Books, Exegesis, Reviews

Reinventing the Sacred :: Review

I had a mixed experience with this book. Almost all of my assumptions about it were wrong. I approached it as a spiritual book but found a science book. I expected to explore spiritual thinking but found an exploration of emergence. I thought the author would incorporate a sacred worldview into a scientific mindset, but instead it was a scientific worldview that he incorporated into a sacred mindset. By the end I had an appreciation for it, but not without disliking it for a significant portion. This book is radical for science, but pedestrian for spirituality.


Part of my goal is to discuss newly discovered limitations to the reductionism that has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values. (pg. 2)

Whatever its source, consciousness is emergent and a real feature of the universe. (pg. 4)

My claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge or wisdom to predict the future evolution of the biosphere, economy, or human culture. It is that these things are inherently beyond prediction. (pg. 5)

God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe. (pg. 6)

We need a worldview in which brute facts yield values, a way to derive ought from is, just the step that Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume warned against. (pg. 8)

Yet we humans, who are presumably reducible to physics like everything else, are agents, able to act on our own behalf. But actions are ‘doings,’ not mere happenings. (pg. 11)

Teleological language has long been a contentious issue among scientists and philosophers, many of whom consider it unscientific. I strongly disagree. (pg. 12)

The weak anthropic principle, with its possibility of multiple universes, raises troubling questions about how well our scientists are adhering to the fundamentals of science. (pg. 30)

The real reason many religious people oppose evolution is not scientific at all, of course, but moral. They see evolution as an amoral doctrine that denigrates values they rightly hold dear. (pg. 33)

…epistemological emergence means an inability to deduce or infer the emergent higher-level phenomenon from underlying physics. Ontological emergence has to do with what constitutes a ‘real’ entity in the universe: is a tiger a real entity, or nothing but particles in motion, as the reductionsits would claim? If the tiger is a real entity in its own right, it is ontologically emergent… (pg. 34)

Thus, the emergence in the universe of collectively autocatalytic, evolved cells and their “topology” of organization of kinetic-controlled process is ontologically emergent, and the same topology of kinetic control of the “whole” is partially causal in constraining the kinetic behavior of the parts. (pg. 59)

With agency, values have emerged in the universe. With value comes meaning, not yet in the semantic sense, but meaning in the sense of mattering to some entity. (pg. 74)

Work cycles linking exergonic and endergonic processes arose for good selective reasons. Thus, if agency requires emergence by selection of agency, given self-reproduction and heritable veriation, was of selective advantage. Agency is, then, natural and expected. (pg. 85)

So Hume is both right – we cannot deduce ‘ought’ from ‘is’ – and not right. Values, meaning, doing, action, and ‘ought’ are real parts of the furniture of the furniture of the universe. (pg. 87)

Thus the classical belief of most biologists that the only source of order in biology is natural selection may well be wrong. Self-organization, a second source of order, lies at hand as well, to mingle in yet unknown ways wiht natural selection and historical frozen accidents. (pg. 102)

To put the matter simply: we will never explore all the possibilities. History enters when the space of the possible is vastly larger than the space of the actual. At these levels of complexity, the evoultion of the universe is vastly nonrepeating, hence vastly nonergodic. (pg. 123)

The schism between religion and science is, therefore, in part, a disagreement over the existence of meaning. If meaning were to be discovered scientifically, the schism might be healed. (pg. 130)

Now I want to make my outrageous claim: the evolution of the biosphere is radically nonpredictable and ceaselessly creative. (pg. 130)

I should stress that in saying that Darwinian preadaptations are not, apparently, law governed, I am not saying that the events that lead to the selection of a preadaptation in a novel environment may not be perfectly causal. (pg. 134)

This is, I believe, the core of why we have wanted a supernatural God. Such a God may exist, be we do not need that supernatural God. The creativity in nature is God enough. (pg. 142)

Douglas Medin’s research into human categorization has shown that we do not really know how we form these categories. The classical idea, dating from Plato, is that members of acategory all share one or more “essential” features. It turns out this is false. (pg. 185)

The cornerstone of my theory is that the conscious mind is a persistently poised quantum coherent-decoherent system, forever propagating quantum coherent behavior, yet forever also decohering to classical behavior. (pg. 209)

