thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Reinventing the sand dune

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I have just finished reading Stuart A Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred. I agree with some of it, but with some of it I profoundly disagree. It could be that I disagree most profoundly with the profoundest part of it.

Stuart A Kauffman

Stuart A Kauffman

The last few chapters are quite moralising. But it’s not really the sentiments I reject. Kauffman’s heart seems to be in the right place. It’s his logic that worries me, some of which could be quite dangerous logic.

I have two main objections. I don’t understand his assumption that ‘emergence’ (Hooray!) is a necessary and welcome antidote to ‘reductionism’ (Boo!). And I don’t like how he uses ‘sacred’ and ‘God’ to refer to aspects of nature and/or reality.

First ‘emergence’ and ‘reductionism’.

I have to say at the start that I am not sure I understand exactly what ‘reductionism’ is. There are probably a number of different definitions, and I don’t want to get bogged down trying to distinguish them all. My main point is that Kauffman seems to make a huge leap somewhere, a leap he seems to claim is completely necessary – but I don’t see it. I do see what could be a false dichotomy lurking somewhere though.

Pierre-Simon Laplace

Pierre-Simon Laplace

He begins with ‘[p]erhaps the simplest statement of reductionism’ – from Pierre-Simon Laplace

who said that a sufficient intelligence, if given the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe, could compute the universe’s entire future and past.

But isn’t this a classic statement of determinism rather than reductionism? The distinction could matter, because of what Kauffman builds on his rejection of ‘reductionism’.

He quotes Stephen Weinberg:

“All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.”

Kauffman seems to be linking two separate claims together, as if a putative ‘reductionist’ would see them as the same claim. I’ll use examples:

Claim 1:

Sociology is reducible to psychology, which in turn is reducible to biology, which in turn is reducible to chemistry, which in turn is reducible to physics.

Claim 2:

The universe described by physics is completely deterministic.

Add claims 1 and 2 together and you get something like:

Claim 3:

Physics is completely deterministic. Since chemistry is reducible to physics, chemistry is also completely deterministic. Since biology is reducible to chemistry, biology is also completely deterministic. Since psychology is reducible to biology, psychology is also completely deterministic. Since sociology is reducible to psychology, sociology is also completely deterministic.

A version of claim 3 is what Kauffman seems to present as ‘reductionism’. But we must remember that claims 1 and 2 are independent. It could be that for example biology is reducible to chemistry and that chemistry is reducible to physics. But if physics is not deterministic, then neither are chemistry or biology.

We now get the following paragraph. It is worth quoting in full, as it is a recurring theme of Reinventing the Sacred:

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre

But Laplace’s particles in motion allow only happenings. There are no meanings, no values, no doings. The reductionist worldview led the existentialists in the mid-twentieth century to try to find value in an absurd, meaningless universe, in our human choices. But to the reductionist, the existentialists’ arguments are as void as the spacetime in which their particles move. Our human choices, made by ourselves as human agents, are still, when the full science shall have been done, mere happenings, ultimately to be explained by physics.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that ‘Laplace’s particles in motion’ refers to our ‘reductionist determinism’ of claim 3. Even if that were the case, it would not entail there were no meanings, values and doings. It would mean that meanings, values and doings were somehow reducible to particles in motion, not that meanings, values and doings do not exist. To take a trivial example, if I make a box out of pieces of wood, such that the box is made only of pieces of wood slotted together, with no nails or glue, that doesn’t mean there is no box but only pieces of wood. There is a box, and it happen to be made of pieces of wood slotted together.

The quoted paragraph seems to imply that in order to qualify as ‘real’ these meanings, values, doings and choices must not be reducible to particles in motion. I am not claiming here that they are reducible or that they are not. What I cannot quite understand is why their reducibility makes any difference to their ontological status – to whether or not they are real.

‘Real’ is a really key word for Kauffman:

[W]hile life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe. This stance is called emergence.

…Emergence says that, while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, are not reducible to physics nor explicable from it…

Kauffman wants to ‘break the Galilean spell’, which is

the view that all that happens in the universe is governed by natural law … [This] is the heart of reductionism.

For Kauffman the biosphere, this

web of life, the most complex system we know of in the universe, breaks no laws of physics, yet it is partially lawless, ceaselessly creative.

…It turns out that biological evolution by Darwin’s heritable variation and natural selection cannot be “reduced” to physics alone. It is emergent in two senses. The first is epistemological, meaning that we cannot from physics deduce upwards to the evolution of the biosphere. The second is ontological, concerning what entities are real in the universe. For the reductionist, only particles in motion are ontologically real entities. Everything else is to be explained by different complexities of particles in motion, hence are not real in their own ontological right. But organisms, whose evolution of organization of structures and processes, such as the human heart, cannot be deduced from physics, have causal powers of their own, and therefore are emergent real entities in the universe.

These are huge claims. But the initial challenge is to decide what exactly he is saying.

