Book Review: Reinventing the Sacred

Reinventing the Sacred
By Stuart A. Kauffman
Basic Books, New York, 2008

I really admire the scope and boldness of Stuart Kauffman’s 2008 book Reinventing the Sacred. Prof. Kauffman is a biologist and complexity theorist. He sets out not merely to reconcile science and religion, but, as the title suggests, to reinvent our notion of sacredness and along the way to redefine God.

Kauffman’s goal is to define a shared space, built on a common view of the sacred, where all of us – believers and non-believers – can create a new global ethic, a moral and spiritual framework in which we can live together peacefully. But there’s a longstanding problem, Kauffman argues: the gulf between reason and faith, between science and religion. That gulf needs to be bridged so we can all participate in building this new global ethic that incorporates both scientific and cultural knowledge. Being a scientist, Kauffman starts from the scientific end of the bridge and moves towards the moral and spiritual.

Reinventing the Sacred is heavy going in places (as you might expect), repetitive in others, and it vacillates between technical science and moral philosophy. Yet the book is courageous and worthwhile and deeply thought-provoking.

This is a complex book and it took me a couple of readings to understand how it all fits together. What I’d like to do in this review is trace out Kauffman’s main arguments at a high level and then give my own reflections at the end.

* * *

Kauffman starts off with a critique of the prevailing scientific worldview known as reductionism, showing how it is inadequate both as an approach to fully understanding the universe and as a guide to living within it. He presents an alternate worldview based on the idea of emergence that can form a scientific foundation for morality and spirituality.


Reductionism is the idea that complex things can best be understood by breaking them down into their constituent parts and looking at how those parts interact. In other words, a thing is the sum of its parts, no more, no less.

Reductionism has been the hallmark of science since the Enlightenment. It’s an incredibly powerful approach to deepening our understanding of the world and ourselves. Kauffman quotes Nobel laureate physicist Stephen Weinberg who probably speaks for most scientists when he says,

“All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.”

In the end, everything in the universe is reduced to particles and motion (OK these days maybe it’s strings and vibration).

Along with reductionism comes the belief that the universe can be completely described by natural laws. Newton’s Laws of Motion and Einstein’s Laws of Relativity are prime examples. These laws enable us to both explain and predict natural phenomena. The laws governing the movement of objects in space, for example, allow us to predict lunar and solar eclipses with stunning accuracy, If there are phenomena that we don’t yet understand, or for which we have no law, well most scientists would say it’s only a matter of time before we develop an understanding and discover the applicable law.

So if reductionism has been so successful, what’s the problem?

Well according to Kauffman there are several.


The first problem is that reductionism is incomplete. There are many things — possibly the most important things — that arise naturally in the universe but cannot be reduced to physics alone. They are emergent.

Take temperature. It makes no sense to speak about the temperature of a single atom or molecule. Temperature emerges as a phenomenon once we have a collection of matter. Knowing the properties and behavior of a single molecule of water would not allow you to predict that water would freeze at 0°C and boil at 100°C. The same is true for other physical properties like rigidity or chirality, the asymmetry — left- or right-handedness – of certain chemical compounds. These too cannot be predicted merely by looking at the constituent atoms.

These seem like trivial examples, but the point is crucial: as we move up through higher and higher levels of complexity, from atoms to molecules, to cells to organisms to ecosystems, new phenomena emerge. These phenomena don’t violate the laws of the layers below, but they are not completely governed by them either.

Not all the explanatory arrows point down. This is a constant refrain throughout Reinventing the Sacred.

When we get into the evolution of the biosphere, emergence takes on greater significance because of course life itself is emergent. Kauffman asserts that the emergence of life and its evolution in the biosphere are natural phenomena. They are the result of “ceaseless creativity” in the universe. This creativity does not break the laws of physics, but it is partially outside them. Similarly, human culture, technology, and history are also emergent.

Emergence is part of a new scientific worldview that has begun to challenge reductionism.

From “Is” to “Ought”

The second problem with the reductionist worldview, says Kauffman, is that it gives us no guidance about how to live our lives.

Science describes what is, but not what ought to be; what happens but not what we ought to do.

Worse, it leads to a world utterly devoid of meaning. Again, Steven Weinberg:

“The more we know of the Universe, the more meaningless it appears.”

This may be true in the reductionist worldview, but I think most of us want meaning in our lives. We want to know that our lives serve some purpose, hopefully a higher or transcendent purpose that is somehow greater than ourselves. To find meaning, we turn to religion, devote ourselves to our family and friends, throw ourselves into our work, get involved in our communities, write, paint, dance and sing. In all these things reductionist science gives no guidance, indeed seems to play no part at all.

But this is not true in Kauffman’s emergent worldview.

