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Yellow Brick Road

David Cowles

Jun 22, 2023

“All roads lead to Hell (metaphorically speaking)...except one: call it what you will, the Yellow Brick Road, the Narrow Way, a highway to our God” (Isaiah 40:3).”

“One 'little' action can transform the world. Many people don’t realize this. But it’s true. The energy of even a single and small good deed can spread across the globe. That’s the holy, transformative energy of good!” So writes Rabbi Meir Simcha Kogan. 

It is true. A single action can change the world. It happens every day. In fact, every action changes the world. That’s what an ‘action’ is! Whatever doesn’t change the world is not an action (or even an event). 

Plus, the effect is always disproportionate to the cause. Process dampens the influence of some events and magnifies the impact of others. That’s how our universe works; it’s massively non-linear.  

You know it by heart: ‘a butterfly flaps its wings in Borneo and a tornado touches down in Kansas’. But how do we know if the butterfly caused the twister? We could try to identify a causal chain: A causes B causes C… But this will get us nowhere. Only the simplest causal chains can ever be identified, and even then, they should be taken with a grain of KCl (we’re cutting down on our intake of sodium). 

The alternative is to stifle the butterfly and then observe the ensuing weather. (Of course, this assumes we can go back and forth in time, making changes and observing results, all without leaving any lasting effects.)  No wing-flap, no tornado-touchdown, QED.  

So, our tabloid headline was accurate after all: ‘Butterfly uproots farm house’. But let’s not get too excited. We could have stifled any number of events, beginning with the Big Bang itself, and prevented this meteorological disaster. 

On the other hand, the occurrence of this tornado, so critically dependent on the flap of a single wing, might have happened whether or not an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. The magnitude of the effect is generally unrelated to the magnitude of the cause. That’s another part of what it means to live in a non-linear world.  

With me so far? Good, because here’s where it starts to get interesting. Granted that causality doesn’t conserve magnitude, does it conserve value? Apparently, our Rabbi thinks so, “a single and small good deed…the holy, transformative energy of good.” But do we agree? 

We’re keenly aware of situations where the Rabbi’s faith seems misplaced: 

  • No good deed goes unpunished. 

  • What can go wrong will go wrong. 

  • The Law of Unintended Consequences. 

  • To every action, there corresponds an equal and opposite reaction. 

So Newton 1, Rabbi 0? Not so fast. As if any non-linear world wasn’t crazy enough, our non-linear world is also dialectic. Every action is a thesis, which automatically triggers an antithesis, which is ultimately resolved by a synthesis, i.e., a new thesis. 

We like to think in straight lines. That’s how we’re built. It’s also how some things seem to work.  Plus, both Euclid and William of Ockham demand it. But there are no straight lines IRL. So curves then? Nope! A straight line is simply a special kind of curve…and IRL there are no curved lines either. 

What is there then? What’s left? Calculus! “Who’d a thunk it?” 14 billion years of cosmic evolution, 4 billion years of life on Earth, and all we’ve got to show for it is Calculus, a computational technique, masquerading as an aspect of reality. Unformulated before 1700 CE, it was anticipated and theoretically debunked by Zeno of Elea in the 5th century BCE.  

So what gives? Calculus is based on the notion that every apparently ‘smooth curve’ can be represented as the hypotenuses of a series of inferred, infinitesimal right triangles. Sounds like a lot of work for nothing…and it is; but, it turns out to be a very powerful computational tool. 

Plus, it’s closer to how the world really works! We don’t move forward, we tack, we scoot, we zigzag. Think of every action as a horizontal thesis, requiring a perpendicular antithesis, resulting in a diagonal synthesis, i.e., a virtual hypotenuse. That virtual hypotenuse is what we mean when we talk about an ‘event’. 

But back to value. Unfortunately, here we must fall back on a version of Pascal’s Wager.  We can’t know for certain whether events ultimately conserve value or not, at least not until we’re looking back at them from our window table at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  

On this, we must defer to the wisdom of the celebrated Nobel Prize spurning cosmologist, Yogi Berra: “it’s not over ‘til it’s over,” i.e., until the fat lady (sic) sings. (Sorry for the gender stereotyping and for the body shaming.)  

Of course, every day we see examples of value being conserved. Folks pay back, folks pay forward. A single work of genius (art, music, literature) generates an entire movement. Junior is born with Grandma’s blue eyes. If value is not conserved, it will be swept away, along with everything else, by entropy; in that case, “Life’s…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth)  

Pascal’s Wager has a corollary: Unless value is conserved, being is ephemeral, the universe is absurd, and life is not worth living. So cosmology is an all or nothing proposition. That’s why we spend the better part of our lives exploring it.  

All roads lead to Hell (metaphorically speaking)…except one: call it what you will, the Yellow Brick Road, the Narrow Way, a highway to our God” (Isaiah 40:3). Of this we may be certain: At every point along that highway, if it exists, value is being conserved, subliminally, appearances notwithstanding. 


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