Sunday, February 10, 2008
Stu Kauffman in Toronto
I went to hear Stu Kauffman on Friday night [see Reinventing the Sacred].
Before the talk we had a little chat about blogging and some other topics. He wondered what the bloggers were saying about him and I told him that many don't understand what he's trying to say. I explained that I fell into that same category. I can't figure out what it is that he's trying to promote. He promised to try and explain in his talk.
It didn't work. I'm not much further ahead than I was before I heard him talk. Here's a brief summary of some things he said. I'm sorry if I can't put it all together into one big picture but I just can't.
The New Atheists: Kauffman thinks that Dawkins and his "New Atheist" friends are preaching to the converted. According to Kauffman, they will never convince the believers. Kauffman describes himself as a secular humanist and a non-believer. He thinks we should try to reach out to the religious community by adopting spiritual language. Hence the title of his talk. I don't really know what he means by this. He gave one example of having a reverence for some trees growing on a hill top near his house but I'm not sure if this is relevant. (See photograph, is that the hill top?)
I don't agree with his position on the so-called New Atheists and I don't agree with his proposal that it's the atheists who need to move towards the theists by adopting the sacred.
Reductionism: Kauffmann is very much opposed to reductionism. He spent some time describing how the laws of physics just don't work when you try and predict the structure of complex things. This does not mean they don't obey the laws of physics and chemistry, it means those laws aren't sufficient. This is because of emerging properties.
The discussion about reductionism and emergent properties is interesting but Kauffman makes it too complicated, for me, by going off on all kinds of tangents. In talking about it with him afterwards, he seems to be thinking that life is somehow special. It's different than the physical world. He takes pains to point out that he's not talking about vitalism but it sure sounds like that to me.
The other interesting thing about his anti-reductionism is that it doesn't apply in the same sense that Lewontin means when he talks about gene-centric biology. Before the lecture we were discussing the reason why human siblings don't mate and Kauffman was quite eager to offer an evolutionary psychology explanation. He suggested there was selection for an anti-incest gene in our ancestors to prevent inbreeding. That's the worst kind of reductionism but it's not the sort of reductionism that Kauffman disputes.
Determinism: Kauffman doesn't like determinism. He pointed out that quantum mechanics has ruled out the Laplace version of determinism. I don't think this is particularly controversial but I do think there are versions of determinism that don't require strict predictability. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don't think Kauffman was trying to make a case for free will and I don't think he was using his anti-determinism to argue against materialism, but I'm not sure.
Somehow these topics, and several others, were supposed to weave together to form a new way of looking at science. And a new way of reaching out to theists. That's the part I didn't get. A lot of what he was saying was true, but hardly profound. What was supposed to be profound didn't seem to be true.
Stu Kauffman took down the URL for Sandwalk and he promised to read my comments on his lectures. I hope he will respond in the comments. He seems like a pretty cool guy even if he's a bit baffling.
The dominant impression I have from talking to members of the audience—there were 65 people at the talk—is that people think he's saying something important but they just can't put their finger on what it is. At least I'm not the only one.