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A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion
Reviewed by Craig Hamilton on Dec. 1, 2008
Following last year's onslaught of widely publicized new books on atheism—with titles such as The God Delusion, The End of Faith, and God Is Not Great—it is more than a little refreshing to see an eminent scientist like Stuart Kauffman enter the fray with a serious attempt to elevate the dialogue above its current polarities. With Reinventing the Sacred, Kauffman joins the ranks of a growing body of progressive scientists attempting to articulate a new, scientifically rigorous worldview that leaves room for, and even honors, humanity's spiritual yearnings.
Best known for his work as one of the Santa Fe Institute's pioneering complexity theorists, Kauffman has spent the last two decades illuminating the chaotic patterns underpinning our seemingly orderly universe. In his new book, he sets for himself an even loftier task: to show us why the newest revelations from the frontiers of science seem to call for the invention of a new kind of God.
Now, if the notion of humans “inventing” (or “reinventing”) God sounds to you like a hubris-laden inversion of the causal chain, you'll be pleased to know that your materialist radar is in sound working order. The God Kauffman points to bears little or no resemblance to the God worshipped by the great traditions, let alone the God experienced by mystics throughout the ages. Where that God is concerned, Kauffman is right in step with his materialist brethren. He dismisses any notion of a transcendent, creative intelligence to be the naive, outmoded fantasy of a bygone age. For Kauffman, the God worthy of our awe is decidedly more down to earth. He suggests we turn our reverence toward not that which transcends space and time but toward a “natural God,” which he describes as “the creativity inherent in the physical universe.”
Kauffman's purely “natural God” may have a hard time garnering much devotion among those with either religious or mystical sensibilities. But for the millions of secular agnostics and atheists who have struggled to find meaning in the random, accidental, and decidedly cold universe that modern science has left us with, Kauffman may appear as something of a savior, or at least the bearer of some very good news. He explains that the reason the universe described by science appears to be so frighteningly devoid of meaning is that science has long assumed that everything that happens in the universe can be reduced to the behavior of elementary particles. To paraphrase the nineteenth-century philosopher Pierre Simon Laplace: If we could know the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe at any given moment, we would theoretically be able to compute the entire past and future of the universe, including every song that would be written and every tear that would fall. It's a chilling picture by any measure!
However, according to Kauffman, abundant new scientific data and analyses have demonstrated that the reductionist worldview itself is not as airtight as it once appeared. Drawing on his extensive grasp of leading-edge thinking across a wide array of sciences, Kauffman makes a convincing case for the inherent irreducibility of fundamental aspects of biology, psychology, and even physics itself. Instead of a cold, predictable cosmos, he illuminates a rich, diverse, and endlessly creative universe in which the unpredictable emergence of novelty is a daily occurrence—and one that, under his pen, does indeed evoke a sense of awe worthy of the term “religious.”
If providing atheists with a reason to get out of bed in the morning were Kauffman's only aim, this well-written and rigorously argued book would already be a commendable contribution to secular society's renewed search for meaning. But Kauffman's ambitions go well beyond delivering a new, laboratory-tested opiate for the secular masses. In providing a believable framework for recognizing the sacredness of the natural world, he hopes to create objective ground for a new “global ethic…that respects all of life and the planet.” He writes: “If we reinvent the sacred to mean the wonder of the creativity in the universe, biosphere, human history, and culture, are we not inevitably invited to honor all of life and the planet that sustains it?” In this aspiration, Kauffman also succeeds admirably, demonstrating that for those who acknowledge the sacredness of the life process, protecting it is nothing less than a moral imperative. And for this meaningful contribution to the quest for an era of sustainability, atheists and believers alike should be most grateful.