It is exciting to be living in a time of transition and experiencing many significant changes firsthand. This is true in our spiritual life, as well as in other aspects of our lives. One such innovation is the chaos theory, which is still being defined. We are watching it being shaped.
The chaos theory began in the 1960s with the realization that quite simple mathematical equations could become very complex, and that tiny differences in input could create a very different output. Then in 1975, Mitchell Feigenbaum at the Los Alamos National Laboratory discovered that in a tiny change producing a significantly different result, there was unexpected order. The word “chaos” is misleading since the theory shows that what seems like disorder in a system actually leads to order. The 1970s saw various disciplines, from chemistry to meteorology, studying the theory.
The chaos theory represents the idea that within the defined boundaries of a complex system, there can be random disorder. This chaos is described in Chaos, Management and Economics: The Implications of Non-Linear Thinking by Stacy and Parker as, “an intricate mixture of order and disorder, regularity and irregularity: patterns of behavior which are irregular but nonetheless recognizable as broad categories of behavior, or archetypes, within which there is endless individual variety.”
Business writer Margaret Wheatley in Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe describes that it is natural for a system, whether human or chemical, to attempt to quell a disturbance when it first appears. But if the disturbance survives, then the process begins again, going from stability to instability. This process eventually creates a new order within the system, which will, at some point, also face disturbances. Some of these disturbances will be stopped and some will go on to create further chaos. This theory was the basis of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry won by Ilya Prigogine in 1977, and relates to most disciplines.
There are significant aspects to such a theory. One relates to the terms “linear” and “non-linear” relationships. A linear relationship has one cause and one outcome, is considered a simple relationship and defines a simple system. In a non-linear relationship, one cause may have many different outcomes, or one outcome may have many causes; it is complex.
A second condition of chaos is that a non-linear system is more than the sum of its parts. A complex system can’t be studied in parts or in isolation; a scientist can’t break a system apart to understand its sections and then put it together again with a knowledge of that system. A non-linear system requires a holistic approach in which the pattern of the behavior of the whole, not the individual parts, is significant. This is similar to the spiritual concept that everything is connected. The gap between science and spirituality is closing as new information, such as this theory, is discovered.
Another intriguing aspect of this theory is that it deals with elements on a human scale. The other two post-Newtonian concepts in science dealt with either cosmic proportions as a result of Einstein’s theory of relativity or the invisible, hardly comprehensible proportions of quantum physics. Science had seemingly ignored our lives, and anything too common, such as the study of clouds, was too mundane for real scientists. Chaos brought back a human perspective. This also helps bring spirituality down to a human level.
Most scientists acknowledge the theory of relativity and quantum physics as the two most significant discoveries of the 20th century. Many are adding chaos, or the more general term, complexity theory, to that elite group. We have been in a chaotic world, pretending it was structured with understandable rules.
Chaos, Management and Economics: The Implications of Non-Linear Thinking shows that the new theory also impacts how our human organizations function. They use the term “bounded instability” in relation to this theory. Boundaries exist, within which there is order, disorder, then order and disorder in a continual process; this is chaos within a business. Knowing that it is all right to expect the unexpected, and to accept that as natural, can help us see business in a different perspective.
What makes this seemingly chaotic behavior livable is the fact that underneath the random activity is eventually a return to a new order. It is not the same order that was initially in place, but stability in a system does return after a period of disruption. Maybe we can begin to feel more comfortable, knowing that there is structure underlying whatever modifications we are currently experiencing. We should remember the “bounded instability” and apply it to our spiritual lives. Yes, there is instability, but it has boundaries beyond which it will not go. This allows us to trust again. There are limitations and, according to the chaos theory, a new order will arise, in all aspects of our lives.
These turbulent times force us to modify the old ways of thinking. An understanding of the role of science adds another dimension to our spiritual view. Science discovered the technology that brought us from the agricultural world to the industrial age to the information age. Accepting the scientific basis of this current era furnishes us with a scientific possibility of trust, and eventually even spirituality, because the new theory suggests an underlying order to our seemingly chaotic lives and spiritual lives.