To deal with “arrogant” scientists we need to move beyond reductionism and break the “Galilean Spell.”

May 7, 2008 | By | 12 Replies More

I don’t want no god on my lawn
Just a flower I can help along
‘Cause the soul of no body knows
how a flower grows… Oh how a flower grows . . .

“Longer Boats,” by Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam).

Why are so many religious people uncomfortable with so many scientists? I can think of several reasons.

According to many Believers, scientists are arrogant know-it-alls. Believers see scientists as emotionally sterile lab-dwellers who flaunt their white coats and their fancy lab equipment.

Scientists exacerbate the situation by speaking and writing using esoteric language that makes science-phobes feel ignorant. By using such difficult concepts and language, scientists have raised the bar, which excludes many folks from joining scientific discussions.

It’s not like the “good old days,” where people were generally informed enough to join many conversations regarding science (or social science). Things are different now. Those who want to join a discussion regarding evolution, stem cells, or cosmology (to take a few examples) would be well-advised to first spend at least a week in the library reading several reputable books on these topics. This is a far greater time commitment than it takes to go to church. It’s a lot easier to accuse scientists of being “elitist” or to hurl Bible quotes than it is to take the time to responsibly prepare so that one can meaningfully participate in scientific discussions. Those who put their trust in their church leaders on matters of science are often not willing to make such an investment, however. They prefer the opinions of non-scientist preachers over those of real-life scientists. In doing this, they engage in religionism (see definition #3 here).

Making matters worse for Believers, scientists and other intellectuals have had the audacity to disprove a steady stream of religious claims. The Earth is obviously older than 6,000 years. The Shroud of Turin is a fake. The clumps of 60 cells we call blastocysts are biologically incapable of thinking or feeling (despite claims of “souls”), and not all of the words of the Bible are authentic. The list goes on and on. Almost every time scientists focus their methods on religious claims (the ones that are amenable to testing, anyway), those religious claims tend to crumble. Methodical and rigorous evidence-based analyses keep making fools of religious folks, especially literalist Believers.

It makes it even more painful for Believers that most world-class scientists have no patience with religion and they are getting more vocal about it every day. A new wave of books, including Daniel Dennett’s 2007 effort, “Breaking the Spell” rallies the troops of scientists to put religion itself under the microscope.

In the minds of Believers, the scientists have no plans to stop until they have completely destroyed everything that is sacred or moral. Look at all of the damage that they’ve already done by promoting the works of Darwin, who has A) “demoted” humans to the level of animals; B) promoted the idea that nature’s great function and beauty randomly happened; and C) made a formidable argument that nothing is truly immoral anymore because there is no longer any need for God.

Worse yet, Believers can plainly see that the scientific establishment has gained command of magic that really works (as opposed to religious magic). Those damned scientists have figured out how to build airplanes that really fly and they’ve designed diagnostic tests that really show why a person is sick. Contrast these undeniable accomplishments to the track record of Believers: prayers that don’t really heal, predictions of the end of the world that fail and promises of heaven that have absolutely no basis in fact.

That’s how many (though certainly not all) Believers see the situation. Many religious faithful are thus become motivated by what Nietzsche termed ressentiment: the transfer of the pain that accompanies feelings of inferiority onto an external scapegoat, coupled with an urge for vengeance against those who are noble.

But it gets even worse for Believers. What gripes them more than anything else is that so many scientists act like they know it ALL when they don’t really know it all. They don’t really know that there is no heaven! They can’t disprove that I talk with God in my prayers! They weren’t there when the universe was created. So why are they so certain that they are right where scientific facts collide with religious factual claims?

To many religious folks, scientists constantly threaten social traditions in an arrogant and ignorant way. Therefore, many members of conservative religions don’t merely disagree with scientists on particular issues. No, they disparage all of science (except the science that helps them disparage science, such as the science that allows them to possess those marvelous computers on which they rant about “arrogant” scientists). When this level of frustration festers, it can even culminate in the election of a President who gains immense support when he, himself, disparages science.

If the above descriptions are even half-true, no wonder scientists are the targets of so much animosity these days!

Is there anything we can do about this sad state of affairs? Perhaps there is. It would involve a reframing of what it means to be a scientist. It has to do with publicly recognizing serious limitations of science. It involves a recognition that science is a “sacred” endeavor.

