Understanding how Every Event affects Everything Else
If I sneeze - will that affect the future? Yes it will. The fact that you are reading this web page right now instead of doing anything else is affecting the future in profound ways. Because of your decision - everyone in the future will be different people than they would have been had you made a different choice. This article will explain this concept called "Sensitive Dependence on Initial Condition", otherwise know as the "Butterfly Effect". But - I will go beyond that concept to include other concepts like Time Travel, predicting the future, random events, and free will, and if God (if he exists) has the ability to change his mind if he can see into the future.. After reading this article you will never see reality the same way again.
This is going to be somewhat lengthy but I will try to keep it interesting. It is important that you really grasp the concept so that you can relate it to all the other concepts that I am going to try to tie together. You do not have to be a genius to a mathematics wizard to comprehend these concepts. But you do have to commit to a lot of thinking. This article will stretch your mind so you might as will go out and buy a bigger hat because the old one isn't going to fit.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
Sensitive Dependence on Initial Condition
Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things if I drive 61 miles per hour or 62? Yes it does. Consider this for a moment. Have you ever approached an intersection and see someone barrel through a red light and think, "if I were going through this light 1/4 second sooner - this guy would have killed me." Similarly, you read about traffic accidents there someone does run a red light and kills the unfortunate person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What is the difference between you and them? Well - you were "lucky" enough to live to tell about it. If things were slightly different - you might not be here.
Looking back, you could have been there 1/4 second earlier. Perhaps if someone hadn't cut you off 2 blocks earlier you wouldn't have lost the 1/4 second that saved your life? If the music on the radio had been a more upbeat tune then you might have driven slightly faster. Maybe it was the temperature outside. It was cold and it took 1/4 second longer for your car to start. Maybe you saw some hot looking woman and you slowed down a little to get a good look. There could have been millions of reason that if changed would have not prevented you from being there 1/4 late and saving you from a deadly car accident. That 1/4 second changed everything.
Now - lets take the opposite example. I had a friend, a girl I had recently met several years ago. She was helping me clean up an office space I was moving out of. We were scheduled to work one Saturday night but she never showed up. Instead - she went to a bar where some sort of incident occurred and she ran out of the bar and failed to look where she was going and stepped into the street where she was instantly killed by an oncoming car. True story - and things like this happen all the time.
Obviously had she kept her appointment with me she would not have been killed that night. For that to have happened - everything had to have happened exactly the way it did. Had she been 1/4 second slower - or the car been 1/4 second faster - it wouldn't have happened. And if it didn't happen - then a lot of things would have been different - especially for the 5 children she left behind. But everything happened that way it did and because it did - you are reading her story. If it didn't happen - then I suppose I would be using a different example.
Again - getting back to the point - think of the millions of events that had to occur precisely the way it did leading up to her death. For example - suppose she was thinking about the fact that she should have been helping me clean - and that though caused a slight delay in her schedule. Had she never met me would she be alive today? Actually - probably. I had enough influence on her life to change where she was that night by 1/4 second. But so did a lot of other things.
If she had had one less drink - or one more drink. Or stopped to light a cigarette. If the driver had missed the previous light, had been driving in the other lane, had kissed his wife - or not kissed his wife - that would have made the difference. Maybe if it were 1 degree warmer the pressure in his tires and the air density into his engine would have been enough different that he would have gone slightly faster or slower. Anything that had changed in the trillions of events leading up to that moment and the event would not have happened.
Every day there are thousands of people who are killed in random events or who barely miss being killed where had thing not happened exactly the way they did it would be different. Every year a certain number of people are killed by meteors falling from the sky and hitting them. Being inside you house doesn't protect you from that unless you live in a tall concrete apartment and not on the top floor. You're there - an a rock from outer space squashes you. If you weren't there - it would have missed.
