Of chaos and dark night

Most weekend mornings, I walk around the house replacing burned-out lightbulbs.  Upstairs, downstairs.  Indoors and out.  I get a strange satisfaction from this chore, not least because I know it is endless and ultimately futile:  when I too burn out for good, the dark lightbulbs of the world will still be there.

Order is bounded and temporary — a drama in time.  Chaos is pervasive, eternal, and must triumph in the end.

I am presently reading James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science.  It makes me wish my math were better, so I could penetrate the intricacies described in the book.  That won’t happen, but I think it’s fair to say that rather than making a “new science” as the title claims, the discovery of disorder at the heart of things, and of patterns within disorder, give us a new perspective on modern science.

The underlying assumption of science is that we live in an orderly, lawlike universe.  Lots of information may appear confusing, but that’s just noise.  The job of science is to discover the signal:  the principle ruling a particular relationship, for example that between bodies in space.  Scientists must believe in causation, determinism, regularity, and order, and they must believe these apply to everything everywhere.

Exceptions are unthinkable.  The universe cannot be part-deterministic or part-lawlike, because this would explode the underlying logic of science.  “God,” said Einstein, “does not play dice with the universe.”

This assumption began to go wrong with quantum physics.  It turns out that the world of very small things is probabilistic, not deterministic.  God does indeed play dice with atomic particles, at least so far as our ability to understand their behavior goes.  Since small things make up bigger things — such as planets and people — it’s hard to grasp how the deterministic principle could hold sway over the latter.  Apparently, it does.  Apparently, the universe is only part-deterministic.

What the study of chaos has added is the understanding that most of the universe is, in reality, noise — irregular, unpredictable, turbulent.  The genius of science has been to identify islands of order within this swirling tempest, and to expand the regularities underlying this order much farther, and with far greater success, than we have any right to expect.

Science describes real relations in the world.  But they are exceptional relations, and by focusing tightly on these scientists willfully (and productively) disregard most of the data available in the universe.   Science is a mental tool for rejecting vast amounts of data, until order appears among the remainder.

Even such orderly relations as the gravitational pull of planets and the inertia of a billiard ball may well be temporary — though on a timescale so ample that short-lived homo sapiens need not worry about an abrogation of the laws of gravity.

So the microcosm is probabilistic, while the macrocosm is largely chaotic.  What does it matter to the lives of ordinary persons?

It matters because it settles an old question.  The ancient project of finding a moral law in nature — one that is objective and universal, like gravitation — is dead.  This project demanded order in the world, that we may then mirror it in our behavior.  In a realm of universal lawfulness, morality was just one more instance to be worked out mathematically.

But a probabilistic morality presents problems, and a morality of chaos is a contradiction in terms.  The rational order so many thinkers found in nature, which seemed so like a Thou Shalt, does not exist.  Nature is fundamentally irrational.  Any attempt to derive our morality from its behavior would either be fraudulent or ill advised.

Where does that leave morality?  Disentangled from rationalist formulas, and returned to the traditions of the community — where, from a factual, scientific perspective, morality has resided all along.  Concepts of good and evil were never to be found in the stars, but evolved in the interlocked histories of family, neighborhood, and country.  We are what we choose to become, over the generations.

I suspect, too, that a probabilistic, semi-chaotic world makes determinism seem provincial.  The laws of necessity operate in those islands of order so brilliantly conquered by science.  In the vast spaces of turbulence and uncertainty, entirely different principles may apply — or none at all.

Intuitively, we believe billiard ball causation has nothing to do with human behavior, much less with judgments of right and wrong.  From a cosmic perspective, we may indeed have the power to choose, over the generations, what we may become.

We will always choose some form of order.  We will always struggle to replace the burned out lightbulbs, and repaint the peeling walls.  The genius and nobility involved, I think, are far greater when we understand that such order is human-imposed, tenuous, and transient, rather than the eternal and inescapable command of a dictatorial universe.


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