top of page

              What Systems Science Reveals                                     We Can Only 'See'                                          Through Symbols

 Spiritual Practice Now:

What is Spiritual Practice after Systems Science?

Scientific Concepts as the Guide to a Culture of Network Spirituality 

Spirituality from the Perspective of the Science

  • In order to perceive 'how the world actually works' we must 'see' it as ordered by the agency of complex adaptive systems

  • That means learning to identify which systems manifest self-organizing, self-directing networks--or spiritual self-animation

  • We can term this 'network spirituality' because the science confirms that such agency does emerge in some networks

  • For a scientific society, incorporating this concept into our cultural sense of reality must be a process of knowing, not belief.

  • Thus, to respect the science, practices that enhance our knowledge of network agency must emphasize its undefinable origins

  • Engaging this world-ordering mystery must combine scientific, analytical, experiential, and symbolic modes of knowing

  • Unlike previous spiritual traditions, this will be an encounter with spiritual agency led by reason and science

Spirituality as Learning to 'See" the World in Terms of Adaptive Systems and Their Networks

The Challenge of Re-Thinking How We Think about 'How the World Actually Works'--through Networks

Metanoia means a profound change in one's way of life--particularly through some spiritual experience. This word derives from the Greek metanoein , translated as "to change one's mind or purpose," from meta, here indicating "change," plus noein , for "to have mental perception," from noos , for "mind" or  "thought,"  Incorporating systems science and the emergent network agency it reveals into our cultural worldview would indeed be a profound 'change of mind' for mechanistic modernity. The challenge here is not to discard our mechanism and materialistic science, but to add to this useful knowledge the profound insights of system science. This conjunction is essential if we are to have a more sustainably intelligent perspective on reality. It is because we are a rational, empirical culture that the science of systems and their self-organizing networks has come into existence. It is our reductive scientific method that now confronts us with the empirical reality of emergent agency in complex adaptive systems--a fundamental mystery in Nature from the perspective of deterministic physics.   Obviously the new evidence is confounding, even 'heretical' to many.

Spiritual Reality as Dynamical Paradox not Contradiction of the Laws of Physics

The historical confrontation between general relativity and quantum mechanics illustrates our cultural resistance to irreconcilable yet evidenly valid theories about 'how the world works.' To date no universally accepted "unified theory" solves related discreppancies between the two.  The notion that our existing understanding  of the laws of physics cannot analyze and explain emergent properties in general, and purposefully adaptive network agency in particular, is anathema to many scientists. Some, however, have proposed that the strange dynamics associated with these phenomena in no way violate the laws of physics. Self-organization and adaptive agency are not mysteries of matter and energy, but of how matter and engergy become organized into forms and functions.  Thus accepting the validity of comples systems science and its implications for 'how the world actually works' through purposeful agency is not a contradiction of existing science. But it is a contradiction of our cultural assumptions about reality derived from our biased perspective on our science. For science to 'become spiritual' we must embrace the now evident dynamical paradox of 'how matter and engery become both deterministically predictable and unpredictably emergent, even purposeful ways.

Science as the "Secular Symbolism' of Animating Agency

Just as pragmatic experience confirms our mechanistic knowledge of predictable cause and effect, we must now cultivate experience that appropriately confirms this new scientific knowledge of unpredicably emergent properties, particularly of network agency. However, such experience must some how abrogate our mechanistic assumptions and expectations. That is just the function the  symbolism of mythic imagination once performed for pre-scientific societies--it gave people a 'feeling' of the actual presence of emergent properties and archetypal forms of network agency 'at work in the world.' However, because we are a scientific society, we must combine the affects of spiritual symbolism with an intellectual form of its 'mind bending' experience. We must use our analytical faculties to experience the 'reason' of the science--how complexity at the level of life requires the impenetrable dynamics of self-organization arising "at the edge of chaos," Thus we must learn to 'think in two dynamical modes at once'--in causal sequences and synergistically concurrent interactions.

Perceiving systems as both mechanistic sequences AND synchronistically interdependent interactivity:

The 'double minding' of science as a spiritual practice:

Conceiving sequential mechanism          and             synchronic emergence simultaneously

Then, we must think the concurrencies of intedependently interactive networks as both abstract schematics and interpretive symbols to enhance our emotionally compelling experience. In this manner, actual science becomes a spiritual practice.