I have just finished reading a provocative new article by Stuart Kauffman: “Breaking the Galilean Spell.” Kauffman is a professor of biological sciences, physics and astronomy. He is actively involved at the Santa Fe Institute and he is the author of a book on complexity that inspired me: At Home in the Universe: the Search for the Laws of Self Organization (1995). Kauffman’s writings are both rigorous and poetic.

I sense that Kauffman feels the rampant distrust that many people have regarding scientists. Although Kauffman doesn’t mention the fever-pitched ressentiment felt by many Believers, I suspect that this ressentiment motivated Kauffman to write “Breaking the Galilean Spell.” Before digging into Kauffman’s new article, I’ll propose a hypothetical.

Assume that you have a good friend who is considering getting married to someone who, in your opinion, is not compatible with her. She wants your advice and you truly want to help her. Would you ever consider opening up any sort of science book in order to obtain advice to give to her about her relationship? Such advice is nowhere to be found in the study of physics or chemistry. The nuances of relationships simply don’t boil down well in the nomenclature used by the hard sciences. It’s possible that you might open up a psychology book or a sociology book or maybe even an evolutionary psychology book, but you probably wouldn’t find much in any of these books that would come close helping your friend on this occasion. If you’re like most people, you’d rather use the time-tested wisdom embedded in common sense.

Many religious people feel that science fails in many other ways too. They feel that scientists have very little to tell us about stem cells, or homosexuality or how to run the country or whether premarital sex is bad or whether one should take the afternoon off from work to visit one’s sick mother. They feel that scientists are out of their element when they opine on these topics, or on anything having to do with meaning or values.

Kauffman’s article is both a challenge to scientists to recognize their limitations but also a manifesto for scientists to recognize their responsibility to build thousands of new bridges out of their labs, toward thousands of domains that, until now, haven’t been recognized as “scientific.”

Kauffman’s plan is to “reinvent the sacred.” He would do this by recognizing a fully natural “God” and a new “emerging scientific worldview that would reach further than the current conception of science, to include art, ethics, politics and spirituality. He proposes that we attempt to reintegrate science with “the ancient Greek ideal of the good life, well lived. It is critical to note at the outset that Kauffman does not seek to reinvent the sacred by reference to anything supernatural. Everything he has set out to do can be done without any reference to a “Creator God.”

Instead of holding that science is applicable only in traditionally-recognized scientific domains, Kauffman’s view is that science, re-conceived, includes many other things (including “art, ethics, politics and spirituality”). Kauffman’s approach is thus a resounding rejection of Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal that science and religion constitute two non-overlapping magisteria

[“The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry.”].

Kauffman argues that this re-conceptualization of science is required because science, as currently conceived by many, is exclusively reductionistic. For many people, including many scientists, “science” seeks to explain all phenomena in terms of the interactions of fundamental particles. The explanatory arrow of science currently aims “downward,

  • from societies
  • to people
  • to organs,
  • to cells,
  • to biochemistry,
  • to chemistry and ultimately
  • to physics.

As Kauffman explains, there is an inherent tension in reductionism, because (in the words of Stephen Weinberg) “the more we know the universe, the more meaningless it appears.” Reductionism is, indeed, a powerful way of looking at the world, but is ultimately a cold world view, lacking meanings and values. It is the world view of “mere happenings.”

For Kauffman, there are actually two powerful explanatory arrows, one pointing down (reductionism) and one pointing up (emergence). Things like life, agency, value, and people falling in love “cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone.”

Kaufman spends considerable time explaining the importance of emergence to his call to “Break the Galilean spell.” In the infancy of modern science, Galileo and Newton established the foundation for all modern science with their discoveries that so many observable phenomena are governed by natural law. This “Galilean spell” is the unwarranted faith that all aspects of the natural world can be described by reference to such natural laws.

For many scientists, such basic laws of physics are considered to be the end point of explanation. In fact, the ability to find the most basic low-level explanations is considered to be the “Theory of “Everything” (TOE) by many scientists.

Kauffman’s main argument is that many things that undeniably exist are only “partially describable” by natural law. Such things include evolution of the biosphere, human economic life and human history. “We would not have a meaningful understanding of any of these things even if we understood the location and movement of every single particle in the universe.”

