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Hail, ceaseless complexity: Review of 'Reinventing the Sacred'

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An argument that complex systems transcend natural law, and thus are symbolically sacred.

Reinventing the Sacred
A New View of Science, Reason and Religion

By Stuart A. Kauffman

In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins boasted that he once told a child that Santa Claus didn't exist. The argument was that Santa couldn't possibly visit all the world's deserving homes in a single night, quite apart from the physical difficulties of flying reindeer, narrow chimney stacks, and so on.

As well as illustrating the intellectual level of Dawkinsian discourse, this anecdote betrays a lack of knowledge of contemporary physics. Santa could do what he does quite handily, you see, if you consider him as a macroscopic quantum object - something that behaves according to the weird world of quantum physics but is large enough to be visible.

In such a guise, Santa could appear in as many places as he wanted to, simultaneously, without having to negotiate chimneys, provided nobody was watching. If he were caught in the act, his wavefunction - the probability that he might be everywhere at once - would collapse and he'd be revealed as your grandpa, after all.

And quantum effects are manifested at the macro scale only in extremely cold conditions, which explains why one routinely addresses one's Christmas list to Lapland or the North Pole, rather than, say, Brazil or Equatorial Guinea.

My Quantum Santa Hypothesis (QSH) works better than Dawkins' classical one because it explains the taboo about watching Santa at work, as well as his traditional location in cold climates - aspects Dawkins fails to tackle. The QSH explains more of the evidence in a single theoretical scheme than his does.

This is not to say that Santa exists, however. I have never challenged Professor Dawkins with the QSH. But the reaction of some of his acolytes to my original exposition (in the Guardian of Dec. 14, 2000) was predictable: Anyone who challenged Dawkins' view on this question was obviously a believer, and therefore not to be trusted.

This simplistic, with-us-or-against-us worldview is as deficient in subtlety as it is in humor. We know what we know because of science, it says. Science explains everything. So anything that falls outside that explanatory system must be false, illusory, even evil. What such defenders of science fail to see is that this line of reasoning betrays a dreadful misuse of the scientific method.

Theoretical biologist Stuart A. Kauffman, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1975 to 1995, is unlikely to fall into that trap. In Reinventing the Sacred, he takes aim at reductionist reasoning, much used in the sciences. Reductionist thinking takes complicated systems to pieces, studies all the pieces in isolation, and then sticks them back together again. Powerful and useful. Kauffman argues, however, that reductionism fails to explain the properties of systems that are "emergent" - that come into being by virtue of their inherent complexity, and whose properties cannot be explained by reducing them to the simpler systems from which they arise.

Say you have a few pounds of carbon compounds and a bucket of water, and you know how these behave chemically. It's nevertheless impossible to predict that the combination of these substances might be capable of evolving into structures (human beings) capable of self-reflection: Cogito ergo sum. Darwinian adaptations, agency, awareness, economics and human history are all emergent, and cannot be reduced to what Kauffman calls the physicists' system of "particles in motion."

Caution: This is not the same thing as the "irreducible complexity" that the intelligent-design camp claims is a sign of the hand of God. Such is no more than politically motivated special pleading. Instead, Kauffman goes to great lengths to suggest, in intense detail and with a rigor that, frankly, takes no prisoners, how emergence arises.

The message in chapter after chapter is that any reasonably complex system - whether the global biosphere or human technological ingenuity - betrays a "ceaseless creativity" that transcends fundamental natural laws and requires no prime mover.

Kauffman's reasoning is, in the main, faultless. It falls down, however, in two places. The first is his proposal that consciousness is based on the quantum mechanical properties of cellular substructures. Some recent work does show that certain proteins, in the dense milieu of cells, can manipulate electrons Santa-fashion, keeping all quantum possibilities open for as long as possible.

This idea is fascinating, but Kauffman appears to speak as if such properties were confined to neurons in the brain. Nowhere does he explain why they should not exist in other kinds of cell - a flaw that exposes him to accusations of arguing that brain cells are somehow exceptional. By the same token, he dismisses, out of hand, the idea that "mind" might be an emergent property of the trillion-fold interconnectedness of billions of neurons - a casual swipe that goes against everything else he says in the book about complex systems.

The second failure is the whole God business. The concluding chapters are more readable than the rest (in a book that is often an eye-watering challenge to read), but they degenerate into a repetitive mantra in which Kauffman says that the "ceaseless complexity" of the world, while not being evidence for a Creator God, should somehow be "symbolic" of God, or, at least, of something "sacred." He cannot prove this logically, he says; he can only try to persuade us.

This appeal to a kind of primitive pantheism is both sincere and charming, but in the end it is simply more special pleading. The fact is that in Kauffman's scheme, God is unnecessary, even if reductionism fails, so in the end one wonders about the point of preserving a sense of God.

To be sure, certain scientists could surely use a dose of humility before the evidence. Science cannot explain why human beings act and feel and think in the way they do in specific circumstances, and spirituality might even be important, valuable and worthy of respect. But what does God have to do with any of this?

I'm hedging my bets - I'm asking Santa for a quantum computer for Christmas.

Henry Gee is a senior editor of the science magazine Nature. His latest novel, "By the Sea," is available exclusively at



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