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Monday, November 9, 2009

Stuart Kauffman proposes creativity as God

Stuart Kauffman
Stuart Kauffman is known as a biologist and complex systems researcher. He was a key figure at the Santa Fe Institute, a multi-disciplinary research center founded to explore the subject of complex systems across a broad spectrum of subjects.

Learn more: The Big Deal About Complexity

In a video at, Kauffman discusses one of his more recent ventures, which he has outlined in his book, Reinventing the Sacred. You may wish to view the video (link) before proceding, but it isn't necessary to understand what follows.

Kauffman is basically making the case that (a) natural law doesn't apply to some things and (b) we therefore need more than reason as our guide in life. Also, that (c) we should hence consider God to be, not a creator - but the more abtract concept of the creativity inherent in the universe (the universe's innate tendency toward emergent complexity - a counterpart to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or entropy). As such, we should then (d) consider the creations of nature sacred and not destroy life or the ecosystem needlessly.

I appreciate that Kauffman sees his thesis as being a much needed natural basis of ethical direction, but I think he has misapplied some concepts and missed some logical problems. To be fair, I have not read his entire book (it is on order).

In his video, he speaks of the evolution of swim bladders in some fish. He notes how they began as lungs and by getting some water in them, developed the new function of regulating buoyancy. He says that no "law" could have been described that would dictate the evolution of swim bladders because we don't know the vast parameters of possibility. Therefore, such a thing is unpredictable - we cannot possibly do as Newton advised. That is, we cannot picture the universe as a billiard table, and calculate the trajectory of all the particles (billiard balls), and know what will happen simply on that basis. He thinks this to be an argument against reductionism.

In a book by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (a book I very much admire and which largely affected the course of my life), it is explained how some complex systems are such that one cannot possibly, even in hypothetical theory, calculate the future course of the system, because there is no method which will get us the answer faster than the 'calculation' of the system playing out itself. Therefore, these systems are practically unpredictable. I can certainly understand this notion, but Kauffman seems to suggest lately that this is somehow a blow to determinism.

Yet, the determinist (and reductionist) argument has never been that it is possible in principle for Homo sapiens to ever actually know the future of all systems by calculation. It's hard to imagine this is what Newton meant in his analogy either.

Kauffman plays fast and loose with some concepts in a way that displays a scientific background is not quite the same as a philosophic one. He casually and subtly glides between the concept of whether or not something can be described by natural law, and whether or not it is, in fact, operating according to some natural law. This is ironic, given that one would expect scientists to be more precise, but I have seen this tendency in scientists before, whenever they wander outside their labs and come over to play with the philosophers. Many in the sciences tend to look at philosophy as 'fuzzy' and think philosophy is a playground they can let their hair down a little. In such cases they misunderstand philosophy.

Kauffman may not have done that. Rather, his mistake here could also be attributed to the scientific principle that if something cannot be measured, then it can be said not to exist. Yet, even as a naturalist and supporter of empirical methodology, I know this to be a necessary but mere constraint of the scientific process. To adapt it as a larger philosophical stance leads to some ludicrous results.

Back to swim bladders...

When Kauffman speaks of the development of swim bladders, or hearts, etc. he does not seem to realize that he is speaking in the abstract. As if to call upon Plato's concept of the 'ideal form' of the swim bladder. A physicist can get away with this because any Proton is the same as any other. Nevertheless, there are no abstract ideal forms on Newton's billiard table. Everything is a specific instance, and when Newton speaks of law yielding the results of the system, he is speaking of the specific results of every particle in the universe, each individually calculated.

As the Buddhists would tell us, the notion that there are 'swim bladders' is in many ways a delusion. It is a label we have chosen to apply to similar patterns of particle where we notice them. Newton does not suggest that, by using the laws of motion on individual particles, we can predict the outcome of these disembodied 'conceptual patterns of the mind' spoken of as though they were one universal thing.

Kauffman says that things like hearts and swim bladders are real, in the sense that they have consequences, and that the physical adjacency and interrelated pattern of things making up these emergent forms is relevant. This may refer to a notion in complex systems theory whereby, it is not only true that individual interactions of elements in a system lead to emergent properties (like heat, rigidity, pressure, density, possibly even consciousness, etc), but those properties can then come back to affect the individual interactions, other emergent properties, or things outside the system in ways not possible without the emergent property.

