Depth psychologist Carl Jung’s statement above about chaos and cosmos resonates with the world’s oldest creation myths, but it also anticipated chaos theory on the cutting edge of modern physics. The opening verses of the biblical creation story state that world was once “without form and void” — a fair description of the primordial soup that existed in the first millionth of a second after the cosmic event scientists say started everything off with a bang, a Big Bang. But how did those elementary particles cohere into the hydrogen and helium atoms that later formed stars, which became the furnace for heavier elements that spun off into planets like our own? And how did non-living matter produce living cells, which evolved over eons into intelligent creatures capable of wondering how this all came to be?
Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Once you get past the fact that anything exists at all, you are left to wonder why it yields so readily to our understanding. Two things are required: first, there must be order and meaning to existence; and second, there must be an intelligence capable of comprehending it. The latter requirement is all the more astonishing in that it appears to have arisen spontaneously from the universe itself. It is as if the universe were seeking to comprehend itself.
It didn’t start out that way, of course. In the beginning, there was chaos, any way you look at it — without form and void, without laws of nature, without time and space even. The question is, why didn’t things stay that way? After that first millionth of a second following the Big Bang, why did the primordial soup of elementary particles become something else? Why do entirely novel phenomena keep emerging?
Once the basic laws of nature had been discovered, early physicists assumed the universe worked like clockwork, and you could set your watch by it forever. According to the physicist and mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), if you knew the position, direction and velocity of every particle in the universe, you could determine their state at any other time, past or future, using the laws of classical physics alone. Only, as it turned out, that’s not how the universe works at all. Things keep getting more complex, and at every stage of complexity, new properties emerge that are not inherent in the properties of their constituent elements.
Biochemist Stanley Kauffman has written that “we live in an emergent universe of ceaseless creativity in which life, agency, meaning, consciousness and ethics have emerged.” It remains a mystery how inert matter first gave rise to living cells. But thanks to Alan Turing, we now have some idea how identical cells in an embryo differentiate into arms, legs, a head and tail — a chemical process known as morphogenesis. Turing, who broke the German Enigma Code in World War Two and laid the foundation of computer science, devised a mathematical model that explained how random fluctuations can drive the emergence of pattern and structure from initial uniformity.
“Chaos is the score upon which reality is written,” Henry Miller wrote. Miller was a novelist, not a scientist, but he had stumbled onto something. Chaos, in a scientific sense, may appear to be disordered, but it is not truly random. Left to its own devices, disorder will transform itself into patterns and structure that can be captured in simple mathematical equations, just as Turing demonstrated that undifferentiated cells can spontaneously give rise to intricate life forms. The term scientists use to describe this phenomenon is “self-organization.” In other words, it happens all by itself. But how? We can do the math to describe the processes. But it remains to be seen whether we have reached the stage of complexity where we can understand why.