Agents Interact                                                               Sub-systems Synchronize                                                   Networks Self-Organize


A New, Naturalistic Spirituality

Confronting the Evidence for a Self-Animating World

The Impetus for a Secular Spiritual Worldview Based on Self-Organizing Networks

  • Feedback driven self-organizing networks give complex adaptive systems selective, purposeful agency

  • From cells to societies, systems create and order the world in ways we can neither predict, explain, nor control

  • Most of the things and events around us are shaped by this uncontrolable network agency

  • There is more to how the world works than pre-determining laws of physics and genetic programing

  • This knowledge changes our modern understanding of cause and effect

  • To be scientifically realistic we must now consider a category of 'natural spirituality'

What can the Notion of "Spirit" have to do with Science?

The traditional notion of spirit is defined as distinctive character that gives particular identity, purpose, impetus, and intelligence to an entity. The word is derived from the Latin spirare, meaning "to breathe." To 'have spirit' is to 'be animated.' Thus spirit can be understood as what imparts agency and distinguishable behavior to an entity. The descriptions of network agency now provided by complex systems science fit this concept of an 'animating factor' amazingly well. Additionally, spirit is often understood as something immaterial, as 'not of the physical body.' Here is where the new science becomes the most astonishing. The purposeful self-organizing, self-adapting agency of networks emerges from interdependent feedback interactions among system parts in ways that cannot be fully analyzed. The overall self-directing operations of these networks cannot be reduced to the properties of the system parts or a progressive sequence of measurable events. Thus network agency is "something more than" the measurable parts of the system. That gives it a kind of ethereal or immaterial quality. This is the first time science has provided us with an empirical description of what "spirit" is and some concept of 'how it animates things.'

Two Ways Things Happen--Network Agency makes Order from Disorder Unpredictably

We are accustomed to think that order derives from ordered actions, that events occur in predictable sequences. But the activities of self-organizing networks derive unpredictably from significant degrees of disorder. Disorder and uncertainty are fundamental to network agency. Thus we are confronted with two different "ways that things happen"--through mechanistic sequences that can be predicted AND through simultaneous interactions in feedback networks that can suddenly and unpredictably produce novel forms and functions. The way that network agency creates new order is fundamentally mysterious to our familiar mechanical world view. This disorderly and unpredictable yet purposeful ordering again associates network agency with notions of "wilful spirits."

Predictably sequential ordering is not the same as unpredictably emergent order creation:

From Matter to Spirit and Back: Agency from the Bottom Up--and then Back Down

Network agency appears to arise from feedback between the properties of physical matter--somehow building upon the physics of atoms, molecules, and chemistry.  But it can then elaborate itself and become purposefully adaptive in ways the laws of physics cannot fully explain. Once it generates complex adaptive systems, these then give the physical world of forms and functions that could not otherwise emerge. It creates new material conditions, the forms of 'things in the world,' from forests to cities, in which it then continues to evolve.

  1. Self-organization emerges from feedback interactions in matter.

  2. Network agency emerges from self-organizing systems.

  3. It then influences the systems and ordering of matter from whose interractions it has emerged.

  4. Those changes in turn inflence emerging network agency

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  • Self-organizing networks arise in molecular systems that are pre-biotic--not yet part of biological life forms

  • These also arise in geological systems such as climate where feedback loops regulate system behaviors

  • With the biology of cellular life forms, such networks become more complex and autonomously adaptive

  • Their purposefully organizing activities generate most form and function in and around us, even driving evolution

  • The biosphere creates and sustains itself through this vast meta-network of interacting, interdependent systems

  • Thus network agency elaborates itself, from relatively simple systems into vastly complex ones

  • Consequently, its selective actions in complex systems, like minds and societies, literally rearrange the physical world of matter from which it is continually arising--and to which it must in turn continually adapt


Network agency emerges from growth of interactive feedback relationships which promote self-organization:


The Circular Cycle of Network Agency Emergence

Thus the spirit of network agency arises from the conditions of the world it is continually creating. We can understand this cycle in terms of our own bodies and minds. Our bodies are complex systems composed of interacting complex systems, including organs and populations of many species of microbes. Their interactions enable the physical development and neurological activity of our brains. From all that emerges the complex system of our minds. The agency of our mental networks then influences the physical operations of all those body systems from which it emerges and that in turn influences the behavior of our minds.

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Agency Beyond Brains--Memory, Learning, and Selectivity without a Central Nervous System

We now know that the same feedback network dynamics of human brains, from which emerges human agency, animates innumerable other natural and human systems. In other words, the self-organizing network agency that enables us to think and act autonomously exists everywhere in Nature and society. Systems without brains retain information about their past that influences their behaviors in the present in ways promotes their future sustainability. Humans might be the most complex version of this agency, but neither we nor animals are the only purposeful actors in the world--not the only "self-animating" entities. Self-organizing networks can give systems without brains or central nervous systems, such as ecosystems, families, and corporations,  the capacity to process information, learn, and act in relation to past events--to act as if living creatures.

