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Spiritual Practice Now:

Spiritual Materialism
Engaging Forms and Functions as Expressions of Purposeful Network Agency

The 'Finger Prints' of Animating Agency are Everywhere, in Everything

  • The biosphere is a self-organizing system whose agency arises from interactions of countless self-organizing systems

  • This purposeful network agency associated with biological systems influences the planet from soil to atmosphere

  • All the geosphere--lithosphere (rock crust), hydrosphere (water), cryosphere (ice), and atmosphere--are affected by it

  • The interplay of these systems have shaped each other over billions of years, resulting in current forms and functions

  • Thus, even forms of earth systems lacking purposeful agency are partly an expression of network agency's influences

  • Similarly, human systems and every material form or function these manifest are tangible expressions of network agency

  • Humans are such expressions, capable of engaging others as similarly mysterious manifestations of spiritual animation

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Experiencing Form and Function as Expression of Network Agency and Its Archetypal Character

Traditional Animism and Its Scientific Counterpart

In the spiritualized worldview of archaic cultures, all aspects of the world tend to be regarded as having 'taken form' through some spiritual agency, thus have some degree of 'spiritual essence.' That view often includes a sense that things have some sort of life or soul about them. This notion is termed "animism" or "animistic." From a modern perspective, objects are either animate, as in animals, or inanimate, as in objects having no capacity to act. it is difficult to attribute agency, or the capacity to act with some purposefulness, to material objects such as trees, rivers, buildings, or tools. How could spirit or life 'get into' the material of inanimate objects?  If we understand the animistic worldview as arising from a sense of general spiritual animation pervading the world, then all aspects of the world are expressions of that animating impulse. Following this logic, any object whose form has been influenced by spiritual animation 'carries' some 'essence' of that 'creative impetus.' The forms, or ordering, of the material composing objects, exists as effects of some particular 'spiritual action.' Thus spirit 'reverberates' in the those forms, which are 'made visible' by an object's material substance.  Here it could be said that matter is 'spiritualized' by the form some 'spiritual agency' has imparted to it. From the mythological perspective, the spiritual 'force' that created a form is its 'essence.'

 A similar logic can be composed based on systems science. The network agency of complex adaptive systems orders physical material or energy into many specific forms, from plants and animals to tools and cities. Such forms exist only because agency was involved in ordering their formation. Further, the influence of agency on form can be direct or indirect. The emergent network agency of plant systems produce the forms of plants to promote the continued existence of those plants. The forms of plants are directly influenced by the purposeful agency of those system networks. This is form deriving directly from the 'animating impulse' of network agency. Then there is indirect agency influence on the ordering of physical things. Long ago, plants performing photosynthesis converted so much carbon dioxide into oxygen that the entire atmosphere of the planet was dramatically re-organized. Thus the form of the atmosphere, and consequently the biosphere, originate in part from the agency of plant systems. This indirect formal influence of network agency pervades earth's planetary systems. Consequently, most of the forms in the biosphere are (directly or indirectly) unpredictable, dynamically mysterious, emergent expressions of network agency's purposeful operations. As manifestations of such agency, those emergent forms can be regarded as having some 'essence' of purposeful creativity 'about them.'

Like archaic animism's notion of 'spiritual essence,' this systems science association between agency and ordering imparts special significance to how things formed. It serves as an invitation to experience non-living things as expressions of purposeful agency in a self-animating world. However, though it is easy for humans to register the forms created by human agency, it is not so obvious how nearly all the forms evident around us have also derived in some part from related actions of network agency in non-human systems. As a result, we tend to experience things as separate material objects, rather than as expressions of creatively adaptive system networks. With systems science, it becomes possible to encounter the forms of systems, and the objects these create, as emergent properties of network agency--or what could be termed 'spiritual materials.'

Spiritual Materials: From the Material to the Spiritual

As physical science demonstrates, the 'material world' at microscopic scales is constituted by matter and energy. Matter is generally understood to consist of atoms, energy as heat and light. Variations in sub-atomic structure impart different properties to different atoms, such as hydrogen verses oxygen atoms.  The properties of both matter and energy are represented as existing or changing in predictably deterministic ways--according to the laws of physics.  The ordering of matter is quite thoroughly analyzed and understood. However, the combination of different atoms into molecular structures produces further material properties, such as when two hydrogen atoms join with one oxygen atom to create a water molecule. Water molecules exist and change in ways that hydrogen and oxygen atoms do not. The physical properties of water are not predictable from those of oxygen and hydrogen. Consequently, the properties of water molecules are considered emergent.  Thus how water takes on the formal properties it manifests is not explicitly defined or explained.

