A Virtual Panel Discussion

Xmas, 1995

Frederick David Abraham (Moderator)

Panel: Dick Bird, Richard Bond, Sally Goerner, Lillian Greeley, Robin Robertson, Frank Mosca, Sander Rubin, & Rika Abraham with the influence of other electronic participants
© Frederick David Abraham and the participants of the panel


This dialectic is intended to reintroduce a few themes of the philosophy and sociology of dynamics. The central tension is between the technical-mathematical scientific metamodelling strategic use of dynamics and its metaphoric applications. Additional tensions relate to the nature of meaning and explanation, scientific and otherwise; the poise of decronstructionist and reconstructionist attitudes, and the cultural context of dynamics.


Since the founding of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences in 1991, there has been an exceptional spirit of cooperation and camaraderie in the field (Abraham & Gilgen, 1995; Robertson & Combs, 1995). This is not surprising given the nature of dynamics itself in dealing with complex interactive cooperative phenomena (Abraham, Abraham, & Shaw, 1990). And in fact, several have mentioned the ability of dynamics to heal schisms in psychology (Abraham, 1995; Gilgen, 1955; Tryon, 1995). There are some dialectics in areas of diverse opinion nonetheless (Abraham, 1995, Goldstein, 1995; Pribram, 1995) that prove healthy in forcing examination of some fundamental principles in the philosophy and sociology of science and dynamics, which while part of an ongoing dialectic in science and culture generally, have their own flavors when it comes to dynamics. The dialectic which follows barely introduces some of these themes; it is intended as just a beginning of the exploration of these issues which we hope will have a continued hearing in this journal. The construction of the dialectic that follows was derived from electronic conversations among the participants in the form of personal correspondence, and on listservers of two overlapping groups, the CHAOPSYC listserver of the Society, and the SCIENCE-STRUCTURE listserver of the Science-Structure Group. In two cases (Greeley and Mosca), their contributions were quotes from conventionally published material. The speeches of each participant in this article were snipped from these sources with neither adequate representation of their context nor an accurate chronology. Despite their conversational origins, these remarks seemed well articulated and important. They proved amenable for being woven into an introduction to some themes relating to meaning and context in the use of dynamical concepts, language, and strategies. Because of the brevity of the introduction of these issues, and the isolation of the quotes from their sources, for some participants there are Web pages where expansions of their views may be found. The appropriate URLs will soon be linked from the URL of the Blueberry Brain Institute or the Science-Structure group and can be found in the references, along with URLs and e-mail addresses for most participants. It is expected that further publications may result from the continuation of these dialogues, and from reader responses to this article. For this purpose, the URL's contain reply forms, or messages may be sent to any author.


FRED: Would it be fair to say that most of us are drawn enthusiastically into the promise of dynamics (chaos theory) that our enchantment with nature and our ability to understand nature is given renewed hope? Do we feel further that developments in (a) nonlinear metamodelling and analytic tools, (b) cosmological viewpoints of interaction, complexity, and change, and (c) metaphoric embellishments to existing conceptual insights place us in the midst of a major bifurcation, or paradigm shift, not just in science, but in the history of consciousness as well?

SALLY: I think so. This deeper vision radically transforms our sense of how humankind got here, where we are going, and how we fit in the larger scheme of things.

BIRD: I'd have to agree with Sally. I see chaos as a whole new way, not just a little detail of nonlinear mathematics. Its message to life and how to live it is equally important as its message to science and how to do it. Chaos to me is not just a new paradigm, it is a super-paradigm.

FRED: Despite this enthusiasm, are not there those that are skeptical or even declare it defunct? I gather that Robin has voiced some skepticism about being overly enthusiastic?

ROBIN: In order for something to emerge fully, everyone has to hold the tension long enough. The technicians just weren't willing to do that in chaos theory, especially not with everyone in the broader scientific community making fun of them after the supposed bubble burst in chaos theory.

FRED: Hmmm? Is not this perplexing? Don't you both have premises of chaos at the crossroads that seem quite similar, but yet lead to very different prognoses? How can you both say that chaos transcends the nonlinear math, but for you Dick, it is still the super-paradigm, and for you Robin, the game is over?

RIKA: It seems to me that this debate goes deeper than the metaphoric versus the scientific application of chaos ideas. It cuts to the very core of meaning, language, the quest for truth, and the exhilaration and reveling (or in some cases despairing) in that quest. It goes to the tension between the hermeneutic creation of meaning by discourse and investigation, and the deconstructionist position that any attempt at explanation, be it myth, language, poetry, reason, or science, (e.g., see Poster, 1989), destroys much of the experience of nature.

FRED: In short, does explanation paradoxically destroy meaning rather than create or discover meaning as was its apparent claim? Rika, you seen to have pointed to this essential tension? How do you resolve it?