Networks are Metamorphic--Systems transform Themselves
Species of animals and plants, economies, social groups, corporations, and ecologies evolve through network adaptivity into fundamentally different types of systems. This happens in unpredictable and ultimately inexplicable ways. From a mechanistic perspective, this constitutes a kind of 'magical transformation.' Yet the evidence for self-direction in these metamorphic changes is thoroughly validated. This adaptive capacity for fundamental system reconfiguration in relation to past configurations often cannot be located in the physical system itself. It emerges spontaneously as unpredictable novelty through network agency responding to feedback from its environment.
Species of slime mold can live as independent single cells or selectively aggregate
into a multi-cellular organism, then choose to separate again into single cell systems.
Genetically encoded information facilitates these metamorphic changes but does not
pre-determine when or where they will occur. Network agency chooses these transfromations
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Things from Thingless Things--An Invisible World Makes The 'Spiritual Materials' of the Visible One

In so far as network agency generates measurable changes in the forms of physical systems, from forest ecologies to the building of cities, these are created by something not fully specifiable or explainable as a physical process. The agency of feedback-driven networks in adaptive systems cannot be specifically analyzed and explained in familiar causal terms. Thus it is difficult to define it as a physical thing or event. Its 'workings' are effectively inaccessible to full scientific scrutiny. Just as the human mind has not proven reducible to the physical activities of the brain, network agency cannot be causally reduced to the measurable parts and events in systems such as ant colonies, social groups, and cities.


Thus the orderly yet unpredictable material forms and behaviors it produces--from new species to space ships--are in part measurable effects of something immeasurable, ethereal, yet purposeful. Network agency as science presents it is a kind of 'invisible,' even immaterial realm that generates physical changes. It is in this regard that we can term it a 'thingless thing' which results in the ordering of things. The latter then might be called "spiritual materials" because their forms and functions derive from the animating impetus of network agency. Indeed, most of the forms and functions we see around us, from trees to screw drivers and works of art, are such "spiritual materials" arising from network agency.  That is, these forms and their functions exist only because network agency generated them in ultimately mysterious ways. Thus their forms and functions are expressions of that agency--or its "spiritual animation" of systems that re-configures forms of matter.

Network agency drives adaptive behavior to create the "spiritual materials" of things:


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Agency has Character--Networks manifest a Sort of Personality

Feedback networks in complex adaptive systems are not simply repetitive procedures, like computer programs operating on predetermined parameters. They involve considerable instability and variation to generate both relative continuity and unpredictable adaptive change in their systems. Yet there are evident traits and behaviors which distinguish types of systems, like dogs from cats, as well as individual manifestations of a system type, as in the identifiable characters of individual dogs. But such "personality" of particularized behaviors is not only evident in animals. The ways that cities and government systems "self-animate" also manifest such "network personality." Los Angeles has a distinctively different network character, or mode of self-organizing and adapting, than does Paris.  Amazon as a system with characteristic behaviors is not General Electric. The network character of such meta-systems has different traits of "spiritual animation." Most importantly, this 'spiritual personality' in an emergent property of the overall network and cannot be reduced to the properties of the system's parts.

Collective interactions and inter-dependencies in feedback networks generate

distinctive traits of system self-animation--or "personality":

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Spirit as Network Agency--A Scientifically Derived Definition

From these traits of complex systems and their adaptive networks we can attempt a scientific definition of spirit. This can be posed on both a general and a more specific level. In the broadest sense, spirit would be the influence network agency has on the configuration and behaviors of all complex adaptive systems--and, thereby, the forms and functions of the 'things of the world.'  The more specific level would be the individualized traits of this influence on specific systems which give them distinctive characteristic behaviors--from cells to cities, particular animals to their collective species, or individual persons and social institutions.  

Spirit as the general agency of complex systems and

its particular traits in individual as well as meta-systems:




This conception of spirit as network agency wherever it manifests and as characteristic system behavior in any given complex system suggests a third way of identifying it.  Examinations of its manners of manifesting character in specific systems prompt observation that there are types of system behaviors found in various systems. Specific police officers vary extensively in their expressions of network agency as individualized systems. But some similarities tend to arise in the behavior of nearly all police officers. Similarly, particular police force organizations, as meta-systems, manifest differently yet with similarities. By considering a broad selection of such similar systems, general continuities can be observed that provide an archetypal character for the ways network agency, or spirit, manifests in such types of systems. Thus we can speak of 'archetypal spirit.'

Three aspects of spiritually animating network agency:

> General Animating Impulse

> Specific Animating Character of Types of Systems and Individual Examples

> Archetypal Patterns of Animating Character in Types of Systems and Individual Examples

If Network Agency is Natural, Then "Spiritual Animation" is Intrinsic to Nature

The scientific evidence for this agency of networks in complex systems is extensive and rapidly growing. There is no reasonable basis for denying that complex adaptive systems--even those without brains like economies--self-organize and purposefully adapt, thus animate them selves. The notion of spirit can now be understood in terms of how the interdependent dynamic relationships in network feedback mysteriously generates self-ordering, self-directing agency in systems, resulting int their distinctive characteristic behaviors. We must thus confront the factual basis for "spiritual animation" being an inherent aspect of Nature.

A Brave New World View--Secular Spirituality from Natural Science, Not Religious Belief

If we are to be genuinely scientific in our cultural worldview, we must now find ways to comprehend the new reality of complex systems and network science. That means generating a science-based sense of an inherent impulse in Nature that gives rise to the autonomous agency of self-organizing networks--which factually animate the purposeful actions of complex systems. Most importantly, this view of an inherent animating principle that orders the world is naturalistic, not an assumption of religious belief. To speak of "scientific animism" or "naturalistic spirituality" seems an oxymoron to our our present world view. Yet these concepts now have a factual basis. Thus one could even speak of a "secular spirituality."


The technical aspects of the science are not represented on this website. But the broad implications of its basic concepts are characterized on the website Please see the References Page of this site for the works of leading researchers in the relevant fields of study.