Chaos and Order

by Chris Swanson


The ancient Greeks, like other polytheistic cultures around them, looked at the natural world and saw chaos. Nearly everything most critical to their survival was out of their control. Whether it was marauding hordes, fickle weather, elusive game, insect plagues, or just the unpredictability of those in charge, the average Greek lived at the mercy of wild and untamable forces. It is no great wonder, then, that the gods to whom the Greeks attributed these forces were seen as powerful, willful, chaotic beings who created disorder.

However, the Greeks were also unique among their polytheistic neighbors because somehow a segment of their population shifted from a perspective of chaos to one of order. These new Greeks looked around them and saw structure. There was a pattern and a purpose to the cosmos. Eternal unchanging principles existed that were not subject to whim and desire. And most importantly, this order was accessible to humanity through the use of our minds.

This optimistic attitude and the perceived power that it entailed have resonated with Western thinkers in varying degrees ever since. Optimism has waxed and waned, faced numerous and varied challenges, but a steady underlying belief in order has remained. One of the primary causes of its staying power, I believe, has been the wide adoption of Christianity and thus a worldview based on the Bible, which presents a universe created by a good, purposeful, and orderly God.

One of the main cultural consequences of this optimistic attitude has been an attempt to bring the uncontrollable aspects of our life under control. If there is an order to the cosmos, then we have assumed that we can uncover it and use it to our benefit. So, for instance, we have attempted to bring political and economic uncertainty under control through democratic government and economic systems. Scientists and engineers have attempted to bring the uncertainties of the natural world under control through formulas and theories. To some extent we have succeeded; for instance, agricultural and medical technology has overcome many problems.

Nevertheless, despite the herculean effort given to the task and our apparent progress, the attitude of the twenty-first-century person seems to be shifting back to the chaotic worldview of the ancient Greeks. As in Greek times, we see forces that are completely out of our control. These forces are impersonal rather than personal, and, as a result, they are even more remote than the polytheistic gods. For us, the impersonal government is a behemoth both in terms of its inertia and its power. The economy seems radically unstable. Our cars and computers break down, and we are powerless to fix them ourselves. Even our health seems to be subject to an infinite variety of dangers from known and unknown sources. The man on the street has been brought up with the expectation that he can control his destiny, but more and more he finds that he cannot.

The shift back to an expectation of chaos is not without roots. The philosophical movements of the early twentieth century all promoted this view. In the postmodernism of Foucault and Wittgenstein, order was seen as arbitrary, imposed through language and culture. Their perspective was embraced by the intellectual culture and has slowly trickled into our collective consciousness.

One might think, however, that at least in science the optimism and expectation of order is alive and well. And this is true to an extent. Scientists spend their lives looking for patterns and principles to make sense of the myriad of experiences. Yet on a deeper, more philosophical level, scientists see even that order as merely apparent and not real. Let me explain.

Modern philosophy suggests that the patterns we see in science are actually just random outgrowths of deeper principles that give rise to those patterns. And those deeper principles are simply the result of other principles that underlie them, and so on. All of the upper principles and patterns are not exact and true; they are approximations of the lower explanatory level. This perspective, often referred to as ‘reductionism’, is so pervasive that even to imagine an alternative is practically impossible for us.

But the alternative is staring us in the face. It is the way science is practiced. It is the way science is taught. And it is the way scientists probably think about the world if they are not thinking about philosophy. I will call the view to which I am referring the ‘hierarchical view’.

In the hierarchical view, there exists a variety of areas of expertise, or spheres of inquiry, each of which has its own set of concepts, relationships, and standard examples that make sense of a wide range of similar phenomena and experiences. Examples of spheres might be cellular biology, electromagnetism, organic chemistry, atmospheric science, or thermal physics—in which scientists study extensively a range of phenomena to understand a piece of reality.

Each of these spheres is, in one sense, independent of the others and, in another sense, intimately connected to them. The independence stems from the fact that any particular sphere examines a particular set of phenomena that are for the most part independent of factors outside the sphere. Thus in the study of cellular biology, electromagnetism is not pertinent. On the other hand, each sphere has borders that abut other spheres of inquiry, and the phenomena studied in one sphere may be subtly influenced by activity in abutting spheres. Thus while the cellular biologist typically does not make reference to, say, molecular biology, the structures of the molecules do have an effect on the cell. Similarly, the structures of the molecules are not entirely independent of their role in a cell. The two spheres, cellular biology and molecular biology, are intertwined along their borders but otherwise studied separately.

