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The Missing Link -- "Spiritual Ignorance"

Brilliant. But ... One marvels at the scientific knowledge humans have obtained. Our technological prowess links us around the planet through instant communication, heals horrific injury, fabricates new elements, and speeds us toward the stars. Anything seems possible. Clearly this scientific understanding has generated astonishing human capacity to manipulate our environments. The resulting technologies have made us the dominant species on the planet. We seem to do, make, take whatever we want, whatever increases our comforts and control.

Nonetheless, we continually fail to create societies that represent our professed values or to avoid damaging the biosphere to which we belong and upon which we depend. What is it we do not understand? Are we inherently deficient in some aspect of intelligence? Or are we somehow woefully ignorant about 'how the world actually works?'

Standard Knowledge -- The World is Mechanical: Our modern scientific understanding of reality, of how things are composed and events happen, has been based upon predictable cause and effect, on the deterministic "Laws of Physics." The descriptive, explanatory, and practical power of this science gave us a fundamentally mechanistic worldview. Such a logic of 'how the world works' led to the conclusion that every form and event can be reduced to material substances and predictable sequences. Consequently, there can be no such phenomena as "purpose" that guides events. Autonomous agency has no place in this view of cause and effect, not even "free will" in humans, because that would be an unpredictable causal 'force.' Certainly, notions of willful spirits, demons, gods or goddesses, are clearly impossible. Thus, archaic mythological imagination of 'spiritual agency' has been dismissed as delusion or the 'bad science' of our ignorant predecessors. That is, the world is entirely a manifestation of the properties of atoms and molecules, of the predictable ways these interact and combine. As such, given enough knowledge of material science, we should be able to fully analyze, explain, and potentially control all phenomena, all things and events. There is no ultimate mystery, nothing sacred about our existence, only practical problems 'to be solved.' This worldview seems logical and has proved most practical. Except that it has not enabled us to control either our selves or our human systems, nor to prevent them from betraying our professed values and driving the biosphere toward collapse.

New Knowledge -- The World is Self-Organizing: Though little known to the vast majority of us, in recent decades scientific research has produced a profound challenge to these deterministic assumptions about causality, thus to our mechanistic worldview. What is most broadly termed "complex systems science" examines how the various parts of systems interact and what the consequences are. This study of system dynamics has led to startling results. Some system dynamics are predictably causal, as in mechanical ones. But the category of "complex adaptive systems" (CAS) are not. This type of system has been factually shown to self-organize and self-direct its own activities in un-predictable ways. These self-induced actions can adapt the system to changes within and around it, thus promoting its continued existence into the future. CAS can manifest purposeful selective behavior that cannot be causally predicted from preceding conditions, nor fully analyzed and explained after the fact.

Such systems are most familiar in biology, from individual cells to animals. It is easy to perceive that a rabbit changes its behavior unpredictably to avoid being eaten by a fox, and that the fox acts selectively to try to catch the rabbit. But large scale CAS, such as local ecologies, human societies, and economies, demonstrate the same self-organizing, self-adapting dynamics without being discrete biological entities. For an introduction to this science you can check out Complexity Labs ( and The Santa Fe Institute .

In short, complex systems science uses the analytical tools of quantitative methodology to reveal that systems can order and direct themselves for the purpose of promoting their future existence. CAS selectively govern and change their forms in unpredictable ways that express autonomous agency. Some form of "free will" not only manifests in the CAS of humans, but in all animals and even collective societies. Consequently, such systems that do not 'behave' according to predictably deterministic principles cannot be directly controlled. Further, their self-maintaining operations are subject to disruption that can result in their sudden transformation or even complete collapse. If one system's activity disrupts that of another, the self-maintaining agency of the latter can fail, consequently causing others to fail, in what is termed "cascading failure." That is what is now happening to the ecological systems of the biosphere and even climate systems.

