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In "Reinventing the Sacred", Stuart Kauffman explores the case for reinventing the sacred within the secular world, arguing for the establishment of a global spiritual space in which we can all find a common sense of something God-like, whatever our religious convictions (or lack thereof). To reach that point, Kauffman shows that we need to abandon the long-established world-view based on reductionistic (Newtonian) physics, and to look at the world instead through the lens of the new science of complex system theory. This need for a change of focus derives from the position that such concepts as meaning, purpose, ethics and even life itself can neither be predicted nor explained from a consideration solely of the behaviour of particles in motion -- or whatever it is that physicists currently think is down there at the lowest level of existence -- when the reductionist approach tells us that everything that is real must be predicted or explained this way. And yet we, as humans, are generally uncomfortable with the idea that such things do not exist, or are unimportant. This is, of course, a quandary that reductionist scientists have long struggled with. Traditionally, the view has been to consign such things as morality, and the purpose and meaning of life, to the realm of the human mind, to call them mental constructs about which science has nothing to say, and move on. Kauffman aims to challenge that conclusion.

In the course of this book, Kauffman examines the latest theories on the likely origins of life on Earth, considers the chemistry of cellular biology, looks at evolutionary processes (and, in particular, Darwinian preadaptations) and then -- using an examination of the behaviour of complex human systems such as the web of global economics -- demonstrates that all complex systems display emergent properties (i.e. elaborate characteristics which arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions) which greatly resemble those things we call agency, value and meaning -- just those very properties that are denied an explanation (and therefore any real existence) by reductionist Newtonian physics. Using his complexity theory approach, Kauffman goes on to show that not only is the formation of life close to an absolute certainty (contrary to the commonly expounded stance that the probability of life arising spontaneously is almost infinitely small) but also that evolution of morality is a perfectly natural outcome of biological evolutionary processes. And, indeed, all of those things for which a creator God has previously been held accountable can be explained as the emergent outcomes of a boundless creativity that is a natural characteristic of our universe. Positing that this natural creativity is infinitely wondrous and thus worthy of our veneration, Kauffman exhorts us to recognise it as Divine, thus enabling it to stand as a substitute for a creator God for those currently without one, at the centre of a new sacred outlook on the world.

Now, while Kauffman makes the case strongly for why the human race may benefit from such an outlook (and may indeed need one, if we are to survive some of the challenges ahead) I for one feel he is somewhat naïve in his suggestion that it will fulfil the spiritual needs of both believer and non-believer alike. And while he makes a case for his ideas healing many of the rifts that pervade our secular thought processes and mindsets, I think it is a step too far to suggest that they may also help to bridge the divides that currently separate most of the current world faiths from each other. To suggest especially that his ideas are at all equivalent to established belief-sets is largely to miss the point of most of those religious faiths, partly with regard to the central role played by faith itself and also with regard to the comfort which those beliefs offer, particularly with regard to the soul and its afterlife--an aspect of human thinking that Kauffman stays well away from in this book. To be fair, Kauffman never suggests for a moment that his ideas are likely to supplant those of established faiths, merely that they provide a framework that might be regarded as sacred in its focus wherein those individuals currently without such a basis to their lives may find one. Or something that substitutes for one (and onto which they can map for their own peace of mind the beliefs of others).

As a book, I fear that "Reinventing the Sacred" ends up falling between two stools -- falling, in fact, into one of the very rifts that Kauffman is so concerned to heal. The science it presents, for all that Kauffman tries to make it accessible, is nevertheless hard work in places. The "sacred" aspects of the book, meanwhile, will probably strike the atheist as needlessly pandering, whilst those readers already of a faith will find these same aspects wishy-washy and vague. For me, where the book really falls down is the lack of any clear progression through its subject matter because of Kauffman's habit of falling back onto the same phrases over and over again coupled with his rather annoying habit of going off on long excursive examinations of things which appear to have no bearing on anything else but which are later referenced without any obvious reason. This leads to a constant feeling throughout the book that one is missing something. Perhaps I was! I can't help but think, though, that with so much of import to convey, this book would have benefited from a much firmer editorial hand.
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on 9 August 2009
The title of Stuart A Kauffman's book Reinventing the Sacred. A New View of Science, Reason and Religion is made clear already on the inside of the cover: "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." Or as it is said some pages into the book: what is important is to "find a `third way' between a meaningless reductionism and a transcendant Creator God, which preserves awe, reverence, and spirituality - and achieves much more" (31). This means that Kauffman breaks with reductionism and determinism and their impoverished world and goes in for self-organization, emergence and creativity. We live our lives forwards into mystery. Life, biosphere, man and his everyday world and history are real and not reducible to physics. Agency, values, meaning, ethics, are real parts of the furniture of the universe. Poetry and poetic wisdom are right and real and show us the truth. So art and humanities investigating our way into the unknown, are as important as science, this scientist writes. But we are of the world, it is not of us. We don't have to believe in God as the unfolding of nature. This God is real, Kauffman asserts at the end.
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on 28 August 2016
There is now a whole library of books on the Cosmos, conscience and the origins of life by scientists,looking to somehow bridge the divide between science on one hand, and religion, or at least mysticism, on the other. These books of varying quality, and some simply take the existence of quantum mechanics is a license to speculate about absolutely everything and anything, no matter how improbable.

Stuart Kauffman's book is in a different category. Kaufmann is not only a very distinguished scientist, an expert in biocomplexity and Informatics, he is also a philosopher and seems to be just as much at home in literature as in quantum physics. The result is a book which argues elegantly and persuasively for a view of the universe as an essentially self-constructing exercise in complexity, perceived through human consciousness which is itself a quantum phenomena. For Kauffman, this is a new and defensible meaning of the term "sacred", distinct at once form organised religion and from what he understandably sees as the sterile and meaningless universe constructed according to classical Newtonian principles. It is difficult to do justice to a book of this kind in a short review, and others have already summarized much of the argument. Here, it is enough to say that this is an erudite and extremely well written book, which makes extremely complex issues as simple to understand as is probably feasible. My only concern is that the book covers such an enormous field that it is easy to lose the argument, as the text moves from one complex and difficult subject to another. This is a book that you really have two read twice, at least, if you are to get real benefit from it.
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on 4 September 2010
Kauffman trained in philosophy and medicine, and now specialises in Bio-complexity and Informatics. In this sometimes provocative but enormously fascinating book, he sets out to demonstrate the inadequacy of reductionism alone in explaining our world, and offers ideas for a future evolution steered by us for a safer and better global place to live. He aims to address the schism between faith and reason, between science and arts, between reason and other sensibilities, in a new way; it is time, he writes, to "heal the split," for the sake of our world.

He starts by dismissing the once widely held scientific view (not now so widely believed by the physicists it seems), that everything in the universe can be reduced to natural physical laws. He looks around him and perceives many things that whilst not contravening the laws of physics, nevertheless cannot be reduced to physics in this way, including the evolution of the biosphere, our world economy, our history and indeed life itself. And he carefully and thoroughly explains why.

Through such observations he maintains that we can break what he calls the "Galilean Spell," which we have lived with since Galileo and Newton; the idea deeply rooted in our Western worldview since those great minds, that all that happens in our universe is governed by natural laws. He shows that we need more than this to explain many phenomena. Without rejecting reductionism entirely, he carefully and fully shows why it is inadequate to explain everything, as he describes a new emerging scientific world view, proposing that we are all members of a natural universe of "ceaseless creativity, in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness and the full richness of human action have emerged." In physics, he says, there are only "happenings," not "doings," and in the natural physical laws there is no logical possibility of signs, interpretations, mistakes. Not only does he demonstrate that his concept of "ceaseless creativity" is possible, he also describes it as awesome, stunning and worthy of reverence, something we can all view as sacred. He explains why, from the evidence of the origins of life in the universe, we do not need a creator God. (But what about the origin of the universe itself?) Instead he calls for one global view of a common God as being the natural creativity itself in the universe. This is his reinvention of the sacred that he proposes.

Kauffman explains why he thinks his ideas based on a broader scientific world view may provide a shared religious and spiritual space for us all, within which he hopes we can heal what he describes as the four injuries of the modern world, these being the artificial division between the sciences and humanities, the need for more value and meaning in our lives, the need for spirituality for all, atheists, humanists, agnostics as well as those of faith, and finally the need for a global ethic.

Clearly this is controversial, provocative, and perhaps unrealistic. As a Christian who believes in an Abrahamic God I obviously cannot agree with all he writes. But I do have respect for others' beliefs, although I hope that the Creationists may be even partly persuaded by Kauffman's reasoning that their beliefs cannot be so and that those without faith can see it is legitimate for them to experience spirituality.

I am not sure for whom this book has been written? It deserves a wide readership by the thoughtful and intelligent public but I did find much of the logic in many of his examples quite hard work to follow through, sometimes having to skim over to get to the conclusion - and I am a scientist! But I did find much of this book truly fascinating and absorbing, although I cannot do full justice to the sheer depth and breadth of Kauffman's analyses in this short review.

