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  • On Moral Science:The Problematic Politics of Stuart Kauffman's Order
  • Benjamin J. Robertson (bio)

By now Jean-François Lyotard's interrogation of science operating under "the postmodern condition" is well known: scientific discourse cannot be legitimated via any process internal to that discourse, but is achieved via one of several metanarratives that lie outside science itself. The caveat is that the postmodern condition is characterized (in Lyotard's judgment) by an "incredulity toward metanarratives," which, if true, disrupts any possibility for a consistent ground to scientific practice.1 In What Is Postmodernism? Charles Jencks correctly ascribes Lyotard's metanarratives to their modern humanistic roots, but denies the contention that the postmodern era has in fact been one characterized by incredulity. He states that, rather than either witnessing or engendering the end of metanarratives, postmodernism has in fact been a period of their proliferation. Moreover, in an attempt to replace those certain metanarratives that he and Lyotard abhor, Jencks offers one that he understands to rid the world of the humanistic vestiges of modernity, one developed by scientific theory and practice: "We do not live in an era in which all beliefs have become non-credible, but rather at the beginning of an emergent global culture with a new metanarrative—the story of the universe."2 Postmodern science gives not only to itself, but to everyone [End Page 287] and everything, the creation myth to beat all creation myths.3 Of this new myth, Jencks writes: "It would certainly replace humanism—man as the measure of all things—with the larger picture in which the cosmos is the measure of all things. It could give direction, orientation and meaning to human activity, but not in a reductive anthropocentrism."4 Perhaps. However, when he next contends that "stars and planets inevitably evolve out of gas and exhibit a new kind of teleology," we must question Jencks's use of science to explain and justify social, political, and cultural phenomena.5

While it is by no means my intent to maintain a vulgar distinction between nature and culture, the explanation that Jencks gives for the exchange between the two spheres, which he takes from the evolutionary biologist and theorist of complexity Stuart Kauffman, is highly problematic from an antihumanist standpoint—a standpoint that Jencks claims for himself. He writes that the universe story "contends that we are fundamentally built into the laws of the universe, but are not necessarily its final creation."6 The qualification of this statement does not absolve Jencks of a new humanism. Although he eliminates an anthropocentricism that claims that cosmological forces directly lead to the human, he replaces it with the comforting certainty of humanity's belonging in the universe. This place is reserved not only for human existence as such, but also for an emergent and expected global culture, identified by Kauffman as modern democracy. Humanity may not have evolved as an end to history or creation, but its evolution and its political institutions are nothing if not guaranteed. If Jencks is right that "we" no longer believe strongly in any sacred religion, "we" can nonetheless sleep contentedly at night after saying prayers at the altar of the human and its culture. Science has been found to be the basis for a secular morality in which the new Decalogue is comprised of laws discovered/established by complexity theory.

The following essay will deal with the implications of Jencks's claims, offering what I hope will be a productive critique of the moral tenor of the science of complexity as read and interpreted by [End Page 288] Jencks through Kauffman's work on "the origins of order," work that provides the residually humanistic metanarrative for Jencks's project. Although a brief description of Kauffman's science is necessary for this task, it is ultimately the sociopolitical conclusions that Kauffman draws, and the subsequent interpretations of those conclusions by writers such as Jencks, that are of concern here. These endeavors, which Lyotard would claim as necessary for grounding science in a larger sociopolitical context, cannot be taken as literally and uncritically as they are by Jencks. The grounding that they provide sanctions a legitimacy that is potentially...


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