The Theosophist June 1990

The Merits of Chaos

Hugh Shearman

Accustomed as we are to think dualistically, we are used to thinking of cosmos and chaos, order and disorder, as two opposites in perpetual contrast. Our assumption tends to be that order is a good thing and disorder a bad thing. If a good person finds himself in a disorderly room, he will try to tidy it and bring it into a state of order, bring cosmos out of chaos.

Order or cosmos is what the mind perceives as order. It is what the mind can understand. This was the great virtue that has been seen in the work of Sir Isaac Newton. For perhaps two and a half centuries we have talked of Nature's laws, and the Theosophical Society has to some extent been based on the supposition that there are such laws. "To investigate unexplained laws of Nature" seems to imply that nature can be brought within the scope of predictable laws.

Newtonian physics appeared to justify and round off this conception. Alexander Pope has written:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.

In our present century, however, J.C. Squire added the lines:

It did not last: the Devil, howling, "Ho!

Einstein did not fundamentally upset the notion that Nature has reliable laws. Indeed he came to its aid. The worrying thing had been that when it came to the very small or the vastly large, Newtonian physics did not quite seem to work. Einstein was able to explain how this was so and show that, though no longer quite in the reliable way we had thought, order was still order. And, for practical purposes, we can still manage most of our affairs wonderfully well without bothering about Einstein. We can even arrange to fly to the moon and back on a basis of Newtonian physics alone.

Latterly, however, a new science has been coming into being, the science of chaos, the science of certain things which just cannot be brought into a state of dependable order. This perception of things has been made possible because we now have computers which can plot the effects of a vastly long process or series.

It was once believed that every kind of physical movement is predictable except the behaviour of single particles or single quanta of light, which are subject to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Now, however, a new science and a new mathematics have been emerging which show quite a large variety of events are intrinsically uncertain and unpredictable. They are liable to be changed or put off course by quite small disturbances of order.

An example is provided by what happens if we hold a racket and bounce a tennis ball into the air. If we time our movements so as to keep the ball in play, it will rise into the air each time to the same altitude and come back to repeat the movement. But if the amplitude of the movement of the racket is increased, the pattern of the ball's behaviour is changed and it falls into alternating high and low shots, turn about. If the movement of the racket is delegated to a machine and given still further amplitude, an increasingly complex pattern occurs. Finally, with further amplitude in the strokes, it will become impossible to predict the pattern of the ball's behaviour. No data on weight, impact, timing, air density and so on, will enable even the most sophisticated computer to predict the continued behaviour of the tennis ball.

Another example emerges in a game of billiards or snooker, played on an ideally flat table. According to Newtonian physics, we should be able to predict the motion of a billiard ball after any number of collisions with other balls and the introduction of any number of impulsions of known thrust and momentum. But this is an illusion. Even after half a dozen collisions the movement of the ball will have become quite unpredictable. There are minute and incalculable variables, such as the gravitational effect exerted by people moving in the room where the experiment is being conducted, which will destroy the predictability that Newtonian expectations would demand. Predictability implies a state of isolation or separation which is nowhere to be found.

In a rather similar way the motion of fluids can be found to develop to wards a horizon of predictability beyond which particles will fall into totally uncorrelated behaviour. In this connection, an eminent emeritus professor of physics at Cambridge has commented that, in the long view, long range weather forecasting "is likely to remain in the province of sorcery rather than of science".

Another area in which predictions are attempted is in the economy. In this age of computers, economists have in recent years delighted in setting up models to show how things will work out. But it would now appear that there are far too many unrelated variables and instabilities to enable such a model ever to provide the reliable answers hoped for.

In particular the major economic factor of human nature seems always to experience the tiny but disruptive touch of chaos.

Each central area of apparent certainty fades away at its edges into a peripheral "beyond" of unpredictability. The variables may seem insignificant but they need to have some pattern of mutual relevance. Lacking this, a chaotic situation arises and prediction becomes impossible.

As we encounter more and more examples of phenomena which cannot be contained within predictable laws, we find that our way of thinking about cosmos and chaos has to be modified. We have tended to think of cosmos as a condition to which chaos has to be "reduced". We have thought that cosmos evolves out of chaos. But, in experience, it now appears that chaos can itself be a natural product of what we had thought was order. . Can it be that, not cosmos, but chaos is the true end product of what we do? Certainly we are not living in a predictable system.

Although it was long ago the contention of the Danish philosopher and theologian, Kierkegaard, that truth cannot be contained within a system, most attempts to expound a truth, or a supposed truth, are addressed to people who are accustomed to think that truth is necessarily part of a cosmos, having the quality of self-consistency which will produce an orderly scheme of some sort.

