And now for the third and final installment of our introduction to chaos, complexity and randomness as portrayed by the primary characters in the movie Batman....

Batman, The Joker and Two Face's personalities may be understood through the different choices they make. Batman chooses according to his values, which have a fractal structure to them. He has central values (like the center of a branching snowflake, that form his core, and then more peripheral values, at the outskirts of who he is (like small braches - see the Koch snowflake to the left for an example of a branching fractal structure). A) Batman does good things - central. B) Batman won't kill. This is central too. C) Batman loves his girlfriend, more peripheral. He sacrifices her in the last movie to be "Batman." But he remains conflicted there. There is a rigidity in him, a vulnerable spot, when it comes to intimacy. Some of you may relate?

Joker is the ultimate creator of conflict. But he is more than chaotic, in the true sense of the word "chaotic." He aims to obliterate structure. He does so by attacking integrity (literal integrity here - the structural variety) wherever he sees it. This is apparent in Joker's own personality. You can see that he doesn't care about money, people, or even his own life. He even seeks to constantly re-shuffle his personal identity, repeatedly inventing new stories about how he got his scars.

His primary goal is to trap batman into violating his core values. If he does this, he will "break" him (again I mean literally in terms of Batman's personality structure). Joker attacks Harvey Dent (Gothem's heroic DA) in the same way - trying to break him. If you aim at the biggest branch of a fractal, you do the most damage. The little branches grow back easily you see, and actually make the overall system healthier. This is why we prune our plants. The same thing may be said of personality. But if you prune the trunk of the plant, that's not good.

And because Batman and Dent are central branches within the hopes of Gotham's people, a larger scale self-similar fractal structure, breaking them would break the city in the same manner. This would creating what I think is a different type of chaos - anarchy, a complete lack of structure, constraint, or rule-based anything. I think this is what people usually think of when they hear "chaos" and get scared - the type of chaos that means to seriously disintegrate something. This is the type of chaos that reigns, for example, when a rigid system of a dictatorship is taken apart and no social structure is put in its place. Use your imagination ("Ighrack" - excuse me, cough) and you may be able to think of some recent political examples. This is not the same chaos as in chaos theory, but it is a related concept.

The film grapples with one of the deepest of existential questions then: "How can an ordered system expect to defeat a completely disordered system?" The Joker muses in the film that neither he nor Batman could ever win, that they are destined to stay in perpetual conflict, with no possible resolution, that they rely upon one another, again in a Yin-Yang fashion. Alfred the butler advises Bruce Wayne through analogy that in fighting a similar foe in a jungle war - he had to burn down the entire jungle to catch a single rogue enemy soldier. Indeed, The Batman must stretch to the bounds of his virtue in the film to try to defeat the Joker, shifting from a more flexible form of self-organized complexity, into a more rigid and totalitarian direction. I won't spoil anything, but for those who have already seen the film - the analogy to Bush's surveillance tactics in fighting terrorism will be obvious.

And when Batman resolves his own inner conflict, The Batman does indeed transcend, to become "More than a Hero." This is how complex systems adapt through conflict. If a large enough part of the old structure is torn down, a new emergence may occur, bringing transcendence and evolution to the person and their relationships, so long as the tearing down of the old structure is not catastrophic. When you trim your trees, they grow back even better. This is good for Batman, and also for promoting the next film I suppose. Everyone wins!

Two Face: Randomness Incarnate

I can cover Two Face briefly, as an afterthought, which is fitting. Randomness is not actually very interesting. To recap: Batman operates according to rules, which create structure and constraint within his personality and assist him in exercising free will, and to do good. The Joker operates according to anarchy - destruction of structure. By contrast, Two Face decides everything by the flip of a coin, chance. When faced with existential dilemmas, many of us resort to notions of chance ruling our destinies, especially when we have been broken as has Two Face.

And randomness is important. Indeed, complex adaptive systems need randomness. For example, Walter Freeman's research on neural networks in the brain suggest that neurological chaos in our brains only reaches an adaptive degree of coherence (allowing for cognition) when random noise is added (i.e., like white noise or static you may hear between stations on a radio). The situation is like a bowl full of sticky rice. If you want to get the rice to fall down off the sides of the bowl, back into the bottom into a lower energy state, the best strategy is to shake the bowl randomly. White noise in our brains sort of shakes our thoughts loose, making them into ideas, beliefs and so on.

More broadly, nature seems to use randomness to an extent as well. For example, anything in psychology that falls on a bell shaped curve is created by more or less random factors, like IQ scores, levels of different traits such as introversion and extroversion, and levels of different psychiatric conditions in the general population. Finally, randomness may be added to chaotic or complex systems. Texas Holdem' poker would be a good example, perhaps. With each betting decision you limit your possible moves throughout each hand. But the selection of each next card is ultimately based on chance. Even the best players lose then, but they don't lose as often as players like me.

Two Face is sort of like the Joker's aspiration goal (if he was allowed to have true goals that is). If all order, all connection among things was destroyed then randomness would rule. In our universe, however, especially the universe of psychological phenomena, this could never happen. Everything is just too "sticky." Psychological phenomena, from neurons, through cognition, up to people, relationships and societies, all interact with one another. This is fundamental. It is at the core of what psychology is - connection.

Unfortunately, the foundation of our statistics in psychology is the bell shaped curve, which assumes that all observations are separate and random. So the bell shaped curve will always remain an abstraction, a weak match to research phenomena in psychology, inasmuch as it is based on the concept of random variation. Similarly, Two Face will never be as interesting a character as Batman or Joker.

So is chaos bad? No. The Joker is bad! But deterministic chaos is a process that is adaptive in some circumstances and in others can create a transition from old structure to new more adaptive and complex structure, better able to take on a challenge.

The Joker's chaos does not seem to be chaos, as in "Chaos Theory," or "Deterministic Chaos." He is related, perhaps, but the Joker is something bigger. He is more like what some refer to as a "Blue Sky Catastrophe," (see Guastello's 2002 book for more on this topic) which is a force that hits an attractor at a vulnerable spot and obliterates it. The Joker is the power of demolition, rather than deterministic chaos. Joker says in the film that he needs The Batman. This is because the Joker's purpose, paradoxically, is to destroy purpose, to turn all of us from complex yet integrated heroes into empty vessels ruled by chance, like Two Face.

At least that was my take on it. I'd love to hear yours...I'll be back in 2 weeks - first stop on vacation - back to see Batman again, this time in the I-MAX...

About the Author

David Pincus

David Pincus is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

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