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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


In the physicist Murray Gell-Mann's definition, a "natural law" is a compact description beforehand of the regularities of a process.  But if we cannot even prestate the possibilities then no compact descriptions of these processes beforehand can exist.  These phenomena, then, appear to be partially beyond law itself.-- Stuart A. Kauffman, REINVENTING THE SACRED, p. 5.

I've only finished the first four chapters of Kauffman's book, but already I see some felicitious overlap between his school of theoretical (and philosophically elaborated) biology with (1) Ernst Cassirer's concept of separate "forms" that are not reducible to one another, and (2) my own literary theories regarding (a) the interstitital category of "the uncanny" and (b) the idea of "super-functionality," which in my system aligns with Philip Wheelwright's concept of "plurisignative" language.

One of Kauffman's theme statements, expressed in the introduction, deals with his refutation of the over-reductive tendencies of modern scientist, which Kauffman represents through a frequently referenced quote from Nobel prizewining physicist Stephen Weinberg:

All the explanatory arrows point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry, and ultimately to physics.  

Kauffman dissents:

I shall show that biology and its evolution cannot be reduced to physics alone but stand in their own right... Life, and with it agency, came naturally to exist in the universe.  With agency came values, meaning and doing; all of which are as real in the universe as particles in motion. 

Since I have not finished the book, I won't recount Kauffman's logical proofs as to why the processes of biology, principally though not exclusively evolution, are not reducible to physics.  A quick summation would be that physics, stressing the randomness of particle motion, is incapable of explaining the development of what Kauffman calls "nonequilibrium physical chemical systems," that is, systems that maintain themselves in an active "doing" manner by taking in matter to function and grow.  Though this may sound to some readers like an endorsement of "intelligent design," Kauffman consistently denies the need for a supernatural creative force and advocates the concept of emergence, all elaborated through concepts of hard science. When the author starts explaining an obscure-to-non-scientists scientific principle like "chirality," I think it's a given that he doesn't belong in the New Age book section.

I won't dwell on the comparisons to Cassirer, except to say that Cassirer is noteworthy for having insisted that a form such as "myth" could not be reduced down to the concepts of theoretical, discursive knowledge.  What I find interesting is the phrase from the first quote, to the effect that the phenomena he describes-- by which he means a phenomenon like "natural selection," which "cannot be reduced to any necessary and sufficient set of statements about this or that set of atoms or molecules." 

In my essays on the NUM formula I've stressed the inadequacy of Tzvetan Todorov's system, which in effect recognizes only the world of "the real" and the world of "the marvelous," which is an imaginary offshoot/subset of "the real," in that the marvelous sets aside causality. Though Todorov uses the term "uncanny" to signify merely those works in which one does not know for a time whether marvels are real or not, I asserted that it should be used rather to denote those works that bend, rather than break, the rules of causality.  Works of "the marvelous" break with causality and works of "the naturalistic" remain within the causal domain, but "the uncanny" is a category "partially beyond law itself," in which "the law" regardling "the regularities of a process" is covalent with the laws of causality that impart a sense of regular phenomena to a reader.

The phrase "beyond law" does not connote for Kauffman-- any more than it does for me-- an escape from physical law, but rather from overly reductive concepts of physical law.  In a roughly similar manner, I find myself constantly defending the presence of "mythic" or "plurisignative" elements in popular fiction because the alternative philosophy -- that creativity matters only when it comes from the Right Side of the Tracks, i.e., Canonical-- or Would-Be Canonical-- Literature-- is a philosophy that seeks to reduce literature to a unitary set of formulas.  The self-serving viewpoint of a Clement Greenberg is a model that too many comics-critics choose to follow as a means of creating their own cloistered canons.  For myself, reading the work of Northrop Frye approximates the vision of a biologist like Kauffman, who is clearly fascinated the illimitable plenitude of biological possibilities; a plenitude that also compares well with Rudolf Otto's understanding of religion as containing an "overplus" that goes beyond emotions of fear and animal desire.

It's possible that as I read further in the book, Kauffman may disappoint me on some level.  However, I believe that my appreciation for the first four chapters will not be easily dimmed.

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