Top critical review
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Four stars for the message; two stars for presentation
on 4 December 2008
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.