About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Another scientist getting silly about religion

Here we go again, this time it is Stuart Kauffman’s turn to write silly things about science and religion. Kauffman is a serious and brilliant scientist, best known for his work on complexity theory and its application to evolutionary biology. But he has now joined an increasingly long and embarrassing list of scientists who write really silly things about religion and how it relates to science.

Kauffman’s latest book is entitled Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. It is a view that is bound to fail on a variety of levels, but I think it is instructive to see why. Let’s start with the good news: Kauffman, unlike, say, authors like Paul Davies (author of questionably ambiguous stuff like Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life) or -- worse -- Frank Tipler (author of the downright nonsensical The Physics of Christianity) -- is pretty clear that there is no way to recover any classical version of god, not even the deist one. For Kauffman, for instance, morality emerged out of the biological and cultural evolution of humanity. Still, Kauffman seeks to “find common ground between science and religion so that we might collectively reinvent the sacred.”

Now why would any rational individual wish to propagate the whole idea of “the sacred” to begin with? For something to be sacred, according to the Merriam-Webster, means to be “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity,” or alternatively to be “worthy of religious veneration.” This is not what Kauffman means by the term, but the whole idea of “sacredness” seems to me to be the sort of baggage that humanity ought to do without by now.

At any rate, Kauffman wants to “use the God word, for my hope is to honorably steal its aura to authorize the sacredness of the creativity in nature.” Wow. First off, the concept of “honorably stealing” is something that is rather questionable, especially when what one is attempting to steal is nothing less than god’s aura. Second, nature is not creative, it just is. Creativity is something that conscious beings do, and to use the term in association with nature is misleading to say the least, and invites of course precisely the sort of quasi-mystical thinking that science is supposed to discourage. Third, there is nothing sacred about nature, either. Again, nature is what it is, and while Kauffman is tapping into the sense of awe shared by so many scientists when we approach the natural world, there is nothing to be worshipped, as worshipping is antithetical to understanding and appreciating, which is what science is about.

Kauffman’s reinvention of the sacred is nothing new, as what he is proposing is very much akin to non-religious Buddhism, or to what a number of other scientists, from Einstein to Sagan, have written about before. Such a project is bound to fail in a cultural environment dominated by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, where people stubbornly refuse to give up the childish but apparently comforting idea of a personal god that actually cares about how they have sex and with whom. Thinking of god as the sacred in nature (including, one presumes, tsunamis, earthquakes, cancer, planetary impacts, black holes and dying stars) just isn’t going to cut it for most people. Way too esoteric, and very much unsatisfactory in terms of providing reward and punishment for people’s actions, and especially the promise of an afterlife.

Moreover, Kauffman’s project, like that of so many other scientists before him, smells terribly of being intellectually disingenuous. I don’t know if Kauffman is after the hefty Templeton Prize “for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities” (whatever that means). Scientists like John Barrow (who wrote about the so-called “anthropic principle”), Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies and others had no trouble accepting the prize, despite the fact that it is based on a fundamental betrayal of the ideal of science as a rational inquiry into the natural world. Regardless, Kauffman is not doing science or humanity any favor by joining a questionable tradition of artificial “reconciliation” between science and religion.

Perhaps people will always need what Marx famously referred to as the opium of the masses, too bad for humanity. But scientists are supposed to hold themselves and the public to higher standards of rationality, and attempting to reinvent the sacred is clearly a step in the wrong direction. As Richard Feynman once aptly put it: “I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion ... the spirit or attitude toward the facts is different in religion from what it is in science. The uncertainty that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith” (from: The Meaning of It All). Amen.

23 comments:

  1. No, its just that we have obviously evolved to have faith. Belief is an important part of who we are as humans, and we can ignore it to our detriment, or recognize it and try to channel it in positive direction.

    So our faith is not directed at a classical notion of God or the supernatural - but it is still faith.

    Look around you - most folks are going to have faith - why not make it faith in things that exist?

