Stuart Kauffman on Going Beyond Reductionism and Towards Emergence

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Stuart Kauffman, from the Preface:

"The title of this book, Reinventing the Sacred, states its aim. I will present a new view of a fully natural God and of the sacred, based on a new, emerging scientific worldview. This new worldview reaches further than science itself and invites a new view of God, the sacred, and ourselves — ultimately including our science, art, ethics, politics, and spirituality. My field of research, complexity theory, is leading toward the reintegration of science with the ancient Greek ideal of the good life, well lived. It is not some tortured interpretation of fundamentally lifeless facts that prompts me to say this; the science itself compels it.

This is not the outlook science has presented up to now. Our current scientific worldview, derived from Galileo, Newton, and their followers, is the foundation of modern secular society, itself the child of the Enlightenment. At base, our contemporary perspective is reductionist: all phenomena are ultimately to be explained in terms of the interactions of fundamental particles. Perhaps the simplest statement of reductionism is due to Simon Pierre Laplace early in the nineteenth century, who said that a sufficient intelligence, if given the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe, could compute the universe’s entire future and past. As Nobel laureate physicist Stephen Weinberg famously says, “All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.” Weinberg also says, “The more we know of the universe, the more meaningless it appears.”

Reductionism has led to very powerful science. One has only to think of Einstein’s general relativity and the current standard model in quantum physics, the twin pillars of twentieth century physics. Molecular biology is a product of reductionism, as is the Human Genome Project.

But Laplace’s particles in motion allow only happenings. There are no meanings, no values, no doings. The reductionist worldview led the existentialists in the midtwentieth century to try to find value in an absurd, meaningless universe, in our human choices. But to the reductionist, the existentialists’ arguments are as void as the spacetime in which their particles move. Our human choices, made by ourselves as human agents, are still, when the full science shall have been done, mere happenings, ultimately to be explained by physics.

In this book I will demonstrate the inadequacy of reductionism. Even major physicists now doubt its full legitimacy. I shall show that biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right. Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe. With agency came values, meaning, and doing, all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. “Real” here has a particular meaning: while life, agency, value, and doing presumably have physical explanations in any specific organism, the evolutionary emergence of these cannot be derived from or reduced to physics alone. Thus, life, agency, value, and doing are real in the universe.

This stance is called emergence. Weinberg notwithstanding, there are explanatory arrows in the universe that do not point downward. A couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine are, in real fact, a couple in love walking along the banks of the Seine, not mere particles in motion. More, all this came to exist without our need to call upon a Creator God.

Emergence is therefore a major part of the new scientific worldview. Emergence says that, while no laws of physics are violated, life in the biosphere, the evolution of the biosphere, the fullness of our human historicity, and our practical everyday worlds are also real, are not reducible to physics nor explicable from it, and are central to our lives. Emergence, already both contentious and transformative, is but one part of the new scientific worldview I shall discuss.


Part of my goal is to discuss newly discovered limitations to the reductionism that has dominated Western science at least since Galileo and Newton but leaves us in a meaningless world of facts devoid of values. In its place I will propose a worldview beyond reductionism, in which we are members of a universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, and the full richness of human action have emerged. But even beyond this emergence, we will find grounds to radically alter our understanding of what science itself appears able to tell us.

Science cannot foretell the evolution of the biosphere, of human technologies, or of human culture or history. A central implication of this new worldview is that we are co-creators of a universe, biosphere, and culture of endlessly novel creativity. The reductionism derived from Galileo and his successors ultimately views reality as particles (or strings) in motion in space. Contemporary physics has two broad theories.

The first is Einstein’s general relativity, which concerns spacetime and matter and how the two interact such that matter curves space, and curved space “tells” matter how to move. The second is the standard model of particle physics, based on fundamental subatomic particles such as quarks, which are bound to one another by gluons and which make up the complex subatomic particles that then comprise such familiar particles as protons and neutrons, atoms, molecules, and so on. Reductionism in its strongest form holds that all the rest of reality, from organisms to a couple in love on the banks of the Seine, is ultimately nothing but particles or strings in motion. It also holds that, in the end, when the science is done, the explanations for higher-order entities are to be found in lower-order entities. Societies are to be explained by laws about people, they in turn by laws about organs, then about cells, then about biochemistry, chemistry, and finally physics and particle physics.

This worldview has dominated our thinking since Newton’s time. I will try to show that reductionism alone is not adequate, either as a way of doing science or as a way of understanding reality. It turns out that biological evolution by Darwin’s heritable variation and natural selection cannot be “reduced” to physics alone.


You and I are agents; we act on our own behalf; we do things. In physics, there are only happenings, no doings.

Agency has emerged in evolution and cannot be deduced by physics. With agency come meaning and value. We are beyond reductionist nihilism with respect to values in a world of fact. Values exist for organisms, certainly for human organisms and higher animals, and perhaps far lower on the evolutionary scale. So the new scientific view of emergence brings with it a place for meaning, doing, and value.

Further, the biosphere is a co-constructing emergent whole that evolves persistently. Organisms and the abiotic world create niches for new organisms, in an ongoing open textured exploration of possible organisms. I will discuss the physical basis of this “open texture” in the chapter on the nonergodic universe.

At a still higher level, the human economy cannot be reduced to physics. The way the diversity of the economy has grown from perhaps a hundred to a thousand goods and services fifty thousand years ago to tens of billions of goods and services today, in what I call an expanding economic web, depends on the very structure of that web, how it creates new economic niches for ever new goods and services that drive economic growth. This growth in turn drives the further expansion of the web itself by the persistent invention of still newer goods and services. Like the biosphere, the global economy is a self-consistently co-constructing, ever evolving, emergent whole. All these phenomena are beyond physics and not reducible to it.

Then there is the brute fact that we humans (at least) are conscious. We have experiences. We do not understand consciousness yet. There is no doubt that it is real in humans and presumably among many animals. No one knows the basis of it. I will advance a scientifically improbable, but possible, and philosophically interesting hypothesis about consciousness that is, ultimately, testable. Whatever its source, consciousness is emergent and a real feature of the universe.

All of the above speaks to an emergence not reducible to physics. Thus our common intuition that the origin of life, agency, meaning, value, doing, economic activity, and consciousness are beyond reduction to physics can be given scientific meaning. We live in a different universe from that envisioned by reductionism. This book describes a scientific worldview that embraces the reality of emergence."