Certainly he seems to be saying that, using my example, if we assume the pieces of wood were real entities in their own right, then since the box is made up of only those pieces of wood, the box is not a real entity in its own ontological right.

That doesn’t make sense to me, but it may boil down to strange semantics. I can see that the box is made out of the pieces of wood in a way that the pieces of wood aren’t really made out of the box.

Sand dune in Sossusvlei (Namibia)

Sand dune in Sossusvlei (Namibia)

The problem with the box example is that it could imply a box maker – some conscious design and manipulation to get from the pieces of wood to the box. Perhaps a better example might be a sand dune. If for the sake of argument we assume that grains of sand are real entities, and the sand dune is ‘nothing but’ a pile of grains of sand, then there is some sense in which the sand dune ‘reduces’ to grains of sand while the grains of sand do not ‘reduce’ to the sand dune.

If I understand him correctly, Kauffman seems to be saying that the relationship between a living organism and the chemical and physical components it is made of is significantly different from the relationship between a sand dune and the chemical and physical components it is made of.

For the sake of simplicity I have assumed those ‘chemical and physical components’ are the grains of sand, but of course we could be more scientific and get down to ions of silicon and oxygen held in a set of crystalline lattices. In that case the dune would be reducible to grains of sand, and the grains of sand would in turn be reducible to ions of silicon and oxygen – in which case only the silicon and oxygen ions would be ‘real’ in Kauffman’s sense. We might then ‘reduce’ the silicon and oxygen ions down to subatomic particles, in which case only those subatomic particles would be ‘real’.

Silicon dioxide crystalline structure

Silicon dioxide crystalline structure

Kauffman’s point, as I understand it, is that this ‘reduction’ may work for the sequence sand dunegrains of sandsilicon and oxygen ionssubatomic particles, but it does not work if you start with a living organism rather than a sand dune. The living organism is an emergent real entity, but the sand dune is not.

This is what we must try to unpack next time.

© Chris Lawrence 2011.


2 Responses

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  1. Wow, thanks Terry.

    I agree. Nothing in Kauffman’s book convinces me that there’s any significant difference between the ’emergence’ that operates in the non-living world and the ’emergence’ that operates in the living world. But I think he needs that significant difference to justify what he says about the ’emergence’ of real meaning, value and ethics. Otherwise all he’s doing is pointing to things in the world and reminding us that they exist and how amazing they are.

    But there are also horrible things in the world like death and agony. Are they also ‘sacred’?

    Thanks for the conversation!


    Chris Lawrence

    28 May 2011 at 4:47 pm

  2. Your analysis on this is continuing to be fascinating. This is partly because you are in the end showing more patience for plouwing through Kauffman than I think I ultimately had. I felt about half way through the book that he was arguing backward – i.e., that he is convinced there is a God and is looking for a view of science that supports this conclusion. As I said in my own brief post on the subject, the universe is incredible enough in its own right for me; adding God to the mix subtracts rather than adds to that.

    On the other hand, my own introduction to reductionism and determinism during graduate school was very much along the lines described by Kauffman. The word seems to be used in a variety of ways today with less rigour, but as I was originally introduced to the concepts, reductionism and determinism were inseparable and did go hand in hand. Newton, for instance, argued that all movement of matter in the universe was explicable in terms of mechanical laws. That is why, in theory, it would be possible to describe every single thing that has ever or ever will happen. Everything was reducible and determined by these mechanical laws. Of course, since then, Newton’s mechanical laws are no longer quite so mechanical from the physicists’ point of view, but the issue of reductionism and determinism remains alive and well.

    I suspect there is room for confusion, however, about what Kauffman means by “real,” in the context of reductionism. I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of what he is saying on this point. An absolute traditional reductionist, as I have always understood it, would not argue that the wooden box or the sand dune are not real. Obviously they are. The question, though, is whether the box or the dune can be wholly analyzed in terms of their elemental components alone.

    I have never been convinced that they could and so do not consider myself a reductionist. Not only do I think the wooden box or the sand dune or the living organism are real: I think they cannot be wholly described or analyzed in terms solely of their component parts. The whole is different from the sum of the parts; organization does lead to the emergence of something which is qualitatively different from what you have in the array of unrelated elemental parts.

    Where I seriously part company with what I think Kauffman is saying is his conclusion (at least I think it’s his conclusion) that if one rejects reductionism, one rejects the view that the universe is totally governed by natural law. I’m not a reductionist in the classical sense, but I do not doubt that the universe is governed by natural (as opposed to divine, for instance) law. The fact that we do not and perhaps never will be able ourselves to figure out those laws in totality doesn’t make them unnatural. And it doesn’t say anything either way, as far as I can see, about the question of determinism.

    All of which is perhaps a very long winded way of explaining why I am looking forward to your own continued analysis of Kauffman’s thought.

    Thank you already.



    28 May 2011 at 3:11 pm

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