Eli Mitrani

When I was a youngster, my father, a biology professor in profession, introduced me to the work of a man named Stewart Kauffman, [1]Stuart Kauffman is one of the most outstanding theoretical biologists of complex biological systems. Their mathematical models lead to the idea that self-organization is one of the properties of … Continue reading who provided very special alternatives to the theory of the development of life. Kauffmann presented simple and enchanting mathematical models that describe the spontaneous appearance of order within seemingly random processes, and demonstrated how order describes in a very elegant way many of the processes we are familiar with that enable the existence and development of life.

Kauffman has won various awards for his work, including the MacArthur Fellowship, one of the most prestigious prizes for creative thinking. Later I met his work during my studies at the Hermes Institute. About a year ago, I received an invitation to attend his lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as part of the 30th ILASOL Conference – the Israeli Society for Astrobiology and the Sources of Life. I was happy to have the opportunity to attend and together with three other members of the Institute we booked a place in advance and arrived to the lecture hall at the morning of his lecture.

The Rothberg Hall, where the lecture was about to take place, was on the first floor. When we finally found the place, 20 minutes before the lecture begun, the only people in the hall, except for us four, were the two professors who organized the meeting, Professor Kauffman and his wife. A world-renowned professor comes to talk about the sources of life and almost no one comes to hear his lecture!? We were truly surprised. If that subject isn’t of interest to the public… what is?

The whole situation was somewhat surrealistic. We sat quite confused in the hall and waited, finally another 15 people arrived. After several technical problems – the conference began. Following a brief introduction, Professor Kauffman walked up to the podium and began to talk
about his work. We tried to follow as best we could; after all, we are not experts in astrobiology… Yet there seemed to be a possibility, not entirely unfounded, of finding parallel links between Kauffman’s scientific ideas and social ideas. In addition, I also knew from interviews I have heard with him in previous years, that alongside his interest in science, he was also very much interested in the aspects of human ethics.

During the break, encouraged by our friend Anat and by the pleasant and friendly atmosphere of the conference, we found the courage to approach the professor, and ask him for his email address in order to enable future communication and conversations with him. He answered, with characteristic modesty that he would be very happy to continue discussing these matters with us. Not long after that I had the pleasure of a long Skype meeting with him during which I had the opportunity to interview him and ask about philosophy, physics, and the development of life and the laws of nature. His knowledge is deep and broad; it was indeed an extraordinary opportunity to get an indepth look at reality, from his point of view.

I asked his permission to record the conversation between us in order to be able to share his thoughts with others in the coming future. He happily agreed. It was a long conversation, so I will bring parts in which he spoke of to problems and possible solutions of relating to cultural and human issues.

Eli: In one of your lectures, you indicated that you are a humanist and that there is a need for some sort of direction that will guide our society and lead it towards the development of global ethics. You said that one of the ways for bringing this about is the sacred, that we must reinvent the sacred in order for it to help humanity direct itself back to the global ethics we so desperately need. Can you elaborate on this?

Kauffman: “As it happens, I’m now reading an introduction to a book by Andreas Weber “Matter and Desire” that relates to what you are talking about.

Webber recognized the power of love, which he calls passionate involvement, as a serious driving force which enables interpersonal relationships to develop and to link destinies between entities in the universe, it’s another way of reinventing the sacred – instead of a supernatural Yahoweh we could fall inlove with the becoming itself, rather than the mechanical force of economic efficiency. You can easily fall in love with this idea or thought… Here, we are two guy’s mumbling about values, I am a little older than you, and so the change must come from your generation

At this period of time in world history we are ‘hanging on the tail of a tiger’ called capitalism, which means that in order to earn a living we have to sell things to each other, we can no longer be hunters and gatherers in order to eat, so we have to trade , but look at the stuff were trading… Most of these things are useless crap that’s using up the planet… I used to put it this way: We are making, buying and selling purple plastic penguins to place beside our pools. We sell all kinds of useless things to fill our environment with! So our value system is profoundly wrong. Value systems can change… Maybe Andreas was right…

Part of the world is awaking and says, ‘What we are doing is almost completely meaningless! Isn’t there another principle by which we can exchange things between us, so that we all have something to eat and not deal with useless purple plastic penguins that will be put beside pools? … Meaning – earning a living in a way that will allow people to feel closer to each other.

It’s easy to say, but it does not seem impossible either. However the forces that oppose it are the status quo and the big corporations, which are trying to make big money from selling useless plastic penguins. Maybe such an insight or tendencies towards it could possibly break through, and as a result create a new set of values that could emerge and spread among humanity.

At a meeting I recently attended, people said there was dissatisfaction everywhere. People turn
anything they do. People know, for example, that the banking system is raping everybody, but we still don’t do anything about it. People know that most of the world’s assets are held in the hands of few corporations, they know that this fact gives those corporations an extremely large amount of power; we all know that, right? People are very worried about these issues.

Eli: “Certainly, people are seeking for a deeper meaning to their existence. We search for a life enriched by value not one which is only concentrated in our basic needs to eat and sleep.”

Kauffman: “I don’t pretend to know how to make such a change happen, it’s so easy to sound pretentious, but let’s look at it this way: Today a lot of intellectual processes are replaced by robots, such as ‘Siri’, for example.

Even our intellectual work will probably be replaced by algorithmic processes. But I don’t think that the human mind is algorithmic, nor is the becoming of the biosphere or the economy is algorithmic, I don’t think life is algorithmic – were mesmerized by Turing and computers.
Perhaps robotic automation will replace us to the point where we ask ourselves – what is our value as human beings? What are people capable of, that machines are not? We may reach an answer – that our true value, lays in discovering what is the true difference between the two.

For example, would you not prefer handmade furniture that was created 400 years ago in Provence over furniture created by a factory three months ago? Of course you would. We would prefer something that some human being cared about, that someone created with love. So today we value human creativity more than 50 or 70 years ago when mechanized works were a new phenomenon. Perhaps what we will emerge as what we prize most in the coming future is human creativity… What do you think?

Eli: It’s hard for me to see how this will happen spontaneously. In my experience if we don’t make a special effort, we will continue to act in ways that promote our comfort and survival, and not necessarily find or bring to life a more ethical way of thinking.

Kauffman: “I totally agree with you, perhaps we should look at it this way – Robots are replacing us. Machines replaced the manual work; Powered hammers are much stronger than manual hammers – if all of these machines surround us, we can just lie down and do nothing, can’t we? We can then spend our life surfing through Facebook and eating marshmallows, right?

But what did we do to earn these marshmallows? Nothing. A life of this sort would be a completely meaningless life. We are both appalled by this idea – not only because we are Jews or mathematicians, but because we are human beings, such a life feels like a desert of meaninglessness.

“At least some of us will probably say to themselves: I have a washing machine and a television and I can sit for seven hours in front of the screen and be entertained – but what meaning does my life have? Maybe we must seek and find meaning for our lives otherwise we will experience them as devoid of content and reason – even if it sounds a little pious to say so. If out of 7 billion of us this would be true for 500 Million – that would be kind of encouraging… Right?

The Historian Arnold Toynbee writes, ‘Civilizations are born, they mature and die, and in their death there is a spiritual rebirth.’ In the canonical example of the collapse of the Roman Empire, Constantine wanted to reunite the empire under something that would consolidate it, so he chose Christianity for this purpose which led to the widespread of this religion.

Could such a change be in the air in our days? Perhaps the school of philosophy you study in is
another expression of the same thing? What are you looking for? What are you looking for, Ellie? “
* – * – *
And what are you looking for dear reader?

This question is extremely important, perhaps more important than the answer that can be given to it. I have thought about this question so many times throughout my life, and the answer has never been the same.

I will not elaborate on the answer I gave Professor Kuffman here, but I can say that discussing these issues with the professor has helped me to be more accurate in my thinking about life choices. This question is one that calls for activism, activism which begins from the inside but
undoubtedly leads to concrete processes and actions.

As a scientist and a philosopher, I admit that this question, among other things, led me to meet a man like Professor Kauffman, who has the courage and openness – with much love and without much criticism, to look at the reality in which we live with wide open eyes. I agree with the Professor – we do waste allot of our precious time dealing with useless plastic purple penguins and tend to forget about the most important question of all: What are we looking for?

It’s only when someone or something stops us and asks us this important question, then, hopefully, we are reminded, we stop for a moment and think.

When I asked for permission to publish an article about this interview, Professor Kauffman gave only one condition, he asked me to leave an open channel for those who want to make contact and continue this discourse, hoping and believing that by conversing these important subjects we might discover more meaningful ideas to enrich our lives.

I warmly invite anyone interested to contact me for further discussion at eli@acropolis.org


1 Stuart Kauffman is one of the most outstanding theoretical biologists of complex biological systems. Their mathematical models lead to the idea that self-organization is one of the properties of life, against the idea of random present in the synthetic theory of evolution. (Note of Manuel Ruiz).