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Chapter 4: The Internet as a Chaotic Attractor (1)

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."
Albert Einstein

     The word "chaos" once had a profoundly different connotation than it does today. According to Ralph Abraham:

This first time the word appeared in literature, it had nothing to do with what we now mean by chaos in the English language and in ordinary life. At the time, it meant a sort of gaping void between heaven and Earth out of which form emerged. Creation came out of chaos, but chaos did not mean disorder or anything negative; it only meant a gaping void. (2)

     Today, for most people, the word "chaos" carries with it the negative connotation of disorder or disarray. When one takes into account the original meaning of the word, however, the seemingly negative aspect of chaos begins to melt into a sea of creative possibility. Persons experiencing the World Wide Web for the first time sometimes come away with the impression that their minds have been immersed in a vast, chaotic new universe of information. Yet, as they become more experienced at using the Internet, a sense of form begins to emerge.

     Although it may seem counter-intuitive, scientists and mathematicians have discovered that many large scale systems reach their maximum potential when poised between chaos and order. This is the area Stuart Kauffman calls "the edge of chaos." In his work on complex systems, Kauffman found that:

Networks in the regime near the edge of chaos-this compromise between order and surprise-appear best able to coordinate complex activities and best able to evolve as well. (3)

     As used in this book, the word "chaos," while still denoting a state of extreme disorganization, is also meant to impart the sense of a desired condition, for without chaos, creativity's prospects are considerably limited.

     Abraham also provides a definition for the concept of a chaotic attractor:

Chaotic attractors consist of fractal (infinitely folded) sets of states, over which the model system moves, occupying different states in a sequence called a trajectory, or time series. This trajectory, while appearing irregular or random, actually progresses in a deterministic manner. Chaotic attractors display, at once, features of chaos and features of order. They represent systems in states of agitation, as in the case of turbulence. (4)

     Another definition of a chaotic attractor comes from Adam Combs:

Speaking informally, an attractor is a condition to which a system is drawn by its own nature. If a cup is placed slightly tilted on a table, it will roll about in a spiral [until] it comes to rest standing up. This latter condition is termed a static attractor, because it represents the static position to which the cup is disposed. More interesting are cyclic or fixed cycle attractors. The human heart, for instance, runs through its cycle many times each minute. The moon passes through its various phases each month. These, and many others, are instances of systems that naturally settle into predictable cyclic routines. Most interesting, however, are [sic] the class of attractors that are neither fixed nor precisely predictable. These are termed strange or chaotic attractors.

On close inspection the cyclic rhythm of the human heart is found not to be precise, like the motions of a clock, but only approximately so. It's [sic] global form is well known and easily recognized, but the precise action of an individual heart differs from beat to beat, thus defying exact prediction. Moreover, it is unlikely that the heart ever, in the strictest possible sense, repeats itself the same way twice. This situation of global familiarity but non-predictability, along with the idea that the system never exactly repeats itself, is exactly what defines a chaotic system, one whose action is described by a strange attractor. (5)

     I believe that the Internet is serving as just such an attractor, or basin of attraction, drawing the Earth's most creative minds into a synergistic union out of which a new form of human consciousness can arise from the wells of chaos. Before you dismiss such a thought as too fanciful, you may want to take a closer look at this strange universe in which our consciousness is now operating.

     In this chapter we will take a look at a few of the more amazing ideas, both modern and ancient, that have begun to slip into the consensus reality of a significant number of people who give serious thought to the technological changes we are now experiencing. Perhaps one or more of these ideas will strike a resonant chord with you.

A Probabilistic Universe

"Quantum particles are the dreams that stuff is made of."
David Moser
Quoted in The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999)

     Until early in the 20th century, most Western scientists labored under the assumption that the universe is deterministic; that is, we can predict the precise result of every physical action. Large-scale problems, like predicting the weather, were thought to be solvable in time, given sufficient computer power. With the advent of quantum mechanics, however, the picture began to change. At the subatomic level, at least, it was found that the universe was not deterministic, but that it was instead probabilistic. In other words, while it is possible to determine a range of results from a given action, we cannot precisely predict the exact outcome. The best we can do is come up with the probability that a certain result will flow from a given action. This situation is perhaps easier to see on a larger scale. For example, if we set off an explosion on a snow-covered mountainside, there is the chance we will cause an avalanche. Depending upon the depth and consistency of the snow and the slope of the mountainside, we can predict the probability of an avalanche occurring, and even forecast the possible path it will follow. However, it is not possible to forecast with 100% certainty what the exact outcome of our explosion will be. The predicted results can only be estimated within some degree of probability.

     What is more difficult to understand is that this same situation exists for every movement of every particle in an atomic cloud. As Werner Heisenberg (6) postulated in 1927, it is possible to know an electron's position, and it is possible to know an electron's momentum, but it is impossible to know both at the same time. We can come up with a probability for the value of both, but not with absolutely certain values. This uncertainty factor sometimes arrives wearing the cloak of chaos. However, when the creative aspect of chaos is taken into consideration, the uncertainty of position within the electron cloud can be seen not as disorder but as holding infinite possibility for creation.

     From the chaos of the universe, all creativity springs forth, and all possibilities may be realized within certain probabilistic limits established by the laws of nature. It is in this sense that I see the Internet as a chaotic attractor that has the potential to draw to it the minds of people who are willing to do the work necessary to build a global awareness of the issues that are to be confronted if our species is to survive. To overcome the propensity of species to become extinct requires thinking beyond one's personal concerns and working in unison with others to search out the path that holds the greatest probability for our survival.