RIKA: Well, I feel the bubble has not burst, nor have the technicians destroyed what chaos concepts have to offer toward our understanding of nature, though I respect Robin's position as a very legitimate one as well as essential for this dialectic. We did reach something of an impasse, in that empirical studies were not validating our theories. The theoretical enterprise was strong, but the design and analysis tools were not yet up to the task. It simply meant that the project was more difficult than supposed. The validation attempts were limited to low-dimensional conditions. And technical difficulties in attractor reconstruction and estimation of invariants were proving difficult (Rapp, 1995). In response to that, a period of great development of technical tools is under way (Abarbanel et al, 1993; Mullin, 1993; Ott, Sauer, & Yorke, 1994; Stewart, 1996), which show a great investment by a large and very sophisticated part of the scientific community and there is great progress being made. It is likely true, as an implication of Robin's claim, that these technicians are so intensely pursuing their task that they become myopic. Perhaps they are not so heavily invested in demonstrating responsibility toward the substantive investigation of deep human issues such as the limits and potentialities of self-reference, or various metaphoric-euphoric interpretations of nature, or concern with the cultural context of the enterprise. They are pursuing what interests them. But I think that their contribution will eventually be liberating in giving nature a voice.

FRED: You have mentioned self-refernce, Rika, and I know that is precisely where Robin feels that dynamics has not adequately wrestled with the deeper philosophical issues. Feedback of a system onto its control parameters for self-organizational control and bifurcation describes some features of the process but in itself is only a an operational metastructure without details of the deeper psychological and philosphical issues of self-reference. Not an adequate reconstruction of deeper realities (Robertson, 1995). Robin, would you be willing to share some ideas about this reconstruction?

ROBIN: I'm reminded of the reaction of 18th century mathematicians to calculus. Calculus was so useful as a tool that they largely ignored the deeper philosophical issues created by the use of infinitesimals, and the implied concept of limits. When over a century later, mathematicians dug deeper into those issues, almost immediately set theory emerged, inaugurating modern mathematics. In his development of autopoesis, Francisco Verela has been very open in acknowledging both that a mathematics of complex systems is needed, and that any such mathematics necessarily presents deep philosophical issues. One mathematically attractive approach of Varela's has been to extend G. Spencer-Brown's Laws of Form from a 2-value to a 3-value algebra, in order to explicitly include self-reference. The need to examine the underlying philosophy is even more true for chaos theory, in which the question is not merely how form stays stable despite change through self-reference, but now also why and how form disintegrates, then reforms. We think because we can describe the mechanics of the successive steps of chaos theory that we understand them. But we don't. I'm just asking those more inclined to make immediate use of the techniques of non-linear dynamics to remember that those who ask questions at the meta level about chaos theory are also engaged in important work.

RIKA: I would certainly agree with that. I was just trying to point out that I think the technicians who ignroe those issues are nontheless making a liberalizing contribution, and that the tensions between the two can be a cooperative or integrative, rather than independent or confrontational. Not all of its practicioners have to engage in the integrative dialogue however.

FRED: Lillian, is it not true that in your chaoanlaysis of the early Socratic dialogues you affirm the creation of knowledge through dialectic?

LILLIAN: I came to realize dialectic is not just a thinking process: it participates in the creation of reality by being the way reality is transformed. I guess I would agree that science and chaos theory could qualify as forms of dialectic with the same capability.

FRED: Frank, when you talk of freedom of choice, you like to start with a caution that chaos has the potential to join forces that put humans in a "deterministic cage", so you see the dark side of this dialogue, but is it not also true that you hope that chaos conceptions will serve creativity and liberation, creating meaning hermeneutically as in this Greeley sense? Don't you even go further in nurturing the positive side of this dialectic, especially when you speak as a psychotherapist who enters into the self-creative efforts of those who seek your help?

FRANK: Yes. The first loving imperative is to create thyself in freedom, truth, and happiness, and thereby to lend a resonant support to the creation of another through truth in information-rich languaging and mutually enriching superposition or mapping to create a subjunctive context for the implicate to unfold within us and within those we attempt to help.

FRED: So do we concur that there is some truth and beauty to pursue, however changing that truth and our conceptions of it may be? That, with some dissenting tension, there is hope of satisfying our curiosity about nature? That we can achieve knowledge without killing reality or our appreciation of it? That science plays a role among the discourses of that curiosity, understanding, and appreciation; of creating that reality? If so, does not this raise the question of what are scientific discovery, creation, and verification of truth?

BOND: Do people still believe that scientific theories can be tested objectively?! Popper's falsifiability criterion insisted that theories could be refuted on the basis of value free observations, which in turn depend upon the sort of certainty or closure which is now being (quite rightly) eschewed.

