Chaos Theory and Objectivism

Mike_M's picture
Submitted by Mike_M on Tue, 2006-06-13 23:43

Is anyone familiar with chaos theory? The other night I had an objection to certain parts of Objectivism raised from the perspective of chaos theory. I had to say I didn't know enough about chaos theory to comment. The objector is VERY good at math (a genius, literally) and a relatively good friend. He is also an intellectually honest person from what I have observed and interested in Objectivism. I think he deserves a good, solid answer or at least beginning of an answer. If you don't know any more about chaos theory than what you read off wikipedia, please just ask questions along with me rather than offering half-assed answers. I am interested in an answer based on a firm understanding chaos theory and at least an intermediate understanding of Objectivism. If you think you are qualified, please say so in the thread and I will summarize the objection/question as well as I can. If not, I will go outside of SOLO to seek my answer. (I started here because I recall that there are a few people who know math and computers rather well). If for some reason you read this and don't want to post in the thread, I'd be really appreciate a response via email (look in my profile). Thanks.

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Stephen Boydstun's picture

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Stephen Boydstun's picture

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Nothing comes from something

eg's picture

This is not a comment on chaos theory, whatever that is, but simply an observation that something has always existed, unless something can come from nothing, that is. It can't, of course, because there is no nothing. Imagine the void beyond the universe--the void filled with nothing. It doesn't exist; it is only an epistemological construct. The alternative is the supremacy of consciousness, explicitly rejected by Objectivism.


Word, Casey.

Ross Elliot's picture

Word, Casey.

It's disingenuous for misanthropes to disparage Man because he doesn't yet know everything. Well, it's simple: everything, obviously, *is* knowable; we just haven't got there yet. And to dismiss what we *do* know on that basis is just plain dumb.

I'm reminded of something Thomas Sowell said...

Casey's picture

During a Q&A after a lecture on C-SPAN I recall Sowell responding to a student who suggested that some political phenomenon was unprecedented and new:

"Everything's new if you don't know history," he responded, to a big laugh.

At the cutting edge of science everything actually is new, and chaotic, but that epistemological state is not a metaphysical quality of existence. We have been tempted by the shortcomings of our knowledge to claim the world is flat, or that the world is only 6,000 years old, or that the universe is only 12 billion years old, or that there is a random force that defies causality. Chaos theory sounds like just as much a description of a temporary ignorance as the "Flat Earth Society."

On the other hand, if chaos theory is more than an institutionalized form of dichotomizing theory from practice, and merely focuses on the fact that reality is always more particular and includes more causes than any theory or list of controls in any experiment, then it has value, as does the concept of "margin of error," which already encompasses the whole concept of Chaos Theory, and quite ably, if this is the case.

My two cents

Michael Moeller's picture


Just wanted to add to some of the other fine comments. I am not sure you need extensive knowledge of the specifics of chaos theory to refute this. You are debating political-economy and it appears he is using this theory to try and undercut your metaphysics and epistemology. I think Craig alluded to the source of the problem when he pointed out the flaw regarding infinity.

From the little bit of the argument you stated, it appears your friend is using this as an anti-concept meaning indefiniteness and therefore unpredictability.

However, properly conceived, infinity just means it is outside the range of what is conceptually graspable--what is epistemologically relevant, usually pertaining to measurements. Take, for instance, the size of the universe. The Law of Identity tells us that the universe (and everything inside of it) is definite, but the size is so far outside the range of what is epistemologically relevant that one refers to it as "infinite".

And in terms of political-economy, is that what we are dealing with? No, we know the facts of reality--the nature of man--that gives rise to a proper politico-economic system--his rational consciousness. Capitalism is the only system that allows one to pursue his rational self-interest, and therefore the only system governing the actions and relationships of individuals that can promote success.

And you can use history to verify its success by concomitant variations--i.e. the degree that capitalism was instituted measured against the degree of success in that culture. You don't need "infinite sets" of data to prove it true just like you don't need to go around the universe and observe the attraction between every two objects to prove that gravity is true.

So, if I was arguing, I would ask him his definition of the infinite and attack from there.


Thanks for everyone's help!

Mike_M's picture

Thanks for everyone's help! I'll write something more substantive eventually, no time now.

Partially right

John Drake's picture


I'm surely no expert on chaos theory, but have read several books on the subject, as well as a highly similar area, complexity theory.  Joe mentions one of them by James Gleick. 

Your friend's example of the weather is only partially correct.  The whole "butterfly effect", based on the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China will have an effect on the hurricanes in the Atlantic, are based on computer-based modeling softare for modeling weather patterns. Researchers found that these models are highly sensative to the input data.  Even very slight variations in the input data can yield radically different outputs.  There are obvious problems with suggesting that these models accurately represent reality, but even supposing they did, the "butterfly effect" is only part of the answer.  Complexity theory states that even in highly complex environments, with free agents interacting with each other, emergent properties emerge that are not predicted by the properties of the free agents.  So weather may be unpredictable in the long term, but predictable patterns, such as cold fronts, hail, tornados, blizzards and hurricanes do form in ways that are predictable to a limited extent.  The same emergent properties have been observed in social contexts, such as the economy.

From an objectivist perspective, we must always keep in mind the difference between the metaphysical and the man-made.  Weather is metaphysical.  social systems are man-made.  As a man-made system, it has a different fundamental nature than metaphysical systems.  An emergent property of humans is that we have the ability to change who we are and how we interact with each other.  More explicitly, we have free will.  Traditional chaos/complexity theories do not take this into account.  Our volitional nature as human beings is the reason why capitalism is the best economic system.  Some socialist countries and dictatorships may experience short-term finacial booms, but that is totally irrelavent.  Its the long-term predictions that chaos/complexity theory says we can't predict.  But they're wrong.  The stock market may experience short term, unpredictable fluxuations. but it's long-term trend is always positive BECAUSE of our nature as human beings.  Capitalism serves a purpose of allowing individuals to freely interact with each other and gain value from value.

