Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Randomness and Chaos


If we have open eyes, then it seems anything and everything in our world can be a conduit for spirituality.  I know this is especially true for much of what I read.  Of course, since I teach in a Religion Department, much of what I read would qualify as spiritual.  But I also read a fair amount that most folks probably would not consider spiritual.
           
Recently, I ran across an article that took me to the internet to find something that promised to be interesting.  The article focused on the twin ideas of randomness and chaos.  I was very intrigued.  At one level, I was pretty sure I knew what those two English words meant.  At another level, I was not sure whether they were the same thing or different, but related.  I knew I had never thought about the two at the same time.  If pressed, I would probably have guessed they were basically the same.  So I approached the article with curiosity.
           
I started reading and pretty soon bumped into a subsection that read thus: Noah Effects and Joseph Effects.  I was hooked, although I had no idea what those two effects were---except to recognize both were biblical names.  So I proceeded with the details.  The author, Greg Satel, began to tell me things.  He referenced some guy named Benoit Mandelbrot, of whom I had never heard.  But I don’t know that much about mathematics.  Apparently Mandelbrot has thought a great deal about chaos. 
           
It seems that mathematical models develop patterns.  But often there are some data points that don’t fit the pattern and these are called “outliers.”  Mandelbrot thought these outliers were important.  Somehow these would help him understand “the forces that governed chaos.”
           
Now to the biblical names.  The Joseph Effects “are persistent.”  Mandelbrot continues by saying, “Just like in the biblical story, where Joseph predicted seven fat years and seven lean years, events in a time series are highly dependent on what precedes them.  The Joseph Effect is an example of randomness. As Satal declares, “Randomness is actually fairly predictable, because it averages out…”  Wow, I never thought about it that way.
           
Chaos, on the other hand, introduces the Noah Effects.  “These create discontinuity,” we are told.  Satel goes on with an example.  “A storm comes and blows everything away; creating a new fact pattern…”  For example, a weather forecast might tell us that there is a 70% chance of rain.  In actuality, it either will rain or it won’t.  If it does, the streets get wet and that makes them more dangerous.  If we get into a serious car accident, we can end up hospitalized for a few months, altering the course of our life.  An outlier?  Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less important.” 
           
Chaos has no predictability.  And when chaos happens, a whole new ball game---a new pattern---is created.  We can cope with randomness, because over time it all averages out. Chaos is a different story.  It is not predictable and it is not clear how to deal with chaos when it happens in our lives.
All this may be interesting to you, as it was to me.  But spirituality so what, we might wonder?  I don’t know the full answer to this “so what” question.  But let me begin to ponder so what.
           
It occurs to me that dealing with randomness best happens when we are disciplined.  A good argument for practicing spiritual disciplines is the sense that randomly spiritual disciplines will advance our growth and development.  I contend that it is predictable to grow spiritually when we practice spiritual disciplines, even though I don’t know exactly when and how that growth will happen.  But at some random point or points, it will take place.
           
When it comes to chaos, spiritual disciplines have a different role.  When chaos happens in our lives it is unpredictable.  Practicing spiritual disciplines will not alter that unpredictability nor will it help us avoid chaos.  But spiritual disciplines can help us “be prepared.”  In this case, being prepared means whenever and however chaos assaults us, we should be in a better place and in better shape to cope with the new pattern of life that chaos demands of me.
           
If we were in that car wreck mentioned above and if we were incapacitated, spiritual disciplines won’t change that fact.  But I probably will be in a better position to cope with my incapacitation.  And I hopefully will still be connected to the God I know cares and loves me.  In that sense, I am prepared for anything.
           
I am convinced random and chaotic things happen to all of us---spiritual and non-spiritual alike.  I appreciate knowing the difference now.  And I want to continue my spiritual disciplines with a renewed sense of purpose and appreciation.

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