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Does the Sacred Need to be Reinvented?

In the final analysis, Stuart Kauffman’s “Reinventing the Sacred: a New View of Science, Reason and Religion,” [Basic Books, 2008] fails to deliver. Although this latest offering from Kauffman ranges over a wide variety of interesting scientific topics including reductionism, the philosophy of science, evolutionary theory, the chemical evolution of life and economic theory, it does not so much reinvent the sacred as rediscover what others have known for millennia.

Kauffman, a founding member of the Santa Fe Institute, has written several books on the science of complex systems and emergence, including “The Origins of Order,” and “At Home in the Universe.” He is at his best when discussing evolutionary biology and the contributions that the emerging science of complex systems has made to our understanding of the origin and evolution of life, but tends to descend into incoherency when venturing too far afield from this, his area of expertise. The current book is no exception.

A very interesting section of the book includes chapters 4 and 5, “The Nonreducibility of Physics,” and “The Origin of Life.” His explanation in chapter 4 of Darwinian preadaptation is intriguing and he advocates forcefully for modification of Darwin’s original ideas and a retreat from the reductionist philosophy that reduces (for lack of a better term) everything to the fundamental particles of which it is composed. The discussion in chapter 5 of the propagation of linked processes is even more intriguing. Here he suggests that life evolved through a process of propagation of linked chemical reactions and that cells are “collectively autocatalytic wholes.” In other words, the self-amplifying process that drives the propagation of these simple organisms works on the entire linked structure of chemical reactions that make up the cell’s metabolism, not on individual molecules. This is an intriguing idea and he explains it well. Later in chapter 10, “Breaking the Galilean spell,” he delivers a forceful critique of intelligent design (ID). It is well known that ID is just creationism in disguise. Kauffman’s well-reasoned argument that autocatalysis can amplify otherwise unlikely events effectively obliterates the central thesis of ID that life is too improbable to have arisen on its own.

Despite the book’s positive features, I was, overall, disappointed in it. Large sections are difficult to read and have little or nothing to do with redefining the sacred. Chapters are included that seem to have nothing to do with the thesis of the book, such as economics – unless the take-away message is that we are to worship the “invisible hand” of the market. This and other such irrelevant chapters seem to be justified with the inclusion of one tacked-on sentence at the end of each chapter saying, essentially, “this is sacred,” because it is about creativity at the system level. I didn’t buy it.

Also, much of the book is devoted to what can only be described as a rant against the predominance of particle physics with Steven Weinberg at its helm. While I happen to agree with Kauffman about much of this, I think he does his cause a disservice by writing chapter after chapter on topics he doesn’t fully understand, in an attempt to bring down Weinberg and the other self-appointed priests of science.

For one thing, Kauffman still doesn’t seem to fully understand quantum mechanics. In an anecdote in chapter 13 he recounts a conversation with Murray Gell-Mann who urges him to learn some quantum mechanics. Kauffman certainly seems to have tried since the book is packed with discussions of it, but of the parts I know a bit about, he has made many mistakes.

For example, in chapter 2, “Reductionism,” he seems to claim that quantum events are not “real,” reserving this designation for “actual, real, or classical” events. What can be less real than the absorption of a photon of light by a chloroplast in a green plant? This fully quantum-mechanical event is as real as it gets. Later, in chapter 3, “The physicists rebel,” he says that “the reduction of classical thermodynamics to statistical mechanics remains incomplete,” as if this is an argument against reductionism – but the statement is nonsense. Thermodynamics cannot be “reduced to” statistical mechanics since the latter is merely a set of mathematical tools for averaging the behaviors of a large numbers of microscopic particles to get macroscopic properties such as the thermodynamic quantities of enthalpy or free energy.

The place he gets into the most trouble, though, is chapter 13, “The quantum brain?” I suppose he put the question mark in the title to wiggle out of responsibility for what he wrote there; he says, after all, that this chapter is “the most scientifically improbable thing I say in this book.” And that it is, so why include it? His description of consciousness as deriving from quantum coherent electron transport through water (a topic I know a thing or two about) is, quite simply, loopy. He cites real scientists doing actual theoretical work on this topic, but I am sure that none of them would say he is justified in making the leap to a theory of consciousness from their insights about this interesting physical phenomenon.

