A SENSE OF WONDER

by Robin Robertson
Paper presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences, June 27, 1996, UCBerkeley (© Robin Robertson)


This is the 6th annual conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences. In the early years, everyone was still learning about what chaos theory was, and what possibilities it offered for their fields. Though our original name was simply the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology, from the beginning our membership included not only psychologists--both experimental and clinical--but everyone from mathematicians and physicists at one end of the spectrum, to artists at the other, with every species of hard and soft scientist in between. Everyone was filled with a sense of wonder over the possibilities that chaos theory offered them personally, and everyone wanted to communicate their excitement to the others. Because chaos theory was still relatively new to almost everyone, it served as a lingua franca that cut across the bewildering variety of professional languages spoken by our members. Since most of us were less sophisticated then, sometimes even that common language got a little mixed-up in the process. But that just added to the excitement.

By the third conference, in Orillia, Canada, the level of sophistication had grown to the point that members from various schools of thought each felt that they knew quite clearly what chaos theory was and was not. Jeff Goldstein led a largely successful attempt to remind everyone that while there was common ground we all shared, there were also equally compelling alternative positions that we could take and still be considered part of the larger community. I think he chose a singularly apt title for his discussion: "The Tower of Babel in Nonlinear Dynamics: Toward a Clarification of Terms." Though one thing that saddened me even then was that already the wonderful symbolic term chaos theory had been transformed into the more accurate, but leaden nonlinear dynamics.

Increasingly, we found things weren't as simple as we had initially thought. Paul Rapp, who was one of the early proponents of the possibility of deterministic chaos in the human nervous system, pulled back from that position as more data came in (Robertson & Combs, 1995, pp. 89-100.) We began to wonder if processes we had regarded as chaotic were not simply stochastic? Our level of caution increased, and we grew less tolerant of those who made wide-ranging claims. In the broad scientific world, chaos theory is often now seen as a passing fad, or at best just as another new tool to be lumped in with other such tools.

In response, we have grown ever more sophisticated and increasingly more concerned with the technical aspects of nonlinear dynamics. Though our membership still ranges over a wide variety of fields, there seems increasingly less room for those concerned with either the metaphorical possibilities of chaos theory, or the philosophical challenges with which it confronts us. Perhaps this is as it should be, and is merely a mark of how any field settles into maturity. But perhaps also it is a sign that when things didn't come our way quickly enough, we settled for too little. Youthful hubris always thinks that when it finds an answer, it has found all answers. Did we really think that deterministic chaos theory would be sufficient to deal with all of reality? Were those who pursued the technical applications on the right path, or has it been those who regarded chaos theory as a wonderful metaphor for much that they encountered in reality?

Speaking for the clinical psychologists, I doubt that any clinical psychologist ever thought that the complexities we encounter in therapy could ever be fully described by the traditional chaos theory path of order breaking down into bifurcations, which lead to chaos, then eventually out to new organization. The actuality has so many more shadings than that physical picture. What was important was that chaos theory offered a better metaphorical model for the process than any other we had to that point. Though we used the shorthand of bifurcations and chaos and attractors so broadly that it made those more concerned with technical accuracy cringe, we didn't intend to be taken literally. Or maybe sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, we did take it literally, but clinical psychologists are necessarily pragmatists, since actual human beings don't fit very well into any theory. For a clinical psychologist, there will always still be a client with problems, and that person takes precedence over any model, however exciting.

CABINETS OF WONDER

One of the more fascinating books of 1995 was Lawrence Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders (Weschler, 1995). It tells about David Wilson's "Museum of Jurassic Technology", a strange and fascinating little museum in Los Angeles, that I've been lucky enough to visit. It's filled with a wonderful miscellany of objects that would seem to defy description, yet each is lovingly presented and described with impeccable scholarship and the latest in technology. Like the strange, often self-referential stories of Jorge Luis Borges, it is very difficult to sort out the true from the fantastic, since fantasy and truth blend inextricably in the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

In order to explain why such a place exists, Weschler records the history of museums, which began as collections of just such varied wonders as those in David Wilson's now atypical museum. Weschler tells us that "by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this sort of hoard (the chamber of wonders, in which the word wonder referred both to the objects displayed and the subjective state those objects induced in their respective viewers) was rampant all over Europe" (Weschler, 1995, p. 77).

"The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries." This was the same time period when science came into existence. The Renaissance had turned our eyes outward onto the world. The act of observation led inevitably toward the scientific method. But note that first came the sense of wonder. It wasn't yet time to categorize and theorize. The thinkers of the day were more like magpies, picking up every pretty little stone that they saw, not sure which would ultimately be gold.

Probably the most perfect example of the species was the Scotch polyglot James Crichton, immortalized in our language as "the admirable Crichton." When Crichton came to Paris, he posted a challenge to duel intellectually with all challengers "on any science, liberal art, or discipline, whether metaphysical, arithmetical, geometrical, astronomical, musical, optical, cosmographical, trigonometrical, or statistical, whether in Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, Dutch, Flemish, or Slavonian, in verse or prose at the disputant's choice" (Bishop, 1969, p. 11).

Of course, since this probably apocryphal tale comes from Crichton's hagiographer, Crichton b