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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spontaneous Order: Awakening the Sacred

Carl Sagan devoted his career to bridging science and spirituality. He was searching for “a God that would be worthy of the revelations of science,” according to Ann Druyan. Economist F. A. Hayek spent his life arguing and uncovering that we live in a world rich with order created by human action, but not by deliberate human design. Hayek taught us reverence for spontaneous order.

As scientists begin to unlock the principles that order complex systems like ecosystems and economies, they are revealing the power of spontaneous order. But might they also be rediscovering the sacred? 

How Science Buried the Sacred

The twentieth century was not kind to a sacred view of the universe. As great scientists searched deeper into physics, they did not find God—they found particles. Some searched for divine creation as the source of our lives, but found the trial-and-error of evolution instead. We looked inside our brains for signs of an eternal soul but found an elaborate, wet computer.

In a world where everything can be reduced to physics, the argument goes, there’s not much room for the sacred. Particles don’t have morals or a transcendent purpose, and since we’re ultimately just elaborate jumbles of particles, neither do we.

This view, scientific reductionism, traces as far back as the Ancient Greeks. But as science advanced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the extreme practical effectiveness of reductionism only further entrenched a worldview without the sacred. Mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace wrote, “Life’s most important questions are, for the most part, nothing but probability problems.” Modern scientists set off in search of fundamental laws that could govern everything.

Everything, believe reductionists—from dinosaurs to the War of 1812—can be reduced to its constituent parts. Physics grew magnificently on this idea. Even as scientists like Niels Bohr pioneered quantum mechanics, which argued that the universe operated through probabilities rather than rigid, deterministic laws, reductionism persisted mostly unscathed.

“The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears,” wrote physicist and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg in his 1994 book Dreams of a Final Theory.  

Weinberg argued that to understand “big” phenomena we always peer downward: we travel from large objects like societies to groups, to individual people, to organs, to cells, to chemistry, to physics. Finally we might arrive at a set of ultimate laws that explain everything—Weinberg’s dream of a “final theory.” Causality points upward, from parts to the whole. Everything thus reduces. 


Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, in the vanguard of complexity sciences at the Santa Fe Institute, disagrees. In his book Reinventing the Sacred, Kauffman argues that we can find a new sense of the spiritual in the behavior of complex systems like the biosphere and the economy. These systems, Kauffman argues, cannot be reduced. Their complexity is beyond Weinberg’s final theory.

If this is true, the natural world that we discovered with modern science—perhaps without a Creator God but full of purposeless particles—need not leave us stranded in a world without meaning. The “ceaseless creativity” of complex systems, writes Kauffman, “is so stunning, so overwhelming, so worthy of awe, gratitude, and respect, that it is God enough for many of us. God, a fully natural God, is the very creativity in the universe.”

The emergent complexity of the world, sprouting as it does from law-like forces, is sacred for Kauffman. The economy is no different. It is order without design.

More Is Different

In a 1972 article titled “More Is Different,” Nobel Laureate physicist Philip Anderson argued against reductionism in physics. If we think of causality as an arrow, it does not just point upward from particles, thought Anderson. As the size and complexity of something increase, “entirely new properties appear” that cannot “be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles.” Things are not just the sum of their parts. More is different.

Robert Laughlin, another Nobel Laureate, agrees. He argues it makes no sense to speak of the temperature of a single gas particle, for example—only of a collection of them. Similarly, a single iron atom is not “rigid”—only the whole iron bar is. Yes, a rigid iron bar is composed of individual particles, but rigidity can only emerge from the whole entity. Though these collective properties are emergent, few would deny that they are real.

Leo Kadanoff showed that important ideas in fluid mechanics can be derived from strange, mathematical “toy worlds” following simple laws. (Imagine beads on a lattice.) If these ideas so fundamental to our understanding of the universe can “run” on multiple platforms—one being the world of quantum mechanics, the other a toy world—how can we say that physics logically reduces to the one and not the other? 

Rather, there appear to be laws of organization that are not reducible, but govern the behavior of overall systems. We can find them in many places where complexity reigns, including within our own bodies.

Meet Your Heart

Consider your heart. What’s its function? Well, hearts pump blood. But they also race when you’re nervous and make thumping sounds. So the function of the heart is only one of many features of the heart. 

Darwin and most other scientists would agree the heart evolved over time. But Kauffman asks us to imagine that we could deduce the human heart from particle physics. We would discover all of its properties: its redness, its shape, thumping sounds, and the blood pumping. But our understanding of the heart would still be incomplete. We would have no way to know which of these properties is the heart’s function. All the heart’s features are equally deduced from physics, but the evolutionary fitness of the heart requires us to think at a higher level of description. The heart came to be because of its role in a higher-order process—biological evolution, not just physics. 

To understand the function of the heart, we must look to the entire lifecycle and environment of the organism with the heart. In Kauffman’s terms, we must look for the laws that govern the higher-order system (biology), even though the system ultimately depends on lower-order physics.

But it’s not just our understanding that operates at this higher level. The existence of hearts, as systems, has changed the course of evolution and modified the biosphere. The heart—the whole—has caused a ripple of changes in everything around it, including in its component parts, such as molecules and proteins. Yes, the heart and “emergent wholes” (like organs in general) are dependent on their components. But they also create new constraints and feedbacks for their component parts because of their special (holistic) forms. In other words, the evolved form and function of the heart is what gives it its force in the world. And that form and function is emergent

Hearts, Holes, and Wholes

To Kauffman, this is a glaring hole in the reductionist worldview. Suddenly Weinberg’s arrow, which seemed to point upward from the particles to the organ, now points downward and outward too. It’s actually more like a circle: the component parts cause and constrain the whole, and the form of the whole causes and constrains the component parts. It’s no longer just evolution, but co-evolution. Emergent wholes have causal powers all their own: The parts depend on the whole just as the whole depends on its parts.

“Of course,” writes Kauffman, “the heart is made of particles and not some mystical stuff . . . But the heart works by virtue of its evolved structure and the organization of its process” (emphasis in original). It’s greater than the sum of its parts. And it participates in the creation of something even greater (for example, creatures with brains large and complex enough to think about their places in the universe).

For Kauffman, the whole of the heart is an expression of the biological creativity of the universe. Lower layers of complexity give rise to newer wholes. A new layer of complexity such as the human heart allows for even higher layers of complexity to emerge. Without hearts, no animals. Without animals, no humans. Without humans, no economy, no law, and no culture. Creation begets still more creation. Each emergent whole creates new spaces for emergence. And these new spaces create still newer spaces for even more complex arrangements to arise. In this principle of complexity, Kauffman spies something sacred.

From Hearts to Economies

How far does this principle reach? To Kauffman, legal systems and markets are like ecosystems, and firms or organizations are like organisms within them. Like the heart or the biosphere, they self-organize over time and are assembled from smaller pieces. Economies too emerge.

To understand how humans create new forms of order using technology and resources, Kauffman asks us to imagine a simple box of Lego blocks. Can we state all the functions and ways we can arrange and combine the box of Legos? No, because new combinations of Legos create the possibility of still-newer combinations.

We could build a Lego crane to haul Legos to our new building site for a Lego house. We could then put the house on Lego wheels and make an RV. Or build a Lego crane to lift smaller Lego cranes to the Lego RV repair shop. 

There is no way to define the possible functions of a box of Legos, since the function largely depends on the context and what has already been created. With each change, new combinations and possibilities appear that can disrupt previous functions. New forms become the pieces for still newer combinations and forms. 

The economy works this way too. Think of all the possible uses of a simple screwdriver: open a can of paint, defend oneself in an assault, use as a paperweight, open coconuts on a desert island, and so on. The number of uses explodes exponentially as you include any new object that could be combined with a screwdriver (like an electric motor to make a drill). And, of course, the new form’s properties would depend, in some sense, upon the environment in which it’s used. For example, it would not be a drill in 1800, because electric motors co-evolved with the advent of electrical grids. Electrical grids created the possibility of the electric drill.

In markets, humans search through these endless networks of possibility, combining and recombining resources and technologies with never-ending freshness in ever-changing contexts. (This is similar to what science writer Matt Ridley calls “ideas having sex.”)

“How can we possibly pre-state all possible uses [for an object] in all possible environments,” asks Kauffman, when “these novel functionalities are invented by the human mind” in the process of creation?

Markets: A Sacred Force

The human economy is massively more complex than a box of Legos. The “econosphere,” as Kauffman calls it, roils with novelty and creativity, just like the biosphere. Markets are the collective expression of our creative work, and they are more than the sum of individuals that compose it. We do not fully understand them, and we cannot predict them. We never will, because things will always suddenly appear and change the course of their evolution. But in their creativity, Kauffman believes we can rediscover the sacred. To sacralize, after all, is to venerate the sources of creativity that are beyond any one mere human’s own powers of creation. For many in the past this was an all-powerful Creator God. For Kauffman, it is the natural creativity of the universe.

To say markets exhibit something sacred is not “market fundamentalism.” Many times, markets are just as fragile as ecosystems, and certainly can be just as messy and inefficient. But this is what gives them their beauty. Evolution, co-evolution, and emergence push us toward novelty.

Markets are merely one expression of the ceaseless creativity of the universe, as particles become atoms, atoms become molecules, molecules become organisms, organisms become simple life, simple life becomes thoughtful humans, and humans become societies and economies.

It’s not clean. But participating in markets—building the novel together—extends the creativity of the universe ever upward. Every new idea, every entrepreneurial dare, every revolution, every corporate merger, every new film or poem, every missile strike: Each act of creation or destruction molds the possibilities for our future in an endless flux. Each level of complexity, from molecule to multinational, buzzes with creative evolution. New forms bloom and flower, and they irreparably alter the future of the universe. Like the heart, each level is composed of its lower parts, but transcends them in constraining and co-creating future evolution. 

We, too, can become vessels of the universe’s creativity by participating in the extended social order of human civilization.

“If we reinvent the sacred to mean the wonder of the creativity in the universe, biosphere, human history, and culture, are we not inevitably invited to honor all of life and the planet that sustains it?” asks Kauffman. Compelled, certainly not. “Is” still does not imply “ought.” But we are invited. 

“The wholly liberating creativity in the universe we share and partially cocreate can invite you,” he writes, “for that creativity is a vast freedom we have not known, since Newton, that we shared with the cosmos, the biosphere, and human life.”

Sacredness Enough

If we recognize the creativity of the universe, do we have an ironclad ethical system? No. Do we find absolute, inviolable moral truth in spontaneous order? No. But we can rediscover a sense of wonder at the universe and a deep connectedness with all things. We can find our role as expressions of the universe’s creativity and as co-creators of our shared future. All humans are equally vessels, and so we are all responsible for the world we create.

Hayek showed how, together, we create our social world. The full effects of our combined actions cannot be understood in their totality. But our creation grows from the fundamental creativity in the biosphere, and the universe as a whole. We are thus surrounded by ordered complexity beyond comprehension. This may be sacredness enough.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

  • Zachary Caceres is the CIO of the Startup Cities Institute at UFM and editor of Radical Social Entrepreneurs.