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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Myth and Cutting Edge Science Agree Again

Many ancient peoples believed that the universe came from a primordial state of chaos or nothingness. For the Greeks, a la Hesiod, this primordial state was called Chaos, the undifferentiated state which existed before anything else. “Narrating the birth of the world as a story of increasing differentiation of form, the Theogony depicts chaos as both not-form and as the background against which the creation of form takes place” (Hayles, 1990, p.19).

For the Egyptians it was Nut, the formless abyss who gave birth to the sun god Ra, while for the Babylonians, it was the dragon Tiamat who was eventually vanquished by her progeny Marduk. Even in the Bible, the universe begins “without form and void” and the god of the Old Testament often creates chaos as well as order, sending plagues and floods and appearing as a whirlwind of fiery destruction (Briggs & Peat, 1989), not to mention what He did to Job! These Western ideas about chaotic beginnings are reminiscent of the idea of the undifferentiated oneness of Shiva, as well as his at times destructive side. Speaking of Shiva, Briggs and Peat (1989) remark:

Apparently to be a creator requires operating in a shadowy boundary line between order and chaos. Many cultures have shared this vision. The shape that emerges out of the borderland is Dionysos, the god of random frenzy that underlies the routines of culture; it is the Indian creator god Shiva, who lives in horrible places such as battlefields and crossroads; it is the monsters of sin and death. (p. 21)

As time passed, however, and the age of science and reason ascended, there was a long period of time where ancient peoples were “dissed” and devalued. They were regarded, not as primal but pejoratively as primitive, as ignorant savages whose insights and beliefs were distained, disparaged, and seen as superstitious nonsense. Chaos, too, suffered similarly during the mechanistic modern era of Cartesian/Newtonian positivistic reductionistic science; Chaos had gotten a “bum rap,” a bad reputation, suffering the stigma of its exclusive association with entropy, while the original mythic beginnings of Chaos were forgotten.

According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, energy is conserved—it cannot be created or destroyed, but merely changes form. When a quantity of original energy is used in a system, not all of it gets transferred into work, some of the energy is the lost, becoming nonrecoverable, unstable, chaotic energy known as entropy. Entropy is the reason things run down, and that systems keep on requiring more energy to keep running over time. This left-over unusable energy, entropy, or “passive chaos,” as Briggs and Peat (1989) call it, has been degraded as good for nothing, leading some scientists to postulate that because of entropy, the universe would end up in a heat death, or “cosmic consume” (Briggs, 1992, p. 17). Chaos was suffering this same fate, losing its strength over time, chaos watered down to entropic chaos, that is, until chaos theory came along and Prigogine and others became cheerleaders for chaos.

Luckily the perennial philosophy of ancient wisdom persisted and now, cutting edge science is beginning to agree with the mythical notion of Chaos. As previously discussed, current cosmologies refer to the formless state, out of which the universe arose as the cosmic vacuum state or plenum. Prigogine’s work in the field of chaos theory reflects this notion of chaos as plenum. In studying the turbulent chaos of far from equilibrium states, Prigogine found a curious thing happening, that for these far from equilibrium systems, instead of breaking down, new systems emerged (Briggs & Peat, 1989).

For Prigogine, chaos is hot and energetic, far from equilibrium, turbulent chaos. In this type of chaos, which chaos theory calls deterministic chaos, chaos theory finds a hidden order behind what has often been viewed as apparent randomness. Self-organizing systems spring from chaos and are emerging everywhere. From turbulent beginnings, the vortices and whirlpools in streams emerge, cities grow, organisms and stars evolve. This “order out of chaos” fascinated Prigogine, and he developed the notion of “dissipative structures” which are instances of disequilibrium and self-organization. Dissipative structures are curious creatures, they actually take advantage of entropy. The name dissipative structure itself is paradoxical: dissipative suggests chaos and falling apart, while structure suggests order. Dissipative structures are systems that are capable of maintaining their identity only by being continually open to the flux and flow of the environment” (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 139). They are never the same, but maintain the same basic organization.

Dissipative structures are open systems that take in energy and dissipate energy into the environment, which then becomes useful to another system or creature. To see an example of a dissipative structure, simply look in the mirror! That’s right, you, too, are a dissipative structure. Your entire body is changing all the time, individual cells are dying and being replaced continuously, while you continue to exist: your pancreas replaces most of its cells every 24 hours, your stomach lining every three days (Briggs & Peat, 1989), and even your bones, which take the longest, replace themselves in about seven years. Kevin Kelly similarly shows order arising out of chaos:

From the crack of the Big Bang a hot universe runs down for ten billion years or so. About two-thirds along in its history something clicks, and an insatiable force begins hijacking the slipping heat and order into local areas of higher order. The remarkable thing about this hijacker is that it (a) is self-sustaining, and (b) it is self-reinforcing: the more of it around, the more it makes of itself…. The rising flow uses its short moment of order to snatch whatever dissipating power it can to build a platform upon which to extract the next round of order. It saves nothing and spends all. It invests all the order it has to amplify the next round of complexity, growth and order. In this way it taps chaos to breed antichaos. We call it life.” (Shulman, 1997, p. 102)

Hawkins (1995) reports that Prigogine and Stengers saw close analogies between the Talmud and chaos theory and quotes them:

We are living in a dangerous and uncertain world that inspires no blind confidence, but perhaps only the same feeling of qualified hope that some Talmudic texts have attributed to the god of Genesis: ‘Lets hope it works’ (Halway Shyaamod) exclaimed God as he created the World, and this hope, which has accompanied all the subsequent history of the world and mankind, has emphasized right from the outset that his [sic] history is branded with the mark of radical uncertainty. (p. 46)

But, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. I have already been talking about chaos theory, without really explaining what chaos theory is or how it began, so let me do that now. Ian Stewart (2002) in Does God Play Dice? discusses chaos theory and in a new chapter explains how the concept of chaos might lead to a new answer to Einstein’s famous question, that the apparent randomness of the quantum may actually be deterministic chaos. Although Stewart notes that on the level of the quantum, it is only speculative at this point, I think that we can safely say that on some levels, God does definitely play dice. Ian Stewart’s book reveals how God can play dice and create a universe of complete law and order at the same time, which is nice to know, because I do not know about you, but the “lets hope it works” comment does not inspire a much confidence!

Stewart gives a dictionary definition for chaos “stochastic behaviour occurring in a deterministic system.” Yikes, sounds complicated. But then Stewart (2002) goes on to explain what these two intimidating buzz-words words mean: “deterministic behaviour is ruled by exact and unbreakable law, stochastic behaviour is the opposite, lawless and irregular, governed by chance. So chaos is ‘lawless behaviour governed entirely by law’” (p. 12). Chaos theory, a.k.a. non-linear dynamics is thus the wonderful science that shows us that God does play dice. Luckily for Einstein, He seems to follow the rules as He does so, thus giving us the notion of deterministic chaos. Systems that obey precise laws do not always act in predictable ways. Chaos theory shows us many important things that are useful for everyday life (Briggs and Peat, 2000) and that also has relevance to depth psychology (Van Eenwyk, 1997). First we will look briefly at the roots of chaos theory and then examine nonlinear equations and discuss some other characteristics of chaos, before going on to see how chaos theory and depth psychology go together, as we look into archetypes and strange attractors.


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