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The Philosophy of the Weaving Web

by Spencer Koffman

A comprehensive philosophy is an encompassing, organizing system that makes sense of oneself, the world, and one’s place in the world.  When one applies a comprehensive philosophy to their life, it assists in understanding complex issues, guides in making difficult decisions, and acts as a template to create a desired life.

Process and Structure

The weaving web is a holistic map, but I am now going to take my analytic scalpel and carve the weaving from the web; and in doing so, so much is gained and so much is lost.  That division sacrifices the wholeness of the cosmos to analyze aspects of it.  When a whole is severed, what is gained is analytic knowledge of the parts.  For example, if you dissect a goat, you learn about the internal configuration of the organs and bones.  What is lost is the synergistic, dynamic whole of the living, breathing goat.  A different kind of knowledge is gained from chunks of goat soaking in laboratory jars as opposed to a goat scurrying up a steep mountain.

The “weaving web” divides into the “weaving” which is process (or movement), and the “web” which is structure (or form or relationships).  After separating them, I will show how they’re connected and co-create each other.

Cultures and philosophies usually emphasize either process or structure.  Processes are movements that occur over time, while structures are relationships between the parts that occupy space but are frozen in time.  While processes are constantly changing, structures endure over a period of time.

As I was thinking about process and structure, I had a heart exam.  The various medical tests revealed images and information about the health of the heart’s structure and processes.  It serves as an excellent illustration of these concepts.  A heart’s structure is the relationship of the parts (e.g., the chambers, arteries, and valves).  The heart’s processes are the movement over time of the blood flow, pumping muscle, and electrical impulses.  (I’m in good health.  My heart passed the exam.  Thanks for asking).

Structure

Structure is the form of things.  We are all familiar with the shape of a brick, bicycle, snowflake, or elephant.  Their form is the location of their parts in relation to each other, and the shape the whole entity occupies in space.

For example, a bicycle has parts, such as tires, chain, seat, pedals, etc.  To be a functional bicycle, the parts need to be arranged in a particular relationship to each other and to the whole bike.  That relationship is the bicycle’s structure.

Parts can form a pattern in space, like the symmetry of a snowflake or a brick wall’s repeating relationships of bricks and mortar.  Structures can also be chaotic, like that brick wall reduced to rubble by an earthquake.  The destroyed wall’s parts have no discernible pattern.  Almost all structures have some combination of order and chaos.

Snow Flake

A picture of a Snow Crystal taken by Wilson Bentley, “The Snowflake Man.”

The key concept is the arrangement of the parts in space.  It doesn’t have to be physical space.  Social relationships are people and institutions in relationship in the social environment.

Process

While structure is parts relating in space, process is parts moving over time.  Examples of processes are falling rain, walking, and the motion of planets.  Parts can move in patterns or chaotically.

Geometry is the branch of mathematics that is concerned with the properties of spatial relations or structures, while dynamical systems theory is a branch of math that studies motion or processes.  Dynamical systems theory had its origins in Galileo’s theories of motion.  These were expanded by Isaac Newton into classical (or Newtonian) mechanics.  Newton’s laws of motion describe the relationship between the forces acting on a body and its motion due to those forces.  An example is the mechanical laws governing the movements of billiard balls.  These mechanical dynamics are linear, that is they are predictable and can be plotted on a graph as a straight line.

In other words, some systems move in a relatively simple way.  Other systems are more complex.  A complex dynamical system is the study of the nonlinear behavior of complex systems over time.  The behavior of complex dynamical systems is unpredictable.  Examples of complex dynamical systems include living organisms and their social structures, climate, economies, and the stock market.  An example of a graph of non-linear dynamical system is the Lorenz attractor.

Lorenz Attractor

Lorenz Attractor

Processes and Structures Create Dynamic Patterns

Processes and structures are intimately connected.  The exploration in the above section analytically separated structure and process.  What follows integrates them back into their totality.