For instance, Kauffman holds that Darwin’s heritable variation and natural selection cannot be reduced to physics. It is “emergent” in an epistemological sense (we can’t deduce it from physics upwards), nor can we understand it ontologically by reference to physics. What are the real entities in the universe? For a reductionist, only particles in motion have ultimate meaning. We know that this claim is wrong, however. Organisms such as the human heart can’t be deduced from physics. Other emergent real entities (none of which can be meaningfully explained by the principles of physics) include “the biosphere, the human economy, human culture, human action.” I am tempted to add “free will” (or at least the compelling illusion of free will) to this list.

Nor can the human economic system be reduced to physics. It is an expanding economic web that “creates new economic niches for ever new goods and services that drive economic growth.” It is a “self-consistent co-constructing ever-evolving emergent whole.”

Kauffman raises an important question: if the natural law can only partially describe many of the important things of life, with what do we supplement the natural law? Here’s what Kauffman proposes:

A wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural creator.

In “Breaking the Galilean Spell,” Kauffman takes some pains to discuss the meaning of this new outlook. It will not please religious fundamentalists or scientific fundamentalists (dyed-in-the-wool reductionists).

Look out your window at the life teeming about you. All that has been going on is that the sun has been shining on the earth for some five billion years. Life is about 3.8 billion years old. The vast tangled bank of life, as Darwin phrased it, arose all on its own. This web of life, the most complex system we know of in the universe, breaks no law of physics, yet is partially lawless, ceaselessly creative. So, too, our human history and human lives. This creativity is stunning, awesome, and worthy of reverence. One view of God is that God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures.

Kauffman acknowledges Nietzsche’s recognition that we “live our lives forward into mystery, and do so with faith and courage.” We live in a world that we can “never fully know.” But, again, reason alone (including everything that reductionistic science has to offer) is not a sufficient guide to living real lives. These are important but inadequate tools. Kauffman refers to the ancient Greeks, who did not rely upon Reason alone, but relied on Reason to seek the True and the Beautiful. Kauffman proposes that natural law and ceaseless creativity can be united in such a way to heal several fundamental intransient schisms, such as the intransigent split between science and humanities.

For someone hearing this talk about “emergence” for the first time, it must seem like a lot of hocus-pocus, but it is an extraordinarily serious scientific topic. I’m going to take a bit of a detour here, to further examine the concept of “emergence”:

In Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (1995), John H. Holland points to cities as emergent phenomena:

On an ordinary day in New York City, Eleanor Petersson goes to her favorite specialty store to pick up a jar of pickled herring. She fully expects the herring to be there. Indeed, New Yorkers of all kinds consumed vast stocks of food of all kinds, with hardly a worrying about continued supply. This is not just some New Yorker persuasion; the inhabitants of Paris and Delhi and Shanghai in Tokyo expect the same. It’s a sort of magic that everywhere is taken for granted…. the mystery deepens when we observe the kaleidoscopic nature of large cities. Buyers, sellers, administrators, streets, bridges, and buildings are always changing, so that his streets coherence is somehow imposed on a perpetual flux of people and structures. Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time.

In The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World (1994), Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart distinguished reductionistic approaches from emergent phenomena:

Reductionism holds that the high-level structure is a logical consequence of the low-level rules, and we have no wish to dispute this here. The question is, what kind of consequence? If we wish to use reductionistic rules to explain and understand the high-level structures, then we have to be able to follow the chain of deduction. If that chain becomes too long, our brains lose track of the explanation, and then it ceases to be one. But this is how emergent phenomena arise. They are not outside the low-level laws of nature; they follow from them in such a complicated manner that we can’t see how. The problem facing a formal theory of emergence is to pin this kind of effect down, to show that no currently undiscovered shortcut can provide a simple derivation

We must find a way to deal with emergent phenomena in their own terms, and on their own level. We can push them a few layers down the Reductionistic Nightmare, but the deeper we push them, the messier the explanation becomes, and no comprehensible chain of deduction will ever connect them to the bottom. On the other hand, we have no wish to ignore the very real advances made by reductionist science. We have to find a way to combine content and context, reductionism and high-level features, into a seamless whole. A neat trick, if it could be done. Is there any chance? We think that the key is to understand complicity, not as an incredibly complex reductionist network, but as the interaction of features within different spaces of the possible. That is, we must put the dynamics back into biological development, evolution, and brain function, with the emphasis being on qualitative forms and features.

