Stuart Kauffman reinvents God

It seems Stuart Kauffman has come out as a pantheist. Discussing his new book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion for New Scientist, he writes:

The unfolding of the universe - biotic, and perhaps abiotic too - appears to be partially beyond natural law. In its place is a ceaseless creativity, with no supernatural creator ...

Shall we use the "God" word? We do not have to, yet it is still our most powerful invented symbol. Our sense of God has evolved from Yahweh in the desert some 4500 years ago, a jealous, law-giving warrior God, to the God of love that Jesus taught. How many versions have people worshipped in the past 100,000 years?

Yet what is more awesome: to believe that God created everything in six days, or to believe that the biosphere came into being on its own, with no creator, and partially lawlessly? I find the latter proposition so stunning, so worthy of awe and respect, that I am happy to accept this natural creativity in the universe as a reinvention of "God".


More like this

I'm having a lovely time here at Beyond Belief 2 — you should all be here (and of course, you will be; as they did last year, everything will be available after the meeting on the web.) It's an eclectic mix of all kinds of interesting stuff outside of my usual range: yesterday, we had terrific…
Daniel Lazare, writing in the Nation, has an interesting article about differences of opinion even among atheists: This is the problem, more or less, confronting today's reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time, religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor entertainment. Christmas…
Chopra's latest attempt to critique Dawkins is as lame as his first. I summarized that first one as "Well, you can't see love in your fancy microscope, now can you, Dr Smarty Pants?"; this one is the Incredibly Agile Evasive God trick. He's going to play a game and try to define his god and…
Jon Rowe has another excellent post fisking the commonly heard argument that the Ten Commandments are the basis of the US legal system. This in light of the impending oral arguments in the McCreary case by the Supreme Court on the question of a Ten Commandments display in McCreary County, Kentucky…

"God" is out most powerful invented symbol?
That's supposed to be "0" isn't it?

I'm no expert in the history of religion, but it seems to me his idea, instead of moving the idea of "God" forward, actually moves it back. I don't mean that in a negative way, but more in a historical way. Before "God" was personified as a man (as Yahweh is), "God" was in everything around us. It was the magical and unknown quantity in the sun and the trees and all the Earth. And it's not necessarily pantheism, at least not in the way we think og it today, where it conjures images of sprites and elves and pagans. Buddhism has similar concepts today, even though it is often considered an "atheistic" religion.
In any case, the real problem is not going to be his concept, it is going to be the use of the word "God," which has now come to define a personal deity, that is going to be his problem. Atheism is not, of necessity, the same as materialism, it does not automatically deny the existence of things we cannot directly experience or measure, but the chasm that puts atheists on one shore and deists on the other is the use of that term "God." I don't think Kauffman is going to bridge it with this simple sleight of hand. But congrats on trying.

Just another appeal to complexity. A logical fallacy may sound all nice and good when stated eloquently, and he can feel free to let it change his view of religion, but he needs to keep his spurious and flawed arguments out of science and reason.

By Matt Osborne (not verified) on 12 May 2008 #permalink

"Our" sense of 'God' evolved from 4,500 years ago? WTF? YHVH started something around 3,000 years ago, assuming a Canaanite origin, although it could be older if the 'single-god' idea originated in Egypt with Ahknaten (which would push it back to approx 3,500 years ago. Still got another 1,000. Egypt and Sumer had recorded gods some 6,000 years ago, and I am still not sure if the Hindu gods are older or not (I'm not caught up on the current debate). His "God of Love" is also really open for debate as well.
So, I am not sure where he pulled this 4,500 years out of, nor why he shifts gears and brings up 100,000 years? Surely if he wants to stretch back that far, then he should have said so in the first place (and maybe gave evidence to support religion that far back - I am familiar with some thoughts about Neanderthals, but nothing else, though this isn't an area I have really looked into).
Finally, why do we need to waste words with calling the universe "God"? I faced this question a few years ago and decided not to (although this was in relation to Tao/Dao). Let's just call it what it is - let's look at it, and not hide it by making up another word for it.

I find the reactions in this thread interesting.

I seriously doubt that Kauffman has become any sort of a theist (if I recall correctly, he is atheist or agnostic), and I don't take his meaning here to be any sort of a step in that direction. Rather, I think he's arguing that the "sense of the sacred" that many people interpret as connection to a deity is better interpreted as a sense of connection to the natural world of which we are a part, and which we ignore at our peril. I don't see in his words any backing away from methodological naturalism or moving toward invocation of supernatural explanations.

Kauffman makes the classic Argument from Incredulity.

I find the latter proposition so stunning, so worthy of awe and respect, that I am happy to accept this natural creativity in the universe as a reinvention of "God".

Extreme redefinition. Science reveals that there is no necessity for God in the evidence of the natural world, so let's define that lack of necessity for God as "God." The word "sophistry" also pops into my mind.

He might be onto something here. If we redefine "hunger" as "food," we could solve the world's hunger problem with a few keystrokes.

By Friend Fruit (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

In a similar vein, today's NYTimes has an opinion piece by David Brooks:

The Neural Buddhists...First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

More extreme redefinition. People seem more attached to this word "God" than they do to the concepts it represents.

By Friend Fruit (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

I'm not a scientist but I'm on this one like without hesitation. Kauffman says:

"The unfolding of the universe - biotic, and perhaps abiotic too - appears to be partially beyond natural law.

Mountain from a mole hill.

The explanatory power of natural law (as understood at some point in human history) has always been limited and shall continue to be so for the foreseeable future. It is always a fundamental and fatal mistake to assume that any current body of knowledge is the last word on anything. The bedrock business of science is fully expressed by the fact that natural law somehow seems to explain more and more as time goes by. This is in contrast with the main business of religion which is to continue to issue assurance that everything is OK whether we know any more than how to eat and procreate or not.

The rest of what Kauffman has to say devolves from this particular lack of perspective. I suggest he back up a couple of million miles and get the wide view. Hey. Did me wonders.

By Crudely Wrott (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

Maybe I'm missing something here.

As I understand it, Kauffman has spent most of his career developing an understanding of how relatively simple processes can spontaneously produce highly organized systems. He's argued -- convincingly, I think -- that organized systems are to be expected as the logical result of the operation of natural processes, and not some sort of a surprising result that requires some sort of extra intervention.

Part of his argument is that since systems that can self organize are often chaotic, the particular form of the self organized system cannot always be predicted from the initial conditions. I understand his statement that "the unfolding of the universe ... appears to be partially beyond natural law" to reflect this limitation. Thus, there's no argument from incredulity, no abandonment of methodological naturalism, and no argument for supernatural interventions.

The people who I would have expected to be scornful of his statement are theists, since he's redefining "God" in a non-theistic manner.