Friday, November 16, 2007

The Other "E" Word

There's everything. There's evolution. But the key to the New Story may be an e word lurking in the shadows. It's emergence, the subject of a book by Harold Morowitz entitled The Emergence of Everything, the second in our series of "Everything" books. Emergence is evolution on steroids.

The concept of emergence addresses how you put elements together and wind up with something more. Take two hydrogen atoms, add one of oxygen, and you get something cool to drink on a hot summer day. That's more than dihydrogen oxide. Run hydrogen atoms through a series of emergences, do it over 13 billion years, and you get a whole lot more. You get us.

It works something like this. To my right is a dot. It's an element, the simplest of beginnings.

Now here's the dot combined with others. If I asked what you were looking at, you'd probably say "an x." That's more than dots; it's a letter of the alphabet. The letter is an emergent-- like water, or like a living cell that arises from a collection of chemicals.

Take it to the next level. Arrange the x's a certain way and you get a second emergent, this time a triangle. The dots are still there (very small now), the x's are still there, but now there's something new--a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Next week's author, Ken Wilber, calls it a holon. A holon isn't reducible to dots.

In a Story of Everything--the New version--you substitute Matter, Life, and Spirit for dot, x, and triangle. Life emerges from Matter. Spirit emerges from Life. Each is more complex than what preceded it. As the narrative of the cosmos moves along, the emergents become richer, more interior, more subjective, deeper--until you have something called Mind or even Spirit.

Harold Morowitz is a biophysicist involved in the study of life's origins. But in The Emergence of Everything he writes as more than a biophysicist. Every now and then you hear the voice of a philosopher, even a theologian. This is a whole person speaking, one who wants to "go beyond the obvious" and align himself with those who seek nothing less than to "know the mind of God." Morowitz regards his "speculative scholarship" as a calling.

How many emergents have arisen in the history of the cosmos? It all depends on how closely you look. Somewhat arbitrarily, Morowitz picks 28, from the formation of particles, stars, and solar systems to the formation of hominids, tools, language, and philosophy.

Emergence number 28, underway now, is Spirit, and here Morowitz acknowledges a debt to the vision of Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist. Spirit is not defined, except to say that it goes beyond Mind, or Teilhard's "noosphere." Call me a heretic, says Morowitz, but as we emerge so does God. In a phrase whose meaning escapes me, he repeats, "We are the transcendence of the immanent God." He simplifies once: "We are God."

To be sure, the God that comes at the end of the story isn't the God of our traditional faiths. But Morowitz contends that science has forced us to rethink God. God cannot be a one-time creator nor can he ever rest, as on the seventh day in the Genesis narrative. He cannot rest because creation continues to occur. Each new emergent is in fact a new creation.

The subtitle of Morowitz's book--in places dense, in places accessible--is How the World Became Complex. What I'd like to know is why the world became complex, why evolution proceeds in the direction it does. I imagine that Morowitz would like to know this too. That, after all, is the nature of his calling. He wants to know the mind of God.



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