Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Emergentism | Lineage: 5. Integral Theory

I wish to present Brendan Graham Dempsey's discourse on designing new civilizations of ecology, religion, science, and cultural behaviours, as aligned with my own these past many years. And though I have been steadily applying AN Whitehead's Process Philosophy to all human disciplines, I sense Brendan's Emergentism group is eclectically picking-and-choosing across a similar space which I have described in the past as the additive parts to the whole of process thought as an integral philosophy to all previous thoughts and constructs. Hence, I deem Process Philosophy as a broadly holistic construct in which all other constructs fit within such as process theology, process religion, process science, process evolution, process ecology, and so... including the area of emergentism. So, let's get to it and see where emergentism goes as an eclectic practice drawing across a variety of thought systems in reviving and resurrecting global, regional and local cultures for the 21st Century.

R.E. Slater
June 1, 2024
amazon link

Emergentism | Lineage: 5. Integral Theory

NOV 18, 2022

The last conceptual paradigm that we will consider here as a meaningful theological lineage of Emergentism is integral theory. Without doubt, the person most responsible for the current state of this school of thought is American philosopher and writer Ken Wilber—though Wilber is himself a synthesizer of various traditions and disciplines (including a number of those we have already considered).

The genius of Wilber’s integral vision lies in the marriage of its comprehensive intellectual scope with its depth of spiritual insight. The nature of this insight, however, is rather different from that so far considered. Specifically, all of the other lineages we have explored thus far arose out of a Western, predominantly Judeo-Christian context. From Hegel to Whitehead to Jung, the re-conceptualization of the sacred and the divine along evolutionary terms unfolded against the implicit background of the personal God of the Bible. Wilber, by contrast, brings a spiritual conception rooted in Eastern spirituality, specifically esoteric Buddhism—a point of departure that has considerable implications for his interpretive framework, as we shall see.

Wilber is also distinguished from the other thinkers above by the advantage of being contemporaneous with the advances of late 20th century complexity science, which he is able to make use of in framing his neo-holistic spiritual vision of an integral philosophy. So he opens his 1995 masterpiece, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, by situating his line of evolutionary thought within the context of insights from general systems theory, cybernetics, and nonequilibrium thermodynamics. Noting the unification complexity science brought to “arrow of time” for both thermodynamics (Matter) and evolution (Life), he writes:

The material world is perfectly capable of winding itself up, long before the appearance of life, and thus the “self-winding” nature of matter itself set the stage, or prepares the conditions, for the complex self-organization known as life. …The new sciences dealing with these “self-winding” or “self-organizing” systems are known collectively as the sciences of complexity…

As we have seen, complexity science returned the idea of emergence center stage, which states that a whole is more than the sum of its parts. With integral theory, Wilber develops his own general developmental philosophy of such whole-part relationships, utilizing Arthur Koestler’s idea of a “holon,” or a “whole-part,” as the basis of an entire metaphysical system.

The emergent holons of being

“In any developmental sequence,” Wilber writes, “what is whole at one stage becomes a part of a larger whole at the next stage.” Ultimately, the universe is comprised neither of matter nor ideas, but holons. Parts form wholes, and those wholes form parts of even larger wholes—just as we have seen. But Wilber provides some novel insights about this process. For instance, he notes: “Each successive level of evolution produces GREATER depth and LESS span.” That is, in the complexification of the Universe, the more complex something is, the more rare it is. Minerals will be plentiful, because they only exist in the domain of Matter; Life will be less plentiful, because it requires Matter and something else. Intelligent Life will be even less plentiful, and so forth. As we move deeper into the Mandala of Emergences, we find that the layers of the greatest depth also have the least breadth.

As we move up the pyramid of complexity, we also encounter greater and greater interior conscious richness. Adopting de Chardin’s Law of Complexity, Wilber agrees that complexity is only the exterior aspect of interior conscious experience. “The greater the depth of a holon,” he writes, “the greater its degree of consciousness.” However, Wilber builds upon this distinction, marrying it with another. Synthesizing the ideas of thinkers like Jantsch and Habermas (who emphasize that individual evolution only occurs within the broader context of a collective environmental framework), Wilber says that all of emergent evolutionary history has Interior and Exterior, Individual and Collective aspects to it, simultaneously.

With this insight, he hits upon the famous “Four Quadrants” model of evolution: the full, nested holarchy of complexifying emergences radiating out from the Big Bang via a “tetra-arising” reality distinguishable according to all four aspects:

As time progresses since the central origin point, and holons build on themselves (i.e., complexity grows), interior cognitive complexity deepens (Upper Left), the exterior structural complexity of the organism increases (Upper Right), the complexity of its environment niche increases (Lower Right), and the complexity of its worldview increases (Lower Left). At any stage of cosmic evolution, all four aspects of a holon generally complexify in tandem.

Wilber is a particularly keen philosopher when it comes to worldview evolution specifically. Indeed, this element of his thought is probably his greatest contribution to the field of evolutionary spirituality. Specifically, he recognizes a particular moral implication from the notion of complexification: namely, the more holistic something is, the more inclusive it is. New wholes “transcend and include” less inclusive ones, making them less parochial and dogmatic and more open and comprehensive.

In this way, emergence is to be seen as a truly developmental process, thus tying cognitive and moral maturation to the evolutionary process more broadly. As he puts it in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality:

[G]rowth occurs in stages, and stages, of course, are ranked in both a logical and chronological order. The more holistic patterns appear later in development because they have to await the emergence of the parts that they will then integrate or unify, just as whole sentences emerge only after whole words.

In essence, “growing up” in a developmentally progressive sense means including more from previous worldviews and becoming more and more inclusive of them—integrating more of the perspectives that came before. “Development,” he writes, “thus proceeds slowly from egocentrism to perspectivism, from realism to reciprocity and mutuality, and from absolutism to relativity.” Just as biological evolution shows a direction towards more diversity and variation, so cultural evolution shows a direction towards more diversity and contextually aware open-mindedness.

In his brilliant work Integral Psychology, Wilber brings together dozens upon dozens of developmental stage theories, whose synthesis affords him a truly meta-theoretical vantage of human psycho-cultural development. This allows him a meta-developmental stage model that unites everything from Graves’s ECLET model with the stages identified by thinkers like Jean Piaget, Michael Commons, Robert Kegan, Jane Loevinger, Susanne Cook-Greuter, James Fowler, and many others.

Wilber’s metatheoretical synthesis of various developmental theories

As people and cultures evolved through these stages, says Wilber, “each of these structures of consciousness generated a different sense of space-time, law and morality, cognitive style, self-identity, mode of technology (or productive forces)…and types of religious experience.” Ultimately, though, there is a trajectory to this development, as each stage advance equates to “an expansion of ego, an expansion of I-ness, into a higher and wider identity that integrates previously alienated processes.”

The notion of “self” widens, integrates more, becoming more and more inclusive as individual consciousness evolves. As Wilber puts it in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality:

[T]he ego begins more stably to emerge in the mythic stage (as a persona or role) and finally emerges, in the formal operational stage, as a self clearly differentiated from the external world and from its various roles (personae), which is the culmination of the overall egoic realms. …The point is that each of those stages is a lessening of egocentrism as one moves closer to the pure Self. …As we will see when we follow evolution into the transpersonal domain, these developments converge on an intuition of the very Divine as one’s very Self…a Self that is the great omega point of this entire series…of decentering from the small self in order to find the big Self. …The completely decentered self is the all-embracing Self (as Zen would say, the Self that is no-self).

Here Wilber’s distinctly Eastern lens begins to play an important part in his theorizing, as he attaches onto the stages of cognitive complexity devised by the Western neo-Piagetian developmentalists the “transpersonal” stages of mind articulated by the Eastern mystic Sri Aurobindo. More than that, he situates this cognitive developmental sequence as operating across four metaphysical realms: the Gross, Subtle, Causal, and Non-dual, a taxonomy adapted from Eastern metaphysics (sthula sarira, sukshma sarira, karana sarira, and turiya).