Finally, my strongest criticism about the book is that it does not live up to its title. Kauffman has not reinvented anything, much less the sacred. He seems to want to found a new religion, as evidenced by his frequent use of the word God to describe what he calls “the emergent creativity in the universe” and his frequent admonitions to “listen” as he describes how this creativity “invites” us to know the truth as Kauffman sees it.

It is clear that Kauffman is looking for a God he can believe in, and I wish him the best in finding one. I don’t think, though, that he should have written a book purporting to have found that God at what is clearly an early and still-confused stage in his spiritual journey. The God he proposes sounds very much like a “God of the gaps” to me. His argument seems to be that the evolution of the biosphere and human history are “partially indescribable by natural law,” so he introduces this God as explanation: “…God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures.”

First of all, a God of the gaps will ultimately disappoint, when science fills those gaps – as we surely will, given enough time and resources. Second, the idea he puts forth did not originate with Kauffman, but he does not give credit where credit is due. He acknowledges (without clear attribution) “Jesuit cosmologists” who he says have similar ideas, as if these Jesuits are discovering the same ideas as Kauffman at the same time in history. Could he, perhaps, be talking about Teilhard de Chardin (nowhere referenced in the book) whose influential “The Phenomenon of Man,” written in the 1930s, seems to fit the bill? If so, Teilhard should have been at least mentioned, if not quoted. Finally, nowhere in the book are Hindu concepts mentioned, yet the grand finale of Kauffman’s theology (and it can only be called that) seems to describe an ancient Hindu belief: “Thus, we may wish to broaden our sense of God from the creativity in nature to all of nature, law governed and partially beyond natural law. Then all the unfolding of nature is God, a fully natural God.” This is Brahman, out of whose body the universe sprang forth -- according to the Upanishads, written thousands of years ago.

Finally, the most troubling and almost sad aspect of Kauffman’s new “religion” is his insistence that the God he wants us to believe in does not know we’re here. In the final chapter he makes it clear that anything resembling prayer is just “ourselves talking to ourselves.” If Kauffman is willing to go so far as to posit a God that can bring forth the universe through the amazing and awe-inspiring processes he describes in this book, why does he deny that such a God cannot be conscious in some sense of the term? Kauffman acknowledges that much of what he is proposing could fall under the title “Buddhism,” yet he would do well to read the writings of one Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy, who is quoted by Anne Bancroft as saying “I clearly didn't invent being a person. There is a personness writ large of which I am a small reflection.”

If this is the case, then, those talks with ourselves are like the murmurings of the cells in our body to each other, each little cell wondering if there is any purpose for her existence beyond the small one she can fathom or understand. We, of course, know that our heart cells and neurons and skin cells, each and every one of them, serve a higher purpose, even if each of those little cells can never fully know what this purpose is.

And this, ultimately, is what sacredness is all about. Those with faith believe that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, whether we can fully comprehend it or not. Kauffman has stumbled on one aspect of the sacred, but what he is pushing is far -- very far --from the whole wondrous truth.


  1. Excellent review. Thank you.
    Just finished reading the book myself and was thinking of posting a review. I completely agree with your review. I was actually really looking forward to reading Reinventing the Sacred and even wondered how come it came out over a year ago and I haven't even heard of it? Why did it make so little impact?
    Well, once you read it, then you understand. It's sadly dense and unsatisfying. There are little gems here and there though and the nugget of the idea about the phenomenon of emergence is actually something worth exploring. I think he's right that emergence changes everything and thoroughly challenges reductionism.
    Where the book really fails though, as you say, is that he just doesn't "reinvent the sacred". Just the other week, I re-read, John O'Donoghue's "Anam Cara", and I can tell you, although from a totally different viewpoint, that captures the sacred for me in ways that Kauffman just doesn't manage.
    Search my blog for the French word "emerveillement". I think that concept is close to what Stuart Kauffman is trying to describe.

  2. Bob - thanks for your comment and for the recommendation of O'Donoghue's book. I will definitely take a look and will check out your blog. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Not a book I could begin to read, but I appreciated your intelligent and spiritual review.

  4. Thanks for you comment, MM. Thanks, also, for signing up as a follower of this blog. I appreciate it!


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