Now - suppose I change history. Suppose I create an event that randomly shifts everyone 1/4 second some forward - some backward. What would the result be? Well - probably about the same number of people would be killed in these kind of random accidents - but - it wouldn't be the same people. Some of the people who would have been killed will survive near misses, and some of the people who had near misses would have been killed. 1/4 second difference and different people survive and different people die. What would the result of that be? Girl A and Girl B are shifted in time. Originally Girl A dies and Girl B survives a near miss but the shift happens and Girl A has a near miss and Girl B dies. Girl A had no children at that time but she survives and has 10 kids who grow up and produce 35 grandchildren and 100 great grandchildren, all because of a 1/4 second shift in time. Girl B who would have lived dies and she would have had two children, one of which was the one who introduced Hitler's parents to each other who otherwise wouldn't have met save for this person. Had the never met - Hitler would never have been born and World War II would never have occurred - save for the 1/4 second difference.
Conception - Another Example of Sensitive Dependence on Initial Condition
But you would say - "Marc - isn't that an extreme example? The person who introduced Hitler's parents? What are the chances of that?" Actually - this is not an extreme example at all because for Hitler to have been conceived, trillion upon trillions of events had to occur exactly the way it did. If you change anything then Hitler would never had been born - and for now I'll ask you to assume that if Hitler were never born that it would have had a big affect on the events of the 20th century. In fact - if Hitler had never been born - I wouldn't have been born either. I exist because of Hitler - and so do you.
So - to keep this discussion interesting I'll throw a little sex into the discussion. Nothing keep the reader focused like sex and sex is relevant here because we all exists because of sex. it's how we reproduce and it is a process that is extremely sensitive to initial condition.
At the moment of conception you have hundreds of millions of sperm heading for a single egg and only one of those sperm gets to be the one who caries half the DNA for the new person. What would happen if a different sperm fertilized that egg when you were conceived? Would you still be born? Nope! The person who would be born would no more be you that your brother or sister.You wouldn't exist and someone else would be born in your place - assuming your mother even got pregnant at all.
And - of course this doesn't apply to just you - it applies to everybody. For any of us to have been born, everything at the moment of conception had to happen exactly the way it did or we wouldn't be here. And it also applies to all our ancestors. My parents, their parents, all the way back to the begriming of life on Earth. If any event happened differently that it did - no one who is alive today would exist. If you went back far enough - the human race might cease to exist but for the air passing over the wings of some prehistoric butterfly.
So - next time you go to a museum where they have some 100 million old mosquito encased in amber - think to yourself - that if not for that mosquito - the entire human race might not exist. (more on this to come)
What is the Butterfly Effect?
The butterfly effect as it is known is the idea that the disturbance of the air by a single butterfly is enough to change the weather patterns all over the world. In the early 1960s a meteorologist, was running computerized equations to theoretically model and predict weather conditions. Having run a particular sequence, he decided to replicate it. Lorenz reentered the number from his printout, taken half-way through the sequence, and left it to run. What he found upon his return was, contrary to his expectations, these results were radically different from his first outcomes.
Lorenz didn't reenter the numbers exactly. He entered it very slightly differently thinking that very very small difference wouldn't mean anything in the long run. And when he did his second run - everything started out the same. But in time those slight variations began to multiply and within a short time the new weather pattern was totally different from the first. What Lorenz discovered - now known as the butterfly effect - is that with even an almost infinitely power computer and with weather sensors every 6 inches - that the weather still can't be predicted because any variation at all would eventually lead to a radically different result given enough time.
What Lorenz discovered was that the weather can not be predicted long term because even the disturbance of the air by the wings of a butterfly (the butterfly effect) was enough to change the weather patterns all over that world. And it became the birthplace for a new form of science - Chaos Theory - which deal with issues like sensitive dependence on initial condition.
Many years ago I visited a home looking at the possibility of buying it. I didn't. A few years later the very nice yard and trees were devastated by a tornado. Knowing what I know about the butterfly effect - I now know that if I had not visited that house - it would not have been struck by that tornado on that day. It might have been hit by some other tornado on some other day but was no more likely to be hit than any other home in the area. I disturbed the air enough that I changed the path of all tornadoes on the planet forever.
Had I bought the house it still wouldn't have been hit because I would have been living in a different place and moving different air. Again - it would have been enough to change the weather and that specific tornado would not have occurred. For that tornado to happen - everything had to have happened exactly the way it did. Exactly!