At macroscopic scales in nature, such as weather systems and biological systems, complex dynamics lead to the emergence of highly ordered structures which are not predictably deterministic. However, though this unpredictably emergent ordering or formation on macro scales is nether deterministic nor random, it does not violate the laws of physics. The matter and energy being ordered in this ultimately inexplicable manner continue to exist consistently at their microscopic scale.  Thus the emergent properties of self-organizing systems, including the network agency of complex adaptive systems, arises from how matter and energy interact under the influence of complex dynamics.  Though the emergent ordering of complex systems at macro scales  presumably depends upon the predictably deterministic ordering of matter at microscopic scales, the former cannot be reduced to the latter. Such is the dynamical mystery of systems science.

What we experience directly as the 'material world' is an infinite array of ordered forms of matter and energy. Wind, rain, plants, animals, landscapes, human productions--all are forms of matter and energy whose ordering is an emergent property of chaotic and complex systems. Furthermore, whether directly or indirectly, most such forms have been influenced by network agency in some way. Again, the underlying deterministic properties of physical matter and energy are a basis for this emergent ordering. But the laws of physics that constrain matter and energy to predictable conditions do not account for emergent ordering. From the strictly causal perspective of physics, the existence of self-organizing agency is not possible. Yet systems science demonstrates the manifestation of agency by measuring its effects. This is the conundrum of myth's 'two worlds'--what we might call the material and the spiritual. But these differing dynamical realms do not appear to be separable. Somehow the predictably deterministic domain of matter and energy make unpredictably emergent, self-ordering systems possible.

If then agency, or spirit, arises unpredictably from the deterministic dynamics of matter and energy, is there something inherent in the latter that enables the former? At present science does not appear able to answer that question. At least it can be said that the emergent orderings of agency becomes tangible through the forms it imparts to material things. We have no scientfic formula for calcualting agency, but we can quantify its formal effects. In so far as most ordered forms of matter and energy encountered on the macro scales of the biosphere are emergent properties, whose formation has been influenced by network agency, these 'material things' have been 'spiritualized.' Even the sunlight that reaches the surface of the earth has been affected by the atmosphere, the constitution of which has been influenced by the agency of biological systems.


Though it is the ordered form of things that gives each its 'imprint' of emergent network agency, or 'spiritual essence'-- not the deterministic properties of matter--such network-induced form is only tangible due to it being 'arranged' in physical material. So, if we dare to speak of 'spiritual materials,' then we are acknowledging some interdependency of agency-induced form and the physical matter that makes it possible. In that view, there is a paradoxical sense that the formal ordering of things is somehow 'immaterial,' or not explicitly 'made of matter', even though the matter involved 'delineates' the emergent form that is not itself that material. 

The agency-induced emergent forms of things is made tangible by the matter and energy so ordered.

Thus it can be said that the matter involved has been 'spiritualized' by how it has been ordered:

From the Spiritual to the Material and Back Again--Agency's Enabling of Agency through Ordering of Material

Network agency 'builds upon itself' by ordering physical materials into forms that extend its capacity to induce further ordering that benefits its system. This occurs within individual systems like biological bodies that ingest food and re-order the nutrients to sustain the body, which then enables the body to produce offspring and its mental network to engage the body in purposeful actions nurture those offspring. A similar example is when one system network generates emergent forms that enable agency in other systems.  The agency of microbes enriches soil, the enriched soil facilitates plant networks to order the growth of their systems, then these formations of matter are ingested by animals whose network agency reorders it to facilitate their systems adaptive capacities and when the animals defecate or die, microbial agency re-orders that material into soil nutrients again. Thus the same physical matter and energy cycle through a series of 'spiritualized forms' across an array of different system networks.

Agency in microbial systems enable agency in plant systems which enable agency in animal systems,

whose re-ordering of matter facilitate both their own agency and that which enables them:

Human technology is an extreme form of this 'bootstrapping' of agency through the ordering of physical materials. Civilization is a vast field of mutually enabling manifestations of agency among form inducing networks in which every material form associated with civilization is 'spiritualized.'

Agency's 'Spiritual Forms' as Functions


in so far as material objects can be perceived as having functions or purposes, as expressed by their forms, there is a further regard in which these can have 'spiritual essence.' The materially delineated form of a tree is fundamental to its capacity to perform the functions of its growth and self-sustaining operations as a complex system. An arrow's form is essential to its function as a projectile. The form of an object enables the potential activity or function of that object. An arrow only becomes an active projectile when fitted to a bow by a human hand, but can be aimed and shot only because it has the formal character of an arrow. Thus, forms of objects, the ways matter is arranged in them, can  not only reflect the agency that generated that form, but also as be associated with potential actions or functions involving purposeful agency.

