Stuart Kauffman: Call the universe God

Complexity theory pioneer Stuart Kauffman, author of the fantastic At Home In The Universe, has a new book out called Reinventing The Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. According to Kauffman, who is also a theoretical biologist, the universe is so beautifully complex, incredible, and full of wonder, that we might consider thinking of it as "God." He summarizes his argument in the current New Scientist. From Kauffman's essay:
Kaufmannnnsacred ...The unfolding of the universe - biotic, and perhaps abiotic too - appears to be partially beyond natural law. In its place is a ceaseless creativity, with no supernatural creator. If, as a result of this creativity, we cannot know what will happen, then reason, the Enlightenment's highest human virtue, is an insufficient guide to living our lives. We must use reason, emotion, intuition, all that our evolution has brought us. But that means understanding our full humanity: we need Einstein and Shakespeare in the same room.

Shall we use the "God" word? We do not have to, yet it is still our most powerful invented symbol. Our sense of God has evolved from Yahweh in the desert some 4500 years ago, a jealous, law-giving warrior God, to the God of love that Jesus taught. How many versions have people worshipped in the past 100,000 years?

Yet what is more awesome: to believe that God created everything in six days, or to believe that the biosphere came into being on its own, with no creator, and partially lawlessly? I find the latter proposition so stunning, so worthy of awe and respect, that I am happy to accept this natural creativity in the universe as a reinvention of "God".
Link to New Scientist, Link to buy Reinventing The Sacred, Link to Kauffman's 2006 Edge essay "Beyond Reductionism"


  1. “But that means understanding our full humanity: we need Einstein and Shakespeare in the same room.”

    That’s going to smell funny…

  2. interesting…

    i have long attributed things others believe are the work of god to the universe… i suppose this is why i have never felt any conflict between my atheism and my overpowering sense of the spiritual…

    i am happy with calling the universe, “universe,” however… god is just too short a name :-)

  3. That’s good and well, but what’s the point of calling an entity, agency, or process “god” if it doesn’t do either of the following:

    1) Control the universe in an interventionist and appeasable way
    2) Provide for an afterlife

    Rare is the religion or religious/spiritual person who believes in a God so generic and abstract that it can neither be prayed to for specific action today nor expected to judge the good and the bad after we die. Take those out of the equation, and you’ll be left with few believers. Even the most new-agey, non-organized “spiritual person” believes some variant of the above two; otherwise, what content is there to their belief in a “something somewhere”?

    Being an atheist, I’m not really opposed to calling Nature by the name “god”, but that’s a linguistic trick, not a philosophical one. It should be clear that this is not at all what the word “god” means and has historically meant to nearly everyone; might as well call the universe “Zeus”.

  4. This is basically the philosophy of Spinoza, repackaged. Spinoza essentially equated God with Nature, a stance for which he certainly received his fair share of accusation of heresy (he was a Jew).

    Spinoza took a slightly different tack in arriving at this conclusion, but for anyone interested in Kauffman’s idea, his philosophy is worth examining.

  5. “… appears to be partially beyond natural law… with no supernatural creator.”

    — start pedantic —
    Um, doesn’t supernatural simply mean “beyond natural”?
    — end pedantic —

  6. Seems like an unsatisfying way to try to get people to stop arguing about God, much in the way John Keats wrote about “beauty.”

    The religious people will dismiss this as trying to make God into a scientific, quantifiable source and the irreligious will dismiss it as just as meaningless as a parent pouring a glass of juice for a child’s imaginary friend.

  7. At the risk of oversimplifying, Reason best serves what we know while Faith best serves what we don’t know.

    And yes, Reason marches forward, inexorably pushing back the boundaries of Faith. But Faith will always be larger than Reason, because the things we don’t know will always be more plentiful than the things we do know.

  8. I can attribute overwhelming senses of awe to the universe without having to name it god.

    To quote douglas adams, (who’s anniversery of passing was yesterday)

    “isn’t it enough to believe that the garden is beautiful…”

  9. Why would faith best serve the things we don’t know? Reason serves both. By that rationale we shouldn’t try finding out things we don’t know because faith takes care of it for us. Reason serves us well for both things we know and do not know, and it helps us move things from one column to the other.

    Without having read the book, I’m sympathetic to the argument that this isn’t much more than an unsatisfying attempt at reconciliation. Sure, we can call that unnameable majesty that we perceive in the universe “God,” but that’s really just us labelling something as majestic. It’s just an opinion. There’s nothing really concrete that convinces me that the universe is this amazing majestic thing; that’s just a judgment that this author is placing upon the physical world. Someone could just as easily find the universe not very majestic at all, full of chaos and disorder and ugliness and injustice.

    Plus it doesn’t answer the question of the “God” most people think exists, the one who listens to our prayers and intervenes on our behalf, helping athletes win the big game and cheering for our side in various wars.

  10. I think this is accurate – but haven’t we worked rather hard to create an age of science and reason, rather than looking for easy excuses to fall back into blind reliance on “God”?

    The God concept does seem to be nothing more than a sense of amazement. I’m God to my Dog.

    And let’s remember exactly what has been perpetrated over the centuries in the name of the loving God about which Jesus apparently preached. In fact, beyond patriotism, is God not the most often invoked concept to persuade the blind mass to go along with a plan?

    Let’s keep God at arms length.

  11. @Cpt. Tim –

    “…without having to believe that there are faeries at the bottom too?” :)

  12. @Neven (#3)

    Ever hear of the Jefferson Bible? or the Deists in general? how about Unitarian Universalists?

    True, believers are measured in handfuls there compared to catholicism, islam, etc, but these sorts of beliefs are neither new nor without adherents.

    I say call it what you want as long as you’re not calling it an excuse for murder or oppression.

    Besides, shouldn’t we all know by now that GOD stands for “GOD Over Djinn?”

  13. It would be satisfying to have something to blame for that portion of the suffering in the world that’s not caused by human agency. “The universe” isn’t really an agent you can blame, though.

  14. Well, since we used to call everything the universe, and now scientists / astronomers and the lot now tell us what they include in the set called the universe isn’t universal, then don’t we need a name for the set that includes everything even as we find more stuff, other than the infinite?

    We really need a new name for the universe though something to define what’s in between a galaxy and what scientists are now calling the universe. I mean, it’s not like you get out there and there’s suddenly a wall like in the Jim Carey movie. They say the universe is expanding, stuff is drifting out to where there’s no stuff, but that ’empty’ space is still something, we just don’t know what it is.

    So sure why not call it God.

  15. Our sense of God has evolved from Yahweh in the desert some 4500 years ago

    Some people were thinking of ‘God’ as primordial, undifferentiated consciousness, or as the sum of all that is, longer ago than that.

  16. I am happy to accept this natural creativity in the universe as a reinvention of “God”.

    If Kauffman wants to accept something that can be both observed and measured as a reinvention of “God,” then the meaning of the word “God” ought to be clearly defined.

    Can somebody enlighten me — is he simply proposing that we call the complexity of the universe (or the process that gave rise to it) God, or he suggesting something else that I’m just missing?

    Neven’s comment above seems to sum things up nicely. This doesn’t seem to be as much about philosophy as it is about nomenclature. At the end of the day, Kauffman’s notion of God doesn’t give us anything of substance when it comes to wine from water or post-mortem jam sessions with Jimi Hendrix. So what’s the point in accepting this definition of God when we could simply have reverence for the awesomeness of the universe and leave it at that?

  17. Rare is the religion or religious/spiritual person who believes in a God so generic and abstract that it can neither be prayed to for specific action today nor expected to judge the good and the bad after we die.

    Welcome to Buddhism. Have a nice day.

  18. God = metaphor for the universe. You don’t construct God out of the world, you worship the world as a god.

  19. Bardfinn – With regards to ID, I’ve always thought it was kind of vain to believe sentient beings exists only in the shape and scale of a carbon-based, animalian (and some would argue primate and/or humanoid) brain.

    Any sufficiently complex system appears to develop intelligence. A brain is just lots and lots of simple nodes, all with the same simple functions, connected together. The web of connections is what gives them the ability to process information in a way we see as intelligent. Self-awareness is something brains develop when they get “big” enough. Scaling up, every individual in human society is like a neuron in a big brain, hence the idea of the superego or collective.

    So, when you take things like quantum entanglement and string theory into account, what about the whole universe? Does it somehow think, and did it design itself? It seems more likely than not.

  20. Sounds interesting. It’s easy to argue about based on a short excerpt, but as a spiritual agnostic I’m always interested to hear arguments like this. I’ve ordered a copy.

  21. Kauffman’s claim is a riff on the view of the Stoics (circa 300 BCE), mixed in with a little Bertrand Russell. From the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy: “the Stoic God is immanent throughout the whole of creation and directs its development down to the smallest detail.”

  22. If you want to equate god with nature or the universe, why bother using the word god? The word god implies a humanoid, supernatural, omnipotent, being of some sort. What is the purpose of personifying it? Believing in such a vague god is basically just atheism, except you don’t want to give up the word god. It’s just a word. Let it go.

  23. How is what this book proposes any different from pantheism?

    You should read/listen to what Einstein wrote explaining his pantheism. Neat stuff. Here’s a link:

    And as Richard Dawkins has said (although I think he might have been quoting someone else): “Pantheism is sexed-up atheism, and deism is watered down theism”. To a pantheist, the universe has no deliberate will, i.e. intelligence (and everything else) still emerges from the bottom up, and that’s pretty much atheism for all effects and purposes.

    As far as I can tell, people who want the universe to have a “Why”, a “meaning”, an existence that fulfills something other than the desires of the beings that inhabit it, need “God”, and will not be satisfied by atheism (and its related systems). These people have convinced themselves that matter cannot exist without intelligence guiding its creation. And people who don’t think that it makes a lot of sense to think of the universe as having a “Why”, who are satisfied with “It just is”, don’t need a god, and tend to find theism (and its related systems) needlessly complicated. These people have convinced themselves (or, I should say, ourselves) that intelligence emerges from the behavior of matter, not the other way around.