Through this effort, we can re-engage the symbolism in mythical stories, motifs, and personifications of network agency to amplify our appreciation of the science. This engagement between analytical science and myth's spiritual imagination will necessarily conflict with literalistic religious assumptions. The science does not confirm the literal existence of gods and goddesses. It does not validate historical accounts of their actions.  What the science does do is confirm the existence of a fundamental mystery in Nature--the emergent manifestation of network agency and how that agency creates, maintains, and adapts most of the order in the biosphere. Thus we must expect resistance from both the mechanistic bias of our scientific culture and the literalistic belief in our religious cultures.

How can Intellectual Thought Lead Us to Spirituality?

Intellect is understood as the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively. The scientific intellect is an extreme form of this mode of thinking and knowing because it constrains conclusions about what is actual to objectively demonstable evidence. Spirituality is often associated with feeling, emotion, intuition, and religious belief, rather than reasoning or scientific verification. For many, it is 'impossible' to adhere to principles of the scientific intellect and 'believe' in spirits or gods.  Yet some do just that. It is a notable trait of modern societies that people can be both scientifically intellectual and express religious belief in spiritual phenomena that science either contradicts or cannot evaluate. Obviously, a human impulse to 'believe' what 'feels true' can continue to persist even in a science-based society. 

If objetively verified scientific knowledge of 'the actual' revealed that nothing exists or happens except in strick accordance to the deterministic laws of physics, in a mechanistic manner, then the rejection of spirituality appears reasonable. However, with the advent of complex systems science, such an assumption is no longer tenable. The scientific intellect must now confront how its reductive methodology has revealed limitations about what that methodology can fully analyze and explain in a predictive manner. Understandably, those imbued with 'the culture of science' have become accustomed to the assumption that all phenomena are deterministic and thus potentially fully explainable. This assumption just 'feels right' to most scientists. Thus resistance to the implications of complex systems science has a kind of 'religious crisis of belief' quality to it. Many of us have come to 'believe' that all events are mechanistic, thus determinitistic, thus predictable if enough information is avaialbe, and that mathematical computaion can acuratley describe them. After all, this did appear to be the case for most of scientific modernity. Nonetheles, it is a fundamental tenet of scientific method that evidence takes precidence over theory and our cultural expectations. Thus. if the intellect is truly 'the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively,' then it must now disentangle itself from this mechanistic 'belief system' and 'come to terms' for the new dynamical world view of systems science.  

In the 18th Century European Enlightenment, intellectual analysis and reasoning were championed as independent of religious beliefs and superstition, leading to the "scientific revolution." Now, we are challenged to disentagnle this capacity for knowing from our reflexive expectation that all phenomena are 'mere deterministic mechanisms." This shift is not the 'return of superstition' but the objectively reasoning mind addressing the evidence of quantititative science in an intellectually honest manner. It is not that we should simply 'believe in spiritual agency.' The issue is how do we concieve a world view that incorporates all the evidence that dynamical science now lays before us. Doing so does not require us all to become complex systems scientists, any more than incorporating classical physics and chemical science into our cultural worldview required us to become physicists.  But it does require a shared basic comprehension of the implications systems science has for 'how the world actually works.'  As it turns out, that will bring us to the defacto recognition of emergent self-organization and adaptive network agency--and thereby, following our intellects, to acknowledgment of spiritual agency as a real phenomenon. Admittedly, that shift will not be easy. It will undermine primary aspects of our personal identities, our cultural assumptions, and vastly powerful economic interests. But then, what is a 'spiritual awakening' if not a 'world altering experience?'

Ultimately, this is a philosophical question.  We must engage our intellects to differentiate the emerging philosophy of science, the worldview we derive from scientific method, from our preferences, biases, and habitual assumptions. That challenge was depicted long ago in Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens." In the center of a great pantheon of philosophers stand Plato and Aristotle. Plato points upward, in what is understood to indicate the 'realm of ideal forms,' in a kind of abstract conceptual nether world, which are the origin of all actual things. Aristotle gestures ouward, toward 'the tangibly actual world as it is.' Thusly, Aristotle is often considered a 'father of modern science.' Clearly, his intellectual analysis of 'the actual' proved to have many errors. But his principles of 'resoning toward accurate knowing through empirical study' remain valid.