This aspect of functional or purposeful form bears the most particular 'imprint' of agency or spirit. When complex adaptive systems 'act' to adapt their environments, as when beavers build a dam, the form of that dam has the 'spiritual essence' of a functional purpose. It will provide the beavers with shelter, protection from predators, and more aquatic plants to eat.  As a tool making or technological species, humans are particularly prolific in generating such purposefully functional forms. Nearly every aspect of human environments, from dinner plates to cities and the internet, is an emergent functional form generated by our network agency.  But so also are the forms of the biosphere.

Agency identifies the properties of the physical material of iron ore, re-orders that into steel, re-orders that

into tools, the forms and functions of which then enable it to perform many functions not otherwise possible--

all of which orderings are emergent and not predictable by the laws of physics:

The agency-induced form of a hammer is the 'spiritual essence' of all these transformative stages as well as of the potential forms and functions such a tool makes possible 'in the hands of network agency.'

The Functionality of Agency's Communicative Forms

The ordering of matter and energy into agency's 'spiritualized forms' includes the purposeful function of semiotic representation and communication, or 'the making of meaning.' Archaic humans often regarded words  and numbers as particularly magical. A word can take the form of script, as in alphabetic or hieroglyphic writing, of sound--the energy produced by speech--or even hand gestures.  Then there are images and objects that function as conceptual representations, such as math symbols and traffic signals.  Perhaps the most complex are the forms we classify as "art." In this last category, functionality often involves symbolization, with deliberate incompleteness, miss-representation, or ambiguity. Artistic representation often has the quality of acknowledging a difference between form and function. The form seems essential to the function of communicating or provoking meaning making, but not primarily in a practical manner, as in ordinary speech. The 'artistic form' often involves paradoxical or metamorphic associations which can be interpreted variously.  Thus the purposefulness of 'art forms' might be considered as a 'hyper-spiritualization' effect of agency, in so far as one knows it is meant to communicate meaning but requires the 'receiver's' agency to supply its own meaning from the experience of encountering the 'art form.' Here agency creates a form the function of which is to compel the agency of others to 'make their own meaning' in response to it. In addition, the actual physical materials used to make an 'art form,' as in plastic versus stone, are often part of the semiotic communication--part of the 'form' from which potential meaning might be 'made.' The very properties of the material or energy composing the form become essential to agency's 'spiritualization of it.'

Forms and Functions as Expressions of Purposeful Archetypal Network Character--or Soul

The particular forms and functions imparted to physical materials or energy by network agency also express archetypal characteristics of that agency. Physical landscapes shaped primarily by natural systems are readily distinguished from those greatly influenced by the agency of human systems. The purposeful activities of natural networks interact to generate landscapes with few definitive boarders or boundaries. Human systems tend to order landscapes in more exclusive zones and clear demarcations that reflect human agency's control-oriented functionality.

The 'network soul' of a landscape is evident in how agency-induced ordering has influenced its formations:

But even among human systems, the archetypal character of agency's ordering can vary considerably. Some urban formations are ordered with irregular curves and inconsistent spaces. Others are ordered around rigid rectangular patterns and uniform spacing.


Such contrasts in the character of how agency configures its functional ordering of forms can be understood as expressing the 'archetypal soul' of a system's 'spiritual essence.' The 'spirit' of the agency that formed an object, or an entire system, typically 'leaves a trace' of its character in that form. Democratic societies order their systems differently than autocratic ones, indicating  differences in the 'archetypal soul' of their characteristic mode of agency. Noting such characteristics, such as more irregular organic formations of architecture versus more uniform rectilinear ones, gives one a 'sensing' of the agency that facilitated each.  though this does not allow prediction of what a system's agency will 'do next,' it does provide a 'feel' for how it might create forms in future.  Engaging this 'experiencing the spirit of network character through its forms and functions' as an overtly conscious practice can have the effect of 'making the material world come alive.' The forms and functions of the world can then be encountered as the 'embodiment' of diverse agencies in a mysteriously self-ordering reality.

Aspects of Engagement With Agency through 'Spiritual Materials'

As a practice of network spirituality, 'spiritual materialism' orients us toward forms and functions as expressions of purposeful network agency.  The effect is to experience the seemingly ordinary, inanimate objects around us as 'agency made visible'--even as 'agency in action.' There are several aspects to this practice:


1. Particular: Registering forms and functions as direct or indirect expressions of specific, purposeful network agency

2. Collective: Noting how forms and functions are expressions of interdependent networks of agency involved in their creation

3. Characteristic: Investigating forms and functions to reveal archetypal character of networks that generate them

4. Interactive: Directly engaging 'spiritualized' forms and functions through one's own agency

Particular Agency: The most basic level of engaging forms and functions is to explore these as specific expressions of network agency,  either directly or indirectly. Here one asks questions such as, 'What type of from is this and what functions or purposes might it serve? How is this form and its functions an expression of a particular network purpose? How does it differ from other formations with similar purpose?"


