Thursday, August 13, 2009

Really more of a fluttering

A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, they say, and it causes a hurricane half a world away. One tiny change can set off a series of events that culminate in a gigantic outcome.

It's a marker of human thought, I believe, that when we see a hurricane we blame a theoretical insect, rather than the warm, moist air that fuels it, the sunlight that warms the air, or the coreolis effect that starts the whole thing spinning.

For some reason, we love to blame all the little details that led to a thing, rather than the large-scale forces at work. The exception, of course, is when one of the large-scale forces involved is an entity that can be sued for money. Then the fault lies in exactly one place, the defendant.

Butterflies just don't have the bankroll your insurance company would like, nor the lifespan for a lengthy trial.

The "butterfly effect" bothers me, in the same way that the concepts of "fate," and "determinism,"* and even "everything happens for a reason" bother me. It all sounds an awful lot like surrender. If the world is out of our control, we've got an excuse to give up.

It's a marker of human thought, I believe, that the idea of being enslaved by causation is considered comforting, rather than terrifying.

*"Imagine all the events that led up to someone inventing determinism." Would people get that joke? Or is it too high-concept?

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