Simply put, emergentism is the view that when matter reaches a certain critical mass it gives rise to phenomena which cannot be explained in terms of matter alone. Think, for instance, of the picture produced by thousands of color dots on the tv screen. To try to explain the meaning of the picture as nothing but excited dots of color misses something significant about the picture, namely the information and importance it conveys. The emergentist believes that life, consciousness, meaning, and value all emerge out of the universe in somewhat analogous fashion.
In the West, those who hold to a view of a theistic God, including the Christian fundamentalists of such power in the United States, find themselves in a cultural war with those who do not believe in a transcendent God, whether agnostic or atheistic. This war is evidenced by the fierce battle over Intelligent Design being waged politically and in the court systems of the United States. While the battleground is Darwinism, the deeply emotional issues are more fundamental. These include the belief of many religious people that without God's authority, morality has no basis. Literally, for those in the West who hold to these views, part of the passion underlying religious conviction is the fear that the very foundations of Western society will tumble if faith in a transcendent God is not upheld.
Indeed, it's interesting that Dr. Kauffman doesn't assay to refute this belief. He doesn't, of course, because there is no refutation available to him. In order for someone to have a right, say, not to be harmed, others must have an obligation not to harm him, but whence comes this obligation if we are all alone in the cosmos? In order for us to be "obligated" something or someone must lay that obligation upon us and in the naturalistic metaphysics of Dr. Kauffman there's nothing that is up to that task. Even if he's correct that moral value is an emergent property of the universe, which we will see is highly dubious, it is a long and treacherous logical road from the appearance of a value to an obligation to somehow promote that value.
Beyond that, reductionism, wrought by the successes of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Planck, and Schrodinger, and all that has followed, preeminently in physics, has, as I will expand upon in a moment, left us in world of fact - cold fact with no scientific place for value. "The more we know of the cosmos, the more meaningless it appears", said Stephen Weinberg in Dreams of a Final Theory.
Precisely so. If everything that exists can ultimately be explained completely in terms of quarks and energy, if there's no intelligence out there, nothing beyond death but annihiliation, then life is just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. This is where the materialist's reductionism takes us. Unfortunately what Kauffman seeks to put in its stead offers no more satisfaction than does reductionism.
In this scientific world view, we can ask: Is it more astonishing that a God created all that exists in six days, or that the natural processes of the creative universe have yielded galaxies, chemistry, life, agency, meaning, value, consciousness, culture without a Creator. In my mind and heart, the overwhelming answer is that the truth as best we know it, that all arose with no Creator agent, all on its wondrous own, is so awesome and stunning that it is God enough for me and I hope much of humankind.
First, Kauffman sets up a choice as ridiculous as it is false - he tells us we must either believe in a six day creation or accept atheism - and then concludes that it is more reasonable to believe that consciousness, agency, meaning, and value have somehow emerged out of the aforementioned energy and quarks than to believe that these phenomena, as well as the material world itself, are the product of an intelligent Being.
Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself.
The universe is God and God just is the universe. But the universe is intellectually inert. Kauffman still hasn't explained how physical matter can give rise to meaning and value. He just holds out the hope that it has.
In short, in wondrous ways, these our universe, biosphere, econosphere, and culture are ceaselessly creative and emergent. The two cultures, science and humanities, stand united in this world view. Meaning and value have a scientific base.
Actually, nothing he has said in this essay supports this claim. He offers not a single testable assertion in support of his belief. Kauffman is a scientist doing speculative metaphysics and the speculations are based on nothing more than his hope that such things as meaning and value really exist.
And ethics? At a recent meeting on science and religion on Star Island, we heard more than one lecture on animal emotions and the sense of fairness in chimpanzees. Group selection, we were told, is now making its way into evolutionary biology. With it, natural selection can get its grip on behaviors that are advantageous to the group, like fairness, so it emerges. Far from evolution being anathema to ethics, evolution is the first source of human morality. But not the last, for we can argue whether we should want what we want.
This takes us back to what we said above. Even if a sense of fairness has emerged through natural selection, we still are given no reason why we should actually be fair to others. The fact that evolution produces some behavior is not an argument for that behavior being morally right or obligatory. Natural selection produces a lot of behaviors that we do not regard as particularly moral - war being one example - so why pick out fairness as an example of a behavior we should cultivate rather than war. The only way Kauffman can do this is by holding war and fairness up to some other standard and seeing which one conforms to the standard and which doesn't. But where does this higher standard come from? Neither Kauffman, nor any atheist, has an answer to that question.
I'll have more on Kauffman's emergentism later.