Responding to the atheist Stuart Kauffman Part 3

Responding to the atheist Stuart Kauffman Part 3


The first post I did on Stuart Kauffman used the Fine Tuning Argument of Antony Flew against him among other things. In the second post, I put an article by Kauffman on the question Does science make belief in God obsolete?, and his article asserted, “No, but only if…” Then I posted right behind it a response by William D. Phillips. Phillips, a Nobel Laureate in physics, is a fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute of the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In this article by Phillips he asserted, “Recently, the philosopher and long-time atheist Anthony Flew changed his mind and decided that, based on such evidence, he should believe in God.”

Antony Flew pictured below:


In the third post today Dr. William Wharton, Professor of Physics, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, reviews Kauffman’s book  REINVENTING THE SACRED: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, and he concludes, “What disturbs me most about this book is that Kauffman has a naive, faulty view of the God of the Bible. He subsequently hopes that he can get many fundamentalists to replace their personal Savior with a fully natural pantheistic god.”


REINVENTING THE SACRED: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion by Stuart Kauffman. New York: Basic Books, 2008. 320 pages. Hardcover; $27.00. ISBN: 9780465003006. 

Stuart Kauffman is one of the leading experts in complexity theory and emergence in the general area of the biosphere. The first ten chapters of this book are devoted to his specialty and present a strong, compelling argument for the existence of the sacred in nature. All ASA members should read these chapters. However, there are serious problems with the rest of the book, where he jumps out of his area of expertise.

Kauffmans motivation for this book is described on the first page of chapter 10:

What about all the aspects of the universe we hold sacredagency, meaning, values, purpose, all life, and the planet? We are neither ready to give these up nor willing to consider them mere human illusions. One response is that if the natural world has no room for these things, and yet we are unshakably convinced of their reality, then they must be outside of nature-supernatural, infused into the universe by God. The schism between religion and science is, therefore, in part, a disagreement over the existence of meaning. If meaning were to be discovered scientifically, the schism might be healed.

Both the content and method of Kauffmans presentation is much more palatable to the scientific community than are the attempts of the ID movement to use science to argue for design.

Kauffman, who studied philosophy at Oxford, uses his first four chapters to argue both scientifically and philosophically against the adequacy of reductionism. Reductionism is the belief that all explanatory arrows point downward to the most elementary constituents and fundamental laws. Among his many arguments, Kauffman considers Weinbergs dream of a final theory in which basic fundamental principles would explain everything, including the finely tuned constants of nature. He then points out that a more common approach is the so-called weak anthropic principle in which our universe, among endless multiverses, by chance has the right properties for life. Although the multiverse approach undermines the goals of reductionism, both approaches make the fine tuning meaningless. Kauffmans beliefs do not allow a search for meaning in the anthropic principle. The word scientifically in the chapter 10 quote refers to purely natural processes with supernatural agency excluded.

Nevertheless Kauffman can give many powerful arguments for the sacredness and meaning of nature. Whereas pure chance is the primary explanation for the weak anthropic principle, chance plays a more minor role in Kauffman emergence theories. Chapter 5, The Origin of Life, argues that there are emergent, spontaneous, self-organizing processes involving so-called downward causation in which a systems complexity creates constraints which are partially causal. This creates totally new phenomena beyond the explanatory power of natural laws of physics, but does not violate these fundamental laws. Chapter 6, Agency, Value, and Meaning, follows from Kauffmans discredit of reductionism. The teleological language refers to autonomous agents within nature. Kauffman believes agency arose in evolution. Chapter 7, Cycles of Work, digs deeper into the concept of agency, how one molecule instructs another. Kauffman also looks at the meaning of information.

Chapter 9, Nonergodic Universe, argues that all the happenings in our universe are not repeatable and that not everything that can happen will happen. Chapter 10 is a culmination of the first nine chapters, discrediting determinism (simple happenings) of physics and opening up the sacred. Here Kauffman makes a big issue of Darwinian pre-adaptations. These are incidental features of a complex system which turn out to have selective significance when their environment changes. He clarifies his case for causally anomalous happenings, not governed by natural laws and also not algorithmic (not formulated mathematically). For example, he considers Michael Behes so-called irreducibly complex bacterial flagellum as a pre-adaptation. He points out that one cannot use probability statements about pre-adaptations (not algorithmic) and therefore the important probability arguments used by the ID movement are in error.

In the second half of the book, Kauffman extends his ideas to areas in which he lacks expertise: the economy, mind, quantum brain, theodicy, ethics (where Kauffman has a strong philosophical background), and morality. Other issues are C. P. Snows two cultures, the humanities and natural sciences, that Kauffman wants to bring together through their commonality, and a global ethic dealing with the environment. The primary goal of this book is to heal the schism between science and religion. Kauffman sees the importance of religion in the history of civilization, but he is also obsessed with the evils of fundamentalism in religion. Elsewhere (www.templeton. org/belief) he says,

I believe that reinventing the sacred is a global cultural imperative. A global race is under way, between the retreat into fundamentalisms and the construction of a safe, shared space for our spirituality that might also ease those fundamentalist fears.

What disturbs me most about this book is that Kauffman has a naive, faulty view of the God of the Bible. He subsequently hopes that he can get many fundamentalists to replace their personal Savior with a fully natural pantheistic god. Setting this aside, I think we can learn from Kauffman about his deep insights into complexity theory, and gain a better understanding of how our personal God works in creation and possibly how we as humans have free will.

Reviewed by William Wharton, Professor of Physics, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187. 

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