Section IV. Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science  

(Bi-lingual) Systems Theory, Complexity Theory, and Radical Emergence
Stuart Kauffman, Dongping Fan, & Michael Dowd, chairs

 Two huge changes have taken place in the biological sciences over the last few decades. Where once an atomistc focus on individuals (genes or organisms) ruled, the study of the biological world as an interlocking system of systems now dominates. And where once the reduction of organisms down to the “selfish gene” — or even beyond that to prebiotic chemistry or physics — was the order of the day, the biological sciences now study the emergent properties of organs, organisms, and ecosystems. These changes have significant implications for studying social and cultural systems, and for analyzing and responding to the environmental crisis.

The goal of this working group is to chronicle these two major transformations, which have so deeply affected biological practices and results. We believe that they have immense significance for the understanding of human beings in our relationship to other animals, to each other, to the environment that we have now imperiled, and to the sacred.

Of course, both the focus on interrelated systems and the emphasis on evolution and emergence are key Whiteheadian themes; Whitehead’s magnum opus was, after all, a “philosophy of organism.” But the discussions become much more concrete when one moves to empirical studies of emergent systems in biological, social, and cultural systems. It becomes possible to show — among many other examples —that there are no entailing laws, that pre-adaptations cannot be finitely stated, and that designing and controlling complex systems is difficult if not impossible.

The results also have important consequences for consciousness and free will. The question of agency is implicated in these topics. And concepts of spirituality and these Sacred are transformed as well. Once life has arisen, the ecosystem is filled with agents who are sensing a world (biosemiotics) and evaluating whether it is good or bad for the agent. Doing the right thing becomes important, and some kind of sentience (proto-consciousness) is present. Concepts of pansychism or panexperientialism arise here as well.

In each session, a major speaker will introduce the theme. Open discussion will then move us forward. The sessions have been organized in order to produce a major work on this topic at the conclusion of the conference.


Friday, June 5, 2015


11-12:30 AM: Section Plenary Lecture

Philip Clayton

Claremont School of Theology, California

“Mind vs Matter”

Seven different tracks are working under the common heading, “Re-envisioning Nature; Re-envisioning Science” (Section IV). It is our shared conviction that the major themes of this conference — “seizing an alternative” and moving “toward an ecological civilization” — will require humanity to rethink the mechanistic view of nature that dominated the modern period. If nature is complex, emergent, filled with organisms and agents, then some of the assumptions that underlie much scientific work today must be mistaken. In the end, we cannot be satisfied with a tool that is unable to conceive us, the researchers, as living beings who possess consciousness and live in a world laden with values.


Each one of the working groups in this Section addresses these themes in different ways. For the opening lecture, we will explore the conflict between two competing paradigms. Both produce quality science. But they disagree on many points, and the disagreements are important. The individual working groups will address the conflicts and seek concrete solutions within their particular areas of focus.


As a framework for this exploration, we have chosen the two lectures by Alfred North Whitehead, “Nature Lifeless” and “Nature Alive,” published in his late work Modes of Thought. The title of this lecture, “Mind versus Matter,” alludes to a core theme that runs across the philosophy of science. Questions of consciousness arise in quantum physics; questions of agency, meaning, and value arise across the biological sciences; and the most fundamental questions of who we are as embodied beings are raised in contemporary neuroscientific studies of the relationship between brains, thoughts, emotions, and consciousness.


The global climate crisis can be addressed only through an intimate working partnership between the natural sciences, the humanities, and the world’s religious and spiritual traditions. Any view of science, or of religion, that forecloses the possibility of these collaborations entails de facto suicide for our species. The synthetic vision outlined in this lecture will, we hope, contribute to the more concrete (and thus more important) work that will take place in the different working groups over the seven sessions that follow.


“A reenchanted, liberating science will be fully developed only by people with a postmodern spirituality, in which the dualisms that have made modern science such an ambiguous phenomenon have been transcended, and only in a society organized for the good of the planet as a whole.”


— David Ray Griffin, “Preface”, in The Reenchantment of Science, xiii.



2-3:30 PM: Session 1

Michael Dowd, “Reverend Reality”

For Michael Dowd’s “Reality is Lord: A Scientific View of God (and Why This Matters on a Rapidly Overheating Planet),” see


“The Sacred Side of Science: Evidence as Modern-Day Scripture, Ecology as Theology”


Carbon pollution is undeniably the material cause of Earth’s climate breakdown, but what is the root cause? Blaming our growth-dependent economic systems does not, in Dowd’s view, go deep enough. He sees religion as responsible, but not in the way secularists might assume. In this presentation, Dowd explores how “the triple idolatries” (idolatry of the written word, idolatry of the otherworldly, and idolatry of belief) have led to “a disempowering notion of God and suicidal view of nature.” Building on his most recent TEDx talk, “Reality Reconciles Science and Religion”, Michael explores how science and religion must work together if humanity is to survive the 21st century. In his words, “Given our impact on Earth’s climate, the seas, and other species, we are about to experience what could be called The Great Reckoning. The good news is this will also be The Great Homecoming — the prodigal species coming home to Reality — the largest religious and economic transformation in history.”