Raphael's "School of Athens" and the contending philosophical perspectives of Plato and Aristotle:



The Imaginal Intellect--Conceiving the Invisible

The tricky aspect of intellect as 'the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively,' is that we tend to assume it tells us what is actual, what is objectively real, and what is not.  But this capacity to think logically depends upon forming abstract concepts. We can think abourt 'how things happen' in terms of astract ideas. These can appear quite logical. But unless we can test the accuracy of our concpets we have no way of knowing if these are accurate as descripitons of the world as it actually is. In effect, we use the intellect to imagine how the world might be, how things might be happening, then must test these abstractions in some empirical manner.  Aristotle thought objects fell to earth because 'that is their natural place.' Newton's formula for gravity proved both to be both a more useful and empirically verifiable concept.  In both instances, the intellect was employed to imaginally concieve causes for what is effectively invisible to our inate perception. The concept of the microscope makes some things literally visible thorugh magnification. The concpet of gravity makes the motion of bodies in space 'tangible' through a testable mathematical formula. But gravity itself remains invisible to our eyes.

With complex systems science, mathematics and quantification have been employed to validate concepts about how such systems operate, about their dynamical behaviors.  It turns out that these dynamics are particularly confounding to our ordinary sense of cause and effect. Yet making the intellectual effort to comprehend the concepts of this science can give us a better 'sense' of how these strange dynamics create order unpredictably and even purposefully. These concepts even make more 'tangible' why those dynamics cannot be fully analyzed, sequentially differentiated, and thus not explainable in terms of cause and effect.  Here the conceptual imagination of the intellect, guided by empirical study and quantitiative analysis, take us to the limit of mechanistic knowing. Here, objective reasoning shows us its own limitations as a means of accurately describing and explaining all phenomena.

That same mental capacity can be employed to concieve ideas which give us a better sense of these empirically confirmed dynamical mysteries. Indeed, this is not a new use of the intellect. Logical reasoning applied to understanding the paradoxical interdependencies of complex phenomena can be found in wisdom traditions such as Buhddism and Taoism.  There, elaborate logical arguements are engaged in attempts to 'hold' these paradoxes in 'concepts of the incomprehensible.' Though Taoist philosophers pose many concpetual versions of what "the Tao" or 'Way of Nature' is, they ultimately state that "the Tao that can be written is not the Tao." Buhddists extol the teachings of the seemingly historical Buddha. But then some say, 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,' seemingly indicating that there can be no literal Buddha. "The Buhdda' seems to be a 'state of mind,' not a 'literal being.'


Such thinking can seem illogical or self-contradictory. But systems science now confronts us with empircal evidence for similarly logical contradictions, such as 'order emerging spontaneously and unpredictably from disorder.'  Postmodern philosophy has also manifested such conceptual imagination of logically confounding phenomena. Derrida's analysis of language reveals how no word is, in itself, meaningful. Rather, every word has meaning only in association with other words. Meaning, thereby, is 'everywhere and nowhere,' it is "disseminated" across the network of language and never absolutely definable. Language is a complex system of intedependent interactivities among the 'signs' of words. And words are 'concpetions of the world,' not the actual things and events these refer to in meaning. Meaning, after all, is an invisible no-thing, not a calculable physycal force, but an emergent property of network agency that somehow differentiates data and inteprets it as actionable information.  The concept of the 'dissemination of meaning' proves most useful in understanding this mysteriously emergent. ultimatley 'invisible' property of a language system. It intellectually imagines the interedependencies that somehow manifest 'the meaning' of every word.

