Edge of Chaos, Parts I and II | May 1993

FMBR Editorial: April/May, 1993

Edge of Chaos, Parts I and II

Marshall Pease

Part I

What is it like to walk on the edge of chaos? To walk on the edge is to accept that our lives are open, uncontrolled, bound to the unexpected and always facing a multitude of threats, some known, some unknown. Yet it is also to acknowledge that our acts have consequences and so to discover responsibility. It is to use the experience of life as a search for opportunity to learn and become. What is it like, and do we have a choice?

This is not chaos in the technical sense (deterministic chaos) -- or it need not be. Rather, it is chaos in the human sense that sees problems proliferating in ways that are beyond all expectation and prediction. It is to know the uncertainty of life.

There is nothing new about disaster and misery. People have suffered them for millennia. They have seen droughts and floods, starvation, pestilence and war, ever since they learned to hope. We read the romances of the ancient heroes; we do not hear of the peasants who lived under their often harsh rule. We hear of conquests; we do not hear of the dead who paid the price on both sides. Neither do we hear of the many others who suffered in the wake of conquest. All that is new is our ability to know and see and feel the misery that surrounds us, both in our own communities and in the far reaches of the world.

Yet in the turmoil of history there has also been the opportunity for life itself. The alternative to chaos is an order that must deny all change, all growth, all becoming. To this order any change must threaten turmoil and dissolution, challenging stability itself. In the end, the ultimate order is death.

Recent work suggests that life itself, as well as all the organizations that give it structure, exist "at the edge of chaos." This seems to be true in such diverse areas as genetics, biology, ecology, sociology, politics and economics. The dynamics of systems in all these areas seem to drive them toward the edge by ensuring that systems that fail to do so will disappear. An overly stable system becomes frozen into an immobility that cannot meet the challenge of new, more dynamic systems. An overly unstable one fails by losing all organization and focus. A necessary condition of any complex system seeking to remain vital and viable in a changing and complex environment seems to be that it finds the edge of chaos and endures the problems of that state. It is only there that it exhibits the vitality, the adaptability, and the creativity that is the very substance of life itself.

The same principle seems equally true of individuals. We too "live on the edge" as long as our lives remain vital and willing to grow and become. We each face a choice: do we accept the challenge of chaos or do we seek to hide from what seems its dangers and griefs? If we deny the threat, where then is the vitality that can give our lives meaning? The alternative is to embrace the challenge and see in it the risk and the opportunity to discover an ever higher sense of self. The choice that we make is perhaps the measure of our souls.

Marshall Pease, April 1993

Complexity Theory

This editorial was inspired by the book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrop (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992) describing the work at the Santa Fe Institute on the theory of complexity. This theory is based on the idea that large systems, including human ones, arise from the interactions and adaptations of a large number of small and often quite simple participating entities. Models have shown that very complex and subtle behavior can emerge from such systems even when the rules governing the behavior and adaptation of the entities are exceedingly simple. Further, interesting behavior seems to emerge in these systems only when the system operates close to "the edge of chaos." Perhaps we look in the wrong direction when we dream of utopia!


Part II

Last month we spoke of "walking on the edge of chaos." We characterized the state in the most general way as intermediate between stability and chaos in complex systems composed of interacting and adapting mental or physical entities or computer models. Actually the term is reasonably well defined; it depends on what happens if a small random change is made or occurs in one of the entities. If the system is stable, not much happens; the effect is confined to the immediate neighborhood of the change. If the system is chaotic, any change is apt to trigger a massive wave of consequences that may engulf the entire system and disrupt whatever order was there before. At the edge, however, there is quite a different sort of behavior. There, most changes produce only local effects, but a few have consequences that affect much or all of the system. However even when major changes occur they are not consequences of huge causes. The triggering events are all small, but there is always the possibility of the effects cascading until the entire system is affected.

The major events can be quite cataclysmic. A possible, if controversial, example concerns the episodes of mass extinction of species have occurred in the geologic past. The most extreme of these events was some 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian age. At that time an estimated 96% of all species that existed before the event disappeared. A consequence of this event was not only the extinction, but a subsequent flowering, not only of new species but of new genera that found entirely new ways to face the challenge of their world.

If, as seems likely, humanity now exists at "the edge of chaos," we face the risk of catastrophes that in the worst case may engulf humanity as a whole. We know this, for each day the papers warn us of dire possibilities that are all too real. However there is another side -- a side analogous to the renewed flowering of life that followed the dark episodes of extinction. Perhaps we too can find the opportunity to build new and better kinds of societies that will be structured in ways we can barely imagine today. The immediate problems cannot and should not be ignored, but they must also not be allowed to dominate thought and prevent the recognition of new, undreamed of possibilities that may open up. In the turmoil of the present, the world may find the opportunity to evolve through quite unexpected patterns of change into new possibilities of existence. This is not to say the dangers are not real; denial is all too apt to ensure the worst case outcome. Only by confronting the reality as it exists is it possible to know the options and make the decisions that may avert disaster and create a better future. The overriding need is to "stay cool" and focus on what is possible.

To see the possibilities of complexity is to be aware that the world is a wonderful and frightening place. It has immense possibilities and immense dangers. By our willingness to see and accept both sides, we free ourselves. Then we can participate, not merely as helpless victims of whatever happens, but as agents of our own becoming.

Marshall Pease, May 1993

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