Psyche and Cosmos: the emergence of order out of chaos

Escaping the boundaries of time and space.?Horizon of time and s

Recent developments in the fields of complexity, self-organising systems and cosmogenesis have revived interest in the anti-reductionist idea of emergence, and this paper will examine some of the implications of this idea for our understanding of the human psyche, with particular reference to Jung’s thinking.

In recent years there has been a growing interest in emergence theory – or simply emergentism. My interest is in part as an historian of ideas seeking to plot the rise and rise of this concept which seems to be spontaneously emerging in all sorts of diverse fields of inquiry. I had early on in my research into this phenomenon been struck by an affinity between emergence and Jungian thinking, so I have seized the synchronistic opportunity of an invitation from Dr Roderick Main to engage in a process of amplification.

I was also drawn to it by a long-standing interest in consciousness. In the context of philosophical debates, emergentism represented the view that consciousness has emerged at some point in the process of biological evolution, and could thus be viewed as a natural product, yet at the same time not reducible to purely physical processes. As such it offered a possible via media between the extremes of dualism and materialism.

My interest in the wider implications of emergence was awakened by fascinating new developments in the fields of chaos and complexity theory, and in particular by the writings of the physicist Paul Davies in The Cosmic Blueprint, and of the biochemist Stuart Kauffman author of books with intriguing titles such as At Home in the Universe and Reinventing the Sacred. Further reading convinced me that emergence had become a leading concept, out on the edge of speculation indeed, but sufficiently well-founded and sufficiently universal in scope to provide a more encompassing and well-grounded framework for the understanding of, inter alia, the human mind and consciousness. I was further interested to learn than several Jungians had also been drawn to emergence theory.

What I shall attempt to do, then, is to give a brief outline of emergence theory, and go on to draw out the symbiotic relationship between Jungian and emergence thought with some references to recent writings by some contemporary Jungians (though I should add that it is not my aim to give a detailed account of their contributions to this subject). Finally I shall indicate some important consequences of this happy marriage of mentalities.

The idea of emergence was first used in a technical sense by the 19th century philosopher G.H. Lewes, and taken up in the early twentieth century by a number of thinkers who used it in to develop an organicist point of view, and to find a place for mind and consciousness in the face of the rising materialist/mechanist philosophy. British philosophers drawn to this idea included C.D. Broad, Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan. And, mention should also be made of Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin, although they did not use the term ‘emergence. The term lapsed into obscurity in the middles years of the century, due, no doubt, to the rise of positivism, and the growing success of reductionist ideas in physics and biology.

The re-emergence of emergentism in recent times has been generated in large measure by the rise of cybernetics, systems theory, the studies of chaos and non-linear mathematics, and the sciences of complexity and self-organising systems. This has led to the belief that complex, higher order systems, from individual organisms to human societies, cannot be adequately understood in terms of, or reduced to, their lower order constituent parts. As Paul Davies puts it:

At each level of complexity new and surprising properties emerge which cannot, at least in a straightforward manner, be attributed to known properties of the constituent parts….micro-level principles are quite simply inadequate to account for the system’s behaviour as a whole.

To illustrate this it will be useful if begin by outlining some representative examples of this phenomenon which will I hope give some indication of the nature and scope of emergence theory.

In the field of physics and chemistry typical examples of emergent phenomena include fluidity, colour, temperature, friction, and conductivity which are not properties of elementary particles, and whose properties cannot be inferred from the latter.

In the realm of living beings emergent phenomena have been characterised by the term autopoiesis’, or ‘self-making’. These include, for example, the phenomena of regeneration whereby organisms renew themselves either in whole or in part, and a range of phenomena which are categorised variously as flocking or swarming in which individual creatures such as ants or birds or fish behave collectively in ways which cannot be predicted from the innate behaviour of the constituent individuals. Individual ants, for example, have routines which are extremely simple and seemingly they have no conception at all of the overall nature or purpose of the extraordinary complex physical structures and social behaviour patterns they are creating.

