Friday, June 5, 2009

Chaos Theory and Spirituality

I recently finished re-reading Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick which recounts the development of the new cross-disciplinary study of Chaos Theory. This book is highly recommended for any of you interested at all in science. One of the things that draws me to UUism is that I don't have to give up a belief in the rational in order to have an experience with the spiritual.

I can honesty say that the first time I read this book about 8 or so years ago it changed my life. This book is the reason I became an agnostic instead of an atheist. I doesn't make me believe in a god or a God, but I do believe the universe exists around an organizing principle, for lack of a better term, and I'd like to become more in tune with that principle.

Chaos theory is largely about the study of patterns. It shows us that any order we imagine or try to create will always contain disorder inside of it, but that random and disorderly things contain a strange and unexplained logic when looked at closely enough. I'm not explaining it nearly as well as Gleick does, but his book gave me a whole new way to look at the world and everything in it. It gave me a way to make sense of the interconnected web so that I could accept it. All of the Buddhist aphorism and Pagan declarations in the world could not make me feel that we are all part of the same great thing they way that this scientific explanation does.

Chaos theory gave me the name for this blog: a strange attractor is a mathematical concept where a seemingly random pattern stabilizes around an unexplained equilibrium, never repeating exactly, but always staying within the parameters of the pattern. To me, that is a beautiful metaphor for free will and the tides of history. Also, it seemed like a fun pun for all of the strange and wonderful people in my life. Any philosophy that denies free will just turns me off immediately, but you cannot deny that so many things are totally out of our direct control. The concept of the strange attractor portrays to me that the universe and history will roll on as they must, but that my particular role within all that is still mine to determine.

I never used to believe the old chestnut that every snowflake is unique. Out of all the trillions and trillions of snowflakes in the history of the world, surely there must be some repetition. How many possible shapes can there be? Now I understand why they are each unique. They are each shaped by the path they follow as they form and fall to the ground. Turbulence tells us that each path is almost random and unrelated to the paths around them. Each snowflake makes a totally unique journey from the clouds to the ground. Snowfall got even more beautiful as I read that.

I don't understand it well enough to explain it, but the Mandelbrot set is one of the most fascinating things I have ever encountered.

Chaos also shows us that many things that we think, in our Aristotelian way, have nothing to do with each other, are actually quite similar and organized along the same principles. The human circulatory system, the formation of clouds, the flow of water, the oscillations of pendula are all related. Scale becomes much more important than definition. This reminds me to look at things from another angle, to look deeper at things and people. Our common assuptions about things are not necessarily in tune with reality and connections always deserve a closer look.

It's and I'm rambling now, and I wish I understood chaos theory well enough to explain why it fascinated me so much. I do know that learning about it rang true with me in a way that my religious upbringing never did. I believed in God as a young person, but I didn't feel him. I felt the beauty of this theory as I read this book and it has forever changed the way I look at everything in the world. The miraculous structure of a leaf feels real to me. It is accessible in a way that Bible stories are not. Now, when I come across religious writing that speaks about interconnectedness, I have a frame of reference that works for me, that feels true.

It seemed very strange to base my spirituality on a scientific theory. I didn't even know if it was legitimate, but if felt right. I don't know of any other religion that would have made room for me to let reason inform my spirituality like the UU's. I can embrace Paganism emotionally, some of Buddhism and Chaos theory intellectually and feel like I am trying to understand what the world is and to find my place in it, rather than existing to worship some outside being or accept what a spiritual leader says without examination. Maybe I am the only person in the whole world who find fractals to be his or her most meaningful symbol of the mystery, but I am glad to have found a place I can explore that and integrate it with whatever else seems beautiful and meaningful. I'm glad to have found UU's.


  1. That's a great book. I also really enjoyed it.

  2. I am now going to have to read this. From what you describe, I think I would really relate to it. Strange Attractor - I knew that name was familiar somewhere in the fog of my brain! I must have heard it in one of my science classes, I am glad you defined it!

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