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

2 thoughts on “92. Chaos and Complexity

  1. Isn’t the world always in a state of flux, stasis rarely occurs. Are we not always part of a Greek tragedy, from thesis to antithesis to synthesis to a new thesis and so on. Like any species we just rumble on, look after our families, scratch a living and try and stay healthy. I guess unlike other species we have what Sebastian Faulks calls the ‘curse of self awareness’. But that is a genie we can never put back in the bottle. Natural selection delivers brilliant, creative people who can address and solve every problem known to man, even our clumsy attempts at self destruction.

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