The Edge of Chaos

A new story for Life on Earth

Will Franks
Sep 10, 2019 · 7 min read

The Edge of Chaos is what all Life, at all levels, strives towards.

All systems lie on a spectrum between order and disorder.

Ordered systems are rigid, repetitive and predictable. Solid.

Disordered systems are unpredictable and chaotic. Gas.

Between the two lies the Edge of Chaos, where maximum complexity emerges. Where systems evolve. Where Life happens, and is no other than this ceaseless flowing creativity.

Too much disorder, too many degrees of freedom, and structure dissipates. Melts. Disperses.

Too much order, not enough degrees of freedom, and structure cannot adapt or innovate. Frozen. Stuck.

In the middle is the perfect balance between structural dissipation and adaptation. Here, poised between order and disorder, a system goes into transition. Continually falling apart, continually coming together in new ways.

Evolving.

The structure is changing, innovating, responsive to changes in its environment, yet stable enough to remain organised. Resilient yet adaptive. Self-renewing, self-organising.

Feedback loops repeat and iterate — a little different each time. They’re integrating chaos from the external environment, allowing them to adapt — and evolve.

In multicellular organisms, DNA is the loop. Environmental stimuli and sexual reproduction bring the mutations.

Patterns reproduce, disintegrate and decay. New patterns emerge, flow, interact – and complexity increases.

This is our ancestry — countless iterations of molecular and biochemical and organismic and social patterns, until here we are, on our laptops, looking back, zooming in, and marvelling.

Complexification is evolution. Evolution is life. Life is complexification.

Ancient rainforests evolve to maximal biodiversity where all species influence one another. This point is called climax. Embodiment of the Edge of Chaos. Here there is maximal connection, novelty, diversity, beauty, intelligence, and emergence. Maximal complexity.

The more complex the system, the more states it can transition to while retaining its structure, or pattern. Exploiting chaos to evolve, to search all possible states for the most complex next-step. And that space of possible states is expansive. Infinite.

An infinitude of exploration beckons as paths open in all directions. Endless opportunities for recombination and restructuring. The universe is a canvas for life’s Great Play, for this spontaneous unfolding into evermore degrees of freedom.

Evolution is a dance through multidimensional parameter space – seeking complexity. Seeking beauty.

Here complexity finds its lover: simplicity. This is the elegance of the whole. It is a swan landing on a lake. It is what happens when every part is inextricably connected to every other part. And so the Whole emerges. Every part contributing seamlessly to its movement and evolution. The Whole is simplicity itself.

This quest for the Edge of Chaos is what wants to emerge through all life – through every being, every network of beings, through the entire Gaian matrix. Gaia hypothesis: the biosphere regulates its inorganic support systems, its atmosphere and chemistry, for optimal complexification conditions. This telos animates an entire planet. Search for the Edge of Chaos. Evolutionary impulse that is Life itself.

Yes, Gaia. Precious bluegreen jewel. Oasis of complexity in equilibrial desert.

Home of Life.

And to humans. What is our place in this story?

Humans are endowed with the unique capacity to consciously open the degrees of freedom in the world. In themselves. In one another. This is the Infinite Game that Life invites us to play. Maximising complexity, maximising freedom, maximising beauty. Co-evolving with all around us.

As existing orders collapse, chaos ensues… and right there in the middle is the fertile soil, rich with seeds, pregnant with latent complexity.

We can nurture that soil and watch Life flourish. Within us and through us and around us. Human-managed ecosystems can grow to greater biodiversity than unmanaged ones.

Gardening as Art. Blossoming of the cosmos.

Embody this. Dance.

Living at the edge of chaos is the realisation of human freedom. It is the experience of flow, of absorption and dissolution into the universal flow into the edge of chaos. We play our way through life.

Here there are so many degrees of freedom that one can travel in any direction through parameter space with obstruction or hindrance. This space feels empty. Some call it Void. It is not nothing. It is pure consciousness without limitation.

But we have fallen deep into a system of order. Control. Rigidity. Addiction. Narrow-mindedness. Ego.

Modern neuroscience echoes this. On one extreme: depression and anxiety correlate to ordered and repetitive brain activity. Highly self-referential ego states. On the other: schizophrenia correlates to chaotic and erratic brain activity. In the middle: flow, lucidity, awakening, freedom, play. The order of the ego dissolves. The brain lights up and dances. So does the face, and so does the body.

