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The Science of Symbols

How Ordering Begins--and Continually Arises

Characterizing the Emergence of Complex Ordering as 'Something from Nothing'

  • Systems science reveals that complex order and agency emerge unpredictably from unstable dynamics

  • It is in this condition of extreme uncertainty that new ordering arises and is continually maintained or adapted

  • This unpredictable creativity presumably has some initial origin in time yet is also ongoing

  • In both the sense of origin and continuation there is a quality of 'something from nothing'

  • Myth symbolizes this quality in terms of creation from a void, chaos, or as metamorphic transformation

Creation from Chaos and Nothingness as Elemental Feedback Self-Organization


The Science of 'Something from Nothing'

Because the complex ordering created by complex systems often cannot be explained in terms of preexisting forms, conditions and activities, the emergence of new patterns of self-organization is considered to be 'something more than' those preceding conditions. Even in the combination of molecules, such as oxygen and hydrogen that create water, the resulting properties of water are considered emergent because these cannot be explained in terms of the properties of oxygen and hydrogen on their own. Thus the novel properties of water effectively 'come from no where.' Even the ongoing emergent self-organization and network agency of a complex system are considered to make 'the whole greater than the sum of its parts' because origins of that ordering and agency cannot be causally traced to the properties and activities of the identifiable parts of the system.

T\a further aspect of this 'something from nothing' relates to how the emergence of novel ordering in systems does not necessarily require any increase in energy used by a system. That is, when a society suddenly shifts from peaceful co-existence to civil war, or a personality transforms from a calm state to a paranoid one, the measurable change in organization and behavior is extreme. Yet the amount of physical energy input to the system does not need to increase to generate such transformations in organization and purposeful behaviors. Thus there is a sense that the novel ordering is not a mechanical physical process even though it has such consequences. This has been called "order for nothing" or 'at no additional cost.'

Emergent Ordering in Myth's Creation Stories

There are two general motifs in mythic creation stories. In one, the ordered formation of the agents and objects of the world arise spontaneously our of a formless void, darkness, or a state of chaos.  In ancient Greek mythology, some form of void initiates the emergent ordering of the world and the agency of gods to further its formation. In the other common motif there are preexisting spiritual agents of gods and goddesses who generate the cosmos or the ordinary world--either 'from nothing' or by inducing radical transformation of some existing material into new forms and functions.  In the former motif there is a sense of creation emerging without specific agency. In the second motif some purposeful agency seems to precede the ordering of a physical cosmos or world. In both motifs there is a sense of 'creation from nothing' and 'order for free'--as if 'by fiat alone.' The extreme example of the latter might be the Hindu god Brahma dreaming the universe into existence as he naps. There are even versions in which he created himself, or his children from his mind. In other instances creatures or humans 'emerge into this world' from another, evidently preexisting one. In the creation tales of indigenous peoples on the north Pacific coast of North America, the Raven dives down to the bottom of the sea to bring humans into the world. In another tale, the existing world rides on the back of a giant turtle. In these motifs there is a suggestion of "infinite regress," sometimes referred to as "turtles all the way down"--as if creation always was and always will be. A further version of this unending creation is circular, with each version of 'the world' ending in destruction and beginning again.

Raven plays a 'creator' role in bringing humans 'up' to 'this world.' In Norse mythology

the world is destined to be destroyed by a final conflict of "fire and ice," only to begin again.

In creations stories involving preexisting spiritual agents or divinities, there is often an element of collaboration between preexisting spirits or gods. Some stories also involve multiple efforts that fail--particularly in the creation of humans. Thus there can be a sense of uncertainty involved and experimentation being required. In the Mayan Popol Vuh, humans are made by metamorphic transformation of a sequence of materials, first mud, then wood, and finally corn, before a self-sustaining ordering emerges. Even in the monotheistic mythology of the Judeo-Christian traditions, a creator god finds his creation of humans faulty and sends a flood to destroy the majority.

These aspects of creation stories relate to various aspects of how systems science understands emergent ordering. The myths symbolize its inherent uncertainty and the interplay between physical materials and the 'nether world' influences of network agency.  Taken as a whole, the various motifs for creation across cultural mythologies provide an appropriately ambivalent perspective on scientific questions of 'where' and 'how' self-organization begins or 'takes place.' Did physical matter exist prior to the formation of self-organizing networks? Is the impulse to self-organization, or spiritual agency, an inherent aspect of Nature that co-arises with matter? Is the 'no thing' of a 'void' the absence of matter or of complex organization--or both? Overall, the mythic perspective seems primarily concerned with 'the world' as complex formation of order, in which the 'world as we know it' takes it forms and functions through either spontaneously or through some deliberate exercise of 'will' or agency.  These notions are logically appropriate to the uncertainty with which systems science regards the emergence of self-organization out of disorderly conditions and the network agency associated with it.