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The future is now: from chaos to cosmos; exploring the paradigms of interconnectedness.

Exploring the paradigms of interconnectedness

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- Like a bat out of hell, or some place equally chaotic, it swooped across the stage of Clarke College's old Terence Donaghoe Hall, its wings slicing erratic patterns in the murky light. The symposium speaker kept an eye out, dodged despite himself as the mammal darted from darkness to light, light to darkness.

The energetic president of the University of Massachusetts, Michael Hooker, was well into an adventurous exploration of "Paradigms for the Future," part of the Catholic liberal arts college's year long sesquicentennial celebration, when the bat careened from the green drapes backing the theater stage. It was as if the Clarke colloquy had burst to life and taken wing. Given a day that began with a presentation of the patterns of chaos called fractals, it was an appropriate metaphor.

Science's monkey wrench

It kind of confounded Hooker, who was confidently predicting patterns of the future emerging from the information revolution, when this bat boomed down from the edges of order as if to say, "Hey, what about me? You forgot about the creatures of chaos."

What was it all about? How do you make sense of an English professor talking about a scientific theory called chaos; a Benedictine nun expounding on the mathematical pi in the sky as a new religious metaphor; a TV anchorwoman asserting (no surprise here, maybe) that TV collapsed communism around the world; and then Hooker, the boyish prexy (whom McDonald's once asked about using robots to flip burgers), fresh from corporate consultations in fascist Singapore, scrunching our future onto a computer-revolution hard disk?

Those Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Clarke really know how to do it. Credit at least one of those BVMs, symposium organizer Margarite Newmann, with a brave imagination and high sense of humor.

A freak spring storm had turned Dubuque into slush city by symposium morning, but the audience slogged across campus nonetheless and filled the Donaghoe theater to the last balcony seat.

What they got for their pains was an associate professor of literature at Western Connecticut State University, John Briggs, talking about "Wholeness in Nature Through Chaos Theory." A lot of them left well before lunch.

That was too bad, because Briggs, pumping up his uninspired delivery with some exciting slides, was out there on the edge of creation, science's computer coastline, as it were, the twilit beach between order's ancient cliffs and the timeless chaos of the sea.

Twentieth centure science threw a monkey wrench into the 19th century's clockwork universe. Relativity, quantum theory, Werner Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Poincare's earlier work with dynamical systems: All of it was trying to tell us that things weren't what they seemed.

You might be able to predict an eclipe of the sun, or the return of a comet, but then there is a bomb blast in Bombay, an earthquake in Armenia, a tornado in Texas. How do you account for that kind of catastrophic turbulence? What equation do you see?

Butterflies in Bali

On his deathbed, so the aplocryphal story goes, Heisenberg said he wanted to ask God two questions: Why relativity and why turbulence? "I really think he may have an answer to the first question," the dying physicist mused.

Chaos theory is attempting to answer the second, to explore the irreducible, unpredictable, nonlinear world of breaks and jags, loops whirls and wildness on that turbulent, twilit beach. That, in a phrase, is where the action is, what composer Gustav Mahler called the "ceaseless motion and incomprehensible bustle of life" -- the world we live in.

More than 30 years ago a meteorologist at MIT, Edward Lorenz, was creating weather models on his new computer and he expected the models he programmed to repeat themselves with Newtonian predictability.

Then one day Lorenz took in shortcut, typing in some numbers from a printout to duplicate the model's initial conditions. But the printout numbers had been rounded off, from .506127 to .506, a difference so small that Lorenz ignored it. The weather patterns that emerged from that seemingly inconsequential difference were soon so radically apart that there was no resemblance between them.

From that scientific accident came Lorenz's now famous Butterfly Effect: The barely detectable turbulence created when a butterfly flaps its wings in Bali can roil the storm front that crashes across Kansas days later.

That was the genesis of chaos theory. The smallest change in a single variable can have a huge, sometimes catastrophic effect on the whole. A child's shout can start an avalanche. A few particles of ice on an airplane wing can pitch 300 people into Long Island Sound.

From chaos to order

What's more, that totally unpredictable change can happen at any moment, erupting, so to speak,, from within. Theoretically, a pendulum set to motion in a vacuum should swing forever, but you can bet nature will find some way to screw things up. Even in what should be a model of absolute order, the pendulum carries its own chaos within it, you might say -- order and chaos living each in each, far closer than peas in a pod.

Lorenz suspected as much. Within his chaotic weather model, he saw an exquisite geometric structure. The randomness of his Butterfly Effect was really order masquerading as chaos.

But it took the high-speed computers developed years later to help scientists realize how right Lorenz was. Computers allowed them to "see" the patterns of chaos, to study nonlinear systems, to map the irregular coastline of reality.