4-5:30 PM: Session 2

Stuart Kauffman


“A New Axial Age” 

From 800 to 200 BCE “The Axial Age” transformed humanity with the emergence of our classics seeking transcendence: Buddha: Enlightenment, Plato: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In our secular age we have largely lost transcendence. Modernity’s mythic structure rests on Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin, and Locke. Newton gave us a view of reality as entirely “entailed” by law. We became disenchanted and entered Modernity. We lost our minds and free will.

We must construct a new world view scientifically, and a new mythic structure. The becoming of the world is not entailed, no law entails the becoming of the biosphere or our economy, culture or history. With quantum mechanics we regain mind, consciousness and free will. A broader mythic structure includes our freedom to co-create that which we cannot say beforehand into an unprestatable Adjacent Possible, we OF Nature, not above it, “enough” economically on a finite planet, and spirituality.

 Saturday, June 6, 2015

11-12:30 AM: Session 3

Dr. Fan Dongping

Systems Science and Systems Management Research Center, School of Public Administration, South China Normal University, Guangzhou 510006, China

“New Developments of Holism by Emergence Theory of Complexity”


Research on the science of complexity has formulated extensive theories concerning the definition of emergence and the formative mechanisms of emergence, as well as producing important computer simulations of emergent systems. Emergence-based theories of complexity have significantly extended the concepts and thoughts of holism represented by the British Emergentists and by Bertalanffy’s theory of organism. Three aspects in particular are worth noting.(1)Emergence theories of complexity regard the phenomenon of emergence as a process.(2)The emergence-based theory of complexity provides new means for philosophers to ontologically defend that new emergent wholes produce “downward causation.” (3)Computer simulations of emergent phenomena offer philosophers a new perspective for epistemologically comprehending holism and the autonomy of emergent agents, an approach that includes and surpasses reductionism. We believe that the emergence theory of complexity, which is enriching and developing the concept of holism, will hopefully become a new paradigm for holism in the future.


2-3:30 PM: Session 4

Dr. Yiyu Liu

Systems Science and Systems Management Research Center, School of Public Administration, South China Normal University, Guangzhou 510006, China


“Studying the Process of Group Experience in Social Systems”


The third wave of social systems theory puts forward a serious problem, namely, how to describe the generating process of group experience in social systems. In this paper I will argue that process thought provides us with some principal analytical tools for exploring the problem of group experience . Process thought focuses on the experience model — which includes the hierarchical features of feelings, emerging objective experience, and processing causal efficacy — and on the interacting relation between individual and group experience. Process thought thus offers a new approach that assists us in explaining the reason for the generating process of group experience.


4-5:30 PM: Session 5

David Korten

Board chair, YES! Magazine; Co-chair, New Economy Working Group; and President, Living Economies Forum. Author, When Corporations Rule the World; The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community; Agenda for a New Economy; and Change the Story, Change the Future.

Living Economies Forum Website

YES! Magazine Blog


“Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth”


We humans live by the stories that frame our deepest understanding of the nature of reality and the purpose of our being. When we get our story wrong, we can get our future tragically wrong—as our current situation demonstrates. In denial of what indigenous peoples long discerned—we are living beings born of and nurtured by a living Earth— we have fallen under the sway of a morally corrupt and intellectually bankrupt economic ideology and given control of our means of living to an institutional system that claims to make us rich by destroying life to make money.


This session will examine from a system perspective the structure, dynamics, and consequences of the global economy that currently drives toward economic, social, environmental, and governance collapse; the nature and dynamics of Earth as a superorganism; and system design principles for an economy that works with nature rather than in opposition to it.


Sunday, June 7, 2015


11-12:30 AM: Session 6

Caryn Devins

Most recently, Clerk, 2nd Circuit Court, Virginia


“Against Design?”


Ms. Devins works on emergence in social and cultural worlds. In particular, she studies the growth of the web of laws, including the unintended consequences in the evolution of laws such as Constitutional law. For example, closing loopholes in a law can give rise to completely unpredictable legislation. Her arguments bear on whether we can “design” a set of laws to be more ecologically responsible. In the design question she finds similarities to Thomas Nagel’s “purposeless teleology.” Her work exhibits important parallels with the non-prestateability argument that Stuart Kauffman has made, but although it also extends Kaufmann’s argument as well. As the talk will show, these arguments impact how what we do may affect the planet and our management of it in the future.


