Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Kauffman’s own mode of speculation is itself an example of the creative process

Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman)
from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro
Stuart A. Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion recapitulates many of the ideas about the role of emergence in biology that were worked out in Kauffman’s earlier books (At Home in the Universe and Investigations), but also tries to place these ideas within a broader philosophical focus. Ultimately, Kauffman hopes to repair the breach between reason and emotion, or between science and culture, or between a naturalistic worldview and one that emphasizes spirituality.

The weakest aspect of Kauffman’s book is his attempt to move from science to philosophy: there is a sense in which his philosophical musings are just too simplistic, or “naive.” When he gets beyond the technical details of his computer simulations, Kauffman is way too eager just to make a “leap of faith” into an embrace of teleological and spiritual concerns. There’s a lot of blather in the book about the wisdom of past civilizations, and the need to construct a “global ethic,” and far too little a sense of what it means to engage in speculation.

Now, when I say that Kauffman’s claims are largely speculative, this is not a criticism, because I do not share the positivist sense that speculation is unacceptable and that we must confine ourselves to hard empirical evidence and legitimate induction from such evidence. As Whitehead says, “the Baconian method of induction… if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it.” A certain amount of speculation is necessary, if we are to discover or invent anything at all.

Kauffman is indeed unique among contemporary scientists because of the degree to which his research has been almost entirely speculative — his work has largely consisted, as I have already noted, in running computer simulations of biological processes, rather than looking at any actual organisms. This is precisely why his claims about emergent order have been ignored, rejected, or dismissed as incomprehensible by the vast majority of biological researchers. But it’s also why his suggestions are important, for any effort actually to think the biological in terms that go beyond genetic determinism and strict adaptationism.

However, some of Kauffman’s speculations in Reinventing the Sacred are just too tenuous, too lame. This is especially the case when he spends a chapter proposing a quantum model of the brain — one that differs from Roger Penrose’s better-known proposal, but that shares with it an argument that quantum indeterminacy could account for brain processes that are non-deterministic, and (especially) non-algorithmic...

In any case, for all that Kauffman is a speculative biologist (and, again, I am using this in a laudatory rather than dismissive sense), he fails to realize how his own mode of speculation is itself an example of the creative process that he sees at work throughout the biosphere, and perhaps the entire physical universe.

Even though he has in effect abandoned the “scientific method,” he remains overly attached to “hard” factual claims, rather than understanding the continual play between what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact” and the way that, as Whitehead also says, “there is not a sentence, or a word, with a meaning which is independent of the circumstances under which it is uttered”, so that “every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact.” This is why science must always be accompanied by robust speculation, whether in the form of metaphysics or in that of science fiction.

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