All-praise to the unity of God … Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things …
August 5, 2012. The best-known proponent of emergence studies in the evolutionary sciences is the biologist Stuart Kauffman – a winner of the MacArthur “genius” award, a former leading light of the Santa Fe Institute, and author of several popular (and difficult) books arguing for emergence as the best way to understand our world.
A more moderate voice – one more in tune with the way that most of modern biology is done – is that of biologist Ursula Goodenough. She is also is a proponent of emergence, but reductionism to her is the way that most good science is done.
In the following, we briefly profile Kaufmann’s and Goodenough’s thinking on emergence and their views on reductionism.
Next week, we survey their surprising – and fascinating – views on spirituality. It turns out that both are ardent advocates for the view that reality is inherently spiritual. Both look to science – Kauffman to emergence and evolution, Goodenough to the biological world – as demanding an acknowledgement of the spiritual nature of reality. Neither thinks that God exists.
Stuart Kauffman on Emergence and the Limitations of Reductionism
Kauffman is a theoretical biologist and a complex systems researcher. After getting a medical degree at UC San Francisco, he worked on developmental genetics in various universities and by 1987 was prominent enough to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. As an articulate and high-profile member of the Santa Fe Institute, he became famous, both as a leading researcher and as a spokesman for emergence and complexity studies. He cemented his reputation by writing several popular books on emergence and complexity (At Home in the Universe：The Search for Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1995), Investigations (2000), and Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion (2008)).
He focused on studying the origins of life on earth and became best known, as Wikipedia describes it, for:
Discovery Magazine describes his famous computer model for generating life:
Long convinced that Darwin’s theory of natural selection does not fully account for the patterns of order and diversity in the natural world, Kauffman designed an elaborate computer simulation to demonstrate that individual enzymes—protein molecules—could organize themselves into a self-reproducing collection of enzymes. … Kauffman theorized that with enough enzymes and enough energy, a self-perpetuating, self-replicating, nonequilibrium system would emerge—in other words, a model of life. … the model worked beautifully. Artificial life exploded and flourished.
Reinventing the Sacred
Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred (2008) is a book that talks about the role of emergence in many different fields of study. It is also a manifesto – a constant and unrelenting argument that reductionism is inadequate and misleading as a description of reality. Reductionism – of the type that typifies physics and is the leftover heritage of the scientific revolution – leads to meaningless, he argues. It is typified by the physicist Steven Weinberg’s famous quote:
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.
Emergence leads in the opposite direction, according to Kauffman. A main goal of his book
… is to discuss newly discovered limitations to the reductionism that has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton, but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values. In its place, I will propose a worldview beyond reductionism, in which we are members of a universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, and the full richness of human action have emerged. I will try to show that reductionism alone is not adequate, either as a way of doing science or as an understanding of reality.
It turns out that biological evolution by Darwin’s heritable variation and natural selection cannot be “reduced” to physics alone. It is emergent …
Kauffman’s exposition, so forcibly put, emphasizes emergence as the key to understanding life and complex phenomena.
Is it true?
Emergence, especially in the hands of folks like Kauffman, is rich and fascinating stuff and not to everyone’s tastes.
Is it true?
Reductionist thinking takes complicated systems to pieces, studies all the pieces in isolation, and then sticks them back together again. Powerful and useful. Kauffman argues, however, that reductionism fails to explain the properties of systems that are “emergent” – that come into being by virtue of their inherent complexity, and whose properties cannot be explained by reducing them to the simpler systems from which they arise. … Darwinian adaptations, agency, awareness, economics and human history are all emergent, and cannot be reduced to what Kauffman calls the physicists’ system of “particles in motion.” Kauffman’s reasoning is, in the main, faultless.
I am in agreement for reasons I think simple to see. We understand only certain aspects of the world by breaking it down into the fundamental simplicities of physics. Yes, people are weighed down by gravity, but the gravity that weighs them down is due to a very complex object – the earth.
Further, even the fundamental simplicities of physics turn out to not be simple – and maybe even emergent – when cast into the mold of field theories, as is done in the physics of the 20th and 21st century. (A field theory is one where complete accuracy is only obtained if one knows the field values at all points in space – and there are an infinity of points. And things like electrons are very complicated properties of interacting levels of fields.)
It follows that if we are to understand the world scientifically and systematically, we can’t restrict ourselves to 19th century physics and the simple models that it used. Those models – although enormously important – are only models. In effect, the childhood and adolescence of science has passed and the full complexity of the world stands unveiled before us. Our capacity to understand it will continue to grow, and so will the sophistication of the tools we forge.
Ursula Goodenough on Emergence and the Limitations of Reductionism
Ursula Goodenough brings a gentler and less insistent perspective to an understanding of the role of emergence. A professor of biology at Washington University, she wrote the best-selling book Sacred Depths of Nature (1998) and has been a frequent contributor to NPR and the History Channel. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has served as the president of the American Society of Cell Biology.
In the following, I outline her views on reductionism, evolution and emergence using Phil Mullen’s overview of themes in the Sacred Depths of Nature and Goodenough’s book chapter (co-authored with Terence Deacon) entitled The Sacred Emergence of Nature in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science.
Whereas reductionism has yielded splendid results in science, there is an important sense in which it is artificial, and in this sense false. By starting from wholes and moving ‘down’ into parts, one is moving in the opposite direction from the way matters arise.
Yes, reductionism is important, as it is needed to identify what is important. But, the component parts that reductionism identifies – in biology – become the basis for “something else:”
Importantly, this something else can, in turn, participate in generating a new something else at a different level of organization. … The now widely adopted term to describe such dynamics is emergence.
Water illustrates what happens:
Now we can consider what happens when water molecules interact with one another. … Ice forms … liquid water forms … steam forms … [with properties not] displayed by individual water molecules; what matter are dynamical regularities in the ways in which large numbers of these molecules interact with one another. And so we have here our first of our countless examples in which a composite structure that is ‘something more’ (a water molecule, from hydrogen and oxygen)… . Higher-order properties have emerged by virtue of the regularities of interactions between their constituents.
The emergence of life
Goodenough emphasizes that life can be explained by its underlying chemistry (and chemistry by its underlying physics) but “the life that emerges from the underlying chemistry of biomolecules is something more than the collection of molecules”. She identifies the interaction of molecules residing inside cells as capable of generating new processes and such new processes “have no counterpart at simpler levels. These new, life-specific functions are referred to as emergent functions”. The origin of life is an emergent function and the development of more complex functions in life are emergent processes. Goodenough summarizes her view of emergence thus as “something more from nothing but”. She suggests that emergence is “the near-inevitable consequence of our thermal and chemical circumstances”.
In short, reductionism describes the raw materials, not the end results, of life.
Next Week’s Blog
Both Kauffman and Goodenough describe life as exhibiting innate spiritual qualities. Kauffman sees in the emergent creativity of nature a creative bounty that is beyond natural law. Goodenough sees biology’s fecundity as spiritually rich and dynamic. Both see reductionism as philosophically and religiously sterile (Goodenough calls it “depressing”.)
Next week, we explore their rich perspectives on the spirituality of nature.
This is the 20th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.