Raising one’s sights to life as a whole, and entering rather more controversial fields, the emergence of life from non-life is often looked upon as a prima facie example of an emergent but non-reductive phenomenon, as has the evolution of species in the eyes of those who are not satisfied with the Darwinian synthesis. This does not necessarily imply a rejection of the Darwinian synthesis but more an extension of it, perhaps in the way that relativity theory is an extension of Newtonian mechanics. To quote the evolutionary biologist Brian Goodwin:

Inheritance and natural selection continue to play a significant role in this expanded biology, but they become parts of a more comprehensive dynamical theory of life which is focused on the dynamics of emergent processes.

As I have already indicated, the evolution of consciousness has itself played a foundational role in the evolution of this idea, and in recent years this approach has been expanded to ideas about the emergence of different phase of consciousness, especially from the animal to the human, and of the various progressive manifestations of consciousness in human culture, in art, inventions, philosophies, as well as social, economic, political and legal structures.

Raising one’s sights even further into cosmic realms, there have been suggestions, linked in some cases to the multiverse theory, that the origins of the universe itself can be located within the emergentist framework. Indeed the Big Bang theory, in so far as it postulates the creation of self-sustaining order out of disorder, or perhaps out of virtually nothing, might be seen as a paradigm case of emergence. Not only atomic elements, stars and galaxies, but also space and time, even the laws and constants of physics, have emerged according to the standard model from the original singularity in ways that are entirely unpredictable and irreducible.

The spirit of this view is usually seen as fundamentally at odds with the reductionist paradigm that has dominated thinking over the past few hundred years – one reason incidentally why many scientists are resistant to the idea. At a deeper level it runs against the ancient assumption that “Nothing can come of nothing”. Emergence theory holds that order can come from chaos, and that indeed chaos is an originating principle, a key to the emergence of all kinds of order in nature. The outcome of this way of thinking is that the universe appears to be radically creative. As Karl Popper rather dramatically put it: “The greatest riddle of cosmology is that the universe is in a sense creative”, and it is hardly surprising, therefore, that writers such as Paul Davies have surmised that we are witnessing here the formation of a new paradigm. In this spirit Kauffman comments that “In the new scientific worldview I’m describing, we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, consciousness and ethics have emerged.……Our histories, inventions, ideas and actions are also parts of [this] creative universe” (Reinventing the Sacred 231). With almost boundless enthusiasm, Kauffman sees implications, even, for a new global ethic and for a new viable sense of meaning and of the sacred, and at the same time for a reintegration of the human with the cosmic, of the humanities with the sciences.

Jung himself was inspired by a vision of similarly ambitious scope. Central to his ambition was nothing less than the reuniting of cosmos and psyche, and the rediscovery thereby of something like the certainties of our mediaeval ancestors who enjoyed the benefits of a unified worldview, an ambition unachievable in the context of a physicalist/reductionist paradigm.

Jung’s interest in revolutionary developments in physics in the early twentieth century provided him with a clue to how the reunification of psyche with cosmos could be accomplished. As early as 1912 he had commented on “the strange encounter between atomic physics and psychology” and had come to the conclusion that “[the] microphysical world of the atom exhibits certain affinities with the psychic”, affinities which even impressed themselves on the physicists” (CW17: 164. See In Search 173). In later years the desire to discover an underlying continuity between the physical world and the world of the psyche, without reducing the one to the other, remained a constant preoccupation, and he looked forward to the possibility of, as he put it, the “bridging over [of] the seeming incommensurability between the physical world and the psychic” (CW8:440), of demonstrating that “psyche is set up in accordance with the structure of the cosmos” (MDR). His later speculations devoted to the concepts of unus mundus, the psychoid and synchronicity confirm his life-long interest in this idea, and his collaboration with Wolfgang Pauli enabled him to develop these thoughts into new directions.

