You are making a difference

by Admin
Updated: June 25, 2018

With everything you say and do, you are making a difference - the big question is: How much?

Everything you do has an effect. Why wouldn’t it?

We are accustomed to big changes requiring big effort. If we don’t get the result we want it’s probably because we haven’t done enough.

The scientific reality is that there is often little correlation and the consequences can be good as well as bad.

Why do we sometimes put in so much effort and get nowhere and other times seem to do very little and win big?

The bigger question is, given that we know all know this happens a lot, why do we dismiss it?

How have we learned?

Historically, empiricism - knowledge from what we experience - originally lead to many mistakes. This led to the scientific method whereby perception is not to be trusted until tested and proven.

We have become so accustomed to suspending our belief (at least formally) that it has become normal to refuse to acknowledge an effect unless it’s scientifically verifiable.

In other words, if you can’t prove it, it isn’t happening.

Example: The climate is changing, We can see it. Someone suggests it’s caused by human activity. We can’t prove it so now we have to ignore it.

Cause and effect

Everything we do has an effect and for the most part the effect is directly proportional to the cause as enshrined in Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Every action has an equal & opposite reaction.

This overlooks the more general consequences of causality, were a little extra effort can cause a catastrophe e.g. more air in a balloon makes the balloon bigger until it suddenly bursts.

A less well-observed and hence much less well-understood phenomenon is that of sensitive dependence where a small alteration to conditions can eventually produce huge changes.

This is most famously known as the “Butterfly Effect” after the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a storm because of a bizarre chain of events that magnifies the original effect.

Sensitive dependence [on initial conditions] is studied under a branch of mathematics called Chaos theory which basically says, even though small steps of cause & effect can be calculated and predicted, the accumulated effect is too complicated to predict.

Storms do arise from small air currents but there is no detectable correlation between butterfly activity and storms. Deliberately causing a storm using a butterfly is very difficult. Back-calculating to find a butterfly responsible for a particular storm is even more challenging.

Simulation

A superb simulation of the double pendulum which demonstrates sensitive dependence on initial conditions is at myphysicslab.com.

Even though it’s a simple system (you can easily make a real one), the slightest change to the starting position produces dramatic changes in how it swings.

The chaos we call life

Chaos theory is concerned with deterministic systems: Cause & effect rule, but trying to do the calculations is overwhelming (especially if you’re part of the system you’re trying to observe).

Whether or not life is fundamentally deterministic is perhaps the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. We carry on as if it isn’t, but it doesn’t actually matter: As long as we have unstable systems, we can have chaos.

Chaos is a counter to the rather depressing Second Law of Thermodynamics which basically says, in a closed system (think of being locked in a room full of paint) you’ll eventually end up in a kind of brown oblivion (because it is not possible to un-mix the paint). Chaos says you’ll make great art on the way.

If life contains unstable systems then it is an unstable system and Chaos provides redemption at the expense of predictability:

  • Bad: We can do all the right things and see no results.
  • Good: We can screw up badly and things still turn out OK.
  • Bad: Things can suddenly go amazingly wrong.
  • Good: Things can suddenly go amazingly well.

In the short-term we can tell where we are in the scheme of things. Long-term, things become less & less certain.

Before such ideas had become familiar, if not popular, I attended a seminar, supposedly about success, which opened with, “You are in your current situation because you’ve chosen to be.”

This wasn’t a good opener because they spent the rest of the seminar on the defense. Nevertheless, we all eventually got the idea that we are where we are as a result of the choices we’ve made.

At business school the chaos idea was summed up as, “Ten percent of you will do everything right and still fail; ten percent will do everything wrong and still succeed.”

If you stay in the game long enough you’ll see everything.

More info

abarim-publications.com has a beginners introduction to Chaos theory and plato.stanford.edu has an intro that isn’t for beginners.

Fractals (see theconversation.com and mathigon.org) are related to Chaos theory.

philosophynow.org and philosophical-investigations.org consider philosophical implications of Chaos theory.

Internal links

Nothing is proportional The graph of success Use of magic No regrets Go to Articles
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