When earnest members of the Theosophical Society have felt that they had a Theosophy to communicate, they have usually tried to do so by presenting it in the form of a system. There is a large literature of modern Theosophy and much can be learned from it, but if we study it we are constantly led to some point where we have to take off into an unknown. Each orderly presentation of a Theosophy leads to some area of contradiction or incompatibility with every other presentation. Some people deplore this and feel that there must be one presentation which is correct an authoritative, providing a criterion with which any others must be brought into compatibility and conformity.

Yet in real life it appears that every orderly situation, every cosmos, needs a chaos out of which it can develop and then has to lead on to a further chaos. Out little orderly world has been rounded off by unpredictability, chaos, darkness. How else could there be the spontaneity of life, the creativity which alone gives life its zest, its worthwhileness. If cosmos, predictability, was all, then life would surely be only a dead machine.

There is a well known passage in early Anglo-Saxon literature where the writer says that human life is like the flight of a bird which comes our of the night through the window of a brightly lighted banqueting hall and then flies out again into the darkness through a window at the other side of the hall. Where it comes from and where it goes we do not really know. What we try to do is to project into the past and into the future the same type of order or cosmos which we think we know in this present.

But we have to remember that the order or disorder that we find in things lies in our perception of them. In quite practical everyday terms, our extract understanding of things lies in what we bring to them, the mathematics with which we approach them. We are well aware of simple incompletenesses of definition which occur in such common expressions as repeating decimals or the square root of two.

The physics of Galileo, which provided the base for the work of Newton, was grounded on the principle of choosing a single point of view from which to interpret the world. This is in accord with dualistic thinking in which we assume that there is always "I" and "not I", the observer and the observed.

But a much older tradition than Galileo or Newton had already dismissed the exclusive validity of this epistemological assumption. The Yoga-sutras of Patanjali (i.41) refer to an order of consciousness in which the knower, knowledge and the known are experienced as one. But today's scientists are not usually yogis and have not entered upon this Advaitic experience. They have not yet found the perceiver, perception and the perceived to be one; but they have moved in the direction of that unitive view by moving from singleness of viewpoint to accepting a diversity of legitimate viewpoints which may appear superficially to be mutually incompatible. A well known example was the willingness to explore the same phenomena in terms of waves or of particles without waiting to reconcile the two approaches.

In this way, also, science has been moving out of the limits of what we used to regard as necessarily predictable functioning and mutually consistent laws and systems.

In the early years of this century there was much interest in speculations about a fourth dimension, a perception of space as being of such a nature that four straight lines could meet in it, each at right angles to the other three.

To illustrate what this would demand of our minds, analogies and models were offered of a two dimensional world, a place called Flatland, whose inhabitants could imagine only two dimensions. If there were people with perceptions so limited, then we three dimensional thinkers could play may kinds of tricks upon them and inflict upon them many forms of chaos and unpredictability. We could bring about miraculous appearances and disappearances by moving objects into their two dimensional world through our three dimensional space.

Could it then be that if our thinking could perceive space in a four dimensional form, or if it could achieve some comparable transformation of capacity, then many of the characteristics of chaos would at a stroke be brought into a condition of cosmos? But then there would surely in time be discovered a further chaos beyond the frontier of that new cosmos.

In our individual lives, chaos is popularly known as the unconscious. Or the unconscious seems to be the natural manifestation of chaos in our lives. It can be very disconcerting. Yet how terrible it would be if there was no chaos in us. We should be bleak machines, sterile and uncreative.

People try to bring the unconscious under the control of the conscious or to incorporate it within the scope of the mind's rationality. But the mind cannot control the irrational because it looks to the irrational for its own motivation.

The evident move away from narrowly dualistic thinking and from the unicentrist system-building of the past makes possible a coming together of what used to be called the "two cultures", the apparently mutually exclusive cultures of the sciences and the arts.

Similarly Theosophy, a divine wisdom, cannot be a point of arrival, a condition of completeness, something perceptibly predictable in space or time, accessible to the dialectical exercises of the mind, the "slayer of the Real".

One may recollect the comment of the mystic who said that, while others were prepared to submit themselves to God's choice, he was ready to submit himself to God's chance.


Dr Hugh Shearman, a member of the General Council of the Theosophical Society, is a former Regional Secretary for Northern Ireland. He is the author of The Passionate Necessity, The Purpose of Tragedy, Modern Theosophy, etc. ..

More by Hugh Shearman