Agents Interact                                                               Sub-systems Synchronize                                                   Networks Self-Organize

The Cultural Transformation of Naturalistic Spirituality

To be Scientific Realists, Our Concepts of 'How The World Works' must Change

Our Science has Overturned Our Modern World View—Now What?

  • Systems science reveals that our mechanistic worldview makes us catastrophically ignorant of 'how the world actually works'

  • We have crippled the agency of the natural systems we depend upon, creating ecological collapse and climate chaos

  • Survival now depends on redirecting our social and economic systems so that they act in support of natural system agency

  • Changing our own systems requires viewing these psychologically--as having character and intentionality

  • But appreciating the science also requires new cultural symbolism to make a literally spiritual world a tangible reality

  • That means creating a broadly shared culture of naturalistic spirituality based upon "scientific animism"

Our Next World View--The Cultural Challenge of a Scientifically Self-Animating Reality
Scientific Animism--The Staggering Implications of a World Animated by Network Agency

So what does it mean to confront the new scientific view that complex adaptive systems, human as well as natural, manifest their own purposeful agency, making them 'act like creatures?' Or that this agency in human systems can disrupt, thus cripple the self-sustaining networks of natural ones? What are the basic implications of this science that our culture must come to terms with?

Natural Systems

  • Natural system agency is the source of life on earth, enabling a synergistic inter-dependency of biospheric systems

  • The interplay between these systems involves competition but their interdependence on each other promotes co-evolution

  • Feedback between them compels systems to accommodate to each other, producing meta-system sustainability and adaptivity

  • But this mutual accommodation is susceptable to disruption and disintegration, as has occurred in previous mass extinctions

Human Systems

  • Humans have created technologically leveraged systems that ignore feedback from natural ones

  • That has lead to the debilitation of self-organization and adaptation in natural ones, prompting ecological collapse

  • Humans think they are in control of their own systems when in fact even these have their own agency and self-direction

  • We have created social, economic, and industrial systems whose feedback networks have exploitation as their purpose

  • Whatever we assume our values to be, our systems are configured to resist accommodating to the needs of natural ones

  • Our systems are 'creatures' of our own making but have purposeful agency we do not  intend and cannot directly control

Cultural Implications:

  • Contemporary modern culture is suicidally delusional about 'how the world actually works'

  • Emphasis upon competitive individualism and material consumption drive the destructive agency of human systems

  • Our obsession with power and control creates systems whose feedback networks make them inherently unsustainable

  • Assumptions that technology can control natural systems to protect human ones exacerbates the debilitating effects of the latter

  • Only re-orientation of human systems toward facilitation of self-organizing agency in natural ones could avoid catastrophe

  • That shift requires us to regard our own systems as 'rogue monsters' whose feedback networks we must radically reconfigure

  • To do that we must adopt a world view based on scientific animism that percieves the 'psychological behavior' of networks


Personal Implications:

  • We are ignorant of how our own personal behaviors arise from interacting mental sub-systems, of which we are not aware

  • We do not understand inter-personal relationships as these constitute meta-systems that manifest their own impetus and agency

  • We are unwittingly manipulated by the purposeful agency of our own social, political, economic, and technological networks

  • Individuals think they are acting for personal motives when they are being manipulated by these networks for other purposes

  • Social conflict is often promoted by these networks because it serves their self-asserting purposes, not our values

'Creatures' of Own Making--The Essential Autonomy of Social Systems

Social Systems are 'Self-Serving':  Regarding complex adaptive systems as 'autonomous agents' that self-direct through network agency is essential in understanding both how the biosphere operates and how human systems function as well. Without this perspective we assume that because we design the systems of our societies we can control them.  That view makes us pawns of the very networks we have 'brought to life.'  When systems fail to serve the purposes we have given them--like schools, law enforcement, governments-- we tend to hold individual people responsible. But the people involved in these systems are in fact  sub-systems or "agents" of larger meta-systems. Their actions are conditioned and even directed by the network agency of these "agent-based systems." The ways feedback relationships evolve in such systems creates the network agency that selectively acts to sustain its system. This impulse promotes self-ordering that enhances its system's influence over other systems, including the agents that constitute it--rather than the values and purposes for which it was conceived. 


Network agency in governments, political parties, corporations, armies, educational institutions, etc,  tends to make these 'self-serving creatures.' Natural systems evolve in ways that limit this impulse toward dominance and control. But modern civilization promotes power-seeking, 'command and control'  behaviors empowered by technological manipulation. Yet our social systems are not simply hierarchical command and control structures--they are not 'machines.' If that were the case we could control them. instead, they are interdependently interactive networks, which gives them 'creature like' autonomous agency. Nonetheless, that self-animating agency is conditioned by our cultural emphasis upon competition and manipulation for the sake of 'power over others.' Thus even systems we assume to be hierarchical do not necessarily operate in a controllable manner.

What appear to be hierachical command structures often opertate more interdependenly,

producing self-asserting network agency and 'creaturely behavior' beyond our intentions or control:

This inherent autonomy of complex social systems gives them adaptive resilience. But it not only means we cannot completely control them, it also means our attempts to do so can debilitate and even collapse their capacity to function. Because their agency arises from entangeld interdependencies, it cannot be directly manipulated. But it can be influenced by changing feedback relationships within or between systems. Influence is not control. Presidents, CEOs, managers, and even 'revolutionaries' can exert extreme manipulation on such systems but cannot predetermine the consequences.  Thus to change the outputs or behaviors of our systems we would be wiser to approach them like creatures, even as psychological persons with 'character,' than as inert structures or machinery which follow prescribed 'rules.' Civilization is not simply the manifestation of individual personal actions. It is the creation of characteristic 'self-assertion' by the autonomous networks of social systems.

