Mark 9:24

Chaos theories

In Lay Meditations on July 25, 2011 at 2:26 am

Being more a grammarian than a mathematician, and having more interest in what symbols convey than what they describe, the phrase, “chaos theory,” is wonderfully deep. Is it an absurd joke played on us by men smarter than we’ll ever be? I say this with the profoundest respect, keeping in mind the delightful oddity of mathematicians. Keeping in mind their particular character, however, we must reject this hypothesis.

To depict chaos in any way is to define it.

If mathematicians fool around in their jokes with concepts from mere calculus, when it comes to their work they are as much the monomaniac as any specialist. I decide, therefore, that they are serious in talking of chaos theory. I think this does a great credit to men of numbers that such a field can exist without self-contradiction, and, even if not, perhaps it describes a number of impulses of faith made by the mathematicians, at least some of them good. We must note that the idea that there can be any theory about chaos is a huge profession of faith on the part of a mathematician. It means that, “No matter how disorganized this seems, there must at least be some rules governing it.”

For emphasis: All things, even chaos, have some order. No science is possible without the belief that for what exists there is explanation. If scientists did not harbor this assumption, science would have no motive power. We would guess once and, failing, would settle for a mystery. God of the gaps indeed. On the other hand, perhaps it reflects a grim finality: This is really chaos.

Chaos, that grim beast we hold back not with ingenuity but with hope, brazenly, almost futilely casting iron formulas around it, or at least flagging a tripwire fence around Chaos’ hunting grounds. Chaos exists, and to look upon him is madness. That men study this beast is fascinating, proof again that when men look into bottomless pits, they look for the bottom.

Where Nietzsche saw a mirror, these men see metrics. And yet formulas and metrics are limits on Chaos, rendering this particular terror at least somehow comprehensible. We excerpt Chesterton out of context:

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

If Chaos is such a beast we have defined some of his horrible attributes. Even to say he is inhuman, against reason and named, we have a power now we did not before, and these, as in any true story, will be his undoing. In so being named, and in so being described, we rob Chaos of his horrible mystery and therefore his most effective weapon: dread, or what the Gothics called terror. We may have the horror of the beast still, that pulse-pounding fear of the alien devourer rushing toward us, but we are no longer convinced of his overwhelming omnipotence in the moments he is absent. How far a fall it is from unlimited power to any other amount, even it is more than we can handle. We need now only a St. George — human, of reason, and better named — to pierce this evil with an oaken lance, though a lancet pierces just as well.

I have a feeling that the truth is something less astonishing than these fantastical guesses. Chaos theory is not quantum chaos, after all. It’s more likely a fantastic name for a principle of theoretical interconnectivity of all things at every level, however minute; it more likely says that all conditions at one end of a chain of events is determined by the initial conditions. Theologically, and on the cosmic level, that’s the equivalent of some sub-Abrahamic Prime Mover beginning the universe with a certain twist to every atom, afterward sleeping off the effort of creation in the long Sabbath we call Time. We call this deism.

Deism is a compromise. Like the Five Ways, it is not all the way to Christianity. It is not the whole truth knowable by men in this world. It is better than nothing, and it is better than chaos. Each thing which exists is better than a thousand nothings which do not, for existence is good and oblivion more wholly evil than we can imagine. Oblivion and its abyss are constrained, perhaps, by limits, imposed by the definition of “oblivion” and “abyss.” We limit them just enough to be conceivable, whether or not their unreality bears truth to these borders.

Enjoy, then, brothers — shudder, I hope — gazing at the nothing, the zero, the X-ed, the Echthroi, the Macrobes. Wonder how to contain them. By definition? By faith? By fact? Contain them we must or we will go mad.

“This is precisely what I mean,” says Chesterton, and I paraphrase: Perhaps we have not heard of red angels, but we have heard of blue devils. Call them devils and call them blue. They, through definition and by it, are far less than they seemed once before, back when we were still asleep. After the long nightmare of the deist’s Holy Saturday Sabbath, we now wake, armed.

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  1. I’ve been fascinated by the intersection of Chaos and faith for much of my life. I don’t blog about the topic as much as I’d like, but did a short post here. Note that the mathematical term “chaotic” is quite technical, and definitely doesn’t mean “completely without order”. As you note, “chaotic” systems can arise when there are multiple independent factors all influencing one another. The best layman’s introduction I can think of is Page and Miller’s “Complex Adaptive Systems”, which can be finished on a trans-Atlantic flight. A quick Web search turns up this page, which is pretty inadequate as an introduction, but should gesture at the interesting formalization work that Wolfram did.

    • Thank you for your insights. If this is true, then the first qualification in the post applies: Chaos, as in chaos theory, is a denial of chaos. It may be only an illustration, of course, but the choice of term is still illustrative. Naming a thing chaos when it is not does something horrible to chaos. To borrow a Chestertonian turn of phrase, this is another incidence of seeking “to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite,” to “cram the universe into our head.”

      But my sort of reflection here is only true so far as it goes. It does not go in the direction of actual mathematics very far, and I will readily accept fuller understandings of what chaos theory is.

  2. Yep, sounds right to me.

  3. […] you to give up, and so out goes the Internet. Sin being a privation — that is, sin being not-being — may God fill this void with Himself.  Christe […]

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