Chaos

The word CHAOS is a fascinating one, another of those marvelous words whose meaning seems to specially designed to reflect humanity’s changing weltanschauung.

The original Greek word (chi alpha omicron zeta) meant essentially the same thing as the word still does in modern Greek: an emptiness or abyss (it shares a root with our word chasm).  To the Greeks, the opposite of our universe was its negative.  The opposite of a presence was obviously an absence.  That Chaos which pre-dated creation was a yawning, personified nothingness.

Genesis, on the other hand, depicts another creation and another chaos.  Interestingly, Like the Greek word, the phrase used to describe the primordia is also still used in Hebrew:  tohu wa bohu, desolation and confusion.  It conveys the biblical view that the stuff for the universe was present but only as a disorganized, roiling darkness.  God separated the waters  He gathered the water in one place and let the land appear.  This Chaos is not an absence but an undifferentiated presence.

The difference is crucial.  In the Greek cosmology, the original Void/Abyss/Chaos was canceled out by creation.  The emptiness being filled, it ceased to exist and the original Chaos became an artifact of history.

To the Judaeo-Christian view, Chaos is the state out of which we arose.  We live in an island of time and order created for us by God.  In some sense, Chaos is the natural state, Order the artificial.  God made us out of dust and to dust we must return.  A great deal of history has been shaped by our belief that Chaos awaits us, lurking outside in the dark.  We call it Anarchy and write laws to shield us from it.  We call it Emotion and train ourselves to curb and control it.  We call it blind Fate (or God’s unfathomable will) and acknowledge ourselves to be ultimately powerless before it.

This seems to have risen to be the leitmotif of our present day.  People seem obsessed with the idea that the “times are out of joint.”  The old certainties, we agree, are slipping away.  Blame it on relativism, humanism or a decline in family values, the reality is an out-of-control feeling of being threatened while being powerless to do anything about it.

To my mind, this goes a long way to explain the current appeal of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Ross Perot or Pat Robertson.  (To be fair, let me say that I tried to think of parallel movements on the left and failed.  When the old values seem to be crumbling, the call to Conserve just has more visceral appeal than the call to Improve.)  They point to the threats of our time, many of which are quite real, blame them on some labelled enemy or sin and offer to lead us back to the Promised Land.  Equally, it explains the appeal of essentially reactionary “revolutionaries” like Hitler or a Savonarola.

Interestingly enough, the word Chaos has also been appropriated by a new school of scientific thought.  In this regime, Chaos is an underlying nature of reality that extends far beyond the deceptive neatness of traditional mathematics.

Describing the true nature of reality as chaotic, discontinuous, unstable and ultimately unpredictable is hardly designed to give any warm fuzzies about the certainty of our world.  But the science of Chaos offers one ironic comfort:  It is called the Butterfly EfFect.

The Butterfly Effect (more decorously known as extreme sensitivity to initial conditions) is a wonderfully counter-intuitive phenomena.  Sometimes conditions are such that small perturbations do not damp out, but instead are magnified to have major impact.  In the ultimate, the breath of air from a butterfly’s wings today in San Diego may cause storms next month in Moscow.

Why should this be comforting?  Well, it seems to me that those who we are powerless ignore the latest scientific reality.  True, most of the time we are as impotent as we can imagine, fluttering our way through meaningless toil and struggle.  However, every once in a while we can undertake some small, innocuous gesture that will have momentous consequences.  For just that moment, we have the power to influence millions, to make or break worlds.

Of course, we have no idea just when these moments of omnipotence will come upon us.  Nor can we guess at just where or what our products will be.  Still, we should be grateful to know that we are not so powerless after all.

P.S.  Chaos as the great void still has some reality.  That, our editor has explained to me, is where my last month’s column ended up.  Ah, well….  Since I managed to segue from turkeys in general to one who could not commit, perhaps a certain lady just got lucky.

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