Tying together Conception and Weather
In 1989 I lived in Springfield Missouri. There was an ice storm that winter where a freezing rain caused ice to accumulate on the trees. Eventually the ice got so heavy that tens of thousands of trees started falling over, blocking streets, and knocking out power lines. Because the problem was so massive much of the area was without power for as long as 10 days. Nine months later - there was a mini baby boom at the local hospitals.
Had the temperature been 1 degree warmer it would have been just ordinary rain. Had it been one degree colder - it would have been ordinary snow. But for the ice to occur - it had to be exactly that temperature. Had the temperature been even slightly different - then the ice problem would not have happened and those kids who were conceived during the power outage would not have been born. Those kids exist only because of the temperature that day. And based on the butterfly effect principle - it wouldn't have been that temperature if not for me walking my girlfriend to school in 1967. I disturbed that air enough to create that ice storm.
And it's not just that there was a power outage - but what trees fell against what power lines and when. What streets were blocked and when. If a different street were blocked or not blocked then the utilities might have been fixed earlier or later resulting in some kids not being conceived and other kids being conceived. Or - a different kid being conceived. The level of sensitivity is so enormous that even molecular disturbances can grow to affect the entire planet.
And - of course it's not just my fault - everyone on the planet moves air around and were as equally responsible for that ice storm as I was. You see - for that to occur - everyone had to do exactly what they did without the slightest variation. If people had made other choices then there still would have been ice storms - but it would have been different ice storms at different times in different locations. Had I not walked my girlfriend to school then maybe there would have been an ice storm on Omaha Nebraska and not Springfield Missouri. And people in Omaha would have had the baby boom nine months later having different kids that moved different air in different places that changed things so that the Governor of Missouri wouldn't have died in a storm related plane crash, for example.
Everything changed Everything - sort of.
If Hitler were Never Born
Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if Adolf Hitler were never born? What if we could go back in time and ring the doorbell 10 seconds before Hitler was conceived. What would the world be like?
If Hitler had not been born - the Earth would still circle the sun and the moon would still circle the Earth. None of that would change. But the people who live here would change. In fact - every single person on this planet - except for maybe a few very old people - would not exist. Yes - there would still be people here - but they would all be different people.
It would be different people who have different lives building different towns and different streets with different roads and different stores. We would not have had world war two as we know it. We might have had other wars with different victors resulting in different countries with different leaders. Or - maybe we wouldn't have had world wars at all. We don't know because it's like reshuffling a deck of cards. If you reshuffle you get a completely different hand - not one that's the same or similar.
Imaging a world where everyone and everything is different. Would we have gone to the moon? Or would we have a colony on the moon by now? Is this the best possible outcome for reality? Is this the only possible outcome for reality. The concept of sensitive dependence on initial condition is very powerful indeed. It raises a lot of interesting questions when you think it through. What if you had done something different 30 years ago - what would have happened? How will the world be different if you never existed? These are interesting questions to ponder because when you think about it - it raises some other very important questions about the role of free will - if it exists - and how that conflicts with the concept of a static future. But - if you've read this much it's time to take a break and let your brain recover - because I've just begun to blow your mind.
Does "The Future" Even Exist? Do we have any Free Will?
Sounds like a silly question - of course it does! But it requires definition. We know that time is going to continue to go forward into "some future" and that events will continue to occur. But - is there a "the future" as in does the future already exist - or - is the future in fact variable and undefined?
Taking into account the concepts leading up to this - sensitive dependence on initial condition - we know that for me to be here writing this and for you to be here reading this - that everything in the past had to occur exactly the way it did without any variation whatsoever. What happened in the past is the only set of events that could possibly lead to the present, and, what we do today will lead to a specific tomorrow. But what about 100 years from now?
Suppose for the sake of argument we were to imagine that God exists, and that this imaginary God knows everything and can see into the future. And lets suppose that unlike some gods he is not hiding and we can call him on the phone or send him email. So we ask about the future and say, "What is the name of the first person to be born in the year 2100?" And suppose God replies his name will be LeeRoy and he describes LeeRoy and tells the story of his life.
