View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

Chaos Theory

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 indeterminism.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell / Dr. Christopher Southgate

To return to the previous topic, click on your browser's 'Back' button.

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.