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Agents Interact                                                               Sub-systems Synchronize                                                   Networks Self-Organize

The New Sacred Reality of Naturalistic Spirituality

The Scientific Re-Invention of The Sacred--as Its Return

The Naturalistic Spirituality of Network Agency Redefines AND Affirms Traditional Sacredness


  • Aspects of the world perceived as deriving from "spiritual powers" were once considered "sacred"

  • Modern physics has been used to deny any such category of existence in the world
  • Science now presents evidence for network agency that "behaves" like traditional "spirits" in creating order
  • Sacredness as mysterious non-human agency has been re-invented and thus re-affirmed by science itself

  • But this new category of "sacred reality" does not factually validate many religious beliefs

  • However, the science does correlate with many mythic symbols when viewed as metaphors for network agency

What is "The Sacred"?--The Supreme Status of Spiritual Agency Then and Now

The word sacred derives from the Latin sacer, translated as meaning consecrated by, or dedicated to, "the gods"--or anything in their "power." Thus sacredness is associated with the effects of "divine powers" or "spirits" upon the ordinary world. In this regard a contrast is drawn by many cultures between sacred and profane status. Here, profane indicates what is not 'of the sacred' or not directly associated with spiritual agency. A similar distinction is between spirit and matter or mind and body.  In particular religious traditions, sacred status is assigned differing specific definitions of gods or goddesses and their actions or commandments. But more generally, the sacred as a category of existence has stood for the autonomous creativity or 'agency' that animates the material world, giving the latter form and function. This 'realm of the sacred' was thereby deemed to require the utmost respect from humans because they depend upon it for their very survival.


In the most general contemporary usage, sacredness is used in a more secular manner to indicate a condition of the most important or revered status. In regard to the more general meanings of 'spiritual agency' and supreme importance, the notion of the sacred applies to the animating agency of networks revealed by systems science. This unpredictably self-organizing, self-directing, biosphere-creating impulse in natural systems generates order and sustains life. That makes it comparable to to the ultimately mysterious and uncontrolable manner of world ordering associated with the gods and spirits of pre-modern cultures. In scientific terms, there can be no biosphere without the order-creating operations of self-directing networks. Thus it deserves to be regarded as 'of the most supreme importance.' Indeed, to obstruct or disable it could well be considered a 'crime against Life itself.' It is now logical to assign network agency the supreme cultural status of being "sacred." And, like traditional spirits, because its influence permeates nearly all the forms and functions in and around us, it is ultimately indivisible from the world it animates.

Something Old Made New--Mythology and Religious Belief Re-Interpreted through Systems Science

Literalistic beliefs about the sacred are not supported:  Religious traditions tend to generate doctrines and orthodoxies of belief about what is sacred.  Beliefs in this sense are concepts that literally define what, who, and how "the gods" or "spiritual powers" exist or act.  To believe in such concepts as 'the literal truth' implies that the images, actions, and events associated with the concepts are factually real.  No area of science has provided any empirical evidence for the factual truth of any particular set of such doctrinal religious beliefs. Thus it has been reasonable to conclude that religious beliefs in spirits and gods as specific literal entities has no factual basis.  That has not changed with systems science.


Naturalistic spiritual animation is more mysterious than "God": What can be known about network agency indicates that naturalistic spiritual animation does create and order the world in profound yet ultimately inexplicable ways. But the same evidence does not support some prominent traits often associated with notions of "god" in contemporary religions. Though this naturalistic animating impulse generates adaptive purposefulness in systems, there is no evidence that it can attain the capacity of omniscience or predetermination. In contrast, the evidence shows it emerges from instability and uncertainty to generate order through an on-going 'improvisation,' by responding to unpredictable fluctuations in feedback within a system and from changes in its external environment that it cannot control. Most significantly, the unpredictably creative, adaptive purposefulness of network agency cannot predict or control the future because the future is ever-emergent from countless unstable interactions within and among networks of interdependent systems.  Yet somehow this seemingly chaotic interplay of innumerable networks orders, regulates, and sustains the biosphere. Thus, naturalistic spirituality presents us with an even more mysterious source of ordering than that posed by an omniscient, all-powerful "god."  This is a prominent aspect of how science has "re-invented" the sacred--as mysterious animating agency that orders the world without 'being in control' of events. There is no central controller with a plan, yet there is sustainably adaptive ordering.

Spiritual symbolism can model systems science: Mythology is the general term used to indicate the stories, images, and concepts different cultures have generated to represent the perceived existence of 'spiritual powers' that 'make the world sacred'--and how these influence it or act to do so.  When considered apart from religious doctrine and belief, these representations are readily engaged as symbolic metaphors for how humans experience the 'workings of the world'--with its sacred-making agency. When approached in this manner, there are profound similarities between these spiritual metaphors for mysterious agency as a source of the forms and functions in the biosphere and the evidence of network agency in systems science. Spiritual symbolism can have a cultural value by making the science tangible through metaphors.


Accessing the New Sacred Reality--Experiencing Abstract Scientific Concepts through Mythic Metaphor

Thus science, at the present time, confronts us with an astonishing re-assessment of both religion and myth. Since the relevant science indicates that network agency is factually beyond full description or explanation, yet is the source of most order and function in the biosphere, it provides an empirical basis for a naturalistic spirituality. Thereby it gives us a way to once again regard the world as 'deriving from spiritual powers' and thus sacred.  At the same time, it refutes attempts to factually specify exactly what this agency is or to define how and why it acts in the ways that it does, because the exact manner in which network agency arises remains beyond full scientific analysis.  Literalistic religious beliefs thus appear unfounded. But at the same time, mythic metaphors for spiritual animation have become potentially valid as ways to 'get a feeling for' the roles of network agency in reality. It is not necessary to believe that myth's spiritual symbolism is literally factual to engage it as a metaphoric representation of how network agency manifests the literal world around us--and thereby experience more tangibly its sacred reality through our imaginations. It even appears reasonable to adopt some sort of 'religious reverence' for network agency, in all its innumerable expressions, from cells to cities, as the very 'creator' of Life itself.

Accessing the New Sacred Reality--Abstract Scientific Concepts Experienced through Mythic Metaphor

The challenge now before us is how to shift our modern world view to include the new vision of complex systems science--or  the science of self-organizing thus self-animating systems. To do so we must create a culture that acknowledges this self-animating agency in nature as "sacred"--as the most important aspect of life it self, thus worthy of our most profound reverence. That cultural shift will require metaphors that are both emotionally compelling and dynamically representative of the relevant scientific concepts.

Read More: The Cultural Transformation of Naturalistic Spirituality
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