Reductionism Not? Mathematical Biologist Stuart Kauffman on “breaking the Galilean spell”

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?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to Reductionism Not? Mathematical Biologist Stuart Kauffman on “breaking the Galilean spell”

  1. Heuristics says:

    The problem with epiphenomena is that they need an explanation for why they are as they are. Why is pain uncomfortable and joy comfortable on an epiphenomenal view? An appeal to natural selection can not work since natural selection does not operate on epiphenomena since they have no causal power to change anything back (they can not make anything more or less fit, or alter the direction of any atom in motion which also brings about some questions regarding conservation of energy, is it not odd that it does not take any energy to create pain?).

    This to me seams to be the biggest problem facing the non-eliminativist physicalist (the eliminativist physicalists are just plain weird), the problem actually appears to be somewhat embarrassingly black and white, if one only allows for mechanics to exist then one automatically also disallows value and telos to exist. But why should one pick a worldview that disallows value and telos? Is it not the most obvious thing imaginable that we have mental states that correlate well to the physical, yet the physicalist view has no inherent power to account for this correlation, so why adopt it? Why not wait and see what the other views have to offer (except eliminativism, on eliminativism there is nothing that can adopt a view so it’s a non-starter)?

  2. santitafarella says:


    I agree with you that if mind cannot have an effect upon matter—if mind is a “pure” epiphenomenon of matter—and the “energy” is all going in one direction (from matter to mind), then it’s hard to see how mind really exists. I’ll have to read further into Kauffman’s book to see if this “pure” epiphenomenalism is what he means in his use of the term.

    I also like your rhetorical question. Since mind obviously exists, why adopt a view of it (naturalism) that seems unable to account for it as more than an illusion? I myself find the idea of quantum mind waves (akin to radio waves) with our brains as quantum “radios” kind of interesting (if weird).


  3. Interesting post. The idea of “emergence” was pretty big in the early 20th century, especially with some British psychologists (C. Lloyd Morgan was perhaps best known). Kauffman combines this understanding with the “weird” quantum physics tradition (i.e. Bohr’s complementarity, Heisenberg, etc…). The only thing that seems missing from your post is any mention of vitalism, an important influence on “emergentism” (c.f. Bergson’s _Creative Evolution_ in the early 20th century).

    There are a host of really interesting anti-reductionist thinkers in the 20th century worth revisiting, some who’ve been seen as totally marginal (like Arthur Koestler, a literary figure who was quite interested in this issue in the 1960s) and some who’ve been portrayed as downright crazy (c.f. Wilhelm Reich).

    Thoughts about life and its origins, nature, etc…should still give us pause despite the pat assurances and certainties of modern science.

    It should be mentioned that some of this thought is connected with conservatism and religion, too (that’s what bugs people like Dawkins so much, I think). Not sure this is the case with Kauffman — although he holds a position at the University of Calgary in Alberta, whose history and economics departments are the dissemination point for contemporary Canadian conservatism.

  4. christianclarityreview says:

    so basically the guy is just saying he wants Out of a system that demands proof ..of anything and has found a Path to a supposed other path that might point to another path that might be of some dubious benefit after he has switched definitions of a lot of words and spoken them as if he hadn’t and he needs person ‘x’ in particular ( whoever is reading his books) to go with him. All X need pack is Darwinism and Buddhism. Whenever the evolutionaryian confabulinistical item has problems being seen, the Buddha can pop up and say “Once, a young student asked about, say, ..a drop of water. The Buddha replied that only a novice in knowledge of religion would ask such a question and that he needed to clear his mind with some ..secular candle staring and then he will dutifully nod ‘yes!”

    o bocadillo de queso…?

    Притчи 26:12 Видал ли ты человека, мудрого в глазах его? На глупого больше надежды, нежели на него.


    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  5. TomH says:

    Looks like a rewarmed version of Nancy Cartwright’s How the laws of physics lie.

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  10. CWonHP says:

    rather it’s the mark of a sly con man.

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