Creating a Science of the Unknowable

Stuart Kauffman

     ... theoretical biologist and author. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion joins Dr. Kauffman’s At Home In The Universe and other books intended both for a general audience and for his colleagues at the forefront of emerging science. An early MacArthur Fellow, Dr. Kauffman is one of the world’s leaders in the study of complexity and the Founding Director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. Among the original participants in the Santa Fe Institute, Dr. Kauffman is once again on its external faculty. He lectures around the world.

Preview of Stuart Kauffman
Conversation 1 RealAudio1:50 

It’s time to break "the Galilean spell" of reductionism that’s mesmerized the West for more than 350 years. Thank Galileo, Newton and Descartes and move on, says world-famous theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman. Embrace the fundamental unpredictability inherent in the process of life in our ever-unfolding, ceaselessly creative universe, Dr. Kauffman urges.

Building on Darwin’s monumental insights about what happened after life started, Dr. Kauffman is confident evolution includes partially lawless elements.

"The Darwinian process is that which is giving rise to what unfolds in the biosphere (plus maybe self-organization if some of us are right). But Darwin was careful. He said process, he didn’t say law.

"In principal, we cannot get to the evolution of the biosphere from physics. Life is emergent. It’s becoming. Diversifying. It’s creating Darwinian pre-adaptations with novel functionalities. I do not think that there are some rules sitting around biology that bound it, rules that anybody stuck down, including a transcendent God. The emergence of a swim bladder in fish is an example of an incredibly rare event (until it happens) and then it’s common and they’re all over the place.”

Dr. Kauffman challenges reductionism and it’s reliance on reason to the exclusion of the rest of what makes us human.

"I'm not persuaded that anything in evolution as it occurs is lawful in (Nobel Laureate physicist) Murray Gell-Mann’s sense. If a law is a compact description of the regularities of a process, then there is no law for the emergence of swim bladders. Because that law has to be available beforehand as well as after. Now, that doesn't mean that laws aren't still being followed -- nitrogen can't change to hydrogen."

Given the profound importance of the environment in the Darwinian process, Dr. Kauffman has borrowed from chemistry the phrase "adjacent possible" (a condition one reaction step away) for the unknown into which we are forever moving – individually and in communities, in political systems, business or in our personal lives.

"We know (the phenomenon I call ‘the adjacent possible’), we've just never had the name for it. Can we pre-state it above the level of chemistry? At some point we cannot. Why we can't, I don't know yet. I think it has to do with an inability to state the selective environment, whether it’s biological or business, what will count as success, and I don't think we could state our relational degrees of freedom.”

Dr. Kauffman’s new book is Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Why the provocative title?

"(We need) a sense of the sacred which embraces a sense of stewardship, a sense of membership, with profound respect for all of life, sentient and non-sentient. We have to rediscover our entire integrated humanity. Realize that reason is an insufficient guide to live our life. Therefore, we have to integrate emotions and intuitions with reason. We don't know what's going to happen so it’s only to the best of our abilities. And I want to use the symbol ‘God’ to mean all of and nothing more than the creativity in the unfolding universe.

[This Program was recorded March 19, 2008, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]


We deeply admire Dr. Kauffman’s audacity in challenging scientific orthodoxy. His eagerness to be part of moving us all toward a “New Eden” is equally admirable.  We appreciate the many ways he willingly shares his challenging ideas with the world. In thanking him for his generosity in sharing his big ideas with us personally, both publicly and over many years and hours of private conversations, we also thank his family.

We also deeply appreciate Dr. Kauffman's willingness to open his thinking and conjectures to examination, criticism and development.  The dedication page of Reinventing the Sacred reads:

To the Conversations we must have

In nine hours of recorded conversations spread over four days, Dr. Kauffman joined us in the beginnings of an "infinite conversation(sm)" on many of the vital subjects represented in this book and in his work. These conversations and their progeny will soon find a home on a developing web portal. Though at times we have forcefully disagreed with some of Dr. Kauffman's views, the three of us have been able to do so with friendship, humor and a commitment to honest enquiry ... a tribute to Stuart Kauffman's character and thick skin.

Related Links:

Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion is published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Investigations and At Home in the Universe are published by Oxford University Press.

We recorded our first conversation with Dr.Kauffman over a decade ago, and our second in 2000.

This conversation is part of a series of discussions we had with Dr. Kauffman over several days in March, 2008.  As part of that series Paula moderated a conversation between Dr. Kauffman and psychiatrist Charles Raison

Our February 2011 Huffington Post essay, "Make a Joyful Noise", included references to Dr. Kauffman's views of the relationship between Darwinian processes and forward-looking actions.

Looking forward, as Dr. Kauffman does, to the worlds emerging around us, we view Frederick Ferré's philosophical work as profoundly important grounding for addressing the challenges we are facing.

James Carse examines the contradictions between religion and belief in The Religious Case Against Belief. He argues that when scientist attack religion they are actually attacking "belief systems."

In Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason, Russell Shorto offers a history of René Descartes' thinking, as well as his bones, giving historic and philosophical predicates which provide perspective to Dr. Kauffman's work.

The Templeton Foundation has included Dr. Kauffman's thoughts among those of other scientists, theologians, philosophers and public thinkers in a series entitled:  Does science make belief in God obsolete?

The series is being published as advertisements in major American periodicals;

... and, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.

© 2008 The Paula Gordon Show.
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