An Introduction to Chaos Theory

Chaos theory is a new way of perceiving how the world works; it views the main shaping force behind reality to be interactions between complex systems rather than simple cause and effect relationships. It’s alright if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I just wanted to give you a nice definition up front so you have something to come back to. Chaos theory is an important new way of looking at the world, and it’s influencing science, business, ecology, and the social sciences. This article will give you a basic understanding of what everyone’s talking about.

Science as most people know it has to do with labs, equations, predictions, and theories. When you mix two compounds to a certain temperature, a certain chemical reaction takes place, and now you know a little bit more about the properties of those compounds. This type of science has been the only recognized science in the modern world for quite some time. It deals with taking parts of the outside world, studying them in a lab, and using this information to make inferences about the outside world. This is known to some as Newtonian Science. Its trademark is simplifying natural phenomena into equations and other predictable formulas.

Newtonian Science goes to work understanding the world like a mechanic might go to work trying to understand a new kind of engine, by taking it apart. It deconstructs the world into smaller, more easily understood parts. It separates all of the elements and figures out their atomic weight and number of electrons. It isolates variables, and it makes predictions. The underlying assumption is that once we know everything about all the parts, we can find out how they will interact and what to expect of the world. In other words, we will know everything and be able to predict anything. Chaos theory goes in the opposite direction. It proposes that we need to look at things as a whole, because many times the whole becomes much more than a mere sum of its parts. That it is really the interaction between multiple simple processes that leads to the complexity of the universe. Because, when you put all of the pieces of an engine together, you pretty much know what it’s going to do, but when you combine all of the natural elements, you get the complexity that is the universe.

Whereas Newtonian Science deals with cause and effect, Chaos theory deals with interactions. Lab experiments are good at tracking small cause and effect relationships, and this accounts for the rise of Newtonian science. Newtonian science can be used to make good predictions about many important things, but there is a limit to what it can deal with. For instance, Newtonian Science can be used to calculate the gravitational forces between two planets. However, it cannot calculate the gravitational forces between three planets. The equations get unstable; seemingly small causes can have large, indirect effects.

Here’s an easier example to picture: think of how you came into existence. Of course most people know about conception and birth and so on, but that’s not the whole story. You have to factor in how your parents came to be together, that chance meeting and spark. But you also have to go back further. What forces shaped their lives and made their personalities compatible? How did your grandparents meet? Where did they come from? How did your ancestors survive long enough to procreate when so many in the history of humanity have not? Perhaps if your great, great, great grandfather took a left turn instead of a right turn on some ancient street, you would be a completely different person or not exist at all. And these are just the circumstances at the surface level. At a microscopic level, you have been shaped by too many chemical reactions to count. Even the nutrition people get in the womb and in their youth plays a factor in how their genes are expressed.

At the heart of this example is the same reason that hurricanes cannot be predicted very far ahead of time. The global weather system has too many variables: different wind directions and temperatures, heat given off by cities and cars, changes in the ozone layer, ocean currents and temperatures, etc� In fact, a slight change in ocean surface temperature can spark deadly hurricane seasons. That is one cause and effect that is somewhat predictable, but what causes the surface temperature to rise? Many known and unknown variables. And, behind those variable are even more variables with even more variables behind them. Newtonian Science deals with isolated variables, but in reality no variable is isolated. This is what makes the weather a complex system. You can no more predict the locations of hurricanes that will happen five years from now than you can predict what kind of people your offspring will be five generations down. There is no equation that will help to predict the future of these complex systems.

That is because these are not simple cause and effect relationships. Your parents meeting and conceiving you is one cause, but it is not the root cause. In reality, many times the root cause is a combination of innumerable interactions between many complex systems. Chaos Theory does not say that there are no causes and effects. It says that there are so many simple cause and effect relationships interacting with and dependent on each other, that complex systems are created that cannot be understood by deconstructing them.

This is the most important thing to know about Chaos Theory. It deals with the interactions between complex systems. It states that the world is not made of predictable cause and effect relationships found in lab experiments. It is a different way of perceiving the way the world works and one that is hopefully a little closer to reality than Newtonian science. Chaos theory has many implications for different sectors of science as well as business and other areas of life because it is a different way of viewing the world. Chaos theory states that once we begin to see the world as a series of complex, interacting systems, we will be one step closer to an understanding of how the world really works.

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