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  2. Massimo,

    I had a chance to listen to him on Leonard Lopate's excellent radio show (NPR/WNYC). He was lucid, erudite and if somewhat lacking in a fully coherent theory, still very interesting.

    I think he has a couple of points to make (the way I understand him): a) his emphasis on "emergence" to differentiate between exclusively reductionist approaches and explanations, b) the non-dictionary use of the term 'sacred', as you note, to denote a sort of reverence which is not necessarily (as you suggest) at the cost of questioning, etc.

    As the other commentor (Greg Myers) alludes to, E.O.Wilson et al have embarked on this evolutionary explanation of religion (which is unsurprisingly coincidental with an interest in thus far demonised notions such as 'group selection') for a reason -- the strength of "faith" as an idea, and the arguable success of moral norms/precepts in mediating human co-existence. But also, there is a larger and different project that Kauffman is attempting here, as I see it: to invert the logical positivist puritanism (or Wittgensteinian caution), which we can argue threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    He explicitly admits that there are similarities to what he writes and Eastern religion or philosophy, but he believes that his proposal seeks a middle ground between the militant atheism (New Atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, et al) which he finds (like me) of no value, and the efforts (including by scientists) to find a place for "god" in a scientific universe. At the cost of paraphrasing him poorly, I would suggest that in emphasising the term "sacred" he is attempting to shift focus to an "attitude" rather than an epistemology. If that be the case, IMHO this is a worthy project and a timely antidote to Dennett, Dawkins, Weinberg.

    You refer to the famous quote by Marx regarding religion, but as I posted in my blog recently, the full quote is a lot more valuable:


    Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.


    If atheism is to be more than an exercise in self-aggrandisation (as is the case with the New Atheists) then we need to think about the part that religion plays and the value that it brings to a large number of intelligent and hard-working people. This effort, even if entirely flawed, is a fumble in the right direction, if I understand it right -- but I have not had a chance yet to read the book in entirety.

    --ravi

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  3. I want to add one more thing: I am afraid I find it laughable to read Feynman speak of "uncertainty" for his whole modus operandi is to extend the certainty of the very narrow field of his expertise to opine widely with certainty on all matters. And modern science (from the time of Feynman), IMHO, is practised with anything but uncertainty. I like to think of it thus: the opposite of doubt (skepticism) is not faith, it is certainty. Faith admits to doubt (as Kierkegaard tells us, IIRC). But, it seems to me, the certainty with which opposing views are dismissed in a scientistic frame offers no such room.

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  4. If you find spiritual beliefs contrary to science, then spiritual beliefs are viewed as measly superstitions and fallacies. This popular view is simply wrong. Science and religion operate under vastly different parameters. In my management book, I devote an entire chapter in this ‘business’ book to the connection of business success and aiming for a higher calling. In spite all of the majesty and awe that the scientific world inspires, science is not designed to answer the questions that religion asks. Nor should we use religion to fill in the ‘God of the gaps.’ Religion should embrace science as it improves our ability to explain how God put things together. Indeed, elites of organized religions hate the efforts to seek a scientific context for the appreciation of spiritual phenomena. They seek to control humanity with doctrine and dogma. Science in its intellectual, methodical, peer-reviewed processes can deepen our wonder and amazement at the power of God. Instead of warring factions, the two sides should encourage each other. I saw a newspaper headline recently that read, “Darwin vs. God, Round 2007: Kansas Declares Darwin Winner.” This is wrong on many levels. Splashy headlines are one thing; gross irresponsibility is another. I cannot stress it enough. God and science are not at odds. They never have been. Francis S. Collins, the scientist who lead the Human Genome Project, stated it best when he said, “Science is not threatened by God; it is enhanced.” Michael L. Gooch, SPHR Author of Wingtips with Spurs: Cowboy Wisdom for Today’s Business Leaders http://www.michaellgooch.com

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  5. Well, glad this post generated some thoughtful discussion. A few counter-comments:

    Greg: "our faith is not directed at a classical notion of God or the supernatural - but it is still faith." No, it isn't. To have "faith" means to believe in something regardless, or even despite, the evidence. I really don't think that we should foster that sort of attitude, it has been destructive enough already. Besides, as I write in the main post, it won't work because the sort of esoteric concept of spirituality or "god" that Kauffman is proposing simply does not do the work that religious people want from their gods.

