Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reinventing the sacred

What are we to make of Stuart Kauffman? Here he is again, in an interview with Salon, promoting his new book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Those of us who call ourselves religious naturalists will applaud; Kauffman says what we have been saying all along, that there is ample reason within a completely naturalistic world view to regard the world as sacred. He says: "I think the creativity in nature is so stunning and so overwhelming that it's God enough for me, and I think it's God enough for many of us if we think about it."

Well, yes, but what is this "new view" of science, reason and religion? Kauffman wants to offer up a new kind of science, a non-reductionistic science based on laws of self-organization and emergence. And, who knows, maybe such a science is in the offing. The problem is, neither Kauffman nor anyone else has so far demonstrated what the laws of emergence might be or provided empirical evidence that they exist -- as I said in a previous post.

I read Kauffman's Salon interview looking for "new science," and find nothing but supposition:
"Can you get sustained quantum coherent behavior at body temperature in something like neurons? Nobody knows."

"The mathematics [of self-organization] has been proved, but it still needs to be shown experimentally."

"Yet a number of physicists, including Nobel laureates Philip Anderson and Robert Laughlin, feel that reductionism is not adequate to understand the real world. In its place, they talk about "emergence." I think they're right."

"Maybe the mind is acausal. Maybe the mind is non-algorithmic. I don't want you to take this very seriously. It's just Stu Kauffman getting old and thinking weird things. But it may be true."
Well, yes, it may be true. And the existence of a supernatural personal God may be true too. Whatever self-organization and emergence might be, for the time being they are not science. As I wrote in the earlier post: "Sometimes Kauffman's speculations sound like a kind of pervasive, built-in 'intelligent design' -- a stealth supernaturalism, or at best a resurgent vitalism."

Like Kauffman, I suspect that there is more going on in the world than our present science supposes, and wish him success in finding out what it might be. Certainly, he is one smart fellow. I also welcome him to the fold of religious naturalists. But we don't need laws of self-organization or emergence to think of the world as sacred. It is not a "new science" that makes a religious response to the world possible; it is an awareness that our present science -- or any future science -- illuminates but does not obviate mystery.

The basis for religious naturalism can be found in the Kauffman quotes above, but not -- as he would apparently wish -- in his references to a "new view" of science. Rather, it is in his willing admission of "I don't know." Religious naturalism is nothing more or nothing less than cosmic humility.