RIKA: The situation is even worse than that. Even if value-free or context-free science were possible, Duhem, as early as 1906, showed there may be no way to critically test which of two or more theories can more adequately explain the data, yet the theories may be mutually exclusive. Oreskes, Schrader-Frechette, and Belitz (1994) argue even further the difficulty of validating and invalidating theories about complex systems due to the ease of fiddling with the many subsystems of a model. They also mentioned that Carnap (1935), one of the architects of positivism, concluded that verification was impossible. This has long been recognized, but their addition of the inability to falsify certainly adds to the uncertainty inherent in scientific inquiry. Oreskes et al.'s own field, ground water geology, also shows that most complex systems are, by definition, more context dependent. Thus they interact with socio-cultural issues. The eco and social systems and our theorizing about them are subject to political manipulation and our own pandering. They are enmeshed in issues of power and control.

FRED: Do these features of uncertainty mean we must declare an end to science? Was Robin right not only for chaos theory, but for science as well?

SANDER: : No. To give up on science because it does not lead us to the kind of closure one subjectively seeks, to declare it at an end, is to discard something of great value just because it is personally disturbing. Whatever our subjective motivations may be, I suggest that science not be regarded as a tool to achieve personal certainty but as a social process we (collectively) use to achieve 'understanding.'

FRED: While identification of this process may provide an important liberalization of our views of science, Richard, do I take it that you think the need to revise science goes even deeper than that?

BOND: The logic that leads to uncertainty is founded on the certainty of basic mathematics, the entire institution and rhetoric of science is based on outmoded notions of proof, evidence and refutation. What interests me in the science-structure discussions is that it seems to be grappling with real social issues and the tensions that arise from the differences between the perception and practice of science. This seems to me to be the crux of the predicament alluded to earlier. Science can no longer be a grand narrative, so what is it? If it is simply a heuristic of the sort described by Sander, as the inspiration for new social inventions, then we need a new way of understanding the process of science. Feyerabend's 'Against Method' (1978) might be a good starting point as it puts the emphasis on the value, or otherwise, of the products of science rather than the methods. There are no good or bad methods, or right or wrong theories; the value is in the artifacts themselves. The significance of being 'beyond certainty' is not what has ended, but in what is allowed to exist. In this sense we are returning to 'science as an art' (which of course it always was). The excitement is to exploit the social awareness of uncertainty and not to oppose it as 'anti-scientific'. The challenge is to point out how much contemporary science reflects the postmodern view and not, as is popularly misconceived, contradicts it.

FRED: So with respect to the original tension between an affirmation of a positive attitude of a process that enhances and creates understanding and meaning, and a deconstructionist attitude over some of the grandiose claims of science, do we see an evolution to a new chaotic attractor where this tension is maintained sufficiently for stable processes and artifacts of scientific discourse to emerge, self-organizationally?

RIKA: I have been coming to a conclusion similar to the positive deconstruction/reconstruction of Sander. I also paradoxically support certain aspects of the logical positivists; that is their rules for empirical meaning are cogent; they state a certain boundary condition about what one can be certain about. The problem is we can't be certain about very much and have to go way beyond certainty, and this leads to Bond's identification between the kind of philosophy of science discourse, and critical theory and poststructualism's discourse. The problem of critical theory is that it can go too far into nihilism. E.g., Horkheimer & Adorno (Dialectics of Enlightenment) start with Bacon to claim that science is not the search for truth at all, but arises from a fear of nature and humanity, and from the need to control and dominate them. They claim the same for myth and metaphor; rationality destroys nature. I cannot agree. I think more hermeneutically, that our dialogue with nature and each other create meaning, as I think Sander suggests. But I gather he means a liberalized view of product as well, not just the production of toys like atomic weapons, transistors, and prosac. This is likely no matter how changing that dialogue may be. I do agree with other critiques of reason, that is, rationality is not logic without contextual and unconscious aspects as well; just part of a mix of a complex dialogue.

FRED: Before we take our break, can we tentatively conclude that we appreciate the cautions and contributions of critical theory and deconstruction, but affirm that both the technicians and the philosophic-contextual-metaphoric chao-explorers have much to contribute to the dialectic for the liberation of science and culture?


The following issues were briefly visited by this dialectical fragment from the virtual panel discussion. These are expressed as opposing tensions:

1. There is a hermeneutic optimism derived from the developing dynamical tools for appreciating and understanding the complexities of the evolution of an interactive universe that is opposed to a deconstructionist attitude that claims that explanations, especially scientific ones, are destructive of our appreciation of nature.

