The Butterfly Swatter Effect

14 02 2009

Somewhere in Brazil a butterfly flaps its wings, and somewhere in Texas a tornado forms.  Somewhere, some meteorologist is wondering whether the former caused the latter.  It sounds absurd at the outset, but the idea took root and made for some magazine articles and a full feature film.  I wish I could say that the idea never took root, but it did, and it did so among some of the brightest minds in America.

It’s based on a more rational theory called chaos theory, which, in a nutshell is hardly more than “stuff happens.”  Every so often, the hard drive writes a bad bit on the disc, and unless the information was stored redundantly, in triplicate, the entire file might be ruined.  Granted, it can write thousands of bits correctly the first time, but every so often it messes up, and for no apparent reason.  It’s not that anything happens outside of cause and effect.  It’s simply that some causes have greater effects than others, due to the sensitivity of the system.

If you try to balance a pin on its pointy end on a hard surface, though there theoretically should be some perfect balancing point, you’re not likely to find it.  What’s more important, though, is that when you let go of it near that point, it may fall in a variety of different directions.  It’s easy to get confused when people talk about it in technical terms, but there’s really nothing more to it than that.  Chaos theory is simply a study of highly sensitive relationships of cause and effect.

The butterfly effect, however, goes a little beyond that, I think.  A man had a computer model of the dynamics of a weather system, and he discovered that very small changes in the initial factors had huge effects on the weather systems that developed from it.  The question that came out of it was, can the flapping of a butterfly’s wings lead to a tornado?

Yes, and no.  Firstly, it’s important to know the difference between a mathematical proof and a mathematical model.  The first one has all of its variables from real sources, takes all factors into account, and leaves no room for unexpected error.  If you put five apples into a barrel with five more apples, then you probably have ten apples.  That’s a mathematical proof.  A mathematical model assumes certain variables to be true and proposes a possible explanation for what we know, or what we think might be true.  String theory is a model.  It assumes a rather large number of dimensions to the universe, though we only know of three, and it attempts to explain the fundamentals of existence.  The problem is that we have no reason to believe that the universe actually has that many dimensions, and if we found them, it might be because we twisted our minds to convince ourselves that those dimensions could exist.  Even if there were that many dimensions, there still lies the possibility that string theory might not be true at all.  The same is true for weather models.  If the assumptions are true, then the model might accurately predict the outcome, but if there are any variables unknown, then the model might fail.  What’s more, though, is that if the system of cause and effect is far more complex than the computer can handle, then we really have a problem.  If the weather model were precisely true, then there’s still one fundamental problem: the world has more than just one butterfly.  Any model that a computer works with is only going to have a very small fraction of the factors involved in a real life situation.  The smaller the sample set, the more exaggerated the error.

Otherwise, we might have stopped Hurricane Katrina with a boatload of  DDT.

In theory, the cycle of cause and effect never stops.  You spin a top, and eventually it slows down, but it doesn’t really stop there.  That energy is lost through the creation of heat, and the stirring of the air.  Molecules bounce against each other, and a chain reaction of events takes place that never stops.  Ultimately, the end result is the same.  Entropy increases and useful energy is lost.  When entropy increases on a molecular level, it’s simply that chaos increases.  Molecules in the air are going in all different directions, and the energy spreads out evenly overall.  In a room where everything is completely at rest and at the same temperature, there is no interface between one level of energy and the next.  There is no cold front.  There is no sound wave.  There is no mass action of cause and effect.  If you make a wave in the water, you can observe how the many different molecules are working together in the same direction to form the entire wave.  When there is no wave, then all of the molecules are doing their own thing, in a highly chaotic state.  The greater the chaos, the more factors you have working independently of each other, the more impossible it is to keep track of everything.

The irony of it, though, is that while there is much more to keep track of on the molecular level, in the grand scheme of things nothing is really happening at all.  Chaos at it’s highest level is the entire universe at two degrees Kelvin, burned out and dead.  There is no mass effect, because there is no useful energy.  You don’t have waves of molecules moving in the same direction.  All large-scale causes have been broken down into a vast number of tiny and useless ones.

Yes, a butterfly can cause a tornado, if it works together with a vast number of other causal relationships, not the least of which is the sun and the topography.  Yes, my car might hit a bug that was going to feed a bird than might feed a larger bird, that might have…lived to a ripe old age and died anyway.  And that same bird might have found some other bug to eat that day, just because I happened to drive by.  The end result, though, is that the chain of events leads to things that don’t matter, and dissipates into countless other chains of events that couple with things that have nothing to do with me and have absolutely no significance in the grand scheme of things.

The end result is that the butterfly still dies.

In a way, it’s a sad reflection of humanity’s desperate attempt to grasp eternal significance without having to acknowledge the existence of God.  Yes, what you do is part of cause and effect, and those effects will lead to other effects, and it will go on forever.  No, it doesn’t matter.  Entropy still increases.  Everything dies.  The universe slowly grinds to a miserable stop.  The net overall effect of the life of any human is ultimately absolutely nothing.

…unless there’s a God.

Only things of an eternal nature can have eternal significance.  The life of a human can only matter in the long run if humans have an eternal soul.

Unless God intervenes, all things in this world will perish, and nothing we humans do, crawling on the face of this rock like ants on a candy, can change the final outcome.