Brief thoughts on chaos

In a recent post in The Philosophy Cafe

From: Biggie (Original Message) Sent: 11/14/2002 3:14 PM
In science, the Butterfly Effect relates to the [in my opinion] incalcuable and inexpressible relationship between the very small and the very large. The idea being that a single butterfly flapping its wing at a particular speed in a particular direction in a particular spot in the Amazon Rainforest can precipitate an air current that triggers a second air current that triggers a third that triggers a continuous sequence of air currents that results in a lightening storm over Central Park in New York City

I answered:

Wait a minute… doesn’t this kinda miss the point? My understanding is not that a butterfly is the root cause (as seems to be the understanding in the latter sentiment above) but that the little things matter (which Biggie did express in the post). The difference is that it is not the butterfly flapping its wings that causes the hurricane, but every minute detail together… not a chain of causal dominoe effects, but a funky cat’s cradle (the string thing kids make on their hands) where each piece, pulled or loosened, has an effect on every other piece of the puzzle.

It isn’t that a butterfly causes a hurricane to start, but that the level of attention to the details of air currents caused by a butterfly is important in understanding hurricane formation. And when you get this far down into the details, there are still finer details.

Just me being nitpicky

It was the spur of the moment post, over and done with before I had a chance to breath and realize what I was doing. The microwave beeped. My water was hot now and awaiting the addition of the apple cider mix (I’m a cheat, I use “instant” stuff). I don’t want coffee this late at night, but had I thought about it I might have stayed away from the apple cider. Studies have shown that an apple in the morning might help more in waking one up than a cup of coffee (at least that is what CNN Headlines news said a couple months ago).

I put the water in for another two minutes and washed the three dishes in the sink. I like to keep them washed as I go. I hate having a stack of dishes. There is a critical mass of dishes that once the number is reached I will not touch them for days until one cannot reach the fridge because of the mountain of dirty dishes and glassware overflowing from the sink. Most of the time I keep the dishes cleaned as I go. I was washing the bowl when I was thinking about what I had just posted. I remembered my first encounter with chaos theory. It was from Russ Boyett, a good man who was a friend of mine in the Marines. He moved out into an apartment with me and saved my ass when I needed help. After a coule months I ended up bailing for Arkansas, leaving him in the apartment. Yes, the number of times that I’ve stood of for my principles and beliefs are outnumbered by far the number of times I’ve acted like a fool and a coward.

Anyway, back to the point. Russ was a philosopher and he had read Feinstein’s lectures, Darwin’s evolution of species, and several other books of varying interest. I was just beginning to enter the psychology/philosophy section of my questioning (having just entered the moral/aesthetic platitudes two years earlier) and we had many debates where he always (ALWAYS) trounced me royally. It was not pretty. I was not the intellectual giant then that you see before you now. (grin, what movie is that from… oh yes… Dead Poets Society). Russ tried to explain it to me, but didn’t do well. He had a mathematical model on his computer. He brought up fractal images and attractors and tried to explain it to me. Nothing doing.

Months later I was in college in Arkansas. I had read a couple books on various topics. One of them was on chaos theory and I slowly began to understand the butterfly effect.

It goes like this, and I think I’ve written this before here at LJ. To be able to predict the weather is a compex affair. Stories abound of professors in labs who make up elaborate models to predict the weather. Sometimes they are spot on, sometimes not. The idea is given then that if you had a real time sensor at every square mile of the earth, then you’d have better real time access to data to help you in forcasting the weather. However, between each sensor (a mile apart) there are lots of things going on, things that are not accounted for in the model and unforseen things happens in the weather patterns. Think about it, if you put a sensor every where across the earth, most of the earth would be covered by nothing as opposed to the extreme low amount of land covered by sensors. Increase the density to every square foot and the amount of surface area on the planet covered by a sensor would still be much less than that not covered by a sensor. But still, suppose every square inch of the planet had a very small weather sensor on it. There are still spaces between the sensors which are not measured, not forseen, and random chance is still finding its way into our model. This is where the butterfly effect comes into play.

I was eating with my dad and discussing the things I had learned on that day. My dad is a very down to earth sort of guy. The extent of his belief in psychology is the yawn effect, one person yawns in a group and everyone else does also. I was explaining what I thought the butterfly effect was at the time and he scoffed at it, telling me stories of mathmeticians who came out to the plant and said that things should work a certain way but they never did because they weren’t in the real world. He thought the idea of a butterfly causing a hurricane to be utter stupidity. I let the issue drop, but thought my dad having less intellect that I had hoped for so callously disregarding the idea. I should have paid more attention. His stories of the preposterousness of mathmeticians who came out to the paper mill with their math theories and how they always fell through, was another example of chaos theory that I had failed to see at the time. I was stuck on the notion of a causal chain.

I didn’t get this until now when I read the statement from biggie. If I had read his statement a few years earlier I would have readily agreed. But when I read it tonight it struck me as half-right, but fundamentally wrong. It belies an assumption on the nature of things that is dangerous. He is implying, the same way that I was at the dinner table, of a linear causal nature to things. The butterfly flapping its wings caused the hurricane in Japan. How preposterous indeed! It is funny how we scientists can claim that miracles of the Bible cannot happen, and yet we so seriously claim that a butterfly can cause a hurricane to hit Japan.

The butterfly did not cause the hurricane. How many butterflies are there that fly across a single grassy meadow? Which one of those is responsible for the hurricane that hit the Atlantic coast? Which one caused the sunny day in Provo, Utah. Which one caused the snowfall in Vermont?

What strikes me is the totality of it all. To understand the world, you must look at the world. To understand the human mind you must look at everything human. To understand weather, you must look at everything impacting weather. Butterfly wing drafts might seem insignificant, but it is still part of the equation. The U.S. department of health allowable level of rat feces in food production might be pretty damn low, but imagine your surprise if out of 3 millions boxes of brown rice, yours has a rat terd in it. Big difference then.

Ah, great radio station. From Metallica to Louis Armstrong to old Scorpions to DJ Sammy to Yngwie Malmsteen.

Today I went and joined another temp agency. They seem nice, but like everyone else work is slow. I watched Da Bears on t.v. They lost but still, I love my Bears. I left at halftime to go to the cheapo grocery store five blocks away. I bought like 10 packs of ramen noodles, macncheese, cereal, linquini, cheese sauce, some other stuff that I can’t recall. It all came out to $33.33. Time to make a wish. I know what it is.

In closing for tonight.

Iron Maiden :::: Revelations
O God of Earth and Altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die,
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

Just a babe in a black abyss,
No reason for a place like this.
The walls are cold and souls cry out in pain.
An easy way for the blind to go,
A clever path for the fools who know.
The Secret of the Hangman ­ the smile on his lips.
The light of the Blind ­ you’ll see,
The venom that tears my spine,
The Eyes of the Nile are opening ­ you’ll see.

She came to me with a serpents kiss,
As the Eye of the Sun rose on her lips.
Moonlight catches silver tears I cry.
So we lay in a black embrace,
And the Seed is sown in a holy place,
And I watched and I waited for the Dawn.

The light of the Blind ­ you’ll see,
The venom that tears my spine,
The Eyes of the Nile are opening ­ you’ll see.

Bind us all together,
Ablaze with Hope and Free.
No storm or heavy weather,
Will rock the boat you’ll see.
The time has come to close your eyes,
And still the wind and rain.
For the one who will be King,
Is the watcher in the Ring.
It is You.


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