Thursday, December 31, 2009

Return to Chaos

Like so many, my first introduction to the new science of Chaos and Complexity came from the book "Chaos" written by James Gleick back in 1987.

Recently I returned to read this book wondering as to whether the intervening years had changed my perception or sharpened understanding of the issues raised. As on the first occasion of reading, I was left however with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling, rather like the various courses of a meal that promise a great deal in preparation, yet somehow fail to deliver on eating.

So I stayed a little with this feeling so as to get to its roots.

Basically I would summarise the position as follows. Chaos Theory and all the various versions of Complexity arise from the recognition that so much behaviour in nature is of a nonlinear nature. However Conventional Science, through its linear method, tends to approach nature through modelling it in the form of linear equations (frequently adjusted finally in some way to approximate living conditions).

However this greatly limits the range of possible enquiry while in many ways misrepresenting the true nature of natural behaviour that is studied.

Chaos Theory therefore arises from the commendable insight that nonlinear behaviour needs to be accommodated in the true study of nature.

Admittedly impressive advances have been made in some fields from this insight. For example fractal geometry, not alone reveals many new fascinating insights but also lends itself to a new form of computer art (where self similar patterns endlessly repeat without exactly replicating themselves).

However one great limitation of these new studies is that they are still attempting to approach scientific problems from within the conventional scientific approach (which by its very nature is linear).

So we have the attempted study of nonlinear behaviour (within the confines of a decidedly linear paradigm).

What this means in effect is that the very intuition that is required to - literally - see the important holistic relationships in nature is not actually provided through the new approaches. In fact it leads directly to an equivalent form of reductionism. Whereas the "old" standard approach is criticised as attempting to reduce the whole behaviour of systems to (isolated) constituent parts, the "new" approach actually suffers from the opposite form i.e. of attempting to reduce the rich diversity in nature to some general forms of behaviour.

It seems therefore quite obvious to me that the study of nonlinear systems (in quantitative) terms, properly requires a nonlinear manner of approach (from a qualitative perspective). However as of yet there is no real recognition - either among the "old" standard practitioners or the "new" chaos merchants - of such a nonlinear qualitative approach (which would require a radical revision of what is meant by science).

In the end it is only through this new qualitative approach - which I term integral - that the ability to "see" the important holistic connections in nature (in any required context) can actually emerge.

The fact is that physical and psychological reality are dynamically complementary. Nonlinear behaviour in nature above all requires recognition of this simple fact. In the end the same nonlinear behaviour that governs nature, likewise governs mental life. Though proper appreciation of this basic point, each can thereby operate as a mirror to the other's true identity.

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