CALResCo Group (Complexity & Artificial Life Research), Manchester U.K.
We do however need to be quite clear about the difference between spirit and religion and between spirit and instinct. A religion is a belief system, a set of structured concepts, generally (but not always) related to a deity. It comprises several dimensions: Ritual, Mythological, Doctrinal, Ethical, Social and Experiential [Smart, pp15]. Most of these dimensions vary greatly between the various religions, but the last, the experiential dimension, seems common to all religions [Huxley]. This includes that aspect we call spirit. The external trappings of religion can be regarded as simply alternative ways in which to package the internal spiritual meaning, so they will take a back seat for our purposes here. Our study will instead concentrate on the wider aspects of spirit, considering not just the religious manifestations, but also the artistic, philosophical and scientific aspects of the concept.
When we were young children we had many dependencies upon our parents. Those psychological needs for protection and support are deeply embedded within our evolutionary instincts, and it is natural for us to project such needs onto a parent substitute as we grow (the security blanket syndrome - a desire to return to the stressless safety of the womb) [Freud, pp72]. Many aspects of our Gods show this instinctive or cultural personification, yet these archetypes [Jung, pp105] are not spirit, and appear to be simply overlays upon it, patterns based upon our historical or genetic predispositions.
Complexity Theory deals with those systems outside the scope of reductionist or statistical techniques, and takes a connectionist approach in which the interconnections are more important than the composition of the parts. Generally these systems are composed of many interacting variables, arranged in such a way as to be non-linear, non-deterministic, non-equilibrium and composed of extensive feedback loops, allowing self-organization. Such ideas merge the systems approach of technology, the evolutionary approach of biology and the phase transitions of physics to obtain a methodology of considerable scope [Lucas98]. These complex adaptive systems operate, for greatest efficiency, at a delicate dynamic balance between static and chaotic modes of operation, which we call the 'edge of chaos'. At this point the system exhibits considerable structure at many inter-related emergent levels. For a popular overview of this new science see [Waldrop] or [Lewin], and for an introduction to the complexity concepts used in this paper and their relation to social systems see [Lucas97].
Treating spirit as just another immaterial concept allows us to discard the metaphysical 'meaning' (the theology and philosophy) and concentrate on the usefulness of the idea itself in dealing with the wider world in which we live. Can we claim that spiritual ideas actually have effects ? The preponderance of religious thought in all cultures and the actions of the believers leaves no doubt as to this. In all aspects of life our beliefs affect our behaviour and this is true regardless of the type of belief. The difference, if any, between scientific beliefs and those relating to other areas (mathematics, art or religion say) is in how we evaluate utility or value. It is in this area that we will look to integrate the various forms of belief that drive our lives.
Science, by concentrating almost exclusively on visible (material) emergence, has neglected the hidden (process) equivalents. Spirituality in essence is such an internal concept, as are most of the aspects of mind that so far elude scientific explanation (e.g. emotions and consciousness). That there are multiple levels here also is evident from our own experience, our ability to 'stand back' mentally from our actions, to observe ourselves from a distance as it were, what might be called a meta-consciousness. Add to this dreams, hypnosis, drug states and other altered and partially conscious states and we have a whole hidden world of emergent possibilities available. These states are occasionally studied in philosophy [Flanagan] and psychology [Grof, p95], but many spiritual writings go far beyond this, and identify several other levels of awareness and abilities (including the paranormal) on the road to enlightenment or total understanding [Sangharakshita, p120]. From a complexity science viewpoint, all such levels are equally possible, and it is an empirical question as to which exist and what effects they have on our views of reality, modes of operation or fitness.
How far we wish to pursue this is however a matter of taste. From a purely scientific viewpoint we may be content to consider only those levels available to everyone (these themselves go quite a way beyond a purely materialist science, and include many of the psychological levels that we use in daily life). Taking a less restrictive approach allows us to consider forms of interaction beyond the self, and this takes us into the realms of the paranormal, but this can still be within the general world view in which all that occurs is 'natural'. The most controversial areas however allow for a much wider remit, one that is closer to the traditional religious viewpoint. Here we can consider the possibility that there are genuine levels of reality far beyond the more mundane levels of which we are normally aware. Evidence for such levels, at least so far, depends on experiential accounts from mystical experiences, often contradictory (biased by personal beliefs), yet frequent enough in all cultures to leave the possibility open that they reflect a genuine form of higher reality. Nethertheless, for our purposes here, we will concentrate on the more mundane areas of spirit.
