Chaos, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

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Chaos, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

The word chaos appears in a variety of scholarly disciplines. This entry will address its use in the Greek philosophical tradition and a number of religious traditions. Chaos will also be explored in its use in scientific cosmology.

Religious and philosophical traditions

It is characteristic of ancient Greek thought to see the world (cosmos ) as coming into existence through the imposition of order on preexisting chaos. The first known usage of the term chaos is in the Theogony of Hesiod (late eight century b.c.e.); Hesiod probably took up the idea from earlier mythological accounts of the beginning of the universe. For Hesiod, chaos refers to the preexisting undifferentiated state of things. It manifests itself in the gap between heaven and Earth that occurs as the world emerges. This chaotic gap is transformed by the appearance of Eros, a fertilizing force that brings heaven and Earth back into a creative embrace. The word cosmos was used by philosophers from Pythagoras (569475 b.c.e.) to Archimedes (287212 b.c.e.) to describe the order that is manifest in the natural world. Both Plato (in Timaeus ) and Aristotle (in Physics ) interpreted chaos in terms of the pre-philosophical concept of space. Zeno of Citium (333264 b.c.e.) associated chaos with water. The Stoics understood chaos as referring to the watery state that occurs periodically when the universe is destroyed by fire.

There are a number of different symbols for chaos among the peoples of the Earth. Two are widespread: the waters of the deep and the cosmic egg or embryo-like form that is the matrix for all things. But chaos is also envisioned as a dragon, as a hybrid human-animal, as a dangerous female mother associated with the waters or the Earth, and as a cosmic giant figure. It appears in popular culture in the figures of the demon, the witch, the trickster, and sometimes the shaman.

Religious traditions from different parts of the world express the defeat of chaos in their myths and rituals of combat. This pattern found expression in the ancient Near East. The Babylonian epic poem Enuma Elish, which dates in part back to the second millenium b.c.e., is good example. It tells of a great battle in which a sky god, Marduk, wins a victory over Tiamat, a female chaos figure associated with the primeval waters. Marduk slays Tiamat and divides her body to form the world, using her skin to keep out and confine the waters in the heavens and in the underground. The story establishes the legitimacy of the temple and rule of Babylon. Tiamat has been interpreted as referring to an older impotent order of society and divine beings that is replaced by the new.

In the Canaanite myths of Ugarit, Baal engages in warfare with the adversary Mot, with another adversary called the Sea, and with Leviathan or Shalyat of the seven heads. This kind of combat also appears in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 27:1, where Leviathan is mentioned; in Psalm 74:1315; 89:1011; in Isaiah 51:9; and in Job 9:13; 26:12; 38:811. In these texts the monster is often constrained rather than destroyed. God is understood as continually creating and defending the universe against disintegration and chaos.

The Bible begins with an account of creation that seems to go back to priestly sources of the sixth century b.c.e. According to the Bible the "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). "Formless void" translates the Hebrew words tohu wabohu. The word tohu appears in the Bible twenty times, with the meaning of formless, shapeless, and uninhabitable. The word wabohu appears three times, with a similar meaning. Two chaotic elements characterize the formless void, the primordial waters and darkness. God vanquishes darkness on the first day of creation with the creation of light. Darkness is not completely destroyed, but is limited to the night, as part of good creation (Gen. 1:5). The chaotic waters that cover the whole Earth (Pss. 104:6) are brought under divine control on the second and third days. God positions a gigantic concave plate or dome to separate the waters above from the Earth below (Gen. 1:7) and then sets boundaries to the seas so that dry land can appear (Gen. 1:9). The explicit idea of creation ex nihilo does not appear in Jewish thought until the second century b.c.e. (2 Macc. 7:28).

In the stories and rituals of the indigenous peoples of Australia, Africa, and North and South America, there are times when participants experience a liminal state that can be understood as a return to the creative boundaries between chaos and order. Alongside the religious traditions that emphasize the defeat of chaos, there are those that challenge dualistic polarities and encourage an acceptance of chaos or elements associated with it, such as negativity, unknowing, and darkness. In ancient China, early Daoist texts (as opposed to the later Daoism) support mystical union with hun-tun (chaos) and identify hun-tun with the ultimate principle of Dao. Alongside the mainstream Vedic traditions of India there are forms of mysticism, both Upanishadic and Buddhist, that encourage union with "emptiness." Christian theology includes the tradition of apophatic theology, which finds expression in the works of Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335c.395 c.e.) and Pseudo-Dionysius (c. fifth century c.e.), in the English medieval text The Cloud of Unknowing, in the John of the Cross's (15421591) symbol of the Dark Night, and in the twentieth century in Karl Rahner's (19041984) theology of God as Incomprehensible Mystery.

In Jewish thought, a theology that can embrace negativity finds expression in various streams of thought, including those concerning God's Shekinah and sixteenth-century mystic Isaac Luria's concept of the divine withdrawal that makes space for creation (the zimsum ). In philosophy since the Holocaust, there has been an attempt to embrace the chaotic strangeness and alterity of reality, particularly in the postmodern rejection of all "totalizing" attempts at comprehension and order and in philosopher Emmanuel Levinas's (19061995) insistence on the radical and irreducible otherness of one's neighbor.

Scientific cosmology

In the scientific cosmology that emerged during the twentieth century, ancient ideas of the emergence of cosmos from chaos were replaced by the idea of a universe that has expanded and evolved over the course of twelve billion to fifteen billion years from a tiny, dense, and hot state. The Big Bang theory of cosmology had its origins in models of the universe based on Albert Einstein's theory of General Relativity. According to these theories, space-time itself emerges and stretches in the process of cosmic expansion. Over the last century a number of lines of evidence have supported Big Bang cosmology, particularly the discoveries of the red shifting of galaxies, the abundance of helium and deuterium in the universe, and background microwave radiation. According to standard Big Bang cosmology the universe is expanding and also decreasing in temperature and density, and this points back to a beginning of the universe of unthinkable smallness, density, and heatto an original singularity. A singularity is a point at which the density and the curvature of space-time are infinite, a point at which the laws of physics no longer hold.

In 1948, physicists Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gold, and Hermann Bondi put forward an alternative to Big Bang cosmology with their steady-state idea of the universe. In this theory new matter and new galaxies are continuously brought into being, in a stable universe that has an infinite past. Although the steady-state theory was undermined by the discovery of background microwave radiation, some of its philosophical aims were incorporated into a Big Bang framework in what physicist Charles Misner called chaotic cosmology. Chaotic cosmology seeks to avoid attributing the order of the universe to initial conditions. It is committed to explaining the present nature of the universe without requiring knowledge of its initial state. It seeks to show that no matter how chaotic the state of the universe at the beginning of its expansion, there are processes that can smooth out irregularities and produce the isotropic and uniform universe that people can observe. But no known process could account for this smoothing out process until the rise of inflationary theories in the 1980s.

In the meantime cosmologists had begun to speculate about the beginning of the universe in terms of quantum theory. Quantum field theories differ from their classical predecessors in the way they understand a vacuum. Within quantum theory, a vacuum is not understood simply as nothing at all, but as a sea of continuously appearing and disappearing pairs of oppositely charged particles. These processes are unobservable at the individual level and are called virtual, but are measurable at the collective level. The quantum vacuum is an infinite sea of virtual processes. Quantum theory allows for the spontaneous appearance of energy in the quantum vacuum for a very short time, as long as it is unobservable. Quantum cosmology involves a theory of the emergence of the universe from a fluctuation of the quantum vacuum. It thus, once again, suggests that an ordered universe appears from a chaotic initial state.

Chaos was to reenter the language of cosmology in the form of the theory of chaotic inflation. In order to solve some of the problems associated with the Big Bang, physicist Alan Guth in 1980 proposed that within a fraction of the first second the universe went through a period of extremely rapid expansion or inflation. Soon after, in 1983, physicist Andrei Linde put forward his theory of chaotic inflation, which dispenses with the idea of most initial conditions including the initial heat. The universe begins from chaos in the form of the seething ocean of different forms of scalar fields. The observable universe began from one such field, as one part of a process that may involve an unlimited ensemble of universes. In many recent models of the expanding universe, particularly those based on a period of rapid inflation, the observable universe would be a small domain within a much bigger universe, perhaps an infinite and eternal one.

In all of these theories, inflation provides the ordering principle, and chaos reappears in the initial conditions of the universe. As astronomer John Barrow has said: "Inflation does not explain the uniformity of the Visible Universe by eradicating primordial chaos, but by sweeping its effects out of sight beyond the boundary of the visible part of the Universe" (p. 239). It is worth keeping in mind that at this stage there is much more evidence for Big Bang cosmology in general than there is for the various forms of chaotic cosmology. In a recent evaluation of the major theories of cosmology, physicist P. James E. Peebles concludes that while there is compelling evidence that the universe has evolved from a hotter and denser state, the theory of inflation is "elegant, but lacks direct evidence and requires huge extrapolation of the laws of physics" (p. 45).


For many communities, chaos represents the strangeness and otherness of reality. As such it may be unwise to understand chaos and cosmos as simply opposed to one another. It is not simply that an ordered cosmos emerges from and replaces chaos. In many cultural systems chaos may be defeated but nevertheless reappears. It can be seen as an ever-returning dimension of human existence in the world. Even in the midst of ordered lives, human beings continually experience the chaotic, in the wildness of the wind in a storm, in the untamable violence of the sea, and in the dark and lonely hours of the night. It can be a threat and a challenge. But it can also have the character of the mysterious and uncontrollable ground or source from which all things spring. It can represent the possibility of creativity and of the new.

See also Big Bang Theory; Chaos Theory; Creatio ex Nihilo; Disorder; Inflationary Universe Theory


barrow, john b. the universe that discovered itself. oxford: oxford university press, 2000.

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giradot, norman j. "chaos." in encyclopedia of religion, ed. mircea eliade. new york: macmillan, 1987.

kuntz, paul g., ed. the concept of order. seattle: university of washington press, 1968.

linde, andrei d. inflation and quantum cosmology. boston: academic press, 1990.

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denis edwards