Thus it would seem that a theory in wich conscious is partially quantum coherent can embrace free will. (pg. 227)

Whether we believe in a creator God, an eastern tradition, or are secular humanists, we make the meaning of our lives to live a good life, in all these ways. And we act without knowing everything. (pg. 244)

…learn to live with at least one view of our God as the creativity in the universe, God, our own invention, God to orient and guide us in our humanity as we live forward, with faith and courage. (pg. 246)

At least a start would be to see science as a human activity, with its similarities to the arts, law, business, medicine, crafts, pastoring, all domains of diverse human creativity and actions int he face of uncertainty. (pg. 251)

Since killing is a part of our heritage, no emerging global civilization can afford to be even remotely utopian. (pg. 258)

Fundamentally, ethics traces its roots to this emergence in the universe of values. (pg. 259)

Evolution is not the enemy of ethics but its first source. (pg. 260)

In short, far from being the enemy of morality, evolution has yielded at least part of human morality because morality has offered a selective advantage to groups. (pg. 262)

Values cannot be derived from physics, from what “is,” alone. (pg. 264)

Life, agency, values, and therefore “oughts” are real in the universe. (pg. 264)

We must not, therefore, seek self-consistent moral axioms that hold forever and settle all moral questions self consistently. Bless Kant for trying. Rather, we must continue the conversation forever as our culture and its circumstances change. (pg. 271)

To say that morality evolves is not to invoke a blind moral relativism. Rather, it is to invite respect for past moral wisdom, a hesitancy to alter old moral holdings, with enough flexibility to adapt to new facts. (pg. 271)

This diversity, we should say, is God’s work – not a supernatural Creator God, but the natural God that is the creativity in nature. We are, in fact, one with all of life. (pg. 276)

We are of the world, it is not of us. (pg. 276)

If, as I advocate, we rename God, not as the Generator fo the universe, but as the creativity in the natural universe itself, the two views share a common core: we are responsible, not God. (pg. 283)

It is we who have told our gods and God what is sacred, and our gods or God have then told us what is sacred. It has always been us, down the millennia, talking to ourselves. Then let us talk to ourselves consciously, let us choose our own sacred with the best of our wisdom, always knowing that we cannot know. (pg. 286)

We do not need to believe in or have faith in God as the unfolding of nature. This God is real. The split between reason and faith is healed. (pg. 288)

Reinventing the Sacred – Kauffman


Reinventing the Sacred explores two main topics. First, the limits of reductionism, and second, an exploration of value and meaning. The bridge between these two topics is emergence and its adjacent processes, where emergence inverts the causal direction of reductionism. Essentially, the book’s thesis is; “because emergence is real, value is real. Therefore, it is permissible to ‘reinvent the sacred’ in the light of science and believe in God.” The book is stuffed with wonderful explorations of mechanisms which are either important for emergence or adjacent to it; autocatalytic systems, the adjacent possible, nonergodic systems, and quantum decoherence to name a few. The book can be dense at times, but it is very readable. It is primarily a science book though its central thesis is a spiritual one.


On page 8, Kauffman challenged the Is/Ought distinction. That set me on edge for the rest of the book. The claim was so bold I figured either Kauffman was going completely off the deep end, or he said it to get a rise out of the reader. Turns out the latter was closest to what happened. Kauffman did not satisfactorily challenge the Is/Ought distinction, which was a huge relief to me. Instead his argument is that “ought” can be real through emergence which is far more palatable. The Is/Ought distinction remains intact, the book does not argue that you can derive an “ought” from an “is.” He did not claim to discover “ought” using science, but instead argued that “is” can allow for “ought” without reducing it to meaningless determinism.

After I overcame my anxiety from his challenge to the Is/Ought distinction, I realised I had been assuming that “is” allows for “ought” without any foundation. As a syntheist, I have assumed value can emerge in the same way consciousness, nations, and gods do. It seemed a matter of course to me. Now, thanks to Kauffman, I can say that science does not necessarily contradict my view and may even support it.

However, it is still important to not confuse science allowing “ought” to exist, with science making “ought” statements, which is something Kauffman seems to recognize on page 87. Science is not designed to make normative “ought” statements, it does not have the tools to do so. The questions science is poised to ask and the answers it is designed to seek only engage with what “is” if they are formulated properly. To blur the Is/Ought boundary allows for dangerous ideas like race realism, eugenics, and gender determinism to take root.