In the religious forms of spiritual development we typically see a move away from the material world and into the mental - exactly the same move as is seen in the development of 'self' in those fields that we label artistic, scientific, humanitarian or just 'growing up'. The material aspects (physical skills) take second place to abstract ones (decision skills). Thus we can regard spiritual growth as having the same basis as any other form of growth, and can evaluate it accordingly, in terms of its contribution to our quality of life.
This quality of life is a multi-level idea, there are many needs to be considered. It is not however the maximisation of just material goods (as is often assumed in modern society) but includes also artistic levels, social levels and (we would suggest) spiritual levels. Any measure of quality must include contributions from all these possible levels of reality, including our higher mental development (educational depth and width).
As we are taught (by parents, friends, teachers, experiment) we mould our world into a very complex place, each new morsel of knowledge adding to the detail in our world view. The information we retain is that which proves useful (e.g. balls aren't edible, running into doors hurts). Each new category is an option, a new decision point in our life, a widening of the possibilities open to us, or (in complex system terms) an expansion of our state space. Progress and evolution could be said to depend on this process of expansion, the exploration of novelty. Quality of Life, on the other hand, depends upon choosing the right path through the maze of possibilities - those providing the highest fitness or value within our individual world concept (defined as an internal mental perception rather than as an external utilitarian result). But we do not operate in a vacuum, our actions take place in an environmental and social context. As we act, we add in turn to the possibilities for others, we create spirals of change, inter-twined ladders that can provide a ratchet of self-reinforcing feedback, driving us all onward (for better or worst, depending upon the particular paths chosen and whether the results agree with the expectations of our model).
The fitness we experience is thus dependent not only on ourselves but on how our viewpoint relates to those around us. A behaviour that is fit in one circumstance (e.g. wearing fancy dress, at a party) may be highly disadvantageous in another context (e.g. meeting a business client). But we must recall that fitness is not a single dimension, multiple aspects of any situation will contribute to the overall fitness (in the same way that multiple genes contribute to any trait). For a body, say, to be fit, the chemistry must be fit (in balance), the cells must be fit (not infected), the organs must be fit (functioning correctly) and so on. Thus our fitness is a multi-level concept, including levels both internal and external to the body. Fitness is then that holistic state that gives maximum success in any particular context.
Nobody can doubt the benefits of science, in terms of efficient machines and processes; or the benefits of the arts in terms of beauty and entertainment; or the benefits of societies in terms of trade, mutual support and diversity. Yet the possible benefits of spirituality are often ignored. The pursuit of spiritual growth can however also be a valid form of knowledge acquisition, so what sort of knowledge might this be ?
Essentially it is the knowledge of ourselves (a looking inward), the way we think, behave and react, our positive and negative aspects, and our values in relation to the whole. It involves bringing into consciousness our unconscious motivations, beliefs, feelings and predispositions, so that we can evaluate their part in our overall fitness (in complexity terms, so that we can change the neural ruleset based on connections, and thus the attractors). The psychological benefits of this seem clear, in the reduction of internal stress or errors and in more constructive interactions with the world around us. The process is that of better integrating the various aspects of our personality with each other and with the rest of the Universe, something badly neglected in our current educational systems [Adler, Ch15]. But when we do this we often find more, glimpses of another universe (or world view), an alternative reality or altered state of consciousness. Such experiences (described in religion as mysticism) traditionally form the higher levels of spiritual development, reached through meditation techniques. These techniques however need not have a religious slant, but can simply be used to restore balance and to enhance creativity [Gawler, Kabat-Zinn]. Their success, even on a mundane level, indicates the value of such spiritual introspection in revealing new ways in which to view and integrate our world.
To see that this is not the case, we need to look into quantum theory, which is recognised as being more accurate and fundamental than the classically based theories that still pervade almost all science. In Quantum Electrodynamics [Feynman], for example, matter largely reduces to an exchange of photons, electromagnetic 'particles' which have no mass, 'waves' that have no position, a dynamic relativistic interchange between 'particle' and 'wave' where time has no simple meaning. Thus the idea of objective substance itself is seen to be no more than an emergent property of interactions between ephemeral and transcendental constituents. The non-substances that surround it (time and space) are likewise emergent concepts of our belief system (logical necessities due to our dualist mode of thought), dependent upon our assumptions of direction, our labels, and the desire to 'ground' our concepts in a fixed framework, to have foundations to our world.