For Kauffman, a critical phenomenon that emerges very early on in evolution is agency. Agency is the ability of an organism to perform actions on its own behalf, whether it is a bacterium consuming a glucose molecule, or a caveman hunting an antelope. Agency, according to Kauffman, violates no physical laws but is not predicted or governed by them either.

Along with agency come two equally important concepts value and meaning. Agents want certain outcomes to happen and other outcomes not to happen. There is value attached to outcomes, and because they have value, these outcomes also have significance and meaning.

In the emergent worldview science can encompass agency, meaning and values, and can therefore serve as a foundation for spirituality and morality. In other words, it can help us get from “is” to “ought.” I’ll elaborate on this later.

The Two Cultures

The third great problem with the reductionist worldview, according to Kauffman, is that it has cut us off from our full humanity.

During the Enlightenment, the breakthrough successes of scientists like Newton and Galileo, and growing opposition to Church dominance, caused a split, in Europe at least, between science and religion, and more broadly between reason and the humanities.

This schism is illustrated by a famous anecdote about the French mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace. Laplace gave a copy of his book Celestial Mechanics to Napoleon. When Napoleon asked Laplace why his book contained no mention of God, Laplace apparently replied, “I had no need of that hypothesis.” Since the Enlightenment, science has been seen by many as the preeminent path to knowledge and truth.

But there’s a price, Kauffman says. Atheists, agnostics and others who adopt a scientific worldview are disconnected from spirituality. This doesn’t mean they cannot be spiritual people, just that their spirituality is detached from any underlying scientific principles.

The split into what British scientist C.P. Snow called The Two Cultures leaves us cut off from our history and our culture – valuable sources of knowledge and approaches to truth. We need to recombine the two cultures in order to claim our full humanity, Kauffman says.

Living Forward

We live our lives forward, into the unknown, into mystery, as Kauffman puts it. We cannot know what will happen in the future – neither reductionism nor emergence help here – but we must still act.

Therefore reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives.

We need other sources of guidance, other paths to truth. This is one reason why the disconnect between science and the humanities needs to be bridged: so that we can turn to our culture – our histories, myths, and stories for example – for moral and spiritual guidance.

Another reason is that in our emerging global civilization we need a global ethic; a framework of values that spans traditions and cultures so all people, secular and believers, can live forward together peacefully.

So to recap; reductionism, the dominant and highly successful scientific worldview, is incomplete, devoid of meaning and leaves us bereft of cultural sources of knowledge and truth.

* * *

Kauffman points to emergence, based on “ceaseless creativity” in the universe as a way to overcome the limitations of reductionism. But what is this ceaseless creativity? How does it work? And what part does it play in shaping a new global ethic?

Ceaseless Creativity

Kauffman asks us to imagine a set of organic molecules that can combine in different ways via simple, single-step chemical reactions. Some of these reactions will produce molecules that are already in the set. Other reactions will create new molecules that were not members of the original set. Kauffman uses the term “adjacent possible” to describe new molecules that can be “reached” through these single-step reactions. Now these molecules plus the original set form a new, larger set that can go through another iteration of single-step reactions into a new adjacent possible. Repeat this cycle for a few billion years and you get the trillions of organic compounds that exist on Earth today. This “explosion into the adjacent possible” lies at the root of the creativity of the natural universe and is the driving force behind emergence and evolution.

Further, these compounds, and the more complex structures and systems they form will exhibit emergent properties that are not predicted by and are not reducible to physics alone.

Kauffman spends several dense chapters explaining the biochemistry of how life could have emerged naturally from simpler organic compounds expanding into their adjacent possible. I won’t attempt to summarize them – they form the technical heart of the book. The critical point is that he lays out a credible scientific explanation for the natural emergence and evolution of life that both cannot be reduced to physics and does not require a supernatural Creator God.

Life emerged and continues to evolve through the creativity in the universe. Kauffman describes this creativity as wild, persistent, ceaseless, radical and explosive. Most importantly, it’s unpredictable, operating at least partially outside natural law. No one can predict how evolution will play out. He notes for example that the number of possible proteins is virtually infinite, and all of evolution has thus far created only a miniscule fraction of the possible ones.

This creativity is also characteristic of human history. No one can predict how our technology or economy will evolve, for example. 50,000 years ago humans produced perhaps a few hundred or maybe a thousand different goods and services, according to statistics Kauffman cites. Today that number is around 10 billion. Economic evolution has led to explosive growth in the number of goods and services we produce.

In the emergent worldview, then, a complete scientific picture of the universe requires both natural law and ceaseless creativity partially outside natural law. This drives emergence and evolution, which give rise to agency, meaning and values, which in turn can form the basis for morality and spirituality.