Understanding how system agency arises within specific systems from feedback networks, then interacts with feedback from agency in other systems, reveals the self-regulating networks of meta-system agency in larger scale systems, such as ecologies, cities, and economies. Flows of activity withing a system form feedback links among its parts, somehow driving self-organization. Subsequently, feedback networks form between systems as they interact with each other -- all in an unimaginably complex, instantaneously concurrent flow of network activity. Somewhere within the partly chaotic interactions of feedback flows, selective agency arises to influence a system's form and behavior, then arises again from the interactions of multiple systems. The biosphere is a meta-system of such interdependently interacting systems, constantly adapting to each others' adaptive behaviors. Overall self-regulation emerges from this interdependent interactivity which sustains relative continuity by forming limits or constraints on how subsystems 'behave' with the larger network. Each must accommodate to others, finding its "ecological niche," so as to support the whole while preserving its own existence. The success of each sub-system depends upon the self-regulation of the larger one it becomes part of.

Thus, what appears to be mere competition functions as cooperation. CAS systems are not "billiard balls" bouncing off of each other. They are more like players on a soccer field. Complexity at the level of the biosphere cannot arise or be maintained by mere mechanical processes alone. The domain of human systems arises similarly. Both Nature and society are far more than 'mere machinery.' The world is 'creaturely.' According to our dominant worldview, this is not supposed to be possible.

However, the science also reveals how human systems become non-responsive to feedback from natural ones. Humans systems empowered by technology can evade the constraints ecosystems would otherwise impose upon human behaviors -- at least for some period of time. And that time is running out.

Stunning Implications -- We Don't Understand The World: Why does the science of self-organizing, self-directing systems that manifest autonomous agency matter? Because it reveals a fundamental ignorance in our general scientific understanding of reality. Currently, our worldview does not enable us to perceive how system agency is the driving force of Life it self. Without an understanding of how agency in systems creates, maintains, and adapts them, we cannot comprehend how even our own human systems function, much less how these impact the self-sustaining dynamics of the biosphere. Systems science has revealed a crucial, in deed catastrophic, 'missing link' in our knowledge of 'how the world actually works.'

Similar to how individual animals learn and make selective decisions in ways that promote their survival, larger scale systems such as ecosystems, societies, and nation states act adaptively. But because this self-organizing and adaptive behavior must necessarily be unpredictable, it emerges from considerably instability. Selective agency simply cannot arise from predetermining factors. This condition turns our to be dynamically logical. By definition, agency must emerge from un-certainty, from un-decidedness among multiple potential states. Thus the dynamical activity of feedback and system response that generate selective behavior must involve disorder. Even the generation of self-organization that maintains relatively similar behavior over time is a selective act that continually emerges from instability, from moment to the moment. That makes the maintenance of relative continuity over time all the more astonishing. This fundamental role of disorder and unpredictability in CAS behavior, whether to 'maintain the status quo' organization of a system or to change it for the purpose of continued existence, reveals why we cannot predict CAS behavior accurately, nor directly access and manipulate their self-organizing operations.

So system agency must enable habitual behavior as well as orchestrate adaptive departures from it. An example is how your body maintains a certain normal temperature, yet also must be flexible enough to respond to unexpected threats and disruptions by raising its temperature to fight infection. That tension between consistent self-organizing and the capacity to abruptly re-self-organize in response to changes inside or outside the system is both a strength and a weakness. Changes within a system or its environment might result in responses from system agency that maintain its continuity, or bring about a transformation, or result in organizational failure leading to collapse. While we can influence this range of system behaviors, seldom can we do so with much certainty about subsequent responses.

Thus a complex system such as a society or nation state can operate for an extended period in a relatively consistent or characteristic manner. But, when impacted by some disruption, it might undergo an abrupt transformation to a new order, as in the case of shifts from autocratic to democratic government, or fragment into the dissolution of civil war. In this sense, systems can 'change the character' of their self-organizing agency. Changes in the character of self-organizing agency in a society can be relatively subtle, as in when one or another political party takes power through an election (Democrats to Republicans). Or it can be more dramatic, as in a shift from democratic to fascist. Distinguishing characteristics of self-organizing agency are familiarly in the the contrasting behaviors of various "corporate cultures," individual personalities, and social groups.

