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Cherie Reich

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At the Edge of Chaos
by Cherie Reich   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, May 08, 2009
Posted: Friday, May 08, 2009

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This is a philosophical essay on chaos and order. My philosophy professor commented that some of it is neo-Pythagorean.

At the Edge of Chaos








A chaos whose order is beyond comprehension. – Henry Miller’s Black Spring






            In the Ancient Greek creation story, first there is Chaos and from Chaos, the world is formed. It seems as once there is order, then Chaos retreats into the background. The Babylonian creation story, however, has the chaos or primeval waters by the name of the goddess Ti’amat. She was destroyed by Marduk, but she did not seemingly fade away from existence. Her body formed the mountains, and her blood formed the seas. She was the basis for the land, yet she was also considered as chaos.


            Is chaos something that came to be and then was separated by order? Or is chaos the basis for the world and there for the world to go back to if order should fail? Chaos typically has gotten a negative connotation. This paper is an attempt to delve further into the realm of chaos and try to make some understanding of it and its impact on a metaphysical realm. By examining J.T. Fraser’s nested-hierarchy of time with the chaos/atemporal branch and how it relates to the other temporalities to examining the scientific explanations of chaos, particularly the chaos theory, I hope to bring a more feasible comprehension to chaos than how chaos is typically viewed as something that is undesirable.


            J.T. Fraser discusses chaos with aspects for temporality and a nested-hierarchy concerning over temporalities in his book Time, Conflict, and Human Values. Chaos is at an atemporal state. It is also the first state of time before the other states can come forth and evolve into the proto-, eo-, bio-, noo-, and socio- temporalities. These temporalities serve “as the anchor or reference” to the temporality before and the one after (35). This atemporal time is not a state of “nonexistence but [of] a world of absolute chaos, a total absence of causation” (37). This type of state is what is viewed to happen before the beginning of the universe. It is the most primitive of states. It is similar to the simple OM in Hinduism that is “said to contain the essence of the universe” or the abyss or primeval churning of water before it flows into something greater (42). Negatively though, chaos has been compared to “the suffering of the schizophrenic who feels the pull of chaos and panics at the danger of losing his nootemporal reality” (129). There are two types of chaos: formal chaos and absolute chaos. On the one hand, formal chaos is “the behavior of certain nonlinear dynamic systems and is due to their extreme sensitivity to initial conditions in combination with the physical limitations of computer precision,” but, on the other hand, absolute chaos is “a state of pure becoming, a behavior totally unpredictable not only in practice but also in principle.” This world of pure becoming “lurks beneath all natural phenomena.” Chaos is present in all forms and “contributes to the processes at all higher integrative levels” (60-1). Thus, chaos is not something that can be pushed away for it exists on all levels, according to Fraser.


            Chaos is further examined in James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science. In general, chaos has typically been seen in simple random behaviors of systems, but it was believed that complex behaviors could not show chaos because chaos was too simple for them. Yet, these complex systems actually behave simply. Because of this simplicity in complex systems, chaos is probable. Chaos was typically undervalued though until many scientists “realized that chaos offered a fresh way to proceed with old data.” Chaos was viewed as “uncomprehension, resistance, anger, [and eventually] acceptance.” A good example of chaos is the random dots forming on a computer screen. The more dots that appear, then the more likely they will show an object and appear less random than before. This randomness of chaos creates an “astonishing geometric regularity” (304-5). Chaos liberates order. It allows for randomness and gives a freedom for objects to explore every possibility. Chaos is most prevalent though within science from the random crystallization of snow flakes to the “unstable free boundary” of dendrites (309). Thus, from simple to complex systems, chaos is prevalent.


            To understand how chaos works in complex systems, the chaos theory was formed. In Çambel’s book Applied Chaos Theory: A Paradigm for Complexity, the chaos theory is explained as he focuses on the scientific aspect of chaos. This theory is used in order to explain things that in the past have been unexplainable. Scientifically, chaos is used for “an integrated interpretation of nonlinear dynamics, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, information theory, and fractal geometry”. People typically view chaos as “unpredictable or random, but it is not necessarily bad or undesirable.” For example, the Nobel Prize winner of Chemistry in 1977 Ilya Prigogine believes that order comes out from chaos through self-organization. Opposed to Gleick’s view that chaos is death, chaos is shown to breed life because it does not lead to stagnation (14-5). In the end though, chaos is neither good nor bad, and it should not be thrown around so lightly as to describe disorganization or just a general mess of a situation. Yet, the chaos theory provides insights to near-future events, such as the butterfly effect, which is “the concept that a butterfly batting its wings in Peking stirs the air and thereby causes instabilities in the system to magnify so much that a storm develops weeks later in New York” (194). In the end though, scientists exploit chaos theory to use it to their advantage to bring about a sense of order that sometimes once again seeks the edge of chaos.


            The dynamics of the chaos theory are further explored in Russ Marion’s book The Edge of Organization: Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems. Reality as we know it is just our perceptions of the world around us. Other than that, we do not completely grasp reality, particularly concerning complex systems. Because of this inability to understand complex systems in an organized fashion, chaos theory exists. Marion terms this lack of understanding of complex systems as being “blind” (12). The heart of chaos theory lies within the notion “that simple events can generate behaviors so complex that one is tempted to call them random, yet they are entirely deterministic and can be modeled with simple mathematical equations” (15). Because of the randomness of chaos, it has been viewed as existing first before order, but perhaps “order, in the form of life, is separated from random disorder by survival of the fittest” and is thus first before chaos (102). However, the difference between order and chaos is often perspective. For example, if you are sitting under some trees that are in a straight line, you can perceive their order. Now, if you are sitting under trees that have randomly been placed, and then you go and view above them, you can see the disorder. Yet, you can see a grove of trees that appear very random as well, but these trees, once you view them from above, are formed into a pattern. This pattern is chaos because it is difficult to observe the order in it without a special perspective (276-7). Hence chaos can be order with a special way of looking at it.