    Ravi: "I would suggest that in emphasising the term 'sacred' he is attempting to shift focus to an 'attitude' rather than an epistemology." I am aware of Kauffman's excellent work on complexity theory and the limits of reductionism, that was not the point of the post. And as you know if you read this blog, I also am not too sympathetic toward the "new atheism," especially Dawkins and Hitchens. But, again, I find Kauffman's notion vacuous and unhelpful, a move that tries to blur distinctions that should, on the other hand, be made more clear, like the one between faith and reason.

    Michael: "Religion should embrace science as it improves our ability to explain how God put things together." I don't think so. Since as far as I am concerned there is no god, science simply cannot do what you suggest.

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  6. Massimo, thank you very much for your outspoken criticism of the latest Kauffman book. I am seriously disappointed in his expositions, and agree with you fully that scientists have to stand against this irrationality which is currently swamping our society.

    One should certainly look at Kauffman's theories with a bit of reservation in the future. (Scientists who speak strange things outside the laboratory...)


    When someone talks of the sacred, there also exists sacrilege .
    From Wikipedia:
    "Most ancient religions have a concept analogous to sacrilege, often considered as a type of taboo. The basic idea is that sacred objects are not to be treated in the same way as other objects."

    This sentiment is diametrically opposed to science and all freedom so hardly earned against religion in the past few hundred years.


    A few comments to other posters:

    @greg: We have also evolved to think that our tribe is better than other tribes (nationality, racism etc) and most intelligent people agree that this is wrong. You are committing the naturalistic fallacy ("that what evolved must be good").

    If with faith you don't mean traditional religion (but in what else do you want to have "faith" in?) then simply go with spirituality.

    The Tao, incidentally, is not sacred. It simply is.
    It does not want to be revered. It does not want anything. Nevertheless, you will find a rich spiritual tradition there. One totally compatible with science, having no need for the sacred.

    @Ravi:
    Emergence does not explain anything. It is bogus talk. It stops you from thinking further; it is a semantic stop sign.


    There is a simple experiment: in every sentence where you see the word "emergence" in it, simply omit it: does the meaning of the sentence change? Do you know more or less after not using the word?

    That does not mean that we will not need psychology or sociology in the future: it just operates at different levels of abstraction, but we could down-translate them into physical mechanisms if we wanted to.

    @Michael:
    Of course science and religion have the same domain: they want to explain what is.

    Science uses a method to weed out the false from the approximately right. A highly successful method - look around you what science has achieved.

    Religion thought that way too at the beginning.

    The "separate magisteria" was first used by science as religion was still too powerful, and is now being used by religion to protect itself against scientific evidence contra religion.

    Religion conforms to human biases and wishes; it does not weed out anything. It preserves existing power structures.

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  7. Massimo,

    I saw a review of this book in Science/Nature/NYBooks or somewhere and came away with much the same conclusion as you. It seems like reading the entire book would only lower my already low opinion of the ideas. As long as biologists are opining on issues outside of biology, why don't they write a book trying to convince people that life without god is pretty satisfying and therefore no "reconciliation" is needed?

    -- Chris

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  8. Gue writes:


    @Ravi:
    Emergence does not explain anything. It is bogus talk. It stops you from thinking further; it is a semantic stop sign.


    There is a simple experiment: in every sentence where you see the word "emergence" in it, simply omit it: does the meaning of the sentence change? Do you know more or less after not using the word?


    I think this is a bit silly. I did not claim that emergence explained anything. I noted that that is one of the ideas that Kauffman has to offer. And if you are looking for a sentence which loses meaning and information without the word, you can search back to my comment and take the word "emergence" out of it, rendering it utter gibberish.

    The vehemence with which you state your opinion is topically significant since we have touched on the issue of "certainty" (both in Massimo's post and my response to him).

