the universe imbued with the Ruach and made sacred and supported by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.