            Complex systems breach the edge of chaos and show the order within the chaos. In The Origins of Order, Stuart A. Kauffman explains how these varieties of complex systems become chaotic or come close to being chaotic. The Boolean networks, which are “systems of binary variables, each with two possible states of activity,” have three states of behavior: ordered, complex, and chaotic (182). Once the Boolean network is disordered, it easily passes between the three behaviors. The change between these behaviors in the Boolean network occur with seemingly ease. The chaotic behavior of the Boolean network though appears particularly at the lengths of cycles and sensitivity in conditions. For example, if the “average number of inputs to each element in the net” change just by one, it can either become chaotic or become ordered (192). Interesting to note, the chaotic behavior shows some order with many cycles being examined, particularly “with median lengths on the order of 2^5000” (195). With the Boolean networks, there is a frozen component, and this component creates a sense of stability and order, yet when it is separated as a species, chaos ensues (256). Similar to the Boolean network, evolution in complex ecosystems adapts from chaos to order and then “coevolves to a poised state at the edge of chaos” (261). These systems all approach the edge of chaos, and it only seems to take a sort of invisible hand to either keep it in order or push it into chaos.


            As this paper has examined various ways of viewing chaos, I shall now examine my own views of chaos. I happen to agree with Fraser that chaos is a pure-becoming and exists in an atemporal realm. To me, it seems as something that is out there. A randomness that is hard to see without the special perspective that Marion mentions. Yet, it seems to me that people try to either make order out of the chaos or chaos out of the order. Can this really be? Is there such a thing as the seemingly oxymoronic nature of organized chaos or random order?


            Let me try to answer this question. Chaos is apparently random. It is disorganized. Though simplistic in nature, chaos aids in the explanation of complexity. It is similar to a kaleidoscope. The particles are chaotic and random, yet as you view them through the tube, twisting it around, patterns emerge. The patterns themselves seem chaotic, completely random, yet are they? No. After a while, the pattern repeats. This apparently simple child’s toy has a beautiful complexity that is only there because of the chaos within the particles of color. I believe in this example that order is just a person trying to make sense of the randomness of the chaos.


            As is mentioned in Marion’s book, perhaps order is the first and chaos comes out forth. This concept is typically backwards from how people typically view chaos and order, but it does have some merit. In reality, many things seem utterly random, particularly accidents. For example, someone wakes up late because the power went out and caused the alarm clock not to work. Thus, the person hurries for work, stubbing his toe along the way. After that person limps to his car, he drives off, but he gets stuck in traffic because there was an accident that occurred around the time he would have normally been in that intersection going to work. These seemingly random events stopped the person from being in a horrendous accident, but he has ruined the simple order of getting up, getting ready, and driving to work. Chaos is thus extremely complex, and the little random events have a deterministic, orderly value from the accident just explained to the butterfly effect explained earlier.


            I would like to go back and examine Fraser’s nested-hierarchy of time where an atemporal world is first in the hierarchy. As stated earlier, Fraser compares an atemporal realm to the chaos that a schizophrenic feels when losing their nootemporality. This notion is rather negative as most people would not want to be schizophrenic. Yet, I believe that one has to lose their nootemporality in order to fully comprehend chaos. One needs to shake free from the constraints and stagnation that order has. Perhaps chaos truly is a liberating experience. It leads to conflict and change, which Fraser would like as to him change is good. I believe that chaos is the OM in Hinduism. It is something that is seemingly simple, yet it is so complex that one must study it for years to even glimpse an understanding at how it works within the universe.


            To go back to the oxymoronic nature of organized chaos and random order, perhaps the two are not as contrasting as they appear and are thus the same difference. In a metaphysical space, what is ordered and what is chaotic are just how close or how far away one is viewing the reality of the situation. It is like a theatrical performance where the chaos is there, but one can also stand back from it and see the order of events that make this chaos a comedy instead of a tragedy. Hence chaos becomes organized, and randomness has order.


            Chaos, typically, has been gravely misunderstood. It is not some negative effect. Most of the time, it is neither good nor bad. It is just there. Chaos theory explains what can normally be unexplained. Thus, it is complex. There appears to be an extremely fine line between chaos and order, and most things approach the edge of chaos and the edge of order. The slightest movement can change one to the other. Perhaps both chaos and order are not as different as they seem. One just needs a special perspective to see the pattern out of the chaos, whether the pattern is considered orderly or random. To go back to the Greek and Babylonian creation stories, chaos is more like Ti’amat than Chaos because it just didn’t fade into the background. Chaos remained, and it is a foundation of the world. Sometimes you just have to be above it in a god’s eye view to understand the randomness and view the pattern. Thus, we teeter between the edge of chaos and order. Sometimes we cross the line as it is so thin, but the two are not as different as they seem. It all is how you view the order or the chaos at the time.




Works Cited




Çambel, A.B. Applied Chaos Theory: A Paradigm for Complexity. 1993.




Fraser, J.T. Time, Conflict, and Human Values. 1999.




Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. 1987.




Kauffman, Stuart A. The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. 1993.




Marion, Russ. The Edge of Organization: Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems. 1999.

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Reviewed by Regis Auffray 5/9/2009
I can't believe this. Just prior to coming to your site, I have just posted an essay by a friend of mine in the "Articles" section of my page here at AD. It is entitled: "Chaos and Order." Yours is a fine and informative essay, Cherie. Thank you for the lesson. Love and peace to you,

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