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  9. Second, nature is not creative, it just is. Creativity is something that conscious beings do,

    But aren't conscious beings natural?

    [this is my 2nd attempt to post this comment - first one vanished somehow]

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  10. @ravi

    Your use of the word "emergence" was of course at the meta-level; here, you can't omit it, same as any other word.

    If I want to talk about "snabbldegook", I'll have to use the word. It does not gain meaning through this usage (at the object-level); I meant the object-level, as in "property X is an emergent property of Z" etc.

    The vehemence with which you state your opinion is topically significant since we have touched on the issue of "certainty" (both in Massimo's post and my response to him).

    My "opinion" is actually based on careful weighing of arguments, and I have provided some links to provide the reader who does not agree to follow up on some (maybe) contentious topics: I simply can't fit all the argument into one simple post here in the comments section.

    As to uncertainty/doubt and certainty: in science, everything is about uncertainty. I agree that sometimes novel theories are not given enough immediate attention, but if they are empirically successful, they will gain recognition (maybe only after 40 years, but why not? Better than dogma.)

    And as to doubt in religion: this is only encouraged as a device to get back to "true belief". In religion you only hear about people who have experienced "severe doubt" (their "trial" or whatever) and then "seen the truth" of their religion.

    Have you ever heard of religious people saying: "Hey, this priest of ours, he had severe doubts about our faith, and after ten years, he concluded our faith was false and changed to a different one (or, indeed, went atheist); this guy is a real role-model! Maybe I'll follow in his doubt."

    No, you never hear that. Doubting in religion is pseudo-doubting to actually reinforce belief in the unbelievable (as in: "this seems so strange to me, can it be true? hey, but that guy doubted too, and he came back! it must be true!").

    Very different from doubt in science, which leads to genuine new theories.

    And one last word on certainty: when scientists are very certain about something, it is usually because they have evidence and pondered long and carefully.

    They may not repeat this long chain of argument every time, because it gets boring arguing the same things over and over again (from that may come the false impression of certainty without sufficient backing).

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  11. Science and religion operate under vastly different parameters.

    That is definitely true; science deals with reality, while religion is about imaginary beings. Like, say, fiction.

    Anyway, Michael, if you have a chapter "reconciling" science and religion, I'd suggest you just trash it, or at least rewrite it extensively.

    Why? Define religion! Otherwise, nothing you say makes any sense, and the question "are spiritual beliefs contrary to science?" is utterly meaningless. Because, you see, there's no such one thing called "religion"! (hell, even "science" is a varied and hard to define business, although not as much as religion) From the deist who believes in a prime-mover who then left things to run their course to the crackpot evangelical Christian who believes the Earth is 6,000y old and that talking to an imaginary friend will bring them money, it's all religion. And you can be that there's a lot of conflict there most of the time. So if you have some Buddhists in mind when you say "religion", it might very well be that there's no problem. Or at least nothing significant. But if you think of a good chunk of the American populace, then science and religion could barely be more opposed.

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  12. Gue,

    Emergence does not explain anything. It is bogus talk. It stops you from thinking further; it is a semantic stop sign.

    OK, I've seen many examples of writings were what you say is true, or at least seems to be.

    On the other hand, would you mind quickly defining what you think "emergence" (or "emergent property", if you prefer) is, and give an example of what you think would qualify as an emergent property under this definition?

    Of course I can't tell what you do or don't know, or what you are thinking, so I might be being unfair here. But you sound like some people I've come across who just dismiss this idea because they don't really understand it (maybe I don't either, but I'm trying). That's common with "emergent properties" because people seen to sniff "magical thinking" when they hear about it (and then clam up forever); of course there is the other side, where people rush to embrace it as the savior of their "spirituality" or "free will" or whatever. Not so much to the land, not so much to the sea. :-)

    Now, lest you misunderstand me, I'm not an evangelist or the like for "emergence". I tend to swing from accepting the idea to doubting it's got anything to contribute, with moods in between too. Maybe time will tell. Maybe not.