Ultimately, for Wilber, it is the formless Non-dual realm that is the true ground and aim of all things, not some historical Omega singularity of maximal complexity toward which we are marching. He teases the idea of a Whiteheadian God early in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, writing:

And a final Omega Point? That would imply a final Whole, and there is no such holon anywhere in manifest existence. But perhaps we can interpret it differently. Who knows, perhaps telos, perhaps Eros, moves the entire Kosmos, and God may indeed be an all-embracing chaotic Attractor, acting, as Whitehead said, throughout the world by gentle persuasion toward love. But that, to say the least, is quite ahead of the story.

The caginess that allows him to dangle this possibility, however, later resolves into a more emphatic clarity. “‘Ultimate Wholeness,’” he finally suggests, “this is the essence of dominator holarchies, pathological holarchies.” There is no Ultimate Whole; there are only holons in all directions, forever. Humanity is deluded looking for its answer in the realm of Form; it is only in the Formless that enlightenment is found:

And so the question remains: …is there still any sense in which a collective humanity would eventually evolve into an Absolute Omega Point, a pure Christ Consciousness (or some such) for all beings? …Does it even exist? The answer is that It does exist, and we are not heading toward it. Or away from it. Or around it. Uncreate Spirit, the causal unmanifest, is the nature and condition, the source and support, of this and every moment of evolution. …The Formless, in other words, is indeed an ultimate Omega, an ultimate End, but an End that is never reached in the world of form. …Thus, in the world of Form, the ultimate Omega appears as an ever-receding horizon of fulfilment…forever pulling us forward, forever retreating itself.

At this level of metaphysical and mystical speculation, however, words are admittedly imprecise. Is it possible Wilber’s “ever-receding” Omega is the same absolute God consciousness, whose nature is a dynamic, infinite increase in depth and beauty? It would not appear so. Wilber equates chasing after this God to the relentless slog of samsara, the vicious cycle of the world of Form that can only be broken through moksha, liberation:

Evolution seeks only this Formless summum bonum—it wants only this ultimate Omega—it rushes forward always and solely in search of this—and it will never find it, because evolution unfolds in the world of form. The Kosmos is driven forward endlessly, searching in the world of time for that which is altogether timeless. And since it will never find it, it will never cease the search. Samsara circles endlessly, and that is always the brutal nightmare hidden in its heart.

Wilber’s vision thus leads to a rather different conclusion than the other Emergentist theological traditions—to a “telos” in formless Emptiness, and not the rich Fullness of God more at home in the Western tradition.


There is, to conclude, a rich and diverse tradition of mystical and theological thinking in which a metamodern religion of Emergentism can locate its heritage. This tradition is cross-cultural and pan-religious. It is defined not by creed or even a symbolic system, but by a shared nexus of ideas—ideas linking change, becoming, process, development, evolution, history, complexity, consciousness, and non-duality. Such are the Emergentist themes upon which so many schools of thought have already offered their diverse variations, and from which Emergentist theology can draw in its own evolution and development.

In this sense, practitioners who locate themselves in any of these traditions might also identify as an Emergentist. Just as Methodists, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Mormons can all call themselves Christians, the Emergentist label allows for a broad tent of different theological commitments. Or, just as there are different yanas (“vehicles”) in Buddhism (Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, etc.), so might an Emergentist find their specific “vehicle” in a Jungian framework, another in integral terms, another in idealist terms, and so on. Emergentism is a religion based in the evolutionary orientation towards spirituality that recognizes different shapes of consciousness, different cultural codes, and different God-concepts. There are many ways up the mountain that yield such a vantage.

Emergentism: there is no chapter 7

Emergentism | Lineage: 4. Process Theology

I wish to present Brendan Graham Dempsey's discourse on designing new civilizations of ecology, religion, science, and cultural behaviours, as aligned with my own these past many years. And though I have been steadily applying AN Whitehead's Process Philosophy to all human disciplines, I sense Brendan's Emergentism group is eclectically picking-and-choosing across a similar space which I have described in the past as the additive parts to the whole of process thought as an integral philosophy to all previous thoughts and constructs. Hence, I deem Process Philosophy as a broadly holistic construct in which all other constructs fit within such as process theology, process religion, process science, process evolution, process ecology, and so... including the area of emergentism. So, let's get to it and see where emergentism goes as an eclectic practice drawing across a variety of thought systems in reviving and resurrecting global, regional and local cultures for the 21st Century.

R.E. Slater
June 1, 2024
amazon link

Alfred North Whitehead (left) and Teilhard de Chardin (right)

Emergentism | Lineage:
4. Process Theology

Nov 14, 2022

Another intellectual lineage rich in Emergentist insight is so-called “process theology,” a theological paradigm that parts with traditional notions of God as “eternal” and “unchanging” and instead stresses the ways in which God might be conceived as affected by temporal processes and subject to transformation. According to the process theologian John Cobb, “process theology may refer to all forms of theology that emphasize event, occurrence, or becoming over substance.”

The origins of process theology lie in the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, an influential English mathematician and philosopher active in the early 20th century. Drawing on a biological metaphor, Whitehead referred to his approach as the “philosophy of organism,” and saw reality itself as a dynamic, processual unfolding of potentialities into actualities. In his magnum opus Process and Reality, he articulates his conception of God according to this “philosophy of organism” in a manner highly consistent with the Emergentist vision.

According to Whitehead, God is “dipolar,” possessing both an original, primordial nature on one side and a complete, consequent nature on the other. In his primordial nature, God is “unconscious,” existing only as pure conceptual potential. Only through temporal existence does God gain actuality and consciousness:

One side of God’s nature is…primordial, eternal, actually deficient, and unconscious. The other side originates with physical experience derived from the temporal world, and then acquires integration with the primordial side. It is determined, incomplete, consequent, ‘everlasting,’ fully actual, and conscious.

God thus begins, according to Whitehead, as a purely conceptual idea—an abstract notion entirely “deficient” in terms of actuality and realness. He is transcendent and ideal, but not yet real. It requires converse with the immanent world of time and material for God to emerge in all actuality and full consciousness. “God is to be conceived as originated by conceptual experience with his process of completion motivated by consequent, physical experience, initially derived from the temporal world.”

In this way, the primordial God is only like a pale image or design of what actual experience will render vibrant and real—a bare, undetermined possibility that becomes clothed through the subjective reality of the consequent God. As Whitehead puts it, “The consequent nature of God is conscious…the weaving of God’s physical feelings upon his primordial concepts.”

This concretizing of God in reality unfolds according to a metaphysical process involving a few “ultimate categories,” which Whitehead calls the one, the many, and creativity. As he puts it, “It lies in the nature of things that the many enter into complex unity.” That is, “The ultimate metaphysical principle is the advance from disjunction to conjunction”—a movement from multiplicity to complex, integrated unity—and this advance occurs through creative novelty. Through a fundamental push towards increasing newness, many parts combine to form greater wholes. “The many become one, and are increased by one.”

The product of this universal process is God, who develops towards his full realization guided by an internal “prehension” of reality, a generic sense of subjectivity that deepens towards full consciousness. Events succeed one another, their course being dictated by this deep prehensive “appetite,” “thirst,” or “urge,” whereby God gradually emerges into more integrated, novel unities.

According to Whitehead, each temporal moment comes together to form the full totality of experience, which is ultimately retained in the consequent God everlastingly. God is the sum of all experience, preserved forever. Whitehead writes:

The image—and it is but an image—the image under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost. …He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life. …The consequent nature of God is the fluent world become ‘everlasting’ by its objective immortality in God.

In this way, the continual change of evolution combines into a stable persistent unity. The creative advance of the many towards the one culminates in the realization of God. “Creation achieves the reconciliation of permanence and flux when it has reached its final term which is everlastingness—the Apotheosis of the World.”

Though, such a “final term” may not be so final, at least in terms of reaching some resting equilibrium. Reality is fundamentally dynamic and processual; creativity is truly essential to the nature of both God and world. In the “Apotheosis of the World,” then, “Neither God, nor the World, reaches static completion. Both are in the grip of the ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty. Either of them, God and the World, is the instrument of novelty for the other.” By means of this, the World becomes God, and God becomes World.

“Stardust Gazing Back” by Rob Rey

The connections with Emergentism are clear and powerful. Whitehead provides a robust metaphysics for considering the complexification process as the “creative advance of novelty” motivated by an intrinsic divine urge towards Self-realization. In this Self-realization process, the Universe becomes apotheosed—rendered God—as it emerges to full consciousness from unconscious potentiality.

Another thinker often classed among the process theologians is the great Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French paleontologist, teacher, scientist, and Jesuit priest writing in the early to mid-20th century. As a theologian, de Chardin brought his extensive knowledge of geology, biology, anatomy, and evolutionary history to bear on reframing religion in processual terms. In amazingly prescient ways, he anticipated many of the insights of complexity science and consciousness studies that we have already encountered, tying these directly to a new conception of human spirituality.

De Chardin parted with the evolutionary scientists of his day who claimed to see no trajectory or direction to the evolutionary process. For de Chardin, the fossil record provided clear evidence, across species, that evolution clearly favored one thing at least: the emergence and development of nervous systems/brains. While it may be fashionable among scientists, even today, to see only meandering change,

from the moment that the measure (or parameter) of the evolving phenomenon is sought in the elaboration of the nervous systems, not only do the countless genera and species fall naturally into place, but the entire network of their verticils, their layers, their branches, rises up like a quivering spray of foliage. Not only does the arrangement of animal forms according to their degree of cerebralisation correspond exactly to the classification of systematic biology, but it also confers on the tree of life a sharpness of feature, an impetus, which is incontestably the hall-mark of truth. Such coherence—and, let me add, such ease, inexhaustible fidelity and evocative power in this coherence—could not be the result of chance. Among the infinite modalities in which the complication of life is dispersed, the differentiation of nervous tissue stands out, as theory would lead us to expect, as a significant transformation. It provides a direction; and therefore it proves that evolution has a direction.

For de Chardin, however, this “cerebralization” process was but the outward manifestation of a far more important inner development: the evolution of consciousness. Structural complexity was the exterior correlate of what he called “the within of things,” the interior, subjective reality of experience. It was towards the deepening of this subjective interiority that the Universe ultimately aimed. This idea is the guiding premise of all de Chardin’s profound works.

His most influential book, The Phenomenon of Man, is divided into three parts, each correlating to the three great phases of this evolutionary saga: “Pre-Life,” “Life, and “Thought” (akin to what we have been calling Matter, Life/Mind, and Culture): “three events sketching in the past and determining for the future…a single and continuing trajectory, the curve of the phenomenon of man.”

Beginning with Pre-Life (Matter), de Chardin not only considers the essential role of energy in the Universe’s complexification, but, almost prophetically, looks past the false narrative of thermodynamic heat death and dissolution (then still the consensus view) to appreciate instead how energy’s complexifying power holds the key to the future of the Universe. He writes:

[E]nergy nowadays represents for science the most primitive form of universal stuff. Hence we find our minds instinctively tending to represent energy as a kind of homogenous, primordial flux in which all that has shape in the world is but a series of fleeting ‘vortices.’ From this point of view, the universe would find its stability and final unity at the end of its decomposition. It would be held together from below. Let us keep the discoveries and indisputable measurements of physics. But let us not become bound and fettered to the perspective of final equilibrium that they seem to suggest. A more complete study of the movements of the world will oblige us, little by little, to turn it upside down; in other words, to discover that if things hold and hold together, it is only by reason of complexity, from above.

De Chardin goes even further, however, suggesting that “all energy is psychic in nature,” such that we may consider it as simultaneously the physical tangential energy drawing everything together, as well as “a radial energy which draws it towards ever greater complexity and centricity—in other words forwards” (cf. the Complexity-Consciousness Continuum, pp. 128-129).

But de Chardin does not invoke complexity as some vague notion; he offers a precise definition—one that, despite predating the advent of complexity science proper, is remarkably in accord with contemporary thinking. He writes:

We will define the ‘complexity’ of a thing as the quality the thing possesses of being composed -

a. of a larger number of elements, which are

b. more tightly organized among themselves.

In short, complexification entails an increase in parts forming wholes with increasing connections among them. More than that, de Chardin explicitly acknowledges the role of emergence in this complexification process, writing:

By its very construction, it is true, every organism is always and inevitably reducible into its component parts. But it by no means follows that the sum of the parts is the same as the whole, or that, in the whole, some specifically new value may not emerge.

All of this leads de Chardin to formulate what he calls the “Law of Complexity,” which states that for every outer increase in structural complexity in an entity there is a directly correlated inner increase in the level of consciousness.

The more complex a being is, so our Scale of Complexity tells us, the more is it centered upon itself and therefore the more conscious does it become. In other words, the higher the degree of complexity in a living creature, the higher its consciousness; and vice versa. The two properties vary in parallel and simultaneously. If we depict them in diagrammatic form, they are equivalent and interchangeable.

These insights, tying complexity to deepening consciousness and deepening consciousness to the direction of evolution, led de Chardin to see a clear story in evolution—one that we have already represented by the Emergentist Great Spiral of Becoming. He writes:

Thus the rising scale conforms both to the ascending movement toward higher consciousness and to the unfolding of evolutionary time. Does not this suggest that, by using the degree of complexity as a guide, we may advance very much more surely than by following any other lead as we seek to penetrate to the truth of the world and to assess, in terms of absolute values, the relative importance, the place, of all things?

The absolute value that de Chardin posits as the culmination of this complexification process is the “Omega Point” (his coinage) of time. As a Christian thinker, de Chardin articulates this spiritual telos as a “Christogenesis,” the emergence of the truly incarnate divine in the world, the “awareness of the rise of a certain universal Presence which is at once immortalizing and unifying.” Far from a mere technological singularity, de Chardin envisions the Omega Point of mankind as a kind of mystical awakening to the ultimate divine fullness.

Emergentism | Lineage: 3. Analytical Psychology

I wish to present Brendan Graham Dempsey's discourse on designing new civilizations of ecology, religion, science, and cultural behaviours, as aligned with my own these past many years. And though I have been steadily applying AN Whitehead's Process Philosophy to all human disciplines, I sense Brendan's Emergentism group is eclectically picking-and-choosing across a similar space which I have described in the past as the additive parts to the whole of process thought as an integral philosophy to all previous thoughts and constructs. Hence, I deem Process Philosophy as a broadly holistic construct in which all other constructs fit within such as process theology, process religion, process science, process evolution, process ecology, and so... including the area of emergentism. So, let's get to it and see where emergentism goes as an eclectic practice drawing across a variety of thought systems in reviving and resurrecting global, regional and local cultures for the 21st Century.

R.E. Slater
June 1, 2024
amazon link

Emergentism | Lineage:
3. Analytical Psychology

NOV 07, 2022

Another paradigm with remarkable overlap with Emergentism, despite coming from a very different starting place, is the analytical psychology pioneered by Carl Jung in the early to mid-20th century.

The focus of Jungian psychology, and the aim of its associated therapies, is essentially making the unconscious conscious—that is, bringing to the full light of conscious awareness what had formerly been obscured, neglected, or unknown about the psyche. According to Jung, that is the universal aim of all conscious beings.

The very first sentence of Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections echoes this universal theme. “My life,” recounts Jung,

is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole.

The individual is but a participant in a much larger collective process of the growth and deepening of consciousness per se.

The therapeutic aspects of this process are familiar enough, as when one sees a therapist who helps uncover a traumatic experience that had been repressed (i.e., pushed into unconsciousness), allowing for healing and wholeness.

For Jung, this method only expresses in miniature what is happening at a much grander, collective level. The increase in consciousness we experience as individuals mirrors the historical emergence of consciousness in general as it evolved and deepened through the life of humanity.

The importance of the emergence of human consciousness for the universe as a whole eventually crystallized for Jung as the emerging myth of human history. In a flash of realization, he saw how this human endeavor was the basis for a whole new sense of cosmic meaning. For, only with consciousness does the Universe truly come into being. “By virtue of his reflective faculties,” writes Jung,

man is raised out of the animal world, and by his mind he demonstrates that nature has put a high premium precisely upon the development of consciousness. Through consciousness he takes possession of nature by recognizing the existence of the world and thus, as it were, confirming the Creator. The world becomes the phenomenal world, for without conscious reflection it would not be.

Without a subjective knower, the objective Universe would remain unknown, unconscious of itself—as, indeed, it was for billions of years. But with the rise of conscious observers, the Universe awakens. Creation is confirmed. God becomes conscious of himself—through the mind—and the whole tumultuous epic of evolution begins to clarify:

If the Creator were conscious of Himself, He would not need conscious creatures; nor is it probable that the extremely indirect methods of creation, which squander millions of years upon the development of countless species and creatures, are the outcome of purposeful intention. Natural history tells us of a haphazard and casual transformation of species over hundreds of millions of years of devouring and being devoured. The biological and political history of man is an elaborate repetition of the same thing. But the history of the mind offers a different picture. Here the miracle of reflecting consciousness intervenes—the second cosmogony. The importance of consciousness is so great that one cannot help suspecting the element of meaning to be concealed somewhere within all the monstrous, apparently senseless biological turmoil, and that the road to its manifestation was ultimately found on the level of warm-blooded vertebrates possessed of a differentiated brain—found as if by chance, unintended and unforeseen, and yet somehow sensed, felt and groped for out of some dark urge.

In this way, the unconscious God is finally rendered conscious of himself—by means of humanity. The eons-long development of human consciousness, gradually groped towards through a nearly blind process of biological evolution, was the means by which God has become Self-aware. “Man,” says Jung, “is the mirror which God holds up before him, or the sense organ with which he apprehends his being.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere: “Human consciousness is the only seeing eye of the Deity.”

An illustration from Jung’s Red Book

For Jung, this psychological realization returned the genuinely religious sensibility to modern man, whom reductionistic materialism had otherwise left mythologically adrift in a meaningless, indifferent cosmos, without aim or purpose.

Appreciating humanity’s role once more in a divine drama returned it a position of significance in the grand scheme of reality—a causal role that had been lost with the decline of traditional religion. Now, man could once more serve his God—not through burnt sacrifices and offerings, but through the very expansion of his consciousness:

That is the meaning of divine service, of the service which man can render to God, that light may emerge from the darkness, that the Creator may become conscious of His creation, and man conscious of himself. That is the goal, or one goal, which fits man meaningfully into the scheme of creation, and at the same time confers meaning upon it…

An illustration from Jung’s Red Book

The great Jungian analyst and philosopher Edward Edinger saw in Jung’s vision nothing less than “the new myth” for our time. In his book The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man, Edinger summarizes the new grand narrative in this way:

The new myth postulates that the created universe and its most exquisite flower, man, make up a vast enterprise for the creation of consciousness; that each individual is a unique experiment in that process; and that the sum total of consciousness created by each individual in his lifetime is deposited as a permanent addition in the collective treasury of the archetypal psyche.

That treasury is the evolving God-image itself, which grows in resolution and clarity as humanity awakens to greater understanding of its Self, rendering more of the unconscious conscious:

On the basis of our emerging knowledge of the unconscious the traditional image of God has been enlarged. Traditionally God has been pictured as all-powerful and all-knowing. Divine Providence was seen as guiding all things according to the inscrutable but benevolent divine purpose. The extent of divine awareness did not receive much attention. The new myth enlarges the God-image by introducing explicitly the additional feature of the unconsciousness of God. His omnipotence, omniscience and divine purpose are not always known to Him. He needs man's capacity to know Him in order to know Himself.

In Jungian psychology, the nature of consciousness itself is probed and made conscious in relationship to certain archetypal images, such as one finds continually recurring in the world’s mythologies and religious traditions.

These archetypes provide symbolic representations of unconscious dynamics which, through their tangible manifestation in Culture, become objects of consciousness. That objective manifestation of unconscious content into the light of consciousness allows it to be engaged by the subject, who can then process, accept, and ultimately use it as the basis of further growth. In this way, the “symbolic imaginary” of human Culture continually develops and expands as the (collective) psyche grows in self-understanding—a psychological description of the process of cultural evolution we described earlier.

According to Jung, God is one such archetype—the greatest one, in fact, for God is an archetype of the Self (see pp. 127-128). The evolution of the God-image thus evolves with the development of the Self. In this way, the development of the human psyche, the Self, is the means by which God develops. “Mankind is now caught up in the process of divine transformation,” says Edinger.

God has fallen into man and man has become a participant in the divine drama. This fact remained on the symbolic, projected level as long as the process was confined to one man (Christ) who was worshipped as divine. But now, with the psychological understanding of this imagery, the experience becomes available potentially to all individuals.

In this way, Jung concludes (just as Hegel does) that the “picture-thinking” of the Christian myth is but an early developmental stage that leads towards the universal awakening to God consciousness in the life of every individual subject.

Icon of the Transfiguration of Christ

In Christianity, we find the realization of God consciousness projected as a story, something “out there” that happened long ago to a particular divine human. With the development of consciousness, though, we can now see that this mythic image was actually speaking to something that happens internally. We learn to withdraw the projection, taking in what had been externalized, and thereby find God consciousness as a reality to be experienced by all conscious beings. This mystical union of subject and object, the “conjunction of opposites” as Jung considered it, is the ultimate aim of the evolution of consciousness, where the Self is finally identified as God.

But, like the Hegelians, the Jungians appreciate that this Self-realization caps a developmental progression that has been unfolding over millennia, throughout the various epochs of human cultural evolution. Culture is the locus of humanity’s increasing self-consciousness, and thus the locus of the divine drama of God’s coming to full Self-consciousness.

In the stages of culture, we can see the evolution of consciousness playing out, and plot the progression of consciousness’s advance by looking at the symbols that have been emerging from the collective unconscious.

In his great work The Origins and History of Consciousness, Jungian psychologist and philosopher Erich Neumann provides a survey of this evolution. Whereas Hegel could only philosophically speculate on the movement Spirit takes through an idealized (if often highly arbitrary) logic, Neumann can bring to bear the insights of analytical psychology, with all its empirical grounding in individual psychotherapeutic analysis.

Because the unconscious is not only individual but collective, evidence from personal psychological development shines a light on the evolution of the collective archetypal Self, which is to say, God. The evolution of God thus mirrors the evolution of the psyche, and vice versa. “In the course of its ontogenetic development,” writes Neumann,

the individual ego consciousness has to pass through the same archetypal stages which determined the evolution of consciousness in the life of humanity. The individual has in his own life to follow the road that humanity has trod before him, leaving traces of its journey in the archetypal sequence of the mythological images…

Or, as he puts it elsewhere: “The evolution of consciousness by stages is as much a collective human phenomenon as a particular individual phenomenon. Ontogenetic development may therefore be regarded as a modified recapitulation of phylogenetic development.”

Analytic psychology is further enriched, compared to Hegelian phenomenology, by its appreciation of archetypal images that arise in the evolution of consciousness. Whereas Hegel spoke of “shapes of consciousness” figuratively, Jungian analysis can actually bring genuine symbolic forms to bear in its tracking of psychological development.

Mythic imagery is the specific imaginal content that evolves through different stages of consciousness. “Consciousness thus acquires images (Bilder) and education (Bildung), widens its horizon, and charges itself with contents which constellate a new psychic potential.”

So Neumann can not only describe the emergence of 0D consciousness, but also link it to the specific mythic image with which it historically and psychologically correlates—in this case, the Ouroboros.

This is the mythic Dragon of Chaos, the primordial matrix of the undifferentiated matter, and thus the mater (Mother) of all being—the Unconscious per se. At this level, the individual remains psychologically (con)fused with their environment. As Neumann puts it: “Nothing is himself; everything is world.” The Ouroboros is a boundless symbol of infinity—just as a geometric point represents an infinitesimal. There is nothing outside of it. Its domain is the vast sea, the sprawling depths, the bottomless abyss—the dark unconscious.

The Ouroboros is the archetypal symbol of 0D consciousness, then, and the Animistic worldview of early conscious humans (cf. p. 110). Its psychic confusion stands as a chaotic lack of distinction and organization relative to the increasingly complex Self that will emerge from it. The Dragon is thus a symbol of chaos and entropy, from which Creation arises through successive stages of complexification (i.e., differentiation and integration). (For instance, from the “formless and void” waters in Genesis, the Creator initiates a series of separations that serve to organize the world; Tiamat, the Sumerian mother Dragon of Chaos, is divided in order to create the world, etc. Cf. my monograph on this mythic trope and its application in the New Testament.)

The transition to 1D consciousness marks the differentiation of a strong individual ego, and thus a separation from the Ouroboric matrix. The archetype of this level of consciousness is thus not the Dragon, but the Dragon Slayer—he who slays and divides the Dragon. The Hero is born.

Culturally speaking, the level of metameme or justification system becomes that of Imperial culture, with all its glorification of the hero and the valorization of the independent, egoic strength and power of the individual (cf. pp. 149-151). In terms of the God-image, we find the concretization from diffuse mana to the anthropomorphic pantheon of deities. So Neumann notes that “there is…a connection between the hero as bearer of the ego, with its power to discipline the will and mold the personality, and the formative phase in which the gods are crystallized out from a mass of impersonal forces…” just as we noted earlier.

The Hero Myth, though, which is to say the Fight with the Dragon myth, is really the archetype of all differentiation processes. Since psychological development and individuation proceed by a movement of differentiation and integration—of the subject becoming an object to itself at a higher level of awareness, as psychologist Robert Kegan puts it—the archetype recurs at every stage of development. Neumann observes:

The dragon fight is correlated psychologically with different phases in the ontogenetic development of consciousness. The conditions of the fight, its aim and also the period in which it takes place, vary. It occurs during the childhood phase, during puberty, and at the change of consciousness in the second half of life, wherever in fact a rebirth or a reorientation of consciousness is indicated.

The nature of the “Dragon” thus shifts with each developmental movement. For the 2D consciousness embracing a moralistic religious worldview, the Dragon is the Devil (itself a symbol of 1D egoic pride); whereas for the 3D consciousness embracing an individualistic modern worldview, the Dragon is the stifling constriction of the old traditional order (which is to say, the 2D world) (e.g., the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire’s injunction to “Écrasez l’infâme!” or “Crush the infamy! of the Roman Catholic Church). The Hero is thus always overcoming older, outmoded levels of consciousness on the way to greater self-knowledge. The Dragon becomes whatever embedded matrix must be transcended on the psyche’s progression into uncharted territory.

This process of differentiation (recognizing the distinction of subject from objective background) and then integration (recognizing that object as existing within the subject) is the developmental psychological movement per se. As a process, it can be said to culminate only once the subject has ceased confusing herself with the world and has withdrawn all projections into herself—even God. For, “so long as God is exteriorized,” says Neumann,

he acts as the “real God outside,” though a later consciousness may then diagnose him as a projection of the God-image which dwells in the psyche. The formation and development of human personality largely consists in “taking in”—introjecting—these exteriorized contents.

The last object is taken into the subject, and the Self is fully understood. The psyche is all. Neumann writes: “It is necessary for the structure of personality that contents originally taking the form of transpersonal deities should finally come to be experienced as contents of the human psyche.” This is the aim towards which psychological development unfolds—one it is continually reaching towards as consciousness evolves, ever new Dragons are slain, and the Hero becomes more and more sure of himself.

From Adyahanzi’s ‘Songs of the Self’: The Imperial myth of the
Sun God slaying the Ouroboros in which he lay swallowed up

As Edinger expressed it, the knowing of the world develops into a knowing of the self, which then evolves into a knowing with the Self:

[W]e begin our psychic existence in the unconscious state of known object and only laboriously, with the growth of the ego, achieve the relatively tranquil status of knowing subject. Then, if development is to proceed, the relative freedom we have won must be relinquished as the ego becomes aware that it is the object of a transpersonal subject, namely the Self. After both of these experiences the way is open for the reconciling third, which I take to be the full meaning of “knowing with.”

According to Edinger, “The experience of knowing with can be understood to mean the ability to participate in a knowing process simultaneously as subject and object, the knower and the known.” Such, as we saw, is the essence of the mystical experience, where knower and known come together and God consciousness manifests.

In such a state, the self perceives itself as an object of the Self, as well as a subject relating to the Self. So, Edinger says, “the full experience of being the known object of an ‘other’ knowing subject is…experienced as an encounter with the inner God-image, the Self. The archetypal image that carries the clearest symbolic expression of the ego’s experience of being the known object is the image of the Eye of God.”

Jungian analysis would thus affirm our representation of God consciousness in terms of the Kaleidoscopic Eye (p. 137) The awakened Eye is the same for both Seer and Seen. Or, as Meister Eckhart put it: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

In this way, according to Edinger, each demands the other: “because the Self has been seen by the ego, the Self’s consciousness has been promoted. In this way, God—or the Self—needs man.” The Self sees the ego, and exalts it to its transpersonal reality, while the ego sees the Self and allows it to incarnate in concrete, actualized reality.

Emergentism | Chapter 2: From Reduction to Emergence

I wish to present Brendan Graham Dempsey's discourse on designing new civilizations of ecology, religion, science, and cultural behaviours, as aligned with my own these past many years. And though I have been steadily applying AN Whitehead's Process Philosophy to all human disciplines, I sense Brendan's Emergentism group is eclectically picking-and-choosing across a similar space which I have described in the past as the additive parts to the whole of process thought as an integral philosophy to all previous thoughts and constructs. Hence, I deem Process Philosophy as a broadly holistic construct in which all other constructs fit within such as process theology, process religion, process science, process evolution, process ecology, and so... including the area of emergentism. So, let's get to it and see where emergentism goes as an eclectic practice drawing across a variety of thought systems in reviving and resurrecting global, regional and local cultures for the 21st Century.

R.E. Slater
June 1, 2024
Emergentism | Chapter 2:
From Reduction to Emergence

SEP 20, 2022

New Laws: Thermodynamics and Evolution

By the mid-19th century, with modernity in full swing, two new scientific fields would enter the fray that, at first, seemed only to confirm its increasingly disenchanted worldview: the study of thermodynamics and the theory of evolution.

One seemed to imply that all available energy in the universe was irreversibly running out, leading to the eventual freezing death of the cosmos; the other, that life had developed completely naturally through blind processes of chance mutation and selection.

Such ideas seemed to fit well with the rest of the metaphysics and cosmic story of modernity: namely, a blind, indifferent universe without goal or meaning. Or, perhaps a better way to see it: these paradigms were simply interpreted according to the dominant worldview of the time—one reductionistic, pessimistic, and bleak—and thus only seemed, at first blush, to confirm people’s popular perceptions.

Nevertheless, these new paradigms would eventually become key to a total re-evaluation of reductionism itself—even if, in the late 1800s, no one could yet foresee this.

Let’s start with thermodynamics.

As we’ve seen, classical physics had come to be defined by its assumption that everything can be reduced to particles in motion, which Newton had shown to obey certain mathematical laws that let us predict future states and reconstruct prior ones with just a few measurements—the way you can deduce where a cue ball will end up (as well as where it was coming from) as long as you know its current position and velocity. Reductionistic theory assured that the world was a deterministic machine, and the only thing stopping us from predicting the behavior of everything from clouds to kings with absolute certainty (the way we can predict eclipses or the return of comets, for instance) was simply the practical difficulty of getting all the measurements.

Well, the formulation of the famous laws of thermodynamics would pose a major challenge to that assumption, and begin to problematize the very premises of reductionism.

The laws of thermodynamics came about by studying how energy behaves in closed or “isolated” systems—which is to say, containers cut off from the rest of the environment. Originally, scientists were looking at how heat acted inside engines (steam engines being quite the craze in the early 1800s). Today we might think of a thermos as a good example of an isolated system, since it’s specifically designed to retain the temperature of what’s inside by keeping it as insulated as possible from the surrounding environment. By studying how heat behaved in closed systems like this, scientists sought to formulate universal laws about energy (just as Galileo formulated universal laws of motion by means of isolation and simplification).

As codified in the first law of thermodynamics, then, it was discovered that, in a genuinely closed system, the total amount of energy remains fixed and unchanging. No energy is coming in or going out, nor can energy itself ever be created or destroyed. Its total amount will remain constant—even if it changes form or distribution.

So far, so good. (This idea of “conservation” pairs well with the idea of the conservation of motion in Newtonian physics. Nature always balances her books in the physical accounting of the world.)

But things become more problematic with the second law, likewise deduced from observation, which says that the total energy in the system will gradually and irrevocably dissipate until a homogenous equilibrium state is reached. Differences even out, distinctions blur, and gradients are eradicated over time.

Think what happens when you add hot water to a thermos of cold water. That energetic hot water won’t stay all clumped together in one place; instead, the heat will spread out (or “dissipate”) until all the water in the thermos finally becomes one uniform temperature. This is called “entropy,” and the second law asserts that free energy is always being entropically dissipated over time—degraded, you could say, until eventually it’s totally useless and the system reaches a uniform, featureless balance: equilibrium.

This insight created a big problem for the conception of Newtonian reality as particles in motion whose future and past states could all be predicted with deterministic certitude. Instead of being able to deduce it, once something reaches equilibrium it’s impossible to know its earlier state (AKA its “initial conditions”). You can’t deduce from a warm thermos that there was ever hot water of a certain temperature added to cold water of a certain temperature; all of that information is lost once the temperatures mix due to entropy.

The laws of Newtonian physics were completely reversible. Gravity might bring a rock down, but enough force against gravity could throw a rock right back up again. The laws of thermodynamics, by contrast, had a clear irreversible trajectory. The hot and cold water will mix spontaneously over time, but trying to separate them again requires a lot of energy—free energy that no longer exists in the system, precisely because it’s been dissipated.

In short, according to Newton’s laws, time was negligible; according to the laws of thermodynamics, however, time has a clear direction. It gives us what Arthur Eddington famously called the “arrow of time.” And, according to the laws of thermodynamics, that arrow seemed to move only one way: from a gradient to equilibrium, from difference to sameness, from distinct order to jumbled chaos. According to the second law, entropy in a closed system can only increase, suggesting the universe itself must be like an engine irrevocably running out of fuel, destined for dissolution and death.

At least, that was how its cosmic implications came to be interpreted by an increasingly modernized world. Primed to imagine life as a meaningless accident in an indifferent cosmos, this discovery fell comfortably in line with the grim reductionist worldview—even though it actually flew in the face of the scientific reductionism that had helped found that worldview (and would eventually help overthrow it entirely—something we’ll come back to).

Anyway, the cracks in the reductionistic edifice didn’t end there.

Interestingly, at roughly the same time the laws of thermodynamics were being discovered, the theory of evolution erupted onto the scene and caused its own disruptive stir. According to this new theory, the vastly different kinds of species we see in the world came about not through divine fiat all at once (as the traditional religious story had told it), but through an eons-long unguided process of continual branching and pruning of the tree of life from the shoot of an initial common ancestor.

As Darwin expressed it concisely in The Origin of Species in 1859:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

In this way, life was continually diversifying over time, creating more and more novelty, generating more and more difference. “And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being,” concluded Darwin, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”

This process seemed to follow its own set of universal principles, different from Newtonian law. The “elaborately constructed forms” of the animals, says Darwin, “have all been produced by laws acting around us”—laws new to science, such that “whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” That is, against the static universe of Newtonian physics, a dynamic process of diversification was leading to more and more elaborate forms over time.

Again, despite the challenge this posed to classical reductionism, the immediate interpretation of this theory only fed the growing divide between materialist reductionists and religious traditionalists. Against the protests of the traditionalist holdouts (who fought evolution as a threat to their mythological sense of meaning), those committed to modernism and science felt compelled to embrace the conclusion that Darwin’s insights confirmed the basic hunch of the reductionist worldview. Life was not the product of any Intelligent Designer, but only blind mutation and nature’s savage “culling of the herd.”

Such a sense of nature—“red in tooth and claw,” as the poet Tennyson assessed it for his religiously shaken fellow Victorians—was the last straw for any religiously inclined rational mind, now helplessly buffeted from an ancient traditional holism of cosmic meaning and benevolent care:
Are God and Nature then at strife, That Nature lends such evil dreams? So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life; That I, considering everywhere Her secret meaning in her deeds, And finding that of fifty seeds She often brings but one to bear, I falter where I firmly trod, And falling with my weight of cares Upon the great world's altar-stairs That slope thro' darkness up to God, I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope, And gather dust and chaff, and call To what I feel is Lord of all, And faintly trust the larger hope.

But, like entropic energy itself, that larger hope would only grow fainter and fainter with time, until, by the 20th century, it seemed to dissipate altogether. The reductionistic worldview ushered in by modernity had become the new cultural default. The old naïve holism of religion was lost, along with all its assumed sense of value and meaning. Reductionist science—along with nihilistic interpretations of thermodynamics and evolution—had fundamentally changed people’s perspective regarding the part that humans played in the cosmic whole, leading them to no longer see themselves as agential wholes but only deterministic meat-suits moving through space.

As a consequence, people today who feel they know a thing or two (and likely find themselves in positions of power) can, as we said, confidently assert: Life’s just a cosmic accident; the fit survive by preying on the weak and stupid; morality’s a fairy tale invented to keep people in line; and, sooner or later, the sun will explode, the universe will end in heat death, and none of this dazzling sound and fury will have meant a goddamn thing—so why not live it up while we can? By the early 20th century, all of the ingredients for the meaning crisis were firmly in place.

As it turns out, however, this nihilistic worldview is actually… well… just simply wrong. It is based on contradictions, incomplete science, and unjustified extrapolations—failures that the new science has since begun to correct, but which nevertheless still hold sway in the public imagination. Let’s unpack this and, in the process, introduce the new science of complexity.

First of all, the classical reductionism of Newtonian physics was reversible; it didn’t matter in which direction you “ran the tape”—backwards or forwards—everything was just a matter of deterministic particles in motion.

However, both thermodynamics and evolution were different. They presented a model of reality quite contrary to this idea, with laws that had a direction. Entropy demanded a distinct “arrow of time,” and descent with modification meant that life was growing more and more varied with time.

Thus, despite being subsumed into the bleak modern worldview, these paradigms seemed to contradict some of its founding assumptions.

But if this were true, and the universe was irreversibly unfolding in some particular direction, which direction was it? Thermodynamics and evolution glaringly contradicted one another on this crucial point. One suggested the world was losing its usable energy and winding down towards the simple uniformity and homogeneity of equilibrium; the other, that the world was becoming ever more differentiated and elaborately structured—even in a “progress towards perfection.”

Well, which was it? Chaos or order? Inert sameness or dynamic novelty? What was the true ending to the cosmic story science was telling?

The resolution of this conundrum would only come with the transcendence of the reductionist paradigm altogether—a process set in motion towards the end of the 19th century, and only fully realized quite recently.
The Birth of Emergence

Reductionism, and the worldview it gave rise to, are predicated on the idea that we can understand reality best by isolating parts from the whole. By first analyzing the components, thought the pioneers of modern science, we can then work our way up to an understanding of the totality—because, after all, isn’t the whole just a sum of its parts?

Well, it just so happens: Nope, it’s not. It’s really, really not.

We know now something that the early scientists didn’t (and couldn’t): that when it comes to the more complex realities of nature, it’s not just about the parts and how they work by themselves. It’s just as much—if not more—about how the parts relate to one another.

Wholes are made not only of parts, but of the relations of those parts. How one part works in concert with another part, and that one with another, and all of them together—those are dynamics that matter as much as the stuff of the parts themselves.

Wholes aren’t just things—they’re also processes.

Unfortunately, these inter-related dynamics are precisely what get lost when you break apart a whole and just consider its parts in isolation. Just as you’d destroy the life of an organism if you dissect it, so do you destroy some of the most vital aspects of genuinely novel wholes when you cut them up. Separation into parts destroys the connections, and the connections are what make it what it is.

In this way, the full truth of things lies, it turns out, in precisely what the early scientists did their best to systematically remove: relationality, interconnectivity—that is, complexity.

This is why it would take a science of complexity to fill in the gaps left by the reductionistic paradigm and fix the errors it introduced, even as that paradigm was itself an advance over the confused holism of traditional religion. But this would take some time to… well, emerge.

Eventually, though, as modern science progressed, and certain phenomena remained doggedly immune to reductionistic analysis (particularly life and mind), some influential thinkers began to take notice and theorize along the relational lines expressed above. They recognized that there was something that a consideration of parts alone failed to provide, and that reductionism had been missing a bigger picture.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill was one of the earliest such thinkers in this vein. Already in 1843, he presciently wrote in his book A System of Logic:

All organised bodies are composed of parts, similar to those composing inorganic nature, and which have even themselves existed in an inorganic state; but the phenomena of life, which result from the juxtaposition of those parts in a certain manner, bear no analogy to any of the effects which would be produced by the action of the component substances considered as mere physical agents. To whatever degree we might imagine our knowledge of the properties of the several ingredients of a living body to be extended and perfected, it is certain that no mere summing up of the separate actions of those elements will ever amount to the action of the living body itself.

Contrary to the assumption of the reductionists, Mill said, the whole is not just a sum of its parts. The behavior of life seemed to conform to principles that depended on the parts working holistically in concert, and thereby creating something truly novel.

Life and mind clearly presented problems for the reductionist view of science—problems future thinkers would attempt to resolve in this vein. In his 1874 book Problems of Life and Mind, the philosopher George Henry Lewes picked up Mill’s line of thought and extended it, coining a new term for the sort of phenomena Mill had put his finger on. He called them “emergents.” “Every resultant,” Lewes said,

is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same—their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogenous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.

So began the “British Emergentist” movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which included Lewes, as well as figures like Samuel Alexander, C. D. Broad, and Conway Lloyd Morgan. Their radical idea: emergent wholes are more than the sum of their parts. With this crucial insight, the British Emergentists would lay the groundwork for future theories of emergence, such as are today a mainstay of complexity science.

Recognizing that, in the case of emergents, wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it was clear that certain properties only pertain at certain levels of existence.

To use a common contemporary example, water is wet, but a single H2O molecule is not. Even though water is just a large collection of these molecules, the quality of wetness doesn’t arise until you reach the macro-scale. Zoom in and wetness disappears; zoom out and it emerges. “More is different,” a common refrain in emergence theory, means that more complexity in a system causes the qualities of its higher-level wholes to differ markedly (and often unpredictably) from those of its lower-level parts. The universe, it turns out, has different levels, and these different levels have their own laws.

The tiered, hierarchical nature of reality thus becomes an important aspect of emergence theory. Alexander, writing in his 1920 book Space, Time, and Deity, writes:

The emergence of a new quality from any level of existence means that at that level there comes into being a certain constellation or collocation of the motions belonging to that level, and this collocation possesses a new quality distinctive of the higher-complex. …The higher-quality emerges from the lower level of existence and has its roots therein, but it emerges therefrom, and it does not belong to that lower level, but constitutes its possessor a new order of existent with its special laws of behavior.

These “levels” emerge when more and more of reality is taken up and included together in deepening webs of relationship. That is how the universe complexifies through cosmic evolution. So Morgan stated in 1922, later published in his work Emergent Evolution, that just what emerges is precisely “some new kind of relation…at each ascending step.” Such a theory of new orders of reality implies, says Morgan:

(1) that there is increasing complexity in integral systems as new kinds of relatedness are successively super-venient; (2) that reality is, in this sense, in process of development; (3) that there is an ascending scale of what we may speak of as richness in reality; and (4) that the richest reality we know lies at the apex of the pyramid of emergent evolution up to date.

Perhaps this cosmic “pyramid” of “levels” and “ascending scales” is starting to sound a bit familiar? Despite taking a mortal blow from modern reductionism, was something like the “Great Chain of Being” (the metaphysical framework for holistic traditional religion) coming into focus in the Emergentist view of the world?

Despite similarities, there are also certainly crucial differences between these visions of a tiered cosmos. For one, the hierarchy of the early Emergentists was not value-based (evil to good), but complexity-based (simple to complex [“richness in reality”]). More importantly, there was no dualism here; the Emergentist hierarchy, though parting with reductionism, still allowed one to “keep the view that there is only one fundamental kind of stuff” as C. D. Broad put it in his 1925 book, The Mind and Its Place in Nature. This means that all scales remained natural, not supernatural—which leads to a fascinating implication: the “apex of the pyramid” here is not a supernatural Deity, but a natural (if emergent) “God.” So Alexander remarks in Space, Time, and Deity:

As actual, God does not possess the quality of deity but is the universe as tending to that quality… Thus there is no actual infinite being with the quality of deity; but there is an actual infinite, the whole universe, with a nisus [i.e., goal] toward deity… Deity is nisus and not an accomplishment.

We shall return to such fascinating implications for theology in the next chapter.

The British Emergentists had hit on a powerful idea, emergence, opening an entirely new metaphysical map of reality that could lead beyond reductionism. Unfortunately, timing is everything, as they say. And, as it happened, an explosion of discoveries in general relativity and quantum mechanics beginning in the early 20th century would effectively steal the show for the next generation of scientists, putting emergence on ice—at least until its big return in the 1980s, when complexity science would come fully into its own.
The Rise of Complexity Science

In the interim, from the 40s to the 60s, the effort to find a more scientifically rigorous holistic framework for life and mind continued with the development of new disciplines like cybernetics and general systems theory—key paradigms within the neo-holistic science of complexity.

As its founder, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, put it: “General system theory is a general science of ‘wholeness’ which up till now was considered a vague, hazy, and semi-metaphysical concept.” Cybernetics and general systems theory succeeded in breaking out of the limitations of the reductionist paradigm by considering the relational dynamics of complex systems, and pioneered important theoretical concepts like non-linearity, self-organization, and autopoiesis (or “self-construction”).

Key to von Bertalanffy’s systems-view of living organisms was the insight that they are decidedly not “closed systems,” such as the ones reductionistic scientists liked to study, but were in fact “open systems,” allowing free exchange of matter and energy with their environment. As he put it:

[T]he conventional formulation of physics are, in principle, inapplicable to the living organism being open system having steady state. We may well suspect that many characteristics of living systems which are paradoxical in view of the laws of physics are a consequence of this fact.

That is, life had escaped understanding in terms of classical physics precisely because it was, contrary to the “isolated systems” studied in fields like thermodynamics, connected to and in direct relationship with its environment by flows of matter and energy.

All of this would eventually lead to a truly revolutionary discovery—beginning a whole new field called non-equilibrium thermodynamics—which would contribute immensely to a radical re-conception of how energy behaves, and thus how life itself emerges and operates.

These paradigm-shifting breakthroughs were pioneered by a Belgian chemist named Ilya Prigogine. By Prigogine’s time, science had established clearly how energy behaves in closed systems: The fixed amount of energy dissipates, order and organization dissolve, and everything reaches a featureless, disordered balance called equilibrium. Such was entropy, whose increase was demanded according to the second law.

But, Prigogine wondered, what if the system isn’t closed, but opened up to a flow of energy? That is, let’s say we’re not looking at water in a closed thermos anymore, but a pan of water over a lit stove. How does the system behave now?

Simple as the idea was, the results were truly extraordinary. For, rather than spontaneously dissolving towards the disorder of equilibrium, the water in this scenario does the opposite: it spontaneously self-organizes, and structure emerges!

Structures like this (called Bénard cells, after their original discoverer Henri Bénard) arise naturally, fueled by the energy flowing into the system. In fact—and here’s the amazing part—they arise precisely in order to dissipate that energy and generate the entropy demanded by the second law of thermodynamics! They emerge naturally because such configurations are simply more efficient at producing that entropy than more chaotic, disordered ones.

A much more familiar example of such a dissipative structure (as Prigogine called them) is the whirlpool that appears in your bathtub when you pull the stopper. This highly ordered spiral gyre emerges naturally and spontaneously as the result of countless water molecules self-organizing. Why? Because such a configuration actually allows the water to drain faster.

The natural tendency of the universe to seek balance and equilibrium can actually propel systems to become temporarily more ordered to achieve this end. That is, the same law that drives closed systems towards disorder and equilibrium actually drives open systems to generate order and complexity—and to remain “far from equilibrium,” in fact, as long as that flow of energy into the system persists.

If this dynamic sounds familiar, it should. This is precisely the way that all living organisms operate, too! For life to accomplish all of the complex processes it must perform to resist entropy and stay highly ordered, it must be continually taking in new energy sources to metabolize.

Or, in terms more familiar to us: If you don’t eat, you die. Life is always in relational exchange with its environment—a complex, open system, in which the second law operates to facilitate self-organization, keeping it far from equilibrium (i.e., death).

This revolution in our conceptualization of thermodynamics has fueled a spate of discoveries related to the question of how life emerged in the first place. In 2013, for instance, Japanese researchers showed that shining a light on silver nanoparticles caused them to spontaneously self-organize into more orderly configurations that could capture and dissipate the light’s energy more efficiently.

In 2015, it was shown that introducing an electric charge to conduction beads in oil caused them to self-organize into a dissipative structure with “wormlike motion,” which continued as long as the flow of energy persisted.