Within the inherently unpredictable were patterns altogether predictable, faithfully reproduced in every part no matter to what degree they were magnified, and often with astonishing beauty. Magnify a feather a thousand times and the smallest nodule will display a pattern exactly like the one you saw with your naked eye.

The patterns are called "fractals," a word mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot coined about 20 years ago. And they are everywhere, from the tracks of time on a canyon wall to the microscopic world of a single brain cell. The patterns emerge on what Briggs calls "the ferociously active frontier that has been found to exist between stability and incomprehensible disorder." We are back on the twilit beach.

"It appears," Briggs writes in his new book Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos, "that in dynamical systems chaos and order are different masks the system wears: In some circumstances the system shows one face; in different circumstances it shows another."

That interplay implies "a holism in which everything influences, or potentially influences, everything else -- because everything is in some sense constantly interacting with everything else. At any moment, the feedback in a dynamical system [think, for example, of the yowl you hear when a microphone is too close to an amplifier] may amplify some unsuspected |external' or |internal' influence, displaying this holistic interconnection. So paradoxically, the study of chaos is also the study of wholeness."

Briggs characterizes this as a new aesthetic. Chaos is an echo of the primal artistic impulse, he said. The new paradigm is science as an aesthetic act infinite, not reductive. "Whatever happens in a piece of music," said 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg, "is nothing but the endless shaping of the basic shape."

What we have come back to, it seems, is something close to where we began, the mythic duality of orde and chaos, the dynamic duo that through all of history from Babylon to Athens, the Vedas to Genesis, generated the stuff of the universe.

"Could a fractal be an image of God?" asked the symposium's able moderator, Sister of Charity Mary Ann Zollmann. Well, why not? For some scientists, fractals are a way of seeing infinity.

Reimaging God

Anyway, it was left to the afternoon's first speaker, Benedictine Sister Mary Collins, chair of CUA's religion department, to speculate about other images of God that may already be coming to meet us.

On the commuter flight into Dubuque that morning, Collins was going over her lecture, assiduously underlining nearly every word. She would pause, sip some coffee, flourish her pen as though she were about to brush the last stroke on a masterpiece, then continue underlining. A Clarke faculty member said later that her lecture sounded too much like a dissertation -- sleepy going after lunch, whic may be the risk you take when you underline every word.

But Collins was toying with some telling stuff. Citing the work of Thomas Berry and a few feminist theologians, she said we have to come up with a new religious metaphor, a metaphor with staying power to function as a model of God. Religion and science need a common cosmological vision, an ecotheology to help us see how everything is interconnected.

Here, operating out of an altogether different discipline, Collins is suddenly close to Briggs. In her Paulist Press book Women at Prayer (delivered as the 1987 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality at Saint Mary's College, South Bend, Ind.), she was even closer. She focused not on the famous churchwomen, saints and mystics you might expect, but on a writer, Annie Dillard; a poet, Anne Sexton; and a painter, Meinrad Craighead.

Collins recalls Sexton's relentless rowing toward God against the tide of her tortured self, the alienation of her age. And she follows Dillard into the contemplative solitude of an island in Puget Sound where, in Dillard's words, "I came to study hard things -- rock mountains and salt sea -- and to temper my spirit on their edges." Yes. It is on those edges, Briggs' "ferociously active frontier," that fractals emerge.

Chances are Dillard never heard of fractals. Meinrad Craighead may not have, either. Certainly not in 1960, when she first visited New Mexiso and discovered a landscape that "meshed with the images I carried inside my body. Pictures painted on the walls of my womb began to emerge." Yes. Walls of a canyon. Walls of a womb. Fractals.

What Craighead (who happens to be a Clarke graduate) ended up painting, Collins notes, is "God the Mother inhalling and exhaling, expanding and contrating, encircling, encoiling and recoiling, spiraling. ..."There could hardly be a simpler description of a nonlinear, dynamical system. Painting the patterns of chaos. Yes. Fractals.

Enter technology

No doubt this was all a bit heady for some. But hot on Collins' heels that afternoon came TV journalist Mary Alice Williams to fractue the fractals, as it were, and crash us back into the worldly images of television news. From her start as a reporter in Minneapolis at age 22, Williams, now in her 40s, has been on a TV news fast track. In 1979, she was one of the handful of young people who put together CNN and she later served as the network's New York bureau chief.

Last year, she quit coanchoring NBC's "Sunday Today" because she was pregnant with twins, in a business where motherhood is what she calls an alternative life-style. What all this amounts to, combined with a tough veneer studded with worldly one-liners and cosmopolitan name-dropping, is a real-life version of Murphy Brown. Or maybe this is life doing a sitcom imitation.