    So this neo- (or nor so neo-)pantheism described by this book should do nothing to dissuade those who want their universe to be part of a divine plan, who feel that a fundamental requirement for How Things Work is not being fulfilled unless there is a deliberate supernatural will guiding everything.

    I’ve written a couple hundred pages on this subject. I need to start trying to get that work edited and published…

  24. antiglobalism – I’m having problems reconciling your handle with what you just said :)

  25. “The unfolding of the universe – biotic, and perhaps abiotic too – appears to be partially beyond natural law. ”

    Dum de dum dum. Just because we don’t know it, it can’t be there.

    Huh? The rate at which we find there is more and more we don’t understand about the Universe should be proof enough that we don’t understand the Universe, and are far from knowing what is ‘natural law.’

    How presumptuous is it then to declare that what we don’t understand must be ‘beyond natural law’. – why it must be Supernatural then…

    No, let’s not use the word ‘God’.

  26. This book sounds totally fascinating–actually reminds me of two major concepts put forward recently by Ken Wilber – the first is called “The Three Faces of God” in which we can approach Divinity from either 1st-person, 2nd-person, or 3rd-person perspectives.

    Spirit-in-1st person is typically the focus in Eastern traditions, with emphasis on meditation, awareness training, and finding the Self beyond the self. The emphasis here is upon direct personal experience with the divine.

    Spirit in 2nd-person is much more sympathetic with Western religious traditions, which tends to be more devotional in nature, but “Spirit in 2nd-person” doesn’t mean just the worship of a mythic personal God, but instead Spirit as it shows up in all of our community interactions, our friends and family, our teachers and leaders, etc.

    Spirit in 3rd-person is pretty much what this book is getting at–understanding the “mind of God” (or Logos) in terms of objective qualities, including mathematics, cosmology, systems theory, evolutionary studies, etc.

    The interesting thing is that different traditions emphasize these three dimensions differently from religion to religion, which is why it might be easy to think of Buddhism as a “1st-person” spirituality, and Christianity as a “2nd-person” spirituality, but they are all present in some way in all traditions.

    Also, it is important to note that when most people react negatively to a word like “God,” they are not actually reacting to spirituality itself–but the outdated, mythic form these religions are often associated with. The truth is, human consciousness evolves through many stages of growth and development–for example, using Jean Gebser’s terminology, people evolve from archaic consciousness, to magic consciousness, to ego consciousness, to rational consciousness, to postmodern consciousness, to integral consciousness, and beyond.

    And though most modern culture is tempted to jettison “spirituality” when we make the transition from mythic to rational, we must remember that there are forms of spirituality for every one of these different levels, even within a single tradition. So you can be a magical buddhist, a mythic buddhist, a rational buddhist, a postmodern buddhist, etc. Same with Christianity. In fact, any human endeavor can be seen playing itself along all these different developmental levels – art, politics, economics, etc. But since most people don’t see the opportunity to retain a connection with spirituality after moving on to a rational stage of development, they take on the secular religion of atheism. And truth be told, a rational atheist is actually MORE spiritual than a mythic fundamentalist! But we cannot allow the “conveyor belt” of religion, divinity, and extraordinary state experiences to simply cut itself off at the mythic level, or else we remain locked into the exact same “my fundamentalism vs. your fundamentalism” that has defined so much of the past several millenia–which was a cutting edge way to approach the world TWO THOUSAND YEARS AGO, but we have since found much more sophisticated ways to engage our spirituality, without having to choose this book over that book, this god over that god, this consciousness over that consciousness.

    Sorry for the long drawn-out comment, but it’s hard packing these thoughts into a little white window ^_^

    Corey W. deVos
    Managing Editor, Integral Naked
    Managing Editor,

  27. Airshowfan, as a Radical Pantheist, I disagree. You’re buying into the idea, which I think comes mainly from Christianity, that what you “believe” or “believe in” is what defines your religion.

    Even if atheists and pantheists believe the same things, they make profoundly different choices. The choice to worship, for example, is one I’ve never heard of an atheist making. The deliberate choice to personify and simplify the universe to make it a comprehensible Him or Her (or Them or even It) in order to worship is not a step atheists are generally comfortable with.

    I reject all the following assumptions, which most Christians and atheists share: one must (or should) have the same beliefs all the time; what one believes IS one’s religion; sentience is a prerequisite for being worthy of worship.

    Natura, as I’ve said before, sola sufficit.

  28. My personal definition of worship (based upon my childhood of course) is one which I think is a fairly relevant one. Worship is the utter and voluntary subjection of the self to another entity. It has nothing to do with the rituals or ceremonies that accompany it. While I consider myself to involuntarily subjugated by the universe, I consider it a little ridiculous to formalize the relationship. After all, what are you subjugating yourself to? There is no will that we can attribute to the universe.

    I also envision the inevitable trap that people would fall into if they followed this path. Language would lead into speaking of the universe as if it had a will. People could end up justifying everything they do in terms of the will of the universe (insert Pseudo Social Darwinism, etc. here). This is something that I find a little obscene. Abdication of one’s will to an unintelligent object is self deceiving at best.