This introduces an interesting concept because for LeeRoy to be born - just like what happened to all of us, everything must happen exactly the way it needs to happen without any variation whatsoever. Not only does his parents need to meet, but they must have sex at a specific time and place so that a specific sperm and egg get together and create him. That also means that LeeRoy's parents and grandparents and so on have to get together and conceive at exactly the right moment. For that to occur everyone else in the world has to do exactly what they have to do. If someone so much as farts at the wrong time - LeeRoy will never be born.
So - if everything for the next 96 years has to go exactly the way it has to for God to predict LeeRoy - then do we have any free will? Is the future like a movie that's already been written and we are only going to do one specific thing and that's it? Or - are there random events in the universe? Do we have free will? What if I decide to fart? If I do - then LeeRoy will never be born and God is wrong.
You see - we have a paradox here. Well - not quite a paradox - but a collision of conflicting possibilities. You see - if I have any free will at all then I might choose to do something different and unpredictable. But if I do so then LeeRoy will never exist. But maybe I don't have any free will. Maybe I just think I do. It is possible that every event in the universe is the mathematical progression of every previous event and there is one and only one way for events to unfold. Everything is like a movie that's already been written and is in the can. We haven't yet seen the movie so to us it's all new. But - for those who can see "the future" the can see where the movie is going and where the movie has to go - because LeeRoy must exist - or God is wrong.
Or - suppose that we do in fact have some free will. Suppose out choices are not mapped out. Suppose we have some choice. Suppose there is some randomness in the universe. What would that mean? What it means is - LeeRoy will never exist because people will make choices and those choices - if there is any free will on even the slightest level - will lead to events other than the one exact set of circumstances leading to LeeRoy. What this means is - if there is any free will or randomness - then there is no "the future". The concept of future becomes a variable rather than a static concept.
People have debated for thousands of years about if some people could see "the future". The Bible and other religious texts claim that God and other entities know "the future" and all of this debate centers around the idea of beings having special gifts or abilities to see it. But I would move the debate to a new issue. What if there is no "the future" to see. If the future isn't static - then even a theoretical omniscient God would be able to se it - because there is no "it" there to see.
Seeing "the future" requires by definition a static future to see. One could argue that the future is only going to come out one way and the way it comes out will be the "it" the they see. But that argument is flawed in that by seeing it - the it must be something static. If God can see LeeRoy - then I have no free will. If I have free will - then there is no LeeRoy.
And - even if there is a static future then there must be no way to know the static future. Because if I know the future - then that knowledge is part of me and will affect my choices - and that will change the future, creating a paradox. If - for example - I find out that in two weeks I will be standing in the parking lot of the Tanforan Shopping Mall and an airplane will lose a tire that will fall on me and kill me - I would choose to not go there. And even if I am killed in some other place because I chose not to go there - the future will be altered and LeeRoy will never exist.
Traveling Backwards in Time - Can it be done?
Some of my favorite science fiction shows are time travel stories. Nothing I like better than a good time travel plot. There are a number of good movies I've enjoyed. I like the "Back to the Future" series, not for it's accuracy - but because it's fun. The kid - Marty - goes back into the past and changes events so that his parents never get together - and the show is about him trying to fix that to repair the time line. It's based on what is known as "The Grandfather Paradox" which is the idea that if you go backwards in time and kill your grandfather - you have a paradox. You would cease to exist and then if you ceased to exist - who killed your grandfather?
The concepts of sensitive dependence on initial condition - the butterfly effect - suggests that the Grandfather Paradox is something that would be a real issue for time travelers. You see - you just show up and disturb the air would change that worlds weather patterns and therefore change the people who are born and lead to one's self distraction. In other words - to disturb anything - no matter how slight - would lead to ones own self destruction. One can not go into the past and change anything without creating a new timeline that is totally dissimilar to the one we have now.
The effect would be like Lorenz's weather experiment. Things would seem to continue to go the same path for a wile - but would soon break down. The weather would begin to change. People would be delayed. Traffic accidents would occur that would otherwise have been avoided and accidents avoided that would have occurred. People having sex would create different children who would live different lives. In short order - the future would fork into a new future with new people and the time traveler would cease to exist.