A name given to recent wide-ranging attempts to uncover the statistical
regularity hidden in processes that otherwise appear random, such as turbulence
in fluids, weather patterns, predator-prey cycles, the spread of disease, and
even the onset of war. Systems described as "chaotic" are extremely
susceptible to changes in initial conditions. As a result, small uncertainties
in measurement are magnified over time, making chaotic systems predictable in
principle but unpredictable in practice.
Over the past three decades, the
study of chaotic systems has dramatically expanded from physics to include all
the natural and even social sciences. Chaotic phenomena now include such
physical and biological systems as the weather, water dripping from a faucet,
bands in the rings of Saturn, oscillations in the populations of organisms, and
the fluctuations of populations in complex ecosystems. In physics, though,
chaotic systems are classical in scale and thus subsumable in principle
under classical mechanics with its deterministic laws of motion. Still even for
the simplest systems, minute uncertainties in the initial conditions and the
effect of countless interactions with other systems in nature, together with
unusual characteristics in the underlying mathematics (e.g., strange
attractors) make complete predictability impossible even in principle.
Surprisingly, then, chaos breaks the long-standing philosophical link between
determinism and predictability. Still since it is describable by deterministic
equations, chaos theory supports a strictly deterministic philosophy of nature,
although within subtle epistemic limits.
It is possible, however, as
Polkinghorne suggests, that chaotic systems may one day be more accurately
described by more complex theories, sometimes referred to as holistic chaos.
The current deterministic laws would then be seen as simple approximations to
holistic chaos through what Polkinghorne calls downward emergence.
Finally, the new theories of holistic chaos would, hopefully, suggest an
indeterministic interpretation. It is also possible that a satisfying connection
will be found between chaos at the present, classical level, and quantum
mechanics (sometimes referred to as quantum chaology), suggesting that the
uncertainty in the initial conditions that, together with coupling to the
environment, drive chaotic behavior is at least partially due to quantum
by: Dr. Robert Russell / Dr. Christopher Southgate
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