Notes towards a “natural systems theology” – part 3

Let’s return for a moment to the question of the river (I have deliberately chosen a difficult example, on the assumption that if the theory holds water now, then it might be worth pursuing further). Does a river, as an entity, have life? How about consciousness? Or is it even a distinct entity?

For a detailed (and very dense) discussion of the basic parameters for a living complex system, see the 1978 article, “Biology of Language: the Epistemology of Reality”, by Humberto R. Maturana. [1] It seems to me that a river fits most, if not all, of these requirements:

  • It is autopoietic, or self-producing.
  • It has a defined boundary.
  • It interacts with other systems outside its boundary, and mutual change occurs from those interactions.
  • The components interact with each other within the boundaried space, and mutual change can result.

If we accept, conditionally, that a river is in fact a living system, then the question becomes whether it is of sufficient complexity to attain consciousness. On this point I am less certain, partly because we don’t have a definite measure, a point where where can say “yes, this entity has consciousness”; there is even still debate over the point at which a human fetus attains consciousness, and by any measure a human is a conscious being.

I noted in the first post that there is strong evidence of human belief, across time and space, that rivers and other natural phenomena do have consciousness (and not infrequently volition and will) and are, in fact, spiritual beings of some kind; or at the very least that they have spiritual beings associated with them to the point of identity. Broadly speaking, I see three possible responses to this belief: full agreement, partial agreement (yes, there is something spiritual there, but the physical river itself does not participate in that spirituality), or disagreement.

In this river discussion, I have – not surprisingly – had in my mind the image of the Mississippi; as the Great American River, it would be surprising if I did not. I’ve been to it and across it, and it is indeed impressive, as much for the mythology that has evolved around it as for its own physical self. (For a great example of this mythologizing, and of the instinctive reverence that humanity pays to such important natural phenomena, see the wonderful Father of Waters statue in the Minneapolis city hall.)

Still, I have to admit that when it comes to water spirits, my most important personal experience is not with the Mississippi at all – it’s with Niagara Falls. I was completely unprepared for the pure, unmediated experience of Presence that I had with the Falls; She (definitely She) was just…. there. Not particularly interested in us, neither hostile nor benevolent; just Present. And immensely powerful. I’m certain that if the Falls were in Japan, there would be an important Shinto shrine there. (As a side note, I think that I am not the first person to experience this Presence, given the evidence of this 1901 poster.)

In the end, this experience (and others, including at both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and in Muir Woods in northern California) is more convincing to me than any amount of academic argument; while I recognize that my testimony is not binding upon, nor necessarily even convincing to, anyone else, it is enough for me to accept that there is something there, some sort of spiritual aspect in Nature… and that the nature of it varies from place to place. In the next (and final!) post in this series, we’ll look at what a natural systems theology might have to say about these Presences.

[1] http://www.enolagaia.com/M78BoL.html, § 2. Living and Nervous Systems

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3 thoughts on “Notes towards a “natural systems theology” – part 3

  1. Feral Boy

    Executive Pagan wrote:

    It seems to me that a river fits most, if not all, of these requirements:

    * It is autopoietic, or self-producing.
    * It has a defined boundary.
    * It interacts with other systems outside its boundary, and mutual change occurs from those interactions.
    * The components interact with each other within the boundaried space, and mutual change can result.

    If the definitions are somewhat loose, a river would fit most of these. The first is slightly problematic — it does not produce itself (the criterion is probably intended to mean self-replication), but it is persistent, and other systems (weather) constantly produce and
    feed it.

    Check out author Paul Stamets’ views about how fungi possibly possess intelligence (influenced mainly by their resemblance to neural networks), and six ways they may help us save the planet, here:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/258

    I also believe that something is “there”, in the waters, the woodlands, the wind, and many other places that are not a result of humans’ efforts. My idea of worship was never in a stone box, rather out in the green cathedrals.

    — Feral Boy

  2. executivepagan Post author

    I struggled with the first one a bit, but since I’m considering the headwaters as part of the system, I felt justified in saying it’s at least partly self-producing.

    That’s interesting about the fungi! I love TED… be sure to go listen to Rives, and the African kid who built a windmill for his village.

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