Now, Jung and Pauli died long before emergence theory came of scientific age, of course, but I believe that in both their cases they were advancing towards a place which is now occupied by emergence theory, a place which is increasingly seen as one in which both the physical and spiritual dimensions of human experience are finding a home. Jung’s concept of individuation brings this confluence of ideas into sharp focus. In his essay ‘The Transcendent Function’, Jung speaks of the transformative action of the psyche as “a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation” (CW8:189), likening it to the chemical process in which the properties of constituent elements give rise to new properties, and even to “a new level of being” (quoted in Cambray 132 and 121). And elsewhere he insists that “forms of psychic orderedness are acts of creation” (Synchronicity 140).  Jean Knox argues that the “Self-regulation lies at the heart of the individuation process” (Cambray 60), and in turn rests on the idea that psychic energy, libido, is directed, not simply towards instinctual gratification, but towards a more integrated psyche, the self, and beyond this, Knox continues, towards symbol formation, conceptualization and cultural activity. It is not difficult to transpose this conception of individuation into the language of emergence and of self-organization, self-adaption, autopoiesis, and thus to see individuation as an emergent property of the self. Cambray identifies individuation as – in emergence language – a ‘complex adaptive system’ which is “intended to facilitate emergence of new psychological realities capable of reconfiguring the underlying personality” (Cambray 121).

Moreover, the order of the psyche as a self-regulating system emerges from relative disorder, and strives towards equilibrium through its own inherent natural resources. It is something which is not imposed from without but arises from within endogenously. The connection becomes especially strong when we recall that for Jung individuation is seen as a natural tendency which is shared with other living creatures; cats and catkins individuate, and perhaps also flocks of birds and nests of ants, and other higher order complex entities. In an important sense, therefore, the self is a living organism which has the power to achieve wholeness and stability, and thus survive and flourish. But this stability is temporary for living systems which must cope with uncertainty, and as Cambray has pointed out “fluctuations in relational certitude and doubt provide an emergent edge” to the therapeutic process (p.132) – ie it lives at the edge of chaos. The maintenance of equilibrium in physical systems in the face of chaos is seen as necessarily one of uncertainty and conflict, without any promise of permanent completion or stasis, and so it is also for the process of individuation since for Jung “Far from being a homogeneous unit, the psyche is a boiling cauldron of contradictory impulses, inhibitions and affects” (CW(i:190), and hence the completion of the individuation process is not only uncertain but, as he put it, “is an unobtainable ideal” (CW17:291).

The distinctive quality of individuation as a central function of the human psyche, is that it is teleological, not a process which can be understood purely in terms of antecedent causation but necessarily implies an aim or goal. Here Jung parts company, not only with Freud, but with the paradigmatic view that mental processes are, like everything else in nature, propelled by antecedent causes – ‘efficient causes’ as Aristotle called them. Stuart Kauffman is one of several voices who have attempted to show that emergence theory opens up a pathway beyond the standard model, carving out a place for teleology within a purely naturalist, non-dual worldview. On this kind of view teleology is not intrinsic to the cosmos, or a spiritual visitant from another world, but is an emergent property of the natural world. Whether this property emerges with life or with consciousness or with human consciousness is a matter of dispute, but in Kauffman’s opinion a kind of proto-agency is associated with rudimentary forms of life out of which human agency has evolved, and this in turn generates values and meaning. In brief, Kauffman insists: “With agency, values have emerged in the universe. With values comes meaning” (72).

The concept of ‘meaning’ is of course notoriously elusive. What is this meaning which mind produces? It seems to have something to do with values, purposes, goals, putting things together so that they make sense. If we focus on the last suggestion – putting things together so they make sense – then it may be that we are talking about the emergence of a certain kind of order out of disorder, a tendency which, according to emergence theory, is a pervasive property of the universe. The human search for meaning might therefore be seen as a development out of the nature’s tendency towards the production of ordered wholes. I suggest that this is not far from what Jung was searching for with his idea of synchronicity, a view which has been argued for by some Jungians including Cambray.

Let’s pursue this a bit. In his essay Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principles, Jung explores the idea that there may be an organising principle that goes beyond causation, one which is not reducible to it, namely an a-causal orderedness. In Jung’s words: “synchronicity could be understood as an ordering system by means of which ‘similar’ things coincide, without there being any apparent ‘cause’”. These speculations arose, of course, from a study of meaningful co-incidences, but Jung’s ambitions range well beyond this limited conception. “synchronicity in the narrower sense”, he writes, “is only a particular instance of general acausal orderedness” (Synchronicity 139). He is clearly interested in a conception of order which is more widely present in nature, and which would have implications for our understanding of morphogenesis, as well as of the relationship between mind and body. Thus, while psychological considerations were the starting point of his speculations here, he came to the belief, with the help of Pauli, that synchronicity could provide the basis for a unified worldview which would embrace both physics and psychology. In the words of Ira Progoff: “Synchronicity is a principle equal in stature with causality, specifically formulated as a means of explaining the type of phenomena that may be attributed to the ‘acausal orderedness’ found in the cosmos as a whole….Its value specifically is that it affords a means of dealing with those phenomena for which causality is not sufficient” (147)

It seems to me that these speculations bear more than just a passing resemblance to aspects of emergence theory in which complex self-ordering systems involve the spontaneous synchronization of a multitude of phenomena, which in turn demand an explanatory framework which goes beyond the causal explanations that typify our understanding of simpler linear phenomena. In an interesting book entitled simply Sync, the author, Steven Strogatz, points towards the pervasiveness of synchronistic phenomena in the universe both physical and cultural. “For reasons we don’t yet understand”, he writes, “the tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drives in the universe, extending from atoms to animals, from people to planets” (p.14). He points out that complex systems, whether natural or cultural, cannot be understood in purely linear terms, eg where we plot the causal relationship between events along a single line. A different sort of understanding is required for complex systems. What we are dealing with in non-linear systems, Strogatz argues, is not mere collectivities of distinct elements but synergistic wholes which cannot easily be taken apart. “The whole system has to be examined at once, as a coherent entity….and this applies as much to the human world as to the physical”. Synchronicities in the natural world – from the formation of crystals and the chirping of crickets, to the binding together of the activity of billions of brain cells – are matched by the human activities of stock markets, the behaviour of football crowds and the structures of cities. It is an endemic feature of human psychology and of its social dimensions, Sgrogatz argues, that they are non-linear and can only be understood as complex adaptive systems.

In the light of this sort of analysis, two key Jungian concepts appear to be strong contenders for the title of emergent self-organising properties of the psyche. The first, as the very name would suggest, is that of complexes as splinter psyches or as quasi-autonomous fragmentary personalities which in Jung’s words, “behave like independent beings” (CW8.253). Though in a sense autonomous, such beings are not necessarily pathological entities, but are formed in the life of the individual as natural components of the psyche as a whole. The notions of psychological complex and complexity as a general theoretical term are of course not easy to define, but what is common to both is that we are dealing, not with chaotic collections of items but with coherent entities which enjoy an individuated identity, held together by a characteristic kind of dynamic order.

Linked to complexes is the concept of the archetype, and it comes as no surprise that some Jungians have concluded that archetypal patterns are emergent properties of the psyche. This does present some problems, however. Jung’s often-stated association of archetypes – at any rate archetypes-as-such – with the Kantian doctrine of the categories would suggest that he saw archetypes as necessary, and not contingent, structures in the mind. But if we are prepared to move towards a more neo-Kantian position where categories are not seen as eternal a priori truths, but rather as contingent properties which emerge out of dynamic psycho-historical processes, then the claim about emergent properties here makes a lot of sense. Indeed as Sonu Shamdasani has argued, Jung was moving towards a position in which he saw the contents of the collective unconscious as the results of repeated experiences, and hence as contingent historical products (Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology 237). More succinctly, Anthony Stevens has argued that “archetypes have evolved through natural selection” (Archetype 1982, p.17)

What then of Jung’s speculation that synchronicity might hold the key to the relationship between body and mind? On the face of it this argument still leaves us with the explanatory gap that David Chalmers has called the ‘hard problem’. To put this in evolutionary terms: how can something non-physical have arisen from a purely physical organism? Perhaps emergence theory can take us a bit further on this. It will be recalled the emergence theory itself was originally formulated in response to this question. Where can it take us now? The key to this, and to the link with Jung, lies, I suggest, in the idea that the self-creating universe corresponds with the self-creating psyche. The unfolding of new and unpredictable orders of complexity is characteristic of both. In Jung’s case this is already intimated in his speculation that psycho-physical parallelism is linked to the idea of synchronistic phenomena. But perhaps a more interesting suggestion arises from his perception that both the biological and the psychic worlds are embedded in deep time (as it is sometimes called nowadays). He comments that “Just as the human body represents a whole museum of organs, with a long evolutionary history behind them, so we should expect the mind to be organized in a similar way rather than to be a product without history” (CW18: 522). In other words the morphological emergence of psyche is in structural terms a kind of recapitulation of older biological emergence. The self-organizing impetus in nature is thus manifested at all levels of the great chain of being, from the cosmic, though the biological to the psychic, and beyond that to the social and cultural levels.

