Chaos theory

Chaos theory is a mathematical mirror of the natural world that allows us to inspect otherwise unnoticed or under-appreciated dynamical patterns within the complexity and to make important, objective statements about our world and many areas of our lives. It is still highly misunderstood by the general public, partly because of the poor choice in names. “Chaos” was traditionally used to refer to randomness, but by definition there is nothing random in chaos theory, or in any of the patterns it relates to such as fractals or spontaneous orders (the self-organization of large groups of individual agents, whether molecules, birds, people, or galaxies).

We are drenched in a wonderful world of chaos and fractals—mammoth cobwebs of clustering galaxies, infinitesimal webs of neurons zapping data around in our brains, splitting streams of rain running down windshields, bifurcating branches, roots, veins, lightening, river valleys, cascading consequences of human actions, evolving trends in society, and even our meandering moral behavior. Whether a process involves a superabundance of factors like weather or is a simple system like a dripping faucet or pendulum; whether it involves growing and shrinking of gaps like those between cars flowing like waves on the highway or our ever changing knowledge gaps; whether it’s the pattern on a bee’s wing, or the entire swarm, or the forming of a snowflake, or even the sound of a windblown snow flurry—chaos theory peels away any illusion of randomness and reveals the deterministic inner workings of these diverse and interconnected systems. Chaos theory also demonstrates how complexity is never predictable to an exact degree even though it is deterministic.

Our natural world is an intimate mix of unpredictability and order. Things, processes, people, ideas, and even sounds and smells are all connected through a flow of cause and effect, acting and reacting to each other in a constant mingling. So of course it results in many unpredictable outcomes. But for the most part, it is the kind of unpredictability that we shouldn’t worry about so much.

It is actually counter productive to worry about most of the things that we expend so much energy trying to “manage”. It is one thing to manage our individual lives or a system of machines, or a small group such as a family or small business. But managing highly nonlinear things that involve multitudes of individual agents such as societies or ecosystems always backfires to some degree. If we ever do attempt to control the weather it will drive the point home, if we survive to talk about it.

  • A recent essay from my friend (and MIT Media Lab director) Joi Ito says this:

    “We are descending not into chaos, as many believe, but into complexity. At the same time that the Internet connects everything outside of us into a vast, seemingly unmanageable system, we find an almost infinite amount of complexity as we dig deeper inside our own biology. Much as we’re convinced that our brains run the show, all while our microbiomes alter our drives, desires, and behaviors to support their own reproduction and evolution, it may never be clear who’s in charge—us, or our machines. But maybe we’ve done more damage by believing that humans are special than we possibly could by embracing a more humble relationship with the other creatures, objects, and machines around us.” []


    • Yes, it is definitely related.

      “The paradox is that at the same time we’ve developed machines that behave more and more like humans, we’ve developed educational systems that push children to think like computers and behave like robots… So we spend years converting sloppy, emotional, random, disobedient human beings into meat-based versions of robots. ”

      Yep! On the one hand, we recognize that AI must be feedback-loopy, organic, self-learning, self-correcting, and so forth. But on the other hand, there is the irony/paradox that being fully self-aware (which is what we ultimately strive for in AI) has the side effect of abstract thinking. That, in turn, means a tendency to overly-organize things (inorganically), thus making things more unbending and “robotic”, like our educational systems.

      “This may have monotheistic roots. Right around the time Western factory workers were smashing robots with sledgehammers, Japanese workers were putting hats on the same robots in factories and giving them names.”

      I have always thought that cultural difference was so interesting.

      “Human beings—though not necessarily our current form of consciousness and the linear philosophy around it—are quite good at transforming messiness and complexity into art, culture, and meaning.”

      Absolutely! He has outlined what is special and necessary about our abstract thinking here.

      “We are descending not into chaos, as many believe, but into complexity.”

      Indeed! Although, I would have put “chaos” in quotes. But yes, over the centuries societies have become much more complex in an organic, self-weaving way. This just wasn’t possible before we understood complexity in the mathematical sense, because the fear of the unknown/unpredictable/uncontrollable sends our abstract linear thinking into overdrive and we end up forcing our own rigid order on top of things, whether it’s government or religion based. When one truly understands the robustness of spontaneous order and complexity, there is less fear, and it is much easier to just “live and let live”.