Natural forces of creation are God enough for some
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE:Science can give us a sense of awe at the world, and it can even provide a spiritual dimension, writes William Reville.
Modern science began with the work of Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo (1564-1642). Since then, science has discovered amazing knowledge about how the world works and this unveiling of the natural mechanisms continues apace. Science reveals a world that has no meaning beyond itself and that serves no discernible purpose. As physicist Nobel Laureate Stephen Weinberg put it: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."
Modern science has given rise to the secular state and science and religion are now seen by many as contradictory ways of viewing the world. Science seems to have no place for a spiritual dimension and many people find this bleak and disturbing. But, in a recent book, Reinventing the Sacred(Basic Books 2008), Stuart Kauffman describes how, viewed in a broad enough context, science can give us a sense of awe at the amazing creativity of the world in organising its own complexity, it can generate its own sense of value and ethics and it can provide a spiritual dimension. Science has made its impressive strides by using the reductionist approach. Reductionism breaks problems down into their simpler component parts, studies each part separately and then puts the parts back together again to understand the whole. This approach has been hugely successful in physics, chemistry and molecular biology and, without reductionism, science would not have made much progress to-date.
Reductionism assumes that the whole is explained by the sum of its parts. As Stephen Weinberg puts it: "Explanatory arrows always point downward." In this view, society is explained by small groups, in turn explained by individuals, organs, cells, chemistry, physics, and probably ultimately by a single set of laws that ultimately explain everything. According to reductionism, my writing this article is ultimately explained by the movement of subatomic particles.
But Kauffman does not accept that this reductionist approach is adequate to explain higher levels of complexity. In particular, he points to emergence - the sudden appearance of new behaviour when a system reaches a certain level of complexity, behaviour that cannot be predicted by the physical properties of the components. Take the simple example of water. The water molecule is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, but the properties of water are completely different to, and are not predictable by, the properties of hydrogen and oxygen.
Life is the ultimate example of emergence. I am chemically composed of carbohydrate, protein, fat, nucleic acid and water. If I were ground up and these various chemicals separated out and sold, I would be worth no more than about €100. And you could mix and match together these various chemicals until the cows came home, but nothing interesting would happen. And yet, these exact same chemicals, organised as they are in my body, produce the amazing creature you all love so much.
Although the emergent properties do not violate any physical laws, the laws of physics cannot predict what emergent properties will arise as complexity grows. Evolution is a prime example of a system that is radically and ceaselessly creative in a way that cannot be foretold because we cannot state in advance what features of organisms and environments will lead to the emergence of novel functions that will be chosen by natural selection to alter the future evolution of the biosphere.
Kauffman also draws attention to agency. Agency means acting on one's own behalf and humans are the prime example of agency. Kauffman finds it remarkable that agency has arisen naturally - systems that modify the universe on their own behalf. And out of agency comes value and meaning. For example, if you find this article interesting it has value. If it changes your attitude, it has meaning.
Kauffman describes a scientific world beyond reductionism that lies in emergence and natural creativity in the biosphere and the human world. We are co-creators of a web of enormous complexity that is emerging in the evolving biosphere and in human culture and economics. He believes that natural forces of the creative universe have produced galaxies, chemistry, life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, culture, all without a Creator. He finds this so awesome that it is God enough for him and, he hopes, for many. It is certainly an enriched picture of the scientific world.
Kaufmann doesn't believe in a Creator but acknowledges that science robbed humanity of a comforting certainty about purpose, value and human destiny. In the 20th century, this was expressed philosophically as existentialism and theatrically, in the bleak visions of Samuel Beckett.
Humans have an in-built longing for meaning. Religion has traditionally supplied this meaning and still does for many. I hope that Kauffman's scientific approach will do the same for many scientists who cannot subscribe to religion.
• William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC - http://understandingscience.ucc.ie