Tuesday, April 18, 2006



“Chaos theory” is a lousy name, because “chaos” is supposed to mean the opposite of order. Chaos theory isn’t about randomness, but rather about a weird place between randomness and order. That dichotomy is central to organic life – too much randomness (e.g., a temperature too high) and we die; too much order (e.g., a planet smothered in quartz crystals) and we never could have evolved in the first place. A bunch of really smart people have written a bunch about chaos; I’ve forgotten most of the books I liked, but I can at least recommend Stephen Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science.

Chaos is part of the way our minds work. We seek out order and novelty in the world simultaneously. We want things to make sense, but we don’t want to be bored. These are useful qualities for biological organisms: a grasp of order allows one to accomplish more stuff, while a handle on novelty allows one to compete with other organisms. The act of living is fundamentally chaotic (in the mathematical sense, not the original one), and our minds are “designed” to help us live, so it seems reasonable that chaos would be a major property of our minds. (Perhaps in support of that idea, it turns out that individual neurons compete for survival and real estate.)

What’s weird about being a human is that after millions of years of neurological evolution, we’re left with all these bizarre side-effects like aesthetics, or art, or humor. We like to look at flames. Why? I suspect it’s that the patterns that flames and other chaotic systems (inc. various screensavers) send to our brains, unpredictable yet ordered and coherent, ape in a simple way the complex patterns we confront in our attempt to stay alive and produce viable offspring.

One could argue that the human activity where the randomness/order dichotomy is most evident is jazz. Good jazz musicians cultivate a sense of kind-of-in-control, until they can invoke it at will. I can’t evoke it at will, but I often stumble into it, and it’s the most enjoyable thing I know about.

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