Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

By Goldstein, Jeffrey A. | Emergence: Complexity and Organization, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion


Goldstein, Jeffrey A., Emergence: Complexity and Organization


A Review of Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion written by Stuart Kauffman reviewed by Jeffrey A. Goldstein published by Basic Books ISBN 9780465003006 (2008)

[YHVH says to all of you]:

'Look, I am doing something new

It is emerging right now,

Can't y ou see it?

I am creating a path in the wilderness,

And rivers out of the desert '

Isaiah 43: 19:

I quote from the book of Isaiah to open this review because I see it as a counterpoint to Kauffman's opening of his book with a poetic excerpt from the English metaphysical poet John Donne, a selection that strikes me as an exceedingly odd choice given that Donne's poem not only involved a Trinitarian conception of God (a view of the sacred that Kauffman himself later repudiates, as we'll see) but also an intense and paradoxical depiction of a clash between faith and reason. Yet, this latter theme just doesn't mesh with Kauffman's book since, rather than delving into any sort of spiritual crisis, it comes down squarely on the side of secular humanism with the little he actually does devote to faith and the sacred never rising above the banal, something that could certainly never be said of Donne's poetry.

The above quote from Isaiah, in contrast, points to the possibility of there being a sacred source of emergent novelty, indeed this was the basis of an entire theological interpretation of emergence that was one of the most important trends in twentieth century theology, namely, the movement known as Process Theology based on the metaphysics of emergence expounded by the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead in his magnum opus, Process and Reality (1979); a theology of emergence about which Kauffman has nary a word to say.

Because of my own high regard for Kauffman's Origins of Order (1993), which had a deep influence on my own thinking about emergence and other complexity constructs, I wanted to give the current book an honest read, but that initial intention quickly devolved into a painful chore. Certainly, the sentiments seemed right and laudable: an ecologically-friendly "Green" Theology and one coming from complexity science and one of its gurus! This enticing prospect, though, quickly evaporated since what little this book actually has to say about the sacred/spirituality/morality turns out to be surprisingly sparse and mostly platitudinous. Instead, the greater part of the book is given over to musings on a variety of subjects, most of which will be easily recognizable as concerns Kauffman has dealt with in the past, but a few of which are new such as his theory of the quantum brain which I'll be getting into in some detail below. To be sure Chapters Six and Ten present familiar Kauffman-style anti-reductionism arguments which are well-written, interesting, with important things to say about what I think we could call a failure of the imagination on the part of many scientists.

However, in general, it's hard to know what to make of this book for most of it is given over to ruminations which seem, to this reviewer at least, as largely uninformed, many times as patently errant, and for the most part lacking cogency. Indeed, it makes me wonder if there are any genuine editors left, and please don't believe the testimonies on the back cover-one would have to be a total fool nowadays to give any credence to the blatant favor-swappings found on back covers! Much of Kauffman's speculations on such subjects as the "quantum brain" are even more far-fetched and poorly argued than most other utterances emanating from scientists during the "philosopause" phase of their careers. But before we get to them, first, let's go over the little that Kauffman does have to say about the sacred.

What kind of "sacred" is Kauffman talking about?

Although Kauffman's book purports to be about the sacred, this is the most arid and least interesting aspect of the book. …

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