This 'character of agency' is evident in natural systems as well. Each species manifests a characteristic type of self-organizing, self-adaptive agency. Beavers, as a CAS, express system agency in particular ways. Orca whales have different characteristic modes of self-organizing and self-sustaining their continued existence. Yet Orcas in some regions of the planet express different modes of their agency by hunting different prey using different methods. Whole ecosystems, from deserts to alpine meadows, self-organize and adapt to changes characteristically, through the interactions of their constituent subsystems (plant and animal species) giving the whole its own agency.

There is even an element of agency in climate systems. Over time, interactions of the Earth's "geospheres" has led to self-organizing interdependencies. Aspects of what are termed the lithosphere ('rock realm'), hydrosphere ('water realm'), cryosphere ('ice realm'), atmosphere ('air realm'), and the biosphere ('life realm') have influenced each other to generate a complex system manifesting as periods of relative consistency. The weather is unpredictably variable but manifests characteristic patterns over larger spans of time, as in monsoon cycles. The self-regulation of this vast global set of interacting elements over the last 11,000 years has manifested the characteristics represented by the term "Holocene." However, the green house gas emissions of human industrial systems have now so disrupted this network of self-regulating relationships that climate systems are becoming chaotic. The Holocene, whose characteristic self-organization nurtured human evolution, is no more. We now live in what is termed the "Anthropocene"--a geological age dominated by the disruptions of human systems.

Again, this notion of agency in complex adaptive systems is a profound challenge to our standard worldview because it shows how such systems cannot be predicted nor directly controlled, yet can be readily effected by external disruptions that lead to unpredictable changes in behavior or catastrophic failure. Our ignorance of this fundamental aspect of reality not only 'disconnects' our awareness from natural systems. It also renders us incapable of understanding how our own human systems have 'wills of their own' and thus are not, in fact, 'under our command.' They are self-adapting 'forces unto themselves.' We humans have become subordinated to the self-asserting agencies of the systems we created--systems of competitive hierarchy and exploitation, leveraged by technology and fossil fuels, that do not respond to the self-regulating feedback flows of the biosphere. Thus, this 'missing link' in our understanding blinds us to how our own survival depends upon using our agency to promote that of the biosphere's -- by resisting the 'rogue' agency of our human systems. We are woefully ignorant about 'how the world actually works' -- according to our own science.

Ancient References -- The World is Spiritually Animated: The basic concept of self-organizing, self-adaptive agency in complex systems has an intriguing corollary in pre-modern or archaic human worldviews. The term "animism" indicates a cultural attitude in which humans regard the natural world as 'animated by spirits or souls.' Archaic human cultures are thought to have been almost universally animistic. From this perspective, human societies exist as 'agents in an extended field of non-human agency.' Thus, it is not only humans who direct their behaviors with purpose and express particular character, but other species, plants, ecosystems, even 'forces of nature' such as wind and rivers. Thus there is beaver spirit/agency and wind spirit/agency. Cultures deemed to have a "theistic" aspect, conceive of gods and goddesses which represent a more abstracted characterization, or personification, of 'willful agency at work in the world.' These can stand for the animating principle of a particular aspect of existence, as in the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Or, they can represent characteristics of animating agency related to particular behaviors, such as Aphrodite, goddess of love, sex, and delight.

These "personifications" of system agency in natural systems, and of more abstract archetypal behaviors that overtly mirror human character, emphasize their autonomy and offer little sense of how humans might control them. Rather, by telling stories that characterize ways systems tend to behave, some guidance is provided on how we might interact with them, when they are dangerous, or when potentially helpful to humans. In all of this, there is a sense that human behaviors are inevitably limited by the influence of these 'spiritual agents.' To offend or neglect them is to risk some sort of "blow back."

This 'spiritual imagination,' expressed variously through a great diversity of cultural mythologies, orients human societies toward the self-organizing, self-directing character of both natural and human systems. The spirits and souls of natural systems alert humans to how these have their own self-sustaining agency. The abstract gods and goddesses can serve as 'mirrors' of how human behaviors take on particular 'archetypal character.' This perspective enables humans to interact with their environments, and each other, through a symbolic psychology of complex system agency. The variously imagined 'spiritual agents' become the 'voices' of non-human systems. This symbolic representation of non-human agency 'links' human understanding into the overall self-regulating feedback networks of Nature.

