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The Butterfly Effect

David Cowles

Nov 30, 2023

“The ‘Butterfly Effect’ rolls back 500 wasted years of ‘results oriented’ pseudo-ethics…”

Oh no, not this again! How many times do I have to listen to it? “A butterfly flaps its wings in Borneo and it rains in Chicago.” So what!

What makes this meme so unpleasant is that it is both self-evident…and ridiculous. You can’t refute it, but neither can you live with it. In this respect, it’s a bit like Zeno’s paradox. Of course, Achilles can beat a Tortoise in a road race…just not according to the rules of arithmetic. 

Usually, when we say that A causes B, we mean that A transfers some of its ‘information’ to B (e.g., its momentum). We imply that ~A would result in ~B. Otherwise, A wouldn’t be a cause; it would just be a coincidence.

The Butterfly Effect falls somewhere between Bell (non-locality) and Laplace (determinism). A might cause B and ~A might result in ~B, but the effect of A on B can neither be predicted nor controlled. If Chicago finds itself in the midst of a drought, sending a team of climate scientists to Borneo to stimulate wing flapping would be ridiculous. (Of course, we might want to send them to Borneo for other reasons…but I digress.) 

Wing flapping is just as likely to inhibit rainfall as it is to cause it. Study planet Earth for 1,000,000 years: you won’t find any correlation between rates of wing flapping and amounts of rainfall. And yet, a single flap can trigger a tsunami.

So, what can we say? “I act; things happen; oh well!” Things cause other things, but in ways that can never be predicted or controlled. So who cares?

Say you’re thinking of helping an old man cross a busy street. You do it because you see a connection between your selfless act and this man’s safety, and you assume that safety is a good thing. So, street crossed. But did you consider all the relevant variables?

The man you’re helping is carrying a concealed weapon. He’s crossing the street to kill his daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. Unbeknownst to anyone, that unborn child would have had an IQ of 180 and could have found the key to world peace. 

But you just had to flap your wings, didn’t you? Thanks to you, peace eluded Planet Earth and it turned into a cinder a generation later…but no judgment. You ‘meant well’ and that’s all that counts, right? 

So Camus was right: the world is ‘absurd’ (another word for ‘chaotic’); “I best mind my own business – no more helping old men cross busy intersections!” So you adopt the ‘quietist ethic’, you elect ‘not to get involved’. And so the man is run over and killed, but what do you care? It’s none of your business, right?

Except that the man was not armed after all and was crossing the street to reconcile with his daughter. But seeing her father run down in the street, the daughter miscarried…and so the Earth turned into cinders anyway! All because you didn’t act when you could have. Quietism is simply activism under a different name. Obviously, we need tougher ‘truth in labeling’ laws!

Fate? Destiny? Nope, just Chaos. The world is so tightly wound that events appear random. Efforts to control the flow of things only serve to amplify random fluctuations, but this is the way the world works. So deal with it!

“Deal with it?” You deal with it! How do I ‘deal’ with the fact that the effects of my actions are unpredictable and uncontrollable…and yet potentially catastrophic?

Machiavelli (c. 1500 CE) proposed that ends (consequences) justify means (actions). Maybe so. But we know nothing of ends! We barely have any idea what the immediate consequences of any action will be and we have no idea about the ultimate consequences. 

“But that’s not true! I do know ends. For example, I know that the man crossed the street safely. That’s an end.” Ok, but do you know that? Perhaps you’ll both be killed in the crosswalk. But even granted the man’s safe crossing, that is not the effect of your action, it is part of the action itself. Part of helping the chicken cross the road is seeing the chicken get to the other side. 

Part of every act is its ‘aim’, but the way in which that aim is realized (its ‘satisfaction’) is part of the act as well. An act is an organic whole, but it’s bipolar. One pole is intention. Getting the old man safely across the street is the other; it’s the satisfaction pole of the act. 

So how do we assess the ethical value of any act? Certainly not by its ends! We can only judge an act by the act itself. In our example, helping an old man cross a busy street is either a good thing, per se, or it isn’t. It has nothing to do with the long-term consequences.

If I help the man, it’s because it’s a good thing to do – not because it will save his life, or the lives of his daughter and his unborn grandchild, certainly not because it might save the planet.

Thankfully, the ‘Butterfly Effect’ rolls back 500 wasted years of ‘results oriented’ pseudo-ethics, but you can’t go home again. Rolling back 500 years doesn’t bring us back to the ‘rules based’ morality of the Middle Ages. 

It takes us all the way back to Galilean ethics (30–100 CE): “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mathew 7:12); or to the liberation ethics of Israel after the Exodus (1300 – 1050 BCE): “In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25) 

The Butterfly Effect is real, albeit enigmatic, but it is no substitute for ethics. 


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