    There comes a time when we have to realize that the values we follow are the ones that we create and perpetuate. It is what we bring to the world that ultimately decides how we interpret it, not the other way around. (I’m speaking about aesthetics and ethics here, I’m not jumping off into solipsism).

  29. There’s nothing really concrete that convinces me that the universe is this amazing majestic thing..

    Ouch! (for you)

  30. The universe is god
    I am a part of the universe
    Therefore, I am god.

    You may worship me.

  31. Lightfoote, by your definition I’ve never worshipped anything or anyone. The gods I worship demand no such subjugation, nor do they receive any.

    It’s interesting to see that definition, though. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about exactly what I mean when I say ‘worship’, and having a hard time putting together the words to describe what I mean.

  32. “There’s nothing really concrete that convinces me that the universe is this amazing majestic thing..”

    I don’t think the concrete things are what is supposed to impart that feeling.

  33. What a bunch of horseshit. Any time anyone ends a train of sentences (I hesitate to call it “thought”) with “and I call that God”, they’re just showing their stupidity.

    What difference does it make if you call it “God” or not. What has been added to the universe by doing that? Nothing.

    Therefore, God=Nothing, and therefore he contradicts himself.

    Also, anyone who says, “The laws of physics are so beautiful and simlple that…” also betrays his ignorance. The reason the laws are simple is because we MADE them that way. Occam’s razor. We *threw away* the explanations that weren’t simple. The simplicity of scientific laws is a result of human activity, not God.

  34. Someone could just as easily find the universe not very majestic at all, full of chaos and disorder and ugliness and injustice.

    And that’s why the universe is majestic – for all the chaos and disorder and ugliness and injustice, we’re here, intelligent beings came out of that chaos, and though our time is brief and full of suffering, the great thing keeps on chugging with or without us (even as we’re tilled under into the soil), and each of us in his/her own way uses both science and faith, to the extent that they’re conscious, to focus on that great teeming chaotic soup that gave rise to us. Good and bad, rational inquiry and religious certainty are human categories that serve our limited interests as limited beings, but fall utterly short of the great mystery of existence.

  35. So you can be a magical buddhist, a mythic buddhist, a rational buddhist, a postmodern buddhist, etc.

    Most religions, in the sense of the adherents, are made up of a small number of philosophical adherents, a large number of superstitious adherents and a continuum in between. And most religions have extremely similar philosophical cores.

  36. Xopher –

    The definition isn’t a new one. It’s the one provided by most of the monotheistic religions out there. The act of worship is doing God’s will, everything else is just trying to bargain with the ineffable. I too have never found anything worth worshiping by this definition, but I consider myself to be a spiritual person nonetheless. Spirituality is something that I connect with awe and wonder, which is something that I feel very deeply when considering the universe.

  37. Calling something “God” doesn’t make it God.

    Though, the “God as Universe” is probably a better model to keep in mind than the anthro version.

    “Our sense of God has evolved from Yahweh in the desert some 4500 years ago…”

    Kauffman speak for himself, not *us*. “Yahweh” is a derivative of a Vedic term. *My* sense of God goes back 10,000s of years. Centered in India & Asia.

  38. Also, anyone who says, “The laws of physics are so beautiful and simlple that…” also betrays his ignorance. The reason the laws are simple is because we MADE them that way. Occam’s razor. We *threw away* the explanations that weren’t simple.

    We didn’t make the laws of physics. We discovered them. They are simple.

    We threw away the over-complicated explanations.

    I fear you have ‘betrayed your ignorance’.

  39. Arkizzle –

    All science is a description based upon observable/measurable phenomena. Newtonian physics was an approximation (and a very accurate one), but it was refined/modified to the point at which we are today. I sure that people a hundred years from now, if they are still doing what we think of as science, will feel the same way. To say we have discovered the laws of physics is to say that what we think we know now will be what we know 50 years from now. Maybe that will be the case, but considering the state of flux physics is currently in, I doubt it. If things have changed in fifty years then what have we discovered? Only an explanation that fit the facts known at that time.

  40. Let me clarify what I meant when I said that “There’s nothing really concrete that convinces me that the universe is this amazing majestic thing..”:

    What I mean to say is that “majesticness” or “awe” are not testable things. There’s no chemical or substance or physical property that makes something more majestic or awesome than another thing. It’s an opinion. So while I can personally believe that the universe is this amazing thing, that doesn’t mean anything in the physical world because it’s just my opinion, it’s how I perceive the physical world.

