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Spiritual Practice Now:

Scientific Network Spirituality
Following the Evidence as Far as It Takes Us--Then Confronting the Implications

Expanding Our Dynamical Worldview to Include Emergent Ordering and Agency

  • The first stage of this effort is learning about complex systems science and its methodology for analyzing networks

  • This involves learning to differentiate systems and networks that do manifest purposeful agency from those that do not

  • The second stage is applying that methodology to analyze structure and feedback networks in real world systems

  • By thusly examining societies, economies, and ecologies, their network agency reveals their archetypal character

  • This process becomes 'spiritual practice' if we acknowledge this agency as a primary creative force in the world

  • This re-orientation of our worldview toward network dynamics enables re-interpretation of our non-scientific knowledge

'Netology': Exploring Self-Organization and Animating Agency through Theory and Its Applications

The Foundational Science of Chaos and Complexity

The methodology of complex systems science derives from studies in chaotic and nonlinear dynamics, often referred to as "chaos theory," It was here that the analytical methods of physics revealed how order emerges spontaneously under certain types of dynamical conditions. Chaotic self-ordering, as in weather systems, arises and dissipates but does not manifest the capacity to sustain and adapt itself as an on-going system. Yet this emergence of order from disorderly conditions appears as the basis for the emergence of complex adaptive systems that do sustain their existence over time. These are most evident as living organisms but also include meta-systems such as societies, corporations, and ecologies. Thus a basic familiarity with this science is essential to appreciating the role network agency plays in the purposeful ordering of both the biosphere and human systems. Given the catastrophic disruptions contemporary human systems have inflicted upon natural systems, including those of the climate, education in this science is of the utmost importance. There is no more essential knowledge to teach in schools from an early age. We cannot comprehend the behaviors of either our own human systems nor those of the biosphere without it.

Identifying Network Agency through the Basics of Network Analysis

Any system can be examined as having both physical components and some form of operational network that connects its parts. Examination of a system's network of connections between its parts and how feedback flows between them indicate the dynamical complexity of the network.  The dynamics in mechanical systems like motors are mostly linear, thus complexity is relatively low compared to network dynamics in adaptive systems like animals or societies. A basic understanding of the differences between adaptively self-organizing systems and non-adaptive ones gives a sense of where network agency emerges and what effects it can have. There is a vast range of complexity in systems, with some appearing predominantly mechanistic, thus predictable and potentially controllable, whereas others derive their self-organization from inherent instability that makes prediction impossible. Learning to differentiate network structures or topologies assists in identifying these distinctions.

                                                                                    Basic network topology:


Such analysis leads to the realization that larger meta-systems such ecologies and societies are actually composed of many sub-systems whose interactions generate the overall network agency of the meta-system. Examining how feedback flows between these sub-systems is essential to understanding how the larger network manifests various and even contradictory purposeful behaviors. Here we learn how our human systems actually function in ways we neither intend nor perceive. All these aspects are part of what can be termed 'netology' or 'the logic of networks.'  A netological perspective inevitably brings us closer to appreciation of how agency arises and configures both the biosphere and the human 'anthroposphere.'

Tracking the Hyper-Agency of Networks through Biology, Ecology, and Neurology

Complex systems science has proved particularly useful in understanding the 'workings of life.'  Investigating its application in these fields of study makes the role of network agency profoundly tangible. Layers upon layers of sub-system networks are revealed, each with some degree of autonomy, whose interdependent interactions through reciprocating flows of feedback give rise to 'higher' levels of system self-organization and adaptation. Being humans, study of these relationships among the systems of our own bodies and minds is a staggering venture into the realm of purposefully self-sustaining adaptation. The neurological systems of the brain are astonishing even on the purely physiological level. As for our 'mental life,' despite extensive efforts, reducing 'consciousness' to the physiological activities of the brain continues to elude researchers. Our psychic or mental systems appear to be yet another, perhaps the most complex, example of an emergent property, the network operations of which cannot be located specifically in the physical neurology of the brain, from which they arise. This we might term 'hyper agency' as it generates such extreme levels of selectively purposeful adaptive capacity.

Yet the relationship between brain and mental systems is not a simple hierarchy.  Each feeds back into the other, causing both systems to change in relationship to each other--all while interacting with both the additional systems of the body organs and input from external environments.

                                          Perceiving our selves as the 'hyper-agency' of our mental systems
                                          emerging from and feeding back into the agency of our bodily systems

Confronting this mysterious emergence of human consciousness from our bodily systems assists in tracking network agency 'downward' into its manifestation in seemingly simplistic creatures such as paramecium and mycelium, like slime mold. Even here network agency manifests selective adaptive capacities. In this comparison it becomes evident that our agency is not unique in the realm of biology. Ecological studies extend its manifestations further into what has been termed the "hive mind" of "super organisms." Ant and bee colonies are composed of relatively simple individual "agents"--as individual ants or bees. But collectively their interactions produce astonishing adaptive intelligence. Once again we are confronted with agency that arises from parts of a system which, in them selves, show not basis for its complex operational capacities. 

                            The "hive mind" or "swarm intelligence" of simple agents in a highly connected, interactive network:

Tracking the Formal Influences of Network Agency Across Biosphere and Geosphere

Once familiar with the range of ways and levels at which self-organizing agency manifests it becomes possible to perceive how most all forms and functions around us have been shaped by it in some manner. This influence extends beyond the systems of biological life-which require adaptive agency to operate sustainably-- to a myriad of ways in which living systems have radically altered aspects of earth as the geosphere. The atmosphere exists in its present form as a result of plants that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. By extension, even the chemical composition of the earth's surface exhibits many traits that derive in part from the agency of biological systems.

Confronting the Role of Network Agency in Evolution

One of the most interesting contributions of systems science to our scientific perspective on life involves theories of evolution.  Evolutionary theory has for some time held that species evolve primarily through the interaction of environmental conditions and the random mutation of genetic material in a species.  Simplistically stated, when an environment changes in ways that pose greater challenges for a species, as in becoming much drier or wetter, members of that species will prosper only if they happen to have genetic mutations that give them greater adaptive capacity. This concept of "natural selection" has been cited as proof that there is no intentionallity, no 'purpose' involved evolution.

However, from the perspective of complex systems science and the acknowledgment of purposeful network agency, it becomes evident that selective behavior in animals and their collective systems adds a factor to evolution. As a species learns new hunting techniques, for example, it has impacts upon other species in ways that can reconfigure the environment around it. That is, changes in animal behavior deriving from selective network agency can alter the conditions of the environment within which natural selection by genetic mutation occurs. Humans are the most extreme and obvious example of this interplay between network agency and environmental conditions. But we are in no way unique in this regard. 

Taking The Science to Heart--and into Other Knowledge Domains

Through the above explorations of how network agency arises and subsequently manifests purposefully adaptive system behaviors, one can begin to appreciate the implications of this 'science of the spirit.' By delving into this science with an open mind toward its mystical implications, 'life itself' is revealed as an emergent network phenomena. Further, this capacity to self-organize and self-direct is not limited to singular organisms. It manifests in systems that are not specific biological entities. Taking that realization 'to heart' can expand our emotional capacity for 'belonging to' the biosphere.

With this knowledge, we can better comprehend how our human behaviors have disabled the self-sustaining operations of natural systems--thus how we must radically alter the structure and behaviors of our human systems to preserve the biosphere we depend upon. With that perspective it becomes most useful to reconsider the significance of ideas already articulated in other, non-scientific knowledge domains. By linking scientific and non-scientific insights into complexity and emergent properties we can create a trans-disciplinary culture of network knowing.


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