2. Part of the optimism derives from the parsimony of being able to explain (a) apparently high-dimensional complexity by low-dimensional models (chaos), (b) bifurcations (the same set of equations doubles to explain many different patterns within time series), and (c) self-organization (self-reference, self-control, via control parameters that are a function of the system itself. All of these depend on technical features of the vector calculus that drives dynamics. Opposed to this technical foundation is the attractiveness of extending the insights metaphorically into domains of understanding for which the mathematical foundations seem as yet improbable or impossible. There is a tension between the enthusiasm of the technical modelling, and meaning that accrues and metaphorically independently of the technical foundation. While these two approaches can very nicely coexist (R. Abraham, 1994), for some there are competitive claims derived from each emphasis.

3. There is a tension between the messianic prosyltizing by those of us that are so enthusiastic over the promise of dynamics, and the skeptical attitudes that keep science from wandering too far afield.

4. There is a tension between the promise at face validity for the metamodelling strategy and the impasse of the data-analytic tools used for attempting experimental validation of dyanamical concepts, except for a few isolated simplistic examples. The rapid rate of development of new analytical tools may be overcoming this impasse.

5. There is a tension between the positivist rules for meaning and validation of scientific ideas and the limitations of the scientific method generally to be able to ascribe definitive probability density functions to assertions about functional relationships and hypothetical relationships. The failure to be able to say anything with certainty, whether assertive or falsifying, is exacerbated by the difficulty of applying even definitive probabilities to these assertions.

6. The cultural context of scientific work is especially pertinent to dynamics given the focus on the interaction of many variables of complex systems which are difficult to isolate from contextual ones. (Goerner, 1994, 1995; Lewin, 1951; Murphy & Abraham, 1995; Oreskes et al, 1994.) The cultural context embeds dynamics in social, economic, political, ethical, linguistic, and artistic values (Heims, 1991; Poster, 1989). No matter what the scientific focus of attention is!

These issues are not new, but are especially pertinent to our young field of dynamics, and the present discussion was just meant to briefly reintroduce them with our flavor of expression. A continuing dialectic over these issues should remain an enjoyable exercise. We invite reader browsing of some extensions of these comments on the Web, and reader responses there, or by e-mail or snail-mail are welcome. Addresses are in the references.


We have reintroduced a few themes that have tended to recur amongst many of us over the past few years (Abraham & Gilgen, 1995, especially articles by Leibniz, Pribram, Goerner, Mosca, Gilgen, Tryon, & Abraham; Robertson & Combs, 1995; CHOAPSYC, 1992-1996; SCIENCE-STRUCTURE, 1995-1996). Except for the moderator's questions, and some fabricated lead words for the participants, all are quotes. The Goerner, Greeley, & Mosca quotes can be found in Abraham & Gilgen. The others all come from electronic communications, either the two sources mentioned or from private conversations. There are not necessarily in true chronological order, but hopefully in low-dimensioan chaos. We have been brief rather than exhaustive, so as to jump start a fresh dialogue (a renewal of initial conditions) on these issues; thus our use of the form of a virtual panel as a state space for the reconstruction of this attractive dialogue.

Thanks to Constance Abraham and Ralph Abraham for help with the manuscript and much inspiration, and to other members of the Society and Science-Structure whose ideas helped shape the present formulations even though not quoted or referenced directly: Onar Aam, Allan Combs, Scott Clair, Kevin Dooley, Dorothy Gampel, Ben Goertzel, Stephen Guastello, Michael Halasz, Richard Kenyon, Gus Koehler, David Loye, Elliott Middleton, Jeff Pressing, Helmut Sell, Victor Serebriakoff, James Snell, Bill Sulis, and Wolfgang Tschacher; others include David Houston, Arnie Mandell, Ken Marty, Ted Melnechuk, and Virginia Voeks. Thanks to Sander Rubin for editorial and html assistance with the ms.


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Mosca, F. (1994). The unbearable wrongness of being. Thornwood: Options for Living Press.

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Ott, E., Sauer, T., & Yorke, J. A. (Eds.). (1994). Coping with chaos: Analysis of chaotic data and the exploitation of chaotic systems . New York: Wiley.

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Poster, M. (1989). Critical theory and poststructuralism: In search of a context. Ithica: Cornell.

Rapp, P. E. (1955). Is there evidence for chaos in the human nervous system. In R. Robertson, & A. Combs (Eds.). Chaos theory in psychology and the life sciences. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

Robertson, R., & Combs, A. (Eds.). (1995). Chaos theory in psychology and the life sciences. Mahwah: Erlbaum.

SCIENCE-STRUCTURE Listserver of the Science-Structure group. (join at mailbase@mailbase.ac.uk; also url at: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/lists-p-t/science-structure/)

Stewart, R. B. (1996). Chaos, dynamical structure and climate variability. In D. Herbert (Ed.). Introduction to chaos and the changing nature of science and medicine. New York: American Institute of Physics.

Created by fda: 12/25/95 Updated: 9/30/2001