Sub-systems can 'Hack' Meta-Systems: Social systems are meta-systems composed of interacting sub-sytems with their own network agency and 'self-serving' impetus. These 'agent' subsystems include other social systems, such as the corporations, banks, and financial markets that collective give rise to large scale economic systems, as well as individual persons.  In the indivitualitcally competitive, control oriented contexts of modern civilization , such subsystems tend to seek dominance within larger meta-systems. Thus social subsystems often attempt to manipulate flows of feedback to gain greater advantage in control over other subsystems. This happens by manipulating feedback flows so that a subsytem gains more status and resources, often by acting to diminish the resources and status of other subsystems.  Economic, political, and social elites are the most obvious of such dominering subsystems. We can think of this as 'hacking' the reciprocating flows of feedback in a network, resulting in greater influcene on how it operatesa larger meta-system. Yet here again, even individual personal agents are complex adaptive systems who are not neccessarily self-conscious of why or even what they are doing when reflexively asserting their agency to gain control and dominance. Thus the collective behavior of a subsystem can have very unexpected consequences on the larger system it seeks to manipulate to its own advantage. 'We know not what we do even when we think we know what we are doing' because the network dynamics involved are 'beyond our knowing.'

A New World View--Beyond Mechanism to 'Psychological Network Vision'

To perceive and influence complex system behaviors requires three basic changes in our cultural worldview.

1. Expand our understanding of 'how things happen' to include unpredictable emergence of agency from interdependent networks

2. Interpret this agency of system networks in terms of psychological behavior

3. Make that behavior more tangible and and emotionally compelling through symbolic modeling


Systems science presents us with elemental dynamics in 'how the world works' that are incomprehensible to our mechanical sense of how events occur and thus how agency shapes these.  This science compels us to develop a different way of perceiving the systems of our selves, society, and the biosphere.  We can term this new way of perceiving as "network vision." But to be as fully aware of 'how the world works' as possible, we must perceive in two ways simultaneously--in terms of linear mechanical dynamics and nonlinear interdependent ones.

Our own selves, as well as our systems, have "hidden layers" of network dynamics

that make them "black boxes" to our complete understanding or control:

In this way we can better perceive the emergent properties of interactive networks

and thus the effects of network agency

But how can this new doubled vision of reality be achieved? Certainly a more effective education in systems science is required. But the abstract forms of this science make it difficult to appreciate fully.  Systems that look nothing like living creatures do behave like them. Thus a more overtly 'psychological' interpretation is required that can distinguish behavioral characteristics of system networks. That requires thinking about and representing the world as animated by specific 'states of mind', 'mentalities,' or 'spirits.'

A New Culture of Animism--The Essential Scientific Pragmatism of Regarding Systems as Living Creatures

Numerous prominent scientists are making bold efforts to confront the implications of this strange new knowledge. But there is great resistance to accepting the evidence even within the social culture of science.  This resistance is intrinsic to our modern world view. Scientists and non-scientists alike, we have been educated to believe that all events must be predictable and proportionally consistent, thus are potentially processes we can control.  But the dynamical activities of complex systems and their self-organizing networks have been shown to be neither predictably nor proportionally consistent, thus a form of activity which we cannot control. That these dynamics produce purposefully self-directed behavior even in systems without brains is, for most of us, 'beyond belief.' 


Nonetheless, the science is sound. It shows that our failure to appreciate these dynamics makes us blind to 'how the world actually works.' Indeed, we are ignorant even of how our own human systems actually operate, as well as about how the actions of these systems disable the self-organizing, self-sustaining operations of natural ones. The creation of catastrophic climate change and the sixth mass extinction event in the biosphere's history by human systems is the most profound consequence of this ignorance.

Our modern societies are founded upon the relentless exploitation of the biosphere's natural systems. Seeking to expand the operations of our own systems at the expense of natural ones, we log, mine, farm, and otherwise disrupt ecologies, species, and the landscapes upon which these depend. In the pursuit of extending our own agency through industrial technology, we have created human networks that can manipulate natural ones without restraint. From the perspective of contemporary systems science, such behavior is not only suicidal for human systems, it amounts to ecocide--to the extinction of the biosphere in which humans evolved. Whatever our values and intentions, we have configured the feedback networks in our human systems in ways that generate such behavior.

That being the case, reason would readily compel us to radically alter our behaviors.  But that is no simple choice. To do so would require a radical reconfiguration of the feedback networks we have created in our social, economic, and technological systems. Such a change would be profoundly metamorphic. Our human agency would have to act to deconstruct and reconstruct most of what it has already created. Our societies would have to re-orient their feedback networks in ways that facilitate the self-animating thus self-sustaining operations of natural ones. Such a shift requires a radically different cultural world view, one that fully appreciates the science of a self-animating reality beyond our control, but vulnerable our catastrophic disruption. We would have to chose, using our own network agency, to reconfigure our systems based upon the supreme importance, or sacredness, of "scientific animism." We would have to operate our economies on a basis of 'biosphere first, civilization second.' We could say that means 'living for the love of Life Itself.'

Some of the scientists brave enough to challenge our old beliefs have written books for a general audience presenting the implications of the new science in non-technical terms.  Non-scientists must absorb these ideas and begin to reconsider their cultural assumptions about 'how the world actually works.' (See References Page)

Feedback Networks    

Self-Organizing Agency
Characteristic Behaviors
Mythic Symbols