Butterflies: Spirituality in a Naturalist Mode

Butterflies: Spirituality in a Naturalist Mode March 6, 2023

What are we talking about when we discuss spirituality? During the last decade, I’ve been thinking through a secular (non-supernaturalist, non-religious) spirituality. It’s a trickier subject than I’d imagined. Given our human limitations, I’ve abandoned the idea that we can comprehend the fullness and essence of everything. What would my sight yield if it picked up the comprehensive range of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes so much more than visible light? Neither our five senses nor our reason is adequate to comprehend phenomena. But should this keep us from exploring dimensions beyond a sense-limited naturalism? Something in our unconscious or our intuition might give us a working sense of “reality” to inform our understanding and actions.

Human neurology makes other crucial connections, including a sense of relating to something greater than ourselves (self-transcendence). This function can yield a sense of values and meaningful purpose, including a generous (and enriching!) altruism. For over a decade, some neurologists have argued that our brains contain a ‘God spot’ or, more accurately, a seat of spiritual consciousness. Perhaps it developed as an evolutionary advantage over existential dangers and discomforts. Whatever we call it, this cannot prove divine existence or an eternal soul. Yet it reveals a beautiful and helpful dimension of living for the religious and non-religious alike. Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, spirituality is too pervasive to limit to theists.

Metaphors can provide some clues to the nature of Nature (the universe) ignored by strict logic beyond what our fallible senses can deliver. They engender emotions such as awe, wonder, humility, values and a sense of meaningful purpose.

So I turn to butterflies. Two different metaphors support my naturalistic spirituality.

The first is metamorphosis. Though we can describe it scientifically, it remains a ‘miracle’ of Nature – exceeding expectations of ‘normal’ development. Metamorphosis both triggers and symbolises an openness to and yearning for a transformation beyond ordinary perception. Am I – are you – living the life of a caterpillar, larva, or pupa? Is something so much more “butterfly” ahead of us? This metaphor reminds me that I might be experiencing something powerful and helpful, though I’m not fully aware of it.

The second butterfly fluttered its wings in the Amazon Rain Forest and caused a storm in Texas. This metaphor is the best-known part of chaos theory (CT). I can’t claim to fully comprehend it (not having advanced mathematical skills). But the part I do understand is inspirational. Aside from the broader CT context, this power-of-butterfly-wings metaphor seems daft. But I welcome it as an encouragement to confidence – a counter to my inclinations towards pessimism, cynicism, and inaction.

The CT butterfly originated from a mathematician and meteorologist, Professor Edward Lorenz. His concern was to establish reliable climate predictability. Like any mathematician, he realised that slight variations at the beginning of a process might result in significant alterations to the outcome. The theory was titled “Sensitive dependence on initial conditions”. The effect is non-linear and exponential. Thus the beating of fragile wings might contribute to a devastating storm. His mathematical analysis yielded the following graph:

It’s easy to see how the butterfly metaphor was prompted by this image!

I’m fascinated to see how this model is compatible with Gautama’s observations that causation depends on every element (thus the concept of “interdependent generation”). What we observe is undoubtedly more complex than we can hope to see or even imagine. But I am encouraged that our micro-contributions might significantly affect the whole. Our butterfly fluttering makes us part of “the god of small things” (if we choose to, we can employ the g-word in a pantheistic, naturalistic sense).

A second aspect of Loren’s theory was that contrary to our impressions of chaos (mysterious and unpredictable), natural laws (order) are operating. Unknown or unobserved subtleties and complexities hide the conformity to universal patterns and consequences.

I take this as an affirmation that small acts of well-wishing, compassion, and honest reappraisal can contribute to the work of unseen patterns and forces as strong as gravity. It encourages my confidence in some of my tentative conclusions. I am ‘gambling’ that many virtues are powerfully worthwhile and valid (patterned) – despite the undisputable fact that bad things happen to “good” people and vice-versa.

Be a butterfly
The two awe-inspiring butterflies we’re discussing are not just impressively entertaining. They are – or can be – inspirations. Chaos  Theory can be a comforting confidence for a naturalist spirituality. It can encourage us to embrace a working hypothesis that favourable laws might operate despite the apparent lack of evidence for meaning in the universe. The complexity of inter-relationships could well be hiding many encouraging patterns. It would take some “faith”, but isn’t it more helpful (skillful) to act as though our actions can yield positive effects?

Butterflies are symbols of life’s marvels and mysteries. The fact of metamorphosis, which appears to defy reasonable expectations, can similarly encourage us to live lives that, one day, will be transformed into a beautiful and fruitful beings.

These two butterfly effects might well touch us and the world powerfully.


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