I’ll discuss one more view of reductionism versus emergence before returning to Kauffman’s article. While I studied at Washington University (in St. Louis), I had the privilege of participating in two Philosophy of Science seminars led by William Bechtel. (Bechtel is now with the University of California at San Diego). Bechtel is a proponent of what he terms “mechanistic explanations.” These “mechanistic” explanations are attempts to explain the things of the world as though they were “machine models.” This explanatory approach consists of two parts: a functional decomposition (what are the tasks to be done?) and localization (what are the things doing these tasks?) This “mechanistic” approach can be used wherever the parts of a system can be seen as doing specific tasks. Such explanations often involve a reliance on diagrams and the emphasis is on the mechanisms. As Bechtel explains them, such explanations are often incomplete, yet comprehensible. As one might expect with any such system that relies upon identifying the function of component parts, applications of the mechanistic approach to explanation are often thoroughly reductionistic.

In his 1993 book (co-authored with Robert Richardson), Discovering Complexity: Decomposition and Localization as Strategies in Scientific Research, Bechtel also makes it clear that Stuart Kauffman has put forth a meritorious approach for examining the structure and origin of various types of networks (page 223). In trying to analyze many complex systems, however, the strategy of localizing function in sub-modules is not productive.

The properties of emergent systems emerge simply as a result of the conductivity of very simple components of network. In the most extreme cases the parts do not individually perform any activities that can be characterized in terms of what the system does. The composition and localization fail. The surprising feature of these networks is that the pattern of connections results in systemic properties that would not be anticipated by focusing on the contributions of component units.

(Page 228).

Bechtel maintains, however, that complex systems can nonetheless be analyzed in a “mechanistic” way.

The behavior of the system is a product of the activities occurring within it. The components are simple mechanical units, and their interactions are all characterized in simple mechanical terms … Component function will at least be consistent with physical constraints. The difference is that what is important in determining the behavior of the system in a network model is not the contribution of the parts, but their organization

(Page 228).

Bechtel comments that the development of network models (whether they be neural networks, immune systems or any other complex adaptive system) alters our conception of machines and mechanism in radical ways. Nonetheless, such systems should not be seen as “mysteriousness” in a spooky way that violates any natural law:

Advocates of emergentism have maintained that certain kinds of systems are capable of giving rise to radically new properties not present in the components of the system. Such appeals to emergence have struck many as mysterious, others as trivial. On the other hand, it is too easy to see that when a certain degree of complexity is reached in the system, new properties will appear: a square has properties none of the component line-segments have . . . .

The behavior of [an emergent system] is not unintelligible or magical; it follows from the nature of the connections between the components within the system. The emergent behavior of connectionist systems may be mysterious and another sense, however. We may not be able to follow the processes through the multitude of connections in a more complex system, or to see how they give rise to the behavior of the system. We may fail in the attempt to understand such systems in an intuitive way. To quote [Herbert Simon], complex systems that are not hierarchical and decomposable “may to a considerable extent escape our observation and understanding.”

(p. 229).

During seminars I attended, Bechtel several times asked the question of whether first rate explanations are reductionistic. His answer was “Absolutely!” He would add, however, that first-rate explanations are also emergent, and that one will not have the worthy understanding of anything without using both reductionistic and emergent approaches.

Now, back to Stuart Kauffman article.

In keeping with the above accounts of emergence, Kauffman argues that science, as currently conceived, “is too thin to nourish us as human agents in the vast universe that we partially co-create.” That is why many of us reach out for a supernatural God and science is incapable of disproving most such subjective supernatural beliefs (I agree with Kauffman that science largely fails in this quest). Further, to the extent that we attempt to use science to disprove the supernatural God, science itself appears ignorant and lacking. That is because each of us needs a place for spirituality. People who believe in God use that symbol of “God” to orient their lives. It is critically important to the way in which they frame their lives. To simply attack belief in God (as many of the new wave atheistic books do) is to attempt to destroy the feeling of sacredness that many Believers sincerely feel. Kauffman believes, however, that there is an alternative way to reinvent the sacred.

We can invent a global ethic, in a shared space, safe to all of us, with one view of God as the natural creativity in the universe.

So what is life really all about, boiled down?

The biosphere is a co-constructing emergent whole that involves persistently. Organisms and the abiotic world create niches for new organisms, in an ongoing open textured exploration of possible organisms.

