The Science of Symbols

The Sacred and The Profane
The Strange Dynamics of Self-Animating Systems
Seen through Myth's Profane and Sacred Aspects of Reality

Two 'Ways that Things Happen' in Science and Myth

  • Systems science differentiates how linear and non-linear dynamics create profoundly different effects

  • Linear dynamics associate with predictable effects. Non-linear ones lead to unpredictable events and agency

  • These two categories of 'how things happen' are symbolized in mythical notions of Sacred and Profane reality

  • As in the science, mythic imagination portrays these two aspects of reality as both different yet intertwined

Two Dynamical Realms of Ordering in Science

We can think of the mechanical actions of linear dynamics as the 'realm' of predictable cause and effect--of actions that have "equal and opposite reactions." This 'way that things happen' is what we can directly manipulate and potentially control.  In science these dynamics are detailed by the "laws of physics" -- what we can call the 'rules for matter and energy.'  However, in complex systems science, where non-linear dynamics manifest self-organizing networks and system agency in unpredictable ways, effects emerge in what is termed an "emergent" manner. The synchronistic relations of interactive feedback in complex systems can generate effects whose 'cause' cannot be directly traced to observable sequences of actions.  This scientific conundrum is referred to in the "white box" versus "back box" concept of system analysis.  Emergent properties arise in ways that are analytically un-observable, thus are in the "black box" aspect of the knowable. Yet it is knowable that something mysterious occurs in this "black box" zone because it results in measurable changes in system ordering or behavior.






Thus science identifies an additional 'way that things happen' by measuring effects that did not occur in a linear, predicable manner but emerged spontaneously from interactive feedback networks in a non-linear manner. These "emergent properties" -- such as the autonomous agency of individual creatures--are effectively 'mysterious' in that their origins cannot be fully analyzed and explained.


These two modes of order creation associated with linear and non-linear dynamics have been referred to as "causal" and "acausal." This distinction is meant to indicate that some events occur in ways that are predictable according to the laws of physics and some, such as "emergent properties," do not. In a simplistic sense, changes in the formations of matter and energy--or the 'material world'--are constrained by the laws of physics, thus strictly "causal." However, changes in the ordering of complex systems are often emergent properties with "acausal" characteristics. Nonetheless, the world, indeed the universe, is understood to be ordered by both these 'ways that things happen."

How Myth Identifies Material and Spiritual Dynamics

The scientific distinction between predictably causal and unpredictably emergent order formation has a corollary in mythic notions of sacred and profane, or spiritual and material, aspects of the world.  In general, "the sacred" realm involves the influence of 'spiritual forces' or intelligence in forming Nature and directing the behavior of its systems. The sacred then is 'of the greatest importance' and deserves human respect because it 'makes the world.' In more archaic societies, there can be little or no clear distinction between material and spiritual. For these, the material world of predictable causality ever derives from, is an expression of, and thus is imbued with the spiritual dynamics that animate it.

For the archaic imagination spiritual dynamics are 'everywhere, flowing among all things'




In the mythic imagination of more modern civilizations, a clearer divide has been conceived between the dynamical domain of matter and energy, identified as "profane," and that of the spiritual or 'god', identified as the sacred. Here, the term profane derives from the Latin profanus, translating as "outside the temple." This term is also associated with the word secular, indicating that which has no spiritual or religious basis. Here we can see how the term profane associates with the scientific sense of "causal" dynamics and sacred with that of emergent properties such as network agency.

For the more modern, civilized perspective, the sacred realm

is more exclusively demarcated in contrast to the profane

This contrast in the mythic imagination of where spiritual dynamics are located, thus what is sacred, is useful to understanding the shift in modern secular societies to an attitude that 'all is profane,' or ordered purely by the mechanistic dynamics of physical laws. That latter attitude, that 'nothing is spiritual thus not sacred,' has been supported in reference to "scientific facts." Yet the methodology of science has not provided us with empirical evidence that all events are not strictly "causal," or mechanistic--that there are indeed actually mysterious dynamics that 'animate' Nature. That scientific 'advancement' poses the basis for a new culture of 'secular spirituality' and a new understanding of myths spiritual symbolism.

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