Thursday, January 21, 2010

Order and chaos

By Steve Rensberry

We humans, like most all other biological organisms on this planet, have a beginning, middle and an end. And what an end it is. We're born. We live our lives. Then we die - our bodies transformed into what we can see with our own eyes is but the earth from which we came. That much is indisputable. But then here we have this magnificent thing called the human mind, or brain if you will, and the source of nearly endless dispute.

I don't much like it - the conflict that is - for over the past few thousand years it has produced a pool of blood about the size of Lake Michigan. But strange as it is I find comfort in a little known theory involving "edge-of-chaos" systems.

What it suggests is that the most interesting and complex aspects of existence are found within a constricted realm lying midway between order from chaos. Physicists have identified it. Organizational experts have studied it. Mathematicians and social scientists have made note of it.

In short, the assumption is that complexity, and by inference potential, within this unique point of tension is maximized. Examples can be seen in the structure of living organisms, in crystals and gases and in many other areas.

The idea is not without its critics, but its relevancy remains whether you consider it a rule, a pattern or simply a tendency.

An article by Dr. Cameron Freeman entitled "Creative Tension at the Edge-of-Chaos: Toward an Evolutionary Christology" raises some interesting points.

"This edge-of-chaos dynamic can also be traced through the historical development of the human species," he says. "Human history has been shaped by a number of painful and messy sociocultural upheavals and critical periods of 'disruption and novelty' where the dominant regime reaches a point of chaotic instability and gives way to a new more organized sociocultural structure."

Freeman discusses this same pattern in the interplay between the divine and mortal, as well as in the evidence calling into question the incrementalism associated with Darwinian evolution, in particular based on the work of Niles Eldredge and Jay Gould suggesting that evolutionary change has occurred in sudden leaps and bounds as opposed to a process of slow, gradual transformation.

Either way, the pattern is one of complexity arising out of chaos, whether on the biological, chemical, molecular or sociological level.

"Given the persistent tendency of evolution to constantly go beyond what went before, it seems likely that we are part and parcel of a universal story that is unfinished and still evolving - and that there are higher stages of evolution to be attained in the collective future of the human species," he writes.

Freeman's article can be found at

What I like about the concept is the relationship it has to the notions of balance and dynamic interdependence.

People often become like those they hate. The more of a hurry you're in the slower everyone around you seems to go. Certainty performs a balancing act with risk and hope shakes hands with despair, then voila! Progress at last.

Perhaps it is not so much the Twilight Zone where anything and everything can happen, but that strange thin line separating order from chaos where it all comes down.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion