The social implications of chaos theory

Vilkins, Dene. (1993). The social implications of chaos theory Master's Thesis, chool of Social Work and Applied Human Sciences, The University of Queensland.

       
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Author Vilkins, Dene.
Thesis Title The social implications of chaos theory
School, Centre or Institute chool of Social Work and Applied Human Sciences
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1993
Thesis type Master's Thesis
Supervisor Dr. Mai McCouat
Dr. Colin Peile
Total pages 198
Language eng
Subjects 370101 Social Theory
Formatted abstract Determinism has in the past meant predictability and hence control. If a system could be described by an equation or a set of equations and the state of the system was known at any given time then the behaviour of the system could be predicted with accuracy into the past and future, and controlled with accuracy through manipulating variables. In this sense time becomes superfluous because the past and future are contained in any given moment.

Newton's use of this idea in proposing his laws of nature has had enormous consequences for our thinking and for the modern (Western) societies that we live in. There are very few cultures that are now untouched by the Newtonian worldview.

However, at a deeper level, Western thought has a lineage back to Plato and Newton's methodology can be seen as a manifestation of that tradition. Plato believed that timeless reality was made up of idealised forms (such as the circle, square and triangle) and that time, change and fragmentation were illusory. If we saw through the disorder of everyday life we would discover these perfect forms. This 'discovering' of reality has been one of the driving forces behind classical science's quest for an objective, absolute, and perfect knowledge.

Chaos theory or deterministic chaos, the study of nonlinear science in contrast to classical or linear science, is forcing a re-evaluation of these ideas. From this viewpoint, it is more likely that ideal forms are part of our mental reality and we impose our ideas of perfect forms onto reality. We need to gain an understanding of the philosophical and social philosophical implications of chaos theory. This should provide an entry point to the development of a social theory from the principles of chaos theory. This thesis is a contribution to the process of developing social theory derived from the principles of chaos theory.

Deterministic chaos is so-called because there are deterministic systems that are not predictable. Beyond a certain number of variables these systems are overtaken by complexity and we are unable to distinguish between randomness and order. In contrast to the belief of classical science, the evidence is that these nonlinear systems far outweigh the predictable, linear systems in number.

The presence of deterministic chaos weakens the strength of the traditional link between determinism and order and our concept of order. What has previously been regarded as random and unpredictable behaviour may well be highly complex, organised behaviour such as exhibited in biological systems. This brings the physical sciences closer to the life sciences and, by extension, the social sciences.

The linking of the concepts of determinism and chaos has further implications for the network of concepts associated with determinism such as reductionism, the separation of fact and value, timelessness, the absolute, homogeneity, finality, certainty, system, organisation, cause and effect, logic and rationality.

This network of concepts has virtually defined the Western way of thinking and has dominated our personal and social lives. Our very ideas of sense and meaning are closely linked with these concepts and the ways in which they are used together. Any change in one means changes for the others and hence for social theory, research and practice.

For example, the absolute is associated with stasis, immutability, fixedness, certainty and finality. It defines exactly the distinction between being and nonbeing, setting up the idea of classification into binary units (such as the 0 and 1 of the computers). As a metaphor informing our way of thinking it suggests a black and white way of thinking, a right and wrong way of doing things, a final reference point against which to measure our conclusions. It justifies our attempts at social homogeneity and our desire to convent others to our (right) culture. In contrast, in chaos theory, reality is seen as infinite, irreducible to one thing, heterogeneous, multifaceted and ongoing. It is seen as creative in contrast to unchanging, and directed with time rather than timeless.

This work argues that as a metaphor for our way of thinking chaos theory suggests shades of grey, a spectral continuum of concepts with no clear, exact demarcations. With no final, absolute reference point to appeal to it throws responsibility for our decisions back onto ourselves. Chaos theory not only brings into question our established ways of thinking; it also provides us with new ways of thinking and shows that in an infinite universe there always will be something new. In changing from a concept of the absolute to one of infinity certainty, is lost but quality is not. We can never reach a perfect society but we are still able to debate and look for better societies.

The present work outlines the major concepts of chaos theory and shows general implications for social science theory and for a social philosophy based on it. More particularly, it looks at one area of social policy, that of social security, to see how this sphere of social policy appears from the perspective of this emerging field of scientific investigation.

Keyword Chaotic behavior in systems
Statics and dynamics (Social sciences)
System theory

 
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