Bryan Lindenberger

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Thursday, November 22, 2018

On Chaos and Determinism

Common Buckeye Butterfly

Hero of mine, chaos theory pioneer Edward Lorenz, gifted us with the term “butterfly effect.” Simple idea – the slight atmospheric disturbance created by the flap of a butterfly’s wings could, through a chain of events, result in a typhoon or hurricane 10,000 miles away.

What the meteorologist was attempting to explain was why long-term weather predictions were so infeasible.

Edward Norton Lorenz (wiki)

Popularly used in fiction including time travel stories, this “butterfly effect” has come to be construed as how the smallest thing, a single person, can change the course of history.

My interpretation is not only different, but contrary: deterministic.

The point isn’t that a butterfly’s wings “causes” a hurricane, but rather that conditions are set so that the slightest catalyst will put the wheels in motion. If not the butterfly, then the wave of a child’s hand or the sneeze of a mouse.

This is not to say there is no free will – I won’t argue either way – but the actions of an individual are more akin to tossing a pebble in a pond. It creates some ripples, the ripples spread but are absorbed by time...the pond itself. No one expects that tossing a pebble in a pond will cause a tidal wave.

(Massive forest fires are another example, where a “cause” is always attributed as an object of blame. If it’s not a lightening strike, it’s a poorly doused campfire. Or perhaps an indiscriminate smoker. But the conditions are predetermined; the catalyst is arbitrary.)

Reacquainting myself with events that led to the Great War, I’m struck by what I was taught in school, namely that there were two “causes.” First the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which even my teachers didn’t take all that seriously. He had no legal heir to throne, there was not great uproar over his death. So to add some validity, the second posited cause was “ultra-nationalism” - nationalism being a common pariah among globalists.

Again, rather than a preventable cause, I see something more deterministic. If a vastly growing Russian army had been tolerable to Germany, the Franco-Russo Entente could not have been. Austria-Hungary and the feuding nationalists in the Balkans aside, virtually each day Germany found itself in a position where not to attack in a likely unwinnable war also increased the likelihood of – in the long run – being erased from the map.

Patterns on spider abdomen
To this second point, stunned again to rediscover how hard – in fact, how desperately – royalty among the eventual combatant nations (many of them related by blood or marriage) fought to avoid widespread conflict. For that matter, even the military elite, where you always find doves and hawks, tended to cancel each other out at worst and lean toward limited actions for the most part.

If Ferdinand had not been assassinated in 1914, war was still determined. Perhaps a few years later, but inevitable. Pebbles do not create (or prevent) tidal waves.

More bluntly, Edward Lorenz never argued that killing butterflies would prevent hurricanes.