Archive for February, 2009

That reductionism is limited, however, does not mean it is not powerful, amazingly productive, and tremendously useful scientifically. We simply need to understand its place, and recognise that we live in a very different universe from that painted by reductionism alone.

So writes Stuart Kauffman in “Reinventing the Sacred” (ISBN 978-0-465-00300-6). I agree with that. As a medical doctor who practices in a field of medicine which values an understanding of patients from a holistic perspective, seeking to know, not just the diseases they might have, but to know the individuals who have those diseases, I find reductionist approaches both useful and insufficient. As Mary Midgley says in “Wisdom, Information and Wonder”,

One cannot claim to know somebody merely because one has collected a pile of printed information about them.

The key point Kauffman seeks to make in his book (he is a complexity scientist) is how our relatively new exploration of complex systems in non-reductionist ways has revealed characteristics which fundamentally change the way we understand reality. The central characteristic is, he feels, “emergence”.

…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……….Emergence is therefore a major part of the new scientific worldview. Emergence says that, while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, not reducible to physics nor explicable from it, and are central to our lives. Emergence, already both contentious and transformative, is but one part of the new scientific worldview I shall discuss.

The other major characteristic he describes is how Nature does not conform to “natural laws”, and so the world is not nearly as predictable nor controllable as we have believed (well you only need to read about this year’s economic crises to see that’s true, don’t you!)

Kauffman explains how emergence is a quality of unceasing creativity, and he explains how unpredictability challenges the supremacy of reason as a guide to life. When you first encounter them, these are radical ideas for a scientist, but the more you learn about complexity as a way of understanding reality, the more you realise how reductionism does not equal science. Science is a greater way of thinking than that, and its the modern concepts and methodologies which are expanding science beyond its limited and reductionist constraints. He shows how “ceaseless creativity in the evolution of the biosphere” undermines the Newtonian concept of “natural laws”.

We will soon find its analogues in economic and cultural evolution, which, like the biosphere, are self-consistently self-constructing but evolving wholes whose constituents are partially lawless.

(This book was published in January 2008, and therefore written well before the economic crises of the last year)

This is a radically different scientific worldview than we have known. I believe this new scientific worldview breaks the Galilean spell of the sufficiency of natural law. In its place is a freedom we do not yet understand, but ceaseless creativity in the universe, biosphere, and human life are its talismans. I believe this creativity suffices to allow us to reinvent the sacred as the stunning reality we live in. But even more is at stake……We must come to see reason as part of a still mysterious entirety of our lives, when we often radically cannot know what will occur but must act anyway. We do, in fact, live forward into mystery.

I do resonate with these ideas. Emergence is a fascinating concept. To connect it to the concept of ceaseless creativity and beyond that to the notion of God as Creator is an interesting step. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite work. I am with him in the awe-inspiring inspiration of ceaseless creativity. I think human beings, other creatures, Nature itself are endlessly fascinating and can, in fact, never be wholly known. But to use “God” symbolically to represent this phenomenon doesn’t work for me. I do like how contemplation of emergence, however, can help us to put reductionism in its place. In fact, reductionism can be more, not less, useful, if instead of trying to understand absolutely everything from that single standpoint, we use it in appropriate contexts and never consider that it gives us the whole “Truth”.

I also resonate with the idea that the acceptance of the inevitabilty of uncertainty makes us aware of the ineffable. In so doing, it makes both the mysterious more real, and reality more mysterious.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be a great book. But that’s not where I’ve ended up. I’m grateful to Stuart Kauffman for this work though, and coming from the perspective of a scientist gives his ideas a particular and a unique value. But in terms of “reinventing the sacred”, I think poetry, art, photography, music, and stories do all that so much better. Take a look at the photos of the frozen Scottish countryside I posted earlier, read “Anam Cara” by John O’Donohue, or “The Little Prince” by Saint Exupery, get in touch with what the French call “emerviellement” in your daily life (in the “quotidien“) and tell me if you agree. Yes, the new science of complexity can make us a bit more humble again, has a good chance of firing up our sense of awe, but I think it takes both Art and Philosophy to really put us in touch with the sacred again.

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This morning the sky turned an unusual, lovely, almost lilac colour. Pleasing. Very pleasing.

