A topsy turvy world

C&I Issue 2, 2017

A topsy turvy world


Dennis Rouvray

The author of this book, Stuart Kauffman, is an American polymath who has engaged with a vast repertoire of scientific themes, ranging from evolutionary biology, through non-equilibrium chemical reaction networks, to the role of quantum mechanics in living organisms.

Before his notably active retirement, he served from 1975 to 1995 as professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, US, where his research focused primarily on complex systems and theoretical biology with the ultimate goal of elucidating the origins of life on Earth.

On delving into Kauffman’s latest book, one is immediately transported into a topsy-turvy world in which conventional thinking is turned on its head. It is a world that is so nebulous and ill-defined that we do not know what will happen or even what can happen. Science is the bad guy and castigated for its many shortcomings, and that mainstay of the scientific approach, reductive materialism, is reviled rather than revered. In short, current scientific thinking is called into question and the foundations of science are declared to be unfit for purpose.

While some readers may view this work as insightful and thoughtprovoking, many are likely to regard it as quirky.

The prime target for Kauffman’s wrath is the traditional world of science established by such creative giants of the past as Descartes, Galileo and Newton. His attack is focussed not on the achievements of science but rather on the route taken to attain them.

Kauffman readily acknowledges that the reductive materialism that so upsets him has performed brilliantly in the past. The problem with it now is that has become so dominant in our consciousness that it exerts a detrimental effect on our thinking. In fact, Kauffman goes so far as to press for complete demolition of what he describes as ‘the hegemony of reductive materialism’.

Why should reductive materialism provoke so much rancour? On the positive side this approach is at the heart of the conceptual world of classical science, it describes a stable and predictable world governed by Newtonian mechanics. On the negative side, it presents a scenario governed by a set of immutable and arbitrary laws that seemingly determine our lives and from which nothing new can ever emerge. It is claimed that such a state of affairs robs our world of all its mystery and unpredictability and massively impacts on our freedom to fantasise.

Kauffman argues that the human spirit will always eclipse science when it comes to the advancement our civilisation. Accordingly, he stresses that anything thwarting full expression of our human potential has to be overcome wherever possible. Examples he cites of everyday obstacles include power structures such as those inherent in large corporations and governments, and he insists that, although power structures cannot be eliminated, they must never be permitted to dehumanise us.

In spite of Kauffman’s distaste for reductive materialism, he does not hesitate to use scientific results to make predictions and comment on a wide variety of topics. Thus, on the subject of our future energy resources, he claims there is no need for concern that these will eventually become exhausted. He reaches this rather surprising conclusion by arguing that the mysterious dark energy that pervades our universe and apparently is responsible for propelling the accelerating expansion of the, universe, is so ubiquitous that there is more than enough of it to counterbalance the increase in entropy as the universe expands.

When Kauffman eventually gets round to discussing the validity of reductive materialism in classical physics and chemistry, he becomes quite autocratic. He is right to point out that this approach is subject to some severe limitations and that it fails completely in a number of instances. It is wellknown, for instance, that Newtonian mechanics cannot be employed to describe chaotic systems or complex biological phenomena. But Kauffman goes too far when he asserts that in adopting this approach we literally ‘lost our minds’ along with ‘the legitimacy of our conscious experience and free will’. He needs to recognise that reductive materialism is but one model of how our world works and, like all models, is invalid outside its domain of applicability.

If, as Kauffman asserts, reductive materialism really does not work, what should be put in its place? He puts forward the idea that we can manage without foundations. He questions whether any foundations are needed by arguing that the most complex system known to us, namely the Earth’s biosphere, has no foundations in the sense that no laws have entailed how it has evolved. Even the laws of physics and chemistry have not caused the biosphere but have rather enabled it to come into being.

Thus, Kauffman triumphantly proclaims his central conclusion that because our biosphere came into being with no foundational laws, it must be driven by a purposeless teleology and thus the whole grand structure of reductionism necessarily collapses.


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