Many of you are now familiar with the so-called “butterfly effect”. Complexity theory and chaos dynamics squeezed out this memorable nugget to amuse the world with Nature’s antics. It states that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world can have profound effects on the weather in another.
Now, there are two “spins” on the butterfly effect. One I reject; one I embrace.
Typically, the butterfly effect — and chaos theory in general — is used to define limits: limits of human knowledge about nature, about the results of our action. “Sensitivity to initial conditions” is the applicable term here, and popular science takes that to mean that the best laid plans of Mice and Men are subject to the leeching blight of CHAOS. In its basest incarnation, this attitude shows meteorologists throwing up their hands, exclaiming, “D’oh! We just can’t predict the weather more than two weeks in advance!” The Empire sighs. Business as usual continues, its prison walls a tad more visible.
Well, that’s pretty lame. Say, what does a fractal mean to you? Sure, you’ve seen them on posters at the mall, and on rave flyers. Pretty colors. Druuuugz, man. And maybe you’ve heard that fractal math is used to generate trees and landscapes in computer films. Well, that’s kind of neat. Why is that? Fractals provide models of lots of natural processes, such that it’s easier to simulate the branching of a tree with a few simple formulas than by tediously computing every leaf and twig.
So what? What about the second interpretation of the butterfly effect?
I’M GETTING TO THAT!
A fractal is generated by a recursive process. So are landscapes and trees. DNA replication, population flux, heart fibrillation, the stock market — all are based on iteration (cyclicity) and feedback. So are you. And how about language? And, sorry to jump the gun here, but consciousness — self-consciousness — is now presumed to be a recursive process. Capiche?
The butterfly effect is due to a small change in one cycle getting fed back into the process, amplifying itself each time until it is quite significant.
On boundaries there is life
Life is a boundary condition
Like the shape of flames
Like farms along the Nile
Another gem from chaos math is that fractals are often found along boundaries. Or more accurately, many boundaries are fractal. That means that between two seemingly discreet regions there may be a zone of chaos, swirling filigrees wherein one cannot tell what region one is in. Is a tidal pool land or sea? What is the edge of a cloud? Where is the line between Right and Wrong? What is the nature of altruism? When does a historical period “end”? How can one describe the transition between waking and sleep? Between life and death?
These fractals, these patterns of randomness, are found throughout the universe, on all scales, at all times. Perhaps they are saying, “Wake Up!” Perhaps you begin to see why they are more than just techno-fetish talismans with pretty colors. The mathematics of chaos hint at some fundamental Mystery that lies at the center of the universe. A Pattern has been found, which suggests that all levels of being are inherently interconnected, infinitely reflective of one another, vicissitudes of the eternal Tao.
Or maybe you’re too busy to think about fundamental Mysteries. Worse, you’re too mature, too practical, too goddamn grounded. Oh well.
Chaos is the Enemy only if you are terrified of Freedom. If your hidden agenda is to salvage determinism, reductionism, and mechanism from the jaws of the eroding Void, then you will see little difference between chaos and entropy, and fear both. You will struggle to control chaos, to become lords of matter, but in the end Chaos will devour you.
And hopefully feed you back into the mix as something more benevolent.
The Payoff Zone (Where I really get goin’!)
Let the Empire tremble at the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, for its message is one of hope! Whatever else it means, it means that no system of control is complete. Somewhere, in a shack on the outskirts, or in the basement of the Central Planning Office, a free agent, acting alone, has the potential to shift the whole damn thing into a new orbit.
Power, like climate, is a dynamical system, and as such is subject to the forces of feedback and iteration. Male-dominance hierarchies tend to centralize power, to simplify the channels of feedback so that further iterations further centralize power. And they try to minimize the “noise” — that pesky hiss of human freedom, like escaping steam…
The fractal is a symbol of freedom. It is infinite within a finite space, sprouting Form as waves rise from the sea. It is the abstraction of Energy as it is enfolded by the material plane. It hints at realities previously reserved for mystical visions.
The assumptions under which nationalist agendas proceed are crumbling. Technology and the insatiable expansion of capital have brought cultures together in irreversible and increasingly complex relationships. And though assimilation and imperialism are real concerns, it may soon be true that the term “global culture” is redundant. We can now anticipate, and work for, a planetary context for the full unfolding of human potential — a context of mutual and nonexploitative exchange.
The tools for change are here, but they will not do well in the service of archaic power games and control fantasies. The universe will not submit to total control. (You are part of the universe — would you?) The exuberance and vitality of nature, which reaches its highest expression in mankind, is incompatible with such an agenda. Chaos will not bow to the yoke, but it is more than willing to dance.