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Saturday, October 13th, 2012

Time Event
9:10a
Reframing reality?
This is one of the books that I'd picked up at the OpenBooks “box sale” last spring, which had sat around for quite a while before my getting into it. I even had an acquaintance tell me that I'd love it, so I pulled it into the “actively reading” stack a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, I never quite connected with Stuart A. Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Frankly, I kept waiting for this to get to the “reason and religion” parts, and it just kept going with DNA and complexity theory, not even really approaching "the sacred" until the last couple of chapters. I can't imagine how this got titled the way it is … as it's sufficiently off base to almost seem like “bait & switch”!

This is not to say that it's not a very interesting book … only that my expectations of what I was going to be reading were certainly never met, and found myself plowing through very different book. Rather than being something taking down religion and replacing it with science, this is almost an anti-scientific science book, being more focused on disputing “reductionism” than the myths of bronze-age herders. One chapter is called “Breaking the Galilean Spell” which I took (before getting into this) as being a alternative for “Nazarene” … but rather than breaking the spell of western civilization's main fairy tale, that chapter title references Galileo! The author's target here appears to primarily be the “facts devoid of values” approach of most of science's development, and not the delusions of the non-scientific world ... he doesn't even lock horns with the opponents of the scientific world view until half way through the book.

The book starts out bashing secularism as one of the “four injuries” detailed in the opening chapter. It then moves into attempting to debunk classic reductionism, and then spins out into the more theoretical reaches of physics to look at cases where reductionism doesn't work. Next comes an appeal to biology and how it can't be reduced to physics, which then leads into a discussion of DNA, RNA, and the complexity which can be developed within the coding of these molecules. It is within this that Kauffman starts to make an argument for complexity arising on its own … not requiring divine intervention.

Now, I will grant the possibility that much of the arguments here are “over my head” … the author spends a great deal of time looking at how genes can interact, and how the number of possible interactions are truly massive, and getting into how various mathematical processes applied to this data produce various complicated results … but he goes on and on and on with this stuff, to no determinable (to me, at least) end.

There are three interesting concepts that come out of this part of the book … the first of which being the idea of “critical” systems, which are poised between “ordered” and “chaotic” … in ordered “regimes” there is very little change, and many genes are “stuck” either on or off, in chaotic regimes there is “avalanche” damage to 30 to 50 percent of genes, but in “critical” networks there are “power law” distributions based on logarithmic factors, leaving enough change in the genes, but without catastrophic amounts. He argues that this sort of distribution manifests even up to the level of cells … “Critical networks, poised between order and chaos, seem best able to coordinate past discriminations with reliable future actions.”

The next is the concept of the “adjacent possible” … this is a concept of expressions that are not demanded by a situation, but are possible … he spreads this from a look at molecules and genes and into global economy:

The flow into the adjacent possible arises at levels of complexity above atoms, certainly for molecules, species, technologies, and human history. Here we must attend to the way the adjacent possible is entered. Salients are almost certainly created in specific “directions” in the space of possibilities, which in turn govern where the system can flow next into its new adjacent possible. These fluctuations almost certainly do not die out, but probably propagate in biased ways into the ever new adjacent possible.
The third of these is that of “Darwinian Preadaptations”:

One of Darwin's brilliant ideas is what is now called Darwinian preadaptation. Darwin noted that an organ, say the heart, could have causal features that were not the function of the organ and had no selective significance in its normal environment. But in a different environment, one of those causal features might come to have selective significance. … Preadaptations are abundant in biological evolution. When one occurs, typically, a novel functionality comes into existence in the biosphere - and thus the universe. The classic example concerns swim bladders in fish. These bladders, partially filled with air, partially with water, allow the fish to adjust their buoyancy in the water column. Paleontologists have traced the evolution of swim bladders from early fish with lungs. … With the evolution of the swim bladder a new function has entered the biosphere and universe ...
What is bizarre (to me) here is that he goes all this way with the molecular argument, then spins it into a systemic function, and then starts to apply this to to language, culture, economies, and even the brain:

The idea that the human mind is nonalgorithmic raises the possibility that it might be acausal, rather than a causal “machine”, and the only acausal theory we have is quantum mechanics. Therefore, the mind may be partially quantum mechanical. … When I suggest that consciousness is partially quantum mechanical, the idea that dives me concerns the transition from the quantum world of merely persistent possibilities to the classical world of actual physical events … Currently the theory of “decoherence” is the favorite candidate to explain passage from the quantum world {to the classical world}. Decoherence is based on loss of phase information. … I am proposing that the consequences in the classical world of the quantum mind are due to decoherence, which is not itself causal in any normal classical sense.
So, at this point we're more than 80% through the text … and we're just starting to get around to something that resembles the title's Reinventing the Sacred. Again, it's been a fascinating ride, but most of it has been to pretty much just set up that complexity can, and does, arise without a “creator” making things happen. The author speculates

... that for sufficiently dense and diverse multiparticle quantum process systems and environments, or mixed quantum and classical systems and environments and the universe, such as a brain cell, the way phase information is lost to the environment may be unique in the history of the universe in each specific case. But then no compact description of the details of the decoherence process can be available, hence no natural law describes that detailed decoherence process. Moreover, the specific way decoherence happens in detail may matter for how free will chooses under intentions and comes to have consequences for the objectively real, that is the classical, world. The same would seem to be true of a persistent partially coherent mind.
The remaining part of the book tries to circle back onto the nominal themes of the sacred, etc., but it really isn't much more accessible than what I've quoted above. It's a dense book … and an interesting book, but it's not particularly coherent to the average reader. So many concepts are just thrown into the mix here to eventually get some sense via context (I guess the author assumes the reader is familiar with all the theories involved), and so many bits of research are referenced, but in a way that leaves the casual reader in the dust … all in all, a highly frustrating read! This is still in print in a paperback edition, just in case you wanted to go down this particular rabbit hole … but I have a hard time making much of a recommendation here … I'm glad to have read it (and encountered some of the concepts that Kauffman discusses), but it was not what I was expecting it to be.


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