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Kauffman regurgitated.

Since I've now had a few days to digest Kauffman's recent presentation at the Hyatt-Regency, I might now be ready to regurgitate it to the waiting ears of the unwary...

Reinventing the Sacred, by Kauffman



Principle thesis: That a universal myth of the sacred is required by humankind, a goal which is undermined by the agressive, intolerant atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, et al. The arguments of the aforementioned are not, however, simply politically imprudent, but are in fact grounded in dated scientific theories which they have applied and extended in manners which are inappropriate to the natures of the theories themselves.

Reductionism v. Emergence: By Kauffman's analysis, the lynchpin of the polemics issued by such agressively atheistic authours is a trust placed in the idea of empirical reductionism as the manner by which all things may be fundamentally known. Kauffman lists four forms of reductionism, all of which he judges to be deterministic in nature:


  1. Newtonian reductionism

  2. Natural law reductionism

  3. Particle reductionism (atomism)

  4. All-things-are-language-describable reductionism



Kauffman then goes on to highlight the inherent problems of each of the reductionistic paradigms...

Emergence: "Emergence", the arising of unique things which are either different or greater of their parts, is the first foundational observation which Kauffman wields against reductionist models. The example provided to explain the word is straightforward: a single iron atom, on its own, manifests no characteristic of rigidity (that is, substantial resistance against physical deformation). A large conglomaration of iron atoms arranged in is a crystalline formation (an iron bar) however, exhibits high degree of rigidity. Thus, we are presented with a simple example of how large systems formed from atomic "parts" emerge as a unit with physical properties that are tremendously different from those of the parts. A being who thinks in terms of simple reductionism would be unable to comprehend why the whole exhibits different characteristics from its atomic units; it would logically expect that the conglomorate system would exhibit only proportionately greater characteristics of the atomic units, not wholy different traits.

Work: The second foundational observation which Kauffman then brought to bare regards the essential definition of "work" when the word is utilized by physicists, and how the inappropriate application of that essential concept -- when applied to things that are not particles, or which cannot be treated as particles -- only undermines reductionistic thinking.

To summarize, for physicists, "work" is defined as energy expended across a distance. Using the energy of a hockey-stick to strike a puck moves it a certain distance -- thus "work" can be said to have happened by the physicist. Kauffman then points out that the definition of "work" used in the biological sciences, however, is "the resticted release of energy towards a particular end which often results in another restricted release of energy". Thus, when an enzyme uses energy and directs it towards the building of other enzymes, what has transpired qualifies as "work" for the biologist. By contrast, the aimless, unpredictable emission of a neutron from an atom (for instance) does not constitute work for the biologist, though it may for the physicist, because the energy emitted is not being directed towards any particular end...

Enzymes and Agents: These two fundamental observations were then used to prepare for the next point -- that "agency" in the sense used in the biological sciences, is a much simpler and less restrictive term than that used in the vernacular or (often) by philosophers or social scientists. In the common sense, an "agent" is someone whom may consciously act towards a goal. The key characteristics of an agent are thus consciousness, willful action, and goals.

Kauffman argues that in the biological sciences however, an agent is simply something which does work which results in something which might do more work. The example, once again, is of enzymatic activity -- in this case, the description of a particular class of enzymes which are capable of building identical copies of themselves. "Work", as the audience is invited to recall, is simply "the restricted release of energy towards an end". A biological agent is not necessarily conscious, willful, or have goals, as demonstrated by the example of the self-replicating enzymes; they are not conscious, do not have goals, nor wills... They simply do work.

Tieing it together: Enzymes, however -- one of the simplest biological units known to perform "work", "could not conceivably arise in a universe dictated by simple, reductionist laws". The argument is this: if atoms are conceded to perform in the void in a meaningless fashion, then, in a reductionist universe, structures composed of atoms would naturally be equally meaningless and undirected in their activities. However, if this were the case, it would take exponenentially longer than the observed age of the universe (several trillion years or more) for a simple, self-replicating enzyme composed of two-hundred atoms to be cobbled together by chance. However, actual astro-physicists do not argue the universe to be nearly that old (educated estimates range from ten- to twenty-billion years, typically).

However, in a universe in which laws of emergent systems exist -- a universe in which conglamorate systems may be characteristically different from their atomic units -- it is possible for "work", in the biologists' sense of the word, to occur at an exponentially earlier age in the cosoms. This would be because, as Kauffman argues, simple, non-self-replicating molecules could randomly capitalize on each-others' "work". Molecules can, in this universe, catalyze reactions in other molecules which their individual atoms could not, resulting in a complicated and unforseeable series of exchanges that give rise to the possibility of self-replicating agents at a much earlier stage of cosmic life.

Final thoughts: Therefor, as the argument goes, reductionist models of nature -- such as those espoused by certain persons -- in which all things may be explained or categorized in terms of particle physics, utterly fail to even describe the universe with which we are presented. They also fail as social or political theories (or anti-political theories, as I might be inclined to call them) for the fact that because biology and human nature can be considered emergent systems in some fashion, their inherent complexity and purpose cannot be determined or understood from the simple study of particle physics.

They are also inherently unable to provide quintessentially political arguments -- arguments as to what reasoning beings should or ought to do -- for the simple reason that a reductionist model cannot be used to even determine what is politically possible, let alone what is necessary, moral, or good. Thus, it is for that reason, as Kauffman's argument goes, that vociferous atheists such as Hitchens and Harris should let-off on using reductionist models of nature as the basis for polemics against religion: for there is no basis for arguing that all things might be known simply through the elemental mastery of the science of atoms, the atomic sciences are by their nature incapable of explaining things that are not of the atomic world, and that religion (in the general sense), with its particular window into the world of things and meaning is itself a meaningful contribution to human existence and not merely an outdated convention that can, and should, be replaced by physics.

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