The Chaos of Time, and the Myth of Stability

“In the Shooter Hypothesis, a good marksman shoots at a target, creating a hole every ten centimeters. Now suppose the surface of the target is inhabited by intelligent, two-dimensional creatures.

Their scientists, after observing the universe, discover a great law: “There exists a hole in the universe every ten centimeters.” They have mistaken the result of the marksman’s momentary whim for an unalterable law of the universe.”

~ The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu

The word “Equilibrium” has peaceful, centered connotations — but in reality, it is a struggle, a pyrrhic victory, as seen by those on one side or another. Where opposing forces meet, their clashes generate friction and heat. Stability can be described as Equilibrium over Time, and is only ever achieved when opposing forces are evenly matched.

Paper Plane Flying Contest - Science World

Visualize how a plane stays in the air — the thrust of the engines and lift generated under the reinforced aluminium of the airframe wage an unyielding assault against the downward pull of gravity and the pushback of air resistance. It’s an arm wrestling match between titanic forces, that are more or less evenly matched.

~Source: Sylvester Stallone, in Over The Top

In the meantime, the passengers inside sip their drinks, watch their movies, and eat tiny, microwaved chicken cordons bleus in relative comfort compared to the tempest that rages just on the other side of the reinforced window glass. These contented passengers are the beneficiaries of an extended, managed Stability that exists between these opposing forces — in other words, their Equilibrium over time.

But what if one or more of those forces were to fail? We know all too well the catastrophic results of a plane’s engines failing, or the airframe coming apart in mid-air. But if air resistance itself stopped exerting force on the plane, passengers would be crushed in their seats by the ridiculous G-forces of the unopposed thrust output of the engines. If gravity were to fail, the flight would end up in a much different location than was on the ticket!

Such is what we should fear from significant victory by one side or the other in any long-standing political debate far from settling matters, victories of this sort represent the defeat of one of the opposing forces that holds the world in Stability. Failure triggers massive upheaval, like a dam bursting one need only look to the collapse of the Weimar Republic to see what the resulting flood can look like.

So if you find yourself on one side or the other of these kinds of debates, maybe ask yourself: what would winning actually look like and is that what you truly want?

Chaos is a function of Time

To restate:

Stability = Equilibrium ÷ Time

If true, this simplistic formula leads us to a few interesting conclusions:

Time makes Equilibrium less probable

The longer the timeline over which one observes events, the more improbable it is that the state of Equilibrium will last, and therefore, Stability decreases as Time goes on. This definitely tracks with the old saying that the only constant in life is change. As physicists would put it: Order is destined to descend into Chaos over time, aka Entropy.

But what is Chaos?

In a nutshell, it can be described as a lack of a recognizable pattern in a set of information. But when viewed too closely, or outside the necessary context, don’t all patterns appear chaotic? Making a decision off of one data point is a guess, and off of two is premature it takes at least 3 data points to draw a trend line, and establish a pattern. Similarly, watching a football player (Yanks and Brits, take your pick of which I’m referring to) during a football game makes sense, but if you were to transplant their same movements into a basketball game, hilarity and chaos ensues.

Could it be that the clear, regular patterns upon which we orient our mental models of the world inevitably fall into Chaos when we zoom out from the timeline, or transplant our behavior to regions outside the previously observed universe?

Chaos could just be Order we haven’t recognized yet

Chaos, thanks to its unpredictability, is by definition an engine for the creation of novelty in our universe, and novelty, appears to be one of the driving forces behind the evolution of everything in it.

The simple equation that Stability = Equilibrium ÷ Time implies that the longer our universe lasts, the more novelty it will incubate, via an inexorable movement toward Chaos, or decreasing Stability. Far from the traditionally-taught long, drawn out whimper of an ending that extends quadrillions of years into the future, and sees the eventual evaporation of all particles of matter into a thin cold dust, evenly spread across an infinite ocean of starless darkness, this equation implies that things will instead go out in a


so incomprehensibly complex and surprising to us, that the best picture we can render of this event is as an unquantifiable asymptotic singularity — a simultaneous geometric takeoff and collapse, by any possible measurement.

We’re literally not equipped to be able to peer very far out over the horizon of this phase of history, and reliably predict what will happen when Stability falls, just like a black hole’s event horizon prevents us from seeing inside.

The Emergence of Equilibrium

Stability is a localized phenomenon that is maximized in the absence of, and is destroyed by, the passage of Time. What do I mean by this?

The more Time that elapses, the smaller our value for Stability becomes. And if Time equals zero, we cannot calculate Stability: our calculator errors out, and we’re effectively left with an undefined value for Stability which sounds a lot like how we’d define Chaos, no?

Interestingly, take a look at what happens if we assign an arbitrary value to Equilibrium and Time, and start decreasing the value of Time:

5/5 = 1
5/0.5 = 10
5/0.00005 = 100000
5/0.00000005 = 100000000

The closer Time gets to zero, the greater the value of Stability.

These simple algebraic gymnastics would also seem to track with the idea that consciousness arises from certain wrinkles in matter caused by the passing of Time that Time is the perturbing, destabilizing force rippling through the medium of a universe which would otherwise be at rest in a state of timeless, (and thus, consciousless?) Equilibrium.

So what could Equilibrium look like, if it were right in front of us?

When we observe Shaolin monks able to perform incredible feats like bending iron bars over their heads, and enduring extremes of heat and cold, we say that they’re breaking the laws of physics but it could be that they’re simply achieving extended moments of Equilibrium; they are somehow able to minimize the passage of Time for the locality of their physical bodies.

Time IS Chaos

My theory put simply: Time IS Chaos. When we ignore it, we are in the Equilibrium of Now, and boundaries and physical laws become meaningless — after all, everything is made of the same stuff, and what laws can be observed to be in effect outside of Time?

Thus, the takeaway is that, moment to moment, everything in the universe is always as it should be, balanced in a state of perfect equilibrium, and could remain that way, if it weren’t for the Chaos and instability created by Time’s passing!

“Can the fundamental nature of matter really be lawlessness? Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?”

~The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu