The perennial philosophy is a perspective in philosophy and spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrines have grown.
The study of complex systems is concerned with collective, or system-wide, behaviors; for this reason, it is different from the more common scientific paradigm of reductionism, which attempts to explain systems in terms of their constituent parts and the individual interactions between them. Systems that are complex (e.g: planet Earth, the Cosmos, a society, the brain, …) have distinct properties that arise from these relationships, such as nonlinearity, emergence, spontaneous order, adaptations, and feedback loops for example.
I find it fascinating that at a meta-level, the scientific study of complex systems and chaos offers parallels to how the perennial philosophy has described the ultimate reality since Humankind started to wonder about its place in the universe.
In my view, these parallels between science, philosophy, and spiritual traditions show that they are ultimately perspectives, using their own frame of reference, which attempt to pierce the secrets of what reality is. They are complementary instead of opposed and are partially true, each bringing its own insights and flavors to something which is and reminds out of reach to the human mind.
So what are these parallels between the 2 disciplines?
The inside-out: the Vortex & paradox of individuality
In a vortex, a constantly flowing cell wall separates inside from outside. However, the wall itself is both inside and outside. The same is the case for the membranes in animal and plant cells. The vortex suggests the paradox that the individual is also universal in the sense that what defines the inside from the outside is a point of view or perspective. Where do the outside stop and the inside begin is a matter of degree? It is more a spectrum or a continuum than what we perceive as a fixed barrier or wall between what makes us individuals, separate from the environment around us. We also forget that every single second, millions and millions of interactions between our body and the environment are taking place, it is like a dance between the inside and the outside, constantly striving to reach an equilibrium (allostasis), forever changing, never still, never complete. Each being influenced by the other one.
This is in my view is best captured by Eckhart:
“The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them. The more He is within, the more without.”
The power of the powerless: the butterfly effect
The truth is our obsession with power may be simply the symptom of our sense of our own powerlessness. It seems that we are never aware of the unintended consequences of our acts and actions. It is also true that it is a question of scale, what appears to have an impact in our vicinity might be inconsequential on a larger scale. Similarly, what seems to be inconsequential in our vicinity, like a butterfly rising to the air, can bring through the non-linearity of a chaotic system such as the weather a storm in China.
This points towards the power of subtle influence and through the chaos, one individual or a small group of individuals can deeply and subtly influence the entire world. We attach far too much importance to our free will and our ability to change the world around us as separate individuals.
This is in my view is best captured by William Law:
“Man has nothing else in its power but the free use of its will, and its free will has no other power but that of concurring with, or resisting, the working of God in nature. Man with its free will can bring nothing into being, nor make any alteration in the working of nature; it can only change its own state or place in the working of nature, and so feel or find something in its state that it didn’t feel or find before.”
Exploring what is between: the vacuity of the Self
To fully know oneself would require, in effect, understanding the whole Universe, therefore the self-help literature takes a simplistic approach. It is generally based on the premise that an ‘independent’ self exists that can be identified, analyzed, reprogrammed, and improved, this is in line with the reductionist perspective of science.
Yet if we try to pin ‘the Self’ down, the more we encounter our complex non-linear interconnections to what is outside the self. The Buddha asks whether our ego exists in our sensations, in the forms of our bodies and brains, or somewhere in a chain of causes and effects, action and reaction. The more you seek this ego, this simple, essential self, the more it vanishes as an independent entity and becomes only a mirror that reflects the world.
This is in my view is best captured by Sen T’sen:
“When the Ten Thousand things are viewed in their Oneness, we return to the Origin and remain where we have always been.”
Living with time: Time is all but linear, it is fractal
Each element of a system possesses its own clock, its unique measure of the amount of internal process that is taking place with respect to the outer environment. In the self-organization of a larger system, the ‘internal clocks’ of the smaller systems couple together.
Each system (from the atom, the fly to the geological period, or the universe) contains its own measure of time and, as systems connect into environments, time becomes even richer and multi-dimensioned.
The fractal perspective requires us to forget the conventional mechanical model and that we connect and restore our bond with the rich time of nature and our own internal clocks. Trying to measure inner time (you feel bored vs being absorbed) using a clock creates confusion.
We should ask ‘which time has significance for us’? Our boredom left one time empty; our passion and enthusiasm make another time rich and multifaceted and so we don’t need more time, but the time that is ‘fuller’- not in getting a lot of things done, but in the sense of engaging the processes taking place.
If we try to beat the mechanical clock, we become even more mechanical.
Creative people need a great deal of time(as measured with the clock) in which they are simply ‘doing nothing’. To the outside world, they appear to be daydreaming or simply fooling around. But inside they are connecting to the time of the work, to its subtle rhythms and fractal structures.
This is in my view is best captured by Eckhart:
“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections, not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.”
Rejoining the whole
Complex system theory is an invitation to experiencing solidarity with the whole universe again. It is about freeing ourselves from the chronic habit of thinking that we’re just disconnected fragments. It’s about moving from an emphasis on the isolated self, from the consciousness of what we only know individually, to the consciousness of what we also know together. It is about moving from the old focus on individual heroic competition against the world to co-evolution and collaboration. It is about moving from seeing nature as a collection of isolated objects to experiencing that we are an essential aspect of nature’s organization. It is realizing that the observer must always be a part of what he or she observes. It is about moving from an exclusive emphasis on logic, analysis, and objectivity to an ability to reason aesthetically in a way that includes analysis but acknowledges its limits. It’s about moving from an obsessive focus on control and prediction to sensitivity toward emergence and change. It’s about a new understanding of time and our path to it.
This is in my view is best captured by Rumi:
“The Beloved is all in all; the lover merely veils Him;
The Beloved is all that lives, the lover a dead thing.”