According to Kauffman, we live in a world that is radically unpredictable. We don’t know, before-hand, what specific adaptations will arise in the biosphere. For instance, we could not have predicted the Internet in 1920. We live in a world of “explosive creativity.” Kauffman’s claim is not simply that we lack sufficient knowledge to make these predictions. His thesis includes a much more radical claim:

Not even the most powerful computer imaginable can make a compact description in advance of the regularities of these processes. There is no such description before hand. Thus the very concept of a natural law is inadequate for much of reality. [My view] challenges what I call the Galilean spell, the belief that all in the universe unfolds under natural law…. There is a profound implication: … without sufficient law, without central direction, the biosphere literally constructs itself and evolves, using sunlight and other sources of free energy and remains a coherent whole even as it diversifies, and even as extinction events occur. The same is true of the global economy. Such a self-organized, but partially lawless, set of coupled processes stands unrecognized and thus unseen right before our eyes. We appear to need a new conceptual framework to see this… we will find ourselves far beyond reductionism, indeed.

For Kaufman, this partially lawless unfolding of radically creative processes is far more amazing than any claim of an “Abrahamic transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient God.”

The Four Major Injuries

For Kauffman, his newly construed scientific world view offers hope for healing what he terms “Four Major Injuries.”

The first injury is the “artificial” division between science and the humanities. This division is artificial because science is more limited than we have previously recognized. Science is not the only path to knowledge and understanding, and it cannot explain “the intricate, context-dependent, creative, situated aspects of much of human action and invention or the historicity that embraces and partially defines us.”

The second injury resulting from reductionistic science is the claim that the “real world” is a world of fact that lacks values. Kauffman urges us to cultivate an alternative world view “in which brute facts do yield values, a world view in which an ought can derive from an is (contrary to the argument of David Hume).

The third injury is the belief by many agnostics and atheists that “spirituality is foolish” or, at least, questionable. Kauffman claims that to deny spirituality is to cut ourselves off “from a deep aspect of our humanity.” How important is it to heal this third injury? “Reinventing the sacred as our response to the emergent creativity in the universe can open secular humanists to the legitimacy of their own spirituality.”

The fourth injury is a current lack of a “global ethic.” What we lack is a “shared worldwide framework of values that spans our traditions and our responsibilities to all of life, one another, and the planet.” This global ethic is something much more comprehensive than a simple belief in fairness or the love of family and friends (things on which secular humanists focus). The main source of injury is that the industrialized world has reduced us to consumers, “materialistic and commodified.”

By reinventing the sacred, Kaufman aims to heal these four injuries, “injuries that we hardly know we suffer.”

In “Breaking the Galilean Spell.” Kauffman continues the tradition he established in At Home in the Universe. In both writings, Kauffman shows himself to be a bridge builder. In At Home in the Universe, Kauffman utilized complex mathematical models to illustrate the power of self-organization in complex systems. He further argued that “such self organization may have made the emergence of life well-nigh inevitable.” His argument there was that when collections of chemicals contained enough types of molecules, “a metabolism will crystallize from the broth,” resulting in what Kauffman terms “order for free.” He argued that metabolic networks need not be built one component at a time; they can spring full-grown from primordial soup.” (See pages 40-45). Based on complexity theory and his sophisticated mathematical models, he built a bridge chaos and order, between non-life and life. He dubbed these bridges as examples of places “on the edge of chaos.” Such places are “orderly enough to ensure stability; yet full of flexibility and surprise. Indeed, this is what we mean by complexity.” (p. 87).

In “Breaking the Galilean Spell,” Kauffman continues his role as bridge-builder, arguing that there is no reason to perpetuate the schisms that he terms the “four injuries.”

Kauffman has taken on a difficult project, however. It will certainly fail for many people. For instance, religious fundamentalists will have nothing to do with this project. They aren’t open to what amounts to an Einsteinian God born of complexity (for more on Einstein’s God, see here), Instead, they will prefer to continue their worship of a hair-trigger megalomaniac God who prefers to keep order with the threat of hell. Many religious moderates will also resist the Einsteinian God. Most of them will continue to prefer a God that “listens” when they pray.

On the other hand, Kauffman’s approach might work for some Believers and some scientists. In addition to saying adios to the Creator God, Kauffman is suggesting a renewed effort by scientists to attempt to heal the “four injuries.” To the extent that this can be done, it would go a long way toward facilitating dialogue between believers and nonbelievers.

