The Metaphor of Chaos Theory

At one time or another, we’ve all felt our lives were out of control and heading toward chaos. For us, science has striking news. Our lives are already in chaos—and not just occasionally, but all of the time. What’s more, the new science suggests, an individual and collective understanding of chaos may dramatically change our lives.

Although we humans tend to abhor chaos and avoid it whenever possible, nature uses chaos in remarkable ways to create new entities, shape events, and hold the Universe together. This revelation about chaos was first made by scientists about thirty years ago and has since been actively investigated. But the real meaning of chaos for us, as individuals and a society, is only now beginning to be explored.

Just what is chaos? The answer has many facets and will take a little explanation. To begin with, chaos turns out to be far subtler than the commonsense idea that it is the messiness of mere chance—the shuffling of a deck of cards, the ball bouncing around in a roulette wheel, or the loose stone clattering down a rocky mountainside.

The scientific term “chaos” refers to an underlying interconnectedness that exists in apparently random events. Chaos science focuses on hidden patterns, nuance, the “sensitivity” of things, and the “rules” for how the unpredictable leads to the new. It is an attempt to understand the movements that create thunderstorms, raging rivers, hurricanes, jagged peaks, gnarled coastlines, and complex patterns of all sorts, from river deltas to the nerves and blood vessels in our bodies. Let’s begin to grasp this approach by looking at chaos as it is reflected in four very different pictures.

The first photo, taken by the Hubble space telescope, is of a collision between two galaxies. Like a pebble thrown into a lake, this violent encounter flung a violent ripple of energy into space, plowing gas and dust before it at 200,000 miles per hour. This certainly sounds like our traditional idea of chaos, yet within this outer ring of hot gasses, billions of new stars are being born.

Here we see that chaos is both death and birth, destruction and creation. Out of the chaos of primeval gases unfold many varieties of stable order, quite possibly including the highly predictable orbits of planetary systems such as our own. Subatomic particles formed within the first moments of the “big bang” birth of the cosmos are still contained within our bodies in ordered forms. When we die, they will return to the flux of chaos that is as much at work here on Earth as in this galactic explosion. In a deep way, this photograph is a picture of the chaos of each one of us.

The second image shows the turbulence of a mountain stream. Here, apparent disorder masks an underlying pattern. Sit by this stream and you begin to notice that it is simultaneously stable and ever-changing. The water’s turbulence generates complex shapes that are constantly renewed. So this stream is another metaphor for ourselves. Like the stream, our physical bodies are constantly being renewed and transformed as cells are regularly replaced. Meanwhile, that “self” that we believe lies within the body at our psychological center is also in flux. We are both the “same” person we were ten years ago and a substantially new person. But we can go even further.

A little reflection reveals that the stream depicted here is inextricable from the other ecosystems to which it’s connected—the myriad animals and plants that drink from its waters; the twigs, leaves, and seeds that litter the dimple and swirl of its surface; the ancient deposits of glaciers that alter its course; the climate and weather of the region; the season-making orbit of the planet through space. Similarly, each of us as an individual is interconnected to the systems of nature, society, and thought that surround and flow through us. We live within movements constantly affecting each other and creating an unpredictable chaos at many levels. Yet within this same chaos is born all the physical and psychological order that we know.

The third photograph is an all too familiar image of the everyday human chaos produced by technology and human thought. Vehicles traveling individually along the engineered space of a highway system interact with each other to create alternating regions of gridlocked traffic, sudden stop and go, and free-flowing lanes. Viewed from inside one of those vehicles, the movement of traffic appears patternless and random, but from the perspective of an aircraft flying overhead, subtle patterns emerge—a hidden order within the chaos.

The fourth picture is quite a different image of chaos. Deep within the logically ordered constructs of mathematics lurks a turbulent set of numbers named after Benoit Mandelbrot, the mathematician who discovered them and made them famous. Think of the area depicted within the rectangular frame of the picture as the dense, microscopic rows of dots on a TV screen. Each dot corresponds to a number and is colored as either black or white, depending upon how it reacted when it was slotted into an equation. When the equation was “iterated,” or fed back into itself again and again, the number either grew or fell to zero.

The big white warty shape is composed of dots where the numbers fell to zero and stayed there. But in the region along the edge of the white area something strange happens. Here the numbers create patterns that bubble and striate like alien lifeforms. The boundaries become filled with all manner of unpredictable repetitions. This bizarre behavior shows that chaos—and its paradoxical order—lies concealed even within the confines of pure mathematical logic. Many people find this mathematical object strikingly beautiful and engaging. Indeed, one of the important characteristics of our new understanding of chaos is its aesthetic appeal.

The scientistic culture that has increasingly surrounded us—and some would say imprisoned us—for the last hundred years sees the world in terms of analysis, quantification, symmetry, and mechanism. Chaos helps free us from these confines. By appreciating chaos, we begin to envision the world as a flux of patterns enlivened with sudden turns, strange mirrors, subtle and surprising relationships, and the continual fascination of the unknown. Chaos brings us closer to appreciating the world the way artists have appreciated it for thousands of years.

