All-praise to the unity of God … Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things …
August 20, 2012. Last week we looked at how studies of emergence in biology, in complex systems, and in other sciences have lead to an embrace of spirituality by several leading emergence thinkers. Emergence considers properties – life, for example – that cannot be found in the materials – chemicals and minerals, say – that things are made of.
Evolution and modern complex systems studies are increasingly showing that we – along with the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the trees in the mountains, the monkeys in the jungle, even the rainfall where we live – are components of a vast complex system that is our world. The concepts of emergence science – and the embrace of spirituality they have inspired – reflect the growing sense of interconnectedness which many scientists see as a central feature of life on our planet.
Is the new “emergent’ spirituality an important step towards reconciling science and religion? After all, as we discuss below, it is shot through and through with the contempt for and distrust of religion that is the legacy of the enlightenment vision of science. Evolution is made into a creation narrative, scientism runs riot, a new priesthood is emergent, and there is scant attention to the lessons of the past.
Yes, I conclude. Emergent spirituality is definitely an important step towards reconciling science and religion.
According to emergence studies, we are not, as old-fashioned reductionists like to tell us, simply conglomerations of atoms in empty space with an inexplicable ability to reflect on the meaninglessness of it all. There is more to us – and to reality – than that.
Emergence studies, Stuart Kauffman, Ursula Goodenough and others claim, offer new ways of looking at the world based on new scientific perspectives, and these new ways enable a new way to embrace spirituality, and they offer a new way to believe in God, a way quite different than traditional ways. My last two posts – here and here – outlined and summarized their perspectives.
From the point of view of the oneness of science and religion, what sticks out is the following:
- They push reductionism out the front door but let it in the back door.
- They reject transcendence as variously taught by the different religions of the world.
- They embrace “scientism” – the perspective that only science can provide truth.
- They lack a historical perspective, seemingly unaware of the way that claims about biology and evolution – ranging from the “scientific” racialism of 19th century European thinkers to the eugenics promotions of the early 20th century American scientific establishment – have fueled major disruptions to civilization.
Back Door Reductionism
Reductionism is the view – developed by physicists during the scientific revolution – that all things are “constituted” and “explained” by a bottom-up approach to fundamental forces and particles. So, for example, we can explain a car by examing its parts; we can explain its parts by looking at the materials they are made from; and we can explain the materials by looking at their atomic constituents. (None of this explains why we build cars – natural science can’t do that.)
Emergence seeks to reverse the downwards explanatory spiral of reductionism. A car, the emergentist says, is more than the sum of its parts. Only when the parts – the wheels, the tires, the engine, the transmission, the steering wheel – are working together is the car a car. (Engineers know this full well, but they don’t write the texts on metaphysics.)
But the emergence we have been examining retains much of reductionist thrust of old-fashioned science. Everything still “emerges” from something more fundamental. True, physics is no longer considered to be the root source (emergentists tend to be evolutionists, remember). Rather, the creativity of nature is now viewed as the root source. So everything is explained as a result of nature, just nature more broadly imagined.
Two Older Perspectives
By way of contrast, consider two older perspectives, one of which underlies physics, the other biology. Physicists – at least those not seeking theories of everything – think about something they call the laws of nature. From the laws of nature perspective – which is different than reductionism – everything that happens is a consequence of those laws. Complexity – and what is called emergence – are nothing more than phenomena allowed by those laws. Yes, there are growth and development processes required to bring about such phenomena – you can’t have solar systems if you lack particles to make a sun – but everything still comes from the laws of nature.
Natural scientists strive to understand those laws, using reductionism when it works. But, demanding that everything be explained by one conceptual mechanism – be it reductionism or nature’s creativity – is metaphysics, not science.
Another older perspective is that of unfolding. The classic example is what happens to the seed of a tree. Locked into a olive seed is the potential for a tree. If planted and nourished, the seed can grow great and tall, bearing fruit that nourishes generation after generation. Some of the olive trees that dot the hills, valleys, and plains around the Mediterranean are 2000 years old or more, and have born more than 50 pounds of fruit every year for several millenia.
As a modern example of unfolding, consider what we now know about dogs. Descended from wolves tamed 15,000 years ago, they have extraordinary adoptive abilities and an innate potential to work with humans. After this potential was cultivated, dogs became man’s best friend. This is a classic case of unfolding.
Kauffman and Goodenough, although seeking a rapprochement between science and religion, distance themselves from the central religious theme of transcendence. At best, they view the much grander picture of the universe that the religions provide as a common ground for discussion. They hold tight to the enlightenment polemic that religion is a primitive pre-scientific attempt to understand the world.
Kauffman’s God is “fully natural”. There is no need “to call upon a Creator God.” The biosphere, technological evolution, and human history is all brought about by “a wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural Creator.” Yes, people need a place for their spirituality “and a Creator God is one such place.” And yes, science won’t be able to disprove the existence of “a supernatural God.” But “much of what we have sought from a supernatural God is the natural behaviour of the emergent creativity in the universe.”
Goodenough sees things in a similar light. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science (a must have, I think, if you want a good modern reference on science and religion – buy a used paperback version, I recommend), she and Terence Deacon contrast their emergentist perspective with that of the world’s religious systems:
A single Creator God is central to the Abrahamic faiths; creation myths are central to polytheistic faiths; and the Buddhist tradition includes the challenging concept of beginninglessness: all that is has always been, and was therefore never created.
The emergence perspective offers us ways to think about creation, and creativity, that do not require a creator. Emergence can be thought of as nature’s mode of creativity, giving rise to ever more complex outcomes by virtue of thermodynamics, morphodynamics, and teleodynamics. In theistic traditions, creation is invariably coupled with purpose. … The emergence perspective, while not ruling out purpose or plan, is coherent without invoking either.
