“We’re at Home in the Universe”

This description of how “life is the natural expression of complex matter” meant a lot to me.  In fact the whole idea of chaos as something that can be expressed mathematically greatly expanded my appreciation and understanding of the universe.  When I was studying astronomy and physics, I felt frustrated by the fact that we could describe so little of the universe in mathematics.  Back in the 60’s, if you wanted to model living systems mathematically, you had to make so many simplifying assumptions that the equation you might come up with is trivial.  The image of chaos, of patterns repeating themselves but never exactly, feels so right.  Just watch the river flow: there’s a standing wave upstream of a boulder, and it keeps changing, never the same, but it also never gets very far away from a basic wave form.  In chaos mathematics, there’s a thing called a “strange attractor.”  This is the boundary that the continuously evolving pattern never gets away from entirely.

There are also what are called “emergent phenomena.”  This is when a collection of diverse simple items self-organize into a higher level object.  For example: water, air, and heat can interact in such a way that they produce a huge storm called a “hurricane.”

From these ideas, and from the amazing stars I see in the night sky, and what I know about the creation of stars and galaxies, gives me a very strong sense of the Spirit that created/became the universe.  See my earlier post for more about this.

I love this quote from Stuart Kauffman

“I have partial answers to what it all means,” says Stuart Kauffman …  “For example, suppose that these models about the origin of life are correct.  Then life doesn’t hang in the balance.  It doesn’t depend on whether some warm little pond just happens to produce template-replicating molecules like DNA or RNA.  Life is the natural expression of complex matter.  It’s a very deep property of chemistry and catalysis and being far from equilibrium.  And that means that we’re at home in the universe.  We’re to be expected. How welcoming that is!  How far that is from the image of organisms as tinkered-together contraptions where everything is bits of widgetry piled on top of bits of ad hocery, and it’s all blind chance.  In that world there are no deep principles in biology, other than random variation and natural selection; we’re not at home in the universe in the same way.

“Next,” says Kauffman, “suppose that you come back many years later, after the autocatalytic sets have been coevolving with one another and squirting strings at one another.  The things that would still be around would be those things that have come to evolve competitive interactions, food webs, mutualism, symbiosis.  The things that you would see would be those that made the world they now mutually live in.  And that reminds us that we make the world we live in with one another.  We’re participants in the story as it unfolds.  We aren’t victims and we aren’t outsiders.  We are part of the universe, you and me, and the goldfish.  We make our world with one another.”     p321

This quote is from the book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop

Stuart Kauffman has more books!    At Home in the Universe
The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution
Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion

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