A structure may appear to be a limitation, but it is ironically the constraint which provides processes’ their freedom.  Structures provide a container within which processes have the freedom to move and act.  For example, the structure of language allows people the freedom to communicate.  The rules of baseball make it possible to play the game.

Just as structures form a container within which processes move around, processes repeat movements to create a structure.  This is the essence of the weaving web and one of the keys of my philosophy.  Processes repeat to form structures, while simultaneously, those structures shape the processes.  This isn’t sequential (even though it appears that way in the diagram below).  Process and structure are two aspects of the same thing.

Structure-Process Diagram

Structure-Process Diagram

Structure shapes process which (re)create structure.

A dynamic pattern is the whole phenomena of repeating movements which create a structure which shapes the motion.  The weaving web is an example of a dynamic pattern.  The weaving web isn’t a web that’s already woven.  It is the continuous weaving activity creating a web.  There is no weaver outside of the web (there isn’t a God or a spider that’s weaving it).  It is a self-organizing constant movement, and that continuous moving is what creates the pattern of the web.  The weaving movement creates a structure, and that web structure guides the movement of the weaving.

Self-organizing dynamic patterns are the essence of life.  Cells are the simplest life form.  Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela  understood cells as self-organizing and perpetually recreating themselves.  A cell’s metabolism (internal activity) builds its parts, which form the structure (internal architecture) within which the metabolic activity occurs.  In other words, this repeating process that creates structure is how cells (and all life) carve out an autonomous identity from their environment through their own organization.

The route rushing water travels down a mountain is created by the relationship of the flowing water, gravity, and the contours of the landscape.  After a route has been carved in the landscape, water tends to follow the same path.  The same “favored route” phenomenon also occurs in our brains, where repetitive thoughts establish neural pathways that then structure our thinking, feeling, and behavior.

The concept of processes and structures helps in living life and understanding situations.  One example is psychology.  I was a licensed Marriage, Family Psychotherapist in private practice for many years.  The basic underlying premise of many psychological theories is people learn something in one environment, and then apply that lesson to other environments.

Nature made dynamic patterns a central learning strategy because it is so powerful to repeat actions that work.  Humans are very adaptable and flexible creatures, but when we want to individually or collectively change, it is very difficult to leave our ingrained, familiar routines.

A depression is a groove that we’ve carved, and fallen into.  What’s really depressing is how difficult it is to climb out.

Routine and Disruption

Systems (solar systems, organisms, cultures, etc.) change over time.  Systems go through phases of birth, growth, stability, and disruption.

During the period of relative stability, the processes repeat to maintain the structure.  For example, planets orbit around the sun.  Repeating processes that maintain a structure is a routine.  A routine is a process that conserves the status quo.

Sometimes, a new process disrupts the old structure—often creating a period of disorganization, which can be followed by either a breakdown into chaos or a revolutionary reorganizing into a new structure.  A system evolves into a more complex system when new forms and relationships emerge from the disruptive processes.

The cycles of stability, disruption, and reorganization will be shown later when I apply my philosophy to my life and the history of the universe.

Environments

A fundamental difference is how various cultures and philosophies divide and integrate reality in different places.  (Some, such as Advaita Vedānta, are non-dual, so they don’t divide reality).  Where you do or don’t slice reality brings forth the world you live in.

There are an infinite number of ways to chop up reality.  We’ve examined separating process and structure.  There’s also dividing inner and outer, individual and group, mind and body, spirit and matter, etc.

Another division is cutting the wholeness of the weaving web into environments.  An environment is that which surrounds or encompasses its parts. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman notes the rarely-used verb “to environ” means to surround, enclose, or envelop (it literally translates as “to form a ring around”).

I envision environments as interpenetrating, overlapping domains.  Environments are like a neighborhood sectioned off into properties by fences and city hall documents.  The consensual agreement of what is lumped together and what is divided up creates a reality.  But if you take a wide angle perspective (like from outer space), wholeness is apparent and the human-made boundaries disappear.  But, if you live by the consensual boundaries, those divisions become very real.