2-3:30 PM: Session 7

Katherine Peil Kauffman



“The Biology of Emotion: A Spiritual Compass?”


Human life is rich with emotion. Our feelings reside at the center of our deepest, most meaningful, personal experiences. They drive our behavior (at its best and at its worst); they are central to our memory and learning systems, our spiritual impulses, and our moral values – often defining our very identities. Our philosophical and religious traditions have linked their pleasurable and painful (“hedonic”) categories with virtuous and sinful behavior, if not universal forces of goodness and evil. But what is the deeper – physiological – meaning of these “positive” and “negative” categories of feeling? What is their biological function? And how deeply are they rooted in our evolutionary heritage? What is their role in violence versus cooperative, even altruistic, behavior?


A broader and deeper scientific examination of the emotional system reveals some astounding surprises: that emotion is actually an unrecognized sensory system — perhaps the very first sense to have emerged, along with agency. That the rudiments of emotional sentience are evident in even the simplest living systems (and may even be associated with a “quantum mind”— within a self-organizing, self-actualizing, co-creative universe). That emotion serves the ancient function of “self-regulation,” affording the earliest organisms the ability to sense their world, to evaluate the “good” or “bad” environmental conditions, and to actively respond in creatively adaptive ways. That the universal values encoded within our hedonic behavior reflect neither good nor evil, but the criteria for natural selection, and that the first crude emotional sentience ushered in active, creative participation within the evolutionary process. That our misunderstood negative emotional messages — self-preservation-based messages within such painful feelings as sadness, disgust, fear, and anger — often translate into competitive and avoidant behaviors, habits, and ideologies that are the ground-zero “violation” of both the “self” and the “other,” and hence ultimately self-destructive.

In more complex organisms, the chemistry of both positive and negative emotion remains a major player in cell signaling, genetic and epigenetic regulation, physical immunity, placebo and nocebo effects, and most mental and psychosocial developmental processes. The good news is that our modern human emotions now contain three levels of self-regulatory information. They are a moral-spiritual-behavioral guidance system there for the taking, once we understand and align with its ancient self-regulatory code. To cultivate emotional sensory awareness and to practice universally optimal self-regulatory behavior – which is the biologically “right use of agency” – is to usher in new self-actualizing dimensions of human potential, dimensions that allow humanity to address violence, justice and compassionate care at their biological core.


4-15:30 AM: Session 8

Part I: Russ Genet

“Emergent Complexity in the Cosmic Ecosystem”

The emergence of complex intelligent systems is a relatively recent occurrence among animals, humans, and machines. In the briefest blink of the cosmic eye, a single species, we humans — along with our domesticates, fossil-fuel-powered machines, and a global network of lightning-fast computers — have become the dominant force in the Earth’s ecosystem. The cosmos, an interlocking system of systems, is itself an ecosystem, although the cosmic ecosystem operates on time and spatial scales that we are only beginning to grasp. Our species’ radical emergence occurred on one small planet in a brief moment of cosmic time. Considering our emergence within the context of emergent complexity in the cosmic ecosystem provides an introductory setting for a reasoned discussion of humanity’s current dilemma.


Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants. This talk draws, in part, from Russ’ most recent non-astronomy book, Humanity: The Chimpanzees Who Would Be Ants. Humanity is the science-based story of how, in a remote corner of an ordinary galaxy 13.7 billion years after the Big Bang, the descendants of a third line of chimpanzees evolved into millions of humans who organized themselves into ant-like societies. Originally rare hunters, we humans took up agricultural ways, aping the clever ants that became numerous by developing ingenious herding and gardening skills. Evolving our simple chimp tools into machines, we then tapped a bonanza of fossil fuel energy and blitzkrieged the planet. Now facing planetary limits, what is our fate? Reversing direction, will we return to a planetary Garden of Eden or, pedal to the metal, crash into oblivion? Will we transform the Earth into a sustainable global farm or, leaving our birth-planet behind, voyage to the stars with our machine partners to establish a galactic empire?


Part II: Closing Discussion and Synthesis

In the closing, the speakers and the audience will work to formulate common assumptions, important critiques of the status quo, and emerging theoretical insights. Our goal is not only to understand the world correctly — though that is certainly a key interest for all of us — but also to change it. We believe that the global situation is urgent enough that only a fundamental alteration in how we conceive the world will suffice to motivate and guide humanity in its next steps forward. As we close, we will specify how the common conclusions that we have reached can be part of the needed solutions. We will also select an editorial team for publishing the results of these nine sessions and discuss the appropriate type of publication for our results.