Kauffman hopes to unify science and faith.
John McDonald/the Gauntlet

Science from a different perspective

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A University of Calgary professor is trying to bring science and religion closer together. In his latest book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, Dr. Stuart Kauffman argues society needs a new worldview that accepts the inability to fully understand the universe through science alone.

For over four centuries, pioneering scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Descartes promoted a philosophy called reductionism, the view that all phenomena can be reduced to and understood in terms of interactions between basic particles governed by natural law. This view suggests that life can be reduced from biology to biochemistry to chemistry and eventually to physics. However, Kauffman finds a problem with this view.

"Our biosphere cannot be completely understood or predicted by natural law," explained Kauffman. "Science leaves a gap in our understanding."

The problem with reductionism, he argues, is that it cannot predict biocomplexity-- when biological systems emerge that are not created by a single pattern or rule. Darwinian preadaptation, an example in his book, is when existing anatomical features evolve to serve a new purpose that cannot be predicted based on biological, biochemical or physical laws. In nature, this has been illustrated by dinosaurs using feathers for insulation or sweat glands evolving into mammary glands. Thus, argues Kauffman, science alone is an inadequate tool to explain our evolving universe.

"If we accept that Darwinian preadaptations cannot be reduced to physics, then what we've believed for the past 400 years is wrong," he said.

As the world becomes smaller, the rift between science and religion seems to widen. Religious and scientific fundamentalism is becoming increasingly common as cultures and ideals clash. Kauffman maintained recent books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, which have been highly critical of religion, even suggesting that a belief in God is a delusion, are not helping matters.

"These books aren't doing any good," he suggested. "It's time to move past some of these old ideas and find the middle ground. We have to rethink everything. We need a second enlightenment."

Traditional Christianity credits a creator God as the sculptor of our world. By contrast, Kauffman believes that honoring the emergent creativity of the universe is far more awe-inspiring than believing that a supernatural God created the universe in six days.

"Do we need the Creator or just the creativity?" he asked. "We need to consider that emergence and biocomplexity is the creativity of a fully natural God."

He added that the concept of God and the sacred values that God represents have also evolved along with what devotees collectively consider sacred.

"The [book] title is controversial as hell," said Kauffman. "But how many gods have we worshipped down the eons? It seems to me that we're telling God what we consider sacred, not the other way around. Perhaps it's time to consciously consider what we hold sacred for ourselves."

A recent book launch tour in the United States has received a warm reception. Afterwards, Kauffman will be returning to Canada to continue his research as director of the U of C's Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics. He plans to expand on his theories with research of biocomplexity and the physics of the origins of life. For the moment, Kauffman hopes that his proposal of a marriage between science and God will provide a starting point for a new scientific world view, although he acknowledges that this concept may upset some.

"If this view holds, we will undergo a major transformation in our understanding of science," he said. "If we reinvent the sacred to mean the creativity in the universe, biosphere, human history and culture, are we not also inevitably invited to honour all life on the planet that sustains it?"