Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reinventing the Sacred...not really

As you know, I am an avid reader. Reading is my television to the extent that I spend hours every week doing it. I generally read several books simultaneously. For example, I am currently reading Anthony Beevor’s D-Day, a wonderful listener’s guide to Mahler’s symphonies, there’s always some Nietzsche stuff on my reading table. For bedtime I’ve been re-reading a chapter or two most evenings of Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novel War and Peace.

And I just finished a 290-page book called Reinventing the Sacred.

Now, I am currently near page 400 of the 1450 page Tolstoy novel and I’ve only been reading it mostly at bedtime since mid-January. But, Reinventing the Sacred took me over four months to finish. Funny how often the length of a book has little to do with how long it takes me to read it.

Reinventing the Sacred by
Stuart A. Kauffman is one example of many works available today that attempt to somehow reconcile the apparent polarizing worldviews of science and religion.

As science goes, it is not my strongest subject. Astronomy is the closest thing I have to a scientific passion. I also have a more than passing interest in evolutionary biology and the neurological aspects of cognitive science. But, when it comes to the presentation of facts about various chemical or biological happenings, or the workings of quantum physics and theories associated with this soup of facts, my mind dramatically slows down. I just don’t “get” a lot of it. I have to reread passages, let the book sit awhile as I ponder, or simply give-up on a solid comprehension and push on.


Here’s an example of Kauffman’s style as he attempts to summarize the book’s thesis: “If the biosphere and the global economy are examples of self-consistently co-constructing wholes, and at the same time, parts of these processes are not sufficiently described by natural law, we confront something amazing. 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.” (page 6)

Kauffman argues forcefully and scientifically that Creativity is a source of wonder and the central “god” to everything. He denies the existence of a supernatural god, a god of eternal life or damnation. He says human reality can be sufficiently explained scientifically without need of a god-concept to conveniently and naively deal with matters we don’t comprehend. The workings of Creativity throughout human experience and, indeed, the universe as a whole, are wondrous and more than justify the spiritual side of our humanity and can be the answer to our spiritual needs.

Kauffman also argues with equal passion that science itself shouldn’t get too uppity. Biology cannot be reduced to physics. Reductionism, so common in the sciences today, is damaging to true science and to the nature of science within human experience. Life very possibly may have originated from non-life but that process ultimately is a non-reducible, fundamentally Creative holism.

Along the way he proposes several models of theoretical mechanics that are most often difficult for me to fully grasp. The mathematics of string theory as it relates to our concept of “mind”. The Universe is open-ended, pregnant with possibilities, rendering it “
nonergodic.” And this one, which is quite profound after you finally realize what Kauffman is writing about : “…via decoherence, the quantum coherent state has consequences for the physical classical world.” (page 225, the emphasis is Kauffman's)

I was most interested in the reasoning Kauffman puts forth in offering Creativity as a model for the sacred that many different religious and non-religious perspectives might be able to grasp and appreciate. It reminds me of some of the work of Hungarian psychologist
Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, who's book on Creativity - and partcularly his book and concept of "flow" - has influenced my thinking.

The book was enjoyable to the extent that I always am interested in attempts at ‘unifying theory’ or worldviews that attempt to be more inclusive rather than closed and self-righteous. The latter expression of human truth is found, perhaps, most commonly in various fundamentalist mentalities regardless of their actual religious origins. Of course, I learned some things as well.

But, about two-thirds of the way through the book I started to get the feeling that, try as he might, Kauffman was failing where so many other scientists have before. The simple fact is you cannot rationalize the idea of the spiritual because the spiritual has very little to do with rationality. That is science’s biggest challenge with respect to a dialog with religion.

The scientific method itself is just another belief system; it deserves no more (or less) elevated status than the chanting of some ascetic sitting in a cave in India. Looking for a sense of the sacred in factual science doesn’t really broaden our experience of the sacred because that experience springs from the non-rational aspects of our humanity.

The sacred is a part of human experience that pre-dates rationality. Sacredness even pre-dates human emotional experience. The sacred comes from our pre-conscious, more instinctual selves where there are basic drives beyond thought or love or fear. As such, the sacred is shut-off (or at least distanced) from the rational mind. It is this very fact that makes the polarization of religion and science a natural, rather inevitable, consequence of being human. Individuals such as Kauffman (and myself to a great extent) may attempt to find elements of the sacred in our factual world, but we should never confuse our apparent need to resolve such contradiction in our Being with our ability to actually bring about such resolution.

We are forced to live with such a schism. It is, in fact, who we are. Spiritual Beings with basically the same nervous systems we have had for the last 10,000 years or so, trapped in an accelerating postmodern reality of functional technique. The only way to live genuinely in both worlds is, in fact, to accept their fundamental incompatibility.

This sounds rather bold, but it is supported (in my opinion) by another personally influential work entitled Synaptic Self published in 2002. “Our brain has not evolved to the point where the new systems that make complex thinking possible can easily control the old systems that gave rise to our base needs and motives, and emotional reactions….we have imperfect conscious access to emotional systems…” (page 323) That book was also a slow read for me at the time.

My personal belief is that most of this is driven biochemically and instinctively (“base needs and motives”) within each human being. Emotions themselves are probably no more insightful than the proclamations of rational fundamentalism. The sacred arises within us from a place we cannot (or can only imperfectly) consciously go.


Still, I applaud Kauffman for his effort. Creativity seems to me to be as good a place as any to attempt to rationalize the spiritual. The fact that he fails to do so is not as important to Being as the intimate bravery in attempting to understand things and stitch them together, however inadequately. The effort is worth more than the failure.

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