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  13. me,

    "But aren't conscious beings natural?"

    Yes, of course, but there is a useful distinction between natural-non conscious and natural-conscious, in the context of this discussion. That's all I meant.

    All, about emergence, I actually don't think this is a bogus concept at all, and it can be rigorously defined. Emergent properties are properties that are due to non-linear interactions between components. The classical example is water, where the physical-chemical properties of the molecule are not simply the sum or average of the physical-chemical properties of the individual atoms of oxygen and hydrogen that make up the molecule. There are simple statistical tests to detect non-linear interactions too, for instance in any analysis of variance model that explicitly includes an interaction term.

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  14. Massimo,

    Here is what I don't understand about the concept of emergent properties, from having read very little about them. Kauffman and others explicitly link the importance of emergent properties with a criticism of reductionism. In the examples you give, I just don't see the conflict. Sure, water is not a half way in between oxygen and hydrogen, but we do know that water can be "reduced" to oxygen and hydrogen, and with some knowledge of chemistry, we can predict the properties of oxygen and hydrogen when bonded together in such a way to make water (or hydrogen peroxide, etc). So unless one defines reductionism to say that everything is merely the sum/average of its parts (is this the definition?) then calling anything with non-linear interactions "emergent" seems trivial. I'm sure that I'm missing something here, so I'd like to hear what more you have to say on the matter.

    -- Chris

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  15. Chris,

    here is how I see the issue:

    "We do know that water can be "reduced" to oxygen and hydrogen, and with some knowledge of chemistry, we can predict the properties of oxygen and hydrogen when bonded together in such a way to make water."

    Not really. As I understand it, the physics of hydrogen and oxygen atoms actually does not allow us to make predictions about, for instance, the boiling or freezing point of water, or its density at 4C. This is because of the nonlinear interactions, which make these emergent properties. Of course, there is no magic here, all this means is that the proper explanatory level -- as philosophers would put it -- for water's density is the molecular, not the atomic one.

    "Unless one defines reductionism to say that everything is merely the sum/average of its parts (is this the definition?) then calling anything with non-linear interactions "emergent" seems trivial."

    Right, the question in part is what one means by reductionism. Again, the much maligned philosophy comes to the rescue. Philosophers have no problem with one meaning of reductionism, which is that, at bottom, everything is made of the same stuff (quarks, or strings, or whatever).

    But they do have a problem with the type of reductionism that says that *therefore* the best explanatory level is the lowest possible one. That would mean, for instance, that an engineer interested in the structural properties of the Brooklyn bridge would have to come up with a quantum mechanical model of the bridge because, after all, the bridge is made of quarks...

    That would be (a) impossible as a matter of practice (too complicated math), and (b) would miss a bunch of stuff that happens when you non-linearly combine the elements that make up the bridge. Better to focus on the more informative and easier to treat level of bricks, cables and other macroscopic objects and the forces acting on them.

    Of course, all of this has nothing to do with why Kauffman shouldn't try to redefine religion as awe of nature, but what the heck, we are having fun! :)

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  16. Massimo, you write:
    Ravi: "I would suggest that in emphasising the term 'sacred' he is attempting to shift focus to an 'attitude' rather than an epistemology." I am aware of Kauffman's excellent work on complexity theory and the limits of reductionism, that was not the point of the post. And as you know if you read this blog, I also am not too sympathetic toward the "new atheism," especially Dawkins and Hitchens. But, again, I find Kauffman's notion vacuous and unhelpful, a move that tries to blur distinctions that should, on the other hand, be made more clear, like the one between faith and reason.

    Yes, I do realise you mentioned Kauffman's work on complexity, etc, and of course I am aware of your views on New Atheism. My comments on that front are not to challenge you (or critique your opinion on Kauffman's book).

    But one thing I would say is that the interaction between reason and faith has been soft (and porous) one. It seems to me that the important thing is to keep track of each and separate them where necessary (a scientist can be a Ramanujan and a Hardy rolled into one -- here I am trying carefully to avoid terms like "context of discovery/justification"). The generous interpretation of Kauffman's program is one where he does acknowledge this need for care exactly by giving it a name and proper place. In mathematics (or more precisely, foundations of mathematics), for instance, this involves an explicit mention and discussion of Platonism.

