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Chaos Theory

By Dick Pieper

We live in a Quantum Mechanical world but behave as though we live in a Newtonian one. The latter was described by the laws of Sir Isaac Newton who lived in the 17th century. Newtonian physics still describes perfectly the fall of an apple but scientific discoveries in the 20th century made clear most events are not as linear as those described by the Englishman. Yes, airplanes fly and friction slows a sled but in reality advances in laboratories and mathematics show us that our world is scarcely predictable. What looks like order and predictability encompasses great unpredictability. This is known as “Chaos Theory”.

Why should we be aware and care about this topic? Because Newtonian Physics powerfully spilled over into our notions of cause/effect and determinism, the Western World, in particular, adapted those ideas in the social sciences. The Western World has developed socially as though if something could be determined, it could be controlled. Thus, in the same way a cannon could fire a lead ball with deadly accuracy, Hitler thought he could create a master race through genetics and training. Control at its extreme and disastrous.

Quantum Mechanics followed by Chaos Theory are now the drivers not only of science and production but many enlightened people in the arts, psychology, business and government are finding they apply to those fields as well and for the good. Much of what social institutions must deal with seems and is chaotic, uncontrollable, completely without order. However, improving those institutions and society at large cannot be done in a 17th century deterministic fashion.

I am in agreement with the progress science is making in these areas. I think well-meaning people everywhere should be looking not only for metaphors from science but make actual copious use of those techniques to change our deterministic, control thought patterns.

While this approach may seem frightening at first, look at the huge paradigm shift here in a positive way. If Newtonian meant absolutism and determinism of outcomes that can also mean fixedness, stasis and finality. There is only right and wrong for example, when few of us believe in that level of certitude. We see the poison of certitude in too many of our institutions: the polarization of the U.S. Congress, the enmity amongst religious faiths, and violent disagreement about education styles.

Chaos Theory allows for randomness; it is the very essence of our vast unknown universe. Our small planet earth will always be encountering something new and accommodations need to be made for the new.  Chaos Theory seeks for patterns within the randomness and always assumes the unpredictable.

 In physics, experiments that led to the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics were done with electron beams. Until the early-twentieth century, electrons were sub-microscopic things or particles. Great minds like Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrodinger, Marie Curie, Richard Feynman and others (many Nobel Prizes amongst them) worked to develop explanations for what they were able to observe. Their huge discoveries were that the physical world is not what it seems. For example, turns out electrons are both wave and particle.

On their broad brilliant shoulders comes Edward Lorenz in the 1960s. Lorenz wanted to figure out that common chaotic experience for everyone: the weather. His legacy rests with the “Butterfly Effect”. He posited small differences in dynamic systems can set off totally unexpected results. In terms of the butterfly: “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set off a Tornado in Texas?” The answer can be yes.

Lorenz’s insight started the field of chaos study not only in mathematics and science but also in the social sciences. How to find some sort of pattern in all the randomness and cope with it? The deep philosophical shift here is that long range predictability is impossible so how do we plan and govern in the face of this knowledge.

What I’m doing here is suggesting we begin modeling the positive parts of Chaos Theory in our culture. Certitude is comforting for the individual or organization suggesting it but being certain doesn’t always make something correct. Science has the luxury of a laboratory to prove or disprove ideas. In the Social Sciences the laboratory is people and the quality and value of their lives is always at stake. I am determined to start a discussion at many levels about the worth of being both wave and particle. We need to be as open as science to learning proof even if the new evidence upends our cherished notions. We need to learn there is always at least one more way to view a problem. Somehow we must end the stifling, dead end approach to “my way or the highway social interchanges”. In the end we’ll all go nowhere-fast.

I would not be Dick Pieper if I did not submit that in the same way science is exploring String Theory-an understanding of how Quantum Mechanics and gravity complete each other-I believe I do know what will make our exploration of chaos in a social context successful. That String will be Character.

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