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Book Review: Reinventing the Sacred

Published: July 5, 2021
Last Updated: July 5, 2021

Reinventing The Sacred, by Stuart A. Kauffman, concerns itself with two main tasks: first, showing that life isn’t reducible to physics by itself; and, second, making a plea that the notion of God and the sacred needs to be brought to the secular community.

Both of these tasks which the book details are important, and should appear important after reading this book, if they didn’t already seem important to the reader beforehand. In a world where it seems that people struggle for meaning in their lives, working to refute the idea that life is ultimately reducible to physics is a worthwhile endeavor, and it’s one of the things Kauffman does well in this book.

Despite this, it wasn’t a book that I was crazy about. While I’m not opposed to reading about science at all, this book was filled with theories and ideas which did more to show off potentials than show what actually is. I suppose that this makes sense, and perhaps is good, in that it shows just how little “Science” is able to actually explain the world and life. The Galilean Spell, as Kauffman calls it, which is the idea that everyone and everything is reducible to deterministic physics is deeply ingrained in peoples thinking of the world. Kauffman takes the time to show this notion is deeply flawed, and in doing so takes some liberties in exploring different theories and ideas. In fact, much of the books is detailing these theories which Kauffman or others have, showing potentialities which exemplify Kauffman’s take on a non-deterministic world.

A lot of the book is Kauffman describing different scientific theories, spanning the range from biology to quantum mechanics, and different ideas that he has about the nature of these things. In places it’s interesting, but in more than one spot I caught myself scratching my head not really having the energy or desire to follow along with what he was talking about. I’m already sold on the idea that all of life isn’t going to be ultimately shown to be an equation which simply reduces everything to some particle or whatever. Kauffman seems sometimes to be writing more to people who believe that it either is reducible to this already, or will be.

The other main task of the book, making the case that a notion of God needs to be brought to the secular science community occupies much of the rest of the book. Kauffman makes the case that life on the planet can of course be explained scientifically, and without the need for there to be a “Creator God” as many religious people point to. In fact he shows this throughout the book, discussing evolution and biology. However, he also seems convinced that the idea of God, and the sacred needs to be reintroduced to the secular community in order to bridge the communication gap between the more religious people in the world.

Kauffman’s proposes adopting certain ideas about God and the sacred which would allow for this to happen for people who don’t believe in a “Creator God.” He for most of the book and perhaps even in the end limits his notion of the sacred to positive, creative, and beautiful qualities of life and holds that these essential qualities are sacred and should be treated as such. He makes a case that “reinventing the sacred” and holding God as a source of creativity in the world can be done, without needing to submit to the idea of a “Creator God.” Obviously, or I think obviously, many people won’t like this – both people who are religious, and people who are secular. Kauffman argues that he thinks it is important to do this however, and use the language of sacred and God, to build a bridge centered on the positive qualities of the sacred.

It’s here that I was left really wanting by the book. Kauffman’s discussion of the Sacred, or God, and spirituality to me seemed naive for the purposes of actually evaluating anything even close to “reinventing the sacred.” To me, the book is much more about not falling into the nihilism which must come from reductionism. In fact, the notion of the sacred is not clearly defined for the purposes of the book. It seems like Kauffman more or less positions it as things that society reveres and appreciates. Personally, for me, to go into something as abstract a task of “reinventing the sacred,” the book should have looked at the function of the sacred and how it affects groups and communities. I actually think that Kauffman must not have read anything about Mimetic Theory, because my guess is this book would be totally different if he had.

Kauffman’s take on performing his goal seems to be nothing more than building a language for common appreciation and communication between groups and peoples. I don’t doubt that his position and his feeling that the notion of the sacred being missing from the scientific community comes from something that is quite real. I also don’t doubt at all that a lot of this comes from the thinking that everything is reducible to physics and genetics. From what I’ve seen, it isn’t possible to even describe the complexity of life fully in an equation, let alone make the assertion that it is totally reducible to physics. Another book, Life Itself, by Robert Rosen, spends a whole book just showing that biologists can’t adequately describe what an organism is. He clearly demonstrates that in no way is the machine metaphor capable of modeling a living thing fully.

Overall, I don’t think I would recommend this book to anybody, unless you really like reading about science. I thought the writing was so so, and I also thought a lot of the calls for “reinventing the sacred” were really over the top to the point where they may even be considered cliches. The ground Kauffman tries to tackle is interesting, but I don’t think he did well enough by the “sacred” part of this book. The science part is much more clear and interesting, although it does take a little more focus than I had to get through it. To be fair, I’m probably not the target audience for the book. It seems to the average scientific reader Kauffman is thinking of they would still be suffering from what he called the Galilean Spell.

© Copyright 2021, Tyler Rhodes