    Perhaps I should state what I have assumed is obvious ... I tend to agree with you both on Atheism and on your larger point on this specific matter i.e., the blurring of the distinction between certain core ideas of religion and analytical thought (which science at its best can be a part of) and the parts they play in human knowledge gathering and action. What I wanted to write about, based only on hearing Kauffman on the radio, is that there are some interesting ideas he brings up, especially if we ignore the call to reuse the word "god".

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  17. @J Question 1:

    On the other hand, would you mind quickly defining what you think "emergence" (or "emergent property", if you prefer) is, and give an example of what you think would qualify as an emergent property under this definition?

    I think a quote from Kauffman explains what the debate here is about (taken from edge.org).

    The quote goes:
    Roughly speaking emergence breaks into two sub-views, epistemological and ontological emergence. The former says that complex systems are too complex to be explained by reductionistic practices, but that ontologically, reductionism holds. The ontological view is that new entities with their own properties and causal powers arise and are part of the furniture of the universe. I hold strongly to this view and will present a number of cases that appear to support it.

    What Massimo is arguing for and which I fully support is epistemological emergence - but that is asserting nothing but the fact that for understanding different domains we should employ different description languages (a domain being a problem-dependent section of reality chosen for closer scrutiny).

    That is what I mean by saying that emergence does not add toward understanding of the phenomena involved: it simply says: "Now we change description level." In computer science this is a perfectly normal thing to do: if we want to program a word processor, we won't use assembly or machine language, but C++ or Java. For programming web pages, we use PHP, Python, we present in HTML, and what have you...

    But in the end, in the computer, electrons get shoved around: they are doing the actual work, and that is where ontological reductionism comes in (for which I argue).

    Incidentally: in quantum field theory, even particles can be said to only "emerge"; so, the phenomenon is truly ubiquitous (in the epistemological sense).

    Why that? Because all properties are relational (see for instance here for a quick intro to the idea).

    But Kauffman, as stated in the quote above, explicitly advocates ontological emergentism (at least he says so clearly), that is, he proposes new causal forces! And that is what is not supported in any way by current science.

    I think it is no coincidence that Kauffman who ogles with religion endorses strong ontological emergence: the modern form of emergentism was developed as a move in the direction of vitalism by the British emergentists (see SEP link above); a move which nobody deems necessary today. Today's motivation stems from a Western mono-theistic reluctance to naturalize consciousness (something with which Buddhism or Taoism would have no problem whatsoever). So there is your connection with Kauffman's views on ontological emergentism and "reinventing the sacred".

    @J Question 2:
    Of course I can't tell what you do or don't know, or what you are thinking, so I might be being unfair here. But you sound like some people I've come across who just dismiss this idea because they don't really understand it (maybe I don't either, but I'm trying).

    As to your question if I dismiss emergence prematurely out of ignorance: no, I have done extensive reading of the pertinent literature, and from that I have simply arrived at the conclusion that whenever people invoke ontological emergentism it is not supported by science (only "mysterious phenomena" are invoked). But a mystery is there to be solved, and not to be imbued with ontological significance.

    Three papers I can dearly recommend on the subject, and which express the views I have tried to hint at above in more detail:
    Informational Realism by Luciano Floridi, a well respected philosopher of information (actually, the philosopher of information *grin*; a more complete paper is this:

    A Defence of Informational Structural Realism, Synthese, 2008, 161.2, 219-253.

    and another one by Mark Bedau (more directly adressing the emergence question, but the Floridi papers actually do more towards a solution): Weak Emergence, a paper which has rightly become a classic of the field.

