May 30, 2023
“Butterflies are beautiful, but they can keep their flapping to themselves, thank you! We already have enough environmental catastrophe to contend with.”
Everyone says we live in a chaotic world, but do we? Aunt Gertrude makes the point every time she visits. Mathematicians have coined a phrase for it: The Butterfly Effect, and news organizations have turned it into a livelihood: Man bites Dog. Everyone says so, but do we?
Chaos has a bad name. People equate it with Anarchy (the absence of order). They assume that events happen randomly in a chaotic world. Nothing could be further from the truth! ‘Chaotic’ and ‘random’ are antonyms, not synonyms. (But wait for a surprise twist!)
A chaotic universe is causal…to a fault! It’s Laplace on steroids. Causality is so strong that every event literally causes every other event. A perturbation of one becomes the perturbation of all.
To be is to be omnipotent, but there is a trade-off: to be is also to be impotent. The more I control Dasein (that it is), the less I control Wassein (what it is). The more we can influence “the shape of things to come” (Ramones), the less power we have to make those things happen. “The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-slidin’ away.” (Paul Simon)
Have we discovered a new Uncertainty Relation a la Heisenberg…or Heidegger?
In a chaotic world, everyone, every ‘thing,’ is a malevolent magician. We point our wands where we will and bring into being what may come. Every event effectively recreates the entire Universe, not ex nihilo but de nuovo.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc, the bane of every aspiring logician (can one really aspire to be a logician?) is perfectly valid in a chaotic world. In a chaotic world, a butterfly flapping its wings in Borneo may indeed trigger a tornado in Topeka…and an avalanche in Anchorage or a mudslide in Malibu. Do we live in such a world? Let’s see.
First, imagine that we all live on the surface of a sphere. Every event since the Big Bang can be represented as a ‘point’ on that surface. Events are positioned so that proximity reflects relevance.
The relative positions of points on the sphere correspond to the causal strength of each event vis-à-vis every other event. Causal influences travel along great circles, but their impact is mitigated by the Inverse Square Law (ISL) and mediated by the events they encounter along the way. Here and now and then and there are defined by these mediated relations, woven into a fabric that we call ‘the real world.’ I could live here!
Now imagine instead that every point on that sphere has a direct, unmediated connection to every other point. We just transformed our smooth spherical surface into a pock-marked cacophony of chords. Causal influences no longer ‘travel’ (they are instantaneous) and ISL no longer applies. In such a world, anything that can happen may happen; we have zero ability to predict events… or influence them. Here’s the twist I told you about earlier: a chaotic world like this behaves exactly the same way a random world would behave, even though ‘chaotic’ and ‘random’ are antonyms! I could not live here!
In a chaotic world, there is no such thing as ‘intentional agency;’ therefore, ‘values’ are irrelevant, aka non-existent. Likewise, such a world has no room for God, either as the creator of heaven and earth or as the fountainhead of all value. The Power is not the Glory!
All this suggests a new take on the Garden of Eden story. God created a perfect world, subject to just one limiting condition: non-recursion. The world cannot act upon itself, either by praxis or by gnosis. How could it? It’s already perfect. Any change can only be a step-down.
Like isolated Q-bits in a Quantum Computer, if any element of the whole becomes aware of that whole, the wave function collapses and the whole (Eden) is shattered. According to Genesis, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge because knowledge is inherently recursive. They were free to ‘eat’ though warned not to; but Eve held cheap the riches of Paradise…if they came at the price of ignorance.
But Eve held cheap the riches of Paradise…if they came at the price of ignorance. At the first opportunity, she traded immortality for knowledge…and the rest, as they say, is history. No, I mean, it really is ‘history’… not ‘as they say,’ per se!
Adam and Eve “paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.” (Joni Mitchell) They traded bliss for gnosis, and so they saw that they were naked! Hallelujah, consciousness! And eternal Eden became the spatio-temporal universe we know and still love - 14 billion years later.
Remember the bumper sticker: “If you can read this, thank a teacher?” Well, if you can understand this essay, thank Eve. Later, Job spoke for Eve when he ranked ‘dying without knowledge’ as life’s greatest tragedy (Job 3: 21). (I wonder how many folks today would share Job’s assessment.) Eve and Job risked everything for something we can’t give away today: knowledge! Imagine, we have to force our kids to go to school!
East of Eden, it is the project of Homo Sapiens to rebuild Paradise on earth, “to build the City of Dioce” (Pound). God made a perfect world merely by willing it. For millennia, we have been trying to rebuild (Babel?) the world we lost – yup, it was that good – but unlike God, we can’t create things just by willing them. We actually have to build them, and we can only build in a non-chaotic medium like spacetime.
So do we live in a chaotic world? Aunt Gertrude notwithstanding, we do not! Butterflies are beautiful, but they can keep their flapping to themselves, thank you! We already have enough environmental catastrophes to contend with.