My favorite line in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas goes like this:
If matter emerged from mind, it is a wonder. But if mind emerged from matter, it is a greater wonder.
In the recent dead tree edition of Free Inquiry (Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010) is a review of Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. It’s a book that posits as true that mind emerged from matter. But what I find interesting is that the book, from this vantage, nevertheless takes itself to be a direct challenge to reductionism, as the reviewer makes clear (p. 59):
Yes, scientific reductionism is the most powerful epistemology ever invented. But Kauffman shows that it must fail to ‘reduce’ many, if not most, interesting phenomena in our universe, including ecosystems, economics, culture, politics, minds, and religion. Why? Because the multiplatform argument tells us that when the same phenomenon can occur on dissimilar ‘platforms’—physical settings that operate by different rules—then the rules of specific platforms are insufficient to explain that phenomenon. Chess, for example, obeys well-defined rules, and its theory is nontrivial, but chess is played in and by many disparate agents, including humans and computers, using a variety of physical media. So while phenomena such as games, minds, and programs require physical platforms for their manifestation, their theories are not reducible to the physics of particles. Such epiphenomena are termed emergent. Kauffman devotes much space to ‘breaking the Galilean spell’ of reductionism so readers can appreciate the plethora of emergent phenomena that are as much a part of the ‘furniture of the universe’ as particles. He says that . . . emergence is unpredictable and that there are many mysteries no one will ever be able to fully understand.
The reviewer then tells us that Kaufmann uses evolutionary “pre-adaptations” as examples of sources for unexpected emergent properties in the universe. Pre-adaptations are the characteristics of an organism—including its neutral mutations—that, at some unspecified time in the future, and by a chance confluence of circumstances, might happen to open a whole new world of possibilities to an organism. The reviewer, who is himself a scientist, says of Kauffman’s examples that “They remind me of important mathematical and scientific discoveries that were originally considered useless.” When the reviewer said this, I thought immediately of James Burke’s classic public television series, Connections. Here’s a clip:
Kauffman’s book, based on the review, seemed far too interesting not to get a copy of, so I purchased it at Amazon and recently received it (and have only started reading it). So far it’s quite stimulating. Here’s Kauffman stating, in the Preface, his thesis (which, I would add, might well recover free will from determinate physics):
In this book I will demonstrate the inadequacy of reductionism, Even major physicists now doubt its full legitimacy. I shall show that biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. ‘Real’ here has a particular meaning: while 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. Weinberg notwithstanding, there are explanatory arrows in the universe that do not point downward [to physics]. A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion.
Now, if you’re a theist you might find this book to be a thumb in the eye of atheism, and you wouldn’t exactly be incorrect. But don’t get too comfy, because Kauffman is also gunning for you. Kauffman’s very next sentence in the above paragraph is this:
More, all this came to exist without our need to call upon a Creator God.
This, I think, is the position posited as a possibility by the author of the Gospel of Thomas. Maybe mind and free will are real, not illusory. Maybe they can’t be reduced to matter. But maybe they also emerged from matter. And does anybody have any clue as to what might emerge in the future? Maybe there really are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.
We don’t know where we’re at, do we?