Stuart Kauffman: The Open Universe and the Sacred

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I caught a talk by biologist and complex systems theorist Stuart Kauffman at the Institute for Science, Engineering and Public Policy. Here are some of my notes. I have tried to capture these words accurately, but please note the lack of quotation marks. Line breaks indicate ellipses, where passages are omitted.
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We are witnessing the emergence of some kind of a global civilization, given our capacities to communicate with one another.

It may be that we are at peak oil around now. … There are frightening and possibly true reports that the Himalayan glaciers are retreating very much faster than was thought, and that they will be down by 70-75% of their thickness and extent within ten years. … This affects 1.5 billion people.

Meanwhile, we’ve got the climate change that Al Gore has mentioned to us on occasion, and it seems to be true, although there are doubts about how much is due to human causes.

The population explosion continues. … We are in an economic crisis. … Our civilizations are being crushed closer together. … Among fundamentalists, we will kill to preserve our ways of life. … We must find a pathway that undercuts that fundamentalism.

I think we need, among other things, a sharable sense of God, across all our cultures. … I’m going to talk about a sense of God that I think is sharable.

The simplest possible look at reductionism is from Laplace: If there were a supreme computing system, and if it knew the positions, the masses and the velocities of all the particles in the universe, then using Newton’s laws, it could compute the entire future and the entire past of the universe.

I want to ask if the evolution of the biosphere is reducible to physics, and I’m going to tell you that it’s not.

The universe is open upward in complexity.We will make all possible stable atoms. … But we not make all possible proteins; we will not make all possible organisms; and we will not make all possible social systems.

The universe is vastly non-repeating. … When the space of the possible is vastly large compared to the space of the actual, history enters. … And the evolution of the biosphere is a profoundly historical process.

Can we state ahead of time all possible uses of the screwdriver? … Most human inventions are used for different purposes than they were originally invented for.

We do not know what all the possibilities are in an adjacent-possible biosphere.

Not only don’t we know what will happen, we don’t even know what can happen. … The same thing is true in the economy and in culture.

Do we know the sample space, the space of the possible, for the biosphere? No. … We can’t make probability statements about the biosphere’s becoming.

We have something that we don’t have in our physics anywhere. We have a partially lawless, yet non-random becoming – a self-consistent, co-construction of the biosphere.

For the Enlightenment, the highest ideal of human virtue is reason. Is reason a sufficient value for living your life when you do not know what can happen? No, it’s not, is it? … I don’t deduce my life. I live it. … This means that emotion, reason, intuition, imagination, story, narrative, and metaphor are all part of how we manage to get on with it, when we don’t know what is happening.

We have to reintegrate our entire humanity in a way that no civilization has ever done. … How do we live our lives when we cannot know? We don’t have any science of it. We don’t have any discussion of it. But it’s our ordinary everyday life. We do it all the time.

A. N. Whitehead thought that the universe was lured forward so that it has maximum complexity and maximum beauty.

The economy constructs itself in some way – of course we are doing our part – to create the conditions for new inventions.

The biosphere is building ever more positive-sum games.

My dream is that the biosphere is evolving – even though there are extinction events – such that, as an average trend, it is maximizing the total diversity of organized processes that can happen.

God is a human-invented symbol. It is our most powerful symbol. … I propose it to mean the natural creativity of the universe.

I am finding that living with the sense of awe and respect for the becoming that is the natural creativity … makes me a member of everything that I pass. … They are all sacred. And so is the planet. I hope from this we can get a global ethic.

There are other ways to be in the world than the way we are now. .. It’s our value system drives our economic utilities. Maybe what we ought to do is think about changing our value system.

Maybe part of what we should think about is: What economy and what way of living best service our freedom and our humanity, which includes our creativity.

I think we have to rethink our humanity – how we live in the world – when we do not know what we are doing, in a biosphere that is co-constructing itself in a non-random, but lawless way.

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