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Stuart Kauffman Seminar
New England Complex Systems Institute
238 Main Street Suite 319, Cambridge, MA 02142
Phone: 617-547-4100 Fax: 617-661-7711

Stuart Kauffman
"The End Of A Physics Worldview:
Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life"
NECSI and MIT/ESD Seminar


Stuart Kauffman trained in philosophy at Dartmouth College and Oxford University, then earned his medical degree from the University of California Medical School, San Francisco. While a medical student, Kauffman became interested in large genetic regulatory networks in which genes activated or inhibited one another, following the work of Jacob and Monod on the Lactose Operon. In 1964 he invented "random Boolean networks", modeling a gene as an idealized "on-off" variable, and sought the typical, or generic, behaviors in classes or "ensembles" of Boolean networks, a new kind of statistical mechanics averaging over a class of systems, sampling such ensembles at random to test those typical properties. This work led to the ideas that cell types are dynamical attractors of such high dimensional systems, that differentiation is a passage among attractors by noise or signals. Random Boolean networks gave the first indications of three dynamical regimes, ordered, critical and chaotic. Evidence suggests cells may be dynamically critical.

Kauffman worked on the origin of life, inventing in 1971 the concept of collectively autocatalytic sets, now realized experimentally with peptide sets. In turn this led to his seminal patent and earliest publications with Dr. Marc Ballivet of the University of Geneva on what became combinatorial chemistry and high throughput screening. Kauffman worked on the statistical structure of fitness landscapes with his NK model. Recently he has written "Answering Descartes: Beyond Turing for the Alan Turing Centennial Volume, The Once and Future Turing,Cambridge University Press, 2012, has co-invented "Trans Turing systems" with patents pending, operating in a newly emerging field for open quantum systems hovering reversibly between decoherence to classicality (for all practical purposes), and returning to quantum behavior. The Poised Realm may have implications for the mind-brain system.

At present, with Giuseppe Longo of the Ecole Normal Superieur, he is trying to show that no law entails the evolution of the biosphere, in short, "The end of a Physics World View: Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life" posted Aug 8, This will be the center of his seminar.

Kauffman is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holds an Honorary Degree from U. Louvain, is a Gold Medal holder of the Accademia Lincea Rome, and was a MacArthur Fellow. He has published Origins of Order, At Home in the Universe, and Investigations, Oxford Univ Press N.Y., 1993, 1995 and 2000, and Reinventing the Sacred, Basic Books, N.Y. 2008.



At the dawn of Western philosophy and science, some 2,700 years ago, Heraclitus, declared that, "the world bubbles forth." There is, in this fragment of thought, a natural magic, a creativity beyond the entailing laws of modern physics. I believe Heraclitus was right about the evolution of the biosphere and human life. We live beyond entailing law in a natural magic we co-create.

Early sociologist Max Weber said that with Isaac Newton, we became disenchanted and entered modernity. He was right. Before Newton, our tradition from Genesis saw a creator God whose divine agency, rather like the natural magic of Heraclitus, created the world also beyond entailing law.

With Newton's three laws of motion, universal gravitation and the differential and integral calculus, our world transformed profoundly. Given the initial and boundary conditions of billiard balls on the table, and the shape of the table, and their motions given in differential equation form using the laws of motion, integration, a form of deduction, yielded the entire future and past trajectories of the balls. With Pierre-Simon Laplace, this became the bedrock of reductionism: Given the positions and momenta of all the particles in the universe, a vast intelligence could, using Newton's laws, deduce the entire future and past of the universe.

The framework of entailing laws remains in the twin pillars of 20th-century physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics, with differential equations and their entailed integration.

I believe we reach a terminus of this physics worldview at the watershed of life. Heraclitus was right: Life bubbles forth in a natural magic. We stand to be re-enchanted and may find our way beyond modernity to something very new.

This post summarizes points from previous posts, but goes beyond them in several important ways to make the strongest case possible for our living with "natural magic."

First, evolution itself defies both the completeness of quantum mechanics and the completeness of classical mechanics and unites them both. Mutations are often quantum random and indeterminate events, yielding Darwin's heritable variation. Yet evolution itself is not random, seen in convergent evolution. For example, the stunning near identity of the octopus and vertebrate camera eye evolved independently. More examples are found in convergent evolution of marsupials and mammals.