It is for this reason that I disagree with Kauffman that there is a schism between science and religion (pg. 2, 130), as if they are two parts of a lost whole. They are totally different institutions, designed to explore different problems. Science explores what “is,” and religion explores what “ought” to be. Even if they were once merged in the past, this does not mean they should be merged in the future. Where religion is equipped to engage with truths and “why” questions, science is equipped to engage with facts and “how” questions. This is not a bad thing, and there is no reason why either institution must feel insecure about their limits. A healthy person engages with both science and religion in order to build a functional worldview. Likewise, a healthy society understands the boundaries of each institution while allowing their ideas to inform each other. Kauffman’s book is an example of this healthy dialogue, even if I disagree with him on this point.

Kauffman nearly asserts a syntheist epiphany. On pg. 286 he makes an essentially syntheist statement (quoted above). However, his exploration of that idea doesn’t go too deep and he comes to rest in naturalistic pantheism. It is not a bad opinion to have and he seems to find great value in his view. But there should be no conflation of Kauffman’s God with Terra.

Kauffman’s God can be summarized as “emergence is God,” which is pantheist at its core. By contrast, the syntheist epiphany is “Gods are emergent.” The distinction is important; where Kauffman’s God is emergence in the universe, a syntheist god like Terra is a product of emergence. Kauffman tries to imply that his God is not dependant on humanity, it persists without us. Needing to imply an independant God is something Kauffman seems to have inherited from the insecurities of modern fundamentalism. By defining it as a process (the creativity in the universe), there is an opportunity for his God to continue existing even if humanity bites the dust. Syntheism, by contrast, does not provide that opportunity. If humanity dies, our gods die with us. Gods are emergent of us.

Now, the syntheist epiphany allows for Kauffman’s God; a pantheist god fits just fine inside a syntheist worldview. The problem is that syntheism is likely to recognize an impersonal, abstract god like Kauffman’s to be powerless. If Kauffman’s God foregoes personification, is restricted to a natural process, and cannot be directly interacted with, its uses become very limited to a syntheist. The best a syntheist might do with such a God is use it as a educational tool, or perhaps incorporate it into a pantheon where it serves as a landscape for the other gods to be born out of. Kauffman’s God can only be learned about. You can’t witness it because it is not a Creator God; there is no moment when the God “creates” something, it is only the potential “creativity” of the universe. Kauffman is so dedicated to the notion that God has to be outside of humanity that he has robbed it of any power just so that it has a chance of being external in some capacity. Such a God is beautiful, but useless.

Kauffman’s God’s impotence is part of the reason he has nothing important to say about “reinventing the sacred” which is unfortunate due to the title of the book. At the end of the book he says some nice platitudes with little substance. The quotes which are the exception to this are the ones I cited above from page 271 and the syntheist quote from page 286. Other than this, he doesn’t have much to say.

There’s a clear reason for this. For something to be sacred it must be set apart from the common. To do this, there must be some authority or power which enforces that separation. It must matter in some way, especially to the power which enforces the sanctity. The problem with Kauffman’s God is that nothing matters to it. Kauffman asserts that life is sacred, but why? This God doesn’t care, it is just a process. It has produced life with no greater care than its production of non-life. It is nothing but an abstraction with no agency. It has no body, no goal, no reason to exist. For all Kauffman’s talk about “ought” and value, he failed to concieve of a God who could care about the sacred he wished to reinvent. Without a God who cares, the sacred shrivles into a bit of sublime awe after a lifetime of studying natural systems.

A pantheistic, process God which persists without humanity has no reason to create a sacred space with us. It will just continue doing its process whether we’re around to notice or not. But a syntheistic, personified God which emerges from humanity is different. This kind of god is made of us, so it cares a lot more about the details of its relationship to its followers. It’s emergence generates the “ought” which Kauffman argues for. It will care about ethics and rituals, and how its members interact with the world. It will invent and reinvent the sacred in order to preserve itself, becoming an agent which cares about its value. Kauffman’s whole book describes how emergence creates value, he just forgot to apply the principle to his own God.

Terranism doesn’t make that mistake. We are Terra, therefore, Terra cares.

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