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This page updated 15 October 2014

Chaos - the horror that people feel

Special LOST WORLDS feature article
By Dan Byrnes


By 1980, quite intrigued, also annoyed, I had begun a collection of writers' remarks on CHAOS. The purpose was to see just how various writers over a long period of time had reacted to the personal threat of chaos, or chaos in society around them. From about 1975, newspapers in Australia had been very boringly (finally) - so much for "analysis in journalism" - using the word "chaos" to refer to the outcomes of wide-ranging union activity in Australia for wage justice. Perhaps, in retrospect, this heavily-politicised union activity was over-active? But Australia in those years certainly did not dissolve into chaos.

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What the journalists were calling "chaos" was, in fact, mere inconvenience of various kinds, due to labour-union strikes conducted legally.

I doubt that this "chaos" of the mid-to-late 1970s was half as destructive on Australian society as the reactions to globalisation that we have seen since the early 1980s.

Since 1980, apart from the entrenchment of globalisation, we have seen the rise also of "Chaos Mathematics", and the fascinating appeal of the graphics produced by The Mandelbrot set. James Gleick published his entertaining book, Chaos: Making a New Science. (London, Cardinal/Sphere, 1987.)

As a somewhat fashionable trend, interest in "Chaos Theory" gave a new and warmer, more appealing range of meanings to chaos. Particularly to "chaotic" phenomena such as oceanic action that forms coastlines; or the atmospherics that produce snowflakes. (Each snowflake has a unique shape.)

More remarks on Chaos Mathematics
After reading your article on Chaos, I have to correct a common mis-conception which has continued to be propagated by journalists and commentators ever since the arrival of Chaos Mathematics.

I refer to the assertion that "a butterfly can flap its wings in Beijing and cause a tornado in Florida", The Butterfly Effect. This notion goes back to mathematical modeling of the weather system using large complex arrays, partial differential equations, etc. As computers became more powerful it was possible to put more variables into the equations.
According to a classical mindset, which might suggest that the more precision you have in your calculations the more precise your predictions, it was presumed that this increased computing power would enable mathematics boffins to construct a more precise model of the weather.
To the amazement of the researchers, the results became less predictable. As they added in lower-order components of their equations, the results fluctuated wildly. One of them commented breathily "It was AS IF a butterfly could flap it's wings in Beijing and cause a tornado in Florida". Please note: he said AS IF.
This does not mean that butterflies actually do cause tornados (as I write this I can envisage millions of Americans arming themselves with insecticide to go out and blow away those pesky butterflies that cause tornados.
What this does mean is that the weather is a chaotic system. By its very nature, it cannot be completely described by linear mathematics. Furthermore, there are many things in the universe like this. If our solar system had been unfortunate enough to have two stars (many solar systems do), the motion of the planets would have been equally chaotic. The triumph of Renaissance science may never have occurred -- because it would have been impossible to devise a mathematic model that described the motion of the planets, Of course if we had two stars -- life may never have got started in the first place -- or it would have been in a completely different form.
So butterflies do not cause tornados -- ok? However, it is true that we can't predict the weather more than a few days in advance. But then again we can't predict the variations of the stock market (or any market, for that matter - contrary to the assertions of classical economics).
Nor can we predict the patterns on the surface of the sun, etc. There are lots of things that cannot be predicted.
According to Chaos Theory it is impossible to predict the behaviour of these systems -- they are inherently chaotic. This, for some, is the frightening assertion of Chaos Theory.
Nineteenth Century scientists believed that they were on the verge of being able to solve all the equations and come up with mathematical models which would predict everything. The legacy of the Twentieth Century theorists is that much of the Universe is unpredictable in its very nature. This is true at the atomic level (a la Heisenberg) and at the macro level (a la Chaos Mathematics). The success stories of earlier centuries were due to the simplicity of the systems that were being described.

Gerry Patterson

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Such as, "the butterfly effect", which metaphorically means, AS IF, a very big AS IF, as for weather patterns, that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon rainforest can result in a tornado across Kansas, or a heavy snowstorm in Canada. That is, small effects can have large, unpredictable, and far-reaching consequences. The Mandelbrot Set meantime suggests that in apparent chaos, unexpectedly regular patterns can appear.

The question might arise: in some cases, is chaos in human affairs just the shifting aside of old things as an unexpected - and regular - new pattern appears? As in, say, the chaos and terrors of the French Revolution?

