- The Order of Meaning: The Career of Chaos as a Metaphor
Der Gesamtcharakter der Welt ist dagegen in alle Ewigkeit Chaos.Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra
Life is nonlinear, and so is just about anything of interest.Pagels
In a 1995 issue of the German popular science magazine GEO-Wissen (GEO-Knowledge, not unlike National Geographic in style and quality), then-editor-in-chief Günther Haaf states that the issue’s theme, “chaos and creativity,” is nothing less than a “new universe of thinking,” and thus the issue spans from the creation of the cosmos and life to the emergence of patterns in human brains and societies. 1 Their curiosity now being aroused, the readers will not be disappointed. In the pages to come, the spectrum unfolds:
First, “nonlinearity” is said to govern the shifts from order to chaos. Next, an artist’s fascination with the shapes of flames and their “creative hyperreality” is linked to the English philosopher Robert Fludd’s tract on creation of 1617: fire as part of the “chaos in which hot and cold, humid and dry are caught in tangled battle.” 2 Further, deterministic chaos is said to be the cause for “orderly [End Page 463] waves,” the structure of underwater dunes in Moreton Bay, the mud springs in Yellowstone Park, and the lava streams of Kilauea on Hawaii. The visualization of “Ljapunow-exponents,” the mathematical measure of chaos, is followed by the image of a Swiss town meeting, the result of a “complex social process” similar to the spiral-like spread of epidemics, which, again, is linked to an “oscillating chemical reaction.” 3
“Can the Brain Tame Chaos?” is the headline with which chaos theory is linked to brain science. “Chaos in the head?” is the disturbing question, but here, too, the answer is relieving: “it is the chaos that lets our brain learn.” 4 Chaos—in the brain—is linked to “creative play”: by creating variety, it can stimulate the course of our life in a way similar to the evolution of life itself.
After references to social theory and the study of the arms race, another section is devoted to “the everyday.” “Chaos rules the world”—science sets out to discover the laws in chaos. Whoever wants to can see these laws at work: in clouds and in the whirl of the bathtub, in trees, in broccoli, in lightning. . . . 5
Following a brief overview of the development of chaos-research, GEO rehabilitates the “playful as the central element of evolution,” against the previously dominant scientific worldview in which the “creativity of the unplanned” had the taste of the “irrational.” 6 Jacques Monod’s thesis that life on the planet is the result of a highly improbable lottery, and the claim by Manfred Eigen and Ruthild Winkler of the evolutionary “direction of chance,” as well as “a plethora of recent scientific works on ‘deterministic chaos,’” are linked to the religious beliefs and myths about God as a creator. The belief in a planning creator is more popular than the tradition that sees him involved in the interplay between chance and regularity. This stepchild of religion has fascinating similarities to deterministic chaos, and both may “help to bring a disturbed dialogue back on track.” 7
This collection of chaos-oriented reasoning (which could be supplemented [End Page 464] by further instances of chaos application) has found a mixed response. Especially among natural scientists one may expect skepticism, if not outright rejection, of nonscientific usages of chaos theory. In a symposium at the University of Zurich with the title “Science as Culture” Jürgen Audretsch, a German physicist, mused about “science being the last myth of our culture.” The sciences, he said, serve as a reservoir of metaphors, and in particular “chaos” is the magic word of our time. “Chaos” forms part of the repertoire of virtually every intellectual. It is the jester in every discourse. Even philosophy congresses cannot do without it. And to Audretsch’s own surprise, the term has not only invaded the social sciences but also penetrated entertainment culture: in Jurassic Park a chaos researcher appears in a rocker outfit and predicts...