If we accept that any concept of scientific reality is arbitrary (which we can see in the co-existence of both quantum and classical versions for different purposes), we must ask what other concepts could we use ? From a complexity theory viewpoint it is not a matter of replacing our physical views, but of supplementing them, by adding new layers that target purposes currently neglected in a material perspective. The material world is only one level in what is perhaps a continuum of emergent levels, that form the whole of reality. Even on a material level we can use different paradigms to evaluate different sub-levels, e.g. in physics (quanta), biology (evolution) and technology (systems) terminologies. The labels we use for these different levels are not, on a complexity viewpoint, interchangeable, this means that a reduction to the lowest level is invalid. We must treat the emergent properties of each level as self-contained and discrete, yet recognise that the levels do interact (in both directions). Our labels are, in essence, relations, that allow us to tie together diverse aspects of our reality, e.g. the word 'planet' contains within itself links to multiple concepts, other associated labels. These labels can exist at many levels, including their symbolic and metaphoric uses in poetry and myth. All such categories (divisions of our world) are seen ultimately to be creations of mind and not inherent in reality.
Spirit is thus seen as another form of the categorization of that which concerns us, a way of viewing the world that we can suppose increases our ability to exist successfully. Recognising the equivalence of different abstract concepts enables us to discard the historical barriers between them (for example the view that mathematical abstraction is fundamentally different from metaphysical abstraction). We see that all such abstractions are emergent properties going beyond the level of our more physically related concepts. Spirit, in this view, can be regarded "as the operational definition of who he or she really is; what they give their highest priorities to; what their values are; how they behave towards other people, towards God, towards creation" [Jeeves, p100]. It is an integrated (holistic) view of our being - body, soul, spirit, intellect, emotion (even society, nature and God) are one not many.
To some extent we already have. The principle of natural selection in biology assumes that what is selected is a difference in fitness, or the value to an organism of a particular trait. This concept runs widely throughout our lives (even if, by itself, it is inadequate within a complexity viewpoint [Wesson]). Yet in evolutionary terms, even scientific formulae are fitness related, we choose them based on their truth value in prediction (an arbitrary criterion [Kolakowski, p79]), and we see that this is itself a value judgement based upon what we want to predict. We can, in principle, extend these ideas easily to select theories based on other, wider, criteria, including for example their contribution to our quality of life. Doing this we find that science ceases to be an isolated, pseudo-objective, enterprise but instead become a formalised tool tacked on to our evolutionary brain, a better way of relating to the world and increasing our fitness. In the same way the spiritual aspects of our being can also give meaning or value to the whole, but these increase fitness in different ways than those we value in our science.
If we generalise all these terms (fitness, value, meaning, prediction) we see that all relate to improvement or adaptations in the context of our lives and the world we live in. We are multi-faceted creatures operating in many different realities [Ram Dass, pp20]. We expect (and find) that these improvements come in many forms, yet it would be a brave person to claim that one form was superior to another. It seems clear that eating is of value only when we are hungry, and science (perhaps) only when we need to predict. Value is a relative term, but maybe spirituality is at its greatest value when we need to choose between alternatives, in evaluating just which selection criteria we should use. This takes a view of spirit as a higher level of reality, a sort of meta-value system concerned with putting into perspective the alternatives available at the lower levels.
The complexity viewpoint asks searching questions about many of the views we hold most dear, and religion is no exception. We must apply the same criteria to religious systems as to any other complex systems. These questions include:
This is even more true within Religious thought. All believers share a large number of concepts, so the views of different sects are not totally disjoint. The transcendent can be regarded simply as another form of personal growth, and religions as just different dies used to stamp the same precious metal, that of spirit. A useful metaphor is to regard God as the top of a mountain. We wish to approach God, so we climb the mountain. How many ways can we do this ? In principle there are infinite ways. Some may take the long path, some try to go up the cliff face, some the north ascent, some the south, some go part way up but it becomes difficult and they are forced to descend and try another way. Religious sects are these paths, each a different route to the same end [Dalai Lama, p432] - we all climb the same mountain. This is analogous to searching for knowledge by studying physics or biology or sociology, all contribute, but none have all the answers. Given the vast differences in education, experience and interests amongst humans, to insist on a single method of spiritual study [Smart, Ch11] can only be regarded as misguided, rather like claiming Chinese symbolism is meaningless because we speak English. Generalising, the scientific and religious aspirations of people are all just different paths to the same end-point, that of complete truth or Enlightenment (although some ways may certainly be more efficacious than others for particular people).
