Chaos, Pattern and Meaning | Jan 1989

FMBR Editorial: Jan, 1989

Chaos, Pattern and Meaning

Robert L. Shacklett

Modern, high-speed supercomputers have helped bring into being a new branch of science called "chaos." This term describes the phenomena exhibited by a dynamic system displaying apparently random behavior even in the absence of any random influences from outside the system. The mathematics of chaos involves the solution of non-linear equations; hence only with the computer is it possible to simulate the complex behavior of these systems.

One of the remarkable things to emerge from the science of chaos is that under certain conditions, ordered, regular patterns can be seen to arise out of seemingly random, erratic and turbulent processes. Computer graphics makes it possible to study how these patterns appear and disappear with changes in the system parameters. Many natural phenomena, such as the vortex of a tornado, can now be subjected to computer modeling.

Another very interesting finding of chaos theory is that there are higher levels of order that unify many of the diverse and complex patterns observed in different types of systems. That is, even though the systems themselves and their associated patterns may be quite different, there is a commonality in the rules which seem to govern the transition from chaotic to ordered motion. A simple analogy will illustrate this point: every house can be described by a unique set of blueprints, but each set of blueprints must conform to the Uniform Building Code. In other words, even the rules have rules.

Chaos theory is only one of the many areas where the appearance of patterns acts as a powerful engine driving scientists in an unending study of nature and the human condition. The following question seems appropriate: What is it about patterns that is so attractive that some of us spend an entire lifetime digging away in a dimly lit corner of human knowledge searching for something as intangible and as abstract as "structure" or "order"?

In attempting to answer this question it is important to realize the extent to which patterns affect our lives from birth onward. We enter this world with an exquisite pattern recognition system which immediately goes to work processing megabytes of input data every second. Shapes, cycles, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings--all going into the creation of higher order structures which are vital to our growth and adaptation to the environment. The program which does all this data processing could be called MEANING, and one of its jobs is to let the organism know when the pattern recognition process has come up with a "match". Now I don't know how it does this, and I don't think anybody else does either. But if I had to speculate I would say it's probably by means of a wonderful little molecule called an endorphin. Whatever it is, it results in a feeling that we later learn to associate with "understanding" or "got it!" or "aha!" Or maybe just "meaning."

Our sensory input is a mixture of signal and noise. But the excellent graphics capability of the brain/mind bio-computer can form recognizable patterns in the midst of the chaos and as a result the signal is registered, the noise is rejected and we experience "meaning."

Robert L. Shacklett