In one sense, of course this is merely an analogy, though on a grand scale, a version of the old idea of correspondences between different levels of being. And in the case of mind and body it could be construed as another version of psycho-physical parallelism. Yet along with later emergentist thinking there is something here which carries us beyond old-style  psycho-physical parallelism .If we hold that psyche/mind/consciousness emerged at some point in biological evolution (a view which Jung at some points seems to share with emergentists), then we are presented with something like a miracle. This point has been strongly made by Christian de Quincey in his book Radical Nature, where he argues that the absurdity of the idea that consciousness can arise from non-consciousness leads inevitably towards panpsychism. If you believe that consciousness is irreducible to matter, then the two must be in some sense co-fundamental to the universe.

Now certainly in terms of qualia he has a point. Examine the dynamic structures of the brain as much as you like and you will not find pains or mental images. But we will find emergent dynamic structures. If we think in terms of complex holistic structures, then brains and minds do not appear so far apart from each other. And if we go further and construe these in autopoietic terms, as self-organising systems, or as complex adaptive systems, then the gap is even further narrowed. It is not completely closed, of course, but at least this approach points to the way in which psyche and cosmos have rediscovered each other by virtue of the fact that they can be contained within a single explanatory framework. This is not to make the claim that the ‘hard problem’ is in the process of being solved, but rather that it begins to look like a problem which is shared between physics and psychology in that it suggests a common language with which to address the problem. The ‘miracle’ which de Quincey alludes to now looks more like a puzzle which is shared between the science of complexity and the philosophy of consciousness, and the emergence of consciousness some millions of years ago is, perhaps, no more (and perhaps no less) miraculous or mysterious or unpredictable than the emergence of the material world itself 13 billion years ago.

This leads to the final key idea I want to address, namely that of ‘creativity’, for we are talking here, not just of an analogy between structures, but between structures which are autopoietic – self-making. This protean concept – creation – was at one time considered to be a divine prerogative, then with the Romantics it was ascribed to the artistic imagination, and since that time it as been further extended to nature itself. To quote  Popper again: “The greatest riddle of cosmology is that the universe is in a sense creative”. Kauffman sees creativity everywhere: “In the new scientific worldview I’m describing, we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, consciousness and ethics….have emerged….Our histories, inventions, ideas, and actions are….part of the creative universe….Like the biosphere, our human realm is endlessly creative in ways that typically cannot be foretold”. “We are all parts of this process, created by it, creating it” (At Home 304)

On this expansive view, the concept of creativity is a bridge which spans, not merely the physical and the psychic worlds, but is evident, indeed central, across the whole range of natural and human phenomena. Moreover, it is precisely this creative force which Kauffman nominates as the cornerstone with which can rebuild the lost structures of a sacred universe which hitherto we have projected onto an eternal and supernatural being. A similarly expansive view is evident in Jung for whom the discovery of the creative self could be seen as the rediscovery of the divine, yet at the same time natural, power that is the very essence of the human psyche. Jung appears at times to view human creativity as a quasi divine phenomenon, or at any rate he gives to man a co-creative role alongside that of the divinity when he claims that man “is indispensable for the completion of creation [he is] the second creator of the world who alone has given the world its objective existence”. This kind of remark, along with passages from Answer to Job where Yahweh seems to be engaged in the process of individuation, and with a remarkable letter to Erich Neumann in 1959, also suggests that for Jung the divinity itself is an emergent property of the cosmos, a view first made explicit in Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time and Deity, and is implicit in the philosophers Schelling and Hegel(1920) (MDR 285 – see whole passage for further quotes), and perhaps also in Teilhard de Chardin.

