Recently I had the pleasure (along with about a hundred others) of hearing Stuart Kauffman talk extemporaneously and without the aid of Powerpoint about his idea that cell differentiation is the chanelling of genetic possibilities into topological spaces that are mathematically 'critical', i.e. lie between order and chaos.
At the reception afterwards, I asked him if he had read Charles Stein's review of his popular language book, Investigations, that was published in Nature Biotechnology shortly after the book appeared in 2000, and handed him a copy to refresh his memory if required. It wasn't. He immediately smiled and said: "O yes. I was quite flattered, but I honestly did not understand it very well." It was my turn to smile, because I have often heard the latter sentiment from people who tried to read Kauffman. Isn't there an expression about 'two cultures divided by a common language'? [Harvey Bialy]
"Stuart Kauffman's recent tome Investigations hazards an integrated series of hypotheses that include a new suggestion for defining time's arrow; four candidates for a "fourth law of thermodynamics"; an anticipation of a general biology; views on the history and essential structures of the global economy, the biosphere, and the cosmos generally; a new definition of life, based on a theory of "autonomous agency"; and a probabilistic account of how the precise values of nature's constants got themselves (naturally) selected, and all this, intricately linked conceptually and articulated in a modestly stated, reader-friendly, empirically responsible, and logically uncompromising manner. The most significant speculation for biotechnology no doubt is Kauffman's prediction that within the next few years we will be producing model ecospheres in the laboratory and witnessing the very processes by which autonomous agents and life itself emerges.
Kauffman seems aware of how out on the edge of pure science he is and how much he has entered into purely philosophical, not to mention imaginative and even poetic, territory. It therefore may not be amiss to offer comments on certain issues that I feel have languished too long outside of the circle of scientific attention, but which Kauffman's speculations come close to forcing back within it. If Kauffman's views are taken seriously by biotechnologists, the theoretical questions that they open, but do not address, will have to be considered also. I believe these questions have direct bearing on current efforts to describe complex biological processes mathematically. I would like, in fact, to ask Kauffman how the unresolved ontological status of mathematical structures affects the analysis of the processes for which they are elicited to account. This seems particularly pertinent when such structures are found to be not merely descriptive of, but, in some not-yet-clearly-understood way, causative agents in, natural process. Then I will comment on sentience as an emergent phenomena, in spite of Kauffman's desire to defer this admittedly unmanageable question. If, as Kauffman believes, we are on the verge of understanding the biomechanical basis of purpose, the nature of consciousness and its relation to what he calls autonomous agency looms on the theoretical horizon.
Finally, I will offer some reflections on the nature of possibility. Kauffman's assertion that the "configuration space" of the biosphere cannot be constructed, but that evolution proceeds as an advance into the "adjacent possible", suggests a new concept of possibility, immanent in natural process, yet where the possibilities themselves cannot be specified." [Cont.]
Charles Stein is a poet, scholar and translator. His newest work, "Persephone Unveiled", is described by Peter Manchester ("The Syntax of Time") as "the most auhoritative book (he) has ever read on the nature and consequence of divine revelation". The title of the Kauffman review is from the Emily Dickinson poem: "I dwell in Possibility / A fairer House than Prose".