Thus, in blunt terms, biological evolution is neither quantum indeterminate random, nor deterministic classical mechanics. The living world really is "new." Quantum mechanics alone and classical physics alone seem each to be incomplete. The prior posted hypotheses of ontologically real Res potentia and Res extensa truly linked by quantum measurement, based on Feynman's "sum over all possible histories" framing of quantum mechanics, seem, in fact, to be a consistent interpretations of quantum mechanics and to unite quantum mechanics and classical physics, including general relativity, at the price of an ontologically real Res potentia for unmeasured quantum processes. The (X is Possible) of unmeasured quantum mechanics does not entail the (X is Actual) of classical physics, including general relativity. If so, we cannot deduce general relativity from quantum mechanics.

Second, biological evolution concerns Kantian wholes, where the whole exists for and by means of the parts and the parts exists for and by means of the whole. A collectively autocatalytic set of peptides, as exemplified by Gonen Ashkenazi of Ben Gurion University and his nine peptide collectively autocatalytic set, is a clean example of a Kantian whole, achieving a closure in "catalytic task space," where all reactions requiring catalysis are catalyzed by members of the nine peptide set. The "function" of a peptide can be defined as its role in sustaining the reproduction of the whole nine peptide collectively autocatalytic set.

Third, a living, dividing cell is a Kantian whole, but, of central importance, it achieves a task closure in a much wider set of tasks that mere catalysis: proteins are "vectored" to specific cell locations, chromosomes separate in order in mitosis, cell membranes form organelles, energy is transduced. The dividing cell nevertheless achieves task closure in some wide set of tasks. The function of each task is its role in the reproduction of this Kantian whole.

Fourth, and of central importance is this: We cannot name all the causal consequences or uses of any object — say, a screwdriver — alone or with other objects. The set of uses appears to be unbounded and unorderable. Now consider an evolving cell in which one or more objects or processes, each with myriad causal consequences, finds a novel use which we cannot prestate but which enhances the fitness of the cell, so is grafted into the evolving biosphere by natural selection. This "finding of a novel use which we cannot prestate" occurs all the time. The famous flagellar motor of some bacteria made use, by Darwinian preadaptation, of fragments of its flagellar proteins which were serving entirely different functions in other bacteria.

Fifth, Darwinian preadaptations — where a causal consequence of a part of an organism of no selective use in the current environment finds a use in a different environment so is selected for a novel function — is both unprestatable, and also yields new, adjacent, possible empty niches that were not selected as niches per se at all. Such parts include the swim bladder of some fish yielding neutral buoyancy in the water column, derived from the lungs of lung fish. The swim bladder could become the niche of a worm or bacterium only able to live in swim bladders. The biosphere is building, without selection, its own future possible directions of evolution, hence bubbling forth.

Sixth, mathematics requires that we have the concepts beforehand of the relevant variables, say mass and pendulum length for the law of the pendulum. In terms of these semantically laden concepts, we construct the mathematical laws of motion: For Newton, inertia yields his first law, F = MA constitutes the second law, built upon a pre-Newtonian concept of mass. But for the evolution of the biosphere by ever new causal consequences which may "find some unprestatable use" by Darwinian preadaptations in evolving Kantian wholes that are cells with changing Task Closure, we do not know the relevant variables, so we cannot write down the laws of motion for the evolving biosphere.

Seventh, we do not know ahead of time the emerging novel adjacent possible empty niches, such as the swim bladder for some worm or bacteria. But those niches constitute the boundary conditions on natural selection shaping the evolution of the worm or bacterium to live in the swim bladder. But Newton taught us that we need the laws of motion, which, by point six above, we do not have then the initial and boundary conditions to integrate the laws of motion for the trajectories of the balls on the billiard table. But we don't have the boundary conditions so cannot integrate the laws of motion of the biopshere.

Eighth, if the above is true, we must give up our deep belief, at least since Newton, if not the Greeks, that without entailing law, the world cannot become in a coherent way: The biosphere has been doing fine for 3.5 billion years of becoming.

If the above is true, then Heraclitus was right with respect to life: Life bubbles forth in a natural magic beyond the confines of entailing law, beyond mathematization, free to become the world Kantian wholes co-create with one another. And we may become re-enchanted and find a way beyond modernity.

I thank Giuseppe Longo for very fruitful discussions.