But what is ‘creativity’? How does nature create new and unpredictable phenomena? Not surprisingly this is a wide-open question, but even at these outer limits of human understanding there are again some curious attractors between Jung and emergence theory. Caution is called for here, however. Jung evidently inherited a vitalistic outlook from his nineteenth century forebears, a lineage which goes back to Schopenhauer’s concept of the world as will-to-life, driven to proliferate by a blind striving which, however, manifests itself in the conscious striving of individual human wills. And it appears too in Driesch’s idea of a vital force, an entelechy, which somehow explains the emergence of life. Also the influence on Jung of Bergson’s Creative Evolution of 1907 should be mentioned here, in particular the latter’s view that the arrow of time implies the existence of radical novelty in nature.

Recent attempts to make sense of autopoiesis, however, studiously avoid any metaphysical or vitalist interpretations, or such things as Aristotelian entelechies or Bergsonian élan vitals. Talk is now of such things as ‘phase transitions’, or ‘tipping points‘, or ‘moments of criticality’ located between conditions of order and chaos. On this view complex systems, which sit somewhat perilously balanced close to equilibrium, ‘on the edge of chaos’, may reach a state of criticality that can lead to either chaos or to a higher and more enduring form of order. This could be manifested in biological systems at the point where a new species emerges, or in the world of economics where a critical state, such as we are experiencing at the moment, is poised for further collapse or, so we all hope, for transition to a more stable condition. Cambray (233, see also 125) has suggested that this sort of transition is a feature of psychological development, especially in the analytical context, where there is an interface between mental order and chaos, and where the use of the methods of amplification and active imagination are relatively controlled attempts to elicit the emergence of new creative insights. It could also be applied to transitional stages in individual life trajectory. The role of play is relevant here, its importance in psychotherapy, and especially in the Jungian variety, and in relation to creativity in the arts, can be traced back at least as far as Kant. Nietzsche summed this up in a typically eloquent aphorism: “You must have chaos within you if you are to give birth to a dancing star”.

There is one final strange attractor that I want to mention briefly. It is well known, if controversial, that Jung saw his work as having spiritual, even salvational, implications, in a world in which the spiritual, meaningful life had become ever more difficult. A kind of healing for modern man in search of a lost soul. There is, I believe, an implicit, and sometimes explicit inner-worldly spirituality that is common to both Jungian and emergentist thought. Kauffman is clearly an example of the latter, seeing in emergence theory at least the potential for a renewed sense of the sacred, of a global ethic, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life. This spirituality is directed, not towards another higher world but to the world of nature in which the human and the cosmic lie together in intimate relationship – a hierosgamos, as some might say. I am thinking here of the final paragraph of Memories where he speaks about his feeling of kinship with all things, a sense of reciprocity between self and world which, according to Paul Bishop, runs like a leitmotif throughout Jung’s writings (p.154). For emergentists like Kauffman there is no goal or purpose beyond this world, but only the spiritual significance of a universe in whose creative activity we, perhaps pre-eminently, consciously participate. To quote Kauffman: “Reinventing the sacred as our response to the emergent creativity in the universe can open secular humanists to the legitimacy of their own spirituality”.

In conclusion, the re-emergence of emergentism has, I believe, huge potential implications across the whole spectrum of knowledge, from the cosmological to the human. But we must not get too carried away. Emergentism is still foreign territory to many scientists, and is itself “on the edge of chaos”. There are still many issues about the meaning of terms such as complexity, order and chaos, furious debates to be had about the origin of life and of species, and difficult philosophical questions about reductionism, agency and values. Nevertheless, even though emergence theory is some way from postulating a unified theory, more than a family resemblance has been established across the broad range of emergent phenomena that are being studied, and it has enough impetus behind it to demand attention and to generate new creative thinking beyond reductive materialism. It may also cast light on what Jung described as “the unimaginable complexity and diversity” of the internal world of the psyche, “the only equivalent of the universe without” (CW4:764).

[Paper delivered to the postgraduate seminar of the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex, April 27, 2010]

John Clarke is Professor Emeritus in the History of Ideas at Kingston University, London. He (author name: J.J. Clarke) has published three books on Jung, the first of which, In Search of Jung: Historical and Philosophical Enquiries, has recently been republished by Routledge. His book, The Self-Creating Universe: The Making of a Worldview, published by Xlibris in 2013, develops the concept of emergentism across a wide range of intellectual fields with the aim of articulating a worldview relevant to our times.