Kauffman and Goodenough, like the new atheists Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, are unable to admit to the possibility of transcendence. The idea that there is a reality greater than us leaves them cold. Goodenough puts it this way:
For me, and probably for all of us, the concept of a personal, interested god can be appealing, often deeply so. In times of sorrow or despair, I often wonder what it would be like to be able to pray to God or Allah or Jehovah or Mary and believe that I was heard, believe that my petition might be answered. When I sing the hymns of faith in Jesus‘ love, I am drawn to their intimacy, their allure, their poetry.
But in the end, such faith is simply not available to me. I can’t do it. I lack the resources to render my capacity for love and my need to be loved to supernatural Beings. And so I have no choice but to pour these capacities and needs into earthly relationships, fragile and mortal and difficult as they often are.
But there is a world of difference between them and the militant atheists. Here is how Goodenough puts it:
The people who are truly bothered by God-concepts and find them stupid or ignorant or pathological are those like Richard Dawkins who just can’t even imagine anybody having such concepts. That view is almost like homophobia — it’s not open and pluralistic.
Scientism and All That
One of the thing most striking things about Kauffman ‘s Reinventing the Sacred – it runs through Goodenough’s writings as well – is the pervasive and destructive power of scientism that they describe. It would not be wrong to say that their aim is to eliminate the destructive effects of older scientism by upgrading to a new scientism.
The MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson (in Monopolizing Knowledge) holds that scientism, is “a ghastly intellectual mistake.” The reason?
[S]cientism is confused with science. The confusion is commonplace in many, many popularizations of science. Scientists of considerable reputation speak with authority and understanding (but rarely modesty) about the knowledge and technology that science has brought and frequently they introduce into their explanations, without acknowledging it, non-scientific assumptions, unjustified extrapolations, philosophy and metaphysics… . A major strand within the community of science directly promotes this confusion.
What is scientism? Again, Hutchinson:
Scientism is the belief that all valid knowledge is science. Scientism says, or at least implicitly assumes, that rational knowledge is scientific, and everything else that claims the status of knowledge is just superstition, irrationality, emotion, or nonsense.
Both Kauffman or Goodenough are reacting to scientism’s unholy – and often tragic – gravitational pull. Both recognize its negative impact – the lifeless, stillborn, depressing, uncreative aspects of the modern secularism that it has brought about, and its rejection of the vitality and life of mankind’s age-old embrace of spirituality.
But, both want to fight it with a new updated scientism. Kauffman wants to eliminate lawlike behaviour in the higher realms of life, thereby freeing us from “the Galilean spell“. He wants to “reinvent the sacred.” Ensnared but-self aware, Goodenough wants us to explore fuller understandings of the world inspired by The Epic of Evolution.
We know what they mean, and we warmly welcome their thought and efforts, but wonder why both of them think that they can explain all of reality by vague metaphysical theories inspired by science.
History and the Lurking Dangers of Nature as God
What neither Kauffman or Goodenough seem to recognize – or maybe they do and choose not to highlight it – is the dangers inherent in making nature into a secular God. It is an extremely important issue where there is a historical record of recent baleful atrocities – and where scientists in the main, either because they tend to be uninterested in and uninformed by history or because they prefer not to see such things, have been very quiet.
Consider eugenics, where American scientific efforts – inspired by evolutionary perspectives and the “creative selectivity” of nature – were particularly strong. In 1911, the Carnegie Institute recommended euthanasia in gas chambers for those deemed unfit. In the 1930s, the Rockefeller Institute funded German efforts – including those of the infamous Josef Mengele – to further the cause. Enforced sterilization was widely practiced across the United States, most notably in California. The practice didn’t end in the America south until 1974. Court cases are still pending in North Carolina.
Or consider scientific racism – instituted by such eminent scientists as Carl Linnaeus, Georges Cuvier, and Ernst Haeckel and propagated by Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and others. The mass slaughters these supposedly scientific theories inspired were legion. It helps the victims not one bit to know that they were due to scientism rather than science. For us, it drives home the point that we shouldn’t mistake the one for the other.
Both eugenics and scientific racism were inspired by the natural world and its “creative exuberance” and both are of recent vintage. It is easy to forget, in our well-upholstered first-world homes where the natural world is at a safe remove, that it was nature “red in tooth and claw” that dominated thinking about the relationships between people outside of religion in earlier ages. Often, it was shear territorialism and a kill-or-be-killed defensiveness of the type we see widespread in our closest animal relatives. Or it was Hobbesian speculations on the state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” that encouraged the rise of centralized dictatorial authority in Europe.
So, the dangers of nature-inspired “scientific” gods are very real and common knowledge. The racism, nationalism, and great wars they inspired are of far greater murderousness than anything ever wrought by “Creator God” religions. It is wise to recognize that interpretations supposedly inspired by evolution and nature are usually those backed by non-scientific cultural perspectives, even those by scientists who protest otherwise. Fortunately, for Kauffman and Goodenought, the gods of nature are smiling and a liberal mood inspires this latest of offerings.
Notwithstanding the reservations expressed above – the continued embrace of old-fashioned reductionism (albeit in a biological as opposed to physical way), the inability to transcend the narrow perspectives of materialism and its denial of transcendence, the whole-hearted embrace of scientism, and the lack of historical perspective – we must, I believe, applaud and support the efforts of these two determined and brave souls. They not only thrill us with their vision, but, in ways that even 30 years ago would be impossible, they are open to and encouraging of dialogue with religion.
But, oh how I long for the day when people will learn to balance science with religion – and to balance religion with science. As the Baha’i Writings say:
Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.
This is the 22nd 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.