Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The G-word, again...

Stuart Kauffman is at it again. He is the great champion of emergent evolution, implacable opponent of the reductionism that has reigned in science since the 17th century, and currently the director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary. He does not doubt the Darwinian paradigm; he would agree that biology without natural selection is unthinkable. But Darwinism is not enough, he says. Nature does not just unfold from the bottom up; it is also constrained from the top down. Context is as important as components.

Kauffman has written on these matters before, beginning with The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution in 1993, and I have been a cheerleader from the beginning. Back then he wrote: "Almost 140 years after Darwin's seminal book, we do not understand the powers and limitations of natural selection, we do not know what kinds of complex systems can be assembled by an evolutionary process, and we do not even begin to understand how selection and self-organization work together to create the splendor of a summer afternoon in an Alpine meadow flooded with flowers, insects, worms, soil, other animals, and humans, making our worlds together." To the task of explaining the Alpine meadow he has applied brilliant mathematics and computer simulations -- and more power to him. Alas, fifteen years later, it has to be said that reductionism remains far and away the most fruitful way of doing science.

In his newest book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, Kauffman gives the science of emergent evolution a religious imperative. The present cannot be anticipated in the past, he again insists; there is a "ceaseless novelty" in nature which he is willing to call God. Certainly, Kauffman's God is not the intrusive God of the Abrahamic faiths, nor even the God of the deists who sets things going, then steps aside. Kauffman feels he must use the G-word, "for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature."

To my mind, Kauffman's does valuable work in asking us to question reductionism, and I have no doubt that increasingly powerful computers will illuminate the nature of emergence. But if and when emergence becomes a scientifically fruitful paradigm, it will have zero theological implications. Kauffman finds God in the "ceaseless novelty" of emergent evolution. I would prefer to use the G-word for "the splendor of a summer afternoon in an Alpine meadow flooded with flowers, insects, worms, soil, other animals, and humans, making our worlds together." Access to the God of mystery has been there all along. What a successful science of emergence will do is extend the shoreline between the known and the unknown where we encounter whatever unnamable mystery is worthy of being called divine.