Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Opulences of Reality

“My dear Arjuna, O son of Prtha, behold now My opulences”
The Bhagavad Gita, 11: 5

Stuart Kauffman has been engineering a new scientific paradigm which promises to wed biology and culture as well as explain the origins of life in such a way that we may eventually repair the schism that currently separates the spiritually from the rationally or materially minded.  You can find a neat summary of his ideas, more expansively treated in his book, Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred, in this article on the Edge blog

The terms of the debate are as follows: on the one hand, we have theology and metaphysics, which are concerned with notions of Intelligent Design, a benign Creator or Author of Existence, and the “fear that the very foundations of Western society will tumble if faith in a transcendent God is not upheld.”  These belief systems envision an order that is anthropomorphic, harmonious, and spiritual.  On the other hand, we have science and secular humanism, the former of which is concerned with natural law and tends toward what is called “reductionism,” a mechanistic or materialist causality, which in turn has led some to opine that “The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears,” in the words of Stephen Weinberg.  The secular humanists, meanwhile, argue that what science tells us is real and “find values in their love for their families and friends, a general sense of fairness and a morality that needs no basis in God's word.”  But, as Kauffman points out, the humanists have had a hard time accommodating notions of spirituality, and their moral philosophy has no scientific basis, which leads to relativism and the nihilistic excesses of postmodernism.  We are reduced to notions of the individual as Free Market entrepreneur or Democratic citizen, which are indeed two of the main strands of individualism in the West.  The poetic and spiritual values of the artist get short shrift.

On the basis of his explorations of Complexity Theory, Self Organization, and certain revisions of Darwinian ideas of natural selection, Kauffman has argued against the reductionism of science in order to explain how agency and accident, or as he more precisely defines it, “adjacent possibility,” function in ways that mitigate mechanistic determinism and allow for spontaneous creative possibilities.  The implications of this theory are huge and have already been implemented in the sphere of economics as well as biology and physics.  There is nothing meek about his approach:

I would like to begin a discussion about the first glimmerings of a new scientific world view — beyond reductionism to emergence and radical creativity in the biosphere and human world. This emerging view finds a natural scientific place for value and ethics, and places us as co-creators of the enormous web of emerging complexity that is the evolving biosphere and human economics and culture. In this scientific world view, we can ask: Is it more astonishing that a God created all that exists in six days, or that the natural processes of the creative universe have yielded galaxies, chemistry, life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, culture without a Creator. In my mind and heart, the overwhelming answer is that the truth as best we know it, that all arose with no Creator agent, all on its wondrous own, is so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind.

Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet — it expands our consciousness and naturally seems to lead to an enhanced potential global ethic of wonder, awe, responsibility within the bounded limits of our capacity, for all of life and its home, the Earth, and beyond as we explore the Solar System.

We know intuitively that spontaneity exists, that inspiration is a phenomenon which obliges us to speak of demonic possession and duendes, of muses and magic, if we try to describe the experience of sudden, inexplicable illumination that seizes the mind, and that accident and agency collude in the creation of new orders of existence.  Now scientists are coming to understand in their own terms what the poets have always known in theirs, that life as well as art is not a process merely of probability and necessity, but possibility and potential.

As D. H. Lawrence once observed, the opulence of a flower cannot be explained solely in terms of natural selection.  Beauty, meaning and value have no place in a utilitarian scheme.  But Kauffman presents us with the means of integrating what artificial disciplinary boundaries have sundered. The superfluities of natural selection are the ground of new realities and all of them are intrinsic to the universe. 

Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths and unlimited eyes. It was all wondrous. The form was decorated with divine, dazzling ornaments and arrayed in many garbs. He was garlanded gloriously, and there were many scents smeared over His body. All was magnificent, all-expanding, unlimited. This was seen by Arjuna.

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose up at once into the sky, they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.

At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.
Bhagavad Gita 11: 10-13