15. Chaos

CHAOS is in the news everywhere: on the internet, in traffic, in the Arab world, banking, the National Security Agency, the Republican party, Britain’s National Health Service. The word is being used to describe global phenomena. “Chaos” instantly brings up mental images of confusion, uncertainty and instability leading to potential panic. However, chaos is also the word economists, politicians, and even weather forecasters fear.

For the ancient Greeks, Chaos was at the origin of all things. The word referred to the formless or void state preceding the creation of the universe. Chaos was the first of all the Greek primordial deities. Philosophers like Heraclitus regarded Primal Chaos as the true foundation of reality. Today theoretical physicists as well as contemporary philosophers, agree that metaphysically the creators of this mythology were not that far off the mark in separating void and matter and placing chaos before the creation of the earth itself.

Yes, the irrational, the unpredictable, the totally confused, the unexpected, and particularly the uncontrollable, must be viewed with a certain caution. Of course these aspects of chaos are what makes it completely unacceptable to every control freak in our midst. And these obsessives surround us!

Naturally there can be serious dangers accompanying chaos as well: On the eve of the military takeover in Egypt, a young Muslim in Cambridge told me that he feared chaos because it inevitably ends with the conservative forces winning and restoring the old order.

Physicists recognize that in the “Chaos theory,” which is the study of nonlinear dynamics, seemingly random events in complex systems and interactions are often predictable. The French physicist Henri Poincare discovered in the early 20th century that some astronomical systems, consisting of three or more interacting bodies could become highly unpredictable if there were minute errors in the initial measurements. Such unpredictability was far out of proportion with what mathematicians could expect.  Physicists have declared that “Fundamental randomness has come to be called chaos.”1

Two decades ago an enthusiastic prize-winning professor of theoretical engineering wrote with extraordinary enthusiasm: “Never in the annals of science and engineering has there been a phenomenon so ubiquitous, a paradigm so universal, or a discipline so multidisciplinary as that of chaos. Yet chaos represents only the tip of an awesome iceberg, for beneath it lies a much finer structure of immense complexity, a geometric labyrinth of endless convolutions, and a surreal landscape of enchanting beauty … [This] is the omnipresent nonlinearity that was once wantonly linearized by the engineers and applied scientists of yore, thereby forfeiting their only chance to grapple with reality.”2

Beauty and chaos are seen by some as contradictory, but what theoreticians are after is principles whose simplicity is such that the consequences seem inevitable. We all recognize that there are turning points in the weather, in our lives, and in history. What the chaos theory highlights is that turning points are all about us. The smallest changes can unleash a chain of events that result, most literally, in a hurricane or a revolution.

Order can come out of chaotic fluctuations. It has been clearly established through fractals that there are patterns — there is order in chaos. The fractal geometry inherent in chaos has a clear connection to the harmonious arrangements found in crystals, snow-flakes, clouds, flowers, trees and humans.

Computer specialists, mathematicians and physicists working on Chaos continue to seek the natural laws about systems at the point of transition between the orderly and disorderly.

While we all like order, neat categories, progressive layerings and rational explanations, the random factor of chaos also is immensely appealing to our complex, divided and interactive minds. Our intellect sorts through the chaos of our perceptions and stores or pigeon-holes impressions in the brain with astounding precision.3

Our thinking patterns reflect the conflict between our attraction to order, structure and stability on the one hand and our fear of the unpredictability of anarchy on the other. What we don’t always grasp is our continuing dependence on change, variation and innovation to enrich our lives.

I think chaos can be transformative. It is really one of the few ways humanity ultimately can sort itself out of its global economic mess. Chaos may be able to triumph where scheming politicians, greedy bankers, and hoodwinked economists fail to come up with the basic changes necessary to create a more cooperative, more equal, more ecologically based and more spiritually aware system. The secret of chaos is that creativity begins when controls break down.

1Peitgen Jurgens, Chaos and Fractals (1992) p. 10
2Leon O. Chua in Chaos and Fractals (1992) p. 655
3Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium: Optimistic Visions for Change, (1997) p. 87

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