From what little you've told us, its sounds like your friend is ignoring our volitional nature.  Because we have the ability to choose to think or not, we are not deterministic (like the weather).  When we choose to think, we gain the ability to further our lives through goal-directed action.  Capitalism is the only economic system that allows this freedom consistently.  Because of that freedom, a capitalist society has more individuals achieving goals, aquiring values, and hence increasing wealth.  It is inevitable.   


Well, first and foremost,

Ross Elliot's picture

Well, first and foremost, your friend ain't comparing apples with apples.

The weather is most certainly a natural event. Capitalism is not. It's a construct. Man constructed it to give his nature the fullest expression. And while we act according to our nature, capitalism itself ain't natural.

Incidentally, this is the fundamental flaw in anarchist theory. They confuse man's nature and capitalism as being one and the same. They're not.

Back to the weather. If we could design a closed system that contained weather, yet allowed us to define the way in which it expressed itself, you would have something analogous to capitalism... except with lots of wind Eye

And, yes, one day we will have that closed weather system Smiling

Isn't this like arguing that

Penelope's picture

Isn't this like arguing that we can never cross a room because we always have to travel half the distance, ad infinitum? But we do cross rooms! And we can make predictions! So if chaos theory says that's impossible, chaos theory is wrong.

You make a good point in your last line of your comment though Mike which is that all of this, to the extent it's a real issue, (and gotta say...I don't think it is!) it's covered by the contextual character of certainty. The only point chaos theory seems to be making, judging by your explanation, is that we can never know all the factors at work in a given case so we can't make predictions with full certainty. That's crazy talk! We know the factors we know, and we know that as long as they hold, certainly consequences must follow. That's all that's required for omniscience.

(And isn't this an inversion of hierarchy? We know that reality is consistent and lawful and predictable long before we get to something like chaos theory.)

Mike, ask your friend what

Craig Ceely's picture

Mike, ask your friend what "data sets" are "effectively infinite" outside of set theory, ie theoretical mathematics. "Big" and "complex" and "fucking humongulous" won't cut it. I think that Aristotle's rejection of the infinite would also be relevant here.

As for his "things will work the same" argument: why? Based on what? Arguments without examples won't do.

Humans Versus Weather

DianaHsieh's picture

Mike, I'm certainly no expert on chaos theory, but don't you think it's relevant that human beings are living organisms? Humans are fundamentally different from weather patterns. They are self-regulating and goal-directed -- and if they fail to act as nature demands, they will perish. They are not passive reactors like air molecules.

Also, I suspect that your friend is being highly rationalistic. Why not actually compare the wealth of relatively free countries to that of unfree countries? There is a definite pattern -- just like with the weather, actually!

In another sense, however, your friend is right: All the political freedom in the world won't make people rational, prosperous, or happy. However, the fact is that such political freedom doesn't ever arise in the first place unless people's heads are screwed on straight to some extent -- and that plus political freedom does yield good stuff for human life.

-- Diana Hsieh

"Chaos theory states that if

Marnee's picture

"Chaos theory states that if a system is complex enough, a minute change in the system will drastically change the entire system."

No, its the sensitivity of the system not the complexity.

Also, chaotic systems are deterministic and so they are orderly. I believe this is why economics, empirically, can make market predicts and trends pretty reliably (not to mention meteorology and the weather). As such general trends can be predicted such that if capitalism, as you friend said, were prefectly chaotic, general trends could still be predicted. So you are correct in your response.

By the way, this is what I figured from reading wikipedia.

More importantly, the pattern of each variable in the system is not what is generally desired but the overall outcome or the general trend over a certain time period, of the system that is usually more desireable.


JoeM's picture

In his book CHAOS, James Gleick does say that the term "chaos theory" is something of a misnomer...

His point was that,

Mike_M's picture

His point was that, according to chaos theory, it is impossible to predict the outcome of a system if the data set is effectively infinite. His example was the weather. His point was that things work the same for a social system or psychological predictions. To predict that capitalism will yield such and such an outcome is no more possible than to say that the weather will be such and such here on this day one year from now. The data set is effectively infinite, and human beings are unpredictable which only confounds the problem.

So there are obvious Objectivist responses to these claims. I want to know a) is he accurately stating what chaos would imply about predicting human behavior and generalizations about social systems, b) if he is, is chaos theory wrong? if not, how would one reconcile Objectivism with chaos theory, c) general comments on chaos theory in relation to Objectivism anyone might have.

I'm operating on the assumption that my friend has properly understood and applied chaos theory. If he hasn't this would be very out of character of him (he was taking advanced college math back when I was taking geometry freshman year of high school).

My gut tells me that chaos is a correct theory, but is being applied outside of its scope. Chaos theory states that if a system is complex enough, a minute change in the system will drastically change the entire system. The conclusion is that without an infinite data set, thus predictions about the behavior of that system become impossible. So attempts to predict the weather become more difficult and inaccurate the further into the future the prediction is made. This is the extent to which I understand chaos theory.

My basic response is that while we can't predict the weather, we can generalize enough to say that, all things being equal, a certain temperature, pressure, and humidity will produce such and such weather.


Victor Pross's picture

"If you think you are qualified, please say so in the thread and I will summarize the objection/question as well as I can."

Mike, I do have scant knowledge, and if you don't mind letting me know what the objection/question is...I can then know better to either answer or let it alone.

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