92. Chaos and Complexity

Chaos seems to be swirling all around me and complexity is of such a profound nature that I am at a loss as how to tackle it: I am not referring to the deterministic Chaos Theory or the Complexity Theory but to the global totality of seemingly unresolvable events: the inability of the European Community to tackle the ever more tragic migrant crisis, the failure of the United Nations to end the destructive combat in the Middle East, the humiliating Republican scene in the US, the mounting environmental crises caused by pollution and El Nino… the list which is becoming increasingly familiar on the daily media goes on and on.

At the same time I feel there is rising uncertainty about market economics, the growing inequality of wealth, the increasing unemployment resulting from robotics, the lack of any program to give direction to the internet, and the scratching of heads over what is happening to basic human values. Electoral democracy is being undermined both by the money of the super-rich and by the ignorance and bigotry of many voters; the arts seem to be corrupted by cupidity, the sciences by profits, communities by individualism, and the young by the narrowing of opportunities. All of these are accentuated by fear, accidents, and the refusal (or inability) to accept the true state of affairs – which is ruled by both chaos and complexity. Could a greater acceptance of the latter two help us to an understanding what is happening not only all around us but to us?

Theoretically there are many ways order can emerge from chaos, but we continue trying to find order or patterns in the universality of chaos. This is all the more ironic because we complex human beings were created by chaos. The ancient Greeks recognized that even before the earth could be created, two forces ruled the universe: Chaos, which existed in the abyss of darkness, and Gaea, the generative force of matter. The two worked together, first to create the gods on Olympus and then to populate the world with everything from light to living beings. Their approach and assumptions regarding Chaos were very different from ours. Theirs was based on mythical reverence and ours on the existence of fundamental randomness which we have come to fear because its patterns cannot be recognized nor its details understood. At the same time we are creating ever more complex entities, like the internet, bringing us closer and closer to chaos.

Was our universe built on the haphazard of chaos and chance or on an ordered complexity? It would seem that in the infinite complexities of the universe, its particles, atoms, molecules and development, proceeded according to a specific set of patterns: Determinism. Today we have come to accept that complexity drives our billions of brain cells that are linked by patterns and connections (which we have yet to establish) and that this complexity may have had its origins in chaos!

Around us and within us we experience complexity verging on chaos. We also observe patterns and forms of order and sequence with degrees of complexity. Since the 17th century most of us in the western world have accepted the universe, depicted by Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, as a having something approaching a reliable clockwork basis. This offered us a form of reliability and objectivity with a more exact measurement of things. Time and numbers began to rule our lives. This led to examination, planning and reliable evaluations of cause and effect resulting in both growth and development. The organizations and institutions we consequently formed were complex and intentionally designed to resist change. Advances in technology and science, however, were such that increasingly rapid changes became inevitable. Now, after two world wars and serious economic crises we have come to realize that linear progress is not always possible, that chaotic events often take unexpected directions with unpredictable consequences.

The noted Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Leon O. Chua wrote: “Never in the annals of science and engineering has there been a phenomenon so ubiquitous, a paradigm so universal, or a disciple so multi-disciplinary 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.” Chua described such chaos as the only way for us to grapple with reality.1

In many ways the study of complexity differs from the study of chaos, which focuses on non-linear interactions. Complexity involves intricate sets of relationships that can result in some smaller patterns or forms. Chaos pushes a system in equilibrium or order into deep disorder, while complex systems can evolve at the edge of chaos and can develop over a prolonged period into robust forms retaining systemic integrity even when undergoing possibly radical qualitative changes. This can better be understood by looking at the classical economics complexities of ”the market” which are the result of human action but not the execution of human design. Towards the end of the 20th century the study of complex phenomena expanded from examining economics to other fields such as psychology, biology, anthropology and ecosystems.

Complexity also encompasses the way in which large numbers of seemingly simple events can come together to produce far from simple patterns of order. Human consciousness, for example, may well be the emergent property of massed nerve cells. Simple systems can organize themselves in a variety of complex ways. Complexity is recognized as a paramount feature of organized evolution which can also result in periods or stages of order and stability. Once the complexity becomes ‘supercritical’ (or unstable) then a restructuring is almost inevitable. At each level of complexity entirely new properties can appear in the form of new laws, concepts and principles. However, with the advances of computer technology it is now recognized that complexity can even encompass computational irreducibility.

