Collapse or Breakthrough?

Isaac Asimov, the visionary science-fiction writer, recounts in one of his short stories the narrative of a people that from generation to generation, from civilization to civilization, ask a gigantic computer: “Will we be capable one day of beating the second principle of thermodynamics?”  And for generations on end, for centuries after centuries, the computer systematically gives the same answer: “the data is insufficient to answer this question.” Billions of years pass, stars and galaxies die but the computer connected directly to the energy of Space-Time, continues to calculate. At the end, the universe dies but the computer finally comes to a conclusive answer. He now knows how to beat the second principle… and that is when a new universe is born.

Entropy reigns and nothing escapes the implacable hold of the second law of thermodynamics. This is what we learnt at school: at every passing second our world, our solar system, our entire galaxy slowly come closer and closer to their inevitable death at the end of Time. Disorder can only increase. All shall end in dust.

What about chaos theory?

However, the theories of chaos teach us that all this is but one part of history! They do not challenge the second principle of thermodynamics. They do not deny that all shall return to dust but they also show us the emergence of an incredible complexity since the beginning of the universe. Since the dawn of time, where we thought there was only the void, matter emerged, then life, then consciousness. The universe has not stopped growing in complexity. It has not ceased to evolve. Man and humanity have followed suit.

From atoms to molecules, from unicellular organisms to pluricellular ones, from the reptilian brain to the brain of mammals until we arrive at the neocortex in man, the universe has not ceased to surprise us with its inexhaustible creativity. It has continued to integrate what was there in order to grow in complexity and to evolve, passing from the mineral and the living organisms to a greater consciousness, towards greater beauty, truth and goodness. Evolution, auto-organization, integration are the other face of history.

We are living at a unique moment in which humanity, itself the product of billions of years of evolution, suddenly becomes conscious of this evolutionary process.

The theories of chaos bring to us elements absolutely essential for understanding how we can help in this growth towards increasing complexity (any volunteers for a return to death and dust?). They show us how a system can evolve towards greater entropy or towards greater complexity. They also enable us, thanks to a radically new way of seeing, to watch and to play a part in this evolution. It is for the first time in human history that man has become conscious that he is not merely a spectator but also an actor in the evolution of the universe.

Let us then come down from the stars to take one of the classical examples used in the theories of chaos to understand the evolution of turbulent or chaotic systems: the water flowing out of a tap. Do the experiment at home (it is much more clearly visible with a river but then that would be somewhat complicated to do it in an apartment!)


If you open a tap very gently, you can definitely get a regular steady seemingly immobile flow. This is called a stationary, linear, laminary flow. And if you keep opening the tap very, very carefully you might notice a subtle regular pulsation of the water jet. This state is called oscillating or periodic. If you keep opening the tap, the pulsation will become irregular, then on opening even more, the flow becomes downright turbulent. Open the tap further. At a certain point the water jet will get transformed into a totally chaotic torrent. This is the turbulent or chaotic state. It is utter chaos! But don’t stop there! If you continue increasing the release, a surprising phenomenon can occur. Swirls might appear. Order is now emerging from chaos, order from disorder.

We can illustrate these phenomena in a simplified manner with the following diagrams.

A system can be stable, at an equiibrium (represented here by a straight line): it doesn’t move, it doesn’t evolve.

Systeme equilibre

Then, the system can, after a certain moment, start oscillating, like the tap water described above or like a swing. That is represented by a sine curve in the diagrams above. In this the system is still under some sort of control.  There are some effects of negative feedback. It’s like a thermostat. If the heat crosses a certain temperature, the heating is cut off. In the same way, if the temperature decreases a little too much, the heating switches on.

systeme oscillantTipping Point

Then, from a certain threshold called « Tipping Point »,the system can get out of equilibrium. The oscillations keep increasing after that. And the theories of chaos teach us that once that point is crossed, the system will never be able to reach the previous equilibrium. And this is due to the effects of positive feedback. The phenomenon gets magnified. The higher the temperature, the more we raise the heating. There are numerous examples of positive feedback in physical, biological and social systems. Positive feedback is, then, at the origin of our birth: the pressure of the baby’s head on the uterine neck triggers the uterine contractions. The contractions push the head further into the uterine neck, which in turn multiplies the contractions even more. Positive feedback then contributes to the expulsion of the fœtus from the womb. And a few years later, here we are writing or reading books on the future of the world. Let us turn our attention to the creation of social networks like Facebook. If few people use it, then few people want to join it. On the other hand, if you have more friends who use it, then greater is the temptation to subscribe to it. The more people use it, the more there are other people who want to use it, and so it goes on.

Positive feedback is then an accentuation, an amplification, an acceleration of a process by itself on itself: demographic growth, thermonuclear reaction, capital deposited on compounded interest, economic depression, panic in a crowd, etc. In everyday language, we also talk about a vicious or  virtuous circle, based on whether we like the acceleration of effects or not.

systeme hors equilibreCollapse

What happens post-equilibrium, after the oscillations and the coming out of equilibrium? Two possibilities emerge then, after what is called the ‘Decisive Point’ : either the system collapses (it is the second principle of thermodynamics that is in force : ‘all shall return to dust’.

Systele collapse


Or there is ‘breakthrough’ and the system finds a new equilibrium at a higher level of complexity:

Systele breakthrough

It is interesting to note that for most people, the words chaos and turbulent have a negative connotation. ‘It’s just chaos’ or ‘he’s a turbulent kid’ are rarely used as compliments. One should see behind these words a mere description of a state of things. Neither good nor bad. Like water can be in a gaseous state (steam), liquid or solid (ice), a collection of elements, a system, can be in a state of equilibrium, linear, oscillating or even turbulent and chaotic. We can then see the turbulent or chaotic as a specific phase of a system. Like matter that can be in a gaseous, liquid or solid phase, a system can then be in a linear, oscillating or chaotic phase. And what we call a system here, will be applicable to the human being, to our organizations, to our companies and to humanity on the whole.

Better see and understand the world

So we are talking here about dealing with a system with tools that are appropriate with the phase in which it finds itself. Numerous aspects of humanity or of our organizations are still linear or in a phase of equilibrium. We shall then use classical mechanics to understand and act upon a system that is in equilibrium or close to it. On the other hand, humanity has come out of the state of equilibrium in a number of fields and has entered a turbulent and chaotic phase. We will use, therefore, the theories of chaos and we shall then be capable of developing new tools, new glasses to clearly see the ships, the factories without stocks, the weak signals. We will be able to understand as well and act upon the parts of our personal lives, our organizations and of humanity that have entered a chaotic phase. We will be able to see and understand the different developments, crisis, and work towards the emergence of new equilibriums and to more complex and harmonious organizations. We will then be able to choose to work towards the emergence/breakthrough and not merely suffer the collapse.

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