Predicting Chaos

January 02, 1994|By DOUGLAS DAVIS

The rise of the Prediction Company, a business in Santa Fe, N.M., determined to turn the unruly new sciences of "chaos theory" and complexity studies into a forecasting tool, is the first predictable event in years.

We consistently lust after certainty, lavishing our fortunes on pollsters, forecasters, prophets. Now comes a new posse of brilliant scientists pledging to shame Nostradamus by exploiting the very non-linear computer theories that have lately proved the universe doesn't follow law or routine.

In every wind pattern, drop of water and genetic chain we now detect wondrous, often random intricacy. "Chaos," not "order," is the moral theme of the new science. But we don't want to hear this. We don't want to face the perpetual surprises awaiting us in nature, art, science, politics, sex and the financial markets. We want the Prediction Company.

Why do we cling to the chimera of the knowable future?

Think of what has happened in this year alone: An American doctor clones a woman's embryo, making it possible to duplicate a child, even years later. Genetic science is honing itself to the point where cancer can be "screened out" of all future babies. The supposedly dead-in-the-water North American Free Trade Agreement bill rolls through Congress. Wildly successful Japan Inc. elects an anti-corporate reformer. Anti-communist Poland votes former communists back into power. The anti-urban Republicans elect the mayor of New York and, for all practical purposes, the mayor of Los Angeles. Two misogynist Islamic nations elect female leaders. A woman cuts off her husband's penis and is lionized. The courts allow a young boy to refuse to see his parents and a lesbian to gain custody of her lover's child.

Go back one year: Remember how George Bush was invincible? Go back five years: Remember how Big Brother in Russia and Eastern Europe were invincible?

There can be only one reason why we pretend we knew these unexpected events were coming: The pretense makes us feel good -- in control.

But the real truth is in fact far better. Only when we give up on expertise, on precision, on the "lessons" of history or Henry Kissinger or Paul Kennedy, will we be truly happy, if not ecstatic. Only when we ready ourselves for the rich contradictions inherent in our own nature -- and in a universe dotted with improbable black holes where time is reversed -- will we stand on solid, shifting ground. When we reject the "probable" future. When we place in our faith only in what appears improbable.

Common sense ironically supports this conclusion. Once we know that we don't know it all -- that is, accept the limitations inherent in our brain -- we can accept the likelihood that the impossible idea is possible. Galileo's assumption that the Earth moved around the sun seemed mad to the pope, yet proved true. Stephen Hawking's notion that the black holes reverse gravity seems equally improbable, and is surely, therefore, true.

We can't expect our brains to order chaos, even internally. Neurologists and philosophers now increasingly accept the thesis that pandemonium reigns in our gray cells, which are drenched each day with information flowing in from uncountable senses, sources, mediums. "Rationality" simply oversimplifies what we see, know and feel.

We are wrong to fear the world's glorious unpredictability. Pascal made the case against the pretense of prediction long ago. "Not to be mad," he argued, "would amount to another form of madness."

Let us embrace our most precious madmen -- our Galileos, our Jeffersons (it is mad to believe all men are created equal), our Hawkings -- and reject prediction, if not the ingenious Prediction Company.

Take reverent delight in the most absurd reversals we can imagine, some near at hand -- time travel, say, a form of immortality, virtual love.

The universe speaks to us through mad election results and chaotic wind patterns. "I am magical," he/she is saying. "Get ready for anything."

Author and artist Douglas Davis writes on media, politics and culture. His next book is "Mad Ideas: An Encyclopedia of Outlandish Solutions." He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.