Consider another example. Within physics, in the sub-sphere of Newtonian mechanics, scientists study the motion of objects such as rockets, baseballs, and pendulums. Generally this motion can be completely described by Newton’s principles, or laws, of motion. However, when objects are moving at speeds approaching the speed of light (as for instance in the particle accelerator searching for the “God particle”), a different set of laws, the relativistic laws of motion, are used. Under these circumstances scientists are operating in the sphere of relativistic mechanics. However, each set of laws, which generally are used in different scientific spheres, applies to a range of speeds that overlap, and so in the border between the two spheres, relativistic laws and Newton’s laws give similar answers. Physicists generally consider the laws of relativistic mechanics more exact, and any calculation using Newtonian mechanics is subject to relativistic corrections. However, these corrections are so minute for motions at ordinary speeds that they can be ignored. In such cases, the much simpler and more intuitive Newtonian laws are used.

Thus we see in these two cases, and in innumerable others, that the various spheres of science are essentially self contained but only within certain limits. No sphere promises a perfect description of its phenomena since bordering spheres may have small (sometimes immeasurable) effects.

The response of the reductionist at this juncture is clear. He sees each sphere as an approximation of a lower, more fundamental sphere. Thus Newton’s laws, which are associated with the less exact sphere of Newtonian physics, are just handy approximations to the ‘more true’ reality described by the laws of relativity used in the sphere of relativistic physics. Similarly, relativistic laws are only approximations to laws of “general relativity,” used in the sphere of cosmology. The reductionist says that a perfect description of any phenomena can only occur at the very lowest, most fundamental level. All other scientific spheres will then contain handy approximations to this most fundamental level. Ecology reduces to biology, which reduces to biochemistry, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to quantum physics, which reduces to relativistic field theory, and so on.

However, the reductionist perspective fails to account for two important aspects of science: practice and the meaningfulness of definitions. First of all, scientific practice treats the various spheres of inquiry as useful and their findings as true. Each particular sphere arose as a response to specific experiences and problems because each gave a good account of the experience and/or problem. Furthermore, the principles applied within each sphere and the patterns or discoveries each sphere describes are taught to students as if they were true. Thus on a practical day-to-day basis, each sphere, together with the ‘laws’ it employs, is considered as containing some insight into our natural world.

Secondly, the reductionist view renders definitions of scientific concepts meaningless. For example, we might believe something is true and meaningful about Newton’s concept of ‘mass’—the concept corresponds to our experience, and it makes sense of that experience—but according to the reductionist, this concept seems illusory. The reductionist would point to relativistic theory, according to which mass is not a fundamental property of matter; it is simply a form of energy. Thus the reductionist redefines mass. The same holds true with many, if not all, of the concepts we employ in the various scientific spheres. Our understanding of the objects and relations in the “upper” spheres are either annihilated or, at best, reinterpreted. In the reductionist view, none of the spheres tells us about reality; the patterns they discover and the principles they employ are simply convenient fictions.

But I believe the definitions in each sphere are meaningful. People may err in their understanding of nature, but for the most part scientists are putting their fingers on concepts that are more than illusion. It makes no sense to act, on the one hand, as if these concepts correspond to reality and, on the other hand, to deny their reality due to our philosophy.

What has all this to do with order? Whether we accept the reductionist or hierarchical view has huge implications for our belief in the orderliness of the cosmos. To the reductionist, the order of the world is only accidental—the fortuitous result of some fundamental principles that somehow give rise to the findings of a broad range of different spheres of science. The findings of these spheres are intelligible and accessible to us (lucky us!), but they are, in a sense, ultimately illusory.

The hierarchical view, on the other hand, is highly compatible with an orderly designer. The findings of the various spheres of inquiry, the patterns they describe, are not the fortuitous result of fundamental principles; rather, they describe a piece of an intended, real structure built into the fabric of the material world. When we look out at the world and see relationships and discover concepts, we are not imposing order but finding it. The fact that so much order exists, that all of these spheres are separate and yet intertwined, is for me a great source of awe. I am amazed at the complexity of creation. I am reminded of how small and finite I am in comparison to a God who can pull off such a feat.

It appears that the ancient polytheists’ spirit of chaos is again rising in our cultural consciousness. In fact, it has seeped into our thinking even in science, which should by all accounts be most resistant to it. This spirit of chaos not only promotes hopelessness and despair, but, most importantly, it prevents us from seeing the beauty and awe in the creativity of God. If this is where our culture is going, then I for one am not interested. I cannot help but be impressed by the order in our world and in ourselves. I cannot help but attempt to put my experiences into some sort of order and structure. Humans are order seekers, and we should not let a despairing philosophy darken our search.

Copyright September 2011 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Chris Swanson