Chaos, or the existence of deterministic irregularity in the field of physics, was brought into prominence in the 1970s by a small group of scientists who proposed that Chaos Theory could provide answers to many of the unresolved problems of science. These viewed the theory as a way to tackle the levels of indeterminacy inherent in quantum mechanics.2 Physicists found that chaos was not just random abstraction, but had a geometry of its own because of the nature of what has been called “strange attractors” whose geometric forms were first realized when simulated by a computer and projected onto a screen. It did not take long for economists, sociologists and even visual artists to jump on the bandwagon of chaos. Chaos Theory became fashionable but the mathematical regularities in bonding (as in carbon dioxide and H2O), the periodic table, and in chemistry often appear to be too ordered merely to be the product of chaos or randomness.

What are the ways out of chaos and the mounting complexities of our troubled times? We must learn and accept that ultimately we are ruled by both. We must recognize that our aspirations and their fulfillment often feed on chaos and decay. There seems to be agreement that a combination of a bi-focal approach to chaos and complexity would combine a narrowing of attention on small units (rather than the broader and fearful outlook of the corporate world, banking, etc.) that is, on simplicity itself.3

The essence of the order and rationality we so desire is not to turn to engineers for their contributions to organized strategies, nor to turn to the computer wizards who are working on ‘intelligent’ robotics, nor even to escape into the mythologies of religious orders that restrict common sense reality. How best then to approach the fear of chaos we experience? Admittedly when engulfed by desperation, it is hard to suggest general ways out especially when in highly emotional or irrational states. Avoiding the domination of linear thinking can prove helpful. Parallel paths, or even radical and imaginative solutions of ways out, may prove essential. So is hope, which can save us from vanishing into the darkness of chaos. Ultimately it is crucial that as we work our way out of panic, our aspirations be long-term and not on the selfishness-driven short term. Combatting chaos will never be easy, but ever since the classical Greeks human beings have somehow managed and I admit that despite the disasters and chaos which our species may face, our creative efforts will continue to be critical for our survival.


1Leon O. Chua, in Chaos and Fractals, edited by Peitgen, Jurgens and Saupe (1992) p.655

2Murray Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar, (1994) p.27

3Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium — Optimistic Visions for Change, (1997) pp.78-91

91. Obama’s State of the Union Address 2016

Civility, my last blog, was barely in evidence during the President’s annual presentation this past week. The dead-pan Republican speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, nervously twiddled his fingers for an hour as Obama carefully and rationally addressed the multiple challenges facing the United States. The Republican Party members remained in their seats and failed to applaud most of the important points Obama emphasized. They sat immobilized even as Obama proclaimed the US as the world’s most powerful nation.

Obama seemed far more confident than in previous speeches to Congress. I found it encouraging that he was again standing proud. In part this is due to the way he has been increasingly successful in pushing through his agenda — which his opponents find hard to acknowledge. Republicans have steadily refused to give the president any credit for his successes while in office. This is part of their enforced party line of denial which has led Republicans to go so far as to vote even against bills whose content they actually approve.1

The right-wing media, spear-headed by Fox News, derided the speech as un-newsworthy. Trump waved it aside as “a bore.” At least Republican critics were no longer questioning the president’s competence. What they consciously and intentionally ignored was that the leader of their nation was giving a rational, intellectual and polished address on the multiplicity of challenges which will be facing the US in the years ahead. His carefully optimistic speech went directly against the opposition’s efforts to portray the era we live in as a fundamentally dark one.

No one in the media came out to say that the US has been most fortunate in having such a capable and intelligent commander-in-chief. Alas, racism remains very much alive in the latter-day Confederate southern half of the nation which is galled that a man of mixed race could be such an insightful and careful orator. As one can see from the anti-intellectual, fact-hating, and facile presentations made by all of the seven remaining Republican candidates for the presidency, a rational approach to the nation’s problems is not on their agenda. It is not fashionable. The electorate is distancing itself from first-class intellects.

As I wrote in my introductory blog two years ago, I wanted to focus on positive alternatives to our future on this planet. Obama was direct in recognizing that the pace of change is accelerating in reshaping the way we work, live, and think: “Today technology doesn’t just replace jobs on the assembly line, but any job where work can be automated.” Obama did not provide a possible solution, but at least placed it at the forefront of the nation’s agenda.

Obama expressed his concern more generally about “the right thing to do” in education, health, protecting the environment and managing energy resources. He emphasized that the nation had to make sure that the economic system was not rigged in favor of the wealthiest and the biggest corporations. Tactfully, he did not mention that the opposition’s program was limited to lower taxation, a smaller federal government, and a cut in critical environmental protection. Nothing truly positive there for the nation’s future — just a cutback on what exists, but Obama was determined not to increase divisiveness.

At the same time, Obama pointed out that we must keep pace with new realities such as the transformation of the Middle East. Calmly and directly he explained that Daesh and other Muslim terrorist groups did “not threaten our national existence… We do not need to build them up to show that we’re serious… with nearly 10,000 air strikes, we’re taking out their leadership, their oil, their training camps, and their weapons.” That’s not passivity, but a realistic approach. However, Obama warned that his successors could be faced with much “instability which will continue for decades in many parts of the world.”

