Chaosmos: Does religious ritual have to preserve humanity from chaos and entropy?

Recently I came across a theological post that struck me with fascination but one that, I concluded, was ultimately erroneous (the original article can be found here). The argument purports that the practice of liturgy is necessary to preserve humanity from the onrush of chaos. More specifically, the author David Gelernter notes that the second law of thermodynamics “helps to write a commentary on religion”. He claims additionally, more boldly this time, given the Second Law, science must therefore sit “at the feet of religion”. Although this statement is obscurely unclear, he implies that religion must defy the “onrush of chaos”, the propensity of the universe to run down. Or again, the entropy of the universe naturally moves towards chaos, disorder, and “mixed-upness”. To be sanctified then, according to Gelernter, is to separate “the forward-tumbling chaos of ordinary time” from the rest of existence.

Although the argument is provocative, if not at least interesting, there is plenty of scientific evidence and theoretical speculation that is pointing in a divergent direction. The claim presented here, as follows, argues that order or cosmos presupposes chaos, what we can describe as chaosmology, to use a Joycean phrase. A brief theological interpretation is attempted here in response to the aforementioned post, but the present argument will go much further in elaborating the distinct contribution of systems theory and the idea that systems, structures or existent entities in general require some degree of unsystematic, unstructured or unrepresentable substance as their necessary condition of possibility. (For what I consider a more persuasive account of theological ‘becoming’ see Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, or related posts here and here).

A central axiom of dynamic systems theory is the notion that order emerges from and even presupposes chaos. In fact, even once constituted, chaos continues to circulate within identifiable and ordered entities as a vital force to the continuation of those very identities. Indeed, it is the very lifeblood or life-force of existent individuals. To be desiccated of these ‘crowned anarchies’ or ‘nomadic distributions’, to employ the terminology of Deleuze, identifiable entities would in effect – metaphorically – bleed out and die, or as Deleuze puts it, collapse into the immobile fascist body.

To use an example of Deleuze’s, the becoming of sedimentary rock is a process that involves the transformation of heterogeneous sedimentary particles through a filtering process into consistent, homogeneous layers. In other words, the identifiable entity of sedimentary rock is recognized through a process of differentiation and differenciation in which the ‘unstructured’ flows of sediment are strained and condensed to form a critical density mass. Indeed, the formalized and structured entity of sedimentary rock presupposes as its own condition of possibility the fluid and chaotic-like substance of sedimentary particles.

This process can again be reversed, as Deleuze notes in the opening of Difference and Repetition: “The constants of one law are in turn variables of a more general law, just as the hardest rocks become soft and fluid matter on the geological scale of millions of years. So at each level, it is in relation to large, permanent natural objects that the subject of a law experiences its own powerlessness…” (p. 2). Although the case cannot be seen as readily in rocks as in living organisms, “a dynamic system involves stability, slowness, and stratified elements, while also requiring the flexibility to adapt, transform, and destabilize these very elements” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 221). Put simply, the synthesis and cementation of heterogeneous elements into a homogeneous, self-consistent strata can always in turn collapse back into its disparate parts.

The point is, for Deleuze and Guattari, as follows: the differentiation of unstructured, indeterminate ‘anarchic’ flows is the necessary facilitation for the possibility of various new stable and consistent forms to emerge in the cosmos. Of course, this process does not guarantee success, but no new states or determinate substances can emerge without this condition. Or to repeat Nietzsche’s claim, one must have chaos in one’s self to give birth to a dancing star.

This peculiar tendency of stable objects emerging from ostensible chaos is lucidly described in detail in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, a passage worth quoting at considerable length:

A guiding question of recent work in dynamic systems is how order – that is, the sophisticated, stable patters which are readily apparent – are able to emerge despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that order tends to move to chaos, or that systems in disequilibrium tend to move to equilibrium.[...] To take a frequently cited example, oil, when heated, will suddenly exhibit convection rolls and vortices as it is heated and before it boils. Before the oil is heated, the oil is in an equilibrium state in which entropy is at a maximum; in other words, the oil molecules are randomly scattered throughout the container such that no order or consistency is present. One section of the container would be indistinguishable from another. We thus have chaos, or a random set of points with no identifiable order, what is called ‘equilibrium thermal chaos.’ When heated, however, the oil moves away from equilibrium, and it is under these conditions that the convection rolls and vortices appear. Once the oil is in a full boil, chaos reappears, or ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos,’ and subsequently one section of the boiling oil is indistinguishable from any other. Dynamic systems and chaos theorists will pay particular attention to far-from-equilibrium conditions, and more precisely to the order which emerges at the critical threshold between equilibrium and non-equilibrium chaos.

The far-from-equilibrium conditions which give rise to spontaneous order most often occur during what is called phase transition. A phase transition is a transition between two steady and stable equilibrium states, such as liquid and gas, or liquid and solid. As these systems approach a phase transition, they enter a far-from-equilibrium state wherein self-organized patterns tend to emerge, and at a critical point (e.g., of temperature), there is a discontinuous jump to the new phase. Related to these phase transitions, and also occurring in far-from-equilibrium conditions, is the phenomenon of bifurcations. As Ilya Priogogine and Isabelle Stengers discuss bifurcations in their well-known book Order out of Chaos, a bifurcation point arises at a critical point where a system is poised to transition and when not just one stable state but, rather, ‘two new stable solutions emerge.’ For example, at the critical point where the stable solution of a convection roll appears in the heated oil the rolling motion may assume either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction – both solutions are possible. Which solution, or which branch of the bifurcation the system will ‘choose,’ is impossible to predict: ‘How will the system choose between left and right? There is an irreducible random element; the macroscopic equation cannot predict the path the system will take … We are faced with the chance events very similar to the fall of dice.’ As the oil is heated, further bifurcations appear, rolls within rolls, in what is called a process of ‘cascading bifurcations,’ which then leads to turbulent chaos. A bifurcation diagram of such a process between ‘equilibrium thermal chaos’ and ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos’ is surprisingly ordered, or ‘order or coherence is sandwiched between thermal chaos and non-equilibrium turbulent chaos’ (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, pp. 200-201)

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