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Defining Chaos

By Sean Kim, VI Form

Defining Chaos

Editors’ Note: As a part of a college dorm application, Sean wrote this essay with Mr. Lubick (English faculty). Sean attempted to answer what chaos might be after several sessions of intense discussion and joint writing/editing together with Mr. Lubick. {The prompt for the application appears after the essay.}

It’s interesting to consider whether chaos can be constructive or deleterious, however, the definition of chaos in the article is insufficient. The problem with defining “chaos” is that the very word represents what we don’t really understand. What appears to us as chaotic may in fact have pattern or cause or order beyond what we understand. Chaos is in the perception of the beholder. In terms of ideas, chaos is intellectual terra incognita. In other words, any positive or negative value that we impose upon the idea of chaos originates from our limited scope of understanding of the universe.

Naturally, we tend to assign negative value to what we cannot understand. Our minds are wired to attempt to understand our universe in order to control our environment and resources. If “chaos” signifies what we cannot understand, however, that concept can be positive in that it compels us to stretch and progress in our understanding. We impose order and understanding upon what we see as chaos by embracing complexity and creatively disrupting previous conceptions. Chaos is neither inherently good nor bad. Chao may or may not even exist in the universe, except as a function of our perspective. It is good for us to perceive chaos sometimes, though, because it inspires us to solve problems that result from limited understanding.

Throughout history, human beings have built upon the knowledge of our ancestors to expand and reconfigure progressive knowledge when it proves inadequate to explain what we cannot understand. For instance, modern psychology descends from pseudo-science like phrenology. In each case, since it is our innate nature to attempt to control and understand our surroundings, we use the knowledge bestowed by our predecessors but reject and reconfigure it when it fails to explain increasingly complex circumstances or phenomena. This is how we use chaos to our advantage. We devour the unknown, the new, the complex and that which is “chaos” to us by creatively expanding the boundaries of what we do know. That’s why philosophers and cosmologists purposefully tear down simplicity and belief systems with constantly provoking questions. This provocation results in attainment of new ideas and knowledge, ultimately leading to intellectual progress. In many religions, the unexplainable acts or deeds (chaos) are often explained as actions of the Supreme Being(s). Whether it be the notion of predetermination or divine rights, religions use the idea of the Creator(s) or the Supreme Being(s) to explain the unexplainable in our world. Even though the two disciplines of philosophy and religion approach chaos in different ways, the ultimate goal is the same. “Chaos” represents the intellectual terra incognita that must be ordered, mastered, overcome. Chaos inspires spiritual or intellectual mastery and progress.

While our perception of chaos can have constructive or deleterious impact, chaos itself may only be in our minds. Of course, it is possible that the universe is completely ordered by causation, perhaps even by intent at the compelling of a supreme being. That’s why we wonder about if, how and why the universe was created. Perhaps the word “chaos” merely represents something that we do not understand. Still, although the concept or principle of chaos may exist only in our perception, our perception compels us to change and react, often with very positive results. Our natural aversion and revulsion to what we see as chaos pushes us to expand our horizons and mastery of increasingly complex circumstances.



Consider the following, from a 1986 Scientific American article on chaos:

Chaos is often seen in terms of the limitations it implies, such as lack of predictability. Nature may, however, employ chaos constructively. Through amplification of small fluctuations it can provide natural systems with access to novelty…. Even the process of intellectual progress relies on the injection of new ideas and on new ways of connecting old ideas. Innate creativity may have an underlying chaotic process that selectively amplifies small fluctuations and molds them into macroscopic coherent mental states that are experienced as thoughts. In some cases the thoughts may be decisions, or what are perceived to be the exercise of will. In this light, chaos provides a mechanism that allows for free will within a world governed by deterministic laws.

Here, the authors take an idea from the physical sciences and apply it to an aspect of humanism, intellectual progress, and creativity.

Summarize in your own words, based on this quotation, what chaos is.

IMG_2341Sean Kim is a VI Form boarding student from Seoul, Korea, Earth. He enjoys the clear blue skies of spring days and whistling while he’s on a stroll.

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