Writers - and societies - notice many kinds of chaos. Personal emotional chaos, or the results of a mental illness. Family or political chaos. Chaos from earthquake, fire or flood. Generally, CHAOS is feared, as its results seem cold, inexorable, implacable, merciless. Chaos is something worse than simple social disorganisation (which can be shapeless enough), since Chaos moves utterly on its own terms. Chaos was one of the ancient Greek demi-urges, which means that humanity has fearfully, balefully, been watching Chaos for a long time.

Chaos is fateful, terrifying, mystifying, death-dealing. And regrettably, since 1994, the world has seen the organised chaos of genocide in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Indonesia and Timor.

Here then is a LOST WORLDS view of CHAOS...

Perceptions of Chaos, or the reality?

"Chaos is come again.
Advertisement for a performance of Shakespear's Othello.

Life advice in many cultures: "Expect the unexpected".

For the Ancient Greeks, Chaos was a demi-urge, along with the other demi-urges, Gaea or Mother Earth, Eros, or, the creative power of human love, Tartarus, the pit of Hades. The demi-urges have in common a capacity to arouse in us, awe, wonder, fear, terror, perhaps a desire to flee, or the courage to confront, the madness to confront; also the plague of paradox, the urge to speculate; perhaps, social conflict. There may also be urges to passion, affection, resignation, surrender, despair.

The word "gas" is derived from the Greek, "Chaos".

The Old Testament: The Book of Job: 5.6:
For affliction does not come from the dust,
nor does trouble sprout from the ground,
but man is born to trouble
as the sparks fly upward.

The Book of Job: 10.20:
Are not the days of my life few?
Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort,
before I go whence I shall not return,
to the land of gloom and deep darkness,
to the land of gloom and chaos,
where light is as darkness.

On the symbolism of the dragon: The universal dragon (Katholikos ophis) of the Gnostics is the 'way through all things'... It is related to the concept of chaos ('our chaos or Spirit is a fiery dragon which conquers all things)... and of dissolution.

An English prayer finds a role for God in perceptions of Chaos:
"Thou, whose Almighty Word,
Chaos and Darkness heard..."
Note here, that Chaos here is deemed worthy of capitalisation as a spiritual, inchoate darkness.

Lawrence of Arabia - The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In Arabia he experienced some forms of chaos, and later wrote, "In my notes, the cruel rather than the beautiful found place"... He felt that some of the evil of his tale was inherent in the circumstances, such that he and his companions were "like dead leaves in the wind". He found, that with "the sorrow of living so great, the sorrow of punishment had to be pitiless".

D. H. Lawrence, his novel, Kangaroo. "It's much easier to point to a wrecked house, if you want to build something new, than to persuade people to pull the house down and build it up in better style."

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn: On the Ovarian Trolley:
Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos. From the beginning it was never anything but chaos. It was a fluid which enveloped me, which I breathed in through the gills. In the substrata, where the moon shone steady and opaque, it was smooth and fecundating; above it was a jungle and a discord. In everything I quickly saw the opposite, the contradiction, and between the real and the unreal the irony, the paradox. I was my own worst enemy.

Adolf Hitler, on uniforms on 30 November, 1941 (in Hitler's Secret Conversations): "The uniform was indispensable. With some people well-dressed and others miserably, one cannot build a coherent formation."

World War Two saying: SNAFU - situation normal, all fucked up.

"Chance would be a fine thing":
A well-known expression in England.

Carl Jung: "The struggle with the unformed, with the chaos of Tiamat, is in truth a primordial experience."

Carl Jung (anticipating "Chaos Mathematics?"):
"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."

Australian writer and critic Arthur Boyd, with his book, The Great Australian Ugliness, titled one chapter, The Descent into Chaos.

Writer Christopher Booker in his book on the novelty-ridden UK of the 1960s, The Neophiliacs:
"Labour is ready. Poised to swing its plans into instant action. Impatient to apply the New Thinking that will end the chaos and sterility."
Booker, p. 313, mentions "the chaos afflicting the international monetary system, after ten years of rapidly rising consumption and the inflation it had inevitably brought in its wake, to the chaos afflicting the Roman Catholic Church after the earlier "dream stage" of its aggiornamento under Pope John (23rd)... "the chaos of the 'Cultural Revolution' into which China had fallen in the years after 1965..."

