On the actual impact of deterministic chaos

Synthese 113 (3):357-379 (1997)
Abstract
The notion of (deterministic) chaos is frequently used in an increasing number of scientific (as well as non-scientific) contexts, ranging from mathematics and the physics of dynamical systems to all sorts of complicated time evolutions, e.g., in chemistry, biology, physiology, economy, sociology, and even psychology. Despite (or just because of) these widespread applications, however, there seem to fluctuate around several misunderstandings about the actual impact of deterministic chaos on several problems of philosophical interest, e.g., on matters of prediction and computability, and determinism and the free will. In order to clarify these points a survey of the meaning variance of the concept(s) of deterministic chaos, or the various contexts in which it is applied, is given, and its actual epistemological implications are extracted. In summary, it turns out that the various concepts of deterministic chaos do not constitute a “new science”, or a “revolutionary” change of the “scientific world picture”. Instead, chaos research provides a sort of toolbox of methods which are certainly useful for a more detailed analysis and understanding of such dynamical systems which are, roughly speaking, endowed with the property of exponential sensitivity on initial conditions. Such a property, then, implies merely one, but quantitatively strong type of limitation of long-time computability and predictability, respectively.
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