The Illusion of Reality

     Sometimes, after leaving a movie that has succeeded in totally captivating my imagination, I have difficulty in letting go of the characters and ambiance of the film. For hours after I leave the theater, my mind continues to draw me back into the scenes I witnessed through the magic of the movies. Most of us have had similar experiences. There is a corollary to this experience that is also interesting to observe.

      Have you ever noticed, after returning home from a stage play or concert, for example, that it can seem as though you just imagined the whole thing-that the play or concert didn't actually take place? If not, a day or so after the next major public performance you attend, try imagining that you didn't actually attend the event. Instead, pretend that it took place only in your mind. With a little practice, you will be able to perform this feat with almost every experience you have.

     Once you are in such a state of mind, you will come to the emotional realization that your memory of life's episodes is their only continuing reality. Could it be that memory, or thought, is the true bedrock of our Earthly reality? It was, after all, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, who gave birth to the muses, the sources of creativity who continue to teach us the arts of civilization.

     As physicists continue to probe the atom, searching for ever more fundamental particles of which all matter is composed, they seem to plunge deeper and deeper into the structure of matter until eventually reaching some sort of wall beyond which no smaller particle is postulated to exist. Then, after years of research, that wall is also breached and even smaller particles are found. (7) Ultimately, science may conclude that the fundamental particle of nature is nothing other than pure mathematical thought.

     Primacy of mind, of course, is one of the tenets of many Eastern religions. While I am not saying I believe that everything we call consensus reality doesn't actually exist in some absolute form, I do believe that we have yet to unlock the mysteries of existence as viewed from a quantum mechanical point of view. As Teilhard de Chardin once said:

At the end of its analyses, physics is no longer sure whether what is left in its hands is pure energy or, on the contrary, thought. (8)

     As the Internet becomes ever more deeply ingrained in our everyday lives, our concept of reality becomes even more problematic. For example, late in 1999 debate began about virtual child pornography. With a truly perverted sense of taste, technically astute pornographers have taken to creating realistic images of children engaged in sex acts. Unlike the smut comics of the 1950s, modern technology provides the ability to build a realistic model of a person and then program that computer-generated model to interact with other computer models. Interestingly, millions of people have already witnessed the power of this technology in the form of the dancing baby of Internet and television fame. (9) The underlying reality of these programs is that they are nothing more than electronic signals in a computer chip, yet some of these images are so profane, and so realistic, that many groups want them banned. While it is not unprecedented for people to want to censor works of art, as some pornography may be classified, what is new is that these images are being attacked primarily because they are so realistic. We may soon be in need of a new definition for reality. However, modern physics is making it increasingly difficult to define exactly what we mean by reality, let alone grasp its significance.

Fallout from Bell's Theorem

      In 1964, Irish physicist John S. Bell published a paper in which he postulated the "non-separability of two contingent events." (10) In layman's terms, this means everything is merely a part of a much larger whole. To a non-scientist like me, Bell's Theorem did not at first seem very revolutionary. Yet when people like Henry P. Stapp, a theoretical physicist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, called Bell's Theorem "the most profound discovery of science," it caused me to wonder what all the fuss was about. As I understand it, the essence of Bell's Theorem is that there is a mechanism whereby the setting of one measuring device can influence the simultaneous reading of another instrument, however remote. After contemplating the phrase "however remote," I found the implications of Bell's Theorem became much more profound. Now that experiments appear to support this theorem, it seems that we are due for yet another significant paradigm shift in science.

     According to Bell's Theorem, if one measures one photon of a photon-pair, after it splits and travels in a different direction from its twin, its measurement will be influenced by taking a measurement of the companion photon. In other words, measuring one photon directly influences the measurement of its twin, and vice versa. This, Bell says, is true even if they are separated by a distance so great that a signal (traveling at the speed of light) from the first photon could not reach the second photon in time to influence the measurement. The question then becomes: If the distance between the photons is so great that there is no way in classical physics to account for a signal to pass between them (with the upper speed limit that of light), how do these two particles communicate? According to Bell's Theorem, there is no need for faster-than-light communications because our universe is not what it appears to be. According to Bell's Theorem, our universe isn't made of independent, or stand-alone, objects; it is instead an indivisible whole. Not wanting to appear as New Age scientists, modern physicists shun the phrase "all is one," and instead state the same observation as "non-locality appears to be a fact of nature."

     The concept that the entire universe, including you and me, is an indivisible whole is not new to metaphysics; however, it is revolutionary and unsettling to the world of modern physics. If science can ultimately prove that everything in the cosmos is indeed an indivisible part of a single whole, what does this mean to religion, science, and philosophy? It amazes me that discussion of these matters has not permeated the mainstream media to the degree of visibility it already has on the Internet. Just think what it will mean when every human on Earth comes to the full realization that, just as members of the New Age movement have said for years, "All is one. We are all intimately connected to one another. There is no part of you that is not also part of me." It is one thing to hear this from mystics and religious leaders, but think of the impact it will have on human consciousness if this idea is scientifically proven beyond all doubt.

     As the 20th century came to a close, reports of experiments proving the correctness of Bell's Theorem were being published in scientific journals. Although not enough time has yet elapsed for these discoveries to be assimilated into scientific and philosophical frameworks, it may be in our best interest to quickly come to grips with the cosmic importance of these findings. How wonderful, and ironic, it would be if mainstream science confirmed what mystics have been saying for ages.


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