Towards a Spirituality of Complexity

Complexity theory has numerous key concepts with spiritual implications. Perhaps none is so important as the relationship between whole and part. As described by Koestler’s concept of holons, molecules are holons within tissues, tissues holons within organs, organs holons within bodily systems, the body within the human self, the self within the family, the family within the culture, the culture within global culture, humanity within the planetary ecosystem, etc. Logically we must reach the point of a universal holon, which alone is not contained by anything wider. In spiritual language this might be called the All or the One (God, Brahma, etc.). But it need not have a name with religious connotations. David Bohm, a physicist, calls it something like the ground of what is.

At each step in the progression, distinctive properties emerge, characteristic of the encompassing holon but not found in the lower ones―at least insofar as these are separate from the greater ones which encompass them. For example, mind is said to be an emergent property of body. Yet, though it can be argued that mind does not arise at the level of molecule, tissue, or organ (presumably arising at the level of neural system), there is no doubt that, within the integrated organism, mind exerts effects on all levels. That is, no part of the (at least properly functioning) human being can be truly independent of mind.

This invites us to ask, what properties might emerge at the level of humanity as a whole, or of global ecosystem (e.g. Gaia), or of universal All or One? Such properties, like mind itself, might not be readily perceptible in a physical manner.

Thus we come to the question of spirit and matter. Complexity, as a western science, tends to take a materialistic view. In this view, matter exists first. Thus, the parts come into being before the whole. When atoms combine into molecules, new properties emerge. (The properties of water are nothing like those of hydrogen or oxygen.) Similarly, tissues carry out more complex functions than molecules, organs than tissues, and so on. The crucial thing is that, as parts combine, wholes come into being, and with those wholes emergent properties arise.

Spirituality tends to view things the other way around. Creation doesn’t arise from nothing, or even from matter, but through the agency of a creator (who is often presumed to be omniscient, etc.). It may be that the higher qualities inherent in the creator emerge in the creation over time, but the creator, after all, transcends time. Time may be seen as merely the vehicle for the unfolding of divine wisdom, which precedes time (if such a notion even makes sense!). Note that Bohm takes a more spiritual view in his description of the implicate order, so that causality tends to emerge from the context of the greater whole, rather than from the more explicate, separate part (though the two are always in intimate relationship, with feedback from the explicate to implicate). This is probably the main reason why most physicists shy away from Bohm’s theory of the implicate order.

It is not clear that a practical understanding of complexity actually needs to choose between the two alternatives. After all, it is one thing to observe that things emerge, and quite another to say exactly how it is that they happen to do so. Describing is not explaining. For example, even those neuro-scientists who most fervently believe that mind emerges from brain are very hard pressed to say exactly how this comes about. Perhaps it is enough (or even better) to say that, in complex systems, parts tend to function within integrated wholes (those parts tends to be influenced by the wholes within which they subsist), and that wholes may arise from the conjoining of parts (and be influenced by the natures of the parts of which they are constituted). Instead of asking, “Do parts create wholes or do wholes create parts?” we might say that parts and wholes are mutually co-creative.

Of course, such an observation has spiritual implications. If we are parts within the universal All, does that mean that we are co-creators with God (or the universe, or whatever)? Perhaps so, especially given that many spiritual beliefs ascribe free will to human beings. Further, free will might be seen as a specific case, peculiar to rational beings, of a more universal characteristic of complex systems known as self-organization, or autopoiesis. In this way, even the lowliest level of entity (extending to the quarks, etc. of the quantum level) might possesses some degree of self-determination (and even of rudimentary consciousness, according to Varela and Maturana, as well as Bohm), or at least lack of total compulsion or determination. (Note that causality and determination are not the same. If a cause produces a probabilistic effect, that is non-deterministic. If a cause produces a necessary effect, that is deterministic.)

Again, we come upon theological implications. How does the above square with ideas of predestination? Thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas have held that predestination does not imply that God makes every choice. Rather, He is said to grant agency to nature to unfold according to its way of being, having created that way of being. And He grants free agency to human beings, even to the extent of allowing them to turn away from the Good. Of course, these thoughts only touch upon the complexities of theological debate, yet they allow us to conjecture that the implications of a spirituality of complexity may be in keeping with some forms of ideas such as predestination which, at first glance, would seem to run counter to them. That is, the idea that things are shaped by God (predestination) and by us (free will) squares well with a complex systems view that the whole shapes the parts and the parts shape the whole.

We could go into similar investigations with regard to all the world’s religions. Suffice it to say, however, that the attributes of the divine amongst most if not all of them would seem to be congruent with those of a spirituality of complexity. The Tao, for example, is said to be undefinable, yet to be the Way of all things. YHWH, God, Allah, Brahma, and Buddha Nature are likewise beyond our capacity to fully grasp, yet we are made in their image, are drops in their ocean, or find that our inmost nature is of their essence. As to how this might relate to complexity, perhaps we can say that, to the molecule, the tissue is a mystery, to the tissue the organ, etc. We cannot fully grasp, by means of the capacities of a lower holon, the emergent properties of a higher one. Yet in some way we can still know these properties because we are also formed by them (and so they are part of our basic nature), just as the influence of the mind extends even to the intracellular level of the organism.

Again, though the spiritual implications of complexity may largely square with the key ideas of most religions, we should be clear that they do not require any religious interpretation (or validation). Certainly Bohm presents his idea of the implicate order in an entirely scientific manner, beginning with an interpretation of quantum theory that differs from the Copenhagen interpretation of Bohr, Heisenberg, and others. Bohm was also a student of Einstein, who had similar misgivings about the Copenhagen interpretation. The root issue, for them (and for others, such as Gödel), was whether science can be ontological (describe what actually is) or only epistemological (that is, our knowing can never extend to the basic nature of things). This is a wonderful question! My point is just that it is a scientific question, which can be pursued entirely as such. Whether or not one wants to bring any religious beliefs to it hardly changes the nature of the scientific debate, and is purely a matter of personal predilection.

In the final analysis, the fundamental lesson of both spirituality and complexity may be that we are all connected―both to one another and within the greater whole. Every religion in some way states the golden rule. We are exhorted to love our neighbors as ourselves because, in a very real sense, our neighbors are ourselves, by virtue of the fact that we all partake of the essence of the same overarching holon(s). Agnostics and atheists also tend to espouse such an ethic, though it may be rooted in neo-Darwinian ideas. Either way, this is also a two-way street. Our responsibility must extend beyond ourselves, so we have a duty to choose the greater good, live in accord with the Tao, follow our Buddha Nature, etc. For, as co-creators, our intentions, choices, and actions are not insignificant within the universal unfolding. On the contrary, since everything is interrelated within the overarching context of the One or All, every action reverberates throughout the entire extent of the All. This brings us to the topic of an ethics of complexity.

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