Reinventing God

Now here’s where Reinventing the Sacred starts to diverge from your typical popular science book: Kauffman believes the ceaseless creativity in the universe is worthy of reverence, that it is in fact sacred. He chooses to name this creativity “God.”

“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.” (p. xi)

Kauffman deliberately chooses to use the word “God” here, knowing it could anger and alienate some people. He makes this choice because, he says, across all religions and cultures “God” has always been the name for our most powerful symbol.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the characteristics of this God Stuart Kauffman is proposing. (He doesn’t explicitly state all of these; some are my interpretation.):

  • First of all, this is a natural God embedded in the universe, not a supernatural God separate and distinct from the physical world.

  • Kauffman’s God has no character or personality. This God is neither a He nor a She. This God does not love you; it is in fact incapable of love. This is not a vengeful or jealous God; it is incapable of vengeance and jealousy.

  • God cannot answer your prayers. Praying to this God, at least in the sense of appealing to God to intercede in your life in some way, is utterly pointless. (Kauffman does not discuss prayer in the broader sense of contemplation, reflection or meditation.)

  • This God is not omniscient or omnipotent, but I think you could argue it is omnipresent, at least in the biosphere.

  • God does indeed work in mysterious ways. Emergence and evolution are unpredictable, and partially uncontrolled by natural law.

  • Lastly, God is a human invention. We, or at least Kauffman, have decided to revere the ceaseless creativity in the universe, to hold it sacred, and to consciously elevate it symbolically to the status of God. Humans have created this God, not the other way around.

For people who already believe in a God or gods, this new definition may be unnecessary, inadequate, even downright offensive. But for atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other non-believers Kauffman suggests this may be “God enough.” He thinks this God can help rejoin the two cultures by providing a scientific underpinning for morality and spirituality.

He’s not claiming this should be the only view of God, just that this view can serve as common ground for both secular and believing people.

“It is this view that I hope can be shared across all our religious traditions, embracing those like myself, who do not believe in a Creator God, as well as those who do. This view of God can be a shared religious and spiritual space for us all.” (p. 6)

In that shared spiritual space, Kauffman invites us to work together to develop a new global ethic

Towards a Global Ethic

In our increasingly globalized world we interact with, compete with, and sometimes fight with more people and peoples than at any time in human history. We need a global ethic, a set of principles by which we can live peacefully with each other in an ever-evolving world we co-create. What would a global ethic based on the emergent worldview look like? How does emergence help us get from “is” to “ought”? Well he doesn’t lay it all out Ten Commandments style, but Kauffman does outline some principles (Again, some of this is my interpretation.)

  • Responsibility: Humans created God, not the other way around. It is up to us to choose what we value, what has meaning. God cannot tell us. Equally important, we possess agency. We are therefore responsible for our lives and the decisions we make.

  • Humility: We live forward into mystery. We do not know and yet we still must act. Therefore, humility must be at the core of our ethics.

  • Tolerance: A direct corollary of humility. We must be tolerant of other views, approaches and cultures both because we do not know and could be wrong, and also out of mutual respect for each other because we are all participants in the co-creation of the world. Intolerance, extremism, and fundamentalism all run contrary to this ethic.

  • Respect for diversity: This flows naturally from tolerance and humility since diversity is a direct outcome of creativity.

  • Reverence for life: Not just human life, all life and the entire ecosystem, since all of life evolved together.

  • Freedom: Kauffman calls creativity a “vast freedom” and of course human creativity has always broken free of any artificial constraints placed upon it.

  • Evolving world: Evolution is deeply embedded in the natural world. It’s embedded not just in the biosphere, but also in human culture, technology, and law. Since agency, meaning and value arise from evolution then, “evolution is not the enemy of ethics but its first source.” (p. 260).

  • Evolving morality: There are no absolute and universal moral principles. Our world evolves and we are its co-creators. Our ethics must evolve too.

“To say that our morality evolves is not to invoke blind moral relativism. Rather, it is to invite respect for past moral wisdom, a hesitancy to alter old moral holdings, with enough flexibility to adapt to new facts.” (p. 271)

“We must not, therefore, seek self-consistent moral axioms that that hold forever and settle all moral questions self-consistently. “ (p. 271)

“… there are no self-consistent axioms from which we can derive all moral behavior, Rather there are convergent and conflicting moral views, and as thoughtful, reflective, mature people, we engage in moral reasoning with our full humanity about situations, laws, practices, and ways of life,” (p. 287)

The history of legal reasoning and evolving jurisprudence based on British Common Law is a good example of this.

Some of these principles, or versions of them, can be found in most religions, others are unconventional and bound to be controversial. To be fair, Kauffman isn’t claiming to start a new religion here, though when you redefine God you are, to say the least, dipping your toes in those waters. Whether these principles can gain wide enough acceptance to be the basis for a shared global ethic remains to be seen.