She was entertaining, at any rate, a midafternoon caffeine kick. Nimbly skating the globe, Williams eschewed her assigned topic about democracy in a future world, taking refuge in an intelectual cop-out common among journalists: that her job is only to repot. She focused instead on TV as the single most influential factor in the global push for democracy, beginning with the images the world saw from Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It was the effects of those images, more than the idea of democracy, that led to communism's collapse, Williams suggested. Billions have never heard of Thomas Jefferson, but most have heard of Michael Jackson, she said.

Oversimplified (and self-serving) as that may be, Williams was making an essential point. Technology leaps national boundaries. Whatever the political and social consequences, it is turning the world into a global shopping mall. The real superpowers today are the software kings.

The new society

Williams fed that ball to Hooker in an alley-oop from two fast-breakers and that evening Hooker dunked it. The recent upheavals in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were part of the information revolution, he said. As always, the driving force is economic, a paradigm shift from an energy-based to an information-based economy, with an effect on the future that Hooker has characterized as more profound than the harnessing of fire.

Knowledge, not energy, will be used to create economic power, Hooker said. With computer software as the new paradigm, the creation of enormous economic value from practically nothing (no raw materials) is possible. That will reshuffle all the decks in society, Hooker said.

Biotechnology will dominate the first half of the next century, he predicted. It will create material sufficieny, cure old age and give parents the ability to predetermine the genetic traits of their children. Hooker characterized the prospect of "designer-jean children" as "horrifying," but said the technology is inevitable.

We are barely on the horizon of the computer revolution, Hooker said. In about 10 years everybody will have a handheld supercomputer containing all the knowledge in the universe. (Presumably he meant everybody who could afford one, which would pobably exclude most of humanity.) "It will be much smarter than you are," he said. But all the knowledge in the universe?

The quest

It was about that time that the bat appeared.

The next morning many of the outsiders involved in the symposium were trying to catch an American Eagle commuter flight to Chicago. But O'Hare was fogged in and the airline finally put nearly everyone on a bus. It seemed a fitting finale. Chaos theory, after all, began with the weather. Why not end the celebration with an unexpected fogbouond bus trip, probably one of the most expensive ever?

Crossing the Mississippi, the bluffs of Dubuque behind, the railyard and barges and molasses storage tanks, a workaday town with riverboat casinos giving it a touch of dash, one traveler remembered some lines from T.S. Eliot that symposium moderator Zollmann had alluded to in another context: "We shall not cease from exploration/and the end of our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and now the place for the first time."

Yes. That seemed to be what the day at Clarke was saying. With Briggs and his new aesthetic through chaos theory, Collins' search for a new religious metaphor, and Williams and Hooker slamming alley-oops for entertainment, it was, all told, a grand attempt at exploring paradigms for the future.

But in the end it seemed that the future of our race, along with the story of our past, would be inscribed not so much on a hard disk as on the walls of a womb. Because, when you think about it, that damn bat had the last word.

Theologian outlines two stark choices for future survival of humankind

"Humanity must choose between two paradigms of religion that will guide them into the future: dialogue or annihilation," said Leonard Swidler in a recent talk at the University of Minnesota Newman Center.

Swidler is professor of Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University in Philadelphia. He contended that adherents of radically differing religions and ideologies can learn and grow through dialogue. If they do, he said, they can form a moral force to effectively address issues that "are not particularly susceptible to the legal and political force of the United Nations," issues such as destruction of the ozone layer or spread of a destructive gene mutation.

Swidler has drafted, and seeks response to, a tentative Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic. He envisions it as analogous to the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights in the political sphere.

Swidler's declaration deals with "the fundamental attitude toward good and evil" and principles to put that into action. Besides "basic principles" such as treating all things with respect, he suggests "middle principles" or responsibilities concerning conscience and religion or belief, the relationship between women and men, education, peace, preservation of the environment and other issues.

In Minneapolis, Swidler focused on requirements for the dialogue that could produce such an ethic. The monologue of the past, in which people imposed their religions or ideologies on others, or ignored others, led only to conflict, he said, and today could lead to "cataclysmic disaster."

He said the intention to learn was "the first commandment" of dialogue, explaining that a young Chinese woman's experience of human life was as true as his Christian, Caucasian, Western male experience. Swidler offered several commandments for dialogue.

"Be at least minimally self-critical of both ourselves and our own religious or ideological tradition." To do otherwise, he said, is to imply that one's own tradition has all the answers.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:McCarthy, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 16, 1993
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