The Spirit as Useful Concept

This concpetual imagination of logical thinking can be employed to 'make sense' of myth's spiritual symbolism. Mythic symbols often express implicit concepts about 'how the world actually works' that seem opaque to modern attitudes. It has been said that if one asked the ancient Greeks, "Do you actually believe in the existence of your outragiously behaving gods and goddesses?" the reply might be something like, "It is not a matter of belief but empirical fact. Look around you at the world. It is obvious these 'forces' are at work."  With the concepts of complex systems science, our way of 'imagining the invisible but actual' manifestation of agency, we can now 'make sense' of this ancient attitude.  The very notion of "spirit," or "god," can be understood as an imaginal concept that represents 'agency at work in the world.'

In the absence of such a fundamental concept, how is a culture to percieve the invisible yet actual reciprocating interdependencies of its own complex systems, much less than those of Nature? Modernity has lacked such a concept--untill the appearance of complex systems science. But to fully appreicate this objectively scientific conceptual imagination of reality, it will have to become openly associated with the intuitive imagination of myth's spiritual symbolism.


Spiritual Practice as a 'Way of Seeing and Experiencing' Rather than 'Believing'

Many spiritual traditions pose the caveat that, depsite all their descriptions and depictions of an actual divinity, ultimately 'god is unknowable.' Given the intensity of fundamentalist religious belief in the literal truth of 'god's existence,' the preservation of this notion that 'what god is' remains ineffable appears illogical.  But such seeming contradiction is a primary insight of the mythical imagination. That is, humans must use symbols, and the emotionally potent experience these can arouse, to engage a compelling representation of the mystery of 'animating powers,' or network agency. Given that humans as a species survive and adapt through manipulation of their envirionments, particularly the extraordiary leverage of technology, we 'see' and understand the world reflexively in mechanistic, materialistic terms. Thus societies tend to be 'blind' to the dynamics of complex systems. Thus, just as ancient peoples tempered this bias through mythic sybolism, so must we moderns if we wish to restrain the destructive effects of our behaviors. 

For us, however, the effort requires a conscious re-conditioning of our intellectual abstraction. If scientific reasoning now confronts us with evidence for what appears irrational, then to be 'reasonable' means we must concpetually incorportate the seeming paradoxes between predictable causality and unpredictable emergence. We are accustomed to 'seeing' and 'experiencing' the world in mechanistic terms. Now we must find ways to 'see' and 'experience' it in terms of emergent properties and autonomous network agency. But, as in mythic symbolism, we must maintain awareness that the concepts and symbols we use to 'see' in this manner are not what we use them to represent--because the dynamics involved are not explicitly identifiable. That is, we must remain wary of reducing our representations of emergence and agency to a 'literal belief' in those representations. It is this distinction that differentiates the 'world knowing' of mythic imagination from the 'world defining belief' of religious or even scientific 'fundamentalism.' 

Spiritual practice then, is any effort that seeks to enhance our insight into, and experiential sense of, the ways network agency manifests and influences ordering in our selves and the world. However, such efforts cannot, scientifically speaking, ultimately define the actual mysteries we thusly encounter. With this caution in mind, we can engage the vast panapoly of mythic traditions from diverse cultures in search of symbolism that elaborates the new worldview of systems science.

This pursuit of a more complete dynamical understanding of self and world, from the perspective of our reductively analytical, opositionally binary, mechanistically causal bias, is a kind of 'standing on our heads,' or 'having mutliple heads.' We must retain the methodology of that bais, its 'way of seing,'  at the same time we use it to engage evidence and experience it cannot fully comprehend--in order to gain 'spiritual knowledge.' One could term this 'thinking at the edge of chaos,' that dynamical 'wonderland' where predictable ordering and unpredictably but un-self-sustaining emergent ordering meet, giving rise to self-sustaining self-organization. This is a 'mental yoga' of engaging a dynamical mystery proscribed by analytical science but not fully explainable by it:--in which we must concieve of synchronic interdependency and emergent properties that are revealed by quantiativemethods, and think in terms of predictable order as well as unpredictable chaotic ordering and self-directing self-organization:

      Interdependencies                                                               Emergent Properties



                                                                                                           Binary Logic

When fully engaged, these 'mental gymnastics' constitute an 'altered state of consciousness,' relative to our familiar ordinary worldview. Thus one must expect it to be difficult, even confounding. After all, it means attempting to rationally comprehend a reality in which 'things happen' through two seemingly incompatible kinds of dynamics--sequentially causal and synchronically emergent. To become more realistically sustainable as a society we will have to embrace this paradox culturally. For our existing modern mentality, that means 'bowing before a fundamental mystery'--and in this case a 'sacred mystery.' This is not an act our control obsessed societies will accept easily.