What if those scientists in those white lab coats took the time to wax poetic more often (Franklin Harold is a good example of a poetic scientist). What if, in their public proclamations, scientists, admittedly having accomplished thousands of natural-law miracles, became more willing to admit that there is a whole lot that they still don’t understand. What if they spent more time explaining the elegant overall context to their precise discoveries, looking both downward (reductionism) and upward (emergentism)? What if scientists would more often admit the humility suggested by Frederick Nietzsche:

Just beyond experience!– Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience – just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.

–Nietzsche (Daybreak, s. 564)

This humility is akin to the scientific humility expressed by David Hume in his analysis of causation. Hume argued that we never really see causes, but only correlations. Even when science is wildly successful, then, it is only skin-deep.

I know quite a few scientists, and very few of them are the kinds of cartoonish reductionists that are targeted by fundamentalists. However, the media often portrays the work of science as being rampantly reductionistic.

It doesn’t seem fair that the scientists have to take more time out of their schedules to do more PR in order to be more acceptable to Believers. The scientists didn’t bring this on—they are being unfairly attacked by the religious right these days. Here’s an undeniable truth, however: Though it’s not the scientists’ fault, it’s their problem. Religious conservatives have successfully brought this country into a post-fact era (and a post-science era) where facts are irrelevant and where good science is ridiculed for being good. Again, what can scientists do to fight off the anti-intellectuals?

Scientists might need to take more care to fully express a broader context for their work, and to not shy away from expressing emotion when presenting their work. If those who fear science more readily perceived that scientists really felt awe or a sense of the sacred, perhaps those believers would have less incentive to personally attack the scientists. I’m not talking about a sense of the sacred that amounts to sloppy science, or one that gives up even an inch on the need for the vigorous use of the scientific method. Rather, I’m suggesting that there is room for both rigor and awe. Carl Sagan is the best known example (and see here). Compare Sagan’s eloquence with the following example of rigor without a concomitant expression of awe:

“It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.”

The above quote is a good example of a sublime scientific finding written in a formal style. It’s found in the conclusions to Watson and Cricks article (found in Nature, from April 1953): “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.”

I realize that Watson and Crick were writing exclusively for other scientists, but perhaps they could have brought in a wider group of readers by simply taking the time to spell out the big picture meaning of their discovery in a way that gave the public and the media a better grasp of the mind-blowing excitement that they themselves experienced.

I am ambivalent writing this long post, because the last thing we need is a further dumbing down of the intellectual world for the benefit of the ignorant, attention-deficient and nonchalant public. But, again, even though the current anti-science atmosphere is the not the scientists fault, it is nonetheless their problem. These days, scientists and their free-thinker supporters are losing the PR war and we are all suffering from too much crappy politicized “science” that is actually not science at all, though it is presented as science by our national leaders.

Scientists could help their cause by making it clear that their reductionistic approach is merely one tool (though an incredibly powerful one) for deciphering reality. As Kauffman suggests, scientists should also recognize the role of emergence. As Kauffman (and Bechtel and others) advocate, reductionism and emergence are two complementary approaches to a full fledged mechanistic approach to explanation.

It is ironic that I bother to write this post, because a sense of the sacred does indeed motivate most scientists. How is it not sacred to study embryology (the beginning of a human life), cosmology (the study of the universe), or evolution (the path of development of all plants and animals, including humans)? If these aren’t sacred topics, nothing is. Though most scientists feel this sacredness, their writings are often restrained and emotionally flattened, usually intentionally because that is the way it is usually done. This writing style might be giving those who are hostile to science the incorrect impression that scientists are callously failing to show proper respect to the truly sacred subject matters of the human experience.

Perhaps by taking more time to talk about the “magic” of what they do, and the limitations of what they have accomplished and can accomplish, scientists can appear less threatening to those who fear scientists and who fear the scientific method.

Perhaps, as Kauffman, suggests, this healing of the four injuries starts with recognition that when they drive scientific investigations downward only, in reductionistic fashion, scientists lose large swaths of their potential audience for the great “show” that scientists are offering to us. Attendance will soar if they can manage to break the Galilean Spell. has published other writings by Kauffman, including:

The Adjacent Possible

Video based on The Adjacent Possible

Beyond Reductionism


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Category: American Culture, Economy, Education, Evolution, ignorance, Language, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, scientific method, snake oil, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. Ben says:

    "Magic trick costs teacher job"

    The charge from the school district — Wizardry!

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    "For instance, we could not have predicted the Internet in 1920."