    So when I say that there’s nothing concrete that convinces me, I mean that in the sense that there’s no physical property of the universe that points to an objective “greatness.” The fossil record convinces me that evolution has occurred, the redshift convinces me that the universe is expanding, but there’s no evidence that the universe is objectively amazing and awesome. Those are merely internal judgments, each one the opinion of the person making it. One might argue that the cubic light-years of empty space between the stars and planets means that on average the universe is increasingly banal and boring and not very majestic at all. And you can point to all the amazing things that life does when you arrive at one of those stars or planets (if you ever manage to find one amidst all the empty space), but does that matter in the grand scheme of things when on the whole the universe is quite empty? In addition someone might see it as not very majestic that interesting species like dinosaurs are killed by errant meteorites, or that intelligent species are capable of ruining beautiful ecosystems and causing mass extinctions. One might not find the Black Plague so thrilling and majestic and awe-inspiring, and others might think it’s a perfect example of the universe doing amazing things. Since they are all opinions, they’re every bit as unscientific and unsupported by evidence as opinions in any other direction.

    In other words, I’m drawing a division between what we can know objectively about the universe – its composition, its physical properties, and what we merely opine about the universe – how beautiful or ugly it may be, how exciting or boring it may be, etc. As there is no real physical property that you can test for, some sort of “majestic element” or something, the idea that the universe is so awesome that we can call it God is flawed, because it assumes that the universe is objectively amazing in some way. Someone with a different opinion could just as easily call the universe Hell. And they’d be no more or less valid.

    Those issues don’t really contribute to my understanding of the universe. I’m much more interested to learn about the nature of subatomic particles and whether string theory is true than whether this one guy thinks the universe is miraculous and therefore we should consider equating it with God.

  41. Antinous, maybe I’m nit-picking, but there is no god in buddhism, not even a widely generic one.

  42. Ya know, I’m not getting a lot of worshipfullness over here. Am I gonna half ta knock some heads together or what? You do not want to see me pissed off.

    Your first born will do just fine.

  43. Marcelo, I agree that majesty is not quantifiable in any objective way.

    However, having read At Home in the Universe and (part of) The Origins of Order, I think Kauffman is just trying to be more inclusive toward spiritual/religious people who may otherwise find his ideas (e.g. autocatalytic sets) threatening to creation stories, and altogether inaccessible due to jargon and density (I confess I found The Origins of Order challenging). So if you prefer, take “beauty” and “majesty” to mean nearly impenetrable, opaque complexity in nature that arises from simple rules.

  44. Antinous, maybe I’m nit-picking, but there is no god in buddhism, not even a widely generic one.

    Au contraire, Gato.

    Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, believe in deities. It is not precisely Western ‘Gods’ some Buddhists worship, but the repeated incarnations of a being that have finally reached nirvana. They are holy figures who may bestow spiritual guidance and can be looked to for meditation. I’m a Godless Buddhist, but Buddhism is varied.

  45. DNL2BA –

    I understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t move me much. I don’t care if religious people feel threatened by science. Data is data. I guess it’s a nice thing to do, to cozy up and try to reconcile two opposing viewpoints, but it’s unnecessary and possibly detrimental. It clouds the debate by adding an unnecessary mystical element to the natural world and diluting the clarity of the scientific method. It says to people that while you must think critically about any scientific principle, always be sure to not think so critically about creation myths, and if you do, try to incorporate them into your reasoning so as to not threaten people’s belief systems.

    It’s also kind of condescending to religious people – “let me use science to disprove your crazy creation myth, but here – have a morsel of God in a really vague and abstract form so you don’t feel totally crushed!”

    I dunno. I’m a cynic and the whole thing rubs me the wrong way. I’d rather see scientists be scientists instead of always trying to find God within the gaps of their research.

  46. Marcelo, I’m with you there. A paragraph I had in my original reply but deleted went something like this:

    If I were a religious and otherwise scientific person, my complaint would be that he’s pandering and maybe condescending toward spiritual/religious types.

    Now, that said, what do you tell someone who’s spiritual/religious but not very scientific or intellectual? I think that’s Kauffman’s audience here– the people who would never read his other books in the first place, or would read about five sentences before decrying them as BS.

  47. if the universe were a god, it’s a pretty cold and indifferent one. David Attenborough:

    “…well, think of a parasitic worm that lives only in the eyeballs of human beings, boring its way through them, in West Africa, for example, where it’s common, turning people blind”

    Majesty shmajesty.

  48. exactly, Tenn, you’re right. I meant that there is not a unique, all-knowing “God” like in the judeochristian/muslim sense of the term… should be more careful with capitalization… God is in the details, after all.

    (if S/he/It were anywhere at all, of course)

  49. I haven’t read the book, and I feel confident it makes a much more sophisticated argument, but it strikes me this could wind up getting a bit new agey fairly quickly.

    like, [puff] the universe is Gd, man, and [puff] we’re all part of the universe, [puff puff] so we’re all [puff] part of Gd, dood.

    That said, I’ve not read Spinoza. I picked up Negri’s book on him about a year ago, but it’s stuck in storage [read: a box in my mate’s basement] in London. However, he does seem to be a very important philosopher to read, as an alternative to Kantian epistemology. Some philosophers try to make him out to be a proto-Hegelian, which strikes me as interesting. In an age that tries to experience the Other deprived of it’s otherly content, I appreciate the sentiment involved in positing that with all the science we know, the universe is almost fractal in its existence: it is not within the conceivable grasp of human kind to understand what nature is.