The colour of sunday morning

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People often use the word myth as if it is the opposite of the word truth. It’s juxtaposed to reality. You hear that a lot. An explanation about something is dismissed as a myth, meaning that it’s not true, not a fact, that’s it’s unreal. It’s quite strange how we’ve developed this way of using the word myth, because that was never the original meaning of the word. In Karen Armstrong’s “A Short History of Myth” (ISBN 978-1841957036) she says

Human beings have always been mythmakers [because] we are meaning seeking creatures.

Myths then, are a kind of story, a particular kind of story which has the potential to cast light on some aspect of life, some potential to make something clearer, to improve our understanding.

Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.

Mythology is about enabling us to live more intensely……it expresses our innate sense that there is more to human beings and to the material world than meets the eye.

I think this a key problem for us now at this stage in human development. How do understand both objective and subjective reality? How do we find meaning and purpose in our lives? The great advances of materialistic naturalism (as Havi Carel) would call it, has advanced through a reductionist approach to reality. It’s based on the belief that everything can best be understood by considering the parts, the components, from which it is made. That’s brought great advances in our ways of being able to understand and interact with the physical world, but when pushed to an extreme it creates a world view which denies the importance, even the reality of anything which cannot be measured, counted, or described objectively. That’s created a sense that the life itself has no meaning, that individual lives have no purpose, and that the priorities of living are about accumulation and consumption of material objects. Now the whole system is in crisis. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says we have never been here before and nobody really knows how to progress.

Karen Armstrong says, “Mythology and Science both extend the scope of human beings.” She’s right. these different ways of grasping reality complement each other.

A myth is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully it is a valid myth.

Wouldn’t you like to read myths which did that?

She concludes –

We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow beings

We need myths that help us to realise the importance of compassion

We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude to see beyond our immediate requirements

We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again.

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Let me tell you a story.

Last week, when visiting my parents, my mum said she was looking for her collection of Robert Burns poetry (it was Burns Day), and she came across her aunt Wilhelmina’s “Burns Birthday Record”. Here it is
Burns Birthday Book

I’ve never seen a book like this before. You can see it was owned by my great aunt. Here’s her name and the date she got the book
Burns Birthday Book

25th February 1907. Wilhelmina Rosie was my mum’s father’s sister. Here she is with my gran and grandpa and their first born (my mum). This is taken in Orkney in front of Evie Primary School where Aunt Mina was schoolmistress all her working life.

mum, gran and grandpa and great aunt mina

I started to browse through her Burns Birthday Record
Burns Birthday Book
entries in the Burns Birthday Book

You’ll see that the idea of the book is to enter someone’s name at the date of their birthday, opposite the little quote from Burns. The first thing that struck me was the surnames. There are lots of names here I’ve never come across in all my life. Apparently that’s because many of the names were typically Orcadian but I’m still a little surprised. My grandfather was, for example, Orcadian but moved south to Stirling. Did a lot of these families never move out of Orkney?

entries in the Burns Birthday Book

The next thing I noticed was that they weren’t all written by the same person. Maybe she wrote most of them herself but sometimes her friends would write in their own names? I browsed the entire book, wondering about all these people and their strange names. Several had the same surname so there were clearly a few families represented. Then I came across this entry in December.

entries in the Burns Birthday Book

This entry stands right out.

It’s the only entry in the whole book which gives the person’s full date of birth and the date they died. And it’s the only entry with a quote from the Bible added. Here’s why. George Folsetter was Wilhelmina’s love. They were engaged to be married but he fell from his horse, aged 26, and died. She never married. You’ll see the date of George’s death was 1903, but Aunt Wilhelmina only got her book in 1907.

Look up the quote from Numbers Chapter 18. I had trouble finding it. I assumed that in her day, she’d have a “King James” version of the Bible but in fact the quote comes from the “Revised Standard Version” which was only published for the first time in 1901, six years before she got her Birthday book. I’m not terribly clear why she picked this particular verse, but the chapter as a whole is about tithes and giving the first of the best of all you have to God.

I heard Eddie Reader, in an introduction to Burns’ song, “Ae Fond Kiss”, that the Nancy for whom he wrote the song, lived to her 80s and every year wrote in her diary on December 14th “This day I’ll never forget for this was the last day I saw Robert”

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