    M. A. Bedau. 1997. Weak Emergence. In James Tomberlin, ed., Philosophical Perspectives: Mind, Causation, and World, vol. 11, pp. 375-399. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    Hmm, I visited his site to retrieve the quote, and stumbled upon this: he has a very interesting sounding paper forthcoming:

    M. A. Bedau. 2008. Is weak emergence just in the mind? Minds and Machines, special issue on emergence. Forthcoming.

    Sounds cool.

    @Massimo:
    Emergent properties are properties that are due to non-linear interactions between components.

    Perfectly fine with non-linear interactions, and indeed I think there is the solution to much of the bafflement. But, as you go on to say, there is no magic involved. It all bottoms out somewhere (at the level of causal efficacy).

    That is what the people at SFI are actually doing, and I love and respect their work very much - they've certainly got some of the brightest guys on the planet working there IMHO. They look for models which explain high level phenomena by low-level interactions. (I wonder what they would say to Kauffman's new book, he is external professor there; I guess they have very interesting discussions there *grin*).


    Of course, there is no magic here, all this means is that the proper explanatory level -- as philosophers would put it -- for water's density is the molecular, not the atomic one.

    100% agreement :-))

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  18. gue writes (quoted text is in italics):

    @ravi

    Your use of the word "emergence" was of course at the meta-level; here, you can't omit it, same as any other word.

    If I want to talk about "snabbldegook", I'll have to use the word. It does not gain meaning through this usage (at the object-level); I meant the object-level, as in "property X is an emergent property of Z" etc.


    But I did not use "emergence" at the object-level, but at the "meta level" (as you call it). I did not claim that "emergence explains X" (as you imply) but rather wrote that "X talks about emergence". To argue against me, you have to show that X did not talk about emergence, not whether emergence explains anything or not.

    As to whether emergence is a meaningful idea, there is enough intelligent discussion of it elsewhere that it may not be worthwhile to repeat it here.


    My "opinion" is actually based on careful weighing of arguments, and I have provided some links to provide the reader who does not agree to follow up on some (maybe) contentious topics: I simply can't fit all the argument into one simple post here in the comments section.


    And I don't expect you to fit it into a blog comment -- but by that same token (and for that reason), a blog comment can also do without the attitude. I have no further proof of your rigorous analysis than I have of Rabbi Lerner's!


    As to uncertainty/doubt and certainty: in science, everything is about uncertainty.


    Everything should about certainty. Whether it is so, in everyday science, is a matter of politics, I believe, than of science.


    And as to doubt in religion: this is only encouraged as a device to get back to "true belief". In religion you only hear about people who have experienced "severe doubt" (their "trial" or whatever) and then "seen the truth" of their religion.

    Have you ever heard of religious people saying: "Hey, this priest of ours, he had severe doubts about our faith, and after ten years, he concluded our faith was false and changed to a different one (or, indeed, went atheist); this guy is a real role-model! Maybe I'll follow in his doubt."


    Sure, I have. And without requiring you to believe in the veracity of my own personal experiences, I point you to Amartya Sen's references religious congresses under the Emperor Akbar which included among its participants many atheists.

    But then again, legion are the scientists (Nobel Laureates among them) who believe that the universe is lawful, etc., and consider it only a foolish mind that would change its fundamental beliefs in the face of empirical or theoretical contradictions.


    Very different from doubt in science, which leads to genuine new theories.


    This is not specific to science but is shared by a large part of human activity, which co-exist with a religious life.


    And one last word on certainty: when scientists are very certain about something, it is usually because they have evidence and pondered long and carefully.


    What is to stop a religious leader from claiming the same? After all he spends years in seminaries and in other activities that at least superficially resemble rigorous thought and learning. The important issue is whether one admits to uncertainty, and one when one does, that commits one to lose a bit of that swagger -- which is not peripheral to Kauffman's point (as I see it).

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  19. @ravi
    I think we agree on more than the initial comments would have led to believe.

    You say that Kauffman raises important points, and with this I even agree, because I think science and spirituality do not contradict themselves.

    I just agree with J. that if you publish a book in America with the title "Reinventing the Sacred" and reuse the God word, his message will definitely be misunderstood.

    And he should know it.

