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Spiritualized Materials -- Agency's Fingerprints

The agency of self-organizing, self-directing systems pervades the biosphere. From single cell paramecium to humans as discrete biological systems, from the self-directing networks of whole ecologies to those of human societies and economies, purposeful agency is constantly creating, maintaining, and altering system forms and functions. Directly or indirectly, this activity shapes all aspects of the planet. It's influence on the biosphere over three and a half billion years has induced profound changes in the Earth's physical systems.

The agency of photosynthetic organisms drew carbon dioxide out of the air while pumping oxygen into it. Ultraviolet light then split oxygen molecules to produce the ozone UV shield, greatly enhancing opportunities for further biological life forms. System agency has continually altered the environments in which natural selection occurred, thereby influencing the evolution of life forms. The self-organizing agency of zooplankton and algae produced the muck that earth's crust compressed into crude oil, which human systems would one day use to amplify their agency, changing the climate systems of the entire planet.

Look around you. Every form and function we can see with our unaided vision bears the influence of this agency emerging in complex systems' self-regulating networks. There is nary a single thing above the level of atoms that has not been effected by it in some way. Even many molecular structures owe their arrangements in some regard to its activities. This influence is easiest to perceive in the forms and functions created by animals -- from bird nests and termite mounds to human tools. But the forms and functions of animals themselves are emergent properties of self-organizing system agency -- of a biological body's self-maintaining operations. Beaks, paws, eyes, and fingers are all forms that exist for particular functions. As are the varied forms of plants, the particular shapes of leaves, seeds, and roots. The very composition of the soil is the work of purpose in microbes and fungi. Even the forms of pebbles rounded in the rolling tides on the ocean's shore have been touched by this agency's long influence on climate.

As an unpredictably emergent property of complex adaptive systems, this self-directing activity manifests genuine autonomy. Thus it can be reasonably compared to traditional notions of "animating spirit." Viewed in this way, we can regard those forms and functions it has helped to generate as 'spiritualized materials,' as tangible things that bear the 'fingerprints' of 'spiritual agency.' If we examine the evidence provided by systems science, and accept its conclusions that the properties of purposeful self-organization are an unpredictable phenomenon which, arising as it does from significant disorder in complex systems, is beyond complete analysis and explanation, then we have arrived at the boundary of our mechanistic understanding. In the worldview of archaic mythological imagination, we have arrived, through our rigorous reductive logic, at that 'other world of spirit' that is literally in/of/behind the world of ordinary things and events.

So, whether or not you can embrace a notion of 'spirit,' try this: look around you, go for a stroll, and focus your attention upon each thing and action you witness. Try to identify how these might bear the 'fingerprints' of system agency. Use your knowledge and reasoning to trace each form and function to some complex adaptive system's self-organizing, self-directing activities. Lo and behold, you might just experience your self in, and as, a profound mystery.

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