Complexity, Geometry, and Self-organization in Pilgrimage Systems:

Complexity and Self-organization in Pilgrimage Systems

J. McKim Malville

Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

University of Colorado






Two types of stable systems can be found in the physical universe: the death state of perfect equilibrium and the infinitely fertile condition of self-organized non-equilibrium. Self-organization provides useful models for many complex features of the natural world, which are characterized by fractal geometries, cooperative behavior, self-similarity of structures, and power law distributions. Pilgrimage systems may be viewed as natural and self-organizing structures wherein complexity develops through the spontaneous and coherent movement of people. The dynamical nature of the pilgrimage process may be analogous to that of other non-equilibrium systems that are being actively investigated today in the physical and biological sciences such as self-organ ized criticality and stochastic resonance. Examples of such systems in the natural world range from earth-quakes, solar flares, forest fires, and biological evolution.

Openness to the environment and coherent behavior are necessary conditions for self-organization and the growth of complexity. Biological, physical, and spiritual forces that disrupt equilibrium may drive cultural systems and individuals into a state o f metastability or self-organized criticality lying between frozen inactivity of equilibrium and disordered hyperactivity. As systems depart more from equilibrium the amplification of small fluctuations by non-linear processes may result in stress-releasi ng avalanche-like movement of people to pilgrimage centers. The resulting cultural systems may be highly non-adaptive as judged by prior paradigms. Self organization lacks an overall goal or teleology, although the emergence of new purpose (teleonomy) pro vides new meaning.

Because of a common conceptual framework or microphysics, self-organizing systems are characterized by self-similarity and fractal geometries, in which similar patterns are repeated with different sizes or time scales without changing their essential m eaning. The body, temple, and universe, as well as movement throughout them, may be self-similar. The pilgrim may follow a pathway that represents the universe from center to periphery or mimics the evolution of the universe from creation to death.

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