* * *

Unsolicited Feedback

Until now, I’ve tried to set my own views aside (mostly) and just summarize the book. In this last section, I’d like to offer some thoughts — my unsolicited feedback.

First, some obligatory disclosures: My heritage and upbringing are Jewish, but today I’d call myself an atheist. I tend to put my faith in the power of reason and science. I particularly like the scientific philosophy of Karl Popper as well as some of his social philosophy, such as his support for liberal democracy. And I think evolution is a powerful framework that helps explain a great deal about our environment and about human society.

That said I recognize there are things about the universe we do not, and maybe cannot, comprehend through reason and science alone. It’s hard to walk through an old growth forest or swim along a coral reef and not feel awed by the beauty, variety and abundance of life. Do we perhaps feel some deep connection to a “life force”, the creativity in the universe? Similarly, when we visit a museum or an art gallery, when we walk through a cathedral or temple, when we listen to a symphony orchestra or a group of Taiko drummers, we feel something stirring deep within us. Something like reverence mixed with transcendence perhaps; a connection to something greater than ourselves. Maybe what we feel is a connection to the creativity in the human spirit. Perhaps we feel an echo of this spirit within ourselves.

Well, I’m not a poet or an artist, so I won’t carry on like this too long. The point I want to make is that I think Kauffman has hold of something profound in his reverence for the ceaseless creativity in the universe. I’ll even go along with calling it sacred.

I agree with him when he says reason alone is an insufficient guide to living our lives.

By providing a scientific underpinning for agency, meaning and values, I think Kauffman has made a start at describing a worldview that could help bridge the two cultures. This is perhaps the book’s greatest contribution. There’s a long way to go to see it fully developed. Kauffman suggests this is the work of generations. I think he’s right. We still need moral guidance, we still need community, and we still need rituals to celebrate and mourn seasonal and life events. Alain de Botton suggests in his excellent TED Talk Atheism 2.0 that we should “steal” some of the rituals and practices of established religions to accomplish these things.

I like how Kauffman emphasizes the need for dialog in moral reasoning. This echoes the need for dialog and conversation put forward by Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. But where Appiah says there are universal moral principles (even if we may never agree on them) as well as local ones, Kauffman flat out asserts their non-existence.

I just really, really wish he hadn’t named it “God.” He’s not the first to suggest that humans create their gods; plenty of historians and social theorists have said the same thing. I understand why he’s done it: Kauffman is trying to position the emergent worldview as common ground across established religions and traditions, and to do that he apparently believes he needs to appropriate our most powerful symbol. It’s a bold stance, no question, and it certainly grabs attention. But pragmatically, from the standpoint of getting his ideas accepted and adopted, I think Kauffman has done himself a disservice that detracts from the goals of the book. It’s a shame really, because the goals are worthy.

One of Kauffman’s aims is to define a shared spiritual space where we can build a global ethic that spans cultures and religions. But by choosing to define a new God, Kauffman automatically invites comparison to existing gods. He sets up a competition with other religions. Introducing a new God doesn’t help create common ground, it just stirs up already contested ground.

Another goal is to heal the rift between the two cultures. He has started to do this by establishing the scientific basis for agency, meaning and values. This is apparently a radical idea, even within the scientific community. Adding God into the mix won’t heal the rift any faster. On the contrary, atheists, agnostics and other non-believers probably find God unnecessary – they have no need of that hypothesis – and believers probably find Kauffman’s God inadequate if not offensive

Kauffman himself anticipates many of these objections.

“The very notion that we might choose to reinvent the sacred may be too threatening to embrace, or may seem pointless to billions of people of faith, or equally to secular humanists; indeed, it is important to realize that for millions if not roughly a billion of those of us who do not believe in a Creator God, we the secular children of the Enlightenment often feel that the very words sacred and God are utterly corrupted. Many who feel this way are revulsed by the death wrought in the name of God, and the aggrandizing certainty of some religious fundamentalists. The same secularists rightly fear any “sacred” for fear that it can become totalitarian.” (p. 282-3)

Yes sir! I think that about sums it up for me.

It boils down to this: We need spirituality, transcendence, and connection to our full humanity. A revered and even sacred creativity helps provide those things. But secularists don’t need a god, and believers already have all the God or gods they need.

Many faiths ascribe the creativity in the universe to a God or gods. Virtually all faiths and cultures have a creation story. Emergence could very well serve as the creation story for the secular world. Better yet, it’s a continuing story, one we all participate in. And like all creation stories, this one carries moral lessons too.

Whether we believe in god or not, the creativity in the universe is a source of wonderment and does indeed deserve reverence. It doesn’t have to be God to be sacred.

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One Response to Book Review: Reinventing the Sacred

  1. Pingback: Book Review: How We Got to Now | Unsolicited Feedback

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