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Chaos and Creative Suspension

Creativity Research Journal 1, 131, (1989)

I am writing to discuss Creativity and its importance for society. I believe that we need a new creative response to the sorts of issues which face governments, institutions, organizations and individuals today.

My premise is that the Newtonian worldview, which for so long dominated science, has led to the assumption that nature and society can always be viewed objectively and that any problems which arise can be predicted in their course and in some way controlled. This has led institutions and policy makers to the belief that problems and issues can be, to some extent, isolated, analyzed and modeled. Through an exhaustive study of the dynamics of such, relatively mechanical, models it is assumed that it will be possible to suggest corrective measures and predict the nature of their implications.

I would like to contrast this traditional approach with the new paradigms that are emerging from the study of chaotic, sensitive and non-linear systems. Prediction often becomes impossible for such systems and, while they remain deterministic, their extreme sensitivity makes, in many cases, any form of control is out of the question. Examples of such natural systems range from weather and turbulent rivers to the fluctuations of insect populations and other ecological systems. But there is also reason to believe that their characteristics may be shared by many of our social and economic systems. The general characteristics of such non-linear systems lies in the richness and range of their behavior. This can range from a simple but extremely stable, almost mechanical, response to regions of strong oscillation and even chaos. In some areas of their behavior these systems are rigidly resistive to any external change, in others they may be so extremely sensitive that the slightest external perturbation will effect the behavior of the system in a wild and unpredictable way. Systems like these can reach ‘bifurcation points’ which herald new ranges of behavior and, while remaining deterministic their behavior is unpredictable and contains such an infinite wealth of internal detail that they become impossible to model in any traditional way. Indeed in attempting to ‘solve the problems’ of such systems the cure is sometimes worse than the disease!

Our traditional response, when faced with social, ecological or economic problems, has been to attempt some form of intervention by working from within a fixed framework. But this clearly is not effective when it comes to such issues as ecology, human and social relationships, etc. The system under investigation is far more complex, subtle and fast than the institution or policy maker which attempts to control its activities! How then are institutions to react?

My suggestion is that a ‘creative or watchful suspension of action’ is called for. By suspending action it becomes possible to move towards a totally new relationship in which the observer is no longer objective and external to the system but is able to respond in new and creative ways. The initial effect of suspending action in any institution would be to turn on alarm signals and to stir up a flurry of anxiety and activity in the whole institution or individual. But after a time this may begin to settle down, giving individuals the opportunity to observe the whole pattern of these alarms, calls of activity, internal interactions, etc. In this way rather than looking outward at the external problem from the hitherto unexamined perspective of the organization it now becomes possible to observe the organization from within the wider context of the problem or external system itself.

This act of watchful suspension will begin to reveal the whole nature of the institution, the nature of its values and its relationships to the much wider context of the problem as well as to society and nature in general. In this fashion the fixed, mechanical patterns, responses and paradigms of the organization or individual may begin to dissolve, allowing for a much more rapid and subtle response. Action may now be taken, but in a way that is not fixed or programmed—it is no longer a ‘plan of action’ but a constantly changing creative response to a much deeper perception. In short, rather than directing all one’s energies upon the external problem this energy is turned inward in a creative way to transform the whole organization or individual. In this way the organization will become sufficiently subtle to be able to mirror or model within itself the external system and discover, on a moment to moment basis, the ground for appropriate action.

Of course the whole nature of ‘watchful suspension’ implies that the traditional approach to policy making and to social intentions would have to change. Once the essential richness and sublety of both nature and society and the inadequacy of the ‘Newtonian paradigm’ is recognized then institutions themselves will in consequence become more flexible. They can no longer be structured in fixed, rigid ways but must be prepared to change form moment to moment, in order to support a full and rich internal dynamics and to allow for the creative response of all their members.

Some rough, unpublished, research notes:

Add to the above the idea of subtle information and networks—that I expressed in a letter to John Eccles. The notion is that networks, such as neural nets, can have associated limit cycles, periods of instability, violent fluctuations, chaotic behavior, and bifurcation points. Generally one feeds in a strong signal which propagates through the net. But my suggestion is to look at boundary conditions. By correlating spatial boundary conditions over a large area it becomes possible for very tiny signals to act together to produce a major change. The notion is the famous paradox of time—why do ripples in a pond, or waves of light, spread out and not in?—because of the almost infinite degree of correlation required. So one dismisses the tiny effects at the boundary of the net as entropy. But now we reverse the idea, we suggest that very tiny effects with a very high degree of correlation are possible. This allows for a major change of behavior through fast subtle, and intelligent activity. So within a whole organization, with intelligence and communication it is possible to model behavior and to induce a major change in a system—with very subtle and delicate adjustments.


(a) The brain may work this way—at an extremely subtle level. Intelligence may be the operation of very subtle correlations in a global way.

(b) We already have a paradigm case in quantum theory called Bell’s theorem. Which suggests correlations can exist between well separated objects. This is brought about by the global form of the wave function (antisymmetry). (Information again.) So one could also apply this to the brain.

(c) Suggest that this is generally true for physics. That entropy is not regarded as disorder or loss of information but of information of a very high degree. In fact it is subtle information that is correlated spatially and globally. So information is not lost into the universe, but becomes enfolded.

(d) This has implications for parallel processing and AI—that subtle nets could be viewed in this light. As global correlations.

So what one needs is to adopt new paradigms, new ways of thinking. These are relevant to creativity, AI, understanding the brain, understanding ecology and environment, understanding the operation of systems and organizations, dynamics of individual and families and groups.