    This is to say, for me, the content of ‘Gd’ is less important than one’s sentiment toward it. If Gd is just a sort of pervy old guy who gets his rocks off on judging people, then not particularly cool; if Gd is an Other which represents what we cannot experience or know, something which is in constant opposition to our reality, forcing that reality to become more refined, then awesome. I can definitely get along with that.

  50. Marcelo – Take it however you like, the purpose of myth and religious experience & understanding is not to prove objective, hard, testable scientific facts about the universe, but to connect our subjective, imperfect, animal consciousness with that universe and with the hard scientific concepts we call “facts”. As someone pointed out, those facts tell us nothing about how to live our lives – they present a vast and impartial universe – but that universe nonetheless developed the conditions necessary for “life” as we know it, including our own consciousness and ability to be cynical about religion.

    There’s also a morsel of truth in these widely accepted religious myths too, and atheists often go overboard in dismissing them as completely useless. Religion speaks to our desires, fears, animal needs, and desire for transcendence in a way that’s simply inaccessible to science. Some atheists may not require those needs to be couched in any specific mythological terms (many of which, let’s face it, were developed in times and places much different from our current lives); instead we have movies, literature, music, and science-fiction to retread the same timeless mythological territory embedded in new symbols. It has nothing to do with “other people”‘s belief systems or being politically correct in any way – we’re talking about you here, you the animal. For further reading, a recap of some Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell might be appropriate (I recommend Campbell’s “Myths to Live By”).

  51. Eventually someone is going to be able to explain to me how something within this universe can come into being “on its own” but until then it sounds like hokey new age crap.

    His attempt to reconcile science with faith sounds less scientific than the most fundamentalist form of Christianity.

  52. Lightfoote,

    an interesting point I’m sure, but I think you missed the very small, but important, distinction I was making.

    I was merely pointing out to ClabberGirl that we haven’t “made” the laws of physics, we have invented ways to explain them, no more.

    Although I did suggest they are “simple”, I was certainly not saying that all the laws of physics, in all their glory have been laid out in front of us, and we are their masters.

    There is much work to do, we have barely begun.

  53. @55 – Hm, “come into being on its own” – you mean, like the universe itself? How exactly did that happen?

  54. As to the invitation to read Jung and Joseph Campbell . . . Jung is valuable for his awesomely, hilariously wrong-headed attempt to explain “meaningful coincidences” in a scientific way (in Synchronicity). After credulously accepting ESP as having scientific support, he goes on to try to test the astrological compatibility of married couples as a potential meaningful coincidence (though he doesn’t rule out the possibility that “proton radiation,” rather than mere coincidence, might be responsible for astrology’s “accuracy”). Then, when the numbers show no statistically significant difference, he decides that it doesn’t matter if it’s statistically significant – what matters is whether it’s psychologically significant. It’s so awesome. A sample:

    To a statistician, these figures cannot be used to confirm anything, and so are valueless, because they are chance dispersions. But on psychological grounds I have discarded the idea that we are dealing with mere chance numbers. In a total picture of natural events, it is just as important to consider the exceptions to the rule as the averages. This is the fallacy of the statistical picture: it is one-sided, inasmuch as it represents only the average aspect of reality and excludes the total picture. . . . Inasmuch as chance maxima and minima occur, they are facts whose nature I set out to explore.

    (Emphasis Jung’s.) Apparently apophenia and cognitive biases were not well understood in Jung’s day. Moral: watch out for woo-woo.

  55. There is much work to do, we have barely begun.

    Are you referring to science or drinking?

  56. The 8th century Indian philosopher and commentator on the Upanshads, Adi Shankara, was pretty much saying the same thing with his concept of the Mahashakti.

  57. Davigoli,

    Psychoanalysis goes a long way toward explaining not only religious metaphor, but also the drives expressed by them, without resorting to mystification and arbitrary hierarchy. To this day I am perplexed by Jung’s popularity, particularly in the United States, since so much of what he says is clearly speculative. It seems like he took psychoanalysis only as far as it supported his unexamined prejudices. Joseph Campbell, as well, I read as a fairly impressive scholar rather drawn to banal conclusions.

    For all mankind’s conquests, the conquest of nature will never be accomplished. They may call forests ‘National Parks’, and claim ownership of the sky with carbon credits, but these will always represent domains over which humans exert very limited control–the control over destruction only, since it never occurs to them to cultivate. For me, who never leaves the city if he can help it, nature is Gd, an absolute otherness, a terrifying omnipotence, replete with its own incomprehensible morality. Properly, I suppose, the Universe is more appropriate, but that’s quite a lot for my ickle brain to handle.

    As I say, Gd is a function, more than a form; there’s a reason why nobody knows the Hebrew Gd’s name.

  58. @58 – Right, other than your attitude about it, I think you and Jung are pretty much in agreement here. While fully granting that this information is useless empirically, Jung attempts to explore the fact that we have responses to this kind of information or innuendo at all.

    Moral: Psychology and religion are not about objective reality, they’re about how our perceptions resonate with who we are.

  59. Aninous,

    Yes, they are both long roads indeed.
    Perhaps our paths may meet on either of them some day..

