Chaos and Open Space

Harrison Owen owenhh at
Fri Feb 2 06:18:20 PST 2001

This conversation is wonderful, but I fear it may have become rather
tangled... so I have pulled it out and offer a "clean sheet of paper...

Harrison wrote:

And by way of definition, chaos is the absence of meaning and lack of
predictability -- in short it is absolutely nothing.

Christoph wrote:

Well, yes and no.
Actually there are two kinds of chaos: Predictable and non-predictable. The
latter being pure noise, nothing. The mathematical branch of chaos theory
deals with the former: With chaos that can be described, defined, predicted
in some way. With "ordered chaos" so to say.
You may observe those 'strange attractors', a set of states the system can
be in or reach. You cannot predict which state leads to which next, the
transitions are chaotic and non-predictable. The famous butterfly in China
may be the trigger for a tornado in the Caribic - or the trigger for the
absence of that tornado. But what you can predict is that the system's
state will always be one out of this set of allowed states. You will never
find the system in a state outside of this set. This is predictable. And
you may very well be able to make statistical assumptions or observations
leading to predictable probabilities. In the simple example of a system
with two distinct attractors you may be able to predict that chances to
reach each one of them are 50:50, or 20:80, or whatever (my values are
arbitrary). -
Having said that - In discussing this subject it may help to distinguish
between those two kinds of chaos and say which one we are talking about.
I start: Usually I am talking about the 'predictable' chaos, the subject of
chaos theory.
Hope this can improve mutual understanding.

Harrison writes:

What you say here certainly reflects a lot of the conversation among Chaos
Theorists. But from my point of view, the issue and confusion derives from
a lack of clarity and precision on their part. In the first place, I think
"Chaos Theory" is a fundamental misnomer. The core notion is not so much
about chaos, as the contribution of chaos to the on-going process of system
evolution -- which in our case is life. Perhaps we should blame it on the
Press for whom chaos is always news, whereas order is not -- ergo Chaos
Theory. But whatever.

Another piece of this is the history of the notion of chaos. And chaos, for
sure was not the invention, discovery, or creation of the Chaos Theorists.
Just by way of example, chaos (usually described in mythical terms) is a
major player in Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. Tiamat in the Babylonian
Creation Epic comes to mind. The Hebrews put it right up front. In the
opening lines of Genesis we find -- "In the beginning, God created the
Heaven and the earth and the earth was without form and void (tohu w' bohu)
-- no meaning no predictability -- CHAOS! So at least 3000 years ago, folks
were noodling on the subject. And their noodling generally took the form of
a polarity -- chaos AND order. The sacred stories describe the emergence of
all that is in the midst of a dance between chaos and cosmos. Shiva, over
in the Hindi world, has been doing that dance for eons.

Does all this esoterica make it "true?" Who knows, but I would just point
out that there is a clarity of thinking and long historical precedent in
this material, which seems to carry on very nicely over the next millennia
-- until we run into the Chaos Theorists.

Anyhow -- for me Chaos is  the absence of meaning, form, and predictability
-- in short an open space in which  new life may manifest, on its way to
order. But that journey is never done as long as life is living and the
dance goes on.

And for Open Space? My interpretation would be that we start with nothing
-- no meaning, no structure, a void. All the folks are sitting at the edge
of chaos. And the experience is -- that from the void, new life erupts. Of
course this is just a story, but a useful one I think, as we engage our
role as facilitators. We need to understand the high stakes game under way
as first we, and then the participants, jump into the void.  It is in this
context that our own, personal preparation becomes critical. At least that
is a story.


Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, MD 20854 USA
phone 301-469-9269
fax 301-983-9314
Open Space Training
Open Space Institute
Personal website

To subscribe, unsubscribe, change your options,
view the archives of oslist at

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <>

More information about the OSList mailing list