Even within a tradition we must be aware that we are initially spiritually ignorant and only develop our expertise over time. Those concepts (myths, stories) suitable for our development early on the path (often as children) may need to be discarded as we gain in perception and spiritual depth. Generally we start with external actions, the moral and behavioural (worldly becoming) aspects of religion. Those that take it further later turn inward, developing the contemplative (otherworldly being) aspect, but that is still not the end of the path, a further stage of integration is possible, requiring further insight and development beyond self, generally fully attained only by a few adepts or saints (mystic beginning). On a more simplistic level, we can relate this to the common belief in the three integrated stages of physical fitness, mental control and spiritual unity in such techniques as Karate and Yoga [Hewitt, Ch3]. The lack of balance between these stages is responsible for much of the antagonism caused to, and by, religion in our societies [von Hugel, pp498]. But having found one path that works well for us does not mean that other viewpoints are invalid, nor that a better fitness cannot be found by a quantum jump in starting point (similar to the evolutionary technique of crossover in sexual recombination). Our next section explores such a leap in viewpoint.
Traditional science studies repeatable phenomena, in other words the 'normal'. One-off happenings are usually ignored (or dismissed as 'experimental error'). Yet they do exist, volcanoes erupt suddenly, planes crash, people meet unexpectedly, genius occurs. All science can say about these is that they are unpredictable, not that they are impossible or inexplicable ('after the event' theories are often widespread). Complexity theory concentrates on those areas of the world where this sort of unpredictability is usual - the edge of chaos. Small affects here conspire to create large changes, in just such a way as is often seen in studies of the paranormal where (presumably) tiny influences are said to change matter as in psychokinesis, other minds as in telepathy or our own as in ESP [Swann, p1]. The often quoted objection to 'action at a distance' is quite invalid, since this occurs as a matter of course both in classical science, in terms of gravity and electromagnetism, and in quantum theory (e.g. the Aspect experiments [Baggott, pp139] and the recent developments in quantum computation and teleportation [Buchanan]).
The world around us is full of these small causes. Radio stations broadcast all the time, electricity pylons generate low frequency waves, the earth emits radioactive particles, cosmic rays arrive from space, brains create low intensity fields, gravity affects all molecules, quantum fluctuations abound. All these 'scientific' affects (and any others not yet discovered) are theoretically capable of causing a one-off happening of any magnitude, indeed in complexity theory such 'power law' fluctuations would be expected to occur generally, with diminishing frequency as the magnitude increased (as for example in earthquakes [Bak, pp88]). These effects are often seen (e.g. pendulum clocks on a wall synchronize with each other). There need be no division here between science and religion, they are merely opposite ends of a continuum of happenings, from 'commonplace' to 'miracle', the latter needing only a system to exist in a critical state such that a minor change can cause a rare cascade of effects. In principle, any form of communication of such a change can suffice, so there could be many simultaneous 'paranormal' (or normal) mechanisms operating at various emergent levels.
Our view of reality is highly simplistic (a shadow world [Plato, VII:7]), we miss out many subtleties in our everyday life and science. Alternative realities, or viewpoints, may allow access to profound knowledge, for example in distressed or drugged states (where normal functioning is transcended) [Laszlo]. Our usual lives are filled with noise and sensory overload, so access to this more delicate information may require the quiet states to be found in meditation, sleep or just empty 'being'. Silence also seems to be required to achieve concentration, to allow subtle connections to be made, and for learning, creativity and vision. There can also be many ways of experiencing the same truths - as we see in quantum theory, where we see a particle if we look for one, or a wave if searching for that, but never both at the same time (our mode of looking constrains what we can see - rationality itself closes down many avenues, eliminating the other possibilities). Yet these alternative viewpoints are taken to be complementary, aspects of the same ultimate truth (and modelled by the same Schrodinger equation).
In a similar way matter and mind may also be complementary views of a more basic reality, as some thinkers suggest [Bohm, pp196], merging and expanding both objective and subjective viewpoints. Science and Religion ultimately speak the same language, but perhaps both just suffer from the 'not invented here' syndrome ? Allowing that both systems of knowledge are valid, and are capable of being pulled together by the ideas of complexity theory, leaves the possibility for a full integration of the fields. To do this however we must transcend some of the restrictive dogmas of both, their claims to already have the ultimate truth in whatever form [Whitehead, pp216, Kolakowski, pp196].