Relationships with Environments

Individually and collectively, we have relationships with each environment. Our philosophy (our most fundamental beliefs and values) is manifested in how we relate to our environments.  The most exalted and despicable of what it means to be a human being is in relationship with nature, spirit, and each other.

How Do We Live with Nature (the Physical and Biological Environments)? We are made of the Earth.  Our flesh, blood, and bones are the Earth’s minerals and water.  Our bodies constantly exchange water, air, and minerals with the Earth as we eat, breathe, drink, and expel waste.  We are pieces of the Earth that maintain a bodily form for a while.

Each of us has a relationship with our own body, and we individually and as a species have a relationship with the Earth.  That relationship has become unhealthy and unsustainable as evidenced by global warming, pollution, and the alarming loss of species and habitats.  When we pollute the Earth, we pollute ourselves.  We eat, drink, and breathe the toxic chemicals we spew into the oceans, land, and air.  We need to change how we live with (and think and feel about) nature.

Global warming is a symptom of human’s relationship with the Earth.  Our mother the Earth is running a fever because we are trashing her house (it’s our house, too).

Human nature comes out of human’s relationship with nature.  How we treat nature becomes who we are.  Domesticate nature and we become domestic beings.  Dominate nature and human nature becomes dominate in society and psyche.

How Do We Live with Other People (the Social Environment)? There are many different ways to live together as family, community, workplace, and nations.  Social institutions take many forms.  Humans are less biologically constrained than animals and insects as to how we live together, so there is a wide variety of ways to relate intimately, economically, and in terms of power.  Extreme inequalities in wealth and power have made it so that how we relate to people also needs to change.

How Do We Live with Spirit (the Spiritual Environment)? As individuals and in groups we have relationships with spirit, God, or a higher power.  (Alternatively, some people don’t believe in spirit, and that non-believing is the basis of their not relating to spirit).  How do we interact, connect, believe, practice, integrate, and separate from spirit?  Our lives have become disenchanted as we’ve cut off from spiritual energies and wisdom, so our relationship with spirit is also in need of change.

How Do We Live with Information Environments (the Cultural, Psychological, and Mythic Environments)? Each of us has a relationship with our individual psyches (our thoughts, behaviors, perceptions, and feelings).  We each have a particular organization of our beliefs and values.  That particular organization shapes our perceptions, interpretations, and relationships with the world.

We also have a relationship to our collective information or culture.  As a culture, we share symbolic systems of communication, knowledge, and a collective organization of beliefs and values.

People dispute what is wrong with the world, but agree something is out of whack.  Our individual and shared beliefs and values need to change.

Modern culture has shut out individual and collective myths.  The modern quest for scientific evidence has cordoned off the big picture stories as lies or childish.  But, without myths to put life and the earth in a meaningful context, moderns are alienated in a meaningless world.

Values in Relationships with Environments

To understand values is to delve into what’s important.  I think of values, not as abstract rules or hierarchies of preferences, but grounded in the relationships between a being and its environment.

There are two kinds of values.  The first kind of values is what is needed from the environment.  Imagine a being in an environment—a tiger in the jungle, a tree in a forest, or you in New York.  The tiger isn’t self-sufficient.  She must get meat, water, and oxygen from the jungle.  A tree needs carbon dioxide, sun, water, and minerals from its environment.  A human has survival needs, but also seeks from its environment love, sex, money, and friends.

For this first type of values, what has value is what is wanted from their environment.  Valuing something that’s outside of ourselves compels us to bring what’s “out there” “in here”.

While the first type of values is about getting from the environment, the second kind has to do with the persistent relationships established with those environments.  Values are not an isolated characteristic people have.  Values are embedded in the relationships formed by a pattern of interactions with the environment.  As we repeatedly interact with nature or people, we establish what’s important, what’s good, and what’s just.

When a culture takes from nature (or when a culture tries to live in harmony with nature), those relationships embody beliefs and values about nature and guide how to act towards nature.