    Cheers! :)

  60. @61 (Scottfree) – Well put.

    It’s also important to remember that, as this thread testifies, our very concept of “God” is shaped by our cultural background. For Westerners, this means a monotheistic creator deity who is separate from the universe, which makes atheists bristle – but by killing this particular “God”, we have not buried him – his rotting corpse continues to poison all our doings. We have simply put ourselves in his place, so to speak, by viewing our relationship with nature as one of opposition. We continue to regard nature as though we are somehow “outside” of it; in “dominating” nature, we often continue to think of ourselves as separate from the natural world even as we argue that we evolved naturally from it. It’s a result of our self-preservation instinct run amok, with little to hold it in check.

    But who knows? Even this mentality arose naturally, and it too will see a demise back into oblivion.

  61. we are the universe’s way of feeling itself, as are all other living things.

    the name with which you choose to call this experience doesn’t matter. many words have different meanings to different people.

    what matters is that we have a consensus about these facts:
    – we exist.
    – others exist.
    – acceptance of the other is mandatory (you don’t have to live with them, just don’t bother or kill them).
    – all suffering should be minimized (otherwise, what’s the point?).
    – the planet’s living systems need preservation if we are to thrive.

    my bible starts with this:
    cultivate delight. otherwise, please kill yourself so that we can enjoy the show.

  62. @Davigoli – I think you’re right that Jung was on to something important, which I define as cognitive bias, which is why I’ve read his book like four times despite clenching my teeth while I read it. Like Mesmer, I don’t think he consciously knew what he was studying, though.

    Moral: Psychology and religion are not about objective reality, they’re about how our perceptions resonate with who we are.

    I suspect that cog sci graduate students and Mormons alike would be surprised to hear that.

    I keep disagreeing with little points – but you seem like a good guy and I don’t mean to be mean or snarky. Perhaps I should rephrase my “moral”: “Religion and science should remain mutually exclusive domains.”

  63. Great Comments. I love this stuff.

    To recap for those just tuning in:

    Religion = Psychology in wolves’ clothing
    God = Personal concept since nobody knows shit

    In Sum “Do good, don’t be a hater”


  64. My favorite religion has you say things like “creator” or “all creation” instead of “god”. It just makes sense.

  65. This is basically the philosophy of Spinoza, repackaged.

    Except Spinoza would not have agreed that the unfolding of the universe/substance/God was “partially beyond natural law”.

  66. Why must people cheapen the universe by making a religion out of it?

    Awe is not “spirituality”. And faith is not a different kind of knowledge, faith is wish-fulfilling conclusions drawn from complete ignorance.

  67. I beieve there are two problems with considering the universe as God. First of all, the universe is finite. So if the universe is finite then God is finite and therefore has limits. That is to say God is not omnipotent. Secondly, what we mean by God is something which necessarily exists. But the universe has not always exited according to modern cosmological theory which hypothesises the Big Bang. So if the universe is God then God is not omnipotent and God does not necessarily exist.

  68. Lightfoote 40: Hmm, that’s not how they use the word. They’re talking about specific behavior most of the time. A lot more happens in a “worship service,” for example, than submission to God. And a Christian I know said, of his church, “We sit down from time to time, but we basically worship standing.” They pray, they take communion, they sing hymns, all standing. They sit to hear the lessons and the sermon, that’s about it. In other words, they sit when they’re being taught, but they stand when they’re actually worshipping.

    So they may think you need to do that submission thing, but it’s not what they mean when they use the word ‘worship’. Besides, if you don’t like what they do, why let them define the word? I personally think doing science (yea, even in the lab amid the reagents) can be an act of worship.

    Can be. Belief comes about in many ways, but worship is always a choice made by the worshipper.

  69. Wowzers, this is one of the most interesting sets of comments I have had the pleasure of sort-of-reading here. I do like the fact that I didn’t have to wade through a mountain of religious-fundamentalist hate mail to get to the good stuff too.

  70. FINALLY someone who thinks along the same lines as I do.

    If “god” is everywhere an in all things, well. . . .

  71. Speaking of that guy mentioned above…

    ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee
    Take all myself.

  72. This is truly one of the best comment threads i’ve seen–i love all of your perspectives so much!

    People typically feel trapped by life, trapped by the universe, because they imagine that they are actually in the universe, and therefore the universe can squish them like a bug. This is not true. You are not in the universe; the universe is in you.

    The typical orientation is this: my consciousness is in my body (mostly in my head); my body is in this room; this room is in the surrounding space, the universe itself. That is true from the viewpoint of the ego, but utterly false from the viewpoint of the Self.

    If I rest as Witness, the formless I-I, it becomes obvious that, right now, I am not in my body, my body is IN my awareness. I am aware of my body, therefore I am not my body. I am the pure Witness in which my body is now arising. I am not in my body, my body is in my consciousness. Therefore, be consciousness.

    If I rest as Witness, the formless I-I, it becomes obvious that, right now, I am not in this house, this house is IN my awareness. I am the pure witness in which this house is now arising. I am not in this house, this house is in my consciousness. Therefore, be consciousness.