Generally in journalism, the word chaos is used as a catch-cry to rouse the primal fears of readers about the loss of freedom of movement and satisfaction, about fear of the unknown. In the context of civil difficulties, chaos is a word encapsulating every nuance of strife.
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In Nucho's book on Berdyaev, p. 29, on Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor: "Dostoyevsky firmly believed that the chaos and amoralism in which humanity finds itself is a by-product of its rejection of Christ's teaching of true freedom".

Murphy's Laws

In any field of endeavour, if anything can go wrong, it will, (and at the worst possible time)

Left to themselves, things will go from bad to worse.

If several things can go wrong, then the one that can do the most damage will;

Nature is always on the side of the hidden flaw.

If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.

In the 1970s, as a kind of prelude to Chaos Theory, French mathematician Rene Thom produced an approach he called Catastrophe Theory. This theory seemed mis-named a little, since it helped us to compare the health versus the ill-health of natural systems, such as predator-prey ratios, and was in fact biased to consideration of systems-health.

(1) In a book on Systems Thinking, a brief mention of some mathematical approaches to the handling of "chaotic association". For example, associations of small amounts of gaseous substances under ordinary temperature or pressure, not in an eddy or stream movement. The mathematical treatment of such physical conditions can be accomplished with what can be called, "chaotic aggregates".

Bob Dylan in his early years once wrote (a little glibly in a hip way): "I accept Chaos, I'm not sure if it accepts me."

From Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg. New York, Pocket Books, 1973.

Generally, Pearce examines the responses made by human beings when their cosmological view, their world view, or their merely habitual modes of behaviour are sundered by tragedy, or are even outgrown. Pearce presumes that we notice the onset of chaos when we can no longer stave off our perception that there is a larger system than the one to which we are accustomed - a system which will use us, so to speak, in order to become known. Once that larger system is known to us, we are changed, and can no longer retreat into a frame of mind that is better adapted to systems less wide or far-reaching.

p. 6, "Nevertheless, by any change of concept concerning possibilities, we beat the broad way of the statistical world, if only for a while. The social fabric is sustained by agreement on which phenomena are currently acceptable. Susanne Langer referred to nature as a language-made affair. Threat of this chaos provides sufficient stimulus to ensure a ready granting of validity to current ideas. And strangely, even when this ideation decrees that a particular event must end in death, most people would rather accept the sentence than risk the chaos."

p. 51, Langer calls even nature a "language-made affair", made for understanding, and prone to collapse into chaos if ideation fails. Fear of this collapse may be the most potent fear in civilised man.
Note: here, read also, "scientised man".

p. 113, "Jung speaks of life's potential as governed by law and yet not governed by law, rational and irrational. Bruner refers to fate as that which is beyond one's control, a residuum left after one has run through the census of our possibilities."
Note: Here, one might also wish to consider a line from a song by John Lennon
"Life is what happens to you while you're planning other things".

p. 126, (With reference to the male initiation ceremonies of tribal Aborigines in Australia)
Through it all, he (the initiate) must remain stock still, silent and impassive. By this enormous shock, his psyche is very literally shattered and disintegrated. At the very moment of disintegration, the inculcation of the totem world view begins. It is an elaborate and complex system, intellectual, logically cohesive, completely inter-related.

p. 152, Chaos is the underlying threat of the open system become self-conscious. Thus the self-modification demanded by a common agreement, necessary for a common world view and a society, is also a natural source of conflict. Organising a common reality seems to be bought at the price of individuality.
(Goes on into the more artistic problems of form and content.)

p. 162, Don Juan and Jesus believe the materials of the world to be subject to dramatic alteration and reorganisation by an activity of the mind..."

p. 168, Carlos (with Don Juan) sensed... there was then no guarantee that he could "provide himself indefinitely with consensus", and this abyss of apparent chaos drove him back into the broad stream...

Chaos and the American novelist, Thomas Pynchon:
In Pynchon's book, "V": Stencil is a character who establishes contact with Father Fairing, a Jesuit priest with a penchant for spying, who is motivated by "an antipathy to chaos", which he considers un-Christian.

To be continued regularly...

Now return to the Lost Worlds Index

Stop Press: For late entries

The New Scientist Guide to Chaos. Penguin Books, nd?

Christie Tisdall, In Times of Great Chaos. [Re China?] nd?

Denny Gulick, Encounters with Chaos. nd?

Norman Angell, From Chaos to Control. poetry, nd?