Disorder in brain processes is suppressed in normal waking consciousness, meaning that the brain operates just below the edge of chaos. Our thoughts lean towards order, pulling us away from the eternal creative flow.

Why does the brain do this? It allows us to perform certain useful functions, known as “meta-cognition”. That is thinking about thinking, or the ability to reflect on our own thoughts and behaviour. These are the functions whereby the brain models itself in order to monitor our current state — “am I acting weirdly in public? Better adjust my posture”.

The brain centre in charge of metacognition is the Default Mode Network — the DMN. The DMN is the “seat of the ego illusion”. The processing centre for our “sense of being a self”, as well as our faculties of self-reflection, self-narrative and self-awareness.

When our mental experience is restricted to self-referential thought, we live in a painful sleep of egoic order. The DMN is hyperactive in depressed people. We are cut off from the more chaotic processes of body like emotions. We can use practices to bring these into conscious awareness and integrate them.

There is a harmonisation of the infinite aspects of mind and of self, hithero dispersed and differentiated. This differentiation and separation is ego, it is delusion, it is pain, it is samsara. And it is imaginary.

Harmonisation occurs through meditative equipose. Concepts and fabrications are transcended and dissolved in the liquid mind: ceaselessly responsive, ceaselessly evolving, ceaselessly awakening into ever greater dimensions of freedom and beauty.

Mountain stream to buddhahood.

And we find that our precursors lived here at the edge of chaos. Prehistoric humans experienced more chaotic perception and behaviour than modern adults. Because they were in tune with natural ecosystems, which operate the edge of chaos. They were utterly harmonised with them.

Primordial humans had more disordered minds, allowing them to flexibly navigate rapidly changing weather, hunting patterns and tribal conflicts. If you live in an environment at the edge of chaos, it makes sense that your brain is also operating here. Cave paintings emerged at the “peak” of this initial wave of brain disorder. When agriculture and money came along, a more ordered way of life — and thinking — was needed.

Our childhood-adulthood development shows an increase in DMN connectivity and primordial-modern evolution reflects an increase in DMN size. Order, self and control became dominant.

The Edge of Chaos is the Eden we fell from.

It’s where we lived as children, too. Children’s brains show far, far, lower DMN activity than adults. Don’t you remember when there was only NOW, when world was pure play, pure imaganation, so rich and full of beauty and wonder that you just flowed through it, laughing, for hours and hours until you collapsed, your little body exhausted, but smiling, and dreaming?

What do psychedelics do? Raise the disorder of neurobiological processes. You’re eating chaos. And it dissolves the order of ego, and all the associated pain, and you glimpse the nature of mind beyond these limited and painful states. And you can get the whole spectrum — from order and ego to madness and insanity and the limitless buddhafields of beauty inbetween.

The Edge of Chaos is the wellspring of Novelty.

So, in a dystopia of rampant order, the antidote becomes clear: chaos. Not rampant destruction, but optimally and lovingly sprinkled chaos. Just enough chaos to wake the system up, to catalyse growth and innovation and evolution.

Too much chaos, and we slip away again, into nihilism, into mindless destruction and confusion.

Coming back to Life, and to our place in the order of things.

Compassionate introductions of chaos into an ordering, inviting others to play, dance, and be free. There’s an archetype for that: the trickster.

This is the time for bold acts of love and creativity. For the lovers, the magicians, the artists, the poets, and the warriors. For a return to Eros. For the liberation of the freaky and the wild and the weird. For a confrontation with the deep dark richness of psyche, the limitless fields of the imagination.

This is the time for the reclamation of our fundamental human freedoms to create and recreate and cocreate reality itself. This is the time for magic.

Return to Eden. To a society at the edge of chaos. No need to plan or design this one. Just drop into flow — into whatever makes you come alive. Then do it with others. Drop into group flow and nurture whatever emerges from the collective.

Free Nature. The interdependent network of all beings – and systems – on this Earth. We’re embedded in that and we can align our whole being with this movement, returning ourselves, returning Gaia to the Edge of Chaos. A transition into creative global evolution. In this time of crisis, we need nothing less.

Re-wild your mind.

Evolve with all around you.

Live at the Edge of Chaos.

The Edge of Chaos is a story that simplifies the world by allowing us to see the central roles of order, chaos, and complexity in all systems. It encompasses ecology, humanity, society, culture, art, love – and collapse. It’s just a story, but stories are all we have. Stay tuned for more.

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