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 The Science of Symbols

Eternal Time
Sacred and Profane Chronology

Symbolizing Synchronic and Diachronic Organization In and Over Time


  • Systems science reveals a contrast between how order arises from sequential actions versus concurrent interactions

  • Sequential events can be traced as changes occurring in a diachronic progression 'over time'

  • Concurrent interactions have a synchronic or simultaneous character  'in time' that cannot be sequenced

  • The interactive interdependency of feedback in networks that produce agency involves synchronistic synergy

  • This synergistic quality does not correlate to a progression of cause and effect 'over time' but 'happens all at once'

  • Comprehending systems science requires acceptance of this contrast in 'how things happen'

  • Myth symbolizes the conundrum in what might be termed sacred versus profane chronology

How Myth Represents Events 'in' Time as Sequentially Causal AND Synchronically Emergent

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The Conundrum of Emergent Events in Space and Time

Systems science confronts us with the challenge of comprehending the synergistic emergence of unpredictable self-ordering, such as network agency, from synchronistically concurrent interactions within unstable dynamical activity--or "at the edge of chaos." Thus far, it has not proven possible to specify exactly when, in a chronologically sequential series of events, such emergence actually happens. Consequently establishing precisely 'where' this synergy among multiple concurrent flows of feedback generate emergent properties. Emergence remains elusive 'as an event in a chain of events' both in time and space. That is in stark contrast to changes in physical matter or energy that can be measured and thus 'located' as these occur in conformity with the predictably dependent laws of physics.

Formation of feedback networks in complex systems can be observed but the question of exactly which aspects of feedback interactivity spontaneously generate abrupt changes in a system's ordering and functions can be obscured by the concurrency of the interactions. If we cannot

Interactions evolve into feedback networks that self-organize and self-direct, as in ant colonies.

But just where and when does self-organization, much less the capacity for willful agency, emerge?

The physical signals ants use to communicate are well identified. But the properties of those physical elements of the system--mainly chemical signals in this case--do not, in and of them selves, have any capacity to organize and then re-organize the behavior of the colony in a willful manner. Such physical aspects of a system, like neuron firing in the brain, appear as if 'symptoms' or consequences of collectively concurrent flows of interacting network feedback. The synchronic totality of the interactions somehow makes the 'whole' of the system 'more than the  sum' of its chronologically sequential, physically specifiable parts and their actions. That is not to say that the measurable sequences of physical events are irrelevant to the emergence of agency, but rather are insufficient to explain its spontaneous, unpredictable manifestation in each 'instant of time.'

The sequences of physical events we can 'see' and thus have a 'diachronic history'. But the simultaneously synchronic interactions

of network feedback we cannot specify in the same way--as if these were 'outside of time.'

The Presence of the Past and Potential Futures in Network Agency

Complex adaptive systems, those that use self-organizing agency to respond adaptively to changes in their environment and thus promote their continued existence (such as ecosystems and societies) are "acting teleologically," or towards a future outcome.  Doing so requires some reference to both past events as well as future possibilities. Genetically encoded information and animal memory are the most obvious means of providing such references to emerging network agency. Thus there is a sense in which agency emerges not just from current actions but in reference to a 'trans-chronological presence' of past, present, and potential future events.

Historical versus Mythical Time

There are two basic motifs in how mythic imagination poses the synchronic 'events' of emergent properties from network interactivity. One suggests the interpenetration of events in a given instant. This usually involves a circular form, as in the Yin Yang symbol or the oroborous serpent that 'eats its own tail.' The circular form suggests the synchronic 'totality' of events, either in the moment or 'for all time.' Here there is no 'beginning, middle and end.'

The recirculating, interpenetrating aspects of symbols such as the Yin Yang, the alchemical Oroborous, and

the Zen circle, provide a sense of both synchronic interdependency and i

ts trans-temporal references to past and possible future events:

In some mythologies there is fairly overt distinction between ordinary or historical time and eternal or spiritual time. The 'other worlds' of spirits and divinities tend to be portrayed as 'outside of time.'  Gods and goddesses are often described as immortal. Mythical tales often describe ordinary humans venturing into an other worldly realm where nothing ever changes. Thus there can be a sense of two chronologies, one sequentially progressive or historical and one static, as if what is there 'never was and always is.' An ordinary person who finds themself transported to the realm of faeries never ages--until returning to the ordinary world where centuries might have passed. In creation stories the world arises or humans come into it from a 'pre-historical' context. The realms of spirits and creation are 'before, beside, or behind' the ordinarily historical realm of causally sequential events. But when magic or miracles occur, the two realms interpenetrate.

This 'time of time' and 'time of timelessness is figured in the basic iconography of a cross. The horizontal bar has the trajectory of historically sequential time. The vertical bar stands in place in the instant, suggesting 'above and below' rather than 'left to right,' or 'right to left.' The intersection of these lines can be read as the present moment where historical time and spiritual or mythological time meet. The cross enclosed within a circle, as with the Celtic cross or indigenous American medicine wheel, adds a sense of the encompasing totality of existence--'in and out of time.'

Symbols involving crosses of two lines at right angles to each other are common across cultures.

Those oriented vertically give the sense of an intersection between ordinary historically sequential

or diachronic time and time/space that is unchanging or 'outside of time.'

Symbols involving such an intersection that are oriented horizontally, like indigenous American medicine wheels or Tibetan mandalas, orient  toward the 'four direction' or 'four quarters' of the world.  Here the intersection 'locates' a center around which all creation extents, or upon which it converges. These symbols suggest there is 'a center' yet wherever one is, that is the 'center of the world' and all its dynamical activities.  Thus such symbols also interrupt or defer any notion of sequentially diachronic history but rather give a sense of 'everything happening everywhere all at once--all the time=--thus having a quality of synchronic emergence.






These are among the most basic symbols of diachronic and synchronic time in mythic imagination. The basic concept to grasp is that humans have long produced ways of representing the 'timeless synchronicity' of emergent properties from the "hidden layers" of interdependency in self-organizing feedback networks.

The impenetrable, synchronically transformative interactions of science's "hidden layers" of network feedback

are also represented in more complex ways such as the the Aboriginal Australian

style of depicting the interplay of the Dreamtime spirits:

Eternity and Immortality as Symbols of Network Activity 'Outside Time"

Thus we can correlate how cultures that imagined a domain of 'time outside time,' where spiritual agents that are not 'of this world' were intuitive representing the temporal 'nether world' of synchronic network interactions and the fundamentally mysterious emergence of willfully selective network agency from that dynamical condition.

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