I am always interested in any ideas put forward that may shed some light on how we may be able to heal this dangerously wounded world. Thus I was drawn to Kauffman's work and in particular his vision that by harnessing our personal and collective responsibilities we have the wisdom, ability and knowledge to develop a new global ethics, and steer our evolution forwards, perhaps through his proposed "reinvention" of the sacred.
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on 24 April 2012
Kauffman thinks the complexity of biology cannot be deduced from particles in motion and their governing laws. He argues that there is an infinite number of ways in which quanta can be arranged, and organisms are only a small subset of these possibilities.

Life is viewed as introducing agency into the universe. Choosing between different behaviours is seen as requiring agency, which involves meaning and values, and these in turn require consciousness. Kauffman does not consider that information can explain the functioning of the cell. He argues that an agent is required to give meaning to information. The advantage of an agent is that there is not just one response to one stimulus, but a choice of different responses according to context. The ability to discriminate between stimuli is argued to be a 'poised state' between order and chaos, where order always gives the same answer for particular stimuli, despite varying outcomes in the past, and chaos gives a random outcome that is of no value.

Kauffman argues that consciousness derives from such a 'poised state' between the classical order of decoherence and the 'chaos' of quantum coherence. The 'poised state' is suggested to span both systems that are mainly coherent and systems that are partly coherent, and this is suggested to provide the brain with greater flexibility than either order or 'chaos'.

The flow of information into cells is seen as a means by which recoherence can be induced, and coherence thus maintained, with quantum possibilities effecting classical systems, while classical systems can influence recohering quantum systems. He views this as being supported by recent research on photosynthetic organisms, which shows that their efficiency of energy transfer depends on longer than previously predicted maintenance of quantum coherence in these organisms.
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on 18 June 2015
Challenging read but worth the effort. Quite thought provoking . Book delivered in good condition.
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on 29 November 2009
In `Reinventing the Sacred' Stuart Kauffman marches through a wide assortment of seemingly unrelated topics, from the basis of life, mind and consciousness to technological change, law, the economy and global civilization. In each case he aims to show its evolution occurs in ways not reducible to Physics, 'emerging', partly at least unpredictably, at a higher level. He finds this awe-inspiring and wishes to name that incessant creativity of nature `God'. He invites us all to re-appropriate the idea of the `sacred' to this concept of the self-organization of the natural world and to dispense with any necessity for a Supreme Creator (6).

The book has the tone of a very individual journey for Kauffman, from a worldview devoid of any element of sacredness towards, perhaps, an inkling of the Divine. He cannot, yet, avoid the scientist's conviction that what he has just discovered must be right for everyone, whether atheist or theist, and consequently presents it as a radical, new and comprehensive, compromise solution. One can excuse him this though. His voyage of discovery is underway and it is a more hopeful one than many, uncluttered by historical baggage and with a kind of fresh naïveté that many might find attractive.

However, novel and universally liberating, Kauffman's re-discovery of the holy is not. A belief in the forces of nature as god represents a very early and circumscribed stage in humanity's religious development. This is a modern-day variant of pantheism, such as world religions have engaged with and superseded for thousands of years. Kauffman suspects those of faith in the creator God may initially be angered by his proposals (284) but they are much more likely to want to encourage him a little further along his new-found path toward personal salvation. He is also wrong to think, `we have reserved this word ['God'] in the Abrahamic tradition to refer to the Creator'. 'God' is, in fact, a rather overused word in the Bible (see, for example, Psalm 96:5 or Exodus 22:20).

Kauffman's book is a fusion of much very technical Complexity theory and its application, with his ancient philosophical position. To my mind, the theoretical content is often given barely sufficient space to be properly appreciated, while the continual repetition of the mantras of the `partially lawless, co-constructing universe' (245) assumes the proportions of an evangelical revivalist sermon. Still, one can again readily pardon this as the enthusiasms of the young convert.

`Reinventing the Sacred' finishes with a plea to co-operate on a project to develop a pioneering, worldwide, emergent ethic, alongside a reinvented reverence (288). It should constitute a `new Eden' (274) where, `knowledge is no sin'. Here once again, however, Kauffman has apparently misunderstood the `Abrahamic tradition' he would like to transcend. Adam did not lose Eden because of his acquisition of knowledge, but through his disobedient and untrustworthy behaviour (Genesis 3:17).

In conclusion then, read this book if you enjoy accounts of one man's emerging spirituality, but do not expect, `stunning new ideas ... [in] the relation of science to religion' (front cover).
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on 15 March 2011
God 2.0?? Well may be and the book certainly provides a modern viewpoint and explores the possible without the rantings of Richard Dawkins. The reader can make up their own mind and that is refreshing. You will have to work a little to get the best out of the book, but the effort and the journey is rewarding.
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on 11 February 2011
I would not recommend this book. I read most things fairly easily but this is obscure and did not help me at all. Full of repetitive unconvincing vagueness.
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