To the derogatory sound-bites of those Republicans currently running for president, Obama advocated that the only smart approach for the nation was “a patient and disciplined strategy.”2 “Leadership,” said Obama, “means a wise application of military power and rallying the world behind causes that are right.” Irrespective of what the media may counter, I believe Obama has given exactly such leadership to the American people.

This speech revealed a more confident, successful President,3 ready to recognize that his approach has often been criticized for being too “intellectual” rather than reassuring. In the next twelve months that he remains in office, he plans to visit all parts of the nation to promote his program. “He wants this year to be about the future and sees big opportunities” said Denis McDonough, his chief of staff.4 Obama now has a bully pulpit and showed in this speech that he had every intention to use his unilateral executive powers to skirt his opponents in Congress. Whether he will succeed in persuading the nation that not only is gun control a necessity, but also that the billions being contributed by a small number of the ultra rich to political causes now threatens to undermine the American democratic process itself. Such a valedictory program is laudable indeed.


1i.e the water bill this past week.

2Something each of the seven rejects, for the sake of the cameras, they embrace immediate and instinctive emotional responses.

3Simon Schama listed these as: “Stopping the economic free fall of 2008; halving unemployment; achieving a serious climate change agreement; providing 17 million Americans with health insurance.”

Simon Schama, “Political debate needs a thoughtful makeover,” The Financial Times, January 17, 2016, p.11

4Albert R. Hunt, “Measuring a president’s successes,” The New York Times, January 11, 2016.

90. For a return to civility

Civility is a form of language which begins with manners and politeness and extends to morality, respect for our fellow human beings, social recognition, and working for aims like Agreement, Appreciation, Affirmation and Applause. Although we sometimes rank civility alongside its more superficial element, etiquette, we apparently find it increasingly difficult to accept the significance of more vital aspects. Civility is the lubricant of our social fabric and nourishes congeniality. More importantly, civility counter-acts its opposite: the offensive language of the brutal, the contemptuous, the violent, the confrontational and the deeply negative.

Civility engages us in constructive ways. Today the term “constructive civility” suggests the potential for strong engagement controlled by respecting differing views. President Obama in a major speech in Tucson Arizona in January 2011, urged Americans to “help usher in more civility in our public discourse … because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.” He emphasized that we had to converse with each other in ways that heal, not those which wound.

One recent poll indicated that 65% of Americans believed the lack of civility in their daily lives was a major problem that had worsened.1 This was confirmed in another study which found that 60 per cent of employees working in a social context felt that the annoying behavior of some co-workers had such an impact that 40 per cent were looking for new employment.2 Insults appeared to have replaced manners among the Republican candidates contending for the Presidency this past year. Observing the changing notions of civility in America, one columnist for The Economist wrote that “lots of voters on the right are thrilled by the politics of insult and rancor.” He suggested that for some, civility had become regarded as a sign of weakness.3 However “boorish” politicians might be, they are “misjudging a country that is better mannered than this.”

The internet, which has all too swiftly become our principal form of communication, has not yet had the opportunity to introduce notions of civility into emails or social media. “Being brief” has replaced being polite in this digitized world. “Hashtags” emphasize the importance or popularity of a subject and etiquette is no longer existent. “Hi” is now the universal greeting on the internet, and “regds” the usual closure in a format which demands that one does not waste one’s time on formalities. “K” now replaces “OK” in the texts of teenagers!

The sociologist Richard Sennett once defined civility as “ The activity which protects people from each other and yet allows them to enjoy each other’s company.”4 “Enjoyment” and leisurely discourse are no longer goals when one enters the social media. In the modern era, only those over 50 write long emails. The younger generations tend to disregard communications longer than two paragraphs. They simply receive too many emails for them to give consideration to those of lengthy “old timers.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote two hundred years ago that “Man was destined for Society.5 Jefferson clearly saw that in every society there are values, laws, customs and moral standards imposed on the individual members as the price for the privilege of belonging. Morality is not merely a way of suppressing natural instinct, it is a social contract. It embodies the way humanity considers its common project. The ancient Hebrews, the Greeks, the early Christians and Imperial Chinese all enjoyed a measure of shared morality. Such an active sense of kinship is now crumbling. All too many people feel left out and, as a consequence, confusion reigns. “We posses simulacra of morality,” suggested Alasdair MacIntyre, but “we continue to use many of the key expressions. We have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”6 This loss has made us reluctant to draw distinctions between right and wrong, lest we ‘impose’ our morality on others and thus invite them to ‘impose’ their standards on us. Moral categories now make us squirm as do the passing of ethical judgments. There is a growing consensus that the moral absolutism of fundamentalisms is supremely dangerous.

On the other hand the absolute evasiveness of the relativist position is exposed by such popular definitions as: “Moral conduct is conduct of which a given society approves.” Morality, like civility, is more than merely conforming to the norms of the great majority. It involves listening to our inner voice, not to the moral relativism of the media.

Indeed what kind of social restraints can one expect in the age of the “selfie”? “The internet and social media function as outrage factories, supplied with the bare minimum of facts as raw material,” writes Tom Phillips, a senior writer at Buzzfeed who is working on a social media rulebook. “Subtweet not, and forgive those who subtweet against you,” he suggests. The social media is awash with expressions like “brazen”, “abrasive” and “shameless” as well as racist abuse, rape threats, revenge porn, hate speech and other forms of trolling attacks. The scale of such harassment has caused some victims to suggest that “It’s time to update our ideas on civility.”7

Such appeals for change are not new. Civility was of great concern in the 18th century when mortal duels were often fought over verbal slights and the lack of civility. As a young man, George Washington put together a long list of Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Some suggestions for promoting politeness as a first step towards civility included:

  • 6. Sleep not when others Speak. Sit not when others stand. Speak not when you Should hold your Peace. Walk not on when others Stop.
  • 24. Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.
  • 25. Superfluous Complements and all Affectation of Ceremony are to be avoided, yet where due they are not to be neglected.
  • 48. Wherein you reprove Another be Unblameable yourself.

The extent to which the multi-layered problems facing civility in the United States is illustrated by the number of universities that have created programs designed to foster civility. They include Missouri university, the University of Colorado, California State University and Kansas State University. Arizona University offers an undergraduate certificate in Civil Communication. Most of these universities stress the notion that civility is a sequence rather than a single thing or set of things. The founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, state that “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

There is general agreement among these groups that civility is about disagreeing without disrespect. Civility begins with us. Seeking common ground is an essential starting point for a genuine dialogue about differences. In politics civility must stress that personal power should be exercised in such a way that everyone’s voice is heard and nobody’s is ignored or demeaned.

The program of the University of Missouri promotes twenty ways in which we can further civility. I shall restrict myself to presenting half a dozen of these:

  • Model your behavior on the kind you would like to receive from others.
  • Conflict can be healthy if based on ideas or behavior rather than the person.
  • Listen respectfully, but do not let your silence condone disrespectful behavior and consider carefully when and where to speak up.
  • Consider how your use of the social media or email affects respectful relations.
  • Adopt positive and solution-driven approach to resolving conflicts.
  • Conduct emotionally driven conversations in person, or if necessary by telephone but not on a keyboard.

I believe, however, that the college or university level is a bit late for most of the youthful generations to learn about civility. Civility has universally been initiated in the home and slowly enlarged in schools. Children learn by example and what they do not learn in many of today’s families is respect and good manners. Instilling a code of conduct in today’s children is becoming increasingly challenging when there are no role models for them to copy. The result is that the pleasures of greeting and leave-taking are gradually diminishing. I believe that the language of civility can help to transform individuals into the shared existence we call society.

Desirable and important as individual freedom is in our societies, we must begin to recognize that far too intense a focus has been placed on the individual and insufficient priority has been given to the family, the community and the greater welfare of society. One critic of this situation has written: “Far to frequently Americans believe that the law simply does not apply to them – that they somehow have a right to live without constraints … most people cannot even occasionally put the good of the whole society above their own immediate gratification.”8 Seeing their parents or family as role models, many of the younger generation have begun to adopt the road of gratification, which ignores the social demands of civility, as the norm.

I am pleased to conclude with the profound appeal of my late friend, Vaclav Havel, who, after multiple prison sentences, craved for a world of greater civility:

“The question is … whether we shall, by whatever means, succeed in rehabilitating the personal experience of human beings as the initial measure of things, placing morality above politics and responsibility above desires, in making the human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech in reconstituting as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human “I” responsible for ourselves because we are destined to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything … for the sake of that which gives life meaning.”9


1Weber Shandwick, 2012.

2Barbara Richman, “Ten Tips for Creating Respect and Civility in Your Workplace,” May 28, 2014.

3Lexington, The Economist, December 19, 2015.

4Richard Sennett, The Fall of the Public Man, (1977, p.264

5Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.

6Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue,(1981)p.2

7Nosheen Iqbal, The Guardian, October 28, 2015, The feature section p.5

8John Lincoln Collier, The Rise of Selfishness in America,(1994) p.259

9President Vaclav Havel, Open Letters, (1990) p.263