In 2017, Jeremy England of MIT published findings from computer simulations showing “dissipative adaptation,” in which molecules spontaneously self-organized into improbable configurations specifically adapted to the frequency of the energy source they were dissipating. The configurations that were maintained did so by outcompeting other possible configurations by more effectively producing entropy, suggesting a proto-Darwinian process of variation and retention in the struggle for energy consumption.

Evolution itself, then, can be understood in thermodynamic terms: specifically, as the goal of organisms to remain far from equilibrium. To do so requires them to effectively extract and dissipate free energy from the environment. Because energy resources (i.e., food) is limited, this competitive process fuels the Darwinian “struggle for existence,” in which successful organisms breed and unsuccessful ones are weeded, leading to further organization and the complexification of species.

Based on such discoveries, an additional law of thermodynamics has been proposed (first by Alfred Lotka and later by H. T. Odum) that includes the evolutionary implications of energy: “During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

Energy self-organizes matter into life, and life self-organizes by maximizing energy. Or, as complexity scientist Harold Morowitz put it, “The energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system.”

In this way, the dynamics of life became considerably clearer—not by looking at smaller and smaller parts (the way reductionism sought—and failed—to make sense of things), but by considering precisely the opposite: the relationship with the broader whole in which parts are embedded.

More than that, a consideration of how the whole is changing can inform our understanding of the parts. In this case, the whole is the universe itself and the parts are everything in it. The fact that the universe as a whole is expanding means that the second law does not require that everything one day end in heat death. This assumption was likely far too hasty. The great complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman summarizes this point in reassuring terms in his 2016 book Humanity in a Creative Universe:

The second law says free energy is running down. But we know now that the expansion of the universe is accelerating due to the mysterious dark energy that comprises about 70 percent of the energy of the entire universe. The implications of this accelerating expansion is that we do not have to worry about enough free energy. As the universe becomes larger, its maximum entropy increases faster than the loss of free energy by the second law, so there is always more than enough free energy to do work.

The takeaway? The initial conclusions scientists had drawn from the laws of thermodynamics were wrong: the universe was not destined only to grow more and more disordered with time. That idea arose on the false assumption that isolated systems could tell us everything we needed to know about energy.

But opening the system changes the whole story: energy also spontaneously organizes things—a revolutionary insight, considering that there are no truly isolated systems in nature! In the real world, everything is connected, everything is permeable, everything flows. Even that insulated thermos will dissipate its energy eventually. The universe is not a laboratory of isolated variables, but a tapestry of endlessly interweaving relations.

That is, after all, precisely what the early scientists were contending with, and did their best to systematically remove from the equation (literally). Today, bringing complexity back in is what is allowing us to understand reality better, and fix our sense of how the parts and the whole relate.

As Prigogine, who won the 1977 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discoveries, put it:

[T]he importance we now give to the various phenomena we observe and describe is quite different from, even opposite to, what was suggested by classical physics. …The models considered by classical physics seem to us to occur only in limiting situations such as we can create artificially by putting matter into a box and then waiting till it reaches equilibrium.

But take nature out of the box, and entirely new laws come into play! The second law leads to order, not disorder, and the interconnected universe is seen for the continually self-organizing process it is.

This self-organizing dynamic is a naturally cumulative, snowballing process that keeps building on itself—a process Prigogine called “order through fluctuation.” As energy pushes open systems farther from equilibrium, fluctuations in the energized system lead to threshold “bifurcation points,” at which the system is presented with novel, higher-order configurations as potential next stages of its evolution.

As systems scientist Erich Jantsch explains in his book The Self-Organizing Universe:

At each transition, two new structures become spontaneously available from which the system selects one. Each transition is marked by a new break of spatial symmetry. The path which the evolution of the system will take with increasing distance from thermodynamic equilibrium and which choices will be made in the branchings cannot be predicted. The further the system moves away from its thermodynamic equilibrium, the more numerous become the possible structures.

In this way, more and more complex structures evolve as energy flowing through the system naturally and spontaneously pushes it ever onwards, toward increasingly novel forms. The universe organizes itself.

With these insights (still unknown to many in the general public even today), the apparent conflict between thermodynamics and evolution was resolved. There was indeed an arrow of time, and the question of which direction it was heading in was clear.

Evolution had suggested an increase in novelty, diversity, and complexity; now, thermodynamics agreed. More than that, it actually helped explain why and how complexification occurs, by linking the evolutionary process to free energy and emergent self-organization.

In this way, evolutionary development was no longer something unique to life, but a process that could be expanded to include less complex matter, too. In his book Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature, Eric Chaisson writes:

Life is an open, coherent, spacetime structure maintained far from thermodynamic equilibrium by a flow of energy through it—a carbon-based system operating in a water-based medium, with higher forms metabolizing oxygen. Although the second part of this definition pertains to the living state as we know it, the first part could well apply to a galaxy, star, or planet… And that is the crux of our argument: Life likely differs from the rest of clumped matter only in degree, not in kind.

The degree to which it differs is one of complexity—for which Chaisson employs a specific metric, one that can be used to measure the complexity of anything from stars to living organisms: free energy rate density.

As systems theorist Ervin László summarizes it in his pioneering book Evolution: The Grand Synthesis:

Free-energy flux density is a measure of the free energy per unit of time per unit of mass: for example, erg/second/gram. A complex chemical system retains more of this factor than a monatomic gas; a living system retains more than a complex chemical system. This indicates a basic direction of evolution, an overarching sweep that, together with the decrease of entropy and of equilibrium, defines the arrow of time in the physical as well as in the biological and the social world.

Free energy flows through systems, organizing them into more orderly configurations. Order builds upon order, and complexity mounts—until whole new emergent levels appear, like life from matter. In this way, complexity is really just a measure of how energy organizes matter—something it has been doing to exponentially greater degrees as time passes.

In Cosmic Evolution, Chaisson charts this evolutionary increase in free energy rate density, offering a compelling visualization of the complexification of the universe to date:

In this way, the entire cosmos has been evolving—matter naturally self-organizing into stable forms through the flow of energy, leading to life, and life evolving through natural selection, leading to still more complex species.

As it does, something else emerges: agency. Work by complexity researchers like Sara Walker, George Ellis, Giulio Tononi, Erik Hoel, and others has shed considerable light on the way more complex organisms come to exhibit causal power on their lower-level constituent parts. Such causal emergence repudiates the old deterministic account of organisms as being nothing but particles in motion. Rather, it shows that information generated at higher levels can have a causal effect on its material substrate. In this way, there is not only “bottom-up” causation from particles, but also “top-down” causation, as information encoded in patterns of organization at the macro-level works to direct material particles at the micro-level towards specific states and goals.

Such causal emergence appears for the first time in earnest with the origin of life, as information in the genome is able to supervene over the molecular and atomic level, leveraging the parts towards the aims of the biological whole. This sort of agency gains entirely new levels of causal freedom and power, however, with the rise of more complex minded animals. In this way, the self-consciousness such as human beings exhibit can be understood as a uniquely complex form of causal emergence, whereby activity at the mental level exerts itself over and above the activity of the body. In this way, the will itself emerges. We are, then, not just determined automatons the way reductionists like Laplace envisioned, but genuinely free agents with self-determination, whose choices matter.

In sum, with the implications becoming clear from this profound paradigm shift in the sciences, we now find ourselves facing an entirely new cosmic story, a mind-bending vision in which the universe has been, of its own accord, bringing all things together in more novel and intricate forms, producing order spontaneously from its originally featureless chaos in an uninterrupted evolutionary process that has led from unconscious, deterministic material at the lowest level to self-conscious agents with free will at higher levels.

Far from being a depressing dissolution or undirected slog of “frisky dirt” evolving nowhere, there is, we now see, a great epic of complexification underway, the “epic of evolution” as Chaisson calls it, as new wholes emerge, interact in new webs of relation, and then form parts in even higher-level wholes, such as lead to subjectivity, self-awareness, and free will.

Okay, but what is the real significance of all this? What is this grand story of complexification really telling us? What does it reveal about the nature of reality and our place in it? Now that we have traced some of the historical context, showing how knowledge advanced from a pre-scientific religious holism, to the primitive science of reductionism, and onwards still to a neo-holistic science of complexity, we can finally consider what all of this really means in the broadest terms. For that, we must turn to some unifying theories that bring it all together.

Emergentism: there is no chapter 7