Yet, were the universe to be one gigantic computer simulation, things like swim bladders would surely nevertheless emerge, and calculation would show this to be so - admittedly in a statistical sense given quantum indeterminacy. Complex system's own simple computer simulation for showing how emergent complex systems arise out of random pools of interaction is called the "game of life". Indeed, it often generates, out of the chaos, a moving pattern on the screen called a "glider". As with swim bladders, here we have a repeating form to which we can give a universal name. Nevertheless, each instance of it comes about because of specific mathematical operations of adjacent units interacting with one another according to the game's three simple laws.

One of those ludicrous results of equating the real with the measured? - Imagining that facts somehow magically change when the patterns become too complicated for us to calculate or predict - yes, even in principle.

If we cannot specify what will happen next, it does not mean that what happens next is not dependent upon what happens now, and therefore, no reason to say it is "beyond natural law" if by "beyond natural law" one means, "outside objective natural laws of the universe". If, on the other hand, Kauffman's phrase, "beyond natural law" means it is beyond the ability of human beings to formulate a natural law and add it to the body of human-listed natural laws, then this may be true, but also unextraordinary.

Kauffman says:

"...the dream that everything that unfolds in the universe is describable by law, looks like it's not true... this overturns everything"

However, "is describable by" is the operative phrase here. This does not mean that everything that unfolds in the universe does not do so according to natural laws, which we may be unable to describe. If that is the case, then it simply means that human beings are limited in their conceptions - a widely acknowledged truism and therefore, in fact, overturns nothing. Kauffman continues:

"If we don't know what's going to happen... then reason... is an insufficient guide for living our lives. It means that we need reason, emotion, intuition, allegory, metaphor... to manage to live our lives as full human beings"

I agree we need these other things to "live our lives as full human beings" but I would not say that these things are additional "guide[s] for living our lives". Rather, Reason is the only guide for living our lives we have. It is true that it is 'insufficient' if by 'sufficient' we mean 'enough to do everything perfectly'. However, the basic reality in which we find ourselves, simply means we don't have what we need to do everything perfectly and take every correct course without failure. Reason, thus, is an insufficient guide, but the best guide we have. The other items listed by Kauffman are not competing alternate guides, nor are they even additional guides. They are other qualities with different purposes than guiding life. They provide the spice, enjoyment, and fulfillment in life - but nothing about them shows them to be a guide. There is nothing about emotion or intuition or metaphor which has shown itself to help the businessman know where to allocate his resources with greater accuracy than reason (to use Kauffman's example). There is nothing about these qualities which shows them to be superior to reason in overcoming our lack of knowledge of "what will happen next". Indeed, there is not even an indication that these qualities add to reason, further enhancing ability to overcome the lack of knowledge of what is to come. Surely, emotion, intuition, etc are important qualities for other reasons, but Kauffman attempts to fill in the gaps in Reason's abilities with other qualities which do not share its function or best purpose.


Kauffman seems to suggest that an inability to describe things in terms of natural law and an inability to know the future allows for a creativity in the universe, or a creative force of some sort. However, I do not see how (a) this Creativity doesn't exist even in a reductionist universe that acknowledges emergent properties, or (b) why the lack of being able to predict or calculate an outcome allows for such a Creativity whereas otherwise it would not. I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge the creative "force" of organization in the natural 'way the universe operates' - in fact, I enthusiastically embrace this phenomenon with a sense of awe and wonder. But I do not see predictability or describability in any way relevant to that quality.

Kauffman suggests we can choose to call that creativity "God" instead of a creator being. From this, we derive that the creations (life and the planet) of that natural God are sacred and we should protect them. Although I share his ending point, there are several problems with how he gets there.

Yes, we can choose what we will apply the "God" label to. However, we also choose that "that which is created by a God is sacred". We can just as easily choose, directly, to apply the label of "sacred" to life and the planet. This, in fact, makes even more sense because were we to apply it to the "creations of a natural God" that would include disease and an eventual lifeless planet. There would be nothing more or less Godly or creative about creating a burning cinder of a planet than creating a flourishing life-filled planet, or about a thriving Homo sapiens as opposed to an extinct Homo sapiens. They would all be part of this natural God's creativity. Thus, with the choice to apply the God label and the choice to say that God's creation is sacred both being subjective and ultimately self serving in nature, there is no reason not to simply be direct and assign the sacred label to life and the planet because it is what serves humanity best.

Having written this, I have a great deal of respect for Kauffman's work and his aims. I will surely read his book and give these thoughts more consideration.

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