Chaos and nonlinearity

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Beware that systems theorists and socio-cultural systems thinkers use the same words with different meanings.

In natural language, order and chaos are usually considered to be opposites.

Yet a system can be orderly and chaotic at the same time. How come?


In a chaotic system, tiny variations in initial state conditions can lead to huge variations in long-term outcomes.

Chaotic behaviour may also be called non-linear behaviour; and so, opposite of chaotic is linear.

Deterministic systems (e.g. a weather system) can be chaotic; so the concepts are not in opposition.

Forrester’s “system dynamics” can be used to model social systems as deterministic machines, and reveal they turn out to behave chaotically.


Most people consider orderliness to be defining characteristic of a system.

However, to some systems thinkers, chaotic or non-linear mean disorderly

Surely, a disorderly system is an oxymoron (a contradiction in terms); it is merely a disorderly entity?


It may help to defining the terms order and chaos in a little more detail.

A system is orderly where it is deterministic, it responds to an event in a way that is predictable from its rules and its current state.

A system is random where it responds to events in ways not predictable from its rules and state (perhaps using fuzzy logic).

A system may appear random, because you don’t know its internal state or rules, yet actually be orderly.


A linear system produces a predictable variation in long-term outcomes from differences in the initial conditions.

A chaotic system produces a surprisingly wide variety of long-term outcomes from narrow differences in the initial conditions.


Briefly, in this and related papers:

Orderly or deterministic 

is the opposite of

Random or fuzzy.

Linear outcomes.

are the opposite of

Chaotic outcomes 


(changing variable values in the light of events)

is different from 


(changing variable types or rules).


I suspect there to be a relationship as described in the table below


Linear outcomes

Chaotic outcomes

Ordered process steps



Random process steps




How to find out whether the long-term outcomes of an ordered system will be linear or chaotic?

In “systems dynamics”, the operational system is nothing more or less a performance of the system description.

And you can run the system to see how things turn out.

Relevance to EA

EA frameworks suggest ways to model ordered systems.

It makes no reference whether the long term outcomes of system behaviour will be linear or chaotic.

Note that enterprise architects often have to assume how humans will interpret and respond to information given to them (e.g. an invoice requesting payment).

But they cannot dictate that response.

Also, they cannot judge whether a human response is orderly or random, since the internal state and logic of the human is unknowable.



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