Many of these problems relate to a inherited viewpoint that takes all things as separate. War, greed, hate, starvation and similar evils can only occur if we regard others as not-us (and therefore irrelevant to our fitness). Both the complexity viewpoint and that of traditional spirituality reverse this imagined discontinuity. Whilst complexity science can analyse the inter-relationships of existing and possible systems it cannot change the values we place on not-self. If we are to defeat the negativity that besets our world then we need to employ a new set of values, values that relate to wholeness and not to parts. It is here that spiritual development may hold the key, in educating people to see beyond the fitness of self, to the fitness of the multi-level whole, and in coming to appreciate that our own fitness is extensively linked both to that of our environment and of our society, in both their external and internal aspects. In this respect even a single spiritual experience (a satori moment) can be enough to show what is possible and to encourage further study [Maslow, pp526]
One obvious feature of saints, adepts and those rare masters who have attained the highest levels of spiritual awareness is their contentment and involvement (e.g. Mother Teresa of Calcutta). They gain what the rest of us seem to seek. From a complexity viewpoint they enhance the whole with every action, positively influencing those around them. Compare the fitness of this to our own actions, too often we behave negatively, hurting not only others but ourselves also in the process. If we have an asset for the future, then that of spiritual development would seem the most valuable, enabling us to re-direct all that wasted conflict energy [Lucas97] to more useful purposes and enhanced fitness
In complexity thinking all emergent levels are important, and so collectively must have their fitness maximised. In human terms this applies to the internal as well as the external aspects of our being. The spirit of complexity can be defined as that emergent level concerned with integrating the particular (self) with the universal (not-self), bridging the subjective/objective duality. Spirit in this sense goes far beyond just the religious aspects and takes into itself the higher levels of artistic and emotional truths, as well as those of ontological origin. We need to extend our specialist tunnel vision to encompass the whole, in all its variety [Lucas98] and this includes all the emergent levels, especially the non-material. In essence, this means to recognise that the different worlds we inhabit (physical, mental and spiritual) must be in balance. A useful analogy is the colour wheel, white light is made up of equal amounts of red, green and blue. An excess of any colour gives an imbalance - our colour perception is then distorted. If we relate red to material aspects, green to living and blue to spiritual, we can perhaps see that in the remote past these were in a better balance, the world was a dim white (e.g. in Ancient Greece or China). Our recent material development has strengthened the red contribution until it now dominates the whole, we are unbalanced. Current ecological movements are attempting to grow the green to partly compensate, but there is a long way yet to go here. In contrast the blue 'spirit' component is being diminished, rather than enhanced, and this needs to be addressed to restore to our society those higher values of wisdom, harmony and imagination whose development is lacking today [Griffiths, pp686]. To synthesize, in other words, a new more 'brilliant white' whole.
The achievement of this new balance requires changes to our general approach to life, especially in our economic ideas [Schumacher, Ch4]. It is here that the complex systems approach may help, by showing us that those systems approaches that work well in the material world may also be translated to operate, in the same way, in any system having the same connectivity, and this means in the higher level realms of life and mind. We may thus already have the expertise to develop the psychological and holistic maturity we lack, within a scientific viewpoint. We must be aware however that we cannot do this with certainty, small influences preclude deterministic prediction in such complex systems (at the edge of chaos). A probabilistic approach may need to be employed, to achieve an incremental (step by step) readjustment to both our external world and our internal nature. This may not be quite as difficult as it may appear. We are not looking here to calculate (intellectually) an absolute fitness for every action (as in a utilitarian system), but simply to choose (intuitively) our best guess as to what will improve (or at least not reduce) fitness at all levels, by balancing the relative (probabilistic) values of the choices available to us at the present time. For example, by recognising that the self is just one level of choice, and that family, society, ecosystem and planet are other equally valid levels, we can perhaps re-evaluate our attitude to pollution, seeing that any personal gain in fitness is associated with greater losses for other levels (ecosystem, society), whilst some levels (family, planet) may be neutral to this choice. Merging the levels we get a negative-sum, a clear indication that this is the wrong choice. If we all choose like this consistently (as specific cases not as general rules, and more by a spiritually developed holistic feeling than by divisive simplification), then the Heaven we seek may be found to have been here all the time - as the sages have been saying for thousands of years [Merton, p132,Vardey, Ch14].
As a species we have embarked first upon the simplest form of knowledge, the dimensions of external reality (the 'out-there'), with the flowering of our science. The next stage, investigation of the dimensions of internal reality (the 'in-here') is underway, but is still at a primitive (and over-objectified) stage. Study of the final integrative dimensions of knowledge (which are both 'out-there' plus 'in-here' and not 'out-there' nor 'in-here' [Chang, pp98]) has yet to begin for the majority of us. Here, we would suggest, complexity theory can complement traditional spiritual approaches and help bring the higher dimensions of reality within our collective grasp. Humanity seems however to have a considerable journey ahead of it still, both to extract what spiritual knowledge still remains within our religious systems, and to develop and apply this, especially to world views and educational systems that increasingly neglect the wider issues, in favour of commercial specialisms and individuality.