Salon has an interview with Stuart Kauffman, a biologist who has written multiple fascinating books about complex systems. Kauffman has a new book, Reinventing the Sacred, in which he argues that we need to toss out scientific reductionism and take a new, holistic approach to science and rename it God. But how bad is the problem really?

Laplace famously claimed that if we knew the initial position and momentum of all the particles in the universe, we could confidently predict the future of the universe - that is, the universe is completely deterministic. Quantum mechanics seems to indicate that it is not - there is a graininess to the universe at a fundamental level (unless there are so-called 'hidden variables' determining the quantum behavior of particles).

But whether or not the universe is ultimately deterministic at the particle level, I always find arguments over reductionism a bit hazy - what does it really mean to say that we can reduce biology to chemistry and physics? I'm not sure many biologists are the extreme reductionists Kauffman is making them out to be: if we knew the position, momentum, etc, of all the atoms in a single bacterium living in your gut, could we then, in principle, with a powerful computer, predict the entire future behavior of that bacterium?

Well, no, because you'd need to know all of the relevant information about the cell's immediate environment to do that, and to know that, you need to know everything about the larger environment, etc. etc. - in practice, you need to know the relevant information about all of the particles in the universe to in order to calculate the behavior of a complex biological system from the position and momenta of its basic particles.

Kauffman and many others argue that it's not possible, even in principle, to make such a calculation. They argue that even if we did have all the information about every particle in the universe, we could not predict say, consciousness from the basic laws of physics. (That's not to say that conscious beings aren't made up of matter obeying, without exception, basic physical laws - Kauffman is not doubting that.)

And since we can't make this calculation even with complete information and a powerful computer, the universe is not deterministic. As Kauffman says,

To take one example, I argue that the evolutionary emergence of the human heart cannot be deduced from physics. That doesn't mean it breaks any laws of physics. But there's no way of getting from physics to the emergence of hearts in the evolution of the biosphere. If you were to ask Darwin, what's the function of the heart? he would have said it's to pump blood. That's what Darwin meant by adaptation. But there may be other causal consequences of the heart, or any other part of you, that are of no functional significance in the current environment, but may become useful in a different environment.

The implication of all this, Kauffman argues, is that

Once one gets beyond reductionism, it leads to a radically new scientific worldview, which changes our place in the universe as human beings. We are not meaningless chunks of particles spinning around in space. We are organisms with meaning in our lives, and the way the biosphere will evolve is ceaselessly creative.

My feeling is, why do we care? Whether the universe is ultimately deterministic or not doesn't make a damn bit of difference in how I experience life. We still experience consciousness, we make decisions, we have relationships - all of that makes life meaningful, whether or not it can be calculated from the laws of physics.

And the fact is that we can't do science by calculating everything from basic physical laws. We have to understand the world at various levels of abstraction. Genetics would be impossible to understand without higher-order concepts of causality, above the level of particles.

So I don't really see the significance of Kauffman's conclusion:

I'm saying God is the sacredness of nature. And you can go a step beyond that. You can say that God is nature. That's the God of Spinoza. That's the God that Einstein believed in. But their view of the universe was deterministic. The new view is that evolution of the universe is partially lawless and ceaselessly creative. We are the children of that creativity. One either does or does not take the step of saying God is the creativity of the universe. I do. Or you say there is divinity in the creativity in the universe.

Whether the universe is deterministic or not, it is still creative - look around you! Systems self-organize, new forms of life evolve, conscious beings evolve. We're here - deterministic universe or not. I don't see that the distinction Kauffman is trying to make is of much consequence.