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  20. Not really. As I understand it, the physics of hydrogen and oxygen atoms actually does not allow us to make predictions about, for instance, the boiling or freezing point of water, or its density at 4C. This is because of the nonlinear interactions, which make these emergent properties.

    I'm not sure what you mean - that it is not currently practical to predict the properties of water from properties of atoms, or that it's not possible in principle? I don't think the latter makes sense.

    Also, a brief googling revealed this:

    Predictions of the Properties of Water from First Principles

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  21. Windy,

    thanks for the post and the link, I downloaded the paper and will look at it, sounds interesting.

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  22. Windy,

    I finally got around reading the article on predicting the properties of water from first principles. Very interesting, though that is far from my field of expertise!

    Nonetheless, it seems to me that what the authors accomplish is a prediction of some of the structural properties of water, not the physico-chemical ones (like freezing temperature, density at a given temperature, etc.), which are those that I referred to as "emergent."

    In any case, remember that the idea of emergence is not that there is something mystical or spooky going on, but simply that the properties of complex systems are non-linear (non-additive) derivatives of the interactions among the system's components. This simply makes bottom-up predictions much more difficult, not impossible in principle, and identifies some higher levels of organization as the best loci for analysis.

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  23. massimo: “To have "faith" means to believe in something regardless, or even despite, the evidence. I really don't think that we should foster that sort of attitude, it has been destructive enough already. Besides, as I write in the main post, it won't work because the sort of esoteric concept of spirituality or "god" that Kauffman is proposing simply does not do the work that religious people want from their gods.”

    A couple of comments:

    First, I must state that in general I agree with most of your positions on religion and science. I must, however, acknowledge that we as scientists must admit that we hold our own prime “faith” – i.e. we assume that our senses (and technological extensions of our sense) are conveying real information about actual reality. Of course, I think Popper and Kuhn’s “pragmatism” rectifies this assumption of science as best any philosophical argument can (as the t-shirt says – “Science: it works bitches”).

    But this is not the main point I’d like to argue.

    On the whole, I view the Universe as completely devoid of the “sacred.” I also think (though from what little I’ve read of your stuff thus far – you would disagree) that the Universe can be reduced and that if we had the ability of Laplace’s demon, we could predict causality at all levels.

    That being said, my wife (a clinical psychologist) has made me question my own desire to simply rid the entire world of religion and magical thinking. I still hold to this most of the time, but sometimes I wonder whether we as scientists really WANT to do this. Do we really want every other person on the planet to truly see the Universe as utterly meaningless and purposeless (though no less awe-inspiring in our eyes). I come to this question not from the place of wondering about the necessity of “sacredness” or “spirituality” in humans, but from a look at human psychology. I wonder whether the human brain, or more accurately, many human brains, even have the capacity to function in a meaningless Universe (I know that you and I have no problem with this – but what of the masses?). I hear stories on a daily basis just in my own small community of people seriously depressed, suicidal, or homicidal, largely due to their own feeling of being lost or meaningless in this world.

    Combine this question with our own knowledge of the inherent unknowability of anything outside the system of our Universe. There may or may not be an “unmoved-mover.” There may or may not be an entity beneath our physical laws. We can never have any evidence for or against it, because it by definition would exist outside of our own system. Of course it is utterly pointless for us to even conceive or entertain such a being. However, from a pragmatic view of our own psychology, it may be wise for science to at least allow that unknowable place beyond the big bang or beyond our system of existence to be filled with at least a hope that perhaps within that void lies our own greater meaning. This would allow us to rid our world of the foolishness of our current myths, while leaving a space where harmless wonders and faiths might exist.

    However, I admit that this idea is also “intellectually disingenuous,” as you referred to Kaufman. I also admit that you are probably right in that this sort of God would probably not fulfill the desires of most humans.

    Anyway, just some thoughts – disregard or critique at will. I wrote my own little blog post about this very issue, though I admit that I am not even in the same league of philosophical knowledge of you and many of your readers.

    I’m incredibly glad I found your blog and I look forward to many more great postings.

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