 Composing Scientific Spirituality through a Network-Based Worldview

Tracking Self-Organization and Emergent Agency through Network Analysis as 'Approaching Spirit'


The science of network dynamics firstly enables us to discriminate between system activities that are mechanistically predictable and those are unpredictably creative because they manifest complex dynamics. if we employ our intellectual capacities to track how systems networks are configured, how feedback tends to flow between system parts, we are bound to become aware of where self-organizing network agency emerges in complex adaptive systems.  That orientation can create a network-based worldview derived from complex systems science. Because this knowledge derives from tracking the interdependent interactions of feedback flows within identifiable networks of a system's parts, we might term this new science-based understanding of emergently adaptive agency as 'network spirituality.' That is, the complex, synchronically interdependent dynamics "at the edge of chaos," from which aniamting agency emerges, is not 'in' the parts of a system but 'of' its dynamical operations. Thus, adaptive agency or spiritual animation are an emergent 'network property.' So to focus our attention upon this dynamical mystery, we must identify network structers that connect system parts, whether organs of the body or words in a language, and track how feedback flows between these. By analysing the relationships between system parts that constitsute a network's activity, and noting recurring patterns in those relationships, we 'see into' the 'character' behind a system's behavior.


Such network analysis will not provide an exact description or explainagion of how agency emerges from those activities. But it will bring us as logically close as we can get to this life-generating dynamical mystery. It will also assist in understanding the characteristic behaviors of different system networks. This is spiritual practice because it confronts our habitual assumptions about 'how things work' with the dynamical 'nether world' where agency spontaneously emerges. It takes us to the 'edge of the mystery' that creates most of the forms and order in the biosphere.  It shows us how such complexs order inherently emerges from instability, moment by moment, forming meta-systenms through inter-system reciprocities. Confronting this realm of unpredictably adaptive agency, we  become aware of why we cannot ultimately control either our own selves, our societies, or the systems of Nature. It shows us as 'creatures of spirit' in a creaturely world, preparing us to enhance our 'sensing of the spirit' through non-scientific knowledge and symbolic experience.


Motives for and Values of a Network-Based Spiritual Worldview

Given the contemporary collapse of self-sustaining agency in ecological and climate systems worldwide, there is profound practical  motivation for making this shift from a mechanistic and materialistic worldview to one emphasizing the invisible network relationships that actually order human and non-human systems. But there are also motives involving the values of ethical and egalitarian social relationships. In addition, there is the potential for a more emotionally fullfuling sense of meaning derived from a mystical experience of reality. 

  • Pragmatic: Promoting adaptively sustainable human societies within a self-sustaining biosphere

  • Ethical: Enhancement of social and economic networks that are more equitable for individuals

  • Mystical: Amplification of compelling meaning and purspose for persons and societies

If we genuinely seek to create a network worldview,  we will have to understand our social systems as 'autonomous spirits' whose agency has character we can influence but not directly control.  Related to both the practical and the ethical motivations, there is that of the mystical. Learning to live with detailed insight into the complex dynamics of networks, and thus in awe of their emergent properties such as adaptive agency, life and society can feel both more purposeful and marvelous.

Validating and Inhabiting the Fundamental Mystery of Self-Animating Network Agency 'at Work in the World'

Aspects of Spiritual Practice within a Network Worldview

As one comes to 'see' the world in terms of networks, learning to identify those which govern complex adaptive systems through emergent agency, it becomes obvious that 'appearances are deceiving.' There is more creative activity 'behind' or 'within' the visible, measurable world than on its evident surfaces. Thus an inevitable re-thinking how we tend to think about reality is required. But because the science logically leads us to the reasonable conclusion that there are dynamical conditions which cannot be completely analyzed and causally explained, we are confronted by evidence for agency or spirit as a fundamental mystery. To make that mystery more palpable requires resort to aspects of our non-scientific knowledge, from philosophy to psychology and artistic symbolism that can enhance our 'making sense' of 'how the world actually works.' That requires engaging our intuitive and emotional capacities--guided by science and reasoning. So the methodology of this 'network spirituality' has three aspects:

  • Scientific: Comprehending the Science

  • Intellecutal: a trans-disciplinary re-Interpretation of non-scientific knowledge fields, art, and myth through the science

  • Experiential: Generating symbolic ritual experiences to enhance the factual reality of a network-based worldview


The first is a kind of scientific re-education for most of us, in which the basic implications of systems science are engaged. The second is an intellectuaal re-evaluation of the non-scientific knowledge domains associated with the acdemic fields of "the humanities" from the perspective of the science. The third is the creation of symbolic 'rites and rituals' that engage our emotional experience with the insights of the first two aspects. A short hand for these stages is scientific, intellectual, and experiential network spirituality.

  • Spiritual Materialism: Experiencing forms as mystical creations of network agency

A related practice can be termed 'spiritual materialism.' That involves employing a network worldview to identify how most of the forms and functions we encounter as 'the ordinary material world of cause and effect,' are in fact generated to some degree, either directly or indirectly, by network agency as spiritual animation. This is a crucial step, as it constantly reminds us that familiar objects and forms--from plants to hammers and cities-- 'came into being' not only by physical actions but by system-governing network agency. The insight here is that the formal ordering of matter and energy, into the things and events of both natural and human environments, derives in large part from the selective, purposeful operations of network agency--or the self-animating spiritual impulse of complex adaptive systems. The world we inhabit, like our selves, is a 'dynamical miracle of formal ordering.'


These elements of a Network Worldview and its mystical implications are outlined below.

Further description is available on additional web pages on this site:

Scientific Network Spirituality: Expanding Our Worldview to Include Evidence for Emergent Ordering and Agency

This focus involves effort to incorporate the strange dynamics of complex adaptive systems into our common scientific worldview. It becomes spiritual in so far as it engages the empirical evidence for the emergence of self-organization and purposefully adaptive network agency. The implications of this new knowldege becomes the most tangible when applied to biological and environmental contexts.  The manifestations here enable us to think systems science thorugh the operations of life and the biosphere. Read More Here

Intellectual Network Spirituality: Understanding the Science by Enagaging Non-Scientific Modes of Complex Knowing

From the perspective of systems science, it becomes evident that there are many manifestations of intellectual insight into complex dynamics and even network agency across modern domains of knowledge. Aspects of thought and research in psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, and the aesthetics of art can now be seen as intuitions of systems science. These can now be correlated through the scientific concepts and become an essential part of a new, transdisciplinary intellectual mode of spiritual practice. Read More Here

Experiential Network Spirituality: Inhabiting Network Dynamics as the 'Altered States' of Art, Ritual, Meditation, and Psychotropics

In effect, 'direct experience' of synchronic emergence and network agency 'at work in the world' requires 'going to the Other Worlds of the mythic imagination.'  Scientifically, we are always 'in' and 'of' this dynamical 'wonderland.' But our control-obsessed bias toward sequential cause and effect dominates our ordinary awareness. The purpose of spiritual practices is to immerse our overt conscious attitude in the background actuality of complex system dynamics, thereby gaining wider appreciation of 'how things actually happen.' The aesthetic affects of artistic symbolism can induce experience of complex dynamics by altering our ordinary state of consciousness. Such "altered states" can also be induced by symbolic ritual actions, mindfulness practices associated with meditation, and psychoactive pharmacology--particularly psychotropics or hallucinogens.

Read More Here

Spiritual Materialism: Experiencing Network Agency through Forms It Created

In this approach, the forms and functions of material things is examined for the roles network agency has played in their creation. By tracking the origins of ordinary things one discovers that most of the form and pattern in the world around us derives from the purposeful operations of complex adaptive system networks. Thus such forms can be regarded as the 'embodiement of agency' or  'spiritual materials.' Read More Here

think-ConHead&Cluster right.jpg
think-3Faced3Thoughtgod copy.jpg
bottom of page