The Other I

September 7, 2010

The fine line between brilliant and kooky

When it’s not in my field of psychology, I often find it difficult to know whether a scientist sounds off the wall because his/her thinking is so far brilliant, so far ahead of mine that I can barely grasp it or because s/he is simply kooky.

Which is why I’ve been wondering lately about the concept of emergence.  I’d begun to get a little suspicious about it, and I wanted to know if it belonged in the same category as Intelligent Design or if it was a legitimate concept within the mainstream.  Kauffman in his book Reinventing the Sacred argues that emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted using the scientific method and equates emergence with creativity.

Data supporting the failure of science to predict emergent phenomena is quite solid and broadly accepted.  I first began to wonder, though, when Kauffman’s suggested that we might equate this emergence or intrinsic creativity with the Sacred.  Even with God.    I knew that was a step too far for me, but scientists are always going beyond the limits of the proven.  If they didn’t, we’d never have any hypotheses, no break through theories.  So that is fine.

I really started to question, though, when  I discovered that many writers are using the concept of emergence as that elusive question which so many believers are looking for, that question to which the only possible answer is God.

So although I know it’s hardly a return to the original sources, I asked Wikipedia about emergence.

Art by Holly Werner

It is, indeed, a highly respectable idea that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and does indeed describe phenomena from physics to psychology that are greater or different than the simply sum of its parts.   At the moment it seems to be an aspect of mystery in the universe which is attracting particular attention.

Some people want to find God in the universe.  Some people don’t.  I’m in the Don’t group.   For me adding God doesn’t elevate the universe but downgrades it.  I remember as a young teenager saying that I didn’t want someone to love me because I was made “in the image and likeness of God.”  I wanted them to love me because they loved me.

And now I sort of feel that way about the universe too.  It’s fantastic.  It’s incredible.  It constantly brings me to a state of stunned awe.

I’m sure it isn’t true for everybody, but for me, adding God flattens everything, it reduces it.  Almost as if there nothing particularly impressive to notice about the universe in its own right.

I can see where Plato was coming from with his world of perfect forms and I understand how the Church transformed that to a supernatural world presiding over this one.  But I can see why Buddha never added God to his world view.

I’m opting for belonging 100% in this universe.

That’s awesome enough.



  1. I’ve finally got round to reading Reinventing the Sacred. Can’t say I agree with everything it’s saying so far, but it’s a fascinating read all the same. I may even do a couple of posts on it…

    I’ve realised there may be more than one concept of ‘reductionism’ – or maybe I didn’t realise ‘reductionism’ was as strictly defined as Kauffman defines it – & maybe he’s right. For Kauffman, ‘biology reduces to physics’ = (1) ‘biology can be deduced from physics’. Whereas I had thought there was a kind of reductionism which would say that (2) in order for biological phenomena to take place, you only need ‘stuff’ (matter, energy) obeying physical laws, and nothing else is needed. The way he describes emergence looks consistent with (2), but not with (1), and I would go along with (2).

    Thanks, Chris.


    Comment by Chris Lawrence — May 14, 2011 @ 10:16 am | Reply

    • Right, right, right! I knew our thinking could not be that far apart on this issue. Since I first said I was less of a reductionist than you, I have puzzled over how you could possibly be an absolute reductionist. As a matter of fact, I have since come to appreciate that for many, the word does not carry the strict meaning to which I was first introduced as a graduate student which was rather like what you describe in 1): that all phenomenon can ultimately be explained in terms of the laws of physics. Period.

      It is only recently though that I moved beyond thinking that life was simply a phenomenon science could not yet even begin to explain. Now I think that even Newton and his law of gravity recognized an intrinsic dynamic in the universe – that matter is not completely inert, pushed along solely by mechanical forces as a strict reductionist position requires. And of course with Einstein and now with much of quantum physics, even much of physics is not reductionist in the sense it was originally understood 300 years ago. As I understand it, it was the only way then that scientists felt they could separate “natural” and “supernatural” law and avoid running into trouble with the Church. And maybe with their own beliefs as well.

      I do hope you write a few posts on Kaufman’s book. I will be most interested in your perspective. I myself got sort of bored with him toward the end and think I may have turned too many pages without bothering to make sure I fully understood his position.

      Thank you – as always.


      Comment by theotheri — May 14, 2011 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

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