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Emergence and Religious Naturalism: The Promise and Peril
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“The concept of emergence, more than any other concept we have encountered, puts Humpty-Dumpty back together again in ways that are wonderfully resonant with our existential and religious yearnings.”1

While the topics of emergentism and religious naturalism have both received renewed attention in the past two decades, the recent publication of several books and numerous articles arguing for emergentism and its religious significance suggests that they are converging in interesting ways. Indeed, religious naturalists such as cell biologist Ursula Goodenough,2 complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman,3 and philosopher Loyal Rue have been important voices in this conversation.4 While they cannot be easily classified as religious naturalists, biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon and theologian and philosopher Philip Clayton have also made significant contributions.5

At its root emergentism is a response to reductive physicalism, the idea that all complex phenomena can be explained in terms of more basic entities or mechanisms until we reach the most basic constituents of the cosmos and the laws that govern the relations between them. Whatever we understand those basic constituents to be, the explanatory structure of reductionism is hierarchical and one-directional, the explanatory arrows always point downward. Though the framework of reductionism in science has been undeniably productive, it also leaves us in a world devoid of meaning, purpose, or value.6 In contrast, emergentism claims that novel entities or properties that are not predictable from or reducible to previous ones arise naturally in the universe.

Religious naturalism refers to a particular set of views arising from a wide ranging dialogue between scientists, philosophers, and theologians. While its boundaries are not sharply delineated, it can be roughly distinguished by two shared commitments.7 The first is a commitment to naturalism, to the premise that we should look to the natural world rather than some supernatural realm to explain and give meaning to our experience. The second is the claim that this commitment to naturalism does not preclude religion, that there can be authentic religious responses to the world that do not depend on the existence of a supernatural realm.

It is not surprising that many religious naturalists embrace the concept of emergence. One the one hand, emergentism offers religious naturalists a way to be scientific without adopting reductionism and the meaninglessness it seems to imply. On the other, it allows them to be religious without appealing to supernaturalism. For these reasons religious naturalists write of emergence in the most glowing terms. For instance, Stuart Kauffman argues that emergence allows us to reject both the view that the world is ultimately determined and meaningless and the view that meaning and value are imposed from the outside by a supernatural Creator God. It invites us to “reinvent” the sacred and to let “God be our name for the creativity in the universe.”8 Similarly, as suggested in the opening quotation, Goodenough and Deacon optimistically believe that emergence will help us put a world fragmented by reductionism back together again in ways that are religiously significant.

But is such optimism justified? The goal of this paper is to answer this question. I will begin with a brief description, though not a defense, of the concept of emergence. Though it is controversial, for the sake of this paper I will assume that the concept is sufficiently plausible to justify exploring its implications for religious naturalism. I will follow this description with a critical look at the relationship between emergentism and religious naturalism. Using Goodenough’s analysis of the religious orientation into the interpretive, spiritual, and moral realms, I will explore the rich potential that religious naturalists have found in emergentism. However, while religious naturalists have, for the most part, focused on the promise of emergentism, I will also explore the limitations of this approach. What promise does it hold for religious naturalism and what perils does it present? My contention is that the promises can only be realized if care is taken to avoid the perils.

I. Defining Emergence

The emergentist framework has been described by several authors, and while there is some disagreement, there seems to be consensus on a few core concepts or principles. I offer two representative descriptions here to illustrate.9


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