In the past ten years, the idea of chaos has gone far beyond the scientific fields that gave it birth. There are artists who now refer to chaos when talking about their paintings or poems. Chaos theory has figured in hit movies like Jurassic Park. The idea is actively being applied to everything from medicine and economics to warfare, social dynamics, and theories about how organizations form and change. Chaos is evolving from a scientific theory into a new cultural metaphor. As a metaphor, chaos allows us to query some of our most cherished assumptions and encourages us to ask fresh questions about reality.

The idea of chaos opens up radical new ways of thinking and experiencing reality. At the same time, chaos as a metaphor has a builtin humility that previous scientific metaphors did not. Chaos, it turns out, is as much about what we can’t know as it is about certainty and fact. It’s about letting go, accepting limits, and celebrating magic and mystery.

Paradoxically, the insights of the newest science share the vision of the world presented in many of the world’s oldest indigenous and spiritual traditions. This doesn’t mean that chaos theory is about to return us to some mythic golden age or idealized culture, but it does mean that the enduring insights of these cultures will help us elaborate the metaphor of chaos and highlight the way chaos reenvisions ancient wisdom in a brand-new form relevant for our high-tech, high-octane, cyber-saturated age.

Percolating through these lessons of chaos are three underlying themes: ‘control’, ‘creativity’ and ‘subtlety’.

First, ‘control‘. The predicament of all life is uncertainty and contingency. Humans feel this more keenly because our consciousness causes us to remember disasters of the past and imagine dire consequences in the future.

Ancient and indigenous cultures handled their uncertainty through dialogues of ritual with the gods and unseen forces of nature. Western industrial society has taken a different route. We dream of eliminating uncertainty by conquering and controlling nature. The ideal of “being in control” is so much a part of our behavior that it has become an obsession, even an addiction.

Our Western fetish is assailed in Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael. Ishmael satirizes our Western dream of control. We believe, he says, that “only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this [environmental] damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we’re in complete control, everything will be fine. We’ll have fusion power. No pollution. We’ll turn the rain on and off. We’ll grow a bushel of wheat in a square centimeter. We’ll turn the oceans into farms. We’ll control the weather—no more hurricanes, no more tornadoes, no more droughts, no more untimely frosts…. All the life processes of this planet will be where they belong—where the gods meant them to be—in our hands.

Chaos theory demonstrates why such a dream is an illusion. Chaotic systems lie beyond all our attempts to predict, manipulate, and control them. Chaos suggests that instead of resisting life’s uncertainties, we should embrace them. This is where the second theme, creativity, enters.

Painters, poets, and musicians have long known that creativity blossoms when they are participating in chaos. Novelists strive for that magical moment when they lose control and their characters take on lives of their own. Old-fashioned logic and linear reasoning clearly have their place, but the creativity inherent in chaos suggests that actually living life requires something more. It requires an aesthetic sense—a feeling for what fits, what is in harmony, what will grow and what will die. Making a pact with chaos gives us the possibility of living not as controllers of nature but as creative participators.

To sacrifice control and live creatively requires attention to the subtle nuances and irregular orders going on around us. Thus, the third theme of this book. The categories and abstractions that constitute our human “knowledge” are certainly necessary for practical survival, but our categories can dominate us to the point where we ignore the finer, uncategorizable inner nature of human situations. We all know that moment when we overreact to something a person has said. We assume that we know exactly what he or she means and we simply can’t stand the position they have adopted. In reply, we assert our own opposing point of view and inevitably an argument arises. Chaos suggests an alternative.

Suppose we don’t move so quickly to take up a position but instead stay with the original statement and explore the possible inner complexities that lie beyond the other person’s abstractions. It could well turn out that the other’s abstractions mean something subtly different from what we thought they meant. Or, for that matter, different from what the speaker thought they meant.

The metaphor of chaos theory helps us deal with such situations because it shows that beyond and between our attempts to control and define reality lies the rich, perhaps even infinite, realm of subtlety and ambiguity where real life is lived. Chaos theory shows us how apparently tiny and insignificant things can end up playing a major role in the way things turn out. By paying attention to subtlety, we open ourselves to creative dimensions that make our lives deeper and more harmonious.

In ancient myths throughout history, chaos is central to the creation of the Universe. In Egyptian cosmology, the sun god, Ra, arose from the chaotic waste of flood waters called Nun, while in a Chinese creation story light jumps out of chaos to build the sky. According to the early Greek philosopher Hesiod, “First of all things was Chaos.

The ‘clown’, ‘trickster’, or ‘shape changer’ becomes the personification of chaos for cultures all over the world. Though he is the “epitome of the principle of disorder,” the trickster is also identified as the bringer of culture, the creator of order, a shaman or “super-shaman.” The trickster is the wily survivor, the mischievous underdog who defies convention, subverts the system, breaks down the power structure, and gives birth to new ideas. He is the fox in some traditions, the raven or coyote in others. He is Br’er Rabbit who knows his way around the briar patch. He is Hermes the shape-shifter, Prometheus the fire bringer, Dionysus the god of intoxication and destruction.