Chaos Theory and Consciousness

August 23, 2021
IONS Fellow Stanley Krippner, PhD

The material in this blog posting is adapted from an interview with Dr. Krippner1 that will appear in the book, Chaos and Nonlinear Psychology: Keys to Creativity in Mind and Life, edited by David Schuldberg, Ruth Richards, and Shan Guisinger, forthcoming from Oxford University Press. Dr. Krippner was interviewed by the three editors; the remarks excerpted and adapted here focus on the meanings and implications of chaos and complexity theory.

The term chaos theory scares a lot of people because they fail to go a step further and understand that chaos theory is attempting to bring order out of the chaos and to work through the underlying connections and underlying principles, if there are any. As a result, a misunderstanding of the term itself is something that is often a challenge. I think people would be more comfortable with the idea of complexity theory, which, of course, is not the same as chaos theory but encompasses it. That is a concept that people might be more able to understand and find acceptable.

The basic premise of complexity theory is that there is a hidden order to the behavior and evolution of complex systems ‒ for example, an economy, an ecosystem, or an organization. These are not machines, so cannot be thought of in mechanical terms. A machine’s order has been determined in advance. Complexity theory classifies problems on the basis of how difficult they are to solve. Moreover, complexity theory holds that many independent elements behave as a single unit, as they respond to their environment and to each other. Patterned behavior is unintentional. Properties present in the overall system are not present in any individual component of the system. A complex system is more than an aggregation of static parts.

Computers gave an impetus to complexity theory because knowing every part of the system is not enough when it comes to understanding the system as a whole. Complex systems reside at the edge of chaos; indeed, the components of a system are never completely locked in. However, they also never fall out of control. The edge of chaos is a battle zone between stagnation and anarchy. Complexity theory studies not only the laws of chaos but also the laws of order ‒ applications, markets, transportation systems, the brain, or any type of emergent behavior. A system is complex when it is composed of subsystems for which the degree and nature of relationships are imperfectly known.

Both complexity theory and chaos theory attempt to find order and structure in nonlinear dynamic systems. Both grew out of General Systems Theory, which has interested me ever since I heard Ludwig von Bertalanffy give a guest lecture at Northwestern University in the late 1950s. It is interesting that Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute held that life itself exists at the edge of chaos, between structure and surprise.

Meanwhile, the Newtonian paradigm’s three laws of motion, which are the basis of the scientific method, result in complexity when that paradigm fails to be generic. It may be said that the Newtonian paradigm replaced the real world, while complexity theory tries to restore it. The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts” has a variety of possible meanings. First, it applies to a set of nonlinear equations, which generally cannot be solved in the same way as a system of linear equations. If dynamics enters the picture, we then have a set of nonlinear equations that define motion or observable change over time. Equations derived from chaos theory describe complicated functions of time, or iterative functions. In this case, the behavior that arises from a system built from components with nonlinear connections is sometimes unpredictable, with hallmarks of nonlinear dynamical systems. Thus, we are no longer talking about systems/sets of equations that are nonlinear, but rather of dynamical systems, modeled by nonlinear equations of dynamics.

Newtonian thinking replaced the world of primary experience as people started to view the world through Newtonian lenses. To accept a different set of lenses, whether of quantum theory or chaos theory, is going to be a very, very hard adjustment for most people to make. If one’s ideas are machine-like, one’s receptivity to new ideas will differ from those based on ideas that are adaptive, evolutionary, and organic, accepting ambiguity and unpredictability. The theory of control goes back to Aristotle and his various laws of logic. Speculating on how something can be “proven” or “disproven” is far removed from what actually goes on in human experience. It is interesting how these philosophical structures really control our way of looking at the world. Indeed, ideas shape our behaviors.

Hence, we are not really living in the world. We are living within our artificial constructs. In contrast, we can consider some of the Asian philosophies like Taoism or Buddhism, where nothing is certain, the world is in constant flux, and phenomena are changeable. Perhaps it might be a useful strategy to reinforce any attempts that many scientists in India, China, Japan, and neighboring countries are making to include chaos theory in their paradigms. The problem here is that many intellectual leaders in those countries want to be very modern and very Western, so they buy into the Western paradigm and ignore the wisdom they already possess, wisdom that might be a more accurate way of viewing reality.

I think that one of the impetuses to accepting chaos theory and complexity theory is where computer science is going. In computers we are getting such complexity that even knowing every part of the system is not enough to know the system in its entirety or even to predict the outcome of what is being fed into the system. So I see computer specialists, whether they know it or not, being chaos theory’s natural allies. Moreover, dealing with computers brings to mind Artificial Intelligence (AI), which, again, can be thought of in very, very linear terms. The more input you put into the system, the more nonlinear it gets, and you finally come up with something that’s at the edge of chaos because components of Artificial Intelligence are never completely locked in. This is why some alarmists are saying that AI will take over the world; it is so unpredictable that eventually it is going to elude our control.

I think that chaos theory can weigh in on the perennial problem of free will versus determinism. The latter logically follows the paradigm of a machine being a good metaphor for the human being, even for the whole universe. The machine is the ultimate symbol for linear thinking and getting to know every part will yield understanding. For me, however, chaos theory provides a more useful framework for studying the variability among humans. Bifurcation, self-organization, emergence, and transformation provide for human agency, human’s ability not only to attribute meaning, but to make choices regarding possible outcomes.

The term “self-organization” refers to a process in which there is some intention that is navigating to change one’s behavior, cognition, or mental processes. This process can involve struggle; if so, the term “edge of chaos” is sometimes used to describe it. Moreover, one is not always aware of a self-organization process. This happens frequently in dreams, but the dreamer is not aware of the struggle unless the dream is “lucid.” Then, a knowledgeable dreamer may observe the way the dream is organizing itself in service of the dreamer.

I have used chaos theory to describe how dreams self-organize and how parapsychological phenomena could be studied. Obviously, there are many other ways in which chaos theory can be utilized in consciousness research.

1 Chapter 8. Changes in Psychology, Chaos Theory, and Complexity Theory in the Last 25 Years: A Conversation with Stanley Krippner, PhD.


Stanley Krippner, PhDStanley Krippner, PhD, is the Alan Watts Professor of Psychology, Saybrook University, Pasadena, CA. and the former Director of the Dream Laboratory, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, NY. He has received lifetime achievement awards from the Parapsychological Association, the International Association for the Study of Dreams, and the Society for Humanistic Psychology. He is the past president of all three groups as well as the Society for Psychological Hypnosis which awarded him its 2002 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Professional Hypnosis. Krippner is a Fellow of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, and five divisions of the American Psychological Association, which granted him its 2002 Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Development of Psychology. He is co-author of the award-winning book Personal Mythology, co-editor of the award-winning book Varieties of Anomalous Experience, and has authored or co-authored over 1,000 peer-reviewed articles.

Join Our Global Community

Receive curated mind-bending, heart-enlivening content. We’ll never share your email address and you can unsubscribe any time.

Back to Top