    1920's? Futurists in the 1980's couldn't predict the Internet as we now know it, given that they knew of Arpanet. Even hard science fiction in the early 1990's (Niven, Pournelle, Baer) portrayed a future with no inkling of the power of instant information and ubiquitous communication that we now take for granted.

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Scientists desperately need to become storytellers, or at least to use them. This is a real problem.

    But reductionism, or the "explanatory arrow pointing downward" is not necessarily bad. That is, if one understands the basics of how things fit together.

    The basis of calculus is that everything is made up of lesser things. Mountains consist of trillions of tiny crystals, big changes are made up of little changes, high speeds are made up of little accelerations, and so on. "Reducing" sociology to biology to biochemistry to chemistry to physics looks at how the big things are built of smaller bits. But more of them.

    The trick is to understand the relationships between the levels of detail, and the degrees of abstraction. To say that a mind is "merely" a bunch of atomic interactions is denigrating the understanding we have of how assemblies are necessarily more than the sum of the parts. Assemblies are also the sum of the interactions between the parts. "God is in the details" and increasing complexity is the unavoidable result of self-replicating systems.

    These levels of understanding are what we need to find a folksy way to teach.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's my newest favorite example of emergence. It involves Oobleck:

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Consider this definition of "scientism" from the far-right leaning Conservapedia:

    Scientism is the belief that the scientific method has no (or few) limits and can successfully be applied to almost all domains and provides an explanation for everything. It is also used to refer to the idea that others worship science and its results.

    Here's the link.

    In Conservapedia, "scientism" is listed as one of the main causes of "atheism."

  6. Kenny Celican says:

    1920’s? Futurists in the 1980’s couldn’t predict the Internet as we now know it, given that they knew of Arpanet. Even hard science fiction in the early 1990’s (Niven, Pournelle, Baer) portrayed a future with no inkling of the power of instant information and ubiquitous communication that we now take for granted.

    I beg to differ. Read A Logic Named Joe, published in Astounding in early 1946, republished in the Baen Free Library in a collection by the same name a few years ago. It's prediction of search engines, written in the mid-40s.

    That's actually one of my two problems with this entire article. The first is the bland assumption by people of genius level IQ that anything beyond their ability to comprehensively understand is beyond the grasp of comprehensive understanding by other humans. It is a subtle and pervasive form of appeal to incredulity, but no matter how subtle, no matter how pervasive, it is still a fallacy.

    The second problem is that the approach suggested will fail. Attempting to compromise with a fanatic will only make the fanatic feel justified in having moved you from your original position to one more in line with their own, without having moved the fanatic. What is required is a comprehensive understanding of the opposing position without admission of the position's validity, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the factors governing positioning itself. Once those two items are within our grasp, the remainder is just engineering and implementation.

    Where most scientists fail is in recognizing that there is a possible comprehensive understanding of the factors governing positioning. The article recognizes that, but then devolves into something unhealthily resembling appeasement, justifying it with an unstated assertion that it is not possible for a scientist to recognize that possible comprehensive understanding, then openly stating that comprehensive understanding isn't possible.

    That said, Dan's comment about needing to be storytellers is spot on. We don't need to lower the heights to which science has reached, nor do we need to pretend science hasn't reached all that high.

    We need to build a ramp from where the fanatics are standing to where we are.

  7. Mike M. says:

    Thanks, Erich. As predicted, I really enjoyed reading this post. How Kauffman beautifully describes the human economic system- a “self-consistent co-constructing ever-evolving emergent whole”- can be applied to the macrocosm of the Universe as well as the microcosm of the human being and possibly down to the cellular and DNA level.

    Kauffman also said about the web of life: "This creativity is stunning, awesome, and worthy of reverence. One view of God is that God is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere and human cultures." This reframing of "God" sounds like something only the most hopelessly ignorant fundamentalist could disagee with.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    "Sam Harris: I'm using the term "science" very broadly, in terms of our best efforts to make valid truth claims based on evidence and clear reasoning. So history, for my purposes, is a science in the sense that we can make true or false claims about historical fact.

    What I'm arguing is that morality, questions of good and evil, right and wrong, because they relate to questions of human and animal well-being, also entail truth claims about our world, human nature or the prospects of human happiness that fall within the purview of science. Otherwise, we're just left to argue over preferences: things are wrong because we don't like it or a majority of people don't like it."

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