    If I look outside this house, to the surrounding area—perhaps a large stretch of earth, a big patch of sky, other houses, roads and cars—if I look, in short, at the universe in front of me—and if I rest as the Witness, the formless I-I, it becomes obvious that, right now, I am not in the universe, the universe is IN my awareness. I am the pure Witness in which this universe is now arising. I am not in the universe, the universe is in my consciousness. Therefore, be consciousness.

    It is true that the physical matter of your body is inside the matter of the house, and the matter of the house is inside the matter of the universe. But you are not merely matter or physicality. You are also Consciousness as Such, of which matter is merely the outer skin. The ego adopts the viewpoint of matter, and therefore is constantly trapped by matter—trapped and tortured by the physics of pain. But pain, too, arises in your consciousness, and you can either be in pain, or find pain in you, so that you surround pain, are bigger than pain, transcend pain, as you rest in the vast expanse of pure Emptiness that you deeply and truly are.

    So what do I see? If I contract as ego, it appears that I am confined in the body, which is confined in the house, which is confined in the large universe around it. But if I rest as Witness—the vast, open, empty consciousness—it becomes obvious that I am not in the body, the body is in me; I am not in this house, the house is in me; I m not in the universe, the universe is in me. All of them are arising in the vast, open, empty, pure, luminous Space of primordial Consciousness, right now and right now and forever right now.

    Therefore, be Consciousness.

  73. damn, i was about to apologize for the length of the quote, and preface it by saying it was just something i thought many of you might enjoy. And, for clarification, when he mentions “I-I”, it’s like saying “the I that is aware of ‘me'”, if that makes any sense…. a metaphor for the effortless awareness that is always just there.

  74. …and that other dude had some thoughts too I guess.

    “I have found no better expression than “religious” for confidence in the rational nature of reality, insofar as it is accessible to human reason. Whenever this feeling is absent, science degenerates into uninspired empiricism.”

  75. There seems to be some confusion here about what Kuaffman means by ‘natural law’ and what it would mean to be outside such a law (the confusion could very well be my own). He means it, as I read him, in the sense of Newtonian mechanics, where the universe is essentially determined by the content of its laws; a universe in which a Laplacean Demon could know all past and future events – me typing this, for example. I don’t think Kuaffman buys this. I think he wants to say that the universe, as evidenced by the evolution of the biosphere, and the complexification of the universe in general, cannot be so predicted. That the creativity of evolution really is creative and that this creativity cannot be known in advanced.
    To say that the universe is beyond universal law is not to say that it is beyond itself – that it is any sense ‘supernatural’ – but only that it is, in principle, unpredictable. Therefore, as he says in the blurb, reason *ahem* Reason cannot provide intellectual closure because no such closure could exist in a constantly evolving creative universe. But, of course, Gödel showed us this without ever mentioning evolution or the universe.
    To me this all seems obvious. It is also obvious to me that this is not obvious to everyone… If only we could wind up Richard Dawkins and point him in this direction. Or we could reanimate Alfred Korzybski to revitalize general semantics, because the zeitgeist has seemed to have entirely missed the memo. THE MAP IS NOT THE TERRITORY. The so-called ‘laws of nature’ are a series of abstractions – maps, if you will – created by us primates. Then (as Nietzsche liked to point out) we forget that we have created them and see them, instead, as laws that standout side the universe and govern what goes on inside it. We forget that such laws were created inside the universe, by us, as an attempt to usefully describe (map) our environment. You might say ‘but the laws are True and therefore predict the actual future and therefore govern that future’. But this trades on a fishy notion of truth: what would a “True” map even be? I understand what a would make a map more or less useful but no one map could ever coherently be claimed as The True Map. Therefore, there is no finite set of laws that could ever necessitate any given future. That is, there are only maps that we can use to model the future with more or less statistical success, but never necessitate any one course of events exactly. Actually, this is a huge short-coming of science that is almost never mentioned: science can never ultimately explain why a certain event occurred as it did – the formality of actually occurring as Whitehead called it – only apply general categories onto real time, real world events with statistical probabilities. I say ‘general categories’ due to the fact that no event can ever be measured with exact accuracy. For example, your current height: what is it? Is it 6’1? Are you sure? If you had microscopes for eyes you would almost certainly see more to measure, height that you previously ignored. Of course, we must stop measuring sometime and this is ok; only we must realize that all measurements (and hence all resulting categories) are arbitrary. That is, if we were to create a category of people who were exactly six foot then we could not place anyone in that set in a non arbitrary way – either the person is not exactly six foot or we are still zooming further in to find out (a process that would go on indefinitely). Put another way, the universe will never tell you to stop measuring we tell ourselves when it’s good enough.
    Also, someone claimed this to be Spinoza repackaged which is definitely not the case. True, Spinoza took this physical universe (and nothing beyond it) to be god but, importantly, he saw the future to be already necessitated by the starting conditions in conjunction with the governing laws. Kuaffman see this future as open, free for the creativity of the universe (and therefore us) to explore.

    sorry for the ramble

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