One can note this attitude in the ways indigenous peoples speak about non-human systems as "all our relations," as if these were somehow 'people' one needed to respect, care for, and even be wary of offending. It links them to the non-human world in an intimate, emotionally compelling manner that produces a meaning-enhancing and even cautionary 'sense of the sacred.' In so doing, it can, in some instances, assist them to avoid disrupting their environments in ways that might threaten their own survival. Through such spiritual imagination, cultures seem to be aware of a crucial aspect of reality to which our modern society is effectively blind -- or at least has been, until the emergence of complex systems science.

The word religion actually derives from the Latin religio, translated as obligation, bond, reverence, and perhaps from religare, for 'to bind.' This derivation suggests that the archaic mythological imagination of 'spiritual agents' formed the basis of religious practices. That is, spiritual symbolism informed the religious acts of formalized rites and rituals. These then served to 'bond' or 'bind' human behavior into the overall self-regulation of the biosphere's feedback networks. Such a worldview can impose on human systems an 'obligation' to respect, even 'hold sacred,' the life creating, life sustaining, life adapting correspondence of interdependent system agencies. That is, spiritual imagination assisted societies to impose constraints upon the behavior of human systems so that these would be less disruptive to natural ones. Astonishingly, the ancients did not have systems science, yet they perceived and represented its essential concepts of agency in both natural and human systems.

Cultural Adaptation -- How to Address our 'Spiritual Ignorance?': Given the above train of thought, one might then say that the havoc we moderns have wreaked upon the biosphere is a result of our 'spiritual ignorance' (or of self-organizing system agency). We have lacked any means of perceiving how the complex adaptive systems of both the biosphere and society generate, govern, and direct themselves. Thus, we have assumed that we can simply manipulate and control them as if they were mechanical. In regard to our own systems, we tend to act as if their behaviors are only the consequence of human agency, not their own.

Science now contradicts these assumptions. Our collective interactions give rise to a meta-system, or "super-organism," the purpose of which is economic growth fueled by our individual consumer behavior. Its characteristic agency is that of a 'cancerous consumer monster' the meta-network agency of which seeks to continue and expand its existence -- regardless of our human values. In sum, our own systems are our 'mortal enemies,' not other human beings. Decades of 'tinkering' with existing systems has done nothing to alter their life-destroying behaviors. Humans must now become collectively focused on creating social and economic systems whose agency supports those of the biosphere first, or else remain competitive agents of existing systems that will destroy us all.

With the emergence of complex systems science, we now have a method of perceiving the world as self-animating, through system agency, and thus both 'beyond our direct control' and yet highly susceptible to disruption from our manipulations. We now have a perspective that could enable us to 'act in support of' the biosphere's self-sustaining agency, thereby assuring our own future survival. However, this science has been available to us for over 30 years and remains obscure, even among many professional scientists. Admittedly, it is highly technical and explores dynamical activities that are virtually impossible for our mechanically conditioned minds to imagine. This is not the kind of fully explanatory, control-enabling science we are accustomed to.

Given the arcane density of the science, perhaps the incorporation of its insights into our general society will require using it as a basis for new culture symbolism. Might we be able to address our catastrophic ignorance of system agency by somehow inventing a fact-based 'naturalistic spirituality,' made readily accessible through shared symbols? Could we reorient our worldview through a rational understanding of what systems science confirms but cannot fully explain -- by correlating that knowledge with existing traditions of spiritual symbolism? Could we generate our own versions of this symbolism that would be potent enough to 're-link' our behavior to that of natural systems and fill us with a rational 'sense of the sacred?' Might some reinvention of 'spiritual imagination' at last enable us to understand how to interact with our own human systems so that these actually operate in ways better suited to both a sustainable biosphere and our values of human rights?

Some among us feel an attraction to the notion of 'spiritual imagination.' However, from the perspective of our mechanistic worldview, anything we cannot measure, anything just 'imagined,' is not real. To generate a compelling spiritual culture we would have to ground it in the factual evidence for system agency as a kind of 'natural mystery,' beyond full explanation, fundamental to Life, yet possible to 'realistically' represent through symbols.

For more on science and spiritual agency see:

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