A bottle is a type of form deriving from human agency. It's general function is to contain fluids. So we could say it has the 'spirit of containment.' But the agency involved in creating a particular bottle can vary. There are hand blown glass bottles, machine-made glass bottles, but also wooden bottles that require the agency of trees to produce the wood, and plastic bottles which required the agency of plants converting sunlight millions of years ago.

Hand blown glass, machine-made, wooden, and plastic bottles are material forms

that have been 'spiritualized' by different sources of agency:

Collective Agency:  An expansion of the particular is to note how a form or function is actually the expression of agency in multiple system networks. Here one asks, "What different system agencies might have been involved in creating this form and its functions?" Both the form of the hummingbird and the flowers it feeds from have derived from agency in both the bird species and that of the  flower. The corn we eat is created by agency in corn plants. But this particular form has emerged though the influence of human agency selecting for larger kernels over time. Buildings derive from agency in many system networks, from that of an architect referring to historical examples, to builders, financing systems, and the purposes of social systems.

An additional orientation is to notice how forms and functions arise from complex interactions of agency in different adaptive systems networks. Examples include how specific plant and animal systems have developed their agency-induced forms in response to each other. On larger scales, one can think of all the different versions of network agency involved in generating the various forms and functions in a forest (diverse plant and animal species) interact to generate the forms and functions of the overall ecosystem. In this view, the world is experienced as networks of networks of form and function-generating agency. This leads to awareness of how the forms and functions of larger scale systems arise from many other interdependent forms and functions. Thus a larger scale system composed of many subsystems is an object whose 'spiritual essence' is a kind of 'conspiracy.'

The agency in the systems of individual plants and trees are linked with each

other through roots and mychorrhizal networks in ways that give rise to

the emergence of the adaptive agency of an entire forest ecosystem:

Characteristic Agency:  Forms and functions can be experienced  further as indicative of 'behavioral character' in the agency of systems. This constitutes a sort of 'interrogation' of forms and functions in which one seeks to experience the 'purposeful demeanor' of the agency that prompted their particular formation. In that encounter, one considers a form's actual history as well as its present uses. Here one can ask, "What is the 'relational attitude' of the agency that generated this form? For what purposes was it generated or what kinds of actions has it actually been involved in?" In this sense forms and functions often 'have history.'  Past manifestations of agency can be traced in the forms encountered in the present.

This attending to the background or historical aspects of agency that contribute to a form provides insight into the archetypal character or 'network soul' of  the agency involved in that form's manifestation. Tracking the purposes for the creation or use of objects is crucial to experiencing the characteristic behaviors of particular networks and how these influence others. In this manner one can 'read' objects in a similar manner to how we 'read' symbols.

The form and functions of a stethoscope arise from medical systems whose agency has the purpose of promoting health and healing in animal bodies. An assault rifle's form and functions arise from the war-making agency of military systems. Its forms and functions have the purpose of inflicting moral damage to human bodies. These connections differentiate very different ways agency relates with the world. They indicate the 'spiritual essence' of the archetypal character or soul of the types of systems which have 'spiritualized matter' through these forms and functions.

The characteristic purposefulness, or 'spiritual essence,' of agency in specific systems

is often revealed in the forms and functions it tends to generate:

These differences can be subtle. An aluminum drink can has the function of containing fluid. But that same form with the addition of a corporate logo has significant additional functional purposes, thus different 'spiritual essence.'

Both cans have the same basic form and function. But one

has the additional purpose of selling an addictive substance, sugar,

to generate maximum profit. Thus it 'embodies' a different archetypal network soul:

Interactive Agency: The most experiential aspect of engaging 'spiritual materials' is to interact with them through one's own agency. In this way one experiences the 'spiritual essence' of a form directly through its functions. The basic form of this engagement is through sensations of sight, smell. hearing, and touch. One can finger a feather, ride a motorcycle, paint with a brush, read a book, plant a seed, while pondering the dynamical mystery of both the agency that created these and one's own agency that enables one to directly experience them.

Innumerable seemingly ordinary actions can become part a network spirituality practice

by focusing one's attention on the ways material objects have been

'spiritualized' by the agency that created their forms and functions:

When it comes to 'works of art,' consciously interacting with agency in material forms becomes a particularly acute experience. The forms of artistic expression are often regarded as 'having a life of their own' in the sense that though a person created them, their actual meaning is 'made' by the interaction of other persons encountering them. So here one asks, "What is the purpose or function of this form